My given name is Cindy Shimizu, my married name is Cindy Bisagno, but once, for a short time, it was something else. It was Fusae Kashiwada.
Road to Adoption
My adoptive father, Sho Shimizu, and his family were one of several Japanese-American pioneers in the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington before their incarceration during WWII in the Japanese-American relocation camp of Heart Mountain, Wyoming. My adoptive mother, Beverly Miyamoto, and her family, originally from the San Diego, California area, were incarcerated at Poston, Arizona at the same time. Before the end of the war, internees were released and allowed to travel and settle east in the Midwest. Many moved to Chicago as did my adoptive parents, where they met and married.
After the war ended, my prospective adoptive parents grew weary of the Chicago cold and longed to return to the warmth of the west coast sunshine and the many fishing streams and camping grounds, and beautiful sightseeing landscapes it offered, which they had both learned to love as some of their favorite pastimes. These diversions also helped in keeping them busy and active amid their growing longing and restlessness to start a family. During the latter half of the 1950’s, they settled down in Redondo Beach, California. Because of Mom’s inability to bear children, they pursued their dream by contacting adoption agencies around the country. Each of them turned them down; partly because of Mom’s medical history (including breast cancer).
After several attempts to proceed with getting qualified to adopt from American adoption agencies, they did what many couples who were deem unqualified by the strict eligibility requirement policies of U.S. adoption agencies; they began to pursue options overseas, namely, Japan. They finally found a Christian orphanage in Japan who would accept them; The Elizabeth Saunders Home in Oiso.
Since Mom and Dad were unable to travel to Japan, they were sent pictures of children. The home had convinced them to take a boy, Kazuo, who had been there for a while. They would later rename him Gregory, or Greg, for short. He had been born in Fukuoka Prefecture, where, interestingly enough, Mom’s parents were from. Apparently, he been abandoned and was taken in by another orphanage in a poor remote village before arriving at ESH. Mom and Dad had originally wanted a little girl between three and four years of age; just the right age to have assimilate into their home and culture, and thus, also selected a little girl, Ikuko.
As soon as all the legal paperwork was done and they were eagerly anticipating the arrival of that child, Ikuko was suddenly taken back by her relatives at almost the last minute. Needless to say, Mom and Dad were severely disappointed and dismayed. Consequently, the orphanage worked feverishly to fill their void. Finally, they received a letter from a Dr. Thomas Abe de Figueredo, (“Mr. Abe”) the adoption attorney who worked with the home, with a snapshot informing them that a new three and a half year old little girl had just arrived at the home to take Ikuko’s place and dissipate Mom and Dad’s disappointment. Although I was dressed “poorly in country fashion” as Mr. Abe described, but I was of “pure Japanese blood and high mental standard.”
According to my Koseki, or Japanese “Certified Copy of Family Register”, my birth father was Shiro Kashiwada and my birth mother was Kiyo Kashiwada, formerly Kiyo Matsumoto. I was born in Oaza, Kamiyamada, Yamadashi, Fukuoka-ken. He had married her five years after the death of a previous wife of only two years. It was only recently, in the fall of 2019, that I learned that my birth mother was actually his third wife. Each wife had died young and only within a few years of each marriage. I was born three years after he married Kiyo but 7 months later, in May, 1957, she also died, leaving Shiro, once again, alone.
I am assuming that since the letter from ESH to my adoptive parents indicated that I was of “pure Japanese blood”, that both my birth parents were full Japanese, as well as my birth brothers. Mom and Dad, both being of Japanese ancestry had previously indicated that they wanted two Japanese children. My parents were told that Greg was of Japanese parentage but because his complexion was so much darker than most of us Japanese, we always wondered later if that was actually true, whether he was of mixed race. I wish I had remembered everything of my stay at the Elizabeth Saunders Home. Having recently joined a private Facebook group of former ESH adoptees, additional online internet researches have been the only ways I have been able to reconnect to long forgotten and faded bits of my past.
