I came recently upon the intriguing story of the Thomson family, a set of mixed-race siblings born of a British father and Japanese mother, who all grew up in the United States. While William T. Thomson, the eldest son, wrote at length of his origins and early life in a fictionalized family memoir, which was published under the title World of Bamboo, his own intriguing later years are less documented and some mysteries remain.
The Thomson family story starts with the patriarch, Bernard Hilary Thomson, born in 1875 in Tunbridge Wells, England, the son of a long line of ministers and teachers (his father Rev. John Radford Thomson was a lecturer in moral philosophy at University of London as well as a Congregationalist clergyman). Rather than go into either field, however, after attending the elite Mill Hill school, the young Bernard opted to become a sailor and at age 14 enrolled at the Royal Nautical Training College, an officer’s training program run by the Royal Navy. Following graduation, he and a buddy, Rodney, signed on as sailors on a British merchant vessel that traded with the Far East, and visited India and Java. During the last leg of one voyage, Bernard was overcome by an ocean storm, and a giant wave dashed him against a spar, breaking his knee and leaving him with a permanent limp. Meanwhile, during a fight with another sailor, he was hit in the left eye, leaving him a detached retina. He soon lost all sight in the eye. While he returned to England and thought of giving up sailing, he decided to emigrate to South Africa, where his stepmother’s brother had built a large horse ranch. While he enjoyed the life on the ranch, he was soon attracted away by his visiting friend Rodney, and moved to Johannesburg. While he was in Johannesburg, the Boer War broke out. Bernard enlisted in the British Army and was wounded in action. While recovering at a field hospital, he met a soldier named O’Connell, who had worked as an opium smuggler in China. Once he had healed sufficiently, Bernard was sent back to England to complete his recovery. While in England, he was visited by O’Connell, who offered him work in the China trade as a navigator on a freighter, a dangerous but lucrative job.
Though badly wounded, he managed to find a dinghy and climb in, but the dinghy contained neither food nor oars. He floated in the dinghy for several days, and finally lost consciousness.
As Bernard later recounted the story, he moved to the Far East, and started smuggling contraband with O’Connell. However, on one of his first voyages, their ship was attacked and sunk by pirates off of the China coast. O’Connell was taken prisoner, and Bernard was left for dead. Though badly wounded, he managed to find a dinghy and climb in, but the dinghy contained neither food nor oars. He floated in the dinghy for several days, and finally lost consciousness. Miraculously, the boat floated to the coast of the Ryukyu Islands, where it was discovered by a local fisherman, who carried Bernard home. The fisherman and his wife nursed Bernard back to health. After a short time, Bernard wrote to the British Consul in Kobe, explaining his penniless and abandoned state. The consul advanced him money to pay his benefactors and to travel to Kobe.
While teaching in Osaka, Bernard met Kei Sato, a young woman student in his evening adult class. After getting to know her, he fell in love, and ended by asking her father for her hand...
Once in Kobe, Bernard was hired to edit the city’s evening English-language newspaper (he narrowly missed getting a job with the morning paper, which would have made him the successor to the previous editor, the renowned writer Lafcadio Hearn. When the newspaper folded two years later, Bernard found a job teaching English at a high school in nearby Osaka. While teaching in Osaka, Bernard met Kei Sato, a young woman student in his evening adult class. After getting to know her, he fell in love, and ended by asking her father for her hand—Kei’s father was astounded by the proposal, but finally accepted.
After his marriage, Bernard again changed jobs. He met with directors of the Miyako Hotel in nearby Kyoto, a deluxe hotel that welcomed foreigners. The Miyako hired him to write a travel book about Kyoto that would be advertising for them, and then engaged him to edit a house magazine, The Miyako. The couple moved to Kyoto, where Kei attended classes at Doshisha University. Soon, however, the couple began having children. The first was a daughter, Yuriko. The first son, who was given the name Taro, arrived in 1909. Soon after, to supplement their income, Bernard took a teaching position at schools in Hachiman and Hikone, using the Japanese name Hideo Sato. The family moved to Hachiman, where five more children were born in the years that followed. Kei converted to Christianity and attended church with her husband.
[The Thomson children] would eat breakfast and lunch Japanese style, sitting on the floor and using chopsticks. However, behind the garden was a separate building that was their father’s retreat, with Western furniture, including a dining table and chairs, where they would eat a dinner of western-style food using knife and fork.
The Thomson children grew up in a unique set of circumstances. They lived in a standard Japanese house, with an ofuro a Japanese garden. They would eat breakfast and lunch Japanese style, sitting on the floor and using chopsticks. However, behind the garden was a separate building that was their father’s retreat, with Western furniture, including a dining table and chairs, where they would eat a dinner of western-style food using knife and fork. Similarly, between themselves and with their Japanese mother, they spoke only Japanese. They went every day to Japanese school to learn,read and write Japanese language (As they went through the village, village prostitutes would shout “kawaii ainoko” [cute half-breed], and boys at school would call them keto [foreigner].) However, three days a week, they would report after school to their father’s cabin for English lessons with him.
Bernard predicted that Japan would end up going to war against the west, and his sons would be drafted into the military.
Despite Bernard’s genuine love for Japanese art and folk culture, he became increasingly anxious about life there. First, though he had been initially welcomed, he was disturbed by the social prejudice against interracial marriages, and the impact on his wife and his growing children. Meanwhile, he grew fearful as Word War I dawned and Japan grew increasingly military-minded and nationalistic. After refusing to accept military orders to quarter Japanese soldiers in his house, he was arrested and briefly held by local authorities, and then forced to accept additional soldiers in the house. Bernard predicted that Japan would end up going to war against the west, and his sons would be drafted into the military. He thought of returning to England, but felt his family would not gain acceptance there.
Kei was pregnant with their sixth child, and Bernard felt the urgency of getting away from Japan. Though Kei’s family strongly opposed her leaving Japan, she agreed to follow her husband.
In 1918, Rev. John Radford Thomson died, and Bernard received a small inheritance. He decided to use the money to take the family to California, which he could just afford. There he felt the children would have a better chance of acceptance, despite ambient anti-Asian prejudice. Kei was pregnant with their sixth child, and Bernard felt the urgency of getting away from Japan. Though Kei’s family strongly opposed her leaving Japan, she agreed to follow her husband. A local missionary arranged with his brother, a ranch owner, to employ the family once they arrived. Thus, in April 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, the Thomson family immigrated to the United States. Although it was during the period of Japanese exclusion, the entire family, including Kei, was permitted to accompany Bernard into the country (Apparently Kei’s devotion to caring for ill passengers en route facilitated friendly processing by immigration authorities, and her rapid admission into the country).
This article to be continued in parts Two and Three...
Greg Robinson is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal and researcher at the Chaire Raoul-Dandurand. He is the author of By Order of the President (Harvard, 2001) which uncovers President Franklin Roosevelt’s involvement in the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, and A Tragedy of Democracy (Columbia, 2009), winner of the AAAS History prize, which studies Japanese American and Candian confinement in transnational context. His book After Camp (UC Press, 2012), winner of the Caroline Bancroft Prize, centers on post war resettlement. His latest book is The Great Unknown (Colorado 2016).