Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

How Tanka Poetry Saved My Imprisoned Grandparents

Tomiko Matsumoto at Heart Mountain Concentration Camp, c. 1944.

Tomiko Matsumoto at Heart Mountain Concentration Camp, c. 1944.

It seems fitting, on this 75th anniversary of FDR's signing of Executive Order 9066, to write about my maternal grandparents, Tomiko and Gennosuke Matsumoto. First-generation Japanese immigrants, their lives, and the lives of my mother and her two siblings, were directly and indelibly affected by Roosevelt's decision. They were forced to abandon their home and their downtown Los Angeles grocery store in March 1942, placed in hastily converted horse stalls at Santa Anita Race Track, then transported to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming concentration camp

The three years they spent at Heart Mountain were years that I heard little about while growing up. It was only after I began the project of translating a book of tanka poetry that my grandparents published in 1960 that I began to better understand what they had gone through. Titled Mishigan Kohan (By the Shore of Lake Michigan), the collection spans the period from 1942, when my the family entered Heart Mountain, through their post-war relocation in 1945 to Chicago, and ends in 1959, shortly before their return to Southern California. By the time they had moved back, eighteen years had elapsed since their forced evacuation.

Tanka poetry turned out to be crucial to the survival of my grandparents, as it did for all of the Issei (first generation) poets in the Heart Mountain poetry group. As their assimilated, American-born children sided with the U.S., the Issei acceded to a widening generation gap and turned inward, leaving behind their role as public leaders. They expressed their anger and loss in the more private setting of camp poetry groups and on the pages of publications that were only read by other Issei.

So little of Issei writing has been preserved, let alone translated, that the voice of this pioneering generation has largely been lost. I'm grateful to the two talented translators who have helped me bring this project to fruition, Mariko Aratani and Kyoko Miyabe. (You can read more about them and their many talents on the homepage of my website.) As Kyoko, Mariko and I have gone over draft after draft of edits, it has been a revelation to hear my long-gone grandparents' voices live again, in English.

I will be writing more about By the Shore of Lake Michigan, and the honor that my grandmother received from the Japanese Emperor that indirectly led to the publication of Mishigan Kohan. For now, on this anniversary of the signing of the executive order that sealed my grandparents' fate, I"ll leave you with these poems. The first is from Tomiko, my grandmother:

 As we are handed

our plate of food

one by one,

and sit down at the table—

tears come flowing through

My grandfather, who wrote under the pen name Ryokuyo, wrote many poems about his anguish at the defeat of his homeland in the war. He also wrote about the very different feeling war's end evoked in his children:

My Nisei children

who do not know Japan

spend all day long

at the radio

rejoicing peace


Sake at Middlebury College

Evening with Chef Kiyomi Mikuni at the Japan Society