“I cannot forget…” – Japanese National Journeys to Hawai‘i to Fulfill a Postwar Promise
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
(Reprinted from June 17, 2005)
Editor’s note: As we approach Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and, in particular, the war in the Pacific, all eyes are turning to Japan and the United States. Will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologize for Japan’s having struck the first blow on America with its early morning attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941? Will America apologize for dropping the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of people? Is that really how we want to commemorate the end of World War II? Is this the peace that the end of the war gave us?
Or, is real peace in the stories of people-to-people kindness and compassion, like the following, which the Herald originally published on June 17, 2005? Special thanks to writer Chance Gusukuma for allowing us to share this story with our readers once again on this special anniversary.
As media hordes go, we were rather tame. Two ink-stained wretches, two cameramen, a photographer and one impossibly beautiful reporter-anchorwoman. Still, Yoshio Yamamoto flinched.
It was just a half-step backward, an instinctive recoil. A natural response, really. Imagine your own reaction to video cameras trained on you as soon as you emerge from a vehicle. Notepad-clutching reporters slowly encircling you. Smiles intended as reassuring instead look like a pride of lions licking their chops. And you realize that we’re descending upon you. That you are the story.
Yamamoto steadied himself. The slope-shouldered 75-year old from Chiba, Japan, patiently responded in serviceable English to each reporter’s questions. Then, with the media’s appetite for sound bites temporarily satisfied, it was time for Yamamoto to pay his respects to a man that had befriended him almost 60 years ago.
The gravestone lies near the final gentle curve in the road leading to the exit of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It reads:
TEC 4 100 BN 442 INF
WORLD WAR II
OCT 1 1919 – OCT 4 1989
Yamamoto approached the gravesite and then hesitated. His eyes came to rest upon the gravestone of the man who had been the object of his six-year search. A man whose final resting place he had come 3,700 miles to see. Silently, he removed his glasses, and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. Finally, he knelt to thank the quiet man from Hawai‘i who had treated him so kindly.
But this story begins long before that.
It was 1946. Or 1947. Yamamoto can’t pinpoint the specific date. Memories, after all, lose much of their clarity over the course of six decades. And when you were a hungry 16-year-old teenager in the burnt-out landscape of postwar Tökyö, you weren’t preoccupied with dates. You focused on food.
Though his family’s home survived the air raids that had leveled over half of the Tökyö metropolitan area, times were hard. Official food rations were unreliable. Yamamoto recalls days when tufts of grass, not fish, made up the stock for the family soup.
Amid the desperate conditions, Yamamoto found work as an office boy with the American Occupation forces. He rose early every morning and wedged himself into an unbearably crowded train for an hour-long commute to the U.S. Army quartermaster’s supply depot in the Shinagawa section of Tökyö. In a small, one-room office, he swept floors, cleaned desks and carried fuel for kerosene stove heaters. He quickly learned some of his first words of English when one of the Americans handed him a broom and commanded, “Clean the floor!”
Then one day, he was surprised to see a Japanese man in the office. The man looked like Yamamoto, but he was wearing the same regulation Army uniform as the other American GIs. Yamamoto found himself drawn to the man.
The serviceman introduced himself. Surprise! He spoke Japanese. In his shock, Yamamoto didn’t catch his first name, but heard “Sergeant Ogata.”
Yamamoto tried to make sense of this puzzle. This man with a Japanese face wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army. This man who spoke Japanese.
Because the military personnel in the office worked different shifts, Yamamoto — who always worked during the day — didn’t have daily contact with Ogata. But when the two did work the same shift, the sergeant would ask Yamamoto if had eaten. The answer usually was “iie (no).” And so Sgt. Ogata, who had been a cook for the 100th Infantry Battalion’s B Company in Europe, would whip up a quick lunch over a small gas stove and share it with the teenager.
The meals were nothing fancy. Boiled rice. Corned beef. Pork and beans with ketchup. Simple fare, warmed by the small stove and the kind-heartedness of the sergeant. But to a teenager bent over a broom, fending off the hunger pangs gnawing at an empty stomach, the tasty morsels meant everything.
The sergeant was a quiet man. Yamamoto was a quick study, but his English was mostly limited to obeying the orders of his American bosses. And Ogata was not fluent in Japanese.
Through their short, halting conversations, Yamamoto learned that the sergeant was from Hawai‘i. He practiced judo. He mentioned hatake (fields), which Yamamoto would much later guess was a reference to the sugar cane plantations where many Japanese toiled after immigrating to the Islands.
