By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
In 2003, Dr. Donald Teruo Hata retired as emeritus professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), where he taught Japanese and Asian history, and introduced courses on Nikkei (Japanese American) history.
In 1990, he was awarded the coveted CSU Trustees’ Systemwide Outstanding Professor Award for his teaching and civic engagement (Gardena city planning commissioner and city councilman). In 1996 and 1998, the CSUDH Associated Students awarded Hata with “Outstanding Professor Award” and “Teacher of the Year Award,” respectively. Professor Hata is known to his friends as “a retired old fart.”
What follows is from an interview with Don about his year (1965-66) as the resident tutor on American language and culture for the family of the one and only “iconic screen actor” Toshiro Mifune.
Don came from a working-class family in Boyle Heights. In Don’s words: “Like many other Nikkei who survived the mass removal and incarceration in World War II, we left the concentration camps with virtually no resources to rebuild our lives. This meant that, aside from steamed rice, I never learned the basic daily protocols of traditional Japanese culture — like taking off your street shoes and sharing the traditional furo (bath).”
Don worked his way through undergraduate studies at USC as an emergency room night assistant at the campus health center — as a full-time employee he received a 50 percent discount on tuition. By 1965, he had completed his B.A. in history and an M.A. in Asian studies, and was awarded a Ford Foundation and National Defense Fellowship to pursue Japanese language studies and conduct doctoral research in Tokyo. His original plan was to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the creation of the Japanese Imperial Navy, but that changed dramatically in no small part because of his stay with the Mifunes.
Don had never been to his ancestral homeland. Halfway across the Pacific, Don realized that, in his preoccupation with preparing his research notes, he forgot to reserve a room for his stay in Tokyo. Hata recounts:
“At that moment, the intercom announced that, due to the interest in the Watts Riots that had begun as the aircraft left LAX, Japanese media would be waiting to interview anyone arriving from LAX. I agreed to be interviewed in exchange for help in finding a place to rent. During the interview by a local news station, I was asked why the riots were occurring, and I replied, ‘It is a mystery that they haven’t happened sooner, and all over the country, because of the explicitly racist fraud of a democracy that was the real U.S.A.’”
Hata included his own family’s experience as incarcerees in U.S. concentration camps for Nikkei during World War II. The story got attention. U.S. Embassy officials threatened to take away his passport and send him home, but public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. And that led to Hata renting a small room in the home of a retired Japanese Imperial Army general and his wife.
After a few months, the general’s wife came to Hata with a letter. The letter requested a meeting in a room at the Imperial (Teikoku) Hotel in the Ginza section of Tokyo. “It suggested that, in return for minimal English language instruction, I might live in the family’s spacious home in an upper-class section of Tokyo.” The Imperial Hotel invitation was intriguing — famous because of its architect (Frank Lloyd Wright) and because the specified room was a notorious meeting place for lovers and spies. Hata’s quality of life was bleak in the little room he rented in the general’s house, so he decided, “Why not?” and went to the meeting.
It seemed that an affluent Japanese family was seeking a full-time resident tutor to the husband and wife and their two sons, on American English and culture. All four had some knowledge of English, but they wanted to improve and refine their ability to converse in American English. “They knew I was in Japan for doctoral research and that my time was very limited. Their proposal was that my only obligation would be at every weekday dinner, during which I would speak only in American English throughout the meal. They could not pay me because I was supported by research grants but I would be housed rent-free in the one Japanese style room in their English Tudor-style house, and eat and interact as if I were a member of the family at all times.”
The meeting at the Imperial Hotel soon revealed that private investigators had interviewed Don’s instructors and co-workers in Los Angeles. “They knew I was pursuing studies in search of understanding myself as an American of Japanese ancestry. At the time, nothing was taught in American K-12 public schools about the role of ethnicity or race or gender in U.S. society. U.S. history classes and curriculum materials blatantly ignored and suppressed information other than propaganda and myths about white Anglo Saxon male exceptionalism. Background investigations revealed that I was outspoken about these and other social justice issues with my friends and as a student in my classes at USC. My outspoken style was not popular among the self-styled leaders of the community, who advised that, in order to avoid ugly confrontations with white racists, we keep our heads down and our mouths shut. So why would an affluent Japanese family want me as their live-in tutor on how Americans talk and act?”
