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A Place of Happiness and Peace

Mas Odoi remembers Mukilteo's Japanese Gulch. The mill that brought his family here; the war that sent him away. It's gone, but it's still a part of him.

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By Yoshiaki Nohara / Herald Writer
Published:
  • Mas Odoi visits the graves of relatives at the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery overlooks the waterfront where Odoi played as a boy in the 1920...

    Kevin Nortz / The Herald

    Mas Odoi visits the graves of relatives at the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery overlooks the waterfront where Odoi played as a boy in the 1920s.

An old man stands in chilly rain and gusty wind, raindrops sticking to his bifocals.
Traffic rolls by on a busy road next to the tiny Mukilteo park.
His dark chestnut-colored eyes see the small statue, glowing in soft amber light. It is a bronze bird, a Japanese origami crane.
He's also looking somewhere else.
He is here to remember.
To see twins who lived here long ago.
To see a village that once existed - a place of happiness and peace.
Rain pours over the bronze statue. It soaks the man's skinny frame.
***
When night falls over Japanese Gulch, people there can't see the lighthouse beaming steadily across the water.
They know its rhythm anyway.
Waves wash onto the sandy beach, their music carrying over the railroad tracks and into the little gulch.
Cargo trains blast by, rumbling the smallest shacks in Mukilteo, a lumber town.
The twins, born here among the Japanese sawmill workers, don't hear any of it.
They are waiting for their mother to tell a bedtime story.
As children do, Mas and Hiro Odoi live in this moment, which they believe will last forever.
In winter, snowflakes invite them outside to sled down a hill. In summer, they play at the sandy beach.
They will pick up English by playing and studying side by side with white boys and girls.
They will forget the language in which their mother tells stories. They will remember what those stories teach them, what they learn from her and from this place.
That will keep them moving forward, even through a rain of bombs.
Their brown skin and Japanese names will bring hardships and give them courage.
They don't know any of those things yet.
All they want is to hear a story.
Their mother picks "Momotaro," their favorite fairy tale about a boy who fights devils.
Now the story begins.
Once upon a time, an old couple lived alone in the foothills of the mountains. They were happy here.
They lived in a place where a river glistened with sunlight. They watched every year as the mountains change colors from green to yellow to red.
Old Grandpa cut grass for a living. Old Grandma kept their house, humble as it was, neat and clean.
All they ever wanted was a baby.
One day, Old Grandpa was toiling in the woods while Old Grandma washed clothes at the river.
It was a sunny day. Old Grandma thought she saw something rolling down the river.
It got closer and closer, bigger and bigger. It was a giant momo, a peach.
She tried to find a stick to fish it out.
No luck.
On a whim she started singing an ancient charm, clapping her hands in magic rhythm: "So-chino-mizu wa nigaizo..."
"The distant water is bitter.
"The near water is sweet.
"Pass by the distant water.
"Come into the sweet."
The peach began bobbing toward her. She hoped her husband would find it sweet.

