The two little girls had just finished dusting and polishing the banisters on the apartment building stairs from the top floor all the way to the bottom. It was their Saturday chore. The older girl, Akiko, better known to everyone as Aki, scampered back up the stairs, climbed on the rail, and slid down to land at her younger sister Suma’s feet.
“You shouldn’t do that!” Suma scolded.
Aki shook her head, did a pirouette, and taunted back at her little sister, “You’re just jealous.” She immediately knew she was wrong to speak those words.
Suma’s face fell, as she gave a wheeze, and plopped down on the bottom step. Aki sat down, gave Suma a hug, and whispered, “I love you. I’m sorry.” The two girls were close, going together once each week to Japanese classes with Miss Whistler. Aki also took judo classes though Suma’s asthma often kept her from participating. Both of them loved rollerskating with their friends in the central district of Seattle. Their friends were a mixed group of Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, African American, and a few Hispanic boys and girls. Aki and Suma’s parents welcomed their neighbors over every Friday night for singing and dancing and big plates of jelly rolls. Unlike most Japanese men, their father Harutoshi loved to cook and was very good at it. There were never any jelly rolls left! Their mother Murako managed the apartment building. She’d gone to school to get an engineer’s license and spent hours banging away at the boiler and the furnace to keep heat and hot water in the renter and Kato apartments. She fixed the plumbing, did electrical repairs, and even hung wallpaper.
They didn’t follow other Japanese ways either. The Katos belonged to none of the social clubs most Japanese families were members of. They sent the girls to Japanese classes only once a week, not every school day. They made decisions not on the basis of social class but on competence. That was the reason the girls’ Japanese teacher was a lovely African American woman who spoke the language extremely well and made learning fun. The family knew almost everyone in the neighborhood. The children were in and out of their friends’ houses, sometimes sleeping over, sometimes inviting their friends to come home with them for a meal. The Katos celebrated Japanese holidays but also Christian and Jewish ones as well. On Saturdays Aki often carried the Rabbi’s Bible to the synagogue and turned on and off the electric lights, actions forbidden him on the Sabbath. Although he always offered a bit of money for her help, she refused, telling him her summer bean and strawberry picking money filled her needs.
Aki loved to read as did her parents, who believed education was very important. Harutoshi was a good storyteller. He would gather a bunch of children on the steps of the apartment building and tell stories of the past from Japan and his early days in America. Often the stories were about the men he admired like Kagawa Toyohiko, a Japanese pacifist, who used folktales and Bible stories to encourage people to solve their problems without violence and act kindly toward others. Most of their neighbors were poor or only moderately middle class. Aki’s father followed Tagawa’s example of working cooperatively with them in making their lives better.
Everyone was surprised when the Katos’ names were on the list of Japanese and Japanese Americans to be relocated from the Western Zone after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the publication of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The racial slurs at Aki’s Garfield HS were like slaps in her face. She found some solace in friends like Mary Jo Forcell who reached out to her. It was in the early days before the family left for the fairgrounds at the Puyallup Assembly Center, “Camp Harmony,” that she met members of the Quaker community. Floyd Schmoe and others from the AFSC and the Friends Meeting helped them arrange for the care of the apartment building and the storage of their goods. When they reached their tiny prefab building in the parking lot at Puyallup, these same helpers brought extra food and bedding. Poor Suma’s asthma did not respond well to the straw the family was given to stuff their mattresses! Aki’s parents supported the family with their positive nature, helping everyone around them, smiling and speaking encouragement, “Think not of the making of war, but the working for peace.”
Aki wanted to hear these words, but she was devastated by the lack of privacy and the inconvenience of the whole situation. When they arrived at the Minidoka Camp in Idaho, she was further disturbed by the tiny quarters, the thin walls through which sound and sight was possible, and the sameness of the food. At first, she was frightened by the guards in their towers, looking down on the internees and holding their weapons. But, turning back to those lessons of empathy she had learned at home, she reached out to a young soldier who looked lonely and uncomfortable. She found out he was from the South and had never encountered any Japanese people before. They did not become friends, but each came to see the other as just another human being.
Her father pitched in to help cook better meals, her mother organized women to sew bedding and curtains, and her older sister took over the cleaning of their small space. Aki tried to help, but often retreated to the communal bathroom and read a book. She had been allowed so little from home, but she was able to pack her clarinet and two books in her small suitcase – The Secret Garden and a Nancy Drew mystery. Years later she would come to see the racist character of both, but at the time they were comforting and familiar. Soon her small library grew as Floyd Schmoe brought more books on his trips to Minidoka. He and her father often spoke of pacifism and social justice; the Katos found his empathy and the similarities of their ideas and the faith and practices of Quakers bolstering.
