By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
My last article was “Don Hata: My Year [1965-66] as Katei-Kyoshi (Resident Tutor) with Toshiro Mifune and His Family” (Sept 10, 2022). It ended with Don and his fiancé Nadine Ishitani departing Japan aboard a Soviet freighter en route to Siberia. They would then board the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway on a long journey to Moscow, and then the Vienna Express and Orient Express to Western Europe.
Toshiro and “Okusan” Mifune ‘s network connected Don and Nadine to a trip that would wed their souls and forge a life path together as ronin, masterless samurai. The following is from an extended interview with Don Hata.
After World War II, no peace treaty had been signed between Tokyo and Moscow, so there were no direct air connections. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had tense adversarial relations during the Cold War that followed World War II. Don and Nadine were to become part of an unofficial effort to improve relations. Most Americans would not even think of embarking on such a journey at this time. So what prompted two Yonsei graduate students to undertake such a potentially dangerous travel plan?
Don: “One reason was the sheer sense of adventure — and youthful stupidity. But a more compelling reason was the specter that Nadine might not live a normal lifespan. She worried about a large lump in her breast. Thanks to Mrs. Mifune (‘Okusan’), a biopsy revealed a cancerous tumor that alarmed her surgical team. It forced me to think about life without her. Time was not on our side, and we decided to make the most of whatever time she had left. “Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway through the Soviet Union was an adventure unto itself, but it also became a metaphorical preview of the kinds of challenges, priorities and decisions that governed our time together.”
On a hot, but overcast mushi-atsui (humid) day in July 1966, Don and Nadine boarded a Soviet freighter named Khabarovsk shortly before noon. The rusty Khabarovsk had formerly transported prisoners at the end of World War II. They departed Yokohama with a group of local officials from throughout Japan.
Don remembers: “At dinner that evening we became acutely aware of basic cultural differences. We held our bowls in our hands and slurped our beet and cabbage soup until we realized everyone else, the ship’s staff and Japanese passengers, was using a spoon.
“By midnight a sudden storm swept out of Siberia and our porthole showed only frothing water. We thought the ship was sinking. Everyone got seasick, but before I passed out I dropped to my knee and proposed to Nadine. The next morning, she confirmed that she had accepted before passing out herself.”
Aside from the stormy seas, the two-day passage was tense as the ship entered the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido.
Don: “High overhead, we saw the contrails of Jieitai [Japanese Self Defense Force] combat jets and patrol planes carefully monitoring the Soviet ship’s progress. Off the coast of Siberia, Soviet jets and patrol craft escorted the freighter to a small naval base, Nakhodka, north of the major Soviet Navy Pacific Fleet headquarters at Vladivostok. As the ship anchored and longshoremen and sailors in unfamiliar uniforms prepared for us to disembark, it suddenly hit us. We were very far from home, and entirely on our own.
A local train took them to the major city of Khabarovsk, the far eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, situated on the Amur River that divided the Soviet Union and China.
Don: “Mifune had been raised in Manchuria, and recalled how farm families were poor homesteaders who wore surplus military uniforms from World War I. ’Look carefully at what they wear,’ Mifune advised. Sure enough, farm families on both sides of the border wore clothing that resembled World War II uniforms, confirming that both nations provided homesteading grants to veterans — a practical policy of rewarding veterans while using them as a trained militia in the event of border skirmishes or invasions.”
Don: “Mifune also suggested we visit the Soviet military cemetery at Khabarovsk, to see if we could find a section for Japanese soldiers killed in large battles with Soviet Army units coming from Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Tokyo suppressed media coverage of horrific defeats, as modern Russian tanks and troops annihilated outgunned Japanese defenses in northern China and Manchuria. The cemetery was huge, many times larger than the Punch Bowl in Hawaii. The section for dead Japanese was enormous, and neatly cared for — and the latter became the topic of many pro-Soviet and anti-war conversations among the Japanese visitors.”
Their Soviet hosts had overlooked certain details in their planning, like including an official money exchanger. So Japanese yen were not accepted as payment for lavish displays of food and drink aboard the train.
