By BILL WATANABE

My mother-in-law is a pretty amazing person – her name is Sue and she is now 106 years old! I am guessing she is one of the oldest Nikkei in America. 

It’s hard to comprehend all of the history that she has witnessed first-hand – growing up when telephones were scarce and horse & buggies may have outnumbered cars.

Sue was born in Little Tokyo in 1915, delivered by a midwife; I suspect back in those days many if not most babies were delivered by midwives. Sue’s parents were barbers who had a shop in the San Bernardino area but traveled to Little Tokyo in order to have the baby.

Little Tokyo in 1915 was a small but growing ethnic enclave of Japanese immigrants; the Issei pioneers were starting to marry and have children, creating a mini-ethnic “baby-boom” of children running around the streets of Little Tokyo.

Sue’s family moved to San Diego, where they eventually set up shop as barbers in the newly established Japantown near the Gaslamp Quarter. Sue told me that when she was a child, one of her tasks was to light the kerosene lanterns in their home and later, to light gas lamps, which were a “modern convenience.”

Sue’s father passed away when she was still young and eventually her widowed mother married a young widowed doctor who had come a few years earlier from Japan. (I wrote about the experiences of this widowed doctor in a previous Rafu Shimpo article entitled “The Young Doctor”).

After Sue graduated high school (where she was classmates with a tall and handsome young man named Gregory Peck), she accompanied her stepfather to Japan and lived in an estate near Aomori. When Sue arrived in Japan in the 1930s, Japan had become a militarized society and foreigners like Sue were regarded with suspicion. 

Little Tokyo in the 1920s

Sue was of marriageable age and she met and married a nephew of her stepfather.  Her husband was a member of the Japanese military and when the Pacific War broke out in December 1941, Sue’s world was dramatically changed because Japan and America were now enemies. 

Sue’s letters from America was scrutinized and censored by the military and she was pressed by the Japanese government to do translation work for them, but she courageously refused to comply. She had to live the war years as much as possible under the radar as the wife of a Japanese soldier.

The American victory in WWII brought positive change for Sue. She served, for about a year, as the interpreter for the commanding officer of U.S. forces in Aomori Prefecture – a highly visible and responsible position translating for a general in front of large crowds.

In 1953, Sue and her family were able to come to the U.S. and they settled in San Diego. In 2002, Sue left San Diego and came to live with my wife and me in Silver Lake, near Downtown Los Angeles. Even at her advanced age, Sue’s mind is still alert, and while she only shifts with a walker from her bed to her sofa chair or to the bathroom, she is pretty independent and has had only a few “accidents.” She watches a lot of TV – and still gets excited whenever a Gregory Peck movie is shown on Turner Classic Movie channel.

I don’t know how much longer Sue will live, but it would not surprise me if she broke some records for longevity before she goes! My wife and I do our best to take care of her – but it is a joyful experience to provide care for a living part of history.

Bill Watanabe writes from Silver Lake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be reached at billwatanabe@earthlink.net. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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