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Posts from the ‘narrative’ Category

Terror, Remembrance, and the Lynching of Katsu Goto

“A Japanese storekeeper, K. Goto, was found dead this morning at 6 o’clock, hanging from a cross…A two-inch thick rope, evidently purchased for the purpose, was used…from all appearances, no bungling hands performed the work…a genuine hangman’s knot was under his left ear.”

– Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, October 29th, 1889

Katsu Goto traveled to the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1885, seeking work and adventure as Kanyaku Imin, among Hawaii’s first cohort of Japanese contract laborers. After completing three strenuous years of indentured labor in the cane fields, Goto struck good fortune, and the twenty seven year old’s community connections and English proficiency encouraged locals to support his competitively priced general store. Goto quickly gained a reputation for his gregarious business skills, as well as for advocating for immigrants in court and mediating their conflicts with plantation management – actions that had drawn the ire of local white business owners, who resented his growing influence. On the morning of October 29th, 1889, Katsu Goto’s mangled body was found swinging from a telephone pole near his work in the small plantation town of Honoka’a, Hawai’i.

Author P.Y. Iwasaki includes this harrowing sketch of Goto's lynching in her wonderful graphic novel

Nikkei author P.Y. Iwasaki includes this harrowing sketch of Goto’s lynching in her graphic novel “Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story”

Less than twenty years before Goto’s murder, the largest incident of mass lynching in the history of the United States took place in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood, when a mob of over five hundred men raided the district with torches and weapons to massacre the city’s Chinese residents. Within one day, nearly every home and store in the area was razed, and eighteen Chinese men had been tortured and lynched.

Over the next century, anti-Asian sentiment continued to broadly fester with the implementation of a number of exclusionary and repressive laws. Anti-Japanese racism reached its apex during the second world war, as Japanese people began to be depicted in comics, songs, film, and government propaganda not as human combatants but as creatures to be exterminated – as skunks, rats, monkeys, termites, lice, rabid vermin. Military recruiters began to distribute mock “Jap Hunting Licenses” that called for “open season” on the enemy. Writing of the “underlying racism” that motivated the American mutilation of war dead in the Pacific, historian James Weingartner notes: “the Japanese were loathed more intensely than any enemies of the United States before or since.”

Public consensus was reflected by both political/military leadership and popular media. One Marine Corps general publically remarked that, for him, “killing a Japanese was like killing a rattlesnake.” In an article called “the Question of Japanese-Americans, the Los Angeles Times boldly editorialized: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched.” Seeing the Japanese as reptilian allowed white Americans to shed their sympathy like snake skin – as their enemies fell further from “human” status, it became mentally easier to exterminate them. Army psychologists found that while only one in twenty American soldiers agreed with the statement “I would really like to kill a German soldier,” around fifty percent of combatants answered affirmatively when the statement concerned the Japanese.

In January of this year, humanitarian and freelance journalist Kenji Goto was publicly murdered by Islamic militants in Syria after demands for his ransom went unanswered, despite overwhelming public support for his rescue (see: I AM KENJI). Goto had traveled to the region in the hopes of rescuing his friend Haruna, but himself was captured shortly after his arrival. In the days before Goto’s brutal execution, Daesh released propaganda threatening the Japanese people for their government’s recent pledges for humanitarian aid, and denigrating their adversaries as “satanic.” In the Levant as well as the Pacific, it is always easier to murder and mutilate your enemies when they are snakes and satans rather than fellow persons. When you believe you are fighting animals or “demons” – to echo comments made by Darren Wilson on how he saw black teenager Michael Brown – you are free to literally collar, cage, and crucify them accordingly.

Japanese Christian and journalist Kenji Goto in Syria, months before his capture

Japanese Christian and journalist Kenji Goto in Syria, months before his capture.

Kenji Goto’s lynching by religious progressives in Syria has been consistently condemned as a terrorist act – that is, an event motivated by a philosophical tradition that believes sensationalist purging of innocent life is an acceptable way to win desired political ends. Those who engage in the creation of such terror rarely consider the direct victims of their violence to be “the point” of their crimes – rather, the desired goal is the larger communal impact, the rippling out of fear calculated to catalyze social change or horrify a population into continued submission.

