"Resiliency" by Susan Sugai

Susan Sugai

Susan Sugai

After retiring from a career as oceanographer, educator, and research administrator, Susan Sugai began taking creative writing classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she is working on a hybrid nonfiction/poetry thesis in the MFA program. Her nonfiction work appears in Sport Literate and Sweet Lit. Her essay “Diving into the Dark” received honorable mention in Boulevard’s 2022 Nonfiction Contest for Emerging Writers.

Resiliency in my grandfather, his orchard’s western red bats, and me

Left to right: Jiichan supervising unidentified gardener, his Esparto orchard, Jiichan


Hours of daylight in Fairbanks, Alaska, have rapidly increased from our winter solstice darkness. Breakup, the season in Alaska occurring between winter and summer, has arrived. The sparkling white snowpack has become pocked as spruce cones and birch seeds start concentrating at the surface, ski trails diurnally transform from ice to slush, and rivers turn into treacherous masses of broken-up ice. At times during breakup but before green-up (when buds on deciduous trees leaf out), we hear the bugling calls of sandhill cranes resonating over our heads. These tall, long-legged birds are transcontinental travelers en route to Arctic breeding areas from wintering grounds in southern regions. Although they appear rather gangly, they can dance with a contagious joy that soothes the pain a passionate Nordic skier like me feels during this abrupt transition. As I approached adolescence, my crane-like legs were growing too long, too quickly especially for a Japanese American. Yet skills developed through years of ballet training as a child allow me to skate ski even over transformed snow.

After 15 years of research and study, I finally got my oceanography Ph.D. in 1985 as a first-generation college student. My doctoral degree was very much a legacy of Torakichi Matsumoto, my maternal grandfather, who felt that girls needed education more than boys. Jiichan (“grandfather”) believed it was important because women would have a harder time relying on their brute strength to do manual labor. My mother made his belief her priority for me, framing my education as a means of gaining respect for our family and for Japanese Americans. She never told me that she herself had been an honor student in high school.

In my search to learn more about my family, I discovered that there may be genetic precedence to my lifelong love of investigating the natural world. I recently found a 1959 Journal of Mammalogy1 paper that quotes my grandfather’s observations of western red bat behavior in his Esparto, California, orchards when visited by Denny Constantine in 1954 and 1955. Constantine, a U.S. Public Health Service scientist, was collecting bats for a regional rabies survey, and his paper discusses roosting sites of lasiurine bats (tree-roosting bats with hairy tails) observed in the California counties of Yolo, Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Marin. Jiichan's orchard was in Yolo County, and Constantine visited his orchard several times over two years. 

Through my subsequent research coupled with Jiichan’s observations reported in Constantine’s paper, I’ve learned that these bats provided my grandfather with a phenology akin to the migration of sandhill cranes through Fairbanks, my present hometown. The reddish bats, with bodies three to four inches long and wingspans of 11 to 13 inches, appeared in the small orange grove just west of the Matsumoto family house every February or March after being absent in winter. The bats would roost in the south or southeast side of trees. As the apricot trees developed leaves, the bats would move out of the orange trees and into the apricot trees, where they would roost for the summer. Western red bats are relatively solitary and roost in trees except when foraging, generally within several hours of sunset or sunrise. A farmer like my grandfather would be outside and working during the bats’ foraging times. During 1955 when Jiichan had become a key informant for Denny Constantine, my grandfather would have been 79 years old and in the late stages of terminal lung cancer.

The self-taught education Jiichan acquired over his lifetime is daunting especially in light of his relatively early arrival in the United States. Jiichan immigrated to the United States in 1899 when he was 23 years old. He had no formal education in Japan, so his knowledge of English on arrival was likely limited to nonexistent. Jiichan became an itinerant farm worker for several years in the eastern San Francisco Bay area before moving to the Nissen ranch in Esparto in 1902. While living and working there, he may have learned English and how to run a small business in California. Perhaps people on the ranch were responsible for Jiichan’s rapid assimilation, or he may have learned through observation. It’s likely his education was a combination of the two. Jiichan would later buy and sell a ranch in the area, as well a grocery store in the nearby town of Winters, before he bought his Esparto farm near the Nissen ranch in 1909. In just ten years, my grandfather advanced from itinerant farm worker to an owner-operator of a truck farm, selling plums and apricots locally. 

