Rhyme of her life Local poet, survivor of Japanese internment camp, turns 100

"Kono ko wa naga iki shinai." This girl is not going to live long. Her mother's words are still fresh in her mind, though spoken nearly a century ago.

"I had hay fever and allergies," said Nellie Nakamura, whose mother raised the gummy-eyed girl among the berry farms of Agnew and the orchards of Cupertino, in the heart of Santa Clara Valley. "But in those days doctors never heard of the word allergy, and so I suffered and suffered."

Nakamura, a 52-year Los Altos resident with a remarkable memory and a hearty, often contagious, chuckle, will celebrate her 100th birthday on Friday.

Standing just 4 feet 11 inches, Nakamura is one of the oldest survivors of the World War II Japanese internment camps. Her story, marking a century of history, heartache and a woman's love of life and the written word, is one harrowing tale of the Japanese-American experience.

Books and poems

Nellie Yae Sumiye Nakamura was born Dec. 20, 1902, on Zanker Road in the town of Agnew, just miles from what is today Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. She was named after Nellie Hill, a wealthy Japanophile from Massachusetts and her mother's benefactress.

After a chance encounter in Japan in the mid-1890s, Hill arranged to pay for Nakamura's mother, Rui Suzuki, who was nearly fluent in English, to travel with her throughout Asia and Europe before bringing her to the United States.

Suzuki's American dream crumbled when she lost her husband when Nakamura was only 2. Pregnant and left without enough money, Suzuki was forced to give up her unborn son for adoption to a neighboring family. Suzuki remarried soon after, but died at the age of 52, when Nakamura was 18.

Growing up among the sparsely populated apricot orchards of Cupertino, Nakamura had few playmates and sought solace in the books she found lying around home and the schoolhouse.

"Where I was, there were no children's books, only adult books -- so before I knew it I was reading adult books," Nakamura said. "I got ahold of poets like Longfellow and the old Icelandic texts like Beowulf. I like the old English -- King Arthur and all that stuff."

Later, Nakamura would find she had read books and poems far above the level of other children her age. But the classics provided her with the tools of the English language: vocabulary, structure and rhyme.

Around age 12, Nakamura began to compose poems about nature. The following one, titled "Narcissus," was submitted by her San Antonio Grammar School teacher and printed in the San Jose Herald:

'Tis your fair face alone

That makes this winter bearable,

And your bad grace atone.

No other face but yours, dear flow'r,

Dare show at such a time;

At least, there's none so fair as you,

That bloom in such a clime.

The lilac, rose, and other flowers

Don't open half an eye,

While you, you sweet, defy the storm

That rage beneath the sky!

I wish that I, Narcissus dear,

Can be a little like you,

And smile the while the storm rage on,

As a little flower can do!

The grandmother of six and great-grandmother of five said she doesn't know the secret to a long life, but her narcissus, smiling while the storm rages on, may hold the key to longevity.

"One thing is not to get mad," Nakamura said. "I used to get real mad when I was young, and my mother would say, 'You destroy yourself if you act like that. You always must think akarui -- light things.'"

Coping with loss

This conviction, found in much of her writing, helped Nakamura cope with the loss of her 11-year-old son Kenny, who died in 1943 at the Heart Mountain, Wyo., internment camp after a monthlong bout with meningitis.

"That was a traumatic time because that's when I lost my second son," Nakamura recalled nostalgically. "He got sick in camp after he went swimming. They had a pool dug out of the ground, filled with water -- I don't know how clean it was.

"A couple of weeks after he went swimming he got sick, and then he was sick for a couple of weeks and then he died."

Below is an excerpt from "Kenny," written on the first anniversary of her son's death, referencing the hallowed ground at the base of Heart Mountain once inhabited by the Shoshone Indians:

Thus our little son Kenny left us a year ago today

To play in the Happy Hunting Ground far away ...

Reaching nearly 100 degrees in summer and falling 30 degrees below zero in the winter months, the 740-acre Heart Mountain camp opened its doors on Aug. 12, 1942, and closed on Nov. 10, 1945. At its peak, it held 10,767 Japanese Americans and immigrants from Santa Clara County, Los Angeles and central Washington.

