Until the phone call from Kazuko-san, I had no idea we had relatives in Japan on my father’s side of the family. She called early one Sunday morning in 1970. My dad, the early riser in our family, was the one who picked up the handset and answered. My father always insisted that we, my sister and I, should speak clearly, enunciate each syllable, and use “the King’s English” properly. If he overheard someone interviewed on TV using street slang he’d wince and ask whoever was in the room, “Is that guy speaking English? Jesus Christ!” So, it must have been amusing for my mother to see him stumble into the bedroom that morning holding the phone to his ear, almost tripping over the extension cord, eyes wide, beckoning her to rescue him from the “conversation” he was having, or trying to have, with Kazuko-san.
“Choto mahtay, kudasai, Kazuko-san. Chizuko no …uh, she’s my wife.” With this, he thrust the handset into my mother’s face as she lay wide awake in bed. She could hear her husky voiced laughter coming over the earpiece even from that distance.
My mother learned that Kazuko-san was the daughter of my grandfather’s brother, which made her first-cousin to my dad. When Kazuko-san mentioned that she was going to visit Los Angeles, my mother insisted Kazuko-san stay in our house. My mom explained, “…since Jeffrey’s moved out we have an extra bedroom.” Kazuko-san demurred, but my mother persisted. And that’s where I met her.
Kazuko-san was the first Real Japanese Person I had ever met that was related to a member of our family. When I stopped by to meet her, she was seated on the living room sofa, smoking like a chimney – just like my mom. The two of them got along like sisters, as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Kazuko-san had brought out a photo album with pictures of our relatives from the “motherland” that we’d never been to. I saw sepia toned daguerreotypes of guys who looked like actors in a cheesy samurai movie. They sat stone-faced on small wooden cross-legged stools, hands on hips, Star Wars style shoulder pads out to here. Kazuko-san informed us that our family name, Furumura, whose written kanji translates into “Ancient Village,” originated during the Saga-tenno, or during the reign of Emperor Saga, 809 – 823 AD.
My father had always bragged at the dinner table that we came from a samurai family. But I dismissed his pronouncements, assuming they were his clumsy way of trying to bestow upon us a form of ethnic pride. It was his less rhythmic rendition of, “Say it loud, I’m Black, I’m proud!” But here was undeniable photographic proof of his claim. Our family actually was a member of that privileged class. And our family name is, literally, older than dirt.
I didn’t know then how to process this new knowledge. Still don’t. It was a part of my past, but too distant to feel relevant. What the experience made me realize is the importance of documenting the stories of my family’s recent history here in the United States. Not so much to dissociate our family from its feudal past, but to make sure that my sons, and their children, remember the history of our family in this country, their country, our country.
I’ll post excerpts from my attempt to document that story here. Starting off with the story of my Uncle Harvey, the Navy’s first Nisei jet fighter pilot.