Japanese in World War I Utah

One of the reasons I’ll never run out of writing ideas is that every time I work on a project, I come across new awesome stories that don’t quite fit with the current project. The Japanese who fought in World War I are an example of that. As I was scanning lists of Utah veterans who fought in “The Great War,” looking for character names for No Peace with the Dawn, I came across one from Brigham City, Utah that stood out from the Williams, Johns, and even the Alonzos and LaMonds that pop up in Utah: Moichi Kuramoto.

My co-author Jeff Bateman and I were interested in including minorities as we wrote about Utah’s experience in the Great War, but Mr. Kuramoto didn’t quite fit with the story we were telling, so all he gets is a brief cameo. Still, here is what I was able to find about him, using census and war records, and general research on the Japanese who came to Utah.

Moichi Kuramoto was born in Hawaii. His parents probably moved there to work in agriculture, then made their way to California in the early 1900s, where anti-Asian sentiments were burning hot. Some Japanese had already come to Utah to work on the railroads after the Exclusion Act prevented more Chinese from emigrating, and they were followed by their countrymen who wanted agricultural jobs. I would guess Kuramoto’s family was among these. Though nativism and racial prejudice were everywhere at this time, the Japanese seem to have not been discriminated against as severely as other groups in Utah, such as the Greeks.

Moichi Kuramoto was drafted from Perry, Box Elder Country, Utah, according to his draft registration card. His being drafted was illegal, since he would have been denied American citizenship at the time (this also affected other groups in WWI, such as some Native Americans who served). Nevertheless, he answered the call. He doesn’t seem to have gone overseas during the war, serving instead as a private in a Depot Brigade in New York, which helped to train and equip troops going “Over There.” Perhaps the army didn’t quite know what to do with Japanese draftees? They wouldn’t have served in segregated units at any rate, since those were reserved for African Americans – all other racial groups were integrated.

The 1920 U.S. Census shows that Kuramoto survived the influenza epidemic that ravaged the East Coast training camps, and was married and farming in Payson, Utah. Again following him through census records, he and his large family moved to California during the Great Depression (a very difficult time for all farmers in Utah), and were still living there in 1940. If, like me, you know the history of the Japanese in California during WWII, you probably feel the same sick sense of foreboding I did as I read through the records.

Kuramoto died in California in April 1941, early enough to miss Pearl Harbor, but his wife, Ichiyo, and his Utah- and California-born children were imprisoned in Rohwer War Relocation Camp in Arkansas. On one hand, I was relieved that this veteran was spared the ordeal of being imprisoned, but on the other, I hurt for his widowed wife and her children, who had to suffer doubly from his lose and the lose of everything else. At about the time his family was sent to live behind barbed wire as potential enemy aliens, his military veteran headstone was delivered to the Lodi Cemetery in California where he was buried.

Kuramoto’s wife and children returned to California after World War II to pick up what was left of their lives, but I can only imagine their thoughts toward the country that could illegally draft Japanese in one war and imprison them in the next. And while Kuramoto’s death saved him the humiliation of being declared an enemy of the country he had served, I wonder about other Japanese veterans of WWI who ended up in relocation camps.

Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

portrait_of_a_patient_from_surrey_county_asylum_no-_13_8408235032
A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.