Takara Inouye must’ve stared up at the sun and pondered where he was. He must’ve. Foremost because on the dusty outskirts of Delta, Utah, under the bleaching rays of the West Desert, there isn’t much else to do. Takara — “Tak,” his friends called him — was a boy then. A teenager who, like other Japanese Americans caught in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been forced out of his home in Oakland, California, and away from his life.
He’d endured a multiday nightmare on a creaky, dusty, mechanically compromised train just to get to his new residence, the Topaz War Relocation Center, where on one summer afternoon in the early 1940s, he and three friends had escaped.
They hadn’t jumped the barbed wire fences or slipped past the guard towers under cover of darkness; rather, they — like others imprisoned at Topaz — were allowed outside the prison encampment’s borders to provide cheap labor. Tak and his pals worked at a sugar beet farm, tearing the wrinkled, white vegetables from the soil for 10 cents an hour. With crinkly black hair, bushy eyebrows and two dark-brown pearls for eyes, Tak was a hard worker who spent his high school years at Topaz interested in math and who’d go on to study chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. But on this afternoon, he and his friends tried to relax. They often did at the end of their shifts, before retiring to their “guest house,” which looked more like a ramshackle shed. There was a canal near the beet field, so the quintet stripped and went swimming. At least until two white girls from nearby Delta High School rumbled by in a pickup truck, grabbed their pile of clothes and drove away.
Luckily for Tak and his friends, the girls returned and offered their clothes back — on one condition: One of the boys would have to get out of the water to fetch them.
Eight decades later, Tak’s son, Mark Inouye, often recalls that scene. He can almost see it in his head; almost feel the desert sun on his skin. He does his own pondering to fill in the gaps: Where was this beet farm and this canal exactly? Was Tak the one who collected the clothes? Exactly 80 years ago this Sept, 11, Topaz opened. After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, resulting in the rounding up of 120,000 people of Japanese descent from America’s West Coast. The majority were American citizens who had never been to Japan. Topaz was one of 10 camps that would imprison Japanese Americans for years, in Utah, California, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Arkansas. Tak and his fellow Topaz inmates — over 11,000 in all — were not free to control their futures.
The country is a much different place in 2022 than it was in 1942. Yet Japanese American imprisonment haunts the nation’s legacy. It haunts us as we try to understand our current, injustice-filled world. It haunts us as we continue to piece together the horrors of places like Topaz. And it haunts Mark Inouye as he searches for the stories that will bring him closer to the father he has come to realize he never really knew.
Today, Mark is the principal trumpeter with the San Francisco Symphony. He’s performed from Belgium to Oklahoma to Taiwan. The 51-year-old has been a guest of the New York Philharmonic and played with The Who at Carnegie Hall. His hometown of Davis, California, features an entry for him on its Wiki page, and he was inducted in 2008 into his high school’s hall of fame. Yet for all his professional success, he perceived a missing piece of himself as he rose through the musical ranks: knowing who his father actually was.
Mark was invited to Utah this past May to play in a concert commemorating Topaz and its history — yet for him, that history has felt largely incomplete. Sure, by now he knows about as much as anyone regarding the camp — about the barracks without running water; about the crude coal heating stoves; about the place Topaz survivor and author Yoshiko Uchida called the “City of Dust.” But he learned all that by searching for memories of his dad, who died when Mark was 15. That urge — the one that beckons us to understand where we came from — roared out of him over time, but he hasn’t been able to fill in all the blanks of a life erased when he was still too young to understand what that meant. If only, he often tells himself, he had started earlier, back when Tak’s death seemed as straightforward as a teenager’s tragic loss of a parent.
Back then, in the summer of 1985, Tak had been losing weight. A heart attack had forced him to commit to his cardiovascular health, but his regimen wasn’t working. Mark and the rest of his family saw him slipping away slowly. On the morning of July 20 — Tak’s 20th wedding anniversary — Mark’s mother charged into the bedroom he shared with his brother in Oakland. “Boys, get up,” she told them. “Your father’s dead.”
Though the country was in the midst of a renewed conversation about Japanese internment — that fall saw the 40-year anniversary of Topaz closing, and in 1988 President Ronald Reagan would issue a formal apology and $20,000 of reparations to remaining survivors — Mark didn’t pay attention. His dad had never mentioned anything about Topaz or Japanese internment. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really told Mark anything about himself. All Mark knew was that he enforced the rules and expectations of their home; he was, in Mark’s own words, an “authoritarian.” Mark also knew he worked in the soil science department at the University of California, Davis, and that he had a friend from work who he’d sometimes shoot hoops with. That was it. Only after he died did Mark realize there must be more to him.
