Some Reflections on May Ohmura Watanabe’s 100 years

Updated: Nov 5

By Shirley W.


photo courtesy of Sharon H.


Lively, spirited May was born May 13, 1922, in Chico, CA. Her parents had been born in Hawaii after her grandparents migrated there from Japan. She was in her sophomore year at Mills College, CA, on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese made their surprise attack on the US Navy in Pearl Harbor. The US Government’s retaliation included the very rapid illegal removal of 120,000 West Coast American Japanese. They became virtually prisoners of war, hastily assigned to internment camps. Many were full US citizens by birth or immigration, and their constitutional rights were denied.

May returned home from college. She and her family had very little time to vacate their work, home and belongings. They were taken in crowded buses to Tule Lake Camp in California where old horse stalls awaited to house them. There are many sources of information about the camps; one of the best is the film They Came For Us.

May wrote about some of her experiences for The Friends (Quaker) Journal in 1992 when the American government finally paid reparations to the interred. May wrote that until then, many became “the quiet Americans,” as she did. The horrible experience of the camp and left many feeling worthless and without self-confidence. This manifested in a denial of their Japanese culture and their language, which had mainly been used within the family. It took many years for the interred to feel confident enough to speak out and share the history of the difficult years, even with their children born long after the war.

Thanks to the help of the Quakers, May went to Syracuse to finish her BA and to Cleveland’s Case Western University for further studies in public health. She married and raised her two daughters while working in nursing in Pittsburgh. After retiring, May came to Ann Arbor where her daughter’s family lived very close to me.

It was my great pleasure to have the opportunity to become better acquainted with May when she and Miyo Bassett, also in International Neighbors, joined my small Japanese class in 2004. We had volunteer teachers, mostly members of International Neighbors. After those teachers returned to Japan, we were very lucky to get a new and very knowledgeable teacher, Mio Horigome. During her fairly brief Ann Arbor residence, Mio agreed to help us, particularly myself, May and Miyo. I wanted to improve my very limited Japanese. Both May and Miyo wanted to learn the language used by their families during their youth. They felt rather certain that they had forgotten it, because they had deliberately tried to keep it in their past.

For 2 or 3 classes I was the star student before, in spite of their denial, both May and Miyo suddenly recalled their Japanese language. Miyo, always very quiet and reticent, was very hesitant to speak since she did not want to make mistakes. However, she was taking notes in beautiful kanji, Japanese characters. May, on the other hand, was more willing to converse and communicate to make herself understood without worrying about errors. Our teacher was non-judgemental. These classes were amazing and totally delightful for all of us. Needless to say, I was soon left “in the dust”, so to speak, and bid sayonara to our class so as not to impede their rapid progress. May has enjoyed using her Japanese during at least one trip, on her own, to Japan that included visiting Japanese friends made through International Neighbors.

There was a long-ago incident that reflects the lasting effects of being interred behind barbed wire under the constant surveillance of uniformed patrols. May, Miyo and came out of class to find a parking ticket on Miyo’s car on North Campus where we had permission to park. I wanted to prove that Ann Arbor Police were not to be feared and would be fair. My companions did not want to protest and were clearly frightened and resistent; I had to drag them into the elevator at City Hall. Up we went to plead our case. As you might guess, the only spokesperson was myself. Thankfully, the police were kind and polite, and they cancelled the ticket. I remain uncertain about what has happened since to May ad Miyo and whether they have had to stand up to authority. It was apparent they had truly been scarred for life because of the camps like so many others.

Mio Hirogome has continued to stay in touch on FaceBook, where she would no doubt agree to “friend” any of you who might want to get in touch with her. Enjoy your encounters with remarkable May Watanabe whether in Japanese or English.


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