A green van pulled alongside the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal and an elderly man, sporting a graying moustache and eyebrows, stepped out and greeted me in his cheery voice.
Dr. Frank Kitamoto, 65, the president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese Community (BIJAC), apologized for being late. He had been conducting a 55-minute slide presentation about the Japanese Internment during World War II to six classes in a local elementary school since 8 a.m. That, he said with a sigh of satisfied exhaustion, is his passion.
But little is known that Kitamoto used to struggle with his identity of being a Japanese when he was growing up. Sitting in a classroom mainly filled with Caucasians, he struggled with being in his own skin. The turning point came years later when a stranger reminded him “he was just like anyone else.”
“Gosh, I wished I was white then,” he said as we arrived at his dental office. He settled himself into a plush sofa in his office. The left wall in the office was filled from top to bottom with photo frames of his family, his wedding photos, and of the Japanese internment in Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led to the U.S government suspicion of Japanese Americans. Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 that led to the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans to concentration camps in Idaho and California. Kitamoto and his family were among the 227 Bainbridge Japanese Americans, first of the 120,000, to be relocated on March 30, 1942. He was only two and the half years old then.
After World War II, Kitamoto returned to Bainbridge Island. However, the post-war atmosphere was not conducive in shaping his sense of identity. Yet, he overcame his identity crisis and sought to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Japanese Americans.
Here is the story of how a boy embraced his identity and became instrumental in shaping the American history today.
“It was hard growing up on Bainbridge, where there was nothing in school that talked about contributions of the minorities. It was hard to have a sense of identity,” said Kitamoto.
Ironically, the Japanese were pioneers on Bainbridge in the 19th century. They came to America for better prospects after the Meiji Restoration displaced the agricultural community with rapid industrialization. The Japanese became farmers on the island,
providing about seventy-five percent of western Washington’s vegetables and strawberries.
Yet, all this was never told in the history books. “All the pioneers were whites, which was not the case,” said Kitamoto. From elementary to high school, Kitamoto always hung out with the caucasians. His best friend, Tom Thatcher, was also white. Kitamoto never thought it was a good deal to be a Japanese.
“Frank never mentioned anything about going through the Japanese internment. It was like it never existed,” Thatcher said.
Thatcher described Kitamoto as being popular among students due to his multiple leadership positions and said he earned the admiration of girls. But the friendships were confined to school. “Frank would go home after school to help in his family berry- farming business. Many whites played basketball, but Frank did not as he was short.”
The turning point came when Kitamoto, then in college, attended a seminar for the Church of Christ youth group leaders. After the seminar, a Caucasian woman approached him and said: “ It’s the first time I’ve spent time with a Japanese and you are just like anyone else.”
That jolted him to the reality that no matter how hard he tried to be white, people still noticed the difference in skin color. He reached a state of epiphany: He was just as significant as anyone else despite his heritage.
“It was time I started caring about myself and finding out who I am,” said Kitamoto. When he got married and had a child, he did not want his son to go through what he did. It was this objective that brought him and his church friend, Ronald Nakata together on the oral history project in 1982.
The project aimed to collect pictures and oral accounts from Japanese Americans to preserve and promote their heritage. It was an uphill task.
After returning to Bainbridge, the Japanese Americans resumed their daily lives and swept the pains of the internment under the carpet. It was seen as being disrespectful to the government to criticize what they did, said Kitamoto. Children grew up without knowing what happened to their parents.
“People got mad at us and refused to cooperate, calling us ‘angry young men’,” recalls Kitamoto. They were afraid of being discriminated against if they brought the matter up. But he persevered and got the support of five other Japanese Americans. “We pounded our way through, and soon, more and more people were willing to open up.”
Kitamoto was instrumental in strengthening the ties of the Japanese community on Bainbridge and celebrating its ethnicity. He put together the first Teriyaki dinner and
mochi-making session to foster community pride. “If Frank was not there to passionately push for this event, it wouldn’t have continued till now,” said Clarence Moriwaki, vice-president of BIJAC. The BIJAC annual Reunion Potluck Picnic is still a well-received event among the community.
Kitamoto’s passion is not limited to Bainbridge. He traveled all over Washington and other states such as Oklahoma to conduct slide presentations to schools. The slides contained pictures and information about the history of the Japanese Americans.
Kitamoto uses the presentations to convey a deeper message about self-acceptance. “Children need to feel okay about who they are and realize they don’t have to be white to be successful.”
That mirrors his life philosophy too: “Do no harm and help people to become all they can become.” His favorite quote by Abraham Lincoln shows his peace-loving nature: “I don’t like that man, I got to know him better.”
“There is not a negative bone in him,” said his elder sister, Lily Kodama.
Kitamoto’s passion meant that his dental practice was often put on hold. “Frank could have been a wealthier man if he had not been so dedicated to his passion,” said Moriwaki. He set aside two rooms in his dental office to store the historical memorabilia for the upcoming memorial for the Japanese Americans who went through the internment. These rooms could have been rented, generating more income. Furthermore, his office is in a strategic location with high volume of traffic.
But Kitamoto considers wealth as secondary. “Though I am really tight on paying bills, I have decided that is not the most important thing. I wished I had more life to continue what I’m doing now,” he said.
Nevertheless, Kitamoto is wealthy in other ways. In 2000, he was awarded Island Treasure by Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council for his commitment to preserving the Japanese community history. Congressman Jay Inslee honored him in U.S. Congress in 2003 for his dedication to his community.
Despite all his accomplishments, Kitamoto remains humble and focused on his passion. “He donates all of his time for free, taking time away from his dental practice to work with school children and other interested groups on the Japanese Americans history,” said Karen Matsumoto, a BIJAC member who worked with Kitamoto on the memorial.
“My brother has always been a leader, a pioneer in every right,” said Mrs. Kodamo. This was confirmed by an analysis of his character by naturopathic Jack Schwartz. “He said I was a cosmic turtle, someone who don’t see things to completion.” Kitamoto likes to delicate work to others. “I’m not a good organizer of information, but ideas just pop into my head,” he said. He sees himself as a seed planter.
When asked how many he had handed over to others, he replied: “All the projects,” and broke into his signature hearty laughter. “Well, except for the slide presentations,” he added.
Kitamoto’s influence ripples through the Japanese community on Bainbridge. “Frank is my role model, and he constantly inspires me through his kindness, dedication to the truth, and deep understanding of the importance of working toward social justice and upholding our civil liberties,” said Ms. Matsumoto.
Even his elder sister Mrs. Kodama salutes him: “I look up to him as my mentor instead of the other way round. When we see something that is not right, we will talk about it. But Frank will act upon it.”
Faith, this is well done. I like your decision to emphasize his identity quest as the theme of the story. And you return to that idea toward the end. I’ve edited a bit, so please let me know if you have questions. 19