Lynching is, at its core, a more intimate, localized form of terrorism. All public killings are designed to demonstrate a clear marker of permanent penalty: “if you resist our empire, we will make an example of you.” The first century lynching of Jesus of Nazareth by political leaders in Roman-occupied Palestine (on the charge of insurrectionism!) certainly stands in this tradition. Likewise, labor leader Katsu Goto had one body, but he was crucified to terrorize a populace, ravaged because haole plantation owners feared his mounting influence would empower their exploited workers. 

This ritual spans both geography and century. Eighteen Chinese Americans were strung up along Los Angeles’ “Nigger Alley” in 1871 because white city dwellers wanted to stem further Asian immigration, fearing the encroachment of “yellow bodies” and the economic power, Eastern magick, and deviant sexualities they were said to carry. Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 by disgruntled whites who, blaming Japan for Detroit’s failing auto industry, wanted to physically inscribe their anger on an body they saw as foreign.

In recent years, white supremacist assassins have orchestrated racial terror in Oak Creek, Chapel Hill, and Charleston for similar reasons, killing persons in an attempt to subjugate a people. Abroad, children and religious minorities have been crucified throughout the territories occupied by Daesh, and on August 19th the group beheaded and publicly hanged an eighty two year old Syrian antiquities scholar to intimidate others who would work with “infidels.”

A historical perspective reminds us that terrorism is not only carried out by lynch mobs, lone gunmen, or fledgling caliphates. Well-established, powerful states too can choose to terrorize, manufacturing massive civilian deaths, shock, and fear to achieve political goals. Indeed, the kindling of atomic fires in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the dawn of the Cold War – actions consistently informed by state-sanctioned racist and debasing teachings about Japanese sub-humanity – must be acknowledged as violent relics in this same tradition.

Dr. Fumiko Kaya is a hibakusha, one of hundreds of thousands of civilians who survived the opening of hell’s mouth on August 6th, 1945. In her biography of Kepanī lynching victim Katsu Goto, she writes of her pilgrimage to Goto’s place of death: “When I first visited my uncle’s grave and found it broken in 1965, I asked Mr. Ukichi Kuramitsu to restore it.” Twenty years after the Bomb fell, Dr. Kaya traced her uncle’s fateful journey from Japan to Hawai’i, where she met with my great grandfather in the town where Goto lived, prospered, and hung. Ukichi, a popular mechanic, community leader, and President of Honoka’a’s Buddhist temple, invested in the project, and rallied his family and community in support. He led volunteers in the task of restoring Katsu’s broken grave by physically incarnating the memory of Goto in a public work.

Katsu memorial

I originally thought this was a Katsu Goto monument – as a Hawaiian reader pointed out to me, it is instead a memorial to Issei. my grandfather Hawaii is seated far left, great grandmother Nobu and great grandfather Ukichi far right, and great aunts in second row

Volunteers mounted a towering shrine in his name, and crafted a monument whose ingredients traverse the Pacific, intentionally highlighting the connection our two island lands share: builders used Hawaiian ‘Ohi’a (Pele’s sacred wood), volcanic rock, stones from Hiroshima, Hinoki (Japanese cypress), and Japanese blue-tiled roof to uniquely capture the cross-Pacific impact of this young man’s death.

Goto Monument

The memorial to Katsu Goto’s life that Ukichi repaired.

It is Obon season. In Hawai’i, we enshrine our lost in marble tombs, send them off on floating lanterns, seal them in boxes of pine and concrete. They are sustained in bronze, in sculpture, in shroud, in myth and glory, in peace poles and at Punchbowl’s burial grounds. We light incense, spark flames, trace their likenesses in stone, wood, and stained glass; we erect landmarks in their name, leave mochi at their graves, ink the anniversary of their deaths on our body’s largest organ.