And then Ogata disappeared. A few days, then weeks passed without the return of the compassionate sergeant, and Yamamoto realized that the man was gone. There were no good-byes. No chance to ask Ogata for a mailing address. No chance for Yamamoto to thank Sgt. Ogata for the meals, the impromptu English lessons, the kindness that meant so much to a young man struggling to eke out a living, trying to cope with the daily struggle for sustenance amid the rubble of a defeated nation.
Yamamoto worked for the Americans for a few more months. After work, he attended classes at night. He went on to college, landed a job at a Japanese investment firm and worked his way up the ranks over the course of a 35-year career, the archetypical white-collar salaryman. He married, bought a home and started a family. But he never forgot Sgt. Ogata. And he promised himself that he would someday find the man who had befriended him after the war.
Who was this Sgt. Ogata? Who was this man whose quiet kindness inspired such an improbable journey?
Like Yamamoto, you will not learn much about Tsutomu Ogata.
The hatake that Ogata mentioned to Yamamoto were not plantation cane fields but plots of pineapple and vegetables. Ogata’s Issei parents had tended pineapples on the slopes of Wilhelmina Rise, but the crop failed and they had returned to Japan for a time with Tsutomu and his siblings. When militarism took hold in Japan, the siblings were sent back to Hawai’i one by one.
Official records and family photos provide few clues. There he is staring out at you from the second row of the 298 B Hawai’i National Guard unit assembled for a photo before World War II. And there is his name in the records of the 100th Infantry Battalion, Company B. A typewritten unit roster yields nothing except Ogata’s name, rank — TEC 4, a designation not even used by the Army anymore — and serial number.
Another list documents his decorations — Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a unit citation and a Purple Heart. The citations and your dim awareness of the 100th’s hard-won battlefield achievements lead you to believe that while he may have been a cook, he also was pressed into duty on the front lines.
Yet, even men from his unit struggle to bring the image of him into focus. A very quiet man, they say. Never made any trouble. Always smiling.
And how did he make his way to Japan? No one seems to know. Ogata does not appear in Military Intelligence Service Language School rosters of personnel who were recruited to serve with the postwar Occupation forces in Japan because of their Japanese-language ability. Without filing Freedom of Information Act forms and written requests to the Army’s personnel records center, the complete answer will remain elusive. Let some intrepid reporter or dogged researcher sleuth out the chronology and particulars. You’re following a trail of kindness.
As the years went on, Yamamoto’s fond memories of the Japanese American sergeant began to trouble him. The silent promise he made to himself to track down and thank Sgt. Ogata weighed on his conscience.
“My idea is kind of old-fashioned,” he admits. “I still [felt that I] have my obligation to [Ogata]. Some people say, ‘Forget about [the war]. That’s over.’ Well, I cannot forget.”
In truth, perhaps Yamamoto had already taken tentative steps toward finding Ogata. Didn’t he befriend a couple of Nisei veterans who came to Japan on business during the 1950s, hoping they could suggest ways to locate Ogata? Didn’t he tune in regularly to English-language radio programs — though he had never formally studied the language? Wasn’t his secret wish no longer such a secret, since Yamamoto had told his wife Teruko numerous times about his desire to track down his guardian angel?
So he began to search. His only clues were a surname, a rank and an image of Hawai’i cane fields.
He tried doing research at local libraries. He contacted U.S. military bases in Japan. He didn’t get far. Too much was lost in translation. Limited English and limited information hindered his efforts.
Then, another American entered the picture. In 1998, Yamamoto mentioned the search to his son-in-law, George Maddock. Yamamoto’s daughter Naoko had wed Maddock the year before, but her father and Maddock had grown fond of each other since their first meeting four years earlier. It wasn’t only that father, son-in-law and daughter all were bilingual, or that all three shared a background in finance: Maddock had met Naoko in the Tökyö office of the American securities firm where they both worked. Nor was it that Maddock was unfailingly courteous. The Irish-English American, originally from Bethesda, Md., by then had spent over 10 years in Japan, and when he addressed Yamamoto as “Otousan (Father),” he did it in a tone full of warmth and respect.
The two men genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, conversing in a combination of Japanese and English, easily bridging the cross-cultural and generation gap with sincerity and mutual respect.
So when Yamamoto lamented his lack of success in searching for Sgt. Ogata, Maddock offered to help. Yamamoto had recruited his first ally.
