California farmer recounts reunion with 'lost' aunt, believed dead following WWII Japanese-American internment

 David Mas Masumoto on his family peach farm in Fresno County in Del Rey, Calif.  ( David Mas Masumoto )

A California author and multi-generational peach farmer has penned a moving and revealing memoir about family, loss, secrets, survival and the unearthing of a painful past stemming from an unexpected gift and reunion.

For 70 years, the family of David Mas Masumoto believed that Aunt Shizuko Sugimoto had died, after being placed as ward of the state of California during the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The year was 1942. Masumoto’s grandparents were among the roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in the U.S., most of whom resided on the West Coast, who were torn from their homes and forced into remote internment camps

It was a trying, terrifying, and confusing time for Japanese-Americans. And for Masumoto’s maternal grandparents, it was further traumatizing because one of their children was living with mental and physical disabilities caused by childhood meningitis. 

"There was a question of what to do with this child who had a disability," author Masumoto, known to many as "Mas," shared with KTVU. 

His grandparents had the excruciating decision to either have their daughter placed under the care of the state and institutionalized or bring her with them to a place and future unknown, having been given only a few days' notice to decide and gather what they could of their lives. 

"They had like a week to pack up all their belongings and get ready to go to this relocation camp, and they didn’t even know what it was. They were forced to board trains. It was an unknown destination. And here’s the other thing, they had no idea if they would come back, and I think that was part of the decision," Masumoto said.

The not knowing and uncertainty of the future, the author believed, was a major factor in his grandparents’ decision to hand over their daughter to the state. Mas said another factor was that they were part of a poor farming family and were already struggling to care for her.

"There was this thought that maybe Shizuko would be better off in this other institutional care, [than] what they could provide. It was a really difficult moment, I'm sure, but it was also the reality of that time," Mas explained.  

So the aunt was torn from her family and the family torn from its home in Fresno County. His grandparents and their remaining children would be shipped by train to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, south of Phoenix. And that’s where they would be imprisoned for the next four years. 

In 1946, after the closure of the camp, the family’s incarceration ended, and the Sugimotos returned to California and did what they could to reconstruct a new life. As for his aunt, he said, there was no known effort to locate her.     

"When they came back, they all assumed she was okay," Mas shared, "They lost touch, and they assumed she passed away."

Decades would pass with that assumption embedded into the family history. But then in 2010, a nephew who had only known about his aunt through limited family stories and lore, received a shocking call.

"I get a phone call that she's alive," the author recalled, noting that not only was she alive, but she had been living just a few miles away from the family farm.

Aunt Shizuko had had a stroke, and the facility in which she resided sought to find her next of kin due to the health emergency. The discovery of her existence, Masumoto said, shook him and questioned his understanding of his own family.   

"I was stunned and shocked because the key line I like using is, ‘I thought I knew my family.’ And of course, how could there be this lost aunt?" Mas asked. 

For his mother and the other surviving siblings, in addition to shock, there was a heavy load of other emotions wrapped in guilt.

"There was this cloak of shame, along with the joy," the author recalled, adding that they felt guilty about their inaction all those years ago, "Thinking back at why didn’t they try to find her?" he recounted. 

The family’s first reunion with the rediscovered aunt was one that they believed would be brief. She was 90 years old and in a coma from the stroke. They expected she would not survive. As quickly as she had reappeared in their lives, they felt she would soon be gone again.  

"We were basically planning her funeral," the author recalled of that initial meeting. But fate would have it another way. 

And perhaps the resilience and strength that kept Aunt Shizuko alive all these years, were what afforded her family more time with her. 

"Three months later, I get another phone call that she woke up. So there was this second reunion that we had and dealing with all that rush of family secrets again where, she's not only alive, but she’s awake, and we could see her move around," the author recounted, noting there were now more questions: "Would she recognize my mom and my aunt and uncle? How would she respond? There was this new rush and wave of emotion."

In the end, the family got about three more years with Aunt Shizuko before her death in 2013. They visited her and spent time with her. It was unlikely that she recognized them as family members, Masumoto said, though he also noted that his other aunt felt otherwise and was convinced there was recognition when she spoke Japanese to her sister.

David Mas Masumoto with his lost aunt Shizuko Sugimoto.  ( David Mas Masumoto )

It was the discovery and reunion with the long-lost aunt that placed the author on a journey, embarking on the past to try and understand how it shaped the present and even the future. 

"All these wonderful timelines start blurring together. It could sound chaotic, but when you think of family history," he said, "a decision made in one family one, two, three generations ago, affect us directly."

The result of that journey led him to write his memoir "SECRET HARVESTS: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm," officially released by Red Hen Press last month.

Masumoto shared that the book offered an exploration of identity, family history, generational trauma, and understanding context. 

And the farmer approached this exploration as if tending to his crop.