His questions began simmering when he and his two brothers started sorting through Tak’s things. They found piles of old books, often marked by a mysterious four-digit number — “I-5011.” They soon discovered that was part of Tak’s American military service number, upon unearthing his discarded dog tags from the Korean War. Why Tak volunteered to serve in the military of a country that imprisoned him without cause, Mark wasn’t sure. But he started wearing those dog tags, and started reading the old books. Many of them concerned the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II — a phenomenon Mark had never heard of.
He visited a library and discovered that these camps were indeed real. He did some quick arithmetic in his head. His dad, he realized, would have been about 15 at the start of World War II — the same age Mark was at the time. And given that he lived in Oakland, that meant his dad was almost certainly sent to one — just in time to start high school, no less. He soon discovered that, yes, Tak had been imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. But Mark was still a teenager with teenager obligations. For the next 10 years, he thought little about his dad’s past.
Then, in the mid-1990s, as a student at Manhattan’s Juilliard School for the performing arts, Mark was the trumpeter and frontman for a four-piece ensemble performing a show at The Iridium jazz club. When he finished, a middle-aged Japanese woman approached. “I really loved your set,” she told him. “Is your father Takara Inouye?”
Mark Inouye perceived a missing piece of himself as he rose through the musical ranks: knowing who his father actually was.
Tak was known to almost everyone by his American name, Steve. Yet here was this woman, calling his father by a name he hadn’t heard in years. Mark froze. So far from home, so far from his dad’s death, who at this random club would possibly recognize his name, or perhaps even his face?
Yes, he told her, Takara was his dad, but he’d died some 10 years ago. “I was interned with him at Topaz during World War II,” she explained. “He was really good friends with my older brother.” The brother lived in Delaware. Mark called him up the next day. “Hello, this is Mark Inouye,” he said, and didn’t have to say anything else. The long-ago classmate cut in, “You’re the son of Tak.” They arranged to meet in Rhode Island, where Mark conducted his first interview with a Topaz survivor — and, more importantly, with a friend of his dad’s. Tak, he learned, was an intense man. Rigorous. Thorough. Driven and uncompromising. He also learned that his dad was a good student, and that he loved baseball — something that escaped him when Tak volunteered to coach Mark’s Little League team back in the day. But he had many more questions than this one guy could answer.
In 2003, Topaz High School’s class of 1945 published a book — “Blossoms in the Desert” — featuring vignettes from surviving members. For Mark, the book was a revelation. Here was an up-to-date collection of people who could tell him about the dad he never knew. And, what’s more, they were accessible. “The funny thing about 60- and 70-year-olds,” Mark says, “is that they’re really easy to find on the internet. Addresses don’t change, and they have landlines.” He started cold calling. He worried that many of them wouldn’t want to talk due to lingering shame or resentment; his own uncle, though Mark asked several times, never wanted to talk much about Topaz. And unfortunately, few remembered his dad anyway. But some did — and they were willing to chat.
He also had his dad’s yearbook. From it, he learned that Tak was in the Hi-Y club, a YMCA-affiliated organization. He learned that, despite an official listing of 5-foot-5 and 138 pounds, Tak was a quarterback on the Topaz Rams football team. One teammate even signed his picture with a note about it: “To Tak,” it read. “A swell Q.B.” And he learned that the school’s vice principal, a white man named J.E. Smith, announced with glee that the students of this high-school-within-a-prison were “that much nearer our goal of peace and living as usual once more.” But one name stood out from the rest.
It was written all over. “Loads of luck to the other half of Yum,” reads one entry in blue marker. Everyone called her Yum or Yum-Yum, but her real name was Yumi Tsugawa — Tak’s barbed wire, guard tower, barracks-living high school sweetheart.
The yearbook held more clues about Yumi. Most notably in the section titled “Senior Will,” where the graduating class offered tongue-in-cheek remembrances. Most used it to tell a final joke. One young woman wrote that she “wills her mellow voice to Joe Goto,” for example. Tak told a joke, too, but one that seemed to indirectly reference Yumi: “Takara Inouye wills his ability to go steady to the Topaz casanovas.” Yumi herself took a more serious approach. “Yumi Tsugawa,” she wrote, “leaves herself for Takara.”
Mark knew they didn’t end up together long term, since Tak had married Mark’s mother, who was not Yumi Tsugawa. But he figured if anyone could tell him about his dad’s younger self, it would be Yumi. Her old yearbook photo shows a young woman with thin eyebrows and a modified pompadour; he hoped he would be able to meet her, to talk to her. Unfortunately, once his search for her began, he quickly discovered she had died several years earlier. She had a younger sister who was still alive, though, so he met up with her instead.