“I remember the first step I took was I pulled up a copy of the Hawai‘i phone book online,” says Maddock. “And I looked in there, and there’s a football field’s-worth of Ogatas. And I thought, OK, that’s not going to work.”
The duo nevertheless embarked on their search, armed only with the fragmentary pieces of information. Maddock emailed organizations in Tökyö, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Honolulu, relating the sparse details of his father-in-law’s brief postwar encounter with Sgt. Ogata, asking for assistance or referrals. His own father, a former Naval engineer, suggested posting messages on military-related electronic bulletin boards. Several replies to his posts eventually led him to the Japanese American Veterans Association, a nonprofit organization that often assists people searching for information on veterans of Japanese ancestry.
In the meantime, Yamamoto pursued his own leads. He contacted Japanese American Citizens League chapters in Tökyö and Honolulu. He made contact with Bishop Ryokan Ara of Hawai‘i’s Tendai Buddhist sect, seeking advice from the clergyman, who had published a book in Japanese on the wartime experience of Hawai‘i’s AJA soldiers.
Unfortunately, these early efforts initially produced nothing of real value.
The search continued in fits and starts over the next few years. Yamamoto persevered, tap-tap-tapping at his computer. Maddock shoehorned time into his hectic schedule to send out email inquiries.
Then, Yamamoto came upon a list of Japanese American servicemen and pored over it until he found a “Tsutomu Ogata” with the rank of sergeant. The list also included the man’s Army serial number. At about the same time, Maddock received a response to his own request for information on one of the e-bulletin boards. The information matched Yamamoto’s findings.
At last, it seemed, a breakthrough! But was this Sgt. Tsutomu Ogata the same Sgt. Ogata who had befriended Yamamoto after the war?
Maddock forwarded the new information to his contacts at JAVA.
A truly virtual organization, JAVA has a post office box in Virginia, but no brick-and-mortar office. Dave Buto, JAVA Webmaster and secretary, transmitted Maddock’s request for information to the
organization’s nationwide network of members via telephone and email. The search now expanded from Tökyö to the continental U.S. and Hawai‘i. A few Nisei veterans took note of the request, and began searching the JAVA database of AJA veterans, combing through their own personal collections of wartime Nisei unit rosters, and leafing through photocopies of official documents housed in the National Archives. Perhaps the mystery of Sgt. Ogata could be solved after all.
Alas, one year stretched into the next, and the search process slowed, then ground to a halt. Maddock did his best to support his father-in-law’s quest, but he didn’t have a lot of idle time. Taking advantage of a career opportunity, he jumped to Merrill Lynch. Then in April 2002, he transferred to New York City, and he and Naoko moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Meanwhile, even promising leads stalled. Once, someone doing his own online search forwarded information to Maddock on a Tsutomu Ogata in Hawai‘i, complete with an address and phone number. Maddock dialed the number, but the voice on the other end knew nothing. Another dead end.
“There were lots of times that we didn’t seem to be making a lot of progress, and I remember calling my father-in-law and telling him, ‘I think we’re getting nowhere,’” recalls Maddock.
Even the determined Yamamoto sometimes lost hope. “There were times I thought, it’s hopeless. Many times, I almost [gave] up.” Adding to Yamamoto’s frustration was the realization that time was working against both him and Sgt. Ogata. Yamamoto wasn’t getting any younger. And the GI who had been a sturdy 27-year old in 1947 now would be in his 80s — if he were, in fact, still alive.
After returning to Hawai‘i from Japan, Sgt. Ogata became “Chef Tommy.” Putting his culinary skills to use, the self-taught Ogata carved out a long career, working at a number of hotels on O‘ahu and the neighbor islands. Ogata rose to sous chef and then executive chef positions. Photos show Ogata in chef’s whites, sporting an enigmatic half-smile as he cradled plaques of commendation or posed with fellow kitchen staffers alongside buffet spreads of meats and fish, salads and multitiered cakes.
He supported family members who expressed interest in the food service industry. He took his nephew Stanley under his wing, but warned him of the competitiveness of the field. “I remember he told me if you don’t dedicate yourself to the profession and love to do it, you’ll never succeed,” recalls Stanley.
Quiet pervaded Ogata’s postwar life, too. He married, but it didn’t take. He had no children. He remained close to his eldest sister Tomie and his youngest sister Shizuko, who lived in Japan. Tomie’s son, George, and George’s wife Jean, made a point of inviting Tsutomu to family gatherings when he was on O‘ahu.
