Jean Kurosaka Sano: War, Peace, and Friendship

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/16/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20467

The eventful life of Jean Kurosaka Sano, a Japanese American from Seattle who became a close friend of Joe and Ruth Caldbick soon after they moved to the city from rural Northern Ontario in 1929, is the subject of this People's History by the couple's son, HistoryLink historian John Caldbick. Jean married a Japanese diplomat, Masaru Sano, in January 1941, and she chose to return with him to Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack 11 months later. Through nearly four years of war, all contact with Jean and her husband was lost, their fate unknown as friends worried and her Seattle family languished in an Idaho internment camp. The devastation of Japanese cities by U.S. bombing and widespread starvation in the war's immediate aftermath made it difficult not to fear the worst. Then one day a stranger, an American airman who had been a prisoner of war in China, appeared at the Caldbick home with unexpected news.

The Visitor (1945)

On a blustery October day, about two months after Japan's surrender brought an end to World War II, there was a knock on the door of my parents' West Seattle home. When my father answered, a young man asked, "Mr. Caldbick?" My father said "Yes," and the stranger said, "I have a message for you from Colonel Sano."

After a moment's hesitation, my father opened the door wide and went to fetch my mother.

The Beginning (1930)

In August 1929 my parents, Joe and Ruth Caldbick, left Northern Ontario and moved to Seattle. My father was born in 1904, the son of the chief of police of Cobalt, in those days a bleak but rambunctious silver-mining town. My mother was born four years later at Kirkland Lake, about 25 miles farther north, the daughter of a Swedish-born hard-rock miner and his spouse, an occasional midwife.

Northern Ontario was difficult country, humid and bug-ridden in the summer, very cold in the winter, rapidly being stripped and scarred by the pulp-timber industry and mining operations. A saving grace was the abundance of pristine lakes, stream-fed, pure, full of fish. My father spent his teens in Haileybury on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, where his father had become sheriff after leaving Cobalt. In October 1922 the entire town was consumed by a forest fire. All but 11 residents were saved by fleeing to the frigid lake. Covered with wet blankets and cloths, more than 3,000 people watched for hours as their homes, offices, and belongings were reduced to ash. I don't really know why my parents chose to move west just months after they married in November 1928, but this sort of thing probably had something to do with it, and I am thankful they did.

Soon after arriving in Seattle, my mother found a job as a secretary for the Better Business Bureau, on the eighth floor of the Central Building at 810 3rd Avenue. The Japanese consulate's office was on the sixth floor, and Jean Kurosaka, a recent UW graduate fluent in Japanese, was hired as consular secretary there in late 1930. My mother and she would usually catch the same elevator in the morning, and they began to chat. They started lunching together and soon a very close friendship took hold that would endure through war and peace for more than half a century.

Jean Kurosaka

Jean's background was entirely different from that of my parents. Her birth name was Yasuko Kurosaka, Yasu to her family. She was American, a Seattle-born Nisei, city-raised and a graduate of the University of Washington. Jean's father, Kichijiro, born in Nagano, Japan, in 1885, came to Seattle in 1905. Within a year he had married Ren Kobayashi, also a Japanese immigrant, born in 1886. They had eight children -- six girls and two boys. Jean, the oldest, was born January 15, 1908.

Jean lived at home with her parents and siblings at 414 E Alder Street, and would until 1940. It was a traditional Japanese household; the children were obedient, respectful, and sheltered. Jean was blessed with intelligence and charisma, a good student, and in 1930 she was the only person of Japanese ancestry among the founders of UW's Japan Society. That summer she visited Japan for the first time, as a tourist.

Jean spent considerable time at my parents' basement apartment on Queen Anne Hill, a respite from her family's crowded home. My parents had taken easily to city life and its attractions and had an active social life. In an age when women rarely ventured out alone after dark, Jean accompanied them on frequent forays to downtown restaurants and clubs (and a few speakeasies), a social milieu she otherwise would not have experienced. But about some things she remained very naive, even into her late 20s; she cheerfully confessed years later that she'd once asked my mother if a woman could become pregnant from kissing.

Masaru Sano

The man who no doubt delivered that worrisome kiss was Masaru Sano, born in Wakayama, Japan, in 1894. His entire career had been in his country's foreign service, and in September 1931 he arrived in Seattle as Japan's vice-consul, his first posting in America.

Masa, as he was called by his friends, was charming and sociable, and with passable English skills he soon became the public face of the Seattle consulate. He was a charter member of the city's Bridle and Spur Riding Club, and his name appeared on occasion in Seattle newspapers' society columns. When he was transferred to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., in February 1937, bridle-club members gave him a farewell breakfast and a valentine with a lifetime membership enclosed. Jean was present, although recorded as "Jeanne Kurosaka" ("Entre Nous").

