Wayne Suyenaga interview screenshot

Video Interview with Wayne Suyenaga

In this video interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Wayne Suyenaga talks about his grandfather Hanzo Shimokawa and the bird pin made during incarceration.

My name is Wayne Suyenaga, I’ve brought a bird pin that was created by my grandfather Hanzo Shimokawa that was at that time of the island of Hawaii. He did this in I would guess 1944 or thereabouts, in one of the camps he was at.

My grandfather immigrated to America around the turn of the century. He was an aspiring artist but through various turns in life he got married in Hawaii to a Japanese woman who was already there. And both of them became the principle and teacher at a small Japanese language school on a plantation village on the big island of Hawaii. Because he was involved in the community both as a teacher and as a leader in the community he was also responsible for many of the dealings with his people with the Japanese consulate. And because of that he was under watch in the years before WWII and because of that after December 7th, in fact the next day, he was detained and interned and was put in a series of camps on the U.S, mainland for about four years.

There were camps in Louisiana, in Missoula, Montana and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m not sure where he made this. He made some other objects but these bird pins were popular things to make in many of the camps. So this was done there. There are others that he has and other family members have that may have also been done in the camps but also when he returned to Hawaii.

His family stayed in Hawaii and it was hard times for them because the bread winner was gone. My mother for instance was a teacher, and had just gotten her teaching degree. You know the community I’m sure helped a bit too. But no he was there for the duration.

Well he wasn’t officially allowed to teach again, so the family moved to Honolulu and eventually he did teach in a language school in Honolulu for another fifteen years or so. He was always interested in art even though he couldn’t practice it professionally or full time. And we have some paintings of his from before the war and after he retired especially he did a lot of drawings and paintings. This was something he loved to do all his life.

Well this particular piece, the piece itself, I don’t know its history, I’m fairly sure it was done in the camp. For instance the pin on the back is a regular safety pin. Others he has made had a fancier jewelry type backing. I came into this, my wife and I came into this, just last year and we didn’t really know about it except from family dealings. And all of a sudden people said, “oh yeah the pins,” many of my cousins have two or three, but this is the one we have.

He might of, and it would be surprising if he didn’t because I think they had some materials. But I am not aware of any of his paintings. He did of course a lot of work and he said that a lot of his work both before and after the war especially he gave away as gifts for like weddings and special favors. So he was quite prolific and we have, the family has a lot of his paintings or drawings, especially from the time after he retired.

Like a lot of the internees he didn’t really talk about it very much. One of my aunties was very persistent and finally had an interview with him that we have a recording of and a transcript and we learned a lot from that and his time in the camp.

He viewed it as, as a, well I guess in the best way, he viewed it as a way to see America which he always wanted to do. On those long train trips between Louisiana and Montana and New Mexico he said, “Well I saw a lot of the country.”

So but on the other hand he never became a citizen, like my grandmother who was very patriotic. And my auntie said, “Well I think that was his way of protesting.” But there was no bad feelings that he transmitted to any of us.

This was just a recent acquisition of mine. I think more important was the only think I kept from him after he died was a piece of petrified wood that he had brought back from New Mexico. And that’s the only thing I’ll keep from him because it really embodies his perseverance, his solidness, his way of going about things. So when I see that I remember. But this is something he just picked up along the way, I don’t think he, he might have been involved in the polishing of it but that I don’t know.

You some people might say,” well they had all this time”. But then why did he have this time? He was being taken away. He couldn’t support his family. There was communication between the family and him, so it wasn’t like they didn’t know where he was. On the other hand it was a difficult time as far as just living the day to day for everyone.

So all these things are embodiments, the art itself, well it was something to do. It was a release of his artistic talents. But other than that, well that’s what I know.

Well eventually, father moved the family to Honolulu. Oh he lived as a family but many of them had already gone off. I think there were two of the youngest daughters that were still living there. And eventually they settled in, from Kalihi they moved to Koneki and that’s where he lived out the rest of his life.

I remember him as just a very gentle, gentle man. He wasn’t one of these teachers who, well I take that back, I think he was very strict in his teaching. But he partially didn’t show it because he was very gentle spoken. He was interested in gardening he was interested in painting, and he would just go about whatever he wanted to do in a manner that got things done. He would never boast about anything.

He didn’t speak that much English so I didn’t get to speak with him too much about anything. But even about his camp experience like I said it took a while for one of my aunties who was very persistent to sit down with him and interview him, and she was also transcribed it. She was also very persistent in getting a friend to get a copy of his FBI interrogation which also revealed quite a bit. Like I said he never became a citizen but at the same time even before the war, he would tell people that in buildup he could see the animosity between the countries. He would tell his students that here in the U.S. you’re an American, this is your home. So he was very constant on being and doing the honorable thing.