Tsutomu loved to fish, and he sometimes took his nephews George or Stanley with him. George and Stanley would hang on, white-knuckled, while Tsutomu’s jeep rumbled down to the very tip of Hanauma Bay. There, they would stand on the craggy rocks and cast their lines in silence.
After retiring, he would occasionally attend the 100th veterans club functions, usually ducking into the kitchen to prepare some fancy, tasty entrees for his buddies.
In June 1989, George and Jean invited Tsutomu over for Father’s Day dinner. Sensitive to the solitary life of a divorcee, Jean bought him an aloha shirt as a gift.
On Oct. 1, while hospitalized with complications from colon cancer, he asked Stanley to buy him a birthday cake, which he then divvied up among the nurses and hospital staff who took care of him. He died a few days later, three days removed from his 70th birthday.
When George, Stanley and two brothers went to clean out Tsutomu’s Kalakaua Housing apartment, they found, among other things, the Father’s Day aloha shirt, still sitting unworn in its box.
The earnest effort put forth by Yamamoto and Maddock was about to pay dividends. The search that began in Tökyö had wended its way over fiber optic cables and through personal computers in places like Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Burnsville, Minn., finally making its way across the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu.
About a year ago, one of Maddock’s email inquiries appeared in the in-box of a computer at the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Club in Honolulu. Evelyn Tsuda, wife of 100th veteran Rikio Tsuda, just happened to be filling in as a temp at the club’s office. And she just happened to mention the inquiry to Robert Arakaki, a 100th veteran and club officer. Arakaki immediately recognized the name. Years earlier, he had attended the funeral of a Tsutomu Ogata, the uncle of his good friend, George Ogata.
Arakaki called George and his wife Jean, alerting them to the search. Neither Jean nor George recalled Tsutomu ever mentioning much of anything about his stint in postwar Japan, but they provided the club with their contact information.
And then . . . nothing.
Back in Manhattan, Maddock had joined the New York office of the Japanese investment firm Nomura Securities and had his hands full getting up to speed with his new company. Last September, he took an extended business trip to London and Tökyö. In his haste, an unopened email from Punchbowl escaped his notice. For months after his return to Manhattan, he failed to notice the unopened email sitting in his in-box. Had he opened it, he would have learned that Sgt. Tsutomu Ogata was interred at the cemetery; the email also contained an attachment identifying George and Jean Ogata as Sgt. Ogata’s next-of-kin.
Fast forward to May 2005. At the end of a long day, Maddock finally got around to cleaning out his email in-box. Just as he was about to punch the “delete” key, he noticed the note from Punchbowl. Upon opening it, he was stunned to read what looked like a breakthrough in his father-in-law’s long search. Before he left the office, he fired off an email to Jean Ogata.
And then things started moving. Flying.
Jean Ogata, though confused that it had taken Maddock a year to respond, confirmed that her husband was indeed Ogata’s nephew.
Finally, Maddock thought giddily, he and his father-in-law had found their man. On May 13, he emailed his father-in-law: “Otousan,” Maddock wrote. “After a five-year search, it seems we have finally [achieved] our destination.”
Yamamoto still remembers his initial reaction to the revelation. “When I read [George’s email], I thought George is joking. But George is a serious man. Then, I started to cry.” Yamamoto’s eyes moisten as he recalls the long road to locating Ogata. He pulls out his handkerchief, removes his glasses and dabs at his eyes. “Without his cooperation, my visit [would] never occur.”
Maddock asked his father to send him further instructions so he could follow up with his new Hawai‘i contacts. But Yamamoto could not sleep that night. The very next morning, he bought a ticket to Hawai‘i. Yamamoto phoned Jean Ogata and Evelyn Tsuda and informed them that he would arrive the following week to pay his respects at the grave of the man who had treated him so kindly all those years ago.
Ogata and Tsuda were, to put it mildly, surprised.
“Everything happened so fast! It was changing by the hour,” exclaims Ogata. “We didn’t know who these people were . . . We had given our address a year ago. And now, suddenly, Mr. Yamamoto is calling us and telling us he’s coming [to Hawai‘i]! We didn’t know what to think!”
Maddock, too, was caught flat-footed. Unaware that his father-in-law had taken it upon himself to make travel arrangements to Hawai‘i, he was still awaiting further instructions. “I called him, and he said he was going to Hawai‘i,” says Maddock. “That’s when I realized that this thing had gotten way ahead of me.” Maddock wasn’t even sure he could get away from work to meet his father-in-law in Honolulu. Finally, he and his wife decided that he should jump a plane to Hawai‘i. After all, Yamamoto had traveled outside Japan exactly once, a few years earlier to visit his daughter and son-in-law in New York.