About a month after the Imperial Hotel meeting a letter arrived. “It was elegantly hand-written in Japanese and difficult for me to read, so the general’s wife helped translate that my comments at the interview had been provocative, and that the family would be expecting me to arrive the next evening at their residence in Setagaya-ku, a suburb of Tokyo similar to the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. I was living on a modest stipend from my research grant, so instead of taking a taxi, I hired a small vehicle that resembled a motorized tricycle to transport me, a bookcase and a steamer trunk. The vehicle was not enclosed, and after several hours of driving through a torrential rain, I was totally soaked. Rainwater was leaking out of my shoes.”
“My first impression of the two-story residence was that it didn’t look Japanese, but more English Tudor. A man rushed out from the house, guided me through the rain, and led me through the house to the front room with a roaring fireplace. A woman took me down the hall to a room with tatami mat floors, asked me to change out of my wet clothes into a winter yukata, and return to the front room to get warm. In the meantime, the man carried my soaked bookcase and steamer trunk into the genkan [entryway where street shoes are removed]. He was about my height and in his 40s, and his face looked familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He ushered me to the front room, went to change out of his wet clothing, and when he returned in a winter yukata with a black sash wrapped around his hips, it suddenly dawned on me that the man resembled the iconic cinema actor Toshiro Mifune.
“And as he poured a whiskey and invited me to join him, I was speechless. I had seen Mifune in director Akira Kurosawa’s epic “Seven Samurai” no less than two dozen times, and now I was resident tutor to him and his family. The remainder of my year in Japan would be very productive, with Mifune and his wife Sachiko playing key roles — but first let me describe several embarrassing blunders that could have seen me terminated before the first week ended.
“The first incident was at dinner the next day. I was required to speak in English only at dinner, and I turned to the two sons and asked, ‘Where do poor people live?’ The room went deathly quiet, and finally one son replied, ‘There are no poor-people in Setagaya-ku,’ after which the room again went quiet. The two maids ate at the table with the family, and their facial expressions shifted from shock to horror. After sitting quietly during the encounter, Mifune turned to his sons and suggested that they be more observant about their surroundings.”
The second potentially fatal blunder occurred after dinner when Don was informed that, as the next oldest male after Mifune, he would be second in the furo ritual. “The boiling hot bath was so relaxing that, as I left the tub — I pulled the plug and all the hot water drained out. In Tokyo, residential water usage was strictly limited and hot water tanks were small, so no one else, including Mrs. Mifune, went into the furo that night.”
A third problem emerged in the next several days, as attendance at dinner fell sharply. “There were excuses such as headaches and other illnesses, and extra homework deadlines, but it was becoming clear that the original plan for me to speak only in English at dinner was not working out in practice. The accumulating evidence against my continued presence was no secret, and at the end of the week one of the sympathetic maids let it slip that they were wondering what to do with me.
“The only thing in my favor was that they all found me weirdly interesting, because I seemed to challenge many popular negative stereotypes of Nikkei (Japanese Americans) soldiers and tourists. Nisei soldiers in the U.S. Occupation forces were often despised for their role as arrogant victors, even outdoing their white racist officers, and Nisei tourists booked rooms at Western-style hotels and avoided leaving air-conditioned buses to sample street food.
“Near the end of the week, Mifune and his wife asked me to remain after dinner. He was straightforward and pulled no punches: ‘You may be a great graduate student in the classroom and the library, but like a lot of academics you don’t know reality. You demonstrate embarrassing ignorance about daily life in Japan. The first rainy night you walked past the genkan and into the house with your muddy shoes. Then you pulled the plug after your turn in the furo, and didn’t seem to notice that no one else took a bath that night. Even the maids wondered if you are some kind of sociopath we’ve let into our home. But we’ve also concluded that it is pure and total ignorance of other cultures that is typical of so many ‘ugly Americans.’”
Mifune continued: “We have been forced to admit that we have also been naive and ignorant. Our original plan to improve our conversational English looked great on paper, but we didn’t explore the details. So we have a responsibility to finding a solution that is fair, if possible, to you as well as us. So this is our revised plan if you stay with us:
“First, we abandon the English-only at dinner requirement. People are avoiding dinner and losing weight. Instead, you will tutor each of us, at times mutually convenient to each. The boys study English in school, but conversation is not taught well, and they can use your help, not only in pronunciation and how they talk, but also with how they think. Your first question to them at the first dinner earlier this week — ‘Where do the poor people live in Setagaya-ku?’ — at first shocked all of us, but that kind of insight is what our boys need. One is in high school, the other in middle school, so you will have to adjust your approach and topics with each, but this practice will make you a better teacher, and you’ll learn what goes on in the minds of contemporary Japanese kids.
