Seventy years ago, Fumiko Hayashida was a face in the crowd, one of 227 Japanese-Americans forced to leave Bainbridge Island during World War II. But as she awaited imprisonment with a baby in her arms, a news photographer took her picture.
That photo would later become an iconic wartime image, propelling Hayashida, then a modest farmer’s wife, into the limelight of civil rights activism.
“She was a nobody, but she was everybody,” said Hayashida’s daughter, K. Natalie Ong. It had been Natalie, then 13 months old, that Hayashida was holding the day their family was exiled.
“She represented everybody and what happened to Japanese-Americans.”
Hayashida died Sunday in Seattle. She was 103.
From farmer’s wife to living icon
Born on Bainbridge Island, Hayashida was the oldest living Japanese-American incarcerated from the island. Because they were near naval bases, the Bainbridge group was the first of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry detained under Executive Order 9066 in the country.
Most were U.S. citizens.
The government gave the Bainbridge group six days’ notice of their March 30, 1942 internment. Then 31 and pregnant, Hayashida wore all the clothes she could; boarded a ferry to Seattle; and then a train to Manzanar, an isolated desert camp in California. She was anxious and scared.
“It’s awful when you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know long you’re going to stay,” Hayashida told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2009. Her family later went to Minidoka in Idaho, spending a total of about three and half years in camps. She gave birth to her son Leonard. She had three kids under 5 while incarcerated.
When she and husband Saburo returned to Bainbridge, their strawberry fields had gone fallow. Many of their friends never returned to the island. He got a job at Boeing and they moved to Beacon Hill, where Hayashida raised three kids and lived for decades.
It had been a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer who took the photo, but a MOHAI staffer who identified her. The archivist had enlarged the photo and was able to read her internment tag.
By that time, Hayashida was an old woman. Her photo appeared in magazines and the Smithsonian. She quickly became a living icon, a survivor of wartime heartbreak.
“She wasn’t a political person, or an activist, but she relished that role,” said Ong, her daughter. “It really added an interesting dimension to her later life.”
‘I had a good life’
In her 90s, Hayashida joined the effort to get federal recognition for a Bainbridge site memorializing the internment. She testified before Congress, rolling down the halls in a wheelchair. At first, she was reluctant.
“She said, ‘Oh no, I can’t speak, I’m an old lady,'” recalled her friend Clarence Moriwaki, who had convinced her to testify.
“She nailed it,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m 95 years old, I’m an old woman, I hope I live long enough to see this memorial be recognized.'”
The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, of which Moriwaki is president, is now open to the public.
Earlier this year, Hayashida came out for Bainbridge’s annual New Year’s mochi-pounding festival. Crowds greeted the petite, white-haired centenarian with enthusiasm.
“I think the crowd clapping for her was louder than the taiko drums,” Moriwaki said.
Hayashida was vibrant in old age and didn’t dwell on the past. She preferred instead to root for her beloved Mariners, fill her house with frog figurines and play poker with girlfriends.
“This war was so long ago,” she told the P-I in 2009. “I’m proud of my life. I had a good life, not a perfect one. But nobody’s life is perfect. I have good family and good friends, and I feel so lucky.”
Hayashida is survived by sister Midori Yamasaki; daughter K. Natalie Ong and son Neal Hayashida; grandchildren Dennis Hayashida, Richard Hayashida, Kristine Hayashida Moore, Gary Ong and Paula Ong; five great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by husband Saburo Hayashida and son Leonard Hayashida.
The family has planned a celebration of her life on Nov. 16 in Seattle.