By Bruce Harrell
This piece originally appeared in the Seattle Times.
My mother, Rose Kobata, was 9 years old in 1942 when U.S. government agents seized the thriving Seattle flower shop that sustained my grandparents and their eight children.
The agents informed the family that they were to serve out the remainder of World War II in a Japanese incarceration camp.
This chapter of American history—the sanctioned hatred and scapegoating of Asian American citizens—was part of my upbringing that wasn’t often discussed, but never forgotten, in my home and throughout Seattle’s large and vibrant Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
It is through this lens of family trauma, and with both alarm and sadness, that I view the current vitriol and hatred unleashed against Asian Americans, fueled by a racist ex-president, his political allies, and a venomous right-wing media. Once again sanctioned by officials in high office, this hate speech is bringing renewed trauma, violence—and death—to AAPI Americans today. We are a nation that often turns a blind eye to history, but we cannot, and must not, allow our legacy of racial hate to manifest once again.
My grandfather arrived from the village of Kumamoto, Japan, in 1918—15 years old and speaking no English. He got a job as a house boy for a family in the gated residential community Broadmoor in Seattle, saved his money, started a family, and focused on his American Dream.
My mother, the youngest, was named after his favorite flower, and after years of hard work and sacrifice, he and my grandmother founded Cherry Land Florists on Jackson Street. The store grew to cover a full block in a vibrant Asian business district. My mom and her siblings all had jobs in the store—and they even lived behind a tarp in the back. It was close quarters for a family driven to succeed, but they lost it all due to hateful stereotyping codified in government action.
Cherry Land, like so many businesses then and now, was a hub of community
and culture—so much so that the FBI singled out my grandfather, viewed as a “community leader,” and therefore a potential threat.
When my family returned to Seattle following Japanese surrender, it was time to regroup and rebuild. Proud and fiercely independent, they eventually opened Cherry Land II, in a section of the old store, only a fraction the size. That was all that was returned from the government seizure.
My grandfather died young, age 53, from a life of backbreaking work, the pain of profound loss, and no doubt the emotional scars of the incarceration. The nation that held such promise for him as a young man turned on him—and the people he loved—so quickly.
I think of his experience and that of my young mother—and I mourn for the children and families today who are victimized by hate and fear, blamed for a virus that harms AAPI and other communities of color disproportionately. I am redoubled in my focus and drive never again to allow hatred and bigotry to spiral out of control in this community, or this nation.
More than ever, we need individuals at all levels of government committed to the fundamental human rights denied to too many Americans, at too many times, throughout our complex and often painful history.
Seattle should be a place where hate is never tolerated, where we unite to protect, nurture, heal, and love one another. It’s what Rose would want for our city.
Bruce Harrell is a Seattle native, former Seattle City Council president, and 2021 candidate for Seattle Mayor.