Masa returned to Seattle for a visit in January 1939 and was honored with a reception at the Killarney Farm Riding Club in Bellevue. I believe it was then that his and Jean's relationship became very serious. He returned to the embassy in D.C., but they kept up a correspondence, and in June 1940 Jean sailed again to Japan. As my parents knew, this was something more than a sight-seeing trip.

Jean and Masa were married in Japan in January 1941. When they returned to America the next month on the Yawata Maru, sailing from Yokohama, Jean was listed on the passenger manifest as Yasuko Sano. The newlyweds landed in Los Angeles on February 6, 1941, and traveled by rail to Houston, where Masa was to open a new consulate.

War (1941)

It took some time to get settled in Texas, and it was not until late 1941 that Jean and Masa started preparing for a gala opening reception at their rather grand residence in Houston. Crates of traditional foods shipped from Japan to cater the event had recently arrived, and Jean was busy with the final arrangements.

Then, on December 7, 1941, came Pearl Harbor.

I had always wondered about Jean's and Masa's experiences that day, how they learned of the attack, what they thought, how they felt. One morning in 1994, after not seeing her for several years, I met Jean for breakfast at the Olympic Hotel. She was on her way back to Houston after a trip to Europe, and she looked much as she always had -- serene, still beautiful, her face remarkably unlined for a woman in her mid-80s.

Both my parents had by then passed away. We reminisced about their long years of friendship and her memories of my childhood, and then we touched briefly on the war years. At one point I asked whether Masa, a fairly high-ranking diplomat, had any advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It could have been a sensitive subject, but Jean was not at all taken aback:

"Oh John, I must tell you. I'm Catholic, you know, and our driver brought me home from noon Mass that Sunday, and when we pulled into the driveway our black maid was waiting out front, very, very upset. I got out of the car and she said, 'Missus, you better go upstairs quick. There's something really, really bad going on over in Hawaii.'
"So I went into the house and ran up to the study on the second floor, and there was Masa, bent over our radio. He was smiling when I walked in, and he looked up and said, 'Jean, come listen. It's that Orson Welles fellow again.'"

Three years earlier Welles's infamous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds had triggered mild panic when a surprising number of credulous listeners were convinced that mechanical monsters from Mars were invading Earth. Masa simply could not at first comprehend that Japan had launched a sneak attack against America; he believed, or perhaps desperately wanted to believe, that it was just "that Orson Welles fellow again."

After listening to the radio for a bit longer, they knew with dreadful certainty that it wasn't. Within the hour, two carloads of FBI agents arrived. They were reasonably polite, but firm. The Sanos' communications were restricted. If they had to leave the consular residence for any reason they would be escorted. Given the ugly public mood, this was probably more for their protection than anything else.

Terrible Times, Horrible Choices

What was a traumatic day for all Americans was particularly fraught for those of Japanese descent. For Jean and Masa, married less than a year, it was shattering. How could they decide what they should do, where they should go, whether they should even stay together? Jean was a native-born, patriotic American. Most of her family still lived in Seattle. She was a product of the American educational system, a devout Catholic, and she surely found Japan's class-ridden society unappealing, its militarism frightening. I am quite certain that she would not have married Masa had she known Japan would soon be at war with her country. I am just as certain that he would not have asked had he believed such a thing would happen.

Jean's choices were few, and bad. If she went with Masa back to Japan, she might never see her family again. If she stayed and he went, she might never again see the man she loved. Masa's dilemma was even more hellish. He had served in Japan's diplomatic corps all his working life, and had spent most of the 1930s in America. He was a refined and gentle man, and he had watched with dismay Japan's long descent into fascism and wars of conquest. He was appalled by the Pearl Harbor attack, but if he chose to stay in this country (assuming the U.S. government would allow it), it would be an act of treason against the nation he represented and would bring terrible shame to his family in Japan. If he returned, he knew he would be put to war against a country in which he had always felt welcome. And what of his wife of less than one year?

No matter what they chose, there would be pain. But the decision was made. Love and duty prevailed -- they would remain together, and they would return to Japan. Jean asked a young FBI agent if the crates of food imported for the reception could be sent to her family in Seattle. He said that he would try to see to it, and she later learned that he had succeeded, a small kindness in a time such gestures were rare.