A Young Family in Southern California
I don’t even remember anything about our transition to the United States in September of 1960 at four years of age, but Mom would tell me that my dress I wore on the plane was so filthy and smelly that the first thing she did when we got to my new home was to throw it in the trash and put me in a brand new pretty one. Dad would tell me on a several occasions, including just shortly before his death in 2008, that upon arriving, they gave me a brand new shiny black patent leather Mary Jane shoes to replace the secondhand ones I had on. He’d tell me that all I could do was hold them in my hands and just stare down on them with amazement and wonder. Every time he would tell me that story, he always got choked up trying to hold back tears.
Mom and Dad were very proud of the fact that they were able to adopt Greg and me. All their friends and families, knowing they could never bear children, were extremely happy for them. From the beginning, Mom and Dad were committed to reminding us that we were chosen and loved as if they were their flesh and blood. All our friends and relatives on both sides always treated us as if we were. I believe that it was well known in the Japanese community that adoption was common, especially in the old country, so that property and inheritance could be passed down if there were no surviving male children.
During our early childhood years, Mom did her best to help us adjust. I don’t even remember speaking perfect adult Japanese that Mom said I did even though I was only four years of age. Being bilingual, it was easy enough for her and Dad to communicate with my adoptive brother, Greg, and I. However, she made it a point to speak as much English as possible to us at home and in public. She wanted to make sure that we assimilated as quickly as we could into American culture. She also knew that, as I had previously mentioned, that proficiency in the English language was the key to a good education which would, in turn, provide a prosperous future. She enrolled us in school the next year even though we really didn’t understand much English, but I quickly learned and adjusted well. In fact I became so proficient in the English language that by the time I was in the first grade, I had forgotten most of my Japanese language.
Our family then moved from Redondo Beach to Anaheim, California, in 1962. Our house was halfway between Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Except for the few instances where we had to attend another school (for reasons I am unable to expand on here) Greg and I were enrolled in Walt Disney Elementary School for most of our first through the 6th grade years. Our cafeteria/auditorium walls were adorned with all the classic Disney characters; Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Goofy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and so on. Our teachers would show Disney’s True-Life Adventure films during class as part of our science hour. Sometimes, on a Saturday or non-school days, they would put on an old live action Disney movies while we sat on the floor eating popcorn and candy.
Meeting the Legendary Walt Disney
Mr. Disney, or Walt (as he preferred to have us call him) came to our school for a few very special occasions. A couple of times he was accompanied by a few of his costumed characters. For one of his two 1965 visits, just before "It's a Small World" was installed at Disneyland, and near the beginning of Disneyland’s 10th year, I, along with a few other students, had the special honor and privilege of being asked to help him make his presentation inside of our Disney character adorned auditorium. It was for a private PTA meeting and I believe, just a couple of weeks before his official school presentation on February 9, 1965. I’m not sure why I was chosen but it might have something to do with the fact that the faculty knew I had come from Japan or perhaps because I was one of the very few minority students during that time.
A standing classroom globe was placed on the right hand side of the auditorium platform. About 30 minutes before the presentation, I walked in the back entrance of the stage, stepped up onto the platform and Walt, wearing one of his many grey tweed jackets, saw me, walked over and greeted me with a friendly smile and a twinkle in his eyes, shaking my hands eagerly. One of the first things he said to me was, “Cindy, I have a very important job for you!” before leading me across the stage towards the globe. He instructed me that I would be slowly turning it with my hand while he would speak to the audience during his planned presentation.
I realize that he told many people; especially those who worked for him, that he had “an important job” for them to do as a way to motivate them. Even then, as a young child of eight, that phrase made such an immense impression on me that it still lingers in my memory. It made me feel important; special. Although I knew the task of turning a simple classroom globe was a very simple task, but just because Walt made it sound so important, in doing so, he made me feel so important that day. It became a lifelong lesson for me, in that, whatever task you are called to do, no matter how small, to do it as if the success of the entire “presentation” depended on it; and to do it the best you can, as if you were doing it for the most important person you know.
