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Pamela Rotner Sakamoto Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
Photo: Nathan Tibbetts

Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

An interview with Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

A Q & A with Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, author of Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds

Could you describe your book?

Midnight in Broad Daylight is a true account of a Japanese American family with brothers in opposing armies, slated to be on the same island when the atomic bomb is dropped over Hiroshima, hastening an end to the war. Their mother and brother are in Hiroshima. It is a story of war and internment, prejudice and discrimination in two countries, loss and reconciliation, and unwavering love across cultures.

How did you discover this story?

By chance. In 1994, I had recently moved to Tokyo and was working on my dissertation about a Japanese diplomat who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Several survivors were visiting Japan for the first time in fifty years. I received a press release and joined them as an observer. Harry Fukuhara, who would become the protagonist in my book, was accompanying them as a favor to a friend. He was bilingual, politically connecte"d, and immensely dignified, but I did not know him beyond an introduction. When I remarked to a young filmmaker that the Holocaust survivor stories were remarkable, she replied, "If you think their stories are incredible, you should talk to Harry." Over the course of four years, Harry shared his story. At that point, I broached a possible book. Harry promptly introduced me to his surviving brothers. 

Why were you drawn to this story?

When I finished my dissertation and an academic book, I realized that while I was proud of my research, the heart of the story – people's emotions – had not been fully developed. If I ever wrote another book, I wanted to interview my subjects and capture their reactions to cataclysmic events, rather than simply rely on written primary sources.
Harry was an esteemed retired colonel in the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Service who had been decorated by the Japanese government for his contribution to U.S.-Japan relations. He was at a point where he wanted to take stock of his life. So were his siblings. I could not get their story out of my mind.

What surprised you?

The more I dug, the richer the soil. Harry and his youngest brother Frank -- who had been a private assigned to a suicide squad in the Japanese Imperial Army -- had been interviewed by Japanese and American newspapers for feature stories. But the articles traveled the same ground. When I began to research, I discovered a host of other important people, such as their irrepressible Aunt Kiyo, the founder of a venerable traditional-sweet shop in Hiroshima, and their headstrong sister Mary, who had been interned with Harry at Gila River in Arizona. Each possessed a compelling story.

What were some memorable occasions in unearthing this story?

Frank, my travel partner, and I were walking down the street to his family's former home in Hiroshima one day when a woman came running, calling his name. She was his former neighbor Masako who had moved back to the area after decades away. Frank and Harry's mother Kinu had doted upon Masako, treating her like a daughter. They had spent a lot of time together during the war. Masako was with Kinu on the morning that the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. In multiple interviews over several years, Masako retraced their steps that fateful morning. I corroborated her account with Japanese documents. Her recollections were accurate.

Harry suspected that he might meet his brothers as enemies on the battlefield. While he was island-hopping across the Pacific as a POW interrogator with the US Army, a POW recognized him in New Guinea. They had been neighbors but not friends in Hiroshima. In fact, the man had fought with Harry, and Harry suspected that this man – named Matsuura – disliked him because he was Japanese American. But it was precisely because they had fought that Matsuura recognized Harry at the front. "Fighting brings intimacy," Matsuura told me in an interview in Hiroshima. Although Harry feared that his family had perished in the bomb, his encounter with Matsuura reminded him that even the unlikely was possible. Harry decided to go find his family in Hiroshima.

What would you like readers to take away?

On one level, I hope that readers simply find this an engrossing story about an American family that could be any ethnicity with immigrant parents from any given nation. I hope that they connect with the story and their own heritage. Moreover, what happened during World War II could just as easily happen now between siblings with one in the United States and others in a trouble spot elsewhere.

On another level, I hope that the book is a cautionary tale about the perils and costs of wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and unjust internment. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addressed students at the University of Hawaii's law school. "In times of war, the laws fall silent," he said in Latin. He predicted that an internment could happen again. In the wake of 9/11, the Japanese American community was the first to support Muslim Americans as they faced suspicion and a rash of hate crimes. Our nation has to confront its history, including its blemishes, and stay vigilant to prevent miscarriages of justice from occurring again.

At the same time, we should celebrate the occasions that we get it right. Approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war and the Occupation of Japan. They made invaluable contributions. Yet Japanese Americans living in Japan during the war -- like Harry's brothers -- had to suppress their background and blend in for fear of reprisals. Japan failed to utilize their strengths. The United States benefited.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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