Don: “Frantic phone calls to Moscow finally resulted in a bureaucrat being flown out to Siberia, but that took several days. In the meantime, we survived on stale sembei (rice crackers) that Nadine and other passengers had stashed in their luggage. As I took photos of the acres of golden grain that stretched endlessly on both sides of our speeding train, a conductor took me aside to inspect my small Minox camera [that Mifune had gifted me]. He warned that, had I been photographing military equipment or industrial sites, he would be obligated to arrest and incarcerate me. I carefully wrapped and placed the Minox in my suitcase and never used it until we arrived in Western Europe.
“Soviet civilian transport aircraft in Siberia were notoriously uncomfortable and, to our dismay, rumored to be unreliable. But we had to fly in order to avoid months on trains and busses. There was no mistaking the original role of transport aircraft as wartime bombers, with their plexiglass noses (for bombsights) and twin cannon turrets in the tail. Floors were installed over the bomb bays, and during take-offs and landings the passenger seats shook so hard that we feared they would come loose from the floor. The jet engines were buried between the fuselage and wing roots, and the engine noise made sleep impossible.
“In the meantime, Nadine and I were confronted with a medical problem that stemmed from her biopsy surgery. Her surgeon told us the wound would not be completely healed, but he assured us the sutures could be removed with a tweezer during our trip. Every evening we sought an isolated compartment where I could remove a suture. But by the second week one of the sutures became infected, and the remainder of our entire trip was an exhausting ritual of seeking medications for pain and fever. We visited hospitals in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Venice, Milan, all to no avail until we reached the American Hospital in Paris, where the most recent shipment of antibiotics finally cured the infection.”
Don summarized: “Nadine’s resolve to suppress daily cycles of fever and pain during that long journey across the Soviet Union and Europe revealed the pro-active attitude that anchored her approach to life.
Nadine’s indomitable spirit carried her forward in memorable ways, especially for someone whose life limitations were already diagnosed. Upon Don and Nadine’s return to the states, she left her own Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan to join Don in Los Angeles. They married, and she worked as a secretary at USC so Don could finish his Ph.D. (1970). Nadine finished her Ph.D. in history in 1983. It took her 10 years because she was teaching a full load of five classes each semester while working on her doctorate.
Don: “When I suggested that she reduce her teaching load, to concentrate on her studies, she declined. She wanted to show her women students and staff, all of whom had jobs and parenting responsibilities, that furthering their education was possible, if they were really committed. It was typically Nadine. She led by personal example.” Her nearly 400-page dissertation was later published as “The Historic Preservation Movement in California, 1940-1976”(1992) by the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation and remains the seminal work on the subject.
Nadine taught at CSU Long Beach and CSU Dominguez Hills, before moving to El Camino Community College as professor of history in 1970. There she became a divisional dean in 1984, and then, vice president for academic affairs from 1993 to her retirement in 2003.
As Don proudly describes: “Nadine was no arm-chair academic. She was proud to teach at a community college, and she became an active agent of change in the nation’s two premier professional historical associations. She compiled enrollment statistics that more than half the nation’s undergraduate students took their lower-division requirements in community colleges. Her advocacy of community college historians, who pursued research and publications in spite of punishing teaching schedules, led to her election to the governing Council of the American Historical Association. The Organization of American Historians responded by creating a permanent Committee on Community College Historians and appointed her as its first chairperson.
“Her civic engagement priorities included civil rights and social justice issues. As chair of the California State Historical Resources Commission in the 1970s, she supported state historic site status for Nikkei incarceration sites during World War II — including regional ‘assembly centers’ and federal War Relocation Authority sites. She insisted that ‘concentration camps’ be inscribed on the bronze plaques at the sites.
“Right-wing opponents were not only vocal but violent. At the dedication of the Merced Assembly Center, one opponent leaped up and threw Nadine off the speakers’ platform. Aside from a few bruises, she was not hurt, but State Police were assigned to subsequent ceremonial events.”
An equally challenging responsibility was her appointment during the 1970s and ’80s to the California State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). Nadine served as vice chair responsible for a vast area south of San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border. She pushed for a first-ever set of public hearings on civil rights issues confronting Asians and Pacific Islanders. Korean, Filipino, Samoan, and Chinese community organizations hailed the hearings as historic.
But the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League), the largest national Japanese American organization, refused to participate because “Japanese Americans are a ‘model minority’ and we have no civil rights issues.” Outraged, the Hatas made the motion to impeach the JACL national president and fire the national staff director.
Don sums up: “The insurrection did not succeed, but it later led to the rise of more progressive JACL leaders who pushed for redress.”
