Peninsula Daily News: JENNIFER JACKSON'S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN
TWO YEARS AGO, Pamela Roberts, then Jefferson County 4-H director, got a call from Janette Force, director of the Port Townsend Film Festival, inviting her to a movie.
“The Cats of Mirikitani” was being shown at the Quilcene Community Center, with director Linda Hattendorf speaking about the documentary's subject, artist Jimmy Mirikitani.
Also invited to speak was Ray Kawamoto, whose family had farmed in the Quilcene area for almost a century.
Last Tuesday, Roberts, now interim WSU Extension director, was back at the Quilcene Community Center to present the premiere of “The Kawamotos of Lake Leland,” a documentary she was inspired to make after meeting Ray two years ago.
For Tuesday's premiere, 150 people — friends, family, neighbors and former classmates — turned up to honor the man whose family put down roots in Quilcene that were never torn up, even by war.
“It's not about the internment,” Roberts explained before the showing. “It's about a pioneer Japanese-American family.”
But what happened before Ray was born is well-known among the local families: how the Kawamotos' neighbors, Jack and Fern Dyke, volunteered to look after the family farm when Ray's parents, Joe and Shigeko Kawamoto, and his grandparents, Kaichi and Itsuno Kawamoto, were interned at the start of World War II.
Returned to family
The Dykes lived on the farm, paid the taxes, and when the Kawamoto family returned, they returned the farm to them.
“We couldn't have found any better people to turn the property over to,” Ray said in an interview that provided the narrative thread of the film.
The Kawamotos were sent to Tule Lake in California, where they lived for six months, Ray said.
Then a family in Northern Idaho offered them a home on their farm.
The Kawamotos had their own house, Ray said, and the sons of the owners, the Deans, went to Quilcene and brought back the family cars so the Kawamotos had transportation for weekend outings. They lived on the Dean farm for more than two years.
“It was lucky and fortunate for them,” Ray said in the film. “Life at the internment camp wasn't so good.”
Also interned were Ray's uncle and aunt, Phil and Alice Okano, Joe Kawamoto's youngest sister, who lived in Shelton.
Their daughter, Pamela Okano, who lives in the Seattle area, attended last Tuesday's premiere and spoke on the connection she discovered between her parents and Jimmy Mirikitani.
Going through family documents, Okano said, she had once came across an affidavit, dated Dec. 12, 1941, and signed by her father, who had a dry-cleaning business.
On it, he swears that he, his wife and their three employees — his brother, his sister and an unrelated person — were natural-born American citizens. The name of the third person was Tsutomu Mirikitani.
The name meant nothing to Okano at the time, she said. Later, she saw “The Cats of Mirikitani,” and liking the artist's work bought one of the cat paintings.
But it wasn't until a few months ago, when she came across the affidavit again while sorting photographs for a family reunion, that Okano wondered if the dry-cleaning employee and the artist were the same person.
From the documentary, she knew he had once lived in the Seattle area. From the Internet, she discovered his first name was Tsutomu.
Exchange of details
An exchange of information and photographs between her family and Mirikitani in New York, facilitated by Hattendorf, confirmed it.
“When he saw the photographs, he remembered working with my dad and my aunt,” Okano said.
Other family members at the premier were Ray's spouse, Margie Kawamoto; their son, Tony; daughter Heather; and granddaughter Kayleigh, 8.
Kayleigh's favorite part of the documentary: “When Papa was laughing,” she said, referring to her grandfather, whose positive outlook shines through every frame.
Hector Munn, whose family also settled at Lake Leland, said the Munns and the Kawamotos had been friends for more than 100 years.
It was his grandfather who offered Ray's grandfather, who was living in Vancouver, B.C., a job running in the milk-skimming station at Lake Leland, Munn said.
When Kaichi Kawamoto bought the property to start the farm, son Joe had to sign the deed because he was born in America, Ray said.
Ray, an only child, recalled his father taking him around the community, where he was identified by his father's name.
“For years, I thought my name was ‘Joe's boy,'” Ray said.
The Quilcene Historic Museum is planning an exhibit about the Kawamoto family next year, according to Larry McKeehan, a board officer.
The exhibit will include the jigsaw puzzle that Milton Bradley made from a photo of the farm.
McKeehan and Kathleen Kleer brought cultural items to display at the premiere.
Christine Sydneysmith demonstrated the art of sumi-e painting with charcoal ink on rice paper and plans to offer classes at the Quilcene Community Center this fall.
The film premiere was the Quilcene community's “Ninth Night” program for August and included a potluck with a Japanese theme, which Ray, whose mother was an excellent cook, found humorous.
“I even ate some of it,” Ray said. “It was really pretty good.”
The internment of American citizens of Japanese descent living on the West Coast during World War II is a chapter of history that many people would rather forget.
But it's one Ray Kawamoto said should always stay on the pages.
He told his family's story, he said at the premiere, in the hopes that it might open someone's eyes.
“We need to appreciate what we have and to realize that some things are worth fighting for,” Ray said.
“It's a reminder of what can happen in your own country.”
For information about the documentary “The Kawamotos of Lake Leland,” email Pamela Roberts at email@example.com.
For information about “The Cats of Mirikitani,” contact Janette Force on www.ptfilmfest.com.
Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.