Times Past

Sense of history helps us confront today’s brutal attacks

The Shibata family and friends are seen in front of the gardens and bridge at Mt. Eden Nursery near Hayward in 1941.
The Shibata family and friends are seen in front of the gardens and bridge at Mt. Eden Nursery near Hayward in 1941. Courtesy photo

“How do you teach children about ISIS?”

Kris Vander Weele, a teacher’s aide for Stephen Kuhn’s sixth-grade class at Hawthorne Elementary School, asked a difficult question. The brutal, complex and sophisticated attack on a Parisian theater audience and café diners, like the events of September 2001, forced us to confront life in the 21st century: There are no safe zones.

A sense of history helps all of us, most especially children, to accept this discomforting reality. I often remind students that even in dark moments of the past, some people have been able to deal with events with a degree of heroism.

Last week, I wrote of my friend Patrick Nagano and how he confronted a “Catch 22” situation in early 1942. The head of the Western Defense Command, Gen. John L. DeWitt, had issued orders beginning the relocation of Japanese-Americans from the coastal zone.

Nagano needed to travel from his family’s ranch near Morro Bay into San Luis Obispo to finalize arrangements before joining his family in the San Joaquin Valley. DeWitt’s orders stipulated that he would have to get a permit to travel more than five miles from his home. The permits were only available in Santa Maria. Nagano was arrested in San Luis Obispo and told that his bail would be $1,000, a small fortune in agricultural San Luis Obispo, still recovering from the Great Depression.

Nagano recalled that he and his Stanford roommates in 1940 had agreed that Japan would never make war on the United States. But the impossible had happened and he had to deal with a new world of difficulties.

All the doors were being slammed shut on the Nisei as well as their Japanese-born Issei parents.

I lost another friend two weeks ago. Oakland native Shimi Shibata died just after his 100th birthday.

Like Patrick Nagano, in early 1942 Shibata didn’t know where to turn. And like his future brother-in-law, the late Masajii Eto of Los Osos, Shibata had to take charge and take steps to save the family business.

Shimi Shibata was the eldest son of Zenjuro Shibata, who, despite the Depression, had built up his East Bay flower-raising operation into several large greenhouses. The business was incredibly time-sensitive. Growing and shipping supplies were urgently needed. Flowers had to reach the wholesale store in very fresh condition, and they needed to have frequent contact with all of their wholesalers.

The Southern California market had grown far larger than the Shibatas’ original San Francisco sales area. A number of floral growers had come together and chartered a weekly truck to transport their flowers to the Los Angeles market. Shimi Shibata needed to go to Los Angeles to check up on the new wholesaler. But, again like Nagano, Shibata was prohibited from traveling more than five miles from his residence.

He had a Chinese-American friend who lent him a badge that proclaimed, “I am Chinese.” So despite his fear of being arrested, Shibata took the train to Los Angeles. A Chinese man sat down next to him and began speaking in a Chinese dialect. All he could utter was “bathroom” in English and quickly moved to another car. He recalls that “I went from bathroom to bathroom all the way to Los Angeles.”

When they arrived at Union Station, Shibata saw soldiers with machine guns guarding the gates and checking on everyone coming onto or leaving the train. Despite a sinking feeling in his stomach, he walked right up to one of the soldiers and asked where the flower market was. The soldier replied, “Go that way seven blocks.” Shibata thanked him and left the station.

He soon found his wholesaler, selling flowers from the sidewalk. The Japanese Wholesale Flower Market had been shut down because the owners were not U.S. citizens. Within a few days, the market was reopened by American-born Nisei, but it was closed again shortly thereafter.

Shibata was left with a world of ambiguities that required adapting to new rules while retaining your own principles.