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Obituary of Kimiko F. Durham: Helped U.S. war effort after release from internment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2012 - Kimiko Fujimoto Durham, who worked as an American "Tokyo Rose" after being freed from a U.S. internment camp during World War II, and who spent the rest of her life helping to bridge the cultural divide between Asians and Americans, died of a heart attack Dec. 30 at SSM St. Mary's Health Center. She had lived in University City for more than 50 years.

Mrs. Durham's memorial service will be Sunday, Jan. 15, one day before what would have been her 90th birthday.

"She was a fascinating woman who gave us a window into Japanese culture," said Mary Edwards, production manager at KWMU.

Executive Order 9066

Mrs. Durham was Nisei, a first-generation American-born child of Japanese immigrant parents. But a family tragedy also made her Kibei, a Japanese-American primarily educated in Japan.

Until she was 9 years old, "Kimi" had lived a typical, middle-class life with her family in Los Angeles. Her mother, Osumi Fujimoto, was a housewife; her father, Masakichi Fujimoto, owned a Japanese specialty foods business. When he died, leaving his widow with five young children to raise alone, Kimi and three of her siblings were sent to live with relatives in Mikoshe, Japan, near Hiroshima.

After graduating from high school, she returned to California, no longer able to speak English. She took a job as a nanny and was relearning her first language from her 4-year-old charge when she and her family joined more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were summarily rounded up and moved into 10 internment camps during World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066 to lock up Japanese Americans ostensibly to protect other U.S. citizens from domestic espionage and sabotage.

Mrs. Durham and her family were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center on the Gila River Indian Reservation near Phoenix. Unlike most camps, Gila River's fence was not made of barbed wire, and it had only one guard tower. But the camp was built to house 10,000, and more than 13,000 people were crowded into the stark barracks, mess halls and any other available space. The desert heat, poisonous snakes and scorpions added to the distress.

"It was no way to treat American citizens," said Lee Durham, Mrs. Durham's husband.

Return To Freedom

After being in the camp about a year, Mrs. Durham asked a visiting minister to speak to a group of high school students with whom she worked. The minister was so impressed by her that he sought and won her freedom. She was released into his care and he arranged for her to move to Virginia, where she attended the University of Richmond.

While in Virginia, she was recruited to work as a radio announcer for the U.S. government's Office of War Information in San Francisco. The office was established by Roosevelt to disseminate the government's war policies and activities in the U.S. and abroad. No one called it propaganda, at least not officially.

"She was like Tokyo Rose," said her husband, referring to the English-speaking Japanese women who broadcast propaganda to American troops.

"She once did a whole wedding ceremony that was sent to the (Japanese) troops to make them homesick," Lee Durham added.

The end of the war in 1945 meant the end of her job. It also meant the close of the internment camps. But it would be more than four decades before Mrs. Durham and other Japanese Americans would receive an apology and $20,000 each for their loss of property and freedom.

Mrs. Durham promptly shared her reparations with the Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization in the U.S. and an organization with which she was active locally.

Bridging Worlds

Index cards contain Mrs. Durham's handwritten meeting notes about the league's plans for a Japanese garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

"Started looking into where we might have small token Japanese garden," a note said. "Looked into Forest Park, Arch and Mo Bot. Met with Dr. Raven. Story got bigger and bigger -- 13 acres designated. JACL spent its 3500 dollars and hired Koichi Kawana."

That would be Peter Raven, the Missouri Botanical Garden's recently retired director, and the late University of California professor Koichi Kawana, a native of Japan. The 14-acre Seiwa-en, "garden of pure, clear harmony and peace," was dedicated in 1977.

Mrs. Durham was a longtime supporter of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Science Center and the St. Louis Zoo. But most of her affiliations reflected her efforts to bridge her two worlds: Asia and America.

She and her husband served as ambassadors through People to People International; the organization's local chapter named her woman of the year in 1989. The couple led Americans on more than a dozen, three-week "home-stay" trips to Japan and Korea and brought numerous Asian delegations and individuals to St. Louis.

"We once hosted the whole business education department of Yonsei University (in Korea) one guy at a time," Lee Durham laughed. "I've lost track of how many people we've hosted over the years. Sometimes, we didn't even know they were coming."

Mrs. Durham was also a member of Friends of Nagano, the Sister Cities Program and Springboard to Learning, a program that was established to introduce children attending underserved schools to other cultures. She was one of the program's earliest volunteers, teaching reading, the Culture of Japan and Japanese dance.

The Teacher

Mrs. Durham's volunteer efforts were often merely extensions of her day job: teacher. She began as a kindergarten teacher and retired after teaching special education for more than 30 years in the St. Louis Public Schools.

"Sometimes, students would come to her not knowing how to turn the page, let alone read it," said Lee Durham.

In 1980, she took a year's sabbatical in Japan to study the Japanese methods of teaching special education. Her husband went along, working in the import export business while there. When they returned to the U.S., he founded Mokei Imports, which he still runs.

During the early years, Mrs. Durham moved several times with her husband as he changed jobs, with stops in Logansport, Ind., and Alton, Ill. Their first stop had been Evanston, Ill., after the two met in San Francisco.

Lee Durham had migrated to San Francisco from Evanston, Ill., where he'd been in college. She had a room at the American Friends Service Center and he had a cot in the organization's basement. He asked her out, she accepted, and their date to the beach and a haunted house set him back about $1.50.

"She was smart and she was cute," Lee Durham said. "Why she picked me, I don't know, but I'm sure glad she did."

When he returned to Northwestern University in Evanston to complete his education, she was with him. They were married in Evanston on June 27, 1947.

Mrs. Durham earned a bachelor's degree in education from National College of Education (now National-Louis University) in nearby Chicago. She later studied at Harris Stowe State University and subsequently earned a master's degree in education from Saint Louis University.

The 'it' Factor

"She was a tiny person - under five feet tall - but she had a presence," said her daughter-in-law Judith Durham. "When she came into a room, you knew it. She had the 'it' factor."

She also had talent. She was an artist, adept in oil, water color and paper; she could knit and she could sew. When her three sons were young, she made each a complete three-piece suit.

Mrs. Durham didn't just make things; she made things happen.

"Her first reaction when she would hear about some trauma was always 'what can I do to help'?" said Edwards, whose sister, Ruth, is married to Mrs. Durham's youngest son, Paul.

Mrs. Durham was preceded in death by her parents and four siblings.

In addition to her husband of 64 years, her survivors include her sons, Douglas "Bull" Durham (Judith), of Ballwin, David (Madonna) Durham, of Frontenac, and Paul (Ruth) Durham, of Creve Coeur; eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Durham's life will be celebrated at 2 p.m., Sun., Jan. 15, at University United Methodist Church, 6901 Washington Ave., in University City.

In lieu of flowers, memorials would be appreciated to University United Methodist Church or the Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.