Silver Like Dust: One Family's Story of Japanese Internment
Kimi Cunningham Grant
Sipping tea by the fire, preparing sushi for the family, or indulgently listening to her husband tell the same story for the hundredth time, Kimi Grant's grandmother, Obaachan, was a missing link to Kimi’s Japanese heritage, something she had had a mixed relationship with all her life. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, all Kimi ever wanted to do was fit in, spurning traditional Japanese cuisine and her grandfather’s attempts to teach her the language.
But there was one part of Obaachan’s life that had fascinated and haunted Kimi ever since the age of eleven—her gentle yet proud Obaachan had once been a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what had really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?
Obaachan would meet her husband in the camps and watch her mother die there, too. From the turmoil, racism, and paranoia that sprang up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrifying train ride to Heart Mountain, to the false promise of V-J Day, Silver Like Dust captures a vital chapter of the Japanese American experience through the journey of one remarkable woman.
Her story is one of thousands, yet is a powerful testament to the enduring bonds of family and an unusual look at the American dream.
story as she told it to me, I knew that what she told me was itself shaped by decades of life that not only hindered the recollection of what had happened, but likely altered it as well. The space of sixty years takes its toll on the memory; like water, it smoothes and erodes and modifies the original shapes of things. Events jumble their order and grow hazy. Another person’s memories blend with your own. Names, colors, buildings, faces, the everyday smells and tastes are elusive, if not
attractive. But was that love? She wasn’t sure. What she was sure about, though, was that he loved her. “I think that’s why I said yes, in the end,” Obaachan says as she walks toward the house. “I knew that he loved me. That he really, really loved me.” I remember my grandmother saying it just that way before. I suspect there was more to her decision to marry Ojichan than this—that it was not only the assurance that he loved her that led her to say yes to him. Fear about the war and the
salary of twelve dollars a month, fifty bucks was a significant sacrifice—if he had chosen the jeweler, and put forth the effort to write a letter explaining the situation, might that ring hold more significance? In addition to serving as a symbol of commitment, wouldn’t it also be a sign of something my grandfather had forfeited on my grandmother’s behalf? I can’t ask. By the tranquil look on Obaachan’s face, I can see that my grandfather’s insensitivity about the wedding band is something she
petrified of capture and ill treatment at the hands of American troops (a result of vehement propaganda on the part of the Japanese government), committed suicide. After this event, the Japanese government began encouraging all its citizens to follow suit. Military policy had always been death before surrender—but after the loss at Saipan, it became civilian policy, too. Still, despite the possibility of the war ending sometime in the near future, my grandparents decided to take the opportunity
say quietly, as if the new owners might hear me from inside. There are cars parked in the driveway. “You can’t just stand in someone’s yard.” Having grown up in central Pennsylvania, where landowners post their acreage with black-and-orange signs and take the crime of trespassing seriously, I’ve always been mindful of encroaching on other people’s property. “If they come out, I’ll just tell them this is where I grew up,” my mother says. In this moment, her sense that any misunderstanding could