Heart Mountain, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, was just one of 10 permanent concentration camps around the country during World War II. It consisted of 468 barracks, with family living quarters ranging in size from 16-by-20 feet to 20-by-24 feet. Internees were guarded by 124 soldiers and three officers, who had access to nine guard towers equipped with high-beam searchlights.

Nakamura, her husband and four children were first evacuated from Los Altos and detained at the Santa Anita Assembly Center for three months, then moved to Heart Mountain, where internees suffered mentally, but rarely physically, she said.

"We really didn't suffer like if we were in Europe or some Asian countries, because we had plenty to eat as far as food went," Nakamura said. "I mean, they weren't the best of everything, maybe they were seconds and thirds; but there were good, edible vegetables and the cooks were Japanese."

Though civil rights and community leaders have expressed anger at the government for locking away innocent citizens based on their ethnicity, Nakamura said she doesn't blame the government.

"It was something that was not done maliciously -- interning us -- because they were worried about the safety of the country," she said. "Because if you were in their place how would you feel if your country was invaded? I think they did the best they could."

The Nakamuras were released from Heart Mountain on Jan. 19, 1944, with permission to travel east to Minneapolis, where they lived for two years before returning to Santa Clara Valley.

However, the internment of the Nakamura family during World War II did not mark the first time their liberties were lost.

A year after Nakamura married her husband, Takazo (Harry) Nakamura, a Japanese alien, Congress passed the 1922 Cable Act, which specified that any U.S.-born woman marrying a "person ineligible for citizenship" would automatically lose her U.S. citizenship. Nellie waited until 1931, when the act was amended, to reclaim her citizenship from the only country she'd ever known.

"For nine years she was a person without a country," said her only daughter, Margaret Emmy Cooper. "She had never even been to Japan, and the government took away her citizenship."

Collection of memories

The 71-year-old Cooper, along with her brother David, collected hours of interviews with her mother and this year published a 194-page book of memoirs for family and friends.

"Her story is told in her own voice," Cooper said. "We taped her and transcribed her words exactly. This is in my mother's own words."

A former educator, Cooper has applied for a California Civil Liberties Public Education Grant, hoping to publish a paperback version of her mother's memoirs and distribute them to 11th-grade students as a supplement to their history text.

"My mother's biography is one person's story," she said. "It would be a microcosm of what happened to a lot of people."

Friends step in

After the war, with the help of many Caucasian friends they had known before camp, the Nakamuras were able to return to Santa Clara Valley and re-establish themselves in the community. Harry worked as a gardener and Nellie as a housekeeper.

The family moved into their newly built home on Jordan Ave., Los Altos, in 1950, with the help of Frank and Josephine Duveneck and Earl and Marjorie Minton. The Duvenecks had sheltered Jewish refugees from Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as Japanese internment returnees, at Hidden Villa, their estate in Los Altos Hills. The Mintons owned Minton Lumber Co. in Mountain View.

Nellie became lifelong friends with one of her employers, Janet Lewis Winters, author of "The Wife of Martin Guerrre" (1941) and wife of Stanford English professor and literary critic Arthur Yvor Winters.

In 1952 Alan Cranston, a friend of many Japanese residents in the Los Altos area, drove his Japanese gardener, Kizuo Koike, and his friend Harry Nakamura, to the San Francisco immigration office to get their citizenship papers. Cranston later became a distinguished civil rights activist and the only Democratic California senator to serve four consecutive terms.

Harry died in 1977 at the age of 85, and Nellie has lived widowed these last 25 years in the same Los Altos home with her youngest son, George.

"He was really nice looking as he got old too, but he was a very handsome young man," said Nellie, touching the 50th anniversary picture she had taken with her husband in 1971. "I didn't know I'd be living this long."

On a yellow notepad by her reading chair, there were six lines, freshly scribbled out the morning of the interview. Nellie put on her glasses and in a calm, raspy tone exuding great hope and wisdom, she read:

The church of my dreams

Lies atop a gentle hill

Where the wind is soft

And the air is still

The voice of the children ...

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos