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Stateside Podcast: The story of Kinuko Yada DeVee

Kinuko DeVee and Neita
Rachel Ishikawa
/
Michigan Radio
Kinuko Yada DeVee (left) standing with her daughter Neita (right).

If you ask Kinuko Yada DeVee about what her life is like, she’ll tell you about her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, and her great-great-children. She’ll tell you about her women’s Bible study, her friends from church, and the crew of stray cats she feeds outside.

At 94 years old, Kinuko lives a quiet life full of family. She lives the kind of life you’d wish for your own great great grandmother.

But life for Kinuko wasn’t always so happy. Women like Kinuko are known as “war brides.” Her story tracks a similar tale of thousands of other young Japanese women who married American military personnel serving during World War II. These women then immigrated to the United States, a country that for years had banned immigration from Asia.

For Kinuko, it was a young GI named Kenneth DeVee who brought her to the U.S. in 1951. Coming to this country meant adapting to a new culture, language, and diet. It meant leaving her friends and family behind. It even meant taking on a new name: “Kitty.”

But before Michigan — before the American mid-century pleasures of hotdogs and PB&Js – Kinuko lived a very different kind of life.

From war nurse to “war bride”

Kinuko grew up in Kyoto and when she was a teenager, World War II broke out. Government officials came to her high school and asked boys and girls to join the Japanese military.

“I decided to do that,” Kinuko said with a chuckle. “Fight for country.”

Kinuko DeVee 1
Rachel Ishikawa
/
Michigan Radio
Kinuko Yada DeVee holding a photograph from her days serving in the Japanese military as a nurse. She's pictured left in the photograph.

Kinuko became a Navy nurse at a hospital in her home city. She was just 15 years old.

Then, in August of 1945, the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kinuko was sent to Hiroshima as a nurse.

“First we don't know what hit it,” Kinuko said, reflecting on the nuclear attacks. “Mostly people still alive were burning, and we don't know how to treat…But we did best we can.”

When Japan lost the war, the hospital she worked at in Kyoto was transformed into a veteran’s hospital run by Americans. She decided to stay on as a nurse. She cared for patients in her home city, just as she did during the war.

“There still some of the Japanese patients,” she said. “So I stayed and volunteered and cared for them, all of those patients.”

It was at this now veteran’s hospital where Kinuko met her future husband Ken, who worked in ambulatory services. One day she was helping him out, and Ken confessed that he’d been eyeing her.

Three months later they went on their first date. When Kinuko was around 19 and Ken was 21, they got married.

To her family, Kinuko married the enemy.

“They were really against it,” she said.

Kinuko and Ken had their first two children in Japan. Then like thousands of other Japanese women, Kinuko moved to the U.S. with her American husband and children.

Immigrating to the U.S.

In the U.S., Kinuko did not get a lot of outside support. Ken’s family lived in Michigan, but they did not approve of their marriage either.

So Kinuko found her own help. She found community in her local church.

“People were really nice,” Kinuko said. “They show me where they go to get the used clothes — Goodwill — because we didn’t have much money to start with.”

Over time she learned English as well — mostly through her children. She would watch her four children as they did their homework and some days she sat in the back of their classrooms.

Even though life was challenging in the U.S., there were things Kinuko really liked about living in the States, namely the freedom she had.

“You know, Japan, a woman more like a slave,” Kinuko reflected. “She had no right to say opinion. That’s what it was like when I grew up. Maybe now it's different.”

Kinuko said when she grew up in Japan, the woman would walk behind the man. In the States, Ken and Kinuko walked together; side-by-side.

A house in Maybee, MI

If you ask Kinuko today what it was like to go from one of Japan’s largest cities to rural America, she’ll tell you about the house her husband built in a town called Maybee.

At first the house was only one room, but over time they would add another room, then another, until the house became pretty big.

Kinuko’s story is kind of like this house. Each new room they built is like a new chapter of her life. Like the house, her life grew into something full; something complete.

“I'm a happy. I got a lot of family and they all love me,” Kinuko said. “I’m 94. And you know I never know they call [me] up so I try the best I can everyday.”

This story was inspired by Matt Schepeler’s article in the Brooklyn Exponent.

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.