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In Love and War
Handwritten Letters Bring Comfort And Bridge History

“All day long we have hoped that the reports were false … Martial law has been declared in this territory by the governor and it is true that Pearl Harbor and other areas have been attacked by planes … Japan is committing suicide, but let her do so if this is her method.”

—    Naoko Tsukiyama, Dec. 7, 1941

 

So begins “In Love and War: The World War II Courtship Letters of a Nisei Couple” by Collin College’s Dr. Melody Miyamoto Walters. The book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2015, is an examination of Japanese-American life in Hawaii in the early 1940s and through the beginning of the Second World War.

Rooted in letters between Miyamoto Walters’ grandparents, Naoko Tsukiyama and Yoshiharu Ogata, two school teachers who met the summer before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the book is at times a story of burgeoning young love and at other times a snapshot of life on the islands between 1941 and 1943.

Professor Melody Miyamoto Walters holds letters written by her grandparents in Hawaii during the early days of World War II.
Professor Melody Miyamoto Walters holds letters written by her grandparents in Hawaii during the early days of World War II.
A professor of history at Collin College’s Central Park Campus, Miyamoto Walters found the letters in a closet at her grandmother’s house shortly after her grandfather’s death. She said her grandmother didn’t realize what a treasure the letters would be to both the family and to her as a historian.

“I have studied the context of what was happening in World War II and what was going on in Hawaii so much that I definitely bring the point of view of a historian,” Miyamoto Walters said. “But because these are my grandparents, I can’t help but get personally invested. It has given me great insight into who they were and why they became who they did.”

Clues to their personality run throughout the letters, dozens of which are transcribed in the book. At one point, the reader sees Naoko testing the waters with Yoshiharu, talking about how there are some people who you might like to go to a movie with and others who you might want to take on a picnic, but only a few with whom you always feel comfortable.

“(With those people), you don’t have to do anything in particular to have a good time” she writes. “You find people like that in dreams or storybooks mostly, they seldom run around loose because it is better for them to stay in dreams or storybooks. If you don’t agree, you can add your own opinions to that.”

Popular song lyrics and movie quotes dot the early letters, hiding deeper meaning that might have been considered too forward by the conventional mores of the day. The reader can see the letter writers perform a dance of sorts, giving over a little of him or herself as they grow steadier in their relationship.

The letters also contain clues about bumps in the road, including signs of Yoshiharu’s reluctance to continue the relationship with the chance that he might be drafted. As the war escalated in the Pacific and suspicion of Japanese-Americans grew in some quarters, the reader is also given glimpses of the tough position Naoko and Yoshiharu are put in as loyal Americans questioned only because of their ancestry.

“Neither my grandmother nor grandfather were interned, but many of the people that they knew were, basically because of their ethnic heritage,” Miyamoto Walters said.

The letters lay out incidents of racial prejudice and the hardships of living under martial law, including one instance where Naoko relates a story of her principal saying “the ‘japs’ are the most ‘treacherous things’” at which point she had to bite back a sharp reply.

At times like those, Miyamoto Walters said that her grandparents’ emotions jump off the page in the original letters, whether that emotion is love, frustration or trepidation.

“You see what is really going on in their lives, their attitudes, their feelings,” she said. “Sometimes you can see the handwriting getting messier and you can see the passion that is coming out.”

That is one of the benefits of primary documents like handwritten letters, Miyamoto Walters said. They are a physical link to the past.

Dr. Dallie Clark, a professor of humanities at Collin College, agrees.

“According to archival experts, millions of handwritten documents from past centuries have yet to be transcribed and analyzed,” Clark said. “Even for those of us who grew up practicing cursive writing, transcribing, for instance, a set of handwritten letters can be daunting and taxing, but the benefits of this type of research are priceless on both a personal and cultural level.”

Clark’s Lebrecht Chair Endowment project through the college, “The Letter as Art in the Digital Age,” explores the ways that letters like Miyamoto Walters’ can be both historically relevant and pieces of art. Clark said she hopes to use some of Miyamoto Walters’ book and letters in an exhibit and documentary now in development.

While the letters were just an everyday form of communication for Naoko and Yoshiharu, Clark said they are much more to those who read them now.

“For me, the very act of creating a handwritten letter potentially speaks of artistry and inner reflection, whether the missive is a simple thank you note or a long, passionate love letter,” Clark said.

Miyamoto Walters’ letters contain a mix of all kinds, from simple recitations of a day’s events and flirty passages of two people falling in love to pointed exchanges about the roles women and men should play in a marriage. The letters allow for a deeper look into Naoko and Yoshiharu specifically and people of that time in general.

For Miyamoto Walters, the chance to learn more about her grandparents through their own words, laid down in pen and ink by their own hands was a wonderful gift – one that she was glad to share with the world.