About a month later, Jean made a final phone call to her family, then left for an uncertain future in Japan, where she, an American, might be viewed with considerable suspicion. Her parents, and her siblings who still lived on the West Coast, were taken to the internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho, in March 1942, about the same time that Jean and Masa reached Japan after a roundabout journey that took them from Houston to Virginia to Spain (a neutral country), and finally by ship to Japan. Their treatment while in transit drew protest from the Japanese government, communicating through Switzerland:

"[W]hen Japanese Vice Consul, Mr. Masaru Sano, stationed in Houston, Texas, and his wife were leaving that city on January 10, 1942, the American officials in charge at the time had taken away five cases of Mr. Sano's personal belongings on the ground that those cases were wooden boxes ... Mr. and Mrs. Sano finally succeeded in obtaining those boxes after negotiations made through the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D. C, and they were requested to pay the amount of 50 dollars for the transportation. The boxes arrived but every one of them was opened and inspected, and moreover, several articles contained in the boxes were missing. This action on the part of the American officials clearly constitutes a violation of the agreement" ("Foreign Relations of the United States: ...").

Once Masa and Jean left America, they may as well have been on the moon. In this age of the Internet and smartphones, it is difficult to comprehend how easily and completely people could be absolutely cut off from one another in the mid-twentieth century. The Sanos simply disappeared into the Land of the Rising Sun, and throughout the war not a word would be heard from them or of them.

The War Years

My father did not serve in the military, and he and my mother prospered during the war from a number of reweaving shops called "PhantoMend Invisible Mending," a business they had started in the late 1930s. When war came, both silk and nylon were restricted to military uses, and much of their trade was repairing runs in women's stockings using a special needle. It was an odd little apparatus, flat, not round, with a hook and a tiny hinged leaf at the business end. I never understood exactly how it worked, but in the right hands it could also repair burns and tears and make the patches virtually invisible by weaving in a piece of fabric taken from a place on the garment that could not be seen. I believe at the peak (after the war) they had 26 of these shops in the U.S and Canada, one as far away as Chicago, and employed about 100 women. Those special needles would later play a small role in Jean's story.

In late 1942 my parents were anticipating the birth of my sister, Patty, and bought their first house, in West Seattle. They were able to stay in sporadic contact with the interned Kurosaka family, but no one knew anything of Jean and Masa's fate.

Life went on. My sister was born in March 1943. The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Much of urban Japan had been laid waste by Allied bombing, and on August 6 at Hiroshima and three days later at Nagasaki, atomic bombs finally forced its surrender, on August 14. My parents waited anxiously for any word of their friend, but daily news reports of devastation and starvation in Japan made it difficult not to fear the worst. And then came the knock on the door.

The Prisoner

When the stranger told my father "I have a message for you from Colonel Sano," it did not immediately register. My parents had only met Masa once or twice after he began openly courting Jean in the late 1930s, and they of course had no idea that this gentle man had become a Japanese military officer. But within seconds my father put the pieces together. Introductions were made, coffee (or perhaps a drink) was served. Years later, my parents could still clearly recall the conversation. The young man began:

"Well, I was a Seattle fireman, and after Pearl Harbor I enlisted and I was in the Army Air Corps, flying in and out of China. Our plane got shot down and I was captured by the Japanese. After that I was a prisoner of war and I eventually ended up in a camp where Colonel Sano was the commandant.
"When Japan surrendered we had no place else to go right away. We weren't under guard any more, and we were sort of the guards now instead of prisoners, and this went on for several days until some friendly troops arrived. Colonel Sano had learned that I was from Seattle, and he spoke English, so he asked to see me just before he was taken away. He asked me to do him a favor when I got back home. He wanted me to look you up in the phone book, and to let you know that he and his wife had survived the war, but that he didn't know what would happen next. I didn't think a phone call was enough, so I came here to tell you in person. If you know how to get hold of his wife's family, he would like you to do that."

My parents were elated to hear that their friend and her husband had survived, but they had read enough to know that some of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and their commandants, had been criminally brutal. A few weeks earlier, on September 1, 1945, The Seattle Times ran a story under the headline "Tales of Horror from Jap Camps." A mood of righteous revenge was in the air. The first trials of German war criminals were just a month away in Nuremberg, and many thought the Japanese were even more deserving of harsh retribution.

With some trepidation, my father asked Masa's former prisoner what he thought had happened, or would happen, to "Colonel Sano." The man paused before answering.

"A lot of those camps were just awful, awful places, and they're going to hang a lot of those bastards. I don't know where he is now. But I can tell you this -- they are not going to hang Colonel Sano. Some of us in that camp would not have survived without him. We were fed as well as was possible. When we were sick, we got what medical care was possible. We weren't worked to death, we weren't beaten, we could have religious services. He didn't allow any mistreatment, none. I think he knew for a long time that Japan was going to lose the war, and he didn't pretend otherwise. He was just a very kind man in a really bad position.
"After we were liberated, we all had to give statements about our experiences. I don't think they will even try to put him on trial -- they have to know that every one of us will end up testifying for him and not against him."

It was an emotional moment. Knowing now that Jean was safe, my parents could only wait to hear from her directly. That would take many months.