Although I knew who he was at the time, the enormity of his fame left me more bewildered than in star-struck awe. It had only been a few years after coming to the U.S. so my then 8 year old mind was unable to fully grasp how it could be that I had such an honor and privilege it was to meet this very important and famous of man, even more important to us kids than the president of the United States. Looking back, I am amazed that as a former, dirt poor, abandoned and insignificant little orphan girl from across the seas, I had the amazing opportunity to meet and spend a little time with the legendary Walt Disney. It remains to one of the most cherished childhood memory that will live with me forever. I guess that’s one of the reasons “Cinderella” remains my most favorite Disney character.
Our parents lavished us with a lot of love, attention and affection; especially Mom. She was bound and determined to be the mother to us that she felt her mother never was. They were careful not to spoil us although the only real attempt to spoil us was to take us on camping, fishing and road trips on Dad’s custom built motorcycles. We had a great time on those trips. (Ironically, to this day, though, I dislike doing any of those things. I think I had my fill and then some).
Her love of literacy and literature was evident when my brother and I were in elementary school. She did her utmost to get us to read books instead of watching TV. In fact, we weren’t allowed to watch tv except on Sunday nights but only family or educational programming, so for entertainment at other times, I did a lot of reading and developed a love of books. She would take us on our bicycles to the library often, especially in the summer. As we got a little older, she relented a bit and allowed us to watch TV on Friday and Saturday nights, but as usual, only family or kids programming, like “Wonderful World of Disney”.
Letter From My Birth Father
On my thirteenth birthday, Mom and Dad showed me a letter they had received from my birth father, Shiro Kashiwada, which they received shortly after my adoption telling them how sorry he had been to have given me up and to inquire how I was doing. It included a photo of him with two older boys, appearing to be approximately 12 to 15 years of age. From the photograph of my birth father, it looked as if might have been my two older brothers? (or even perhaps, my half-brothers)? They all looked as if they were in good health, strong looking, both wielding some type of sword sticks, and all wearing traditional garb. The letter did not seem to indicate who the boys were.
The letter did not mention my birth mother, but my parents had already assumed that she had died. Neither did it indicate why he had given me up, but understanding that boys were considered far more valuable than girls in Japan up until this modern era, at that time, we assumed that he was too poor to support all of us and/or there was no one else to help care for me.
I have always believed and somehow felt that I had suffered neglect as well as the disadvantage of being born a female in post-occupied Japan. Having said that, I am still eternally grateful that my birth father gave me a chance at a better life than one of neglect or shame.
Needless to say, when they received my birth father’s letter, my parents were shocked that he had found them (since Mrs. Sawada reportedly was usually very confidential with their records) but they were also terrified that he would try to get me back, so they never replied. Mom asked if I was interested in writing or contacting him back and what I wanted to do with the letter. At that time, at the tender awkward and confusing age of 13, I told her I wasn’t interested. I had other personal issues I was dealing with and my past wasn’t a priority for me; only my present as a painfully shy and awkward just becoming a young teenager struggling to fit in with my very large competitive junior high school. I was also afraid that if I indicated any interest, I might hurt their feelings and appear ungrateful to them. I don’t remember if I told her to go ahead and throw it away. I hope I didn’t and that she saved it, but regrettably, I never did see that letter or photo again.
Although I have always been relatively healthy, I have also always been quite smaller in stature than any of my peers. Greg also had the same growth issues. My parents always believed that it was due to lack of proper diet or malnutrition. Mom would tell me that although I was four years old, she had to buy a full wardrobe of toddler size clothing.
Because of our smallness both my brother and I had always been teased and called names, sometimes out of endearment, but usually having been made fun of during our childhood and youth primarily from insensitive boys. Being Asian in mostly white Orange County, California, back then, we were teased and occasionally ridiculed. Although sometimes deeply embarrassed, I would never respond back, but my brother would sometimes verbally lash out in anger.
Greg, on the other hand, had a more difficult childhood. Even at the young age of five, his inability to adjust to a new home, caregivers and school environment seemed to manifest into rebellious behavior. He was extremely more impulsive than most five year olds. One time he kicked his kindergarten teacher in the shins when she tried to physically control him after he refused to obey her command to sit still. It seemed that the more anyone would try to control him, verbally or physically, he would rebel even more with even more anger and fury. He could never accept the word, “no” for he perceived it as a sign of rejection. It was the beginning of a long and very difficult journey for Mom and Dad, in particular Mom, in becoming and learning how to be good parents, especially for Greg.
