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Marika "Mollie" Sumida

Published on Thursday, May 25, 2017

Marika "Mollie" Sumida

A Story of Determination

On April 15th, 1945, Marika “Mollie” Sumida was heartbroken when she read an appalling advertisement in the Monterey Herald, entitled “Organization to Discourage Return of Japanese to the Pacific Coast.” It was an appeal for fund and membership by the Incorporation of Monterey Bay Council on Japanese Relations, whose purpose was to discourage the relocated Japanese Americans from returning to the Pacific Coast and to “educate” the public about the “Japanese problems in California.” On the page beside it, a “Prayer for Peace” of the San Francisco Peace Conference was ironically printed side by side with the advertisement.

Three years before, Sumida, an American woman of Japanese ancestry, was forced to leave her home in Monterey. A month later, she arrived at Poston Relocation Center, a place that would be defined by intolerable heat, venomous creatures, and unbearable humiliation.

During the war, her husband, Yukio Sumida, was recruited to the army and was sent to Europe along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans eager to prove their loyalty. Some other Japanese Americans, indignant at being treated unconstitutionally, appealed to the Supreme Court. Many of the attempts were fruitless. However, a great victory came on December 18th, 1944, when the Supreme Court finally ruled the incarceration of loyal Japanese Americans unconstitutional in the Ex parte Endo case. As the government announced the closing of the relocation centers, Sumida thought she could finally return to her home with her family.

Yet, when she received her issue of the Herald on a Monday, she was disheartened to see an unwelcoming gesture from some people in her old community. Where would she go if her own town does not want her people back?

A week later, she wrote back to the Herald with a short but determined reply:

I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry and formerly a resident of Monterey… My husband is fighting in Italy now, along with hundreds of other Nisei soldiers, fighting for what he believes is right – the AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE. Someday, when the war is over, we hope to return to Monterey with our little son…*

Her sentiment was echoed in Monterey. Within the next few months, the letterbox of the Herald was bombarded with responses from Monterey residents. The two headlines on the April 15th issue of the Herald represented the choices that confronted the people of Monterey: to discourage the returning of the Japanese or to pray for the peace.

“Destroy Togo and Tojo with my blessing, but I protest with every ounce of decency in me, the advertisement you ran for the ‘Monterey Bay Council on Japanese Relations, Inc.’” wrote Edward Weston, an artist or a photographer of the Monterey bay area, on April 25th, 1945. “The rooting out of disloyal Japanese is the work of our very efficient FBI, not that of a vigilante group.”

On the same day, eight residents of Monterey co-wrote a letter, attacking the contentious advertisement.

The eyes of the world are turned in desperate hope on San Francisco, The question is: Can justice, tolerance, and cooperation among all the peoples of the world triumph over the claims of individual, nationalistic selfishness? … Therefore every one of us must choose whether he will give his support to the forces of bigotry, prejudice, and selfishness or to those of tolerance, justice, and the largest good. We cannot say one thing and do another. Shall we sow hatred or love?

Others, however, possessed a startling different viewpoint. On April 28, 1945, a resident of Monterey wrote to the editor of the Herald, “I am positive that there are no loyal Japanese, in uniform or out. How can intelligent people ignore such historical treachery as was perpetrated against the Russians just before the Japanese attack on Russia in 1905, the success of which was assured by just such subterfuge as they have been practicing against us for 25 years or more?” According to the editor of the Herald, the letter represented others who held such an extreme attitude against the Japanese.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Monterey took a more open-minded view of the matter. In early May 1945, a mysterious petition was circulated among more than 440 residents of Monterey, calling to “secure the democratic way of life” for those of Japanese ancestry who would be returning to their home on the Monterey Peninsula in the months ahead. The signatures gathered in the petition were again printed on a full-page advertisement in the Herald, under the title “The Democratic Way of Life for All.”   

Regardless of the heated debate at home, the Poston Relocation Center was closed at the end of 1945. In 1948, with her veteran husband and her little son, Mariko Sumida set foot in her hometown for the first time in six years. Shortly thereafter, her family established Cypress Garden Nursery, which remained as a Monterey landmark at 590 Perry Lane.

After returning to their home, the Japanese American community made no attempt to publicize their experience in the relocation camps. According to Larry Oda, former president of the Japanese Americans Citizens League, there was a lot of shame among the Japanese Americans.  “Basically we were put in prison,” Oda expressed.” And we were put in prison for no reason other than we were Japanese ... That's why a lot of parents didn't talk about it to their kids."

Nevertheless, a strange turn of history occurred in the ‘60s, when the Civil Rights Movement reached its peak. Emboldened, a younger generation of Japanese Americans launched the Redress Movement, demanding restitutions for each detainee, a formal apology letter signed by the president, and an educational trust fund. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberty Act, recognizing the injustice that the government had done to the Japanese.

Mariko Sumida died in 2012 and her husband, Yukio Sumida, passed away in the spring of 2015. In an obituary published by the Monterey Herald, Yukio was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, numerous Purple Hearts, and other military decorations. The obituary writes, “Yukio was a man of quiet intensity, industry, patriotism, and loyalty. He leaves a legacy of hard work, commitment to family, and service to country and community.”


*Hester Schoeninger, a member of the Council for Inter-Racial Relations which supported and welcomed the return of the Monterey Regions’ Japanese, put Mariko Sumida’s poignant letter in her Scrapbook of Inter-Racial Affairs,  where it is preserved for posterity in the archives of the Library’s California History Room.

Public Domain Image taken at Poston Relocation Camp, depicts interred Japanese-Americans stuffing their own mattresses with straw.

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