“We see that you don’t go to the archives every day — on days when you’re home, talk to Sachiko [his wife]. She has strong opinions about the limited roles of Japanese women. Feel free to talk to the maids too. We purposely hire one from Tohoku in the northeast and the other from Kansai (Osaka area) so the boys will be familiar with differences in regional dialects. I’m very busy all day, gone from morning until after dark, so we might have late-night talks, man-to-man, and kill off some bottles of beer and whiskey.
“Second, I drive a Jaguar E-type, and my wife drives a Jaguar Mark II sedan. We have an extra car — a classic ragtop MG if you want to drive it.” (Hata recalled: “I took it out once, barely missed several accidents with crazy taxi drivers, and never took it out again — public transit was faster and safer”)
Mifune continued: “Third, if you are interested you can help answer fan mail from the Western Hemisphere. All the letters are from middle-class women and girls and all predictable — all seeking to be my lover or spouse, asking when I’m going to divorce my wife. We have several boiler-plate templates for replies. Add an autographed photo and put it in the mail. In the process, you may learn a few important facts I bet you never learned in America — like how many generations some Japanese have been in Latin America, and how they’ve managed to succeed in the economy, society and politics.
“And fourth, if you have time on weekends, several neighbors are interested in inviting you to their homes for breakfast, lunch or dinner, as a potential conversation partner to provide background for their dealings and negotiations with U.S. businesses. They are especially interested in your explicitly critical views of racist, xenophobic, sexist, and other realities in the U.S. We know you grew up with Mexicans and Negroes, and are more comfortable with them than many Nikkei who suffer from shimaguni konjo (insular mentality, provincialism) in enclaves like Gardena. Those insights will be important to Japanese companies who want to target those potential markets.”
Hata concluded how the dilemma was resolved: “One of the two maids later confided that the husband and wife described me as baka shojiki (‘stupidly straightforward’ or ‘naively honest’). That assessment probably saved me from being kicked out after my first week in the household.
“Mifune’s conditions that governed the remainder of my year in his household were eagerly accepted, and we all learned from each other much more than I could have anticipated. It is no exaggeration to say that the year with Mifune and his family helped define priorities for the rest of my life.”
Don detailed how considerate the Mifunes were to make his life easier: “During my second week in the Mifune household, he noticed that I was coming back from the national archives in downtown Tokyo very late — often after midnight. He took me aside and asked that I describe in meticulous detail how I spent my time at the archives. ‘What do you do when you get there? Do you politely wait in the hall, gently tap on the door…? Do the staff ignore your presence and make you feel like you’re imposing on their valuable time…? You’re wasting valuable time in catering to them. Here’s a plan to start changing their condescending image of you as a nerdy American grad student…’
“The next day a courier delivered a box of new meishi (business cards) with ‘c/o Mifune’ included with my name and mailing address. He had noticed that I was trying to learn kendo, so he suggested that instead of a conventional briefcase, I go to the archives with my canvas sack for my kendo gear and research notes. After a few days of thinly veiled ridicule, I began to receive better support. One woman staffer whispered audibly, ‘Isn’t it amazing that the American researcher is taking up kendo — he’s really stubborn and serious about searching for his Japanese roots.’
“I soon found myself leaving the archives at normal closing time, and not having to run for the last train home. One of the senior archivists had observed my research progress, and it was through his personal contacts that I was invited to observe kendo practice sessions on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.
“Mifune was well-travelled, and he had well-informed opinions about world events. A growing U.S. military presence in Vietnam worried him, and he repeatedly warned that we were repeating Imperial Japan’s fatal wartime mistake of being sucked into an unwinnable Asian land war.
“Near the end of my year in Japan, he raised the issue of draft evasions in the U.S. Hundreds of Americans were fleeing to Canada and other places to avoid the draft and deployment to Vietnam. ‘If you are drafted and need to escape, come to Japan. There are places deep in the high mountains where no one can find you.’
“Mifune had personal experience with opposing war. In World War II he was an Imperial Army aerial reconnaissance instructor in Manchuria. Shortly before Japan surrendered, he faced allegations that he was advising his students to avoid being sent to the frontlines. Fortunately, the war ended and Mifune escaped to the home islands, caught the attention of a cinema director named Akira Kurosawa, and went on to become one of Japan’s greatest actors.
“My late-night conversations with Mifune eventually led to a dramatic change in the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. As we discussed the historical role of Nikkei in the U.S., it was clear that we, like the Chinese before us, were outsiders, indispensable scapegoats for xenophobes, nativists, racists, and cruel politicians who pushed those causes. Nikkei organizations like the JACL preached a policy of accommodation to white supremacy. Their obsequious formula for survival was perhaps appropriate during the wartime mass incarceration, but it alienated and angered Nikkei of my generation.