In 1913, Jiichan’s wife, who we called Bachan (derivative of obaasan, or “granny” in Japanese) arrived in San Francisco. After processing at Angel Island, she joined him in Esparto. In the same year, California passed the Alien Land Law (Webb-Haney Act), which denied “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (which included all Asians except Filipinos, who were “subjects of the U.S.”) the right to own land in California. Leasing of land by aliens was limited to 3 years. Having purchased his land before the Alien Land Law was established, Jiichan somehow discovered a legal means to protect his ranch and ensure it would be passed on to his family. He established Matsumoto Orchard Company, a farm corporation that records show had $20,000 in capital stock in 1918 (the year my mother was born and two years before the U.S. House of Representatives initiated hearings on Japanese Immigration).2 The Matsumoto Orchard Company was the only Japanese farm corporation in Esparto and one of only three in California’s agriculturally rich Yolo County.3 Fifty-one percent of the stock of these farm corporations had to be held by American citizens, usually lawyers, who in exchange for generous fees were holding shares as guardians for Japanese American children who were U.S. citizens from birth. In case something happened to Jiichan before his children reached legal age, their guardians would retain the land for them. By the mid-1930s, when Rihachi, his oldest son, would have reached age of majority, Jiichan’s land and farm corporation was legally deeded to Rihachi.

Less than a month after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, bringing the United States into World War II, Rihachi deeded the Esparto ranch to his brother, Denri, for $10. Rihachi was serving in the U.S. Army and, as his father had done, made sure the Esparto land would remain in the family if something happened to him. Two months later President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas” on March 18, 1942, which led to the incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Because I was only 7 years old when Jiichan died, I might be excused for thinking he did not speak English. I remember my grandfather as a towering presence with an erect, lanky body and thick, wavy white hair. When we visited the Matsumoto farmhouse, Japanese was spoken exclusively. However, my parents had made the decision not to teach Japanese to me or my younger brother, Wayne. I remember Jiichan's angry shouts in Japanese when Wayne or I slammed the screen door of the farmhouse as we ran in and out. Jiichan had probably already asked us in Japanese to close the door quietly, but we hadn't understood. Now I realize that he probably assumed Wayne and I understood Japanese because all his other grandchildren did. Our cousins lived near other Japanese Americans and may have attended Japanese language school in addition to their California public schools. When we didn't respond, our grandfather may have thought we were either extremely rude or mentally challenged. 

Although Jiichan's War Relocation Authority record correctly indicates that he had no schooling in either Japan or the United States, it indicated that he could speak, read and write both Japanese and English. Until I discovered Constantine's bat paper, I assumed that Jiichan's English language abilities had been incorrectly recorded, as was true for my paternal grandfather. The WRA records for Tomojiro Sugai also showed him able to speak, read and write English. But because Grandpa Sugai lived into my adulthood, I knew that he couldn’t understand me even though he attended 4 years of high school in Japan. My father, who was the oldest child in his family, had taught his younger siblings English as he learned it from school, but spoke to his parents in Japanese.  

It was inspiring to learn that Jiichan shared his knowledge about bats with a 30-year-old scientist who would become one of the nation’s foremost experts on bat biology, ecology, and wildlife rabies. However, uncovering this historical nugget also made me realize that I’d lost an opportunity to get to know my amazing grandfather. If I could go back in time, I would ask Jiichan about the natural connections he observed as he tended his trees and gardens. Sadly, we visited our two sets of grandparents for only several days during our biennial family road trips from Michigan to California. Over Jiichan’s lifetime, I probably spent about a week with him, much of that time when I was too young to remember. 

