Japanese dolls returned to owner 70 years after internment camps separate Sacramento schoolgirls

Sacramento BeeDecember 10, 2012 

For decades, Beverly Pond searched for her friend Marianne Rikimaru, the Japanese American girl she had walked with to Fruitridge Elementary School most every day in the years before World War II.

Beverly wanted to return a set of ancient Japanese dolls belonging to Marianne's family, who left suddenly in April 1942.

For 70 years, Beverly had no idea what became of her friend after the Rikimarus were sent to a remote detention camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry along with thousands of other Sacramentans.

The family never returned to Sacramento, but the heirloom dolls they left behind haunted Beverly, who eventually married and became Beverly Thornton. As she got older, her sense of urgency to find their rightful owner grew.

In a magical moment Saturday afternoon at Beverly's home in the Pocket, her long-lost friend reappeared. A smiling figure in a red sweater carrying a blue orchid – Beverly's favorite color – blew in out of the rain and appeared at the door.

"Come in, please!" said Beverly.

"You look so good," exclaimed Marianne, her married name now Breakfield.

"You do, too, you're a sight for sore eyes," Beverly declared as the two friends, now 80 and widows with great-grandchildren, fell into each other's arms.

"It's a miracle," said Beverly's daughter Patt Ladd, who had helped her mother solve the mystery with the help of the Florin Japanese American Citizens League.

The story of the dolls begins just before the Rikimarus left for the Elk Grove train station headed for the Tule Lake detention camp in the high desert near Oregon.

Marianne's mother brought over the Japanese dolls and left them with Beverly's mom for safekeeping. They were intricate dioramas – one of an ox-drawn cart, another of a traditional Japanese farmer and his wife, and the third of an aristocratic couple.

"She was crying, and said, 'I'm so ashamed of my people,' " because of Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Beverly said.

The Rikimarus left the dolls with the Pond family because they were allowed just one suitcase on the train.

"It was a very sad day," Beverly said. "I didn't think it was right, I knew they hadn't done anything."

In the prewar years on 44th Street in Sacramento's Fruitridge area, the girls were surrounded by Japanese strawberry growers, and were free to pick all the luscious fruit they could as long as they didn't step on the plants.

Every day, they'd walk to Fruitridge Elementary in south Sacramento. "We talked about boys on the way to school," Beverly recalled wistfully. "One day Marianne said something about marrying one of the boys in our class, and I thought she couldn't marry him because he was white, and that made her cry; it hurt her feelings really bad."

Beverly said that helped her understand the pain of prejudice. She realized that she and Marianne were just two schoolgirls with similar crushes and feelings.

Marianne's Japanese grandparents had owned a vineyard next to a drive-in movie theater. Her dad used to take produce and flowers to the San Francisco farmers market. Her mom, "Daisy" Emiki Yumikara, and dad, Toshiro "Ricky" Rikimaru, were born in California.

Marianne's mom inherited the dolls, and would display them for a week at New Year's or on Japanese Girls' Day, celebrated March 3. "We weren't allowed to play with them," Marianne said.

Then, one day her parents told her and her younger sister Kikuyo (Shirley) and brother Hisao (Carroll) they were going away.

"I was really excited because we'd never been on a trip before and we were going on a train," she said. "We went to Tule Lake. It was just a desolate area, but I went to school, just like at home."

"Our parents tried to hide things from us so we wouldn't be traumatized," she said. "I didn't realize how traumatized they were until we got out of the camp."

After the war, the family resettled with other Japanese Americans in eastern Oregon. "Then I got married, raised a family, lived in Seattle, got divorced, got remarried."

She often wondered what became of Beverly and her other friends from the old neighborhood.

And Beverly, after inheriting the dolls, became obsessed with returning them to her childhood friend. She said she would stop Asian Americans and ask "if they were Japanese, and had heard anything about the Rikimarus."

"I'd pretty much roll my eyes and say, 'Not that story again,' " her daughter said.

Then a few weeks ago, Ladd said, their mail was stolen. "These two neighbor ladies came by to tell us our mail was at the Catholic church on Florin Road."

The women were Japanese American, and when they heard about the dolls, they referred Ladd and her mom to the Florin JACL.

Andy Noguchi, the Florin JACL's civil rights chair, combed through Tule Lake records until he found a family that matched Beverly's description of the Rikimarus. He tracked down Marianne's brother in Oregon, who confirmed they were indeed the Rikimarus of Fruitridge and that Marianne was living in Manteca.

Beverly and her daughter burst into tears when they heard the news. "It's such a huge weight off me," Beverly said.

Noguchi's wife, historian Twila Tomita, said wealthy Japanese would have entire sets of such dolls, often made from porcelain and dressed in silk, depicting the emperor, empress and their court including musicians and ladies in waiting.

But Tomita knew of very few sets that survived the detention camps.

About 8,000 Sacramentans of Japanese ancestry were detained at camps during World War II. In all, about 110,000 Japanese Americans were locked away.

Noguchi and his wife were transfixed hearing Beverly's story. "To hear how they searched for ages to find this family was much more moving than looking at inanimate objects," Tomita said.

"A lot of other people turned their backs on the Japanese, and they refused to do that. It's lovely she cared so much and didn't give up."

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