These visible markers all exist to point us to deeper, invisible truths: in a very real way, those who have been extinguished are, through our lives, still living. The crucified peoples of history – in Honoka’a, Hiroshima, Syria and beyond – are remembered not only in physical monuments, but in the ways they continue to shape our lives. As one hibakusha recently recounted, “it’s our duty as survivors to carry on for as long as possible, to honor the memory of those who are no longer with us.” We write on our hearts the names of those who have been lynched, and something is stirred to life within us. We triumph over forces that dehumanize and terrorize when we reject the paralysis of silence, when we boldly celebrate the lives of people like Kenji, Katsu, and Fumiko, marshaling their memory into common action.

such is life (a true story of love and war)

In my last post, I shared the story of a young Russian couple who were miraculously reunited after long years apart.  I thought here might be a nice place to share a similar tale, from Kuramitsu/Nakamura family lore: the story of my great uncle Clark, presented to the best of my recollection.

Sadamu “Clark” Nakamura was a college student living in Sacramento, California when he received a notice from the United States government that he had to report for “evacuation.”  In the time that followed, he lost his property, his work towards a college degree, and was illegally incarcerated in a concentration center called Tule Lake.  Not long after, desperate to prove his loyalty to a country that betrayed him, he volunteered to fight in a racially segregated combat unit that served in France, Germany, and Italy.  This unit would later become the most decorated army unit in United States military history.

this is the kind of place my uncle was shipped off to

this is the kind of american wasteland my uncle was incarcerated in

While abroad, my uncle Clark met a beautiful Italian girl.  The two of them fell in love, and he asked her to marry him, but her mother wouldn’t allow it.  However, they still remained close.  After the war ended, Clark moved back to the United States.  Not even knowing if he would have a home to return to in California (he didn’t), he gave her his family’s address in Hakalau, Hawai’i.  Over the next few years, she would write him long letters of love and longing.  However, his Japanese-speaking mother didn’t know what these letters meant, or what they were, and she squirreled them away and never told him a thing.  Clark thought of her often for a while, but eventually got married to someone else, had a family.

Tens of years later, after his mother and his first wife passed, he found these heart wrenching letters in a box in their family home.  Outraged and exhilarated, he set out on this half-cocked search for this special woman, moving towards his goal with reckless hope.

He first wrote a letter to the mayor of the town he originally met this girl in, asking about her family name and any possible news of them.  A few weeks later he got a response from a city official which said that the family moved to another town many, many years ago.  He then wrote to the mayor of that town and, after another tepid waiting period, was subsequently informed that many years ago the girl’s family moved to a little place called, oh, Rome.

Not one to give up, my uncle then wrote to the mayor of the city of Rome, explaining his entire predicament: Japanese American G.I. Stationed in Italy During WWII, Looking for Lost Love.  My family still has a copy of the story that ran on the front page of Rome’s biggest newspaper, which reprinted Clark’s petition in full and asked the public for aid in finding this girl.

Not too long afterwards, my uncle received a letter postmarked from Italy.  He opened the letter with trembling hands.  The son of the woman he had been seeking had seen the letter, and wrote to my uncle in the stead of his mother.  The young man was overjoyed at Clark’s tale, he said, but his mom had actually passed away just a couple of years ago.  She never did get to reconnect.

There’s a phrase that many folks in the Japanese American community use, especially our elders, whenever emotions run high and life becomes difficult.  Shikata ga nai.  Nothing can be done about it.  It cannot be helped.  Though my personal sense of North American individualism (and Arminian self-determination) naturally challenges this deterministic philosophy, this teaching is what has helped many members of our community get through the nastiest curveballs and trauma that life can bring us.

After he finishes telling the story, my uncle always glances downwards with a wistful look: “how she would have liked to hear from me.  How happy she would have been.”  I can’t help but thinking how happy he too, would have been.  How things might have been so different, if only he was able to recapture fate and find this woman again.  This is a pretty amazing, crushing story and people often ask to hear it, so I’ve heard it on several occasions.  Each time my uncle tells it, without fail, the tale is concluded in the same way: Clark closes his eyes and smiles tightly and says only “but such is life.”


You fatefully step out of air-conditioned bliss and into the middle of some desert.  Your trip’s chaperones have driven you and your fellow students three hours north of Los Angeles to visit the former site of a domestic concentration camp named Manzanar.

