April 19, 1966: An 11-year-old boy was excitedly awaiting the outcome of the Boston Marathon, with a special interest in the Japanese runners. His father, who, as a young GI, had married a Japanese woman and brought her home to East Boston, had found them a spot near the finish line.
Angelo Amato wanted his son, Joseph, to feel proud of his Japanese heritage. And what better place and time to instill such pride, with the strong possibility of a repeat of the 1965 marathon? That year, Japanese runners took first, second and third place.
And coming toward the finish line were runners about to best that showing. The four in top places were all Japanese, led by Kenji Kimihara, who finished first with a time of 2:17:11.
What Joseph remembers most sharply about that day, however, is what he heard nearby.
“So we’re standing there near the finish line,’’ he recalled more than 50 years later. “Right near us, within earshot, was another father and son about my age. And the father would look and talk to his son, looking at us. And I can hear them saying derogatory things, ‘Japs.’ … I looked at my father. He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything.”
For the running world, the success of the Japanese was no surprise. “There were more fast Japanese runners than any other country in the world in the 1960s,” Boston Marathon historian Tom Derderian says. “By 1965, the U.S. occupation of Japan was over. Japan was our ally. Japanese coming to Boston was the politic thing to do. And also Japanese became nuts about the marathon.”
Twenty years after the end of the war, Japan was reclaiming a place as a great nation. It had just hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics, the first Olympics held in Asia. If it was not yet the economic heavyweight of later decades, it was of immense importance to the United States as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia. U.S. military bases dotted the country.
But in a little corner of East Boston, a mixed-race boy and his brothers — half Japanese, half Italian American — were growing up and dealing with the fact that they did not look like everyone else.
Adults remembered Pearl Harbor, some with deep anger. But it wasn’t just the war and the reminder of the enemy. Kids with garbled ideas of race and geography tauntingly called Joseph “Chinese.” That September was the launch of “Green Hornet,” the TV series that brought Bruce Lee notice as Kato, the Green Hornet’s Asian sidekick. And so Joseph was mockingly called Kato.
But Lee was Chinese, Joseph said. “He didn’t mean anything to me.”
And there was this version of cowboys and Indians: “We used to play out here in the neighborhood. Being different, we played war. … We’d all be playing, right, and make sides. He’s the American, and I’m the enemy. How do you think a boy would feel when they call you the enemy?”
Joseph’s mother, Kimiko, came to the United States only a few years after Japan’s defeat in World War II. His father, Angelo, was an 18-year-old GI when he landed in Japan in 1945, among the first U.S. troops to come ashore for the occupation. He met Kimiko two years later and by 1949 was trying to find a way to bring her to the United States as his fiancee.
Because of tough anti-Asian immigration laws, he needed help from his congressman, John F. Kennedy. The future president sponsored a private bill that admitted Kimiko Yamaguchi to the United States. The couple settled in the East Boston neighborhood where Angelo grew up, and Kimiko became part of his extended Italian American family.
Joseph said his father was always trying to teach him lessons — although that day at the Boston Marathon finish line, it was not the lesson he planned. The experience helped Joseph develop a tougher skin, which he needed.
In an interview, he addressed his mother, sitting nearby:
“Can I tell you something, ma? And I told you this before, and I told other people. If I started acting the Japanese way like you said, right in East Boston in the times I grew up here, I wouldn’t be around, I tell you. These kids were tough. I fought through high school, a lot of fights. I didn’t back down from anybody.”
His mother remembered the day when he was in second grade and came home from school quiet, not wanting to talk, and then burst out crying. After he accidentally bumped a schoolgirl during a playground game, the girl told her mother, who called Joseph a name. He can’t remember what it was, but he knew it was meant to hurt him.
Kimiko asked her son to point out the girl’s mother at school pickup time.
“I said, ‘Joseph, take a look at her. Look at her long coat. The lining is not even fixed. All the material sticks down.’ ” She told her son that either she didn’t have time to fix her coat or she didn’t have enough clothes, that she was obviously very poor. “ ‘I want to say something to her, but, Joseph, she’s very poor. She has more trouble than we have, so I’m just going to let it go.’ ”
But Joseph said, “To me, looking back, I didn’t think that solved my problem. It still made me feel not only I was different but weaker because I didn’t retaliate.’’
He has not been back to watch the Boston Marathon in person, although he says it isn’t because of his experience in 1966. He doesn’t like crowds, so he spends Patriot’s Day at home.
He looks back on growing up in an Italian American neighborhood:
“I feel first American. … I feel also, probably more so Italian because I still work with people who know my father. … A lot of ways I was taught, the Italian way, by my father because I hung around with him a lot and, you know, my friends were all Italian when I grew up, so naturally I feel my mannerisms and the way I think is more Italian.
“But I never forget my Japanese roots, of course. Strange, because I have two sons, and one of them, especially the younger one, he’s really trying to find his Japanese roots. He even went to Japan. He’s really proud to be Japanese.”
To see photos from families of Japanese war brides, visit https://instagram.com/kathryn.tolbert.
Read more Retropolis: