History July 16, 2018
The Thomson Family, Part II
This is the second part of a three-part series on the Thomsons, a mixed-race Nikkei family. After arriving in the United States in 1919, the family members thereafter dedicated themselves to becoming Americans, though they lived near other Japanese, and retained certain of the customs they had learned in Japan. The Thomson children, who ranged in age from 12-year old Yuriko and 10-year old Taro (as they were then known) to Mariko (8), Joe (6), Bruce (5), and the baby, Tom, had rather different experiences adjusting to their new home. The older children spoke English poorly, and were teased at school for the peculiar British accent they had absorbed from their father. At first, they were set back a few grades to master English, but soon adopted it as their primary language and returned to the grade level of their age peers. In the same fashion, Yuriko and Taro eventually Americanized their names to Lily and William, while Mariko called herself Marie. The younger children, born at a time when their father was growing disillusioned with Japan in the face of increasing militarism, were given Western names at birth and learned English as their mother tongue. Within a few years, Bernard became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He nonetheless remained proud of his English heritage—according to one source, he continued to order all his suits, ties, and other clothing from a Saville Row tailor. Conversely, Kei and the children, as members of the “Japanese race,” were legally “ineligible to citizenship.” (This issue would arise once more in later years, as we will see in due course.) They faced a significant degree of racial prejudice from the dominant white population—even as their proud British father looked down on other ethnic minorities.
Once they had entered the United States, the Thomson family at first took up residence in a house at the ranch of Gerald Walters, brother of the missionary who had recommended them. The ranch was located in Casitas Springs, near Ventura. It was the beginning of a period of great hardship. Bernard, who was middle-aged and had a crippled leg, had to adjust to life as a farmhand. Kei, who like other Japanese of means had always relied on maids to do shopping and cooking, had to learn to prepare meals and bake bread. The children walked or rode to the nearest school two miles away. After several months, Mr. Walters laid off Bernard, who was unable to do the heavy work required on the ranch, and had never learned to drive cars or farm machinery. The family then moved to a small two-room house at a nearby lemon grove, where the Thomson adults worked long hours as menial laborers, picking and sorting lemons. Fortunately, after about a year of such work, Bernard was able to contact an old acquaintance from his Miyako Hotel days in Japan and parlay his experience and language skills into a job as a travel agent and cruise director with the Raymond-Whitcomb travel agency in San Francisco. A census form dated January 1920 lists Bernard as a guide to “tourists Japan” and locates the family living amid an all-Japanese crew of workers at a lemon grove on Venture Ave. in Ventura.

Bernard’s job, though certainly nicer than menial labor, required him to be absent for up to six months at a time on cruise ships, with the result that the children were raised largely single-handed by their mother, who also did sewing and light housework for a white family to earn extra money.
At some point, the Thomsons moved to a multiracial working-class section of Alameda. Bernard’s job, though certainly nicer than menial labor, required him to be absent for up to six months at a time on cruise ships, with the result that the children were raised largely single-handed by their mother, who also did sewing and light housework for a white family to earn extra money. By 1930, according to that year’s census form, Kei was the owner of a cleaning business.

Kei dealt with her solitude by joining a local Japanese Christian church, and read the Bible faithfully. Although William described his mother as remaining a “Buddhist at heart,” she embraced Christian doctrine...
After four years with Raymond-Whitcomb, Bernard was hired as a tour conductor and cruise leader by the prestigious Thomas Cook Travel Agency, and worked with the Cunard Shipping firm. With the increased income from this new job, the Thomson family was able to move to a house on Everett St. in a more affluent area of Alameda, where they lived next to two sets of German-born neighbors. Bernard remained on the road for his work almost year-round. Thus, the children were raised almost entirely by their mother, who was a patient and indulgent parent. Kei dealt with her solitude by joining a local Japanese Christian church, and read the Bible faithfully. Although William described his mother as remaining a “Buddhist at heart,” she embraced Christian doctrine—she forbade her children to watch movies that were not religious-themed. As the children grew older and had less need for childcare, she became engaged in teaching Japanese language classes at the Buddhist temple in Oakland. She also cultivated silkworms and did calligraphy for pleasure.

Kei, who had always felt guilt over leaving Japan and abandoning her Japanese family, carefully saved up money from her Japanese teaching for a final trip. By the time she arrived in Japan, she was already ill, and she was apparently sufficiently aware of her mortality that she bought a gravestone in Japan.
The Great Depression hit the Thomson elders hard. Bernard lost his job, and was forced to take up selling ducks door to door, which left him humiliated and increasingly aloof. Kei helped out by taking on sewing and doing housework. Lily contributed a portion of her earnings as a stenographer, and the younger children did odd jobs to earn money. Kei, who had always felt guilt over leaving Japan and abandoning her Japanese family, carefully saved up money from her Japanese teaching for a final trip. She left in March 1935. By the time she arrived in Japan, she was already ill, and she was apparently sufficiently aware of her mortality that she bought a gravestone in Japan. Upon her return to California, she was sufficiently ill that she was maintained in quarantine to examine her, and almost not permitted back into the country. Within months, she died of stomach cancer. She was barely 50 years old. Her passing deeply struck the children.

The rapid remarriage and move estranged Bernard from his bewildered children, who felt deserted (especially Lily, who had vowed to become an “old maid” and devote her life to caring for him).
One month after Kei’s death, Bernard was hired back by Cook, amid an improving economy, and he resumed touring. During one of his cruises, he met a wealthy white woman, Adela Collins. The two soon married, and Bernard moved to her ranch in Los Gatos, California. He never returned to the house in Alameda. The rapid remarriage and move estranged Bernard from his bewildered children, who felt deserted (especially Lily, who had vowed to become an “old maid” and devote her life to caring for him). William, at least, interpreted the actions as Bernard’s having closed the door on a past of privation, and shut himself off from the stigma of association with a Japanese family. The younger generation of Thomsons also did not get along well with Adela, who was apparently old-fashioned and clearly uncomfortable in the presence of her hapa stepchildren. Eventually, Bernard managed to achieve a kind of “uneasy truce” with his children, as William described it, though they seldom saw him and he remained (as always) emotionally distant. He continued his work in the tour business, and his marriage with Adela was reportedly a happy one. After she died, Bernard moved back to Alameda and lived near his sons Joe and Bruce. He lived to his ninety-first year, dying in 1966. He was buried in a vault with Kei in Alameda.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh

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