Aki finished her high school studies at Minidoka and, with Floyd’s help, was able to leave the camp and get permission to attend the University of Utah. Unfortunately, a problem with housing and strong, anti-Japanese feelings in that community, made the placement impossible. She moved on to a business school in the city. That training would help when she returned to Seattle and was able to assist her father in the office of the interracial labor union he helped a group of Japanese returnees and some local African American workers form. First, while her family settled back in their apartment building in Seattle, Aki went to Friends University in Wichita, Kansas and stayed with Ruth Schmoe’s family during her studies there. Their hospitality and her visits to the Quaker meeting grounded many of the ideas that sustained her remaining adult years.
Aki married her brother’s best friend, Junelow Kurose, and headed back to Seattle where he finally found work as a machinist at Boeing, a job he had for 30 years. Junx came from a much more traditional Japanese family, so the couple had some mutual adjustments to make. As their family grew, they came to see the positive nature of a cooperative arrangement. Her parents were good examples, and the community was supportive. Aki was active in the community, working on improving education for people’s growing families and providing them with better housing. She got involved with the AFSC, the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom (WLPF), and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) to improve life in the central district. She took her children with her to protests and demonstrations. Junx watched for a while and then joined in.
The Kuroses enrolled their young children in The Freedom School. She and a group of neighbors started the first Head Start program in Washington state. All this time she was taking courses at night, learning new things. Junx supported her by cooking and caring for their six children. The Kato grandparents also chipped in to help, pleased with this next generation. She took more classes, this time in early childhood education, and began to teach in a Head Start school. Everything she’d learned from her parents and from her time with the Quakers went into this new task.
In 1974, Aki began her elementary teaching career in the Seattle Public Schools, working at the Martin Luther King, Jr. ES. Her classroom was a good example of a progressive learning environment. She believed in hands-on, experiential learning and cooperative practices. Her students were treated as facilitators of their own learning and that of their peers and their teacher. When problems arose, they worked them out together. When conflicts happened, they resolved them then and there. The ideas and practices of peace were integrated across the curriculum. On the floor of the classroom was a large map of the world. The students came to see themselves as world citizens. They learned greeting songs in different languages. Each morning they started the day with exercise, sending the sad, bad, or frustrating feelings off into the air, blown away by the wind. They chanted “peace” in the different languages, making up like poems to accompany them
Even when the city initiated a desegregation policy that sent her to a mostly white school in the upper northwest of Seattle, Aki involved her students in creating their own learning environment. At first, the parents were angry that she had replaced a beloved, local teacher. Aki could empathize with them. She allowed them to question her and even mildly insult her, even monitor her classroom, but she stayed the course. The children helped her develop new ways of teaching peace, tolerance, inclusion, and justice. They also learned about caring for nature. One year she took her class to the fish hatchery and got salmon eggs. They brought them back to a big aquarium in the classroom until they hatched. When the fingerlings had grown big enough, the class tromped off to a nearby stream and let them go.
The parents came to love Aki Kurose and appreciate her teaching style. They were not the only ones. She helped integrate the school in 1978, the same year she was chosen by President Carter as a member of the National Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children. In 1985 she received her master’s degree in early childhood education and was chosen Seattle’s Teacher of the Year. In 1990 she won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics. In 1992, her years of developing and sharing her peace curriculum led to a UN Human Rights Award. Each time, she returned to her classroom to get new inspiration and ideas from her students and fellow teachers.
When Akiko Kato Kurose died on May 24, 1998 after battling cancer for fifteen years, she left a big hole in the web of her family, school, and community. They would not let her go. The students and parents at Laurelhurst ES built a peace garden at their school. Recognizing her work in housing, the city of Seattle named a family-friendly housing project the Aki Kurose Village. In 2000, the Seattle Public Schools established the Aki Kurose Middle School Academy. You can go on the school’s website and see not only her story but also the way she has had an impact on shaping the school’s program. The Japanese American Citizens League established an annual scholarship program for a public school graduate to attend a local college or university. Started before her death, the Day of Remembrance at the once badly named “Camp Harmony” fairgrounds, then known also as the Puyallup Detention Center, continues. The recognition of the national mistake this place represents would humble but please this Educator for Peace. As she told her students many times, “We learn by our mistakes,” and “We are all part of the human community.”
Questions to ponder:
- What are some of the lessons Aki learned from her childhood that became important parts of her teaching?
- Have you read The Secret Garden or any of the Nancy Drew mysteries? Why did Aki come to question some of the actions and characterizations in these books as racist?
- How would you describe a stereotype? Ask your teachers and do some research on characteristics of Japanese people. Come up with a list and compare Aki’s family as a child and as an adult with your list.
Books to read:
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (graphic novel)
- Dear World by Bana Alabed
- What Does Peace Feel Like? by Vladimir Radunsky
- Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
- Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli
- The General by Janet Charters