Don and Nadine co-authored “Run Out and Ripped Off: A Legacy of Discrimination,” the lead article in a special edition of the USCCR’s official journal, Civil Rights Digest (Fall 1976), on Asian and Pacific Americans.
The late Professor Roger Daniels, the iconic historian, was a good friend and mentor of Nadine. Don credits Daniels with single-handedly creating and validating Nikkei history.
Don: “They met in the late 1960s at an annual historians’ conference, where he became curious about Nadine. In those days few women attended such conferences. Nadine shared her personal history.”
Nadine: “I spent my summers on the night shift of a pineapple factory assembly line hand trimming — to pay for my education [University of Hawaii]. That grubby and exhausting job did more than simply pay for books and tuition. It served as a reality check that alerted me to the omissions and distortions that made American history, as it was then taught, irrelevant to me in Hawaii. . . . With few exceptions, at all levels of instruction, history courses and textbooks perpetuated blatantly chauvinistic, sexist, and racist assumptions about every facet of public and private life in America. . .I realized that the founding fathers/mothers did not look like me. And so, like Alex Haley, I was forced to search for my own roots as an American of Japanese ancestry.” *
In the following excerpt, this is what Daniels wrote for Nadine’s “In Memoriam” for the American Historical Association: “As an undergraduate she noticed that…U.S. history focused on male Euro-Americans living in the eastern third of the U.S. Doing something to change that became one of her life objectives.
“She went to the mainland and earned an MA in Far Eastern studies from the University of Michigan (1965) and then spent a fellowship year in Japan [where she met Don]. . . . What needs to be understood about Nadine’s wide-ranging professional activities is that they were driven by the same concerns about race and class that inspired her other historical interests….” **
Nadine’s research and publications were wide-ranging in subjects. She and Don co-authored “Japanese Americans and World War II: Mass Removal, Incarceration, and Redress.” This interpretive summary was first published in 1974 as a classroom text. Its 4th Edition (2011) was revised and updated to include the redress movement and its legacy. It is still in print.
Nadine’s ronin spirit sustained her as she battled the metastasized breast cancer that forced her to retire in 2003. Don also retired that same year to become her sole caregiver until her death in February 2005.
Shortly before she died, Nadine said: “When I had my mastectomy seven years ago, we were both shocked to learn that women across my campus — from Ph.D. faculty to secretaries and custodians — were astounded that I went public about why I was absent for several months. They were afraid of the stigma that continues to pervade the workplace — fears that cancer might have a negative impact on promotion or retention. I formed an informal support group that…evolved from a superficial ‘survivors’ luncheon to an increasingly serious exchange of grim facts such as my case of metastasized breast cancer…
“As my hair fell out, we discovered the total disconnect between reality and vanity…Have you seen the thriving commerce in incredibly ugly cancer hats? I followed the lead of one courageous faculty who simply tied on a small triangular bandana to shield her sensitive bald head from the sun. Her students were startled at first, but they got a lesson in reality. When I adopted the same posture as vice president for academic affairs, I was inundated by emails and calls from women across the campus, thanking me for setting a standard that allowed them to come out of the closet.” *
In spite of her busy schedule, Nadine carved out time to grow bulbs for cut flowers to take to her office staff — ranunculas, freesias, anemones, Dutch irises, daffodils…and planted a vegetable garden, an annual ritual that Don continues today. Don observed that “those who worked closely with Nadine saw her as an empathetic and gentle soul, and she was that indeed. But when she committed herself to a worthy cause, her velvet glove also covered an iron fist. She did not always win, but she never gave up. My soul-mate did not suffer fools gladly. Nadine ended her messages to trusted colleagues and friends with ‘Don’t let the piss-ants get you down!’”
So, with a brand new 2023 upon us, I wish to echo the advice from the ronin/woman warrior Nadine: “Don’t let the piss-ants get you down!” And a Happy New Year to you!
For more detailed accounts of Nadine Hata’s life and accomplishments, please see:
* Lee W. Formwalt, “A California Love Story — Professional and Personal, Organization of American Historians (February 2005). https://www.oah.org/site/assets/files/1074/hata_article_website.pdf
** Roger Daniels, Jerry H . Bentley, and Evelyn Edson, “In Memoriam: Nadine Ishitani Hata,”American Historical Association (May 2005). https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/may-2005/in-memoriam-nadine-ishitani-hata
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 email@example.com.