Japan Town

She was a city girl. He was a country boy.
They grew up in Fukuyama in western Japan in the late 19th century. The Ashida River separated the homes of the Kobayashi and Odoi families, as it kept the city out of the countryside.
Chikaye Kobayashi was the first child of a merchant-class family.
She grew into a young lady, wearing her kimono in tight, proper folds. Her shiny black hair was pulled up to cover her neck, but not touch her shoulders.
She stood straight. She looked at people straight. She knew that her demeanor revealed her honesty and integrity.
The Odoi family raised wheat and rice outside town.
Teichi was the family's second son. He would not inherit his father's land. He also was free of family obligations.
Well-read and good at math, Teichi looked outside Hiroshima Prefecture, outside Japan, to build a better life.
Teichi crossed the Pacific Ocean on a steamship to America, ending up in Mukilteo around 1903.
The town needed men for the sawmill, and Teichi's math skills and quick English earned him more money than the whole family did from the farm.
When he returned to Fukuyama to find a wife, he was a different man.
He had money and dreams. He wore a Western shirt with a fresh collar, tied his own bow ties and parted his hair from left to right.
Still, he followed tradition and let his family arrange his marriage to Chikaye. They took a steamer back to Washington.
Their arrival followed in the footsteps of earlier Japanese immigrants whose sweat helped to build Snohomish County, mining gold and building the railroad near Sultan.
The Japanese worked long hours for little pay, causing anger among union workers who fought for shorter hours and better pay. In Darrington, loggers wrote a manifesto, rounded up the Japanese and kicked them out of town.
In Mukilteo, the Japanese also were met with hostility. Their village in the gulch was called Japan Town, and now and then someone wandered up and fired shots.
The lumber company gave the Japanese rifles to defend themselves.
In time people in Mukilteo accepted the fact: Their small town didn't have enough men to keep the mill running. They needed the Japanese.
They started visiting their new neighbors, teaching them English and giving piano lessons. The Japanese began buying from the farmers and going to church in town.
Teichi worked as a bookkeeper at the sawmill. He took his American name, George, to work with white workers.
Chikaye, who never learned to speak English, stayed at home.
On July 12, 1921, she gave birth to twins. Masaru came first; Hiroshi followed an hour later.
It was five years before the young Emperor Hirohito took the throne at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Chikaye, a Buddhist, would send her children - Mas, Hiro, their older sister, Hisako, and their younger brother, Saburo - to Sunday schools at the Mukilteo Nazarene Church.
They would be American children.
Old Grandpa and Old Grandma rolled the massive peach onto the cutting board.
Old Grandma picked up a knife, the biggest one, to chop it in half.
"Wait!"
Who said that?
"Please stop it!"
The clear voice came from inside the peach.
Flabbergasted, Old Grandpa and Old Grandma fell backwards.
The peach split itself in half.
A beautiful baby boy jumped out onto the table.
Their prayer was finally granted. Old Grandpa and Old Grandma now had their own baby.
What could they name such a special boy?
There were many boys named Taro. There was only one boy born out of a momo.
They named their son Momotaro.

