Mamoru Eto is 107. He lives at the Minami Keiro Nursing Home, near Lincoln Park northeast of downtown Los Angeles, where the residents eat Japanese meals, are entertained with Japanese songs and are cared for by a mostly Japanese staff.
Like Eto, many of the other residents were interned during the war and have received their apologies and reparations checks. But Eto has the distinction of being the first among them--in fact, the first in the country--to be paid.
Born into a samurai family, Eto won medals in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and taught physical education at a missionary school before heading to America in 1919, intending to study at a school in Massachusetts.
Eto planned to go back to Japan after a few years and become a professor. But when he arrived in San Francisco, he was moved by seeing impoverished railroad laborers who had come to the United States planning to make money and return to their homelands, but who ended up gambling their earnings away every night.
Then and there, he recalled, he decided to be a minister.
He worked on a farm, preached on the side, and sent for his wife, Kura, and his 3-year-old daughter, Hitoko, who now goes by the name of Helen. The Etos eventually had 10 children and settled in Pasadena.
Kura took care of the children while Eto supported the family through gardening jobs. On weekends, he delivered sermons at the First Japanese Nazarene Church, which he established “in our living room,” said Helen, 75, who served as interpreter for the interview.
Kura Eto returned to Japan in 1936 because of illness and died there during World War II. At the start of the war, Helen and two other adult Eto children decided to leave the West Coast on their own, which the government briefly allowed as an alternative to internment.
Mamoru Eto and the other seven children were sent to the Tulare Assembly Center in Central California in the spring of 1942. There they lived in stables while more permanent camps were being built. After about five months, they were put on a train to the camp at Gila River, Ariz., where they would spend another two years.
Eto set out to make the best of the inhospitable conditions. The camp grounds were barren, so he dug up saplings from a nearby riverbank and replanted them near the barracks. To escape the heat, he dug a den in the crawl space under their quarters, put a desk and chair there, and used it as a study.
And, naturally, he started church services and a Sunday school at the 13,340-person camp, and wrote shigin poetry with religious themes.
Helen, who had settled in Salt Lake City, visited a few times. “It was horrible,” she said. “It was so hot.”
Eto’s son David, then 10, went to school, played baseball, basketball and other sports and invented games with his friends. “We rolled rocks down the hill, big boulders,” he recalled in a phone interview.
The boy found his father no longer the commanding disciplinarian he used to be, now that the War Relocation Authority was setting all the rules and schedules. "(The children) were pretty much on our own,” David said. But he added: “It was a pretty constrained environment. There (was) not a lot of trouble you (could) get into, as a 10-year-old.”
A year after they were evacuated, the internees were asked to take a loyalty oath: Would they pledge allegiance to the United States and forswear any allegiance to the emperor of Japan?
Even though he was a proud and decorated veteran of Japan’s war with Russia, and even though he was ineligible for U.S. citizenship under the 1924 Exclusion Act, Eto accepted the oath.
Answering no was inconceivable, he insisted.
“We came to America,” he said. “We’re not Japanese anymore; we’re American. Of course, I think about Japan, but when it comes to inochi (life) or defending (one’s country), that’s where I’d put my efforts--with America. . . . There’s no other way.”
“I never doubted” the U.S. government, Eto said.
In late 1944, having taken the oath and being too old for military service--he was 61--Eto was allowed to leave camp for Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, a frozen-food processing plant that needed workers. He took his two sons with him, while his daughters went to live with Helen in Salt Lake City. Eto ended up tending the gardens on magnate Charles Seabrook’s estate. He set up a Japanese church in New Jersey, obtained his U.S. citizenship, and returned to California nine years ago.
Eto said the idea of seeking redress never entered his mind, but when he first learned of the campaign to obtain it, he said: “I probably thought if they were giving us money, that was nice.”
In any event, Eto enjoys the attention he has received lately. With a grin, he displayed a clipping from the Nichi Bei Times, a Japanese-language newspaper published in San Francisco: “The First is 107, Mr. Eto.” (Although Eto was the first recipient, he is not the oldest. A Phoenix woman who is 108 was unable to make the trip to Washington.)
In the Justice Department’s Great Hall, he delivered the invocation in Japanese. Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh presented the apology and redress check, kneeling first to Eto in his wheelchair, then he gave checks to the other eight elderly internees.
“By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity, but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution and hence to its people,” the attorney general said.
“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past,” President Bush wrote to the internees. “But we can . . . recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
Admitting a wrong doesn’t come easily for Eto, so he figures that it must have been agonizing for the government. As Helen says: “I’ve never heard him apologize to anyone.”
Until now, Eto had never talked much about the camp with the family, not even with Helen, a Santa Monica resident who visits him at the nursing home at least once a week.
He emphasizes that there were some good things about camp life--leisure time, for one.
“Before, I had to work to feed and shelter the family--and now the government took over that job,” he said.
What was worst, he said in a defiant voice, was being herded there at all.
He pounded the table with his hand. “Japanese are not the type of people you have to put (behind a fence). . . . It was absolutely uncalled for to be put in camp, inside the wire fence and with a soldier with a gun in a tower.”