Books

Book review: A true tale of a Japanese-American family caught in the cross hairs of war

It’s been more than 70 years since the atomic bomb was dropped over the Japanese city of Hiroshima during the final days of World War II. Yet stories such as the one recounted in a new book by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto remind us how much history still has to teach us, and why personal accounts remain so powerful.

In “Midnight in Broad Daylight” Sakamoto delivers a moving and well-researched narrative of a Japanese-American family caught in the cross hairs of war. It also is a story of racial prejudice, internment camps and the horrors of Hiroshima, as well as a testament to the resiliency and patriotism of Japanese American citizens.

In the early 1930s, the Fukuhara family, including Japanese immigrants Katsuji and Kinu and their five American-born children, were living in Auburn, Wash., a peaceful community in the Seattle area. But when Katsuji Fukuhara died following an illness, his cash-strapped widow had little choice but to return to Hiroshima, Japan, with her children. Two of the Fukuhara children, Harry and Mary, returned to the United States after finishing high school, while the rest of the family remained in Japan amid growing anti-American sentiment.

Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and everyone’s lives were irrevocably changed.

Harry, Mary and Mary’s daughter were among the thousands of Japanese-Americans evacuated to internment camps. They ended up in crudely constructed barracks in a settlement in Gila River, Ariz. Two of Harry’s brothers were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, and Harry enlisted in the U.S. Army as a linguist. At one point, it appeared that Harry’s division would invade the Japanese island where his brothers were stationed. But the planned attack was pre-empted when the world’s first deployed atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Sakamoto tells her powerful story from the perspective of family members living in America and in Japan, an approach that offers readers insights into how events played out on a personal level on both sides of the Pacific. For example, Harry’s mother, Kinu, is in her home on the outskirts of Hiroshima when a “bright flash” illuminates the sky. As doors and windows explode, she dashes for cover in the kitchen. Harry’s older brother, Victor, is working in a factory a mile from ground zero; the factory walls implode and a black rain that is a mix of dust, vapor and radioactive soot begins to fall. Meanwhile, Harry, who was serving in the U.S. Army in the Philippines, is assigned to explain to Japanese prisoners of war that a bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima — even though he has a very limited understanding of this new kind of weapon.

Sakamoto, who is fluent in English and Japanese, came upon this story by what she describes as “serendipity” after a chance encounter with Harry Fukuhara in 1994. She spent about 17 years working on the book, conducting dozens of interviews and doing extensive research in America and Japan. Those who pick up her book will likely agree Sakamoto’s time and effort were well spent. “Midnight in Broad Daylight” is both a compelling human interest story and a valuable contribution to World War II literature.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Sakamoto airs in March. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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