The sister confirmed that Tak and Yumi were indeed a couple, but that was pretty much all she could say. At least until about six months after their final meeting, when she called Mark and said she’d found a box of Yumi’s old things — including a heart-shaped locket.
The gold-colored pendant is inscribed with what appears to be a little bell and some leaves on the front, alongside a pair of letters difficult to decipher. Inside, squeezed into a rusted frame, is Tak’s cracked, stained yearbook photo, chopped out with scissors. “Holding that in my hand was a pretty powerful and profound moment,” Mark recalls. “This was roughly 2010. My dad passed away in 1985. And this locket was given in 1944. I mean, it’s 70 years of history.”
Yet the locket still couldn’t answer Mark’s burning questions about Yumi. Perhaps the most vexing of all comes from the yearbook, back among the signatures. Because even though Yumi opted to profess her love for Tak in the Senior Will, it seems something had changed by the time the books arrived and it was time to leave Topaz. “I hope you aren’t disappointed, though I can’t blame you,” reads Yumi’s cryptic entry, written in thick black ink. “I hope you are doing okay. Take it easy. Just, Yúm.”
Sometimes, even now, Mark grips that locket and curses himself for not starting his search earlier. If only he had begun tracking people down a few years sooner; if only he could’ve asked Yumi how they met, or what happened, or what she remembered. If only. The empty space between what he knew about his father and what he wanted to know seemed as wide as ever. But surely the answers were out there. He just needed to keep looking.
Like everything involving Topaz, the reunions were complicated by the circumstances that brought the classmates together.
He unearthed some helpful information in the early 2010s. After interviewing several dozen Topaz survivors, he discovered that the Class of 1945 met up for annual class reunions. So in 2014, Mark headed over to a golf club in the East Bay, where the same guy he’d spoken to in Rhode Island years earlier was a member and had secured a banquet room. About 20 people showed up, and that was more than enough for Mark, who found himself stricken with a strange sense of déjà vu.
He’d studied these folks. Knew their pictures from the yearbook. Knew their nicknames. He’d even interviewed some of them. They looked different now, of course, with wispy white hair and jowls; with hunched backs and wheelchairs and canes. But what a lively sight, to hear these 80-year-olds come alive with stories — not of the dark, dayslong train ride that brought them to the middle of the Utah desert, where dusty, Army-issued wool blankets awaited them — but of teenage joy. To hear them laugh at the absurdity of pet rattlesnakes in aquariums. Some might share memories of their mothers’ work as a mess hall waitresses; of reheating old food on a modified hot plate from Montgomery Ward. Someone might joke about his terrible teachers, or that one time during a science demonstration that he and three friends — seated at the back of the classroom — urged their instructor to add more sodium to a beaker of water until finally, the beaker exploded and splashed the first three rows of the class with sodium hydroxide. Oh, how they laughed and laughed.
Mark joined the conversation soon enough. He brought out the yearbook and found the daughter of a friend named Harry who wrote a note to his dad. She recognized her father’s handwriting immediately and shared stories about him. The next year, he found another guy nicknamed Tubby, who used to play the trumpet at Topaz. Mark later surprised Tubby at a San Francisco nursing home with his own trumpet, and even goaded him into blowing out a few notes. He sensed that they enjoyed his presence as much as he enjoyed theirs; he was almost a stand-in for Tak. “When they found out that I was the son of Takara, they embraced me immediately,” he says. “As if I was a member of the Class of 1945. I mean, it’s very odd. Here I am kind of hobnobbing with these 80-year-olds, and I felt like I had known them already.”
Like everything involving Topaz, the reunions — which ended with the 70th anniversary in 2015 — were complicated by the circumstances that brought the classmates together. “Those three years were both incredibly bad and incredibly good,” explains Daisy Satoda in her “Blossoms in the Desert” entry, “and it never should have happened.” That dichotomy of something good coming from something so bad was chiseled into relief at the 70th reunion, when Mark used his trumpet skills to blast out some big-band classics that would have played at the proms and dances of his dad’s youth.
With the soothing melody of Bunny Berigan’s 1937 hit “I Can’t Get Started” blaring from his lips, Mark watched his dad’s old classmates relive exactly what Satoda remembers: “You just swayed to the music and took a few steps to turn around in circles.” Some of them even managed to jitterbug. “Thankfully that’s one of the great gifts music can give: to transport people back to times in their lives,” Mark says. “And this is a horrible, hideous moment in their lives. But they also have all this joy remembering the school dances and the live music.”
