Last weekend was our big annual Japanese Festival, where our small but mighty Japanese community and our many friends work together to showcase Japanese cultural traditions and talents. It’s impressive. The Missouri Botanical Garden has the largest Japanese garden in the US and hosts this festival—one of the biggest Japanese festivals in the nation. Not bad for a mid-sized city in flyover country. St. Louis is where I found half my heritage, and I enjoy it very much.
This beautiful, 14-acre Japanese garden, Seiwa-en, the “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace, exists thanks to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s support of local Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in “camps” during WWII. Many came from the Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas, internment camps. Some came as college students, escaping internment by being accepted to local universities. In 1972, our Japanese American Citizens League approached Dr. Peter Raven, the garden’s director then, about creating a Japanese garden in appreciation for the welcome St. Louis gave to the Japanese Americans. With Dr. Raven’s and the JACL’s enthusiasm, in 1977 the Japanese Garden, by landscape architect Koichi Kawana, was dedicated.
My most elderly friend was interned in Rohwer, Arkansas, as a 20-something young woman who had been born in the US. Bilingual, she was picked to be a block manager, meaning the manager of a block of internment housing units who would be a liaison between the imprisoned and the camp administrators. She was the only woman manager. She had stories. She was married in camp and was shipped to the Tule Lake camp with her new husband. After the Japanese surrender, she followed her Japanese citizen husband to his family home near Hiroshima, taking their baby boy. Then she really had stories.
Back in 2010 a couple of us interviewed our friend for many fascinating hours, and I created a lengthy, edited video of her telling her life stories. A few years ago, our friend moved away to live near her son. This year, “Janet’s” memoir, The Block Manager: a true story of love in the midst of Japanese internment, was published, ghost-written by a close friend of Janet’s whom I did not know. The book release event was at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The Block Manager is a beautifully written, intimate story of life in the camps and in war-torn Japan. Janet and her husband and son were allowed to return to the US after 7 years of suffering and near death. Janet had to pay a lawyer to regain the US citizenship she was made to believe she had lost. They came to St. Louis where Janet’s parents had re-created a life after being released from Rohwer with nothing but some train fare. They were members of the Japanese American Citizens League. Janet’s story is a history of both the US and Japan that should never be forgotten. The story behind Seiwa-en, the garden of pure, clear harmony and peace, should not be forgotten.