Outside, after an impossible brightness relents from your eyes, the landscape’s natural colors begin to materialize around you.  Actually, colors is a strong word.  Black, brown, gray, ailing yellow, and occasional tufts of green are the full expanse of the local shades (with the notable exception of the pregnant ocean hanging above your head).

You look down and are horrified to find that your skin – your proud, Hawaiian, Japanese, well-pigmented skin – seems to be sizzling helplessly in the sun.  Woefully, you brought with you neither shades nor sunscreen.  (You greatly underestimated the strength of that word, desert.)  As you walk towards the narrow copse of trees ahead of you, you breathe in the taste of dry, dusty air.  The wind is whipping itself hard against your lips, which immediately begin to crack.


Your group is taking a couple of minutes to explore one of Manzanar’s few remaining preserved sites: a small stone and wooded area, once a sort of desert oasis.  A nearby placard indicates that this dead space formerly housed a vibrant garden, designed and constructed by some of the most creative and resilient women and men who were incarcerated here.

Later, in the museum, you will see photographs, glimpses of what this place was.  In these pictures, prisoners and staff alike linger here, spending a few moments together in the sacred peace of blue and green,  koi and cactus and cool stone.

Yet bitter irony screams out from these quiet images, as this sad, bizarre juxtaposition abounds.  In this desert garden, in this concentrated safe space, enemies and friends gathered together in peace in the midst of inescapable violence.  It is truly the eye of a hurricane.

There isn’t much life left here.  The fish have died, the guards gone, the plants dulled, their colors masked by thin, cloaking layers of sand.  Only the harshest flora and fauna have survived the death of this place.  (There are perhaps a few prickly, aggressive-looking bushes left.  And tumbleweeds.  Scorpions.  Real rattlesnakes.)  The riverbed itself, which once drank deeply of water pumped in through local irrigation fields, is just as extinct.  Thin cracks jet across its concrete floor, reaching center and spiraling out again from long-dried depths.

In recent years, archaeologists sponsored by the national parks service have unearthed (and subsequently restored) many of these garden spaces.  These constant and complicated excavations are necessary because after the Supreme Court finally decided against the legality of the mass incarceration, the federal government undertook a desperate surge to erase the evidence of this crime.

Bulldozers were ordered to promptly demolish rows of barracks and homes, strip down fences and guard towers, fill in handmade gardens and ponds with cement and dirt.  This project was not an act of contrition, but one of obfuscation.  Your country’s military and political leaders did not want people to find out what really happened here, so they summarily dismantled the existing testimony.  (This was also certainly the reason why all “sad-looking” photographs depicting life inside Manzanar were ordered to be destroyed before the camp closed.)

Not much other than what was already dead survived this purge.  Out of respect, or perhaps a sense of shame, Manzanar’s cemetery was not destroyed by this fleet of censure.  To this day, the modest piece of land stands strong and silent on the edge of camp.  Formerly imprisoned Buddhist and Christian leaders have made pilgrimages to the site each year since the camp’s closing, to perform traditional remembrance ceremonies.  Aside from this, no one was allowed to return to this twisted Eden.

The burial ground is your next destination.

Your group hops back into the soothing atmosphere of the vehicle, and you drive off.

Inside the van, the desert has already started to seep in; water is in short supply.  Both of your bottles are nearly gone.  You were sure one wouldn’t be enough, so you brought two, and that wasn’t enough either.  The seals crack open and you can barely feel the water flowing across your lips.  Before you know it there’s nothing left.

Outside again, and the world is hot and stale.  You breathe in big sips of desert air, but through your nose, in order to keep your mouth from drying any further.  Marching towards the desert graves, you actually feel heavier, as if gravity itself has been cranked to eleven, working harder than ever to press you back into (the) dust.

As you near the graveyard, you stop in your tracks when you notice it – it is dead silent.  No casual, ambient noises fill your ears – no cars zooming along gravel roads, no music blaring, no cell phones chirping, no more beating wind.  You close your eyes, and picture yourself standing inside a tiny, soundproof room.  This tremendous void is nothing like the Los Angeles you arrived from, nothing like the Los Angeles many of Manzanar’s own residents were forced to “evacuate.”  The silence itself is a form of oppression.