Later, additional stress of working outside the home as a secretary and taking care and dealing with Grandma, my brother and I, and the household eventually took its toll on Mom. It became more and more evident that Greg had deep emotional and developmental issues as well, manifesting in behavioral problems which the Elizabeth Saunders Home had never disclosed to them. A letter sent from Mr. Abe indicated that he nor Mrs. Sawada never even knew about Greg’s problems since the staff which cared for him had long ago left the home. Not only that, because he had previously been in the care of a social worker who had already left the previous orphanage he had been in, there was no information they could give them nor was there any indication of problems while in their care.
Consequently, my parents attempted to figure out what to do with him. He was held back in school and was diagnosed “hyperactive” by a child psychologist because of behavioral symptoms he displayed from the time of his adoption, which got him in so much disciplinary problems at school and home. Today he would have been labeled ADHD. He was put on medication but had to be taken off because of its side effects, and consequently, relapsed into highly impulsive behaviors. Being that his bedroom was next to mine, I would often hear him banging his head against the wall in order to work out his own stress and sooth himself to sleep.
No matter how hard she tried to deal with him and his problems, Mom’s relationship with him increasingly deteriorated and both of them became more and more angry and frustrated with each other. Mom, again, was at her breaking point. It was obvious that she and Dad were very ill equipped to handle a child with special developmental, social and emotional needs of a formerly long held institutional orphan.
After contacting The Elizabeth Saunders Home again, the home arranged for him to live with an Episcopalian minister and his family as a temporary foster child nearby. They agreed that despite his established residency in the U.S., if his behavior and learning failed to improve while with the foster family, they would have no recourse but to have Greg sent back to Japan to live institutionally back at the home. (I highly doubt that they would have been allowed to do that today, but there was no other recourse). Under the advisement of one of Mom & Dad’s adoption attorneys in the U.S., they recommended child psychotherapy and counseling. After a couple of years, growing slightly more mature (yet still not at the level of his peers) Greg began to understand the severity of the consequences of his behavior and began to take a little bit more responsibility over his actions. Within a few years, the social workers felt he was ready to move back home with us. I remember when Mom asked me if it was okay with me if he did. I think I was 10 years old at the time and I didn’t understand why I cried and sobbed at the prospect of reconciliation. Mom was touched, and so he moved back.
It was also around this time that Mom’s close family friend of many years, even from before WWII, encouraged us to start attending a nearby Japanese-American church. There, my family’s renewed faith helped us get through those difficult years of family turmoil. It certainly did not alleviate all of her or my brother’s problems, but it certainly made it easier to cope.
During the early 1970’s when we were just starting high school, my parents moved our family from Orange County to Northern California into the middle of the newly developing wine country. We lived on a small rural property complete with fruit trees, a few chickens and a small vineyard which my brother and I helped with. Dad wanted us kids to be involved in 4-H, but neither of us had any interest in agriculture. Having spent our young childhood in Anaheim, we were already too suburbanized.
We attended high school but Greg had difficulty with motivating himself to study and would often get into trouble with other boys. Finally, when he turned 16, my parents got fed up with him and had him enlist in the army. But first, because he was so underweight, they had to “fatten him up” on a lot of bananas and other high calorie food just so he could weight qualify.
After high school then junior college and while working in the insurance industry, I met and married my husband, Bob. Two years later while expecting our first child, we had purchased a home (which we still reside in) and now my brother, Greg, was getting excited on becoming a new uncle. He had been out of the military for several years and had settled in to become a premier welder for a steel fabricating company and Mom was glad that after his turbulent and rebellious youth, he was finally becoming a productive, self-supporting young adult. Although their relationship was still never truly great, they were getting along together much better than in any previous years.