One can only imagine what they might have seen had they closed their eyes. Maybe one of them might dredge up a memory of Tak and Yum swaying to a scratchy vinyl record. Or maybe it would be something more complicated. Stepping outside into the desert night and seeing the outline of a barbed-wire fence against the Milky Way, with that same scratchy tune still humming along, fading into the background.
By talking to them, by watching them relive high school in ways good and bad, Mark came as close as he had been yet to seeing the dad he never knew. Only one other place offered such promise.
“It’s really a profound experience to sit down face-to-face with these human beings and hear their stories.” —Mark Inouye
The concert that’s brought Mark back to Delta marks his fifth time in town. He’s here alongside Shirley Muramoto — another descendant of a Topaz prisoner — who plays a traditional stringed Japanese instrument called a koto. Mark’s brought various brass horns. The concert will take place at the high school auditorium, but no trip down this way would be complete without an excursion to that hallowed desert. So that’s where Mark heads first.
The land won’t tell you much these days. You can only piece together fragments, and only if you know where to look. A pile of rusty nails. An overgrown row of rocks. Even then you’ll only find little bits of what was, and you’ll be left wanting more. An occasional gust of desert wind provides the lone soundtrack for this barren stretch of greasewood desert. The silence is its own kind of sound. You can almost hear the sun pummeling the bone-white alkali soil that turns to slop with the slightest mist. It’s hard to imagine a settlement existing here — let alone one that amounted to the fifth-largest city in Utah at the time. Yet Mark knows it did. He’s heard the stories. He’s asked the questions.
Some part of him still hopes more could be revealed; that secrets about his dad could be lurking. But if they’re out there, he knows he’s running out of time to find them. The desert gusts sweep up more and more of this place and its memory each day.
Mark returns to Delta High School about an hour before the concert. He needs to change out of his sandals and cargo shorts into something more formal. While he’s gone, the first guests arrive, mostly sporting gray hair. But soon, the auditorium is overrun with parents and kids. It feels like the whole town is here by the time Mark reemerges, now wearing a white button-down with a patterned tie and baggy, beltless brown slacks. Even though Mark has played all over the world, he admits that tonight is something new — for a few reasons. Musically, he’s never heard of a trumpet and koto duet. He also never imagined he’d perform a quick truck ride away from where his dad spent his high school years incarcerated.
He and Shirley are here to honor and offer their thanks to Jane Beckwith, director of the town’s Topaz Museum, for the decades she has spent preserving rather than forgetting that history. Yet for much of the evening, history is hardly mentioned. Mark changes that up when introducing his second number. “So my connection to Delta and Topaz is that my father lived in Oakland during World War II, and he was interned and sent here to Topaz. When I was a kid growing up, he spoke not a word. I knew nothing about it,” he says, flugelhorn in hand. He explains his long-standing quest of trying to know his dad; of interviewing anyone who may have something to say about him; of clinging to whatever pieces of him he could, like the dog tags jingling, at that very moment, from his neck. But eventually, he tells the crowd, the scope of his project changed. “The point of this quest I was on was really to learn about this history, which included my family,” he explains. “And it’s really a profound experience to sit down face to face with these human beings and hear their stories. What they had to go through. And it brought me here, to this evening, to you fine folks.”
After one final duet Mark is, for once, the one answering questions in a Q&A with the citizens of Delta. Most of them focus on music. (“Does it take a fair amount of time to tune the koto?” “What’s the lowest note you can play on the trumpet?”) But about half an hour into the session, a young woman finally addresses Topaz directly. “So a lot of us have grown up in Delta and have heard a lot about what went on there,” she says, “but could you share something like a story that maybe you know about your family that was in Topaz?”
“What a thoughtful question,” Mark answers. The story he chooses is the one about his dad’s clothes getting stolen by the local high school girls in the pickup truck. He doesn’t mention all the questions surrounding it; all the answers he wishes he had. Like who, for example, emerged from the canal wearing only his birthday suit to fetch the clothes. The story he had was enough.
At least until the next person to raise a hand — a white-haired fellow with a bright-red T-shirt. “My father,” the man explains, “was one that hired fellas from the Japanese camp. They were only three miles east of there, and there was a canal.”
“Holy smokes, sir. We might have to talk,” Mark says, pondering, like his father before him, the absurdity and power of this place and moment. The crowd laughs, but he’s not kidding. “I’m serious,” he says. “We might have to talk.”