A Fortunate Twist of Fate

Plucked from their homes during World War II, they made a life in Jersey.

Darlene (top left) in 1944 with her sister, parents, and grandfather.

It was 1942, just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Yukiji “Jack” Mukoda was eking out a living for his family as a fruit-picker in Los Angeles. The U.S. government, fearful of hostilities from Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, had started herding them into internment camps. Mukoda did not go easily. He refused to sign a loyalty oath, even as he gathered up his family’s meager belongings.

Mukoda and other protestors, called no-nos for not signing the oath, were put in a more secure camp in Tule Lake near actual prisoner-of-war camps in Northern California. At the same time, the families of Shigeyo Minakata and his son, James Mitsui, who owned a small fruit orchard in Loomis, not far from Sacramento, were being sent first to Tule Lake, then to Colorado, then to Arkansas, to lower-security facilities, just so they would be far from the West Coast, which the government viewed as vulnerable to Japanese attack.

Similar fates did not befall German-, Italian-, or Bulgarian-Americans, though their ancestral countries were all fighting Americans in Europe. Although some members of  those ethnic groups were detained, only people of Japanese descent were taken en masse from their livelihoods and homes; Mitsui, for instance, was born in California, and his father had emigrated from Japan more than 50 years before.

So it was not surprising that, when Charles Seabrook, owner of Seabrook Farms, offered to give jobs to as many as 2,500 Japanese-American internees, the Mukoda and Mitsui families quickly packed their bags for South Jersey. The Seabrook operation—then one of the largest food processing companies in the country—was spread out over 5,000 acres near Bridgeton in Cumberland County and needed cheap labor to fulfill the increased demands of wartime America. “I’d have to say we were really thankful for Seabrook. It was hard work, but our parents were working class, and it was fair wages for the time,” says Darlene Mitsui Mukoda, who was 6 when her family came to Seabrook to work and live. For the adults, there were twelve-hour days in the factory and fields, but there were also schools, playgrounds, and housing—and even local Italian merchants who stocked Japanese foods.

Robert Mukoda was 10 when his family came to Seabrook. He went to school there with Darlene’s older sister, Marjorie. When the war ended, their families stayed in Seabrook, where the food-processing business was thriving. Wages improved, and those kids who stayed ended up going to what became a polyglot high school—Seabrook also employed Estonians and other displaced Eastern Europeans—in Bridgeton.

For one of Darlene’s Seabrook schoolmates, Vivian Ohara, the end of the war brought with it a new trauma.
“A lot of my friends were from families who were middle-class and had land back in California,” she says. “My father was an auto mechanic for Seabrook, and my mother worked in the plant. For them, this was a better deal. For my friends’ parents, though, as soon as they could go back to California, they did.”

Ohara ended up working after the war in the clerical department at Seabrook, where she met her husband, Sam, also the son of California evacuees to Seabrook. The Mitsuis and the Mukodas, though, insisted their children go to college after graduating Bridgeton High School. Darlene went to Upsala College in East Orange and studied nursing. Robert served in the U.S. Army, then went back to California to attend Los Angeles Junior College but returned to Seabrook after a semester when his father died. To help support the family, Robert took what became a longtime job at Price Brothers, a printing company in Bridgeton.

Robert and Darlene, who knew each other vaguely growing up, dated while she was in college and married soon after. Their siblings—Darlene’s sister and Robert’s brother and three sisters—all moved out of the area for better opportunities after they grew up. But Robert and Darlene, who became a nurse at her old elementary school in Seabrook for 23 years, stayed and raised their family of two boys and two girls. Their own parents and even grandparents lived nearby the Mukodas, following the tradition of many immigrant groups.

“My parents always wanted us to do better than they did,” says Patricia Reyes, Robert and Darlene’s older daughter, who lives in Waldwick in Bergen County. Patricia, now 40 with two children of her own, is in the land-title business. “We were taught doing well in school would please our grandparents, too.”

Patricia went to Kean College and her younger sister, Stephanie, went to Rutgers. Their older brothers went to Drexel University and the Air Force Academy. Except for Patricia, they all left New Jersey. None of them married Japanese-Americans.

“We always thought at least one would, but no dice,” says Robert with a shrug. “It doesn’t much matter. We have ten wonderful grandchildren and they all come to visit at least a couple of times a year.”

Patricia says there are almost no Asians of any type in her children’s schools and that being half-Japanese and half-Puerto Rican, they are their own minority anyway.

“One day one of them asked me, ‘Mommy, are you Chinese?’” Patricia says. “They are 6 and 9 now, and we are conscious that we have to teach them about both their heritages. I am sure they will be proud of being Japanese, just as I was.”

Darlene and Robert, who built a comfortable ranch house a mile or so from Seabrook Farms in 1973, are retired now and look forward to visits from the grandkids.

“We’re settled here, but we know [our children] had to go elsewhere for better opportunities,” says Darlene. She shows off photos from the 1940s and 1950s of one or another Mitsui or Mukoda playing sports on a Seabrook team or at a Bridgeton High School event.

There is special reverence among her children, she says, for the photo of their great uncle, George Minakata, a loyal U.S. Army man who was killed in the Korean War and is buried in the Beverly national cemetery in Burlington County. Seabrook itself, though once the processor of 20 percent of the produce in the United States, went out of business in the 1980s.

“It was a sad time for our parents and grandparents coming here, no doubt,” says Darlene, “but it led to a good life for us and our children and grandchildren. I am sure of that.”

Clarification: The third paragraph of this article was updated and corrected from the original that ran in the December print edition of the magazine.

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