In the early morning hour around 5 a.m. on March 18, 1983, our phone rang. Bob answered. It was my Dad. He wanted to talk directly to me. He said Greg had been involved in a horrible accident in his Mazda 280Z sports car. He had been on his way home driving westbound on a county road only a couple of miles up from our house, having just crossed a major intersection, when someone who had been drinking had suddenly pulled out in front of him from a parking lot at a bar there and Greg had no time to react. He was pronounced dead at the scene. We were stunned. I don’t remember if I spoke with Mom that moment. I’m sure I did, but so much became a blur, including his funeral after that. I do remember that it was standing room only at his service with most of our church family attending in support of us in faith and prayer. Faith, family, love and prayer. At a time such as this, nothing else much matters except, “The greatest of these is love.”
Part of the settlement from the other driver’s insurance proceeds enabled my parents to fund a long desired trip to Japan to visit both of their distant relatives still residing there. Back when we were still living in Anaheim, Mom found out by accident that Grandma had previously been married before coming to the U.S. soon after the turn of the century with her then husband, Mom’s father. She had found a crumpled up letter that had been hastily thrown in the trash by Grandma. There was no return envelope that could be found. The letter was written by Grandma’s first daughter from Fukuoka, her existence unknown to Mom, who upon reading it was shocked and upset that Grandma kept this knowledge from her. Her half-sister, Tatsuko, was imploring why Grandma had abandoned her. Grandma never replied nor answered my Mom about it. She kept that secret with her to her grave.
Since then, for at least a decade, mom tried to locate and get in touch with her half-sister. She first attempted to contact my birth father, Shiro, with the last address of him that she could find. Unfortunately, it did not contain his correct house number in Momotani, in Kamiyamada, Fukuoka-ken, Japan. The letter was returned.
Dad had distant cousins still in Japan who they were able to correspond with. With their help, she was finally able to locate and correspond with her. Soon, she and Dad finally had the funds to be able to travel to Japan and meet her half-sister, Tatsuko, face to face.
Mom passed away in 2011, three years after Dad. I wasn’t in any hurry to clean out some of her personal files until one day a few years ago, our younger daughter, who was a high school teacher, was contacted by a high school student attending the same high school Mom had graduated from before WWII. He was working on a U.S. history project on the Japanese-American Internment of those who had attended his school. He was requesting contact with me as he needed as much biographical information about Mom as I could provide.
In gathering all the information I could, I came across a folder containing my adoption and immigration documents. Inside, “Elizabeth Sanders [misspelled] Home” was emblazoned atop the letterhead. Thus began my research on the orphanage and guardian that was once home to me and my adoptive brother, Greg. Included in our file was a telegram and correspondence relating to the complexity of our adoption process. Quite literally, it took an act of congress to allow Greg and I to step onto U.S. soil. In those days, immigration quotas only allowed for entry upon approval by congressional act on a case-by-case basis. I am eternally grateful to Congressman George Kasem for working with my parents’ U.S. adoption attorneys on getting HJ Res 397 extending the Adoption Act to be signed by the President of the United States.
It wasn’t until this recent discovery on the details of our adoption and our small place in a special frame of global history that I have come to a better understanding and appreciation for my unique background. The internet is both a blessing and a curse. It became a blessing to me as I not only found rich historical information on the Home, its founder, Miki Sawada and the international adoption process of the early 1960’s, but also a blog and forum dedicated to the experiences of past adoptees from The Elizabeth Saunders Home (ESH). It further led me to the private Facebook group page for us to find, learn about and keep in contact with each other. It was like finding my long lost “brothers” and “sisters”, most whom I had never met, although one whom I was with at one point and had long forgotten was part of our group. Some in the group were family members or potential family members of adoptees or had some connection to ESH. To connect or reconnect with this group is a gift I treasure deeply.
An even greater gift was the opportunity to organize and actually meet some of them in San Francisco, California during the 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival where we were able to share and compare our experiences with each other and with a reporter from a large news agency in Japan who is writing a book about ESH. One of the former adoptees I met at our reunion happens to currently reside in the same town as me and we were able to meet again to share our histories.