Suddenly, phone calls and emails were pulsing madly across those transoceanic fiber optic cables. Hotel reservations. Conversations with Jean Ogata and Evelyn Tsuda to reassure them that this was on the up and up.
“[Jean] was probably a bit worried,” Maddock admits. “[She must have been wondering], who are these haoles from New York and this Japanese man from Tökyö? So I sent out emails to explain who we are and what this was all about to set them at ease.”
And soon Yoshio Yamamoto was on his way to fulfill his obligation to Sgt. Ogata.
It is May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day. American flags already stand sentry for the annual ceremonies to take place over the weekend. High above the rim of Püowaina Crater, cumulus cloud puffs tumble after one another on a spectacular blue-sky canvas.
Yamamoto kneels and places a cluster of red ginger and heliconia at the gravesite. He touches his palm to Ogata’s grave marker, and his son-in-law bends to one knee beside him. The two men consider the gravestone for a long moment, and then the younger man helps the older one to his feet.
When he booked his flight, Yamamoto had no idea he was arriving during the week the United States honors its war dead. What more fitting time for him to honor the memory of a man who had shown him compassion all those years ago?
“Finally, I made my goal,” Yamamoto reflected before he left the cemetery. And then he paused. “I am very [sorry] because he passed away. I should have come over here much earlier and [shaken] his hand.”
Upon further reflection, though, Yamamoto seemed at peace with himself. “I did everything I came [to Hawai‘i] to do,” he says the following day. “I visited Sgt. Ogata’s tombstone. That’s my main purpose. That’s all.” Finally, it seems, he had achieved his dream.
Ichigo ichi-e. “One life, one meeting,” goes the Japanese saying. Attributed to the 16th century tea
master Sen no Rikyu, it entreats you to extend hospitality and consideration to each person you meet, to treat each individual that crosses your path as an honored guest. After all, goes an alternate definition, the encounter may well be “the only chance in one’s life.”
What better sums up the lesson of that fateful meeting almost 60 years ago? Following the bittersweet trip to Ogata’s gravesite, Yamamoto and Maddock paid a visit to thank Bishop Ara, the venerable head of the Tendai Mission in Nu‘uanu. Though he had been unable to help Yamamoto find his postwar benefactor, the wizened priest invoked the famous epigram to sum up the wonderful sequence of events that sprang from that chance encounter almost 60 years ago.
Both Yamamoto and Maddock hope to return to Hawai‘i in December with their wives. They’ve made tentative plans to visit again with the Ogatas and the Tsudas, who showered them with aloha during their whirlwind visit. And, naturally, they will pay their respects to the man who, in a sense, made it all possible.
Do you see what a chance encounter has brought about, sixty years after the fact? Do you dare allow yourself to believe that a small gesture of kindness really set in motion this unlikely chain of events?
Be careful. Otherwise, you’ll get caught up in the wake of this kindness. And then you’ll start believing in this life force that infiltrates your heart, that suddenly spurs you to do things that the cold, hard world admonishes you not to dare do. You start firing off emails and posting messages all over cyberspace. You hop flights to places you’ve never been before. You forge connections with people who go out of their way to help you and form friendships that transcend boundaries, cultures and generations.
You know it usually doesn’t work out that way. But this time, it did.
Postscript: Thanks, once again, to Evelyn Tsuda, the Herald was able to connect with Yoshio Yamamoto in Japan by email. Yamamoto-san is now 85 years and still lives in Chiba-ken with his wife Teruko.
He said he still thinks about Sgt. Tsutomu Ogata. “His kindness has always stayed with me and I had always hoped that I could see him someday and thank him,” wrote Yamamoto. “Thanks to Tsuda-san, I could pay a visit to his grave. It was the greatest joy of my life,” he emailed.
Yamamoto-san, who has not visited Hawai‘i since his trip a decade ago, said he still remembers the taste of the tomato rice that Ogata cooked for him a few times at the military warehouse in Shinagawa, where they worked. “It was just after the war and the food situation was very poor,” he recalled.
“In Japan, there is a proverb: One should never forget the gratitude for what one has received,” concluded Yamamoto-san. And true to his words, he never forgot.
Chance Gusukuma is a communications consultant for Kaiser Permanente. Gusukuma earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Occidental College and his master’s in history from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.