Lourdes with her daughter, Mariko, during OPRF's 2018 Japanese Fest. | Courtesy Lourdes Nicholls

Bittersweet — that’s how I would best describe the last 30+ years of researching my family history. What started as a history paper in high school has ballooned into a consuming passion, with many twists and turns. Not to mention all the crazy “coincidences” I have uncovered along the way.

I was lucky to have the chance to interview my grandparents for my original project in 1982, and then — on a whim — tape recorded my grandfather’s life story in 1990. It was the last time I saw him alive. The tapes turned out to be a priceless source of information in the ensuing years.

My grandparents really didn’t talk about living in a Japanese incarceration camp during World War II. It was only when I inquired that I learned about those dark days. Honestly, it’s been heartbreaking and eye-opening experience to understand all the complex issues, thoughts and conclusions that resulted from the discrimination they faced — and the shame they carried with them the rest of their lives became clear to me.

My grandfather, Kiyotsugu “Bill” Tsuchiya, came to the U.S. as a teen, and eventually made it to Chicago where he spent the 1920s and ’30s as a curator, lecturer and hands-on expert of priceless antiques at the now-defunct Harding Museum. The home and castle, which was located in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, was owned by George Harding Jr., an eccentric multimillionaire and politician whose collection of arts and armor rivaled the Hearst Castle in California. 

Harding met my grandfather while he was a student at the School of the Art Institute. Bill, as he was called then, lived on the Harding site for years. He met hundreds, possibly thousands of people, dignitaries, elected officials and celebrities. When Harding died unexpectedly in 1939, Bill stayed for a short time but eventually decided to move back to Los Angeles to be with my grandmother’s family.

Fast forward to my grandparents’ wedding day: Monday, Dec. 7, 1936. Who gets married on a Monday? Their fifth wedding anniversary brought the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They quickly recognized that they would remember their anniversary in a much different way for the rest of their lives. 

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. It didn’t matter if you were a U.S. citizen or not. Anyone with Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast would move to incarceration camps within months. My family had to sell whatever they couldn’t carry. Bill and Chie sold their garden nursery in Culver City, California to the milkman for $75. They took a chance and stored their valuables (including the Harding Museum photos) in the local Buddhist Temple. Many of these temples were pilfered and vandalized during the war. My grandmother had my grandfather throw away his collection of celebrity autographs from his Harding Museum days. She feared that if officials saw the signatures, they would be suspicious of his ties to them.

Eleven camps were set up in remote locations in various mostly western states. My grandparents chose Manzanar in the California desert. More than 10,000 people of Japanese descent ended up there. The dusty town in the high desert of the eastern Sierras was windy, barely populated and definitely “in the middle of nowhere.” The 500-acre plot of land was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers which were patrolled by military police — 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Eight individuals, related or not, were crowded into a 20 x 25-foot room. The men and women shared a laundry room, mess hall, toilets and showers. Privacy was virtually non-existent, not to mention dignity.

My grandparents arrived on April 8, 1942. Their ID numbers were 9191 and they were assigned to Block 20. I can’t imagine how “un-homey” it must have felt for my grandparents and my aunt Kieko, born in 1940.

Soon after arriving, Ralph Merritt, the camp director, learned that Bill had museum experience and asked him to create a Visual Education Museum at Manzanar. He assembled a small staff and got to work. One of his staff members, Toyo Miyatake, later became famous for “sneaking a camera” into the camp. Toyo had taken my grandparents’ wedding photos and his son Archie took my baby photos.

After months of preparation, the Manzanar Visual Education Museum opened on Dec. 5, 1942 with monthly rotating exhibits. The museum gave incarcerees something “new” to look forward to, participate in and learn from. My grandfather worked on two exhibits by the famed photographer Ansel Adams, who visited Manzanar four times.

My mom, one of 500 babies born in the Manzanar hospital, was born in February 1945. I have two photos of her in 1945, barracks in the background, I assume taken by Toyo Miyatake.

When the war ended, incarcerees were given $25 and a bus ticket to a destination of their choice. Bill got a job teaching Japanese to military personnel in Oklahoma, which led to a job as a translator for the U.S. during the post-war tribunals in Japan. His family accompanied him. I’m certain that was a difficult job — not only all the details he heard but balancing his feelings about his home country and the country he called home. 

