Diplomat unearths Japanese-American roots in Dinuba

U.S. Japanese-American diplomat Matthew Asada traces his family roots to Dinuba, discovering his grandfather’s life in the Valley before World War II

Matthew Asada delivers a heartfelt presentation and tribute to the life of his Japanese American Grandfather, Mark Asads Jr. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published February 20, 2024  • 
12:30 pm

DINUBA – This year, President’s Day fittingly coincided with the Day of Remembrance, when Japanese-American communities mark the anniversary of the moment a signature from President Franklin D. Roosevelt uprooted the lives of thousands of people and, for many, altered their family’s path for generations to come.  

Matthew Asada, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, has been working with his sister, Mikki, to unearth his familial roots first planted in Tulare County nearly a century ago. After years of looking through national records, family photographs and his grandfather’s mementos, Asada shared his findings with the Alta District Historical Society on Feb. 19.

“This is a journey across six different chapters, five different locations, four different generations of the Asadas … and on a day of particular meaning — the Day of Remembrance (of) Executive Order 9066,” Asada said to the historical society. “What’s really interesting, for this story you’re not just going to hear from me, but from the protagonists themselves with media, pictures, video and documents from across one century of American History.” 

Asada focused his presentation on his grandfather, Mark, who was a 16-year-old Dinuba resident in 1942. Mark was the only child of immigrant parents Mosaku and Tamayo, who moved to the United States in 1900 from Hiroshima, Japan. They worked as farmers in the Fresno area before owning a farming business in Dinuba.

On Feb. 19, 1942, Mark’s life changed overnight when Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to “exclude” citizens from military zones created along the West Coast as a result of the United States entering World War II after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Shown is a copy of the Presidential Warrant for Mosaku Asada. (Kenny Goodman)

This order led to the removal of all people of Japanese descent — both foreign nationals and American citizens — from their homes near the coast to incarceration camps further inland. More than 120,000 people were detained at camps in remote areas of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming and were not allowed to leave until the end of the war. 

Dinuba roots

Mark graduated from Dinuba Union in the spring of 1942 after three years. Because he had enough credits, he was able to graduate early when he realized he may not return for his senior year, Asada said.

Asada shared photos and writings from his grandfather’s high school yearbook, as well as a scrapbook that his grandfather kept, which Asada’s family discovered after he died. 

“When the Japanese had to go to the internment camps, they couldn’t take too many things with them, so the things they did take with them really were of significance,” Asada said. 

Mark’s yearbook was inscribed with a note he had written that said: “to the person or party reading this book, with another school year coming to a culmination, I leave this memorable school with a heavy heart. What you are about to read is symbolic of the very things which will remain a perpetual memory within my heart.” 

A tribute photo to Mark Asada, Jr. (Kenny Goodman)

Mark and his mother were forced to relocate to the incarceration camps in Poston, Arizona, along the Colorado River. His father was not with them; he had been arrested and imprisoned in March 1942, considered an “alien enemy” by the FBI. 

Just a teenager, Mark decided to write a letter to the United States Attorney General, looking for answers about why his father was arrested. 

Asada said that Mark did not have an exact mailing address for the Attorney General, but somehow, the letter got to the right person, and Mark corresponded with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to find out what happened to his father. 

During his presentation, Asada read from the letters his grandfather wrote and shared a timeline of the communication that was happening behind the scenes — unknown to Mark — which Asada was able to discover through records held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

“My grandfather writes … ‘Facing these facts, father must come home because — oh, I don’t know why, but only human nature can understand the love of home and their families,’” Asada said. “He was expressing himself with the words that he knew at that time, and so he made this appeal.” 

As a leader in the community, Mosaku was targeted by the FBI and suspected of being an enemy. Through internal hearings and review of his case, the federal government continued to keep Mosaku in prison at the Sharp Park Detention Station near San Francisco. Shortly into his stay there, Mosaku suffered a stroke, and was never the same. 

Mark and his family did not know what was happening with Mosaku, Asada said, but Mark continued to look for answers and advocate for his father, asking the DOJ to “study my father’s case with sympathy.”

Eventually, the Attorney General wrote to Mark one last time in August 1942, and said that although the Department of Justice had recommended to keep Mosaku interned at Sharp Park, Mark had made a strong case in his defense, and the Attorney General was inclined to believe him. Mosaku was paroled, and reunited with his family, who by that time were living in the incarceration camp in Poston. 

An unknown impact

Asada said his grandfather never knew how influential his letter writing was in getting Mosaku released from prison. It was Mark’s writing that also led to Asada’s father, Michael, receiving a nomination to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

In 2003, further inspired by his family’s public service, Asada himself joined the U.S. Department of State as a foreign service officer, and said that it was because of his grandfather’s fight against injustice that he worked to reform policies in the U.S. Foreign Service that restricted where some diplomats could serve.

What’s more, by digging into Mark’s story, Asada has been able to reconnect to a lost piece of his family history. He said that many people from Mark’s generation never spoke about their time in the incarceration camps, and it is only thanks to the United States’ diligent record keeping that he has been able to find out a lot more about his ancestor’s lives. 

A few Dinuba community members who were present at the event remarked that they themselves and their family members were also sent to the incarceration camps, and their parents never spoke about it much. One resident said that it wasn’t until Asada’s presentation that he really knew about what happened. 

Another resident recalled that he knew Mark, and said that Mark “was always nice to me, so I can’t forget him.” 

Asada said that what was most moving for him in looking into this history was that his grandfather never knew it was his letters that saved his father. Mark never knew that his parents may have owned land in Dinuba — something that Asada is still looking for more information on — and he never was never able to return to California. 

After leaving Poston, Mark’s family settled into Seabrook, New Jersey, and restarted their lives. Mark died in 2021 at the age of 96. In his wallet, Asada said he carried around a small piece of paper that read: “We are reminded how ‘frail’ and ‘fragile’ is the protection guaranteed by our constitution.”

“Today, the Day of Remembrance, we do this, we share these stories, so that we’ll never forget,” Asada said. “Because as (Gordon Hirabayashi) stated, the constitution is nothing but a scrap of paper if citizens are not willing to defend it. Remember, my grandfather kept that very similar phrase … with him until he died. My grandfather, he did it for his father (and) he did it for his son.” 

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter