Hidden Histories

Object Story Prompt –
Kobu as an intergenerational communication device

By Tom Izu

Month 00, 0000

Nakagawa kobu, c 1943, polished ironwood root, courtesy of Tom Izu, photo: David Izu.
(Photo and credit from “50 Objects” website)

The Kobu Connection

A Story-Object Prompt from San Jose Japantown
This is a kobu or polished, found piece of ironwood root created by my Grandfather Nakagawa (my Mom’s father). He created this piece while in the deserts of Arizona, incarcerated in the Poston Concentration Camp. Perhaps he made it as part of a class that practiced the art of making kobu. I don’t really know any of the details. As a child I assume my Mom must have told me that it belonged to my Grandfather and that she had kept it after he passed away so she would remember him. I recall feeling how smooth it was and wondering where my Grandfather found such a strange piece of driftwood (not understanding that it was an art piece he had made). I could see all sorts of things in it: faces, serpents, a river. I tried to remember something about my Grandpa, to help me understand it, but there wasn’t much stored away in my mind that I could find.
All I could recall about Grandpa Nakagawa based upon visits to my Grandparent’s house in San Jose Japantown during family gatherings, was that he always wore a pair of worn-out slippers and a worn-out cardigan sweater while he sat in his worn-out reclining chair, with himself looking pretty worn-out. He never talked except to grunt or say something unintelligible to my Mom, Dad, Aunts, and Uncles. Also, he had a sort of funny, crooked smile on his face most of the time. He seemed to ignore everything that was going on around him. As a child I just thought that maybe that is what old people were supposed to be like, especially the grandfathers. As I got a little bit older, I reasoned that it must be completely normal for grandkids not to be able to talk to their own grandparents. Only my Grandma would say anything to us, speaking in Japanese, and in a high pitch voice that reminded me of a happy, chortling, song bird.
“Yakamashi desu ne! Kawai soo!”
“Grandma says you and your cousins are sure cute but very, very noisy,” my Mom would translate after we went running around my Grandparent’s house like fools making her and my Aunties alternately laugh and then shout at us to slow down before we break something of Grandma’s or give ourselves a concussion. In the meantime, Grandpa would just continue to sit there with that funny, empty look on his face, not responding to our happy ruckus.
After Grandpa passed away, and later followed by my Grandma, my Mom’s brothers and sisters clean-up and sold the old house in Japantown. We would never again have that place to visit and see my Grandparents. It became an empty place I would now and then pass while driving into Japantown. I was left with many questions and would now and then wonder, especially about my Grandpa who never spoke to me ever. Who was he?
I wish I could tell you that suddenly, in a flash, I remembered the one time my Grandpa unexpectedly opened up to me right when I really needed it, and a heart-warming scene unfolded with Grandpa Nakagawa sitting me upon his lap and telling me a story about life, perseverance, and how learning to make kobu taught him how to find meaning and wonder even in the worst of places and times, and so could I! But, no, this never happened. Over time, the kobu piece just blended into the backdrop of our family living room, and I didn’t think much about it until many years later, and after I had learned something about the Camps.
When both of my parents passed away within a few months of each other my brothers and I had to clean out the family home. We divided things up and selected items that had special meaning to each of us. I chose two kobu pieces of my Grandfather’s, with the one pictured here being the most elaborate of them. I was attracted to them since they looked so unusual, and I knew that because they were made in Poston, that they had a deep significance for my family, even if I didn’t know the full story about how and why Grandpa made them.
My oldest brother, Dave (who had been sentient for a longer period of time than me and had had a chance to interact or at least observe Grandpa more critically) told me that there had been something wrong with Grandpa – not necessarily physically, but emotionally. He told me he knew that Grandpa Nakagawa could speak English; he just didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with the grandkids for some reason. He thought perhaps he was suffering from some form of depression. Dave relayed an experience he had while a college student and during a summer job conducting surveys for the county. One day, his assignment placed him in Japantown and he looked forward to a surprise visit to see our Grandparents. Grandpa answered the door and after a Dave happily greeted him and explained what he was doing, Grandpa just looked at him for a while and then told him in English that Grandma wasn’t home and he should go away. He then closed the door in my brother’s face. I imagine Dave having to check the box on the form that said “resident refused to respond.”
Why was Grandpa like this and why wouldn’t my Mom and Dad, my Aunties and Uncles tell us anything about him? Didn’t they think it was strange for him to be so silent and unresponsive to his own grandkids? And wouldn’t they want to help us understand why he was like this, if only to make excuses for him out of embarrassment? As I got older, I begin to wonder if they just accepted that it was normal for grandfathers to be silent around their grandkids. And perhaps they didn’t have any other experiences or role models to compare it to except idiotic TV shows about prefect, happy white families who didn’t get put into concentrations camps and lose the farm? Or perhaps they had a touch of the same emotional distress that was stoppering up Grandpa?
Years later when I became an adult, I learned that Grandpa had been a relatively successful “truck farmer,” who grew produce to sell from a plot of land he rented. Nisei I met who had grown up in the same area of Berryessa my Mom’s family lived, knew of my Grandpa and his work as a farmer. However, as I was told, he was not a citizen and restricted from ever becoming one because he was not white, and couldn’t own the land he worked so hard. He, at least had made enough to feed his family and care of their most basic needs and to be seen as a good provider. But with the advent of World War II and Executive Order 9066, he lost this small amount of success and ended up with almost nothing, his family living in a barrack in a desert concentration camp for several years. Although I will never know for sure, perhaps he had been broken by this experience and this explains why he acted the way he did back in my childhood days.
I try to imagine Grandpa now as I look at his kobu, patiently and gently polishing the pieces of ironwood for many hours, and I wonder about what he saw in them as he worked. I also wonder what made him select the specific gnarled looking roots he chose in the first place? What feelings did he have when he touched the kobu as he neared their completion? Did he recall something from his own past, or even imagine something about his family’s future? Did he find solace and peace in his work, or was it just a way to take his mind off of the sadness and profound disconnection he may have felt? Or could he have been just trying to make a nice doorstop for his barrack room door, or possibly a place to dump things from his pockets (there is a mysterious, round hole that suspiciously looks like a miniature, modern day cup holder cut into it, but obscured by the curved and twisted roots above it)?
Though I will never know the answers to these questions, I do know that I chose to keep the kobu because they help me imagine what Grandpa may have been like before he shut down. By holding on to this piece of polished root, I am, in a way, whimsically creating an imaginary extended family, complete with a talkative and reflective Grandpa I can relate to. Keeping them is a way for me to communicate between generations, by touch, when there are no words or even clear memories I can rely upon, and when the connections they represent have been so terribly severed.
Another story involving objects connected to stories is one about the pottery my parents made in the latter years of their lives that all of their sons have and use each day and at special family gatherings: they are also a sort of intergenerational communication device all of us cherish. I do not know what sort of objects I can leave my sons that will be meaningful to them in the same way. But then again, I think the point is that they need to find and choose them on their own. Perhaps this is just a way of rationalizing why I don’t have to feel bad if I can’t do the Marie Kondo thing very well and most likely will leave a cluttered past for them to sort through.