Bill died in 1990. Fifty days later his government reparations check arrived. My grandmother died on Dec. 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and her 55th wedding anniversary.

Other stepping stones in my journey:

I visited the Art Institute of Chicago in 1991. When I came upon the Arms and Armor Exhibit I immediately started to feel ill. I was convinced it was the same armor I had seen in my grandfather’s photo collection (which survived the war). When I inquired, I learned the curator, who had been writing a book about the Harding collection, had just been killed in an auto accident in Europe. I left feeling hopeless. Eventually, I learned that the exhibit and dozens of other pieces at the Art Institute did indeed come from the Harding Museum.

2009 – My mother and I visited Manzanar for the “40th Pilgrimage.” It was an emotional trip that I had wanted to take for a long time. My mom was less enthusiastic but as the weekend progressed, it felt healing. We met Jane Wehry, who had written two books on Manzanar, and showed her dozens of documents and items from my grandfather’s Visual Education Museum. She was surprised and excited. On Facebook later that year, I noticed the only item she “liked” was Occidental College, which is where my parents met in the 1960s. I asked if she had gone to Occidental. Not only did she go there but she and my mom knew each other. They didn’t recognize each other during our visit because they both had different last names. This connection raised my mom’s comfort level about donating copies of the Visual Education Museum pieces to the Manzanar archives, which has since created a barrack highlighting my grandfather’s work while he lived there.

2010 – I was introduced to Gloria Groom, chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute. Our kids were in the same grade and school in Oak Park. I showed her my grandfather’s albums of photos, which he took while living and working at the Harding Museum.

2013 – A colleague at Wednesday Journal mentioned that a new employee, Sky Hatter, had worked in a Japanese Incarceration Camp. Not only did she work at Manzanar, but she was the person who scanned the items we donated! Wednesday Journal has less than 50 employees. What are the odds? Sky grew up in Independence, the closest town to Manzanar, and lived next door to author Jane Wehry!

2014 – Gloria Groom arranged a meeting with Jonathan Tavares, Curatorial Fellow of European Painting and Sculpture. He was about to embark on assembling the new Arms and Armor wing at the Art Institute. My grandfather’s albums helped them research the layout and items in the original Harding collection.

2016 – While visiting Porto, Portugal, my mom and I met a nice couple, Pete and Betty from Portland, while looking at a restaurant menu on the street. We decided to dine together. At dinner Pete mentioned that his friend Richard Cahan. Richard had contacted me about Manzanar months before while working on his book, Un-American.

2017 – Cahan contacted me to see if I could find items for “Then They Came for Me” – Alphawood Gallery’s Chicago exhibit about the Japanese incarceration that he was assisting with. I asked my mom if we could look through things at her house. Four items were selected for inclusion in the exhibit, which ran from June through November 2017.

Jan. 25, 2018 – I visited New York City’s International Center of Photography’s opening night of “Then They Came for Me.” 

A lot of research and determination went into this journey of 35 years. A labor of love. I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been at the right place at the right time. So many crazy coincidences. After 75 years, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made. When I hear talk of border walls, barbed wire, excluding certain races from coming to the U.S., it really disappoints and frightens me. Incarcerating people based on ethnicity didn’t work then and doesn’t make sense now. It fuels me to keep speaking, writing, and posting about what happened to my family. I want my small voice and story to make a difference in the ongoing discussion.

Keeping the past alive

Riksha magazine and Banyan, the Asian American Writers Collective will co-sponsor a screening of “The Orange Story,” a short film about one man’s journey through the injustice of Japanese American incarceration during WWII. Afterward, a panel of guests will lead a discussion, including Lourdes Nicholls; Karen Su, who teaches in the Global Asian Studies Program at UIC; Joe Takehara, who stars in the film; and Jason Matsumoto, the film’s executive producer. 

Saturday, Feb. 24 from 2:30 to 4:40 p.m. in the Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.

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Lourdes Nicholls

Chances are that if you don't know Lourdes, you don't really know Oak Park. This Oak Park mom of three can't walk a village block without running into someone she knows. She's about as effervescent as...

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