Time travel to your roots

My barn having burned down,
I can now see the moon.


Mizuta Masahide
Samurai poet 17th century

It may sound cliche but every great tragedy can bring a new perspective. A test of resilience. A serenity to see clearly. And an opportunity to insure that the future is better than the past.  

I recently started a workshop with this icebreaker:
If you could time travel once. Would you visit your ancestors or your descendants?

It is a powerful thought experiment.

This last week I was able to do both in one trip.

My family took a drive to Poston Arizona to visit the memorial for the “internment camp” (isn’t this a quaint term) that incarcerated my parents and twelve of my relatives during WWII. This included my Uncle Bob who was 5 years old when he was brought 600 miles from his home to be “relocated” to the desert of Arizona.

Note120,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their homes in February 1942 as enemy aliens. The bombing of Pearl Harbor ignited hysteria and unfounded allegations that Japanese Americans would aid and abet Japan. They were stripped of their rights, freedoms and property for four years. They were incarcerated in 10 “internment camps” in inhumane conditions in isolated and desolate areas including Poston. Poston was the largest facility housing almost 18,000 Japanese-Americans. Watch the video below if you want more background.

My Uncle Bob is the last living relative on both sides of my family who was put behind barbed wire fences and machine gun towers from 1942-1945.

It was the first time Uncle Bob visited Poston since 1945. Two of my children, my three siblings and three of my nieces attended. So three generations of Americans of Japanese ancestry were my fellow time travelers.

We were transported to the past. To a time and a place we have only read about. Words were replaced with a location with dirt fields, a desert horizon and the testimony of my Uncle. The actual memorial is quite modest but the intellectual concepts we had compartmentalized were unleashed into reality by our imaginations.

To be with the next gen. My offspring and my nieces. To see the future being informed by the past. To experience the time travel together to embrace our lineage, our DNA, our roots, and our wings.

And to fully feel the gratitude for the perseverance of our fore-parents and the privileged lives we lead because of the sacrifices of our family.

Not just to be grateful. To feel thankful. But to spiritually sense the duty we have to the dreams of our ancestors. To the many sacrifices that annihilated and animated their dreams.

I tell anyone who will listen that I am the wildest dream of my grandfather. The grandfather I am named after John Toraichi Obata.

It would blow my grandparents’ minds what my kids and nephew and nieces are doing now!

My grandfather came to this country with nothing as a teenager. He worked on the railroad, then bought a small farm near Hollister California and raised 11 children.

Trying to be the American family, to pursue the American dream in a country that did not love him back. 

Then he lost everything.

My grandparents buried 4 children. Two who died of tuberculosis during the time of internment. One who returned to Japan before the war to Hiroshima and was killed by the atomic bomb.

6 of my uncles went to serve in the armed forces during WWII. One in the famed 442. And one earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The sacrifices were layered upon one another. It is impossible to imagine what it took to endure.

Quintessential Japanese words ring in my heart:
Gaman: enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity
Giri: the complex notion of the burden of moral obligation, the debt and duty of gratitude

To directly connect the past and the future through gaman and giri. Weaving the sinew of the history and generational muscles of continuity and aspiration. Was poignant and inspirational.

Prior to my trip, I wondered if my family should have protested more. Been more indignant. Started a revolution.

So easy to judge from so far away from the context and conditions.

But that is what they did. They took their anger from the culmination of the many forms of rejection from American life and quietly started to strengthen their resolve. Their commitment to be accepted, to become Americans. They made the best of the worst of situations. They volunteered in droves to join the armed forces, most of whom were wounded or killed. They named their kids Katherine, Elizabeth and John. They doubled down on education. They made art, culture, and athletics in the camps. Their revolution was to bolster the fortunes of the generations that followed. Through sheer achievement, dedication, and loyalty. And in a generation, Japanese-Americans broke through. From abject alienation to assimilation.

While assimilation is rightfully seen as giving into white supremacy on one level, it was also a radical and hard fought approach for my grandparents, my parents and other JAs to regain their standing in a country that rejected them.

One of the most powerful forms of change is to ignore the prejudice and injustice, and become. Not to be victims and cede your power to others.

To focus on the moon, from where your barn once stood.

Interpreting the past is fascinating but is really not the point. Understanding what we can, to see the opportunity to move forward. Never to forget, not to obsess, and to keep your eyes on the prize.

It is true that our ancestors were wrong and were wronged Yet here we are! They got us here.

Every family has gaman.

And now what? What is our moral duty, our giri?

We all need to take pilgrimages with our ancestors and our descendants to inform the narrative of our destiny. To understand our past and how it foretells our future. To take what is known into the unknown To remind us of our purpose, our privilege, our duty, and to always propel us forward.

As Masahide reminds us, we can not miss our view of the moon.

Many barns have been sacrificed to give us our moon shot.

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