Lewis and Mary Suzuki will soon celebrate their fifty-second wedding anniversary, but a fair-sized book could be written about their adventures and misadventures before they ever got together, starting with Lewis’ father jumping ship in 1912, entering San Francisco illegally, and making his way to L.A., where he made a precarious living as a musician. In 1917 He went back to Japan, married, then re-entered the U.S. legally, starting a dry-cleaning business and a family in L.A.
Lewis was born in 1920, “delivered by a midwife under a dry-cleaning press,” he says, grinning. “I was the oldest boy.”
“Yes, ‘botchang,’” Mary laughs. “That means ‘spoiled son.’”
In 1929 Lewis’ father died (along with the boom years of the ‘20s) and his mother took her three boys and three girls back to Japan.
That was the year Mary’s parents married. They had met as students at the University of Nebraska. Her mother was Dutch-Irish-Welch American and her father had come from the Philippines to study. They left Nebraska, where so-called miscegenation laws prohibited them from marrying, and went to Chicago. Mary’s grandfather disowned his daughter. “But my grandmother gave my parents her blessing.” Mary, the second child, was born in 1931, and was only six months old when the family left for the Philippines.
“My father had been beaten up repeatedly. He said if he had to deal with violence, he could handle it better in his home country. Actually it was much better for an inter-racial couple there. Both my parents got teaching jobs, and had three more children.”
Meanwhile Lewis, in Japan, had found his vocation early. “The elementary schools in Japan had wonderful arts programs. Good teachers, art contests every couple of weeks; my best friend and I always won first and second prizes.”
The rise of Japanese militarism began to cast a shadow over all of Asia, including the Philippines. “My father wanted my mother to take us children and go back to the U.S.,” says Mary, “but she wouldn’t go without him, and he wanted to stay and fight the Japanese, if they invaded. Suddenly it was too late to leave; the bombs started to fall, and we were stuck there throughout the war.” Mary has a couple of souvenirs from those years of “bombing and starvation:” a piece of shrapnel in her leg, the loss of hearing in her right ear. “My father lost an eye when the Japanese tortured him. He was in the resistance; so was my mother.”
Lewis was luckier. By 1939 he was committed to art and wondering where he might study. One day, on a commuter train, he was looking at a directory of art schools in the United States. A man, looking over his shoulder, suddenly said, “If you’re a nisei, an American citizen, you should get out of this country, now.” Then he invited Lewis to his apartment. “I’ll never forget it. He showed me photos of the Rape of Nanking—he would have been put in prison if he’d been caught with those photos. He said war would come and I’d be drafted and made to do things like that! I must write to any relatives I could find in Japan, and get enough money to get me to America.
‘Now!’ he said. And he did one more thing, gave me a name to contact when I got to L.A., Edo Mita.” (last name first, in the Japanese way) “So that’s what I did.”
Edo helped him to get work as a house boy to take care of his room and board while finishing school at Belmont High. “After a while he invited me to his house to a ‘Marxist Study Group,’ attended by Japanese speakers who worked in the film industry behind the cameras. We watched movies and discussed them in terms of ‘dialectical materialism.’” Lewis smiles and shrugs, as if he’s still not quite sure what that term is supposed to mean. “They always ended up talking about things I did understand: militarism, war and peace, and the evil rule of the emperor of Japan.”
In 1941 Lewis made his way to Washington D. C., where he got a job at the Japanese Embassy, “mostly as tea-boy,” mostly for room and board, taking art classes whenever and wherever he could. “Then came Pearl Harbor. There was a move to send all embassy personnel to Japan, but I had American citizenship and refused to go. I had heard the embassy officials talking at dinner, after they had a few too many drinks, crying, and telling how in China they had been handed a sword and forced to proved their loyalty to the emperor by grabbing innocent Chinese off the street and beheading them!”
Mary nods. “I don’t know what it was, that beheading ethos—some crazy old combat tradition?”
“Tell her about my brother,” says Lewis.
Mary nods. “A couple of years ago, Lewis’ younger brother visited us here. One day he said he had to tell me something before he left. He wanted to apologize—you understand, this was half-a-century later—for any hurt the Japanese had done to my family. I knew he had not committed atrocities. I’d heard the story of how, at the end of the war, when Chinese civilians were hunting down remaining Japanese soldiers and killing them, a Chinese family had sheltered and hidden Lewis’ brother, saving him.”
In 1942 Lewis worked briefly as a translator at the Office of War Information in New York, but as a Japanese-American he was always under suspicion. A friendly American officer took him to lunch one day and told him he was surely going to be laid off unless—“Could you possibly dig up some communist connections? Anything at all? Everyone knows communists are safe because they’re all anti- militarist, anti-fascist, anti-emperor of Japan.”
“Later I realized that some of the anti-war groups I joined were connected to the Communist Party. But at that time the term ‘Marxist Study Group’ meant nothing to me.” Nor did the fact that helpful men like Edo seemed to have a lot of anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-war friends here and there where Lewis could get help with housing and jobs. (Lewis sounds like the old-lefty friends I made during the McCarthyite-witch-hunting fifties, for whom political naivete and protective, selective amnesia had become a reflex.) “I had to tell the officer, no, I didn’t know a thing about communism or communists.”