“As I sifted through hours of documents in the archives, my original dissertation topic — the origins of the Imperial Navy — became increasingly irrelevant. Mifune suggested that I consider research on early Japanese immigrants, and not the rich silk merchants in San Francisco and New York. He reminded me that the kanji for my name, Hata, meant ‘rice paddy,’ not the kanji that meant ‘banner of the warrior class.’ ‘So why not pursue research that reveals and honors the real roots of many other Nikkei?’ he asked.
“In mid-year I abandoned my research notes and began to develop what eventually became the title of my dissertation: ‘UNDESIRABLES: Early Immigrants and the Anti-Japanese Movement in San Francisco, 1892-1893.’ In 1978, when it was published by the Arno Press, a New York Times company, I sent a copy and note of thanks to Mifune.
“Mrs. Mifune or ‘Okusan’ became a rich source of information and opinions about the many complaints of the restricted roles and opportunities for Japanese women. On the days I did not visit the archives, I observed and volunteered to participate in the daily routines of cooking and household chores, and she invited me to join her and the maids in watching and discussing afternoon television dramas that featured feminist themes. It turned out that she was the attractive woman who had interviewed me at the Imperial Hotel. She knew from the private investigator’s file that my mother had died when I was in high school, and that I was self-estranged from my family. We became close friends.
“One day she said the flower stall owner at the railroad station knew me because every Friday I bought one smallish yellow rose. ’So who is it for?’ she asked. I explained that I had met another Nikkei student who, like me, was in Japan doing Ph.D. research. Like me, she decided to focus her research on Japanese immigration, and we worked closely together. Nadine and I would go to lunch on Fridays, and I took her a yellow rose.
“Okusan rolled her eyes and suggested that I ask Nadine to check with her host family to see if they had any questions about the lone yellow rose on Friday. Indeed they did! In Japan at that time a single yellow rose meant ‘the last dance’…the end of the relationship. Nadine had to explain that I was a poor grad student and couldn’t afford more than the single yellow rose.
“Everyone in her host family was relieved that she wasn’t being dumped every Friday. As our friendship deepened, Nadine revealed that she had a fatalistic view of her future, mainly because of a large tumor in her breast. Her family was opposed to a biopsy and preferred folk medicine. I shared my frustration with Okusan, and she concluded my concern for Nadine was deep and genuine — she began a new role as a surrogate mother to Nadine and me.
“One of her personal contacts facilitated a biopsy at a teaching hospital, and the results were not good. By the size and composition of the tumor, the doctor and his team concluded that she would experience more aggressive tumors. Her lifespan could definitely be shortened. At that moment I began to think seriously about life without her.
“During the time consumed by Nadine’s tumor biopsy, a friend in the Japanese Foreign Ministry informed us of an unusual opportunity to travel from Japan to Western Europe via the Soviet Union. Until the late 1960s Japan and the Soviet Union had not agreed to a direct air link between Tokyo and Moscow, and now there were unofficial efforts to organize a test in which a party of local and regional Japanese elected officials would travel by ship from Yokohama to a Soviet port in Siberia, then board the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway to Lake Baikal, and then by more trains and aircraft to Moscow. The Vienna Express would leave Moscow, and the Orient Express would then take us to Paris and London, and finally back to the U.S.
“Nadine and I fully understood the meaning of the biopsy’s findings. Time was not on our side. And so, we replied to our contact that, if our U.S. citizenship would not be a problem, we would apply to serve as staff to the test group. For reasons too complicated to relate here, our applications were approved, and the end of our year in Japan was the beginning of a new and memorable chapter in our lives. I dropped to my knee and proposed to Nadine, in a storm-tossed sea somewhere between Yokohama and Vladivostok, aboard a rusty old former Soviet freighter that transported prisoners at the end of World War II.
“Mifune was in London, so Okusan drove me to the docks at Yokohama on the day of departure. He left two farewell gifts. One was a navy-blue suit, made by his personal tailor, who discovered that we shared the same size; he knew I would need it for my wedding and job interviews. The other was a very small German Minox camera that nearly got me arrested during our journey across Siberia.
“But that is another story. This one ends with a fading memory of Okusan on the dock, until the ribbon [from ship to dock] stretched and broke, and we headed toward the rest of our lives.”
To be continued with Don and Nadine’s life journey that is forever connected and influenced by that one eventful year in Japan with the Mifunes. Happy New Year and Protect Your Health in 2023, year of the “water rabbit!”
Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.