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Rose Okabe, who built a new life in Chicago after WWII internment, dead at 99

Rose and Tom Okabe, natives of Seattle, got married while they were held, along with many other Japanese-Americans during World War II, at California's Tule Lake Segregation Center. They built new lives in Chicago. “People need to know what happened to us,” Mrs. Okabe told her children, “so it doesn’t happen again.” | Provided photo

It took more than half a century before Rose Okabe let herself cry about what her country did to her and other Japanese-Americans during World War II.

After the war, Mrs. Okabe and her husband Tom Okabe lived for decades in the Chicago area. She died last month at her home in Lincolnwood at 99.

At first, their adopted city seemed hectic, cold and dirty compared to Seattle, where they lived until President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Amid racism and fears of espionage, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were ordered to report to desolate internment camps that amounted to desert prisons. The Okabes were sent to Tule Lake Segregation Center in California.

Her husband, who died in 2003, once described his first glimpse of remote Tule Lake this way: “I thought, oh, my gosh, what a place. It was bare, in a kind of desert.”

Rose Okabe. | Provided photo
Rose Okabe. | Provided photo

The Okabes got married in the camp. They’d tell people their honeymoon “was a ride in an administrator’s car along the barbed-wire fence.”

They were allowed to leave Tule Lake because Mrs. Okabe’s husband found work at an Idaho fruit operation, said Jan Andersen, their daughter.

Even though the job involved working with pesticides to analyze them, “He figured he’d rather be there instead of a prison camp,” said their son Rick Okabe.

In 1943, the Okabes arrived in Chicago. They came with three suitcases, knowing no one.

Like many former internees, they settled in what’s now known as Wrigleyville. Drawn by factory work, Chicago’s Japanese-American community grew from hundreds before the war to about 20,000 afterward, according to Ryan Yokota of the Japanese American Service Committee.

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Washington, Mrs. Okabe’s husband landed a job at Chicago’s Rapid Roller Company, and she devoted herself to creating a warm home life.

Rose Okabe and her extended family. Food always “tasted twice as good” with family, she liked to say. | Provided photo
Rose Okabe and her extended family. Food always “tasted twice as good” with family, she liked to say. | Provided photo

She “was always, always there for us,” Rick Okabe said.

She attended meetings of the PTA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. She arranged piano and Japanese dance lessons. For birthdays, Mrs. Okabe baked Miami Beach cake, from a winning recipe in the 1964 Pillsbury Bake-Off. Later in life, she worked for Scintilla Satin, Warner Candy Co. and Colonial Hospital Supply Co.

Rose Okabe used to bake Miami Beach cake for family birthdays, from a winning Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe. | Provided photo
Rose Okabe used to bake Miami Beach cake for family birthdays, from a winning Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe. | Provided photo

Her children attributed her perseverance to the Japanese principle of gaman — quiet stoicism.

Because the war scattered their relatives, the Okabe family was just the five of them — Rose, Tom and their kids Rick, Elaine and Jan. But her son said, “She would invite others who didn’t have friends or family to holiday dinners.”

Sometimes, she and her husband got together with other displaced Japanese-Americans.

They didn’t talk much about what happened to them, but occasionally, late at night, the Okabe children would hear them talking about “camp” and would think: “Oh, they were in summer camp.”

In the mid-1990s, Mrs. Okabe attended a family reunion in Utah, where her son took relatives on a tour of another camp, the Topaz Relocation Center. That’s when the dam broke.

“My mother and her sister started to cry, sobbing,” her son said. “When we were driving back to Salt Lake City, my mother admitted she had not cried in 50 years.”

“People need to know what happened to us,” Mrs. Okabe told her children, “so it doesn’t happen again.”

“They had constitutional rights denied to them because they happened to look like the enemy,” Rick Okabe said. “She was born and raised and educated in American schools. How could your government put you in a prison camp?”

Mrs. Okabe grew up Rose Soyejima in Seattle. Her mother Sumiyo was a nurse, her father Sakichi a bookkeeper. When incarceration began, her parents had been in the United States for about 40 years and considered themselves Americans, though restrictive immigration polices kept them and others who came from Japan from becoming citizens.

She met her future husband in Seattle at a Japanese congregational church. They volunteered to go to Tule Lake as it was being set up.

“It was a way for them to stay together. They were worried they were going to be separated,” said their daughter Elaine Kaneshiro.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Okabe was held at the camp with her parents, her brother Bill and sister Lily.

She worked with children at the camp, where her husband is believed to have roomed with famed painter Jimmy Mirikitani, whose Tule Lake story was told in the 2006 documentary “The Cats of Mirikitani.”

Mrs. Okabe is also survived by six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She loved going out with all of them to eat at Renga-Tei in Lincolnwood, where, she said, “The food tastes twice as good with all of you here.”