1945-1952

The Kurosaka family had returned from internment, and my parents contacted them immediately. Their home on E Alder had been used as housing for a U.S. Army officer. He had maintained it well, inside and out, and the property taxes had been paid. The family members were able to recover their old lives pretty much intact, unlike thousands of other internees who lost much.

His former prisoner was right -- Masa was never charged with any crimes and was soon released from custody. He resumed working in Japan's foreign ministry, but could not leave the country until diplomatic relations were restored in 1952, one year after a formal peace treaty was signed. Jean elected to stay in Japan with him. My mother saved several letters from her in the years after the war. She and Masa were safe, but she told of rather desperate times. She thanked them for sending packages with such things as chocolate and dried fruit, and one letter thanked my mother for a few of the special reweaving needles and instructions on using them (I believe Jean had learned the basics from my mother before she left Seattle in 1940). She was able to earn a little money with them right after the war ended, mostly mending for occupying forces. She was a resilient woman; her linguistic skills soon brought some work as an interpreter, and by the early 1950s she had landed a good job in the Osaka office of a major American cotton exporter.

War Stories

When diplomatic relations were resumed in 1952, Masa was again appointed vice-consul in Houston. Eleven years after their lives were turned upside-down, the couple were headed back to where they started. Once settled in Texas, Jean and Masa came to Seattle on several occasions to visit family and friends, and I saw them fairly often in the 1960s and early 1970s. Neither wanted to dwell on their experiences during the war, but what little they did reveal was quite awful.

Jean had lived in a small town by a river, someplace they thought was unlikely to be bombed. She told my parents that late in the war bloated corpses would float by, people killed in larger cities farther upriver where no one had the energy to bury the dead. Hunger and starvation were rampant, and from the same river Jean could occasionally salvage floating melons and vegetables. Of his time in China, Masa volunteered little, and no one asked. It was enough to know that he had acted honorably and had won the respect and support of American servicemen over whom he, through no choice of his own, had the power of life and death.

A Happy Ending

Jean and Masa lived in Houston after Masa's retirement from the diplomatic corps, and she stayed there after his death in 1979. She had not worked for most of their married life and got by on a small Social Security benefit and a minimal survivor's pension from the Japanese government. She longed to travel to Europe and, rather strangely given her wartime experiences, wanted to see Germany most of all.

While she was trying to save enough to make such a trip, Jean decided to learn a little German. She ran an ad in a Houston paper offering Japanese lessons in return for German lessons. She was soon contacted by a young man who was preparing to eventually take over his father's business as a dealer in Japanese antiquities. His parents were originally from Germany, he spoke the language quite well, and he thought some conversational Japanese would be useful in the trade. He started coming to Jean's apartment once or twice a week to exchange lessons.

Jean had a few old Japanese decorative items, mostly figurines and prints that Masa had inherited. Knowing that she was saving for a trip to Germany, the young man suggested that he bring his father by to give her some idea of their worth. A week or two later he showed up with his father in tow. The older man looked at what Jean had, but told her that, while not without value, there was nothing extraordinary. He asked if she had anything else.

Jean recalled that buried in her storage locker in the building's basement was an old Japanese three-part screen that just didn't seem to fit anywhere in the apartment. She hadn't even looked at in years. They went down, and when Jean pulled off the blanket that covered it, the antique dealer's mouth dropped open. It was very rare, and very, very valuable. I forget precisely what she was able to sell it for, but recall that it was in the low six figures, more than enough to eliminate her money worries and enable her to spend some of her last years traveling in comfort to wherever she chose. Few could have deserved such good fortune more than she.

When we met at the Olympic Hotel that morning in 1994, Jean was on her way home from what would be her last trip abroad. She returned to Houston, where after a long and eventful life, Jean Kurosaka Sano passed quietly away on November 13, 1996, age 88.


Sources:

"Entre Nous," The Seattle Times, February 15, 1937, p. 11; "Listening Around the Town," Ibid., January 13, 1939, p. 11; Morrie Landsberg, "Tales of Horror from Jap Camps," Ibid., September 1, 1945, p. 4; "Kichijiro Kurosaka," (obituary), Ibid., March 6, 1964, p. 50; "Japan Society," Tyee, University of Washington yearbook, 1930, p. 397; "The Japanese Foreign Office to the Swiss Legation in Japan, April 24, 1944," Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1944, The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, The Far East, Vol. 5, United States Secretary of State Office of the Historian website accessed September 15, 2017 (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1944v05/d996); Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at San Pedro/Wilmington/Los Angeles, California, February 6, 1941, SS Yawata Maru, The National Archives, Washington, D.C., NAI Number: 4486355, Record Group: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004, Record Group Number: 8, NARA Roll Number: 107.


Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You