In Search of My Birth Family
The Japanese reporter whom met at our ESH Reunion kept in contact with me. She was able to find and contact someone who had met and knew my birth father, Shiro, when she was a young girl; the niece of his first wife, Chizuko, whom he had married near the beginning of WWII. In October of 2019, Minako sent me a small sepia-toned photograph of him, Shiro Kashiwada and Chizuko, probably taken sometime between 1941 and1943. Much of what Chizuko’s niece, Minako, knew of him was through one of her grandparents.
When Shiro met her Aunt Chizuko, he was sword dance instructor. She had been his student. He was described as not being a big man but handsome like a movie actor. According to her family he had been born in a wealthy house but his mother might have been a mistress. He composed haiku and was a refined, elegant man. In 1945 first wife, Chizuko, age 23, was killed in an air raid on Tokuyama (which is now Shunan City).
Shiro with first wife, Chizuko. Photo taken between 1941 and 1943.
After Chizuko’s death, Shiro moved to Fukuoka and worked for the coal mines and later became a labor union officer for the mines. Minako said she did not know about his second marriage, to Miyoko Fujikawa in 1946 (who died two years later in 1948), nor of any other children he might have had, but later recalled that he had briefly come to the door to her family’s house with a new wife and what she thought was a baby boy on her back.
How Shiro could have lost even his next two young wives both early in their marriage to him remains a mystery. It was suggested that during Japan’s postwar, U.S. occupation and rebuilding period, there was a labor shortage and women often worked the coal mines. The work was hard and dangerous. So it is highly possible that Shiro’s second and third wife (my birth mother), also worked the mines and succumbed to the risks that came with it. There is also the possibility that the rural mining areas of Fukuoka lacked hygiene and adequate medical care during that period and either of them could have died from accident or illness.
Minako had heard about his remarriage to my birth mother and subsequent death and that he had sent their child (me) to the U.S. for adoption. She remembered another time when he visited their house again several years later, but this time, by himself. He had been fired from the coal mining company, perhaps because of his involvement with the labor union as an official. (By1970, the mines at Kamiyamada in Fukuoka-ken, from where Shiro wrote to my adoptive parents, were shut down.)
He then later became a political spokesman, most likely for a non-conservative party and was likely on his way to Tokyo in northern Japan. She said that Shiro had a very good voice so it was apparent that he was also very good at public speaking.
Being that Fukuoka, where I was born, is near the southern end of Japan and Tokyo and the Elizabeth Saunders Home in Oiso, is halfway up toward the northern tip of Japan, it was amazing that he had even heard about the Home. However, he might have already had a connection to it because of his work for a politician who in turn, may have had direct or indirect connections in the same circles as Renzo Sawada, Japan’s United Nations ambassador and Miki Sawada’s husband.
Minako overheard his conversation with her grandparents when asked about me, and he said “ …there was a couple who doesn’t have children and they really want her. I think she’ll have a happier life there”.
After Shiro gave me up for adoption to my American parents, he lived alone but she did not know where. He did not have any family. On our Family Register, only his mother, Masano Kashiwada, was named. The box reserved for his father’s name was left blank.
The more information that have been discovered about my birth family, especially my birth father, begs even more questions about him, about any possible siblings or half-siblings, and whatever happened to them after my adoption.
Of course, along with my fellow adoptees, I would love to meet and find out about all about my birth family in Japan and find answers to so many questions. It was evident from my birth father’s letter to my adoptive parents that he feared being judged for a decision he may have regretted. If he were alive today, or if any of my brothers were alive, I would wish for them to know that none of us could judge his heart because we do not know his story, that I never did nor ever will hold any bitterness or regret his giving me up. We believed then as I still believe now that God, in His infinite knowledge and grace, “… that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” ~ Romans 8:28 (NIV) (Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome).
(L) Photo of me standing in front of the home of our legal guardian, Miki Sawada, that was sent by ESH to my prospective adoptive parents.
(M) Photo of my adoptive brother, Greg (born Kazuo Tanaka) Photo Sent by ESH to my prospective adoptive parents
(R) Shiro with first wife, Chizuko. Photo taken between 1941 and 1943.