"A simple act of pruning requires you to see the future," Mas said. "One thing about farming is that you see things in decades, if not generations, because you’re dealing with nature. And the wonderful breakthrough for me (I farm organically), was understanding the complexity and the variability of nature, but then also understanding human nature at the same time," the peach farmer said. 

And as a newly minted grandfather, the author said this idea carried even more weight, with the future now a part of his present.

"We just had our first grandchild too, so now there's another that will walk these fields and understand how does that work," he said, "to see the past and present but also work for the future."

His journey also allowed him to put into context where his family was in history when consequential decisions were made. 

"I'm not here to judge my parents and grandparents, I am here to live with their nature and understand," he said.

Mas decided to write the book after uncovering as much information as he could about this woman whose existence was unknown for decades. Given that she was nonverbal, he could only piece together what information he could find and try and fill in the rest, as he speculated on how her resilience and feistiness were likely part of her survival tools.  

"She managed to find a way to survive in institutional care," the nephew said. In his interview with caregivers, he learned of how she loved music, enjoyed walking through the halls of her care facility, enjoyed the company of others, and was full of spunk.

"The caregivers would tell me, ‘Oh yeah. She was really feisty.’ And one story was, she loved to drink hot coffee in the morning and once she finished with her cup she would just throw it over her shoulder," the amused nephew shared. "But that’s who she was. She was living in the moment, which was possibly one of the best lessons for her to survive in institutional care like that."

He felt that while his aunt was separated from the family, it was as if they were in lock-step in the ways they tackled life with resilience and fortitude. "It was like parallel universes going alongside each other," Masumoto explained. 

Following internment, his family worked hard to rebuild a life after having so much taken away, toiling and living off the land his father was later able to purchase, despite the long history of discrimination against Asian immigrants from owning property. 

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"After the war, my dad amazingly had the fortitude, the reliance to say no. In America, in order to be established and accepted you need to buy a piece of America," the son explained, "So he bought this small farm full of rocks and struggle, but he worked hard and built a farm up that I was raised on and now raising my family on." 

A major part of that survival story was about what the family did in the face of discrimination, not just racial, but for his aunt and behind the decision her parents were forced to make, there was another layer-- discrimination because she was disabled.

The discrimination ran deep, and assimilation was used as a survival tool to navigate that reality. 

"In America, one of the big challenges, and this was the parallel with Shizuko and her disability [was to ask], ‘What is normal?’ Our faces never looked normal… My parents and grandparents were guilty of wearing the wrong faces," he said. "They were considered aliens, and in many cases it was a matter of wanting to be accepted in America. Certainly after internment, talking with my dad and mom and aunts and uncles, their goal was to be American, even though this was the country that imprisoned them," he explained.

And it's in that idea, he identified another commonality shared with the lost aunt: finding a way to belong.

"I think that was the revelation that hit me. That yeah, my grandparents, who were immigrants from Japan, and my parents wanted to try to be accepted, but this younger generation-- myself, I want to belong. And that’s what Shizuko did. It wasn’t just being accepted in institutional care, she figured out a way to belong, and when you belong then you find a place. And I think that’s how she survived 70 years of institutional care."  

Along the way, the book has been a source of deep reflection as Masumoto said it has allowed him to think about how he viewed his own identity through the lens of his family’s history. 

"The irony is when they came back from the encampment, to try to become American, they saved face by not having a face. They wanted to remain invisible and silent. That’s what I grew up in, and now I'm struggling with that," Mas reflected. "I inherited that silence in many ways, and so that’s part of that generational trauma that we inherited, and I like to describe it as baggage that I carry with me."

Among the many takeaways he hoped to offer his readers was that his story challenged others to break silences, and by doing so, not only confront generational trauma but get a better understand of their identity. 

"Every family has secrets, and the way to get to the secret is to begin by asking questions," Masumoto offered. "What about my family? Did we have secrets in our family? What were they? How were they related to generational trauma? How were they related to the history that our families went through, especially Asian-Americans?’" 

The author, who's made it a living to cultivate land to produce fruit, said it's also through exploring the answers to those questions, the past, present and future might be reconciled, and perhaps, like it did for Aunt Shizuko, it can offer a voice to the unspoken. 

"There is the fact that we can learn about generations before us from alien land laws that prevented us from having a farm, through certainly, internment during World War II, and then the silence that follows with that," Masumoto said. "My goal, I think, especially as a storyteller, as a writer, is to convey these emotions and the sense of history to others, but at the same time hopefully instill them to ask questions."

David Mas Masumoto's aunt Shizuko Sugimoto who was believed to have died following the family's internment during World War II. ( David Mas Masumoto )

Cover of David Mas Masumoto's book "SECRET HARVESTS: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm," released by Red Hen on April 18, 2023. ( David Mas Masumoto)

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.