In that case, the friendly officer advised him, his best bet was to join the army, where he would surely be of value as a translator. Lewis took his advice and spent 1943 to 1945 teaching Japanese at the Military Intelligence Language School in Minneapolis. After being discharged at the end of the war in 1945, he spent the next seven years trying to study art in New York, to earn his living (as a cabinet maker) and to continue to work for peace and, especially, against atomic weapons. “Art and activism, art and activism. I couldn’t do both, but I couldn’t quite give up either one.”
When the war ended in 1945, Mary’s mother took her children aboard a hospital ship back to the U.S. “Her marriage was over. My father was dedicated to staying and finishing the liberation struggle against colonial power—getting the Americans out and making the Philippines an independent country. We were still starving. My mother had actually seen human finger bones in soup in Philippine restaurants. She got us back to Nebraska, to Lincoln, where she had friends and could get a teaching job. Racial attitudes were better there too, except—”
Mary laughs. “One day we kids were downtown and some police mistook us for Indians, wanted to pick us up. They almost drove us out to the reservation. But I had wonderful teachers at University of Nebraska High School in Lincoln. I’d missed out on school during the war. My math teacher tutored me. My English teacher encouraged my writing.”
(Mary continues to write, occasionally publishing. Her “New Country” can be found in the anthology Writing For Our Lives.)
“My brother was unhappy at school in Nebraska. He ran away to California, and soon the whole family followed, to Stockton, where I graduated from high school in 1949, with honors, and a scholarship to San Joaquin General Hospital Nursing School, awarded by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, their first to a Filipina. I liked nursing, but I didn’t last long. There was the Loyaly Oath, which I wouldn’t sign. And I was shocked when I was told to cover up medical errors on patient records.”
“She’s still a good nurse,” Lewis adds, smiling. “She takes care of me.”
“I ended up going to Berkeley,” Mary continues. “I managed, after a big fuss to prove my credits and transcripts were good, to get admitted to UC, took a full schedule of classes, and worked full time at Children’s Hospital. Of course, I was always exhausted, always getting sick. I finally managed to get a small scholarship.
“By that time I had become a Quaker. In 1952 I learned of a chance to visit China, and, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to go there to see how they were celebrating the end of centuries of foreign domination. I identified with the Chinese because of growing up in the Philippines, under the Americans, then under the Japanese, then Americans again, and always hearing about the earlier Spanish rulers. It was a very hopeful time in China. I couldn’t resist. With $900 I was off, by way of New York, Europe, a roundabout route to Peking, where I immediately got deathly ill!”
As she lay on her bed, several visiting Americans were asked to look in on her. One of them was Lewis Suzuki. “In 1952, I’d hurt my hand, so when the American Peace Crusade asked if I’d like to attend a meeting in Peking, I decided, okay, I can’t paint—time for some activism again.”
“The first time he saw me,” says Mary, “I was throwing up.”
It was love at first sight. They traveled around China together for a couple of months, then returned to America by way of a Peace Conference in Vienna. Once back here, they disagreed briefly about whether to settle in New York or in California. “UC was cheaper than Columbia,” says Mary, “and I wanted to finish my degree.”
Lewis nods. “That settled it.”
They were married in 1953. Lewis worked as a cabinet maker while Mary finished up at UC and gave birth to their son and daughter. Then Mary began working in early childhood education—part time when their two children were little—full time later—giving Lewis more time to paint. Both continued to work with activist groups against war and social injustice.
Eventually Lewis was able to make enough by selling his paintings to paint full-time. He exhibited widely, mostly in California, and many of us own one or two of his landscapes or seascapes. “I try to keep the prices low so people can afford to own one. I even do smaller prints of some of the paintings and sell them for only about $20. I do my own framing because that’s what can run into money.”
Lewis’ paintings, like his mellow, gentle demeanor, give no hint of the dangers he has survived nor of his passionate opposition to injustice. They are generally light, sunlit—glowing sails or flowers or trees against cloudless skies. There are exceptions, like a well-known peace-dove poster and his disturbing “Smokey Mountain.” This rather controversial painting (”some Filipinos don’t like it”) depicts the infamous shanty town built on a huge dump outside Manila, crowds of people foraging through garbage while gleaming white skyscrapers loom in the background. He painted it after he and Mary visited the Philippines in 1986. Lewis is proud of it as an example of the successful fusion of his art and activism.
At 85 Lewis continues painting, as Mary continues to write, and both enjoy their three grandchildren. Lewis’ fragile health now prohibits him from driving out to exhibit or teach, but he continues to show and sell his paintings or prints in the studio attached to his home. “People come during the ‘Open Studios’ weekends every year, or by appointment the rest of the year.” (Call 849-1427).
“As long as I can paint and work for peace, I’m satisfied,” Lewis says, as he tenderly places a cracker with a sliver of cheese in front of Mary, then turns to explain to me, “She’s diabetic, has to eat all day.”