The same year that your government began to illegally incarcerate its Japanese American residents and citizens, your country’s number one song happened to be a popular little tune called “Don’t Fence Me In.”  (Here is a cover performed by your favorite band.)  The song plays a lot like that old anthem home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play – it’s about a renegade, no-nonsense cowboy who’s making a living on the Western frontier, where life is good because he’s free to do as he pleases:

Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Even as Manzanar’s artists and architects labored to create stunning stone and wood gardens, its musicians came together to form camp bands, informal groups of vocalists, brass, and string-playing Japanese Americans who were given permission to perform at dances and other public events.  The music these women and men made here, like the camp’s flowered gardens, was a popular addition to camp life, celebrated among staff and incarceree alike.  However, one tune was explicitly forbidden from being played.  And your nation’s most popular song never pierced the desert silence.


the grave of a child who died here, trapped in Manzanar

Over one hundred and fifty people died in this humble Californian concentration camp.  Some passed away from natural illness or old age, others from disease and preventable infection, which often spread like wildfire from barrack to barrack.  A few of those incarcerated here simply lost the will to live.  Others, including two teenage boys, were even shot and killed.

Their thin marble gravestones fleck the barren landscape.  Some headstones are small, marking the burial of infants and children.  Of all those interred here, all but six families ultimately sent for the remains of their loved ones to be transferred elsewhere, or to be cremated in traditional Japanese fashion.  Even the dead don’t deserve to be trapped in this forgotten wasteland.

You instinctually raise your right hand to make the sign of the cross, father, son, holy spirit.  Amen.  But you do it quickly, making sure no one else sees.  Though you’ve taken comfort in this gesture a million times before, somehow it feels out of place… disrespectful even, to be doing it here.  You are, after all, standing on hallowed ground, in a Buddhist graveyard, in a former ghetto on American soil.  It’s one of those moments where you feel split in two.

In the sky, off to the east, it’s almost prophetic.  You recognize the shape of (not a bird! or a plane! but) a rainbow, hovering boldly above a craggy peak.  You snap a simple photo that does not nearly do the moment justice.

arco iris

Although rainbows have certainly come to mean something more to you in recent years, your mind first flickers back to what you learned in Sunday school: that this meteorological phenomenon actually represents God’s covenantal promise to protect and bless his people.

But you’re looking around, and you can’t see this God anywhere.  This God who declared that he would lift his people out of oppression and slavery, this God who promised to break every chain and to give his people a land of their own.  All you see are graves.

Dry, hot tears start to run down your face, creasing into little rivers as they’re pulled away from your eyes.  Where is this God, who, as the great story goes, was himself illegally imprisoned and executed by the government, whose very own body was swept aside and stashed away in a garden tomb?

You remember the great stories your great uncle used to tell you, how he volunteered out of one of these camps to join a segregated military unit which fought in France, Italy, and Germany during the second world war.  You remember the story of Daniel Inouye (who went on to become your country’s most senior senator), who lost his arm and was awarded numerous medals for his bravery in the war, only to return home, in uniform, and be candidly refused service in a San Francisco barbershop – “we don’t serve Japs here.”

Manzanar is absolutely swollen with great stories such as these, pregnant with the ghosts of gardeners, musicians, and soldiers who cultivated careful life, bred music, and went off to bleed and die for a country that kept their mothers and children behind barbed wire.

Yet if there’s one thing you’ve learned today, it’s that only Manzanar’s bleached skeleton remains.  This is not a prison anymore.  It’s not even a graveyard.  It’s just a capital wasteland, a national park eternally illuminated by the inescapable memories of those who lived and died here.  Really, it’s just a shell now.  Just sand and tumbleweed and a few arid landmarks.  There’s not a lot to see for those without the eyes to see it.  But for anyone who has a little bit of empathy, or imagination, for anyone who likes ghost stories, this place is inextinguishable, unlimited.

You really don’t know where this God of salvation and promise is.  The only thing you know right now is that this God of the forgotten is somehow here, in the graves, with the crucified and the restless dead.

You once heard a great king ask his friend the question “what can men do against such reckless hate?”

First, we weep.  And then we close our eyes, and whisper that tired old prayer, father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…

And then we rage.