My mother had been living and working in San Francisco prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. She returned to Esparto in February 1942 to help the family “relocate.” Family 30804 consisted of my maternal grandparents and five of their nine Japanese-American children. At 24 years old, my mother was the oldest child not married or attending college away from home. Her youngest brother was twelve. They were temporarily incarcerated in animal stalls at state fairgrounds that became the Merced Assembly Center, and later transferred to the Turlock Assembly Center. In July 1942, they took a train to the hastily built and still unfinished Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona, on the Gila River Indian Reservation. 

My parents and their extended families would not talk about their incarceration, and I respected their silence. Now that my parents have died, I have used my research skills to learn more about my family without fear of shaming them. In doing so, I found that my interest in ecological connections, like my unusual height and early-onset osteoarthritis, may have been inherited from my maternal grandfather.

Because Jiichan was an avid observer of western red bats in his Esparto orchards, and he had abundant free time for probably the first time in his life during his Gila River incarceration, I wonder if he would have discovered the lesser long-nosed bats that follow the flowering of several species of columnar cacti, including saguaros, northward through the desert in late spring. Unlike Jiichan’s western red bats that hung from high within his orange and apricot trees during the days, the lesser long-nosed bats that fed on the large, creamy white saguaro flowers and fruit roosted in caves and mines. I can’t help thinking that Jiichan would have felt a kinship with these desert bats, who—like the Japanese prisoners—assembled with hundreds or thousands of their kin in desert day roosts. Bats hanging in crowds by their feet on the roof of a cave wouldn’t seem that unlike the queues of Japanese at mess halls, toilets and showers in the Gila River Relocation Center. But the long-nosed bats on the saguaros, like the western red bats of Central California, were free to come and go and could feed out of reach of humans and birds. 

Now that I see my grandfather as an orchardist who pondered not only his fruit but the connections with the ecosystem that surrounded it, I wonder if Jiichan might have harvested the saguaro fruit. Again, given the free time he would have had while incarcerated, perhaps he would have refined his ability to speak English and other languages to communicate with his new neighbors. Just as he had learned farming techniques appropriate to Central Valley in California, I suspect Jiichan could have learned saguaro harvesting techniques from the Tohono O’odham, upon whose land the Matsumoto family were incarcerated. Members of the Gila River Indian Community were hired to work in the camps as guards, as workers with livestock, and at the camouflage net factory. Thus, there would have been opportunities for interactions with incarcerated Japanese Americans. Given Jiichan’s emphasis on education for his children and grandchildren, I believe that he would have willingly learned from others whom he considered a sensei (teacher, master) as he had done when he arrived in California. 

Sadly, I would not learn from sensei Jiichan. In August 1956, after three days and two nights on the road from California to Michigan, Wayne and I hauled boxes of food and camping gear from the back of the station wagon into the house, along with duffle bags of clothing. We had just stacked everything in the living room when the phone rang, and Mother answered it. In the era of landline phones with shared party lines, the call was over in minutes. Mother scarcely uttered a muffled “no” and then, “okay.” After hanging up the phone, she told us that Jiichan had died and we would be heading back to California in the morning. Mother likely made a rushed trip to the A & P grocery store and did several loads of laundry while preparing us our first meal at home in several weeks. Meanwhile, Dad washed the car, changed the engine oil, and lubed the front end in preparation for another long drive across most of the continental United States. Our Disneyland hats would not make the return trip to California, but my Teddy bear and my Sunday school clothes would. 

Although the War Relocation Authority records for “Torakich” Matsumoto had recorded his religion as “undecided, none, atheist, agnostic,” the obituaries that my mother had tucked into a book about Japanese businesses and farms in California confirmed my memories of a funeral in a Sacramento Buddhist temple. Mother likely wore a black dress and heels, and Dad wore a dark-colored suit, white shirt and tie, when we entered the Buddhist temple at 418 O Street. This temple had been founded in 1899, the same year Jiichan came to California, and is the second-oldest Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple in the continental United States. 