A big question

On summer mornings, Mas and Hiro Odoi crossed from their family's shack over the railroad to the beach.
The boys looked alike, with their parents' brown skin, thick black hair and tiny dark chestnut-colored eyes. They both were slender, like their father.
They searched for crabs, clams and seaweed for dinner. They chased trout in a stream running through the wooded gulch.
Their favorite holiday was the Fourth of July.
They stayed up late for the fireworks show, watching the streamers spread over the night sky like petals of flowers. As one faded into darkness, another shot up and flashed to life.
During the day, they ate sweet watermelon from Yakima at the Japanese Gulch picnic where children raced around a track for prizes.
Their fathers got the day off from the sawmill and their mothers made food to share.
The twins also loved New Year's Day. Chikaye made mochi cakes, sweet black beans and rolled sushi, traditional dishes for the biggest Japanese holiday. Their father drank homemade ginjo sake with neighbors, ignoring Prohibition.
In the summer, Mas and Hiro watched the Japanese play baseball with American friends at a ball field near the Mukilteo Lighthouse.
The Japanese men formed a baseball team called Mikado, or emperor, playing against any team that would give them a game.
Teichi and his friends from the sawmill told the twins about Japan, how it never lost a war, how Japan beat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Some of the men even told how they would die for their emperor.
Japanese are excellent soldiers, the boys learned.
Japanese soldiers are brave. They don't cheat. They choose death over dishonor.
Chikaye taught Mas and Hiro Japanese values by the stories she told. They heard stories of loyalty, bravery and family duty.
Mas, as the eldest son, had to set examples and protect his brother, younger by just one hour.
Chikaye knew her boys were Americans and told them to be loyal to their country.
She respected her children's will; let them be themselves.
One summer afternoon Mas and Hiro were playing in the gulch like any other day. The sky was clear, the air cool.
They were with an older boy who liked telling stories, especially about war, battles and soldiers. He also liked teasing and scaring the twins.
If there is war between America and Japan, what will you do? The older boy asked. Will you fight for America or for Japan?
The twins didn't hesitate to answer: For America, of course.
The older boy went on. If you bump into your cousins in a battle, what will you do? Are you going to shoot them?
I guess we will have to, Mas said.
Mas and Hiro went home to their mother and explained what happened. She always knew answers to their questions.
This time, she asked more questions. What are you? Are you Americans or Japanese?
We are Americans, the twins said.
Chikaye smiled and never said anything else about it.
Years quickly passed.
The baby born out of a peach grew into a fine young man, taller, stronger and smarter than everyone.
Old Grandpa and Old Grandma were proud of Momotaro.
Together they were a happy family.
Meanwhile, far away from their home, on an island in the sea, oni, devils, were threatening to destroy the world. The wild oni had two horns, green or red hair and were dangerously different from the Japanese.
The oni ignored rules.
They robbed the poor.
They preyed on the weak.
Word of their atrocities spread fast, all the way to the foothills of the mountains. To Momotaro.
Betrayal
Mas and Hiro couldn't stay in Japanese Gulch forever.
The Great Depression shut down the sawmill in 1930.
The Japanese, lifetime renters - Asians were not allowed to own land - left Mukilteo in search of jobs. Japan Town became a ghost town, as families left furniture, china and memories behind.
The Odoi family moved to Nahcotta, an oyster town on the southwest Washington coast. In 1937, Chikaye gave birth to her fifth child, Miriam Misao Odoi.
After school, and during vacations, Mas and Hiro stood side by side in a factory, shucked oyster shells, by the hundreds, by the thousands, day after day.
At low tide they set out on a small boat to visit the oyster beds. They walked around in the mud, picking and throwing oysters into baskets. The weight of the baskets made their skinny bodies sore all over.
The work seemed endless.
Sometimes, the family visited their American friends in Mukilteo.
During one visit, Mas saw trees being cleared south of Japanese Gulch. The government was building an airport to create jobs and prosperity in Snohomish County.
The twins worked hard toward prosperity. They did so well in school their proud parents were able to send them to the University of Washington.
Mas went first, Hiro, a year later. Mas majored in engineering, Hiro in business.
They both worked hard, and did their best.
On a Sunday morning in December 1941, Mas was doing homework in his second floor room in housing for nisei, American-born Japanese.
His roommate rushed into the room.
Japan just attacked Pearl Harbor!
Such a bad joke, Mas thought. Years earlier, that boy in Japanese Gulch had used the same tactic to scare him and Hiro.
His roommate was insistent. Mas went downstairs and huddled with others to hear the radio report: Japan bombed Pearl Harbor without a warning... Thousands of Americans were killed... The USS Arizona sank...
This can't be true, Mas thought.
What about all those things he heard in Mukilteo about the honorable Japanese?
Mas had always taken pride in being American and Japanese.
The radio reported the news over and over. Reality sank into Mas' head.
Japanese soldiers ignored the rules of war.
They attacked on Sunday when men, women and children were resting. Thousands were dead.
Mas thought: My country and Japan are at war.
Read Part 2: After Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Odoi is sent to a relocation camp. Later, he fights for his country.


About this story

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara met Mas Odoi in Mukilteo in summer 2005. Nohara spent a year interviewing Odoi, his family and other people while researching the history of Japanese Gulch.
Nohara was born and raised in Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan. In February 2006, he spent two days in Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture about two hours away on a bullet train from Noharas home prefecture where Odois parents grew up before immigrating to Mukilteo in the early 20th century.
Nohara wrote the story, A Place of Happiness and Peace, to record the little-known history of Japanese Gulch, both in English and Japanese. Momotaro, woven into the story, is a famous Japanese fairy tale.
Nohara, a University of Montana graduate, joined The Herald in summer 2003.
Story tags » Mukilteo

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