I felt as if I had walked into an alien world as I entered the temple. 

Perhaps because I had never attended a funeral before, I remember seeing my grandfather’s body, dressed in a suit and tie, lying in an open casket at the front of the Buddhist temple. He no longer looked like my grandfather—but instead resembled one of the characters we had seen at the San Francisco Wax Museum. Jiichan’s spirit had already escaped, like I wanted to do. I had been frightened when we upset Jiichan at the farm just days earlier. Now after riding almost 5,000 miles in our station wagon in less than a week, the ringing gongs startled me. My hands and face were sweaty. Sitting near the families of my mother’s brothers and sisters, I probably asked Mother what I was supposed to do, to which she would have whispered, “Shh—just watch Nēsan (“oldest sister”) and do the same thing when it’s your turn.”  

Even at 7 years old, I felt conspicuous because I couldn’t understand Japanese like my California cousins. Fortunately, the older ones went before me, mimicking their parents. Hands trembling as I held the incense stick and bowed, I didn’t stumble. I didn’t break anything. My eyes likely watered in reaction to the incense smoke. Jiichan was gone, as was the aromatic smell of his pipe tobacco. I looked like the rest of Jiichan’s family, but the suburban Detroit-raised granddaughter felt as out-of-place in the Buddhist temple as she had been two years earlier in kindergarten at Monroe Elementary in Wayne, Michigan. I had been so quiet that Miss Brown, my teacher, thought I was retarded. Maybe Jiichan would have agreed with her. Or maybe he had seen a flicker of promise in his already tall, English-speaking granddaughter.

In 1988, the western red bat (Lasiurus blossevillii) was recognized as taxonomically distinct from the more common eastern red bats (Lasiurus borealis). Previously Constantine and others had referred to the western red bat as Lasiurus borealis teliotis. Although the western red bats are widespread, the cottonwood and sycamore trees that were their preferred riparian trees for roosting and foraging were already in steep decline in the 1950s because of developments and hydrology alterations. Pesticide use in orchards, which provided alternative roosting sites, posed an additional threat to the bats. But like Jiichan, these bats adapted to new environments and learned to thrive.  

Looking back at the Matsumoto orchards and the desert ecosystem I suspect my grandfather studied while incarcerated on Gila River Indian lands, I see striking parallels in the intertwined lives of the mammals, plants, and humans. Long-nosed bats and saguaros are as mutually beneficial as western red bats and apricot orchards. By studying them, Jiichan gained insight on his role in his adopted homeland.

At 73 years old, my arthritic joints respond to seasonal and life cycles. As I ski toward my 45th spring in Interior Alaska, I have assimilated—like Jiichan—in a different ecosystem than that of my birth. In the summer, I walk for miles on those same ski trails and up and down local hills, my pace fast enough that even my younger walking buddies struggle to keep up. Perhaps, when I can no longer explore the boreal forest on skis, climb up to alpine meadows, or kayak our blue planet, I'll follow Jiichan’s example again. Late in his life, when my grandfather stayed with Toshi, my mother's oldest sister, and her family, he would walk the streets of San Francisco. Daniel, my teenage cousin, was tasked with chasing after him, but he had to run. Our grandfather walked quickly, the way he had done when he had orchards to look over, the way I do now. He kept looking, listening, and learning. As a child, I didn’t realize his mastery of languages extended to all creatures that he encountered. I feel him looking over my shoulders now.   


1. Constantine, Denny G. “Ecological Observations on Lasiurine Bats in the North Bay Area of California.” Journal of Mammalogy, Feb. 1959, pp. 13-15. 

2. Japanese Immigration. Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. U.S. Congress House of Representatives. Sixty-sixth Congress, Second Session, July 12, 13, and 14, 1920. Part 1. Hearings at San Francisco and Sacramento, California.

3. Evidence presented by Mr. Frank L. Lathrop, Farm Expert, State Board of Control in Sacramento, at the Hearings on Immigration and Naturalization