After 17 years of meticulous research in two countries and in two languages, Pamela Rotner Sakamoto’s book “Midnight in Broad Daylight” was published by HarperCollins in January, bringing to light the true story of one Japanese American family more than half a century after the atomic bomb fell in Hiroshima, marking a central event of the historical narrative. The scholar of U.S.-Japan relations, history teacher, mother and Swampscott native is now enjoying national media attention and great critical acclaim for her labor of love, including a glowing New York Times book review, radio interviews and a book tour.
“I just wanted to get this book published,” said Rotner Sakamoto, the daughter of Dr. Howard and Sandra Rotner of Swampscott, adding that all of the unexpected attention “is just so much fun.”
The book is about the true story of the Fukuhara family caught between two worlds during World War II, with one son, Harry, serving as a bilingual interpreter in the U.S. army, while his two brothers, Pierce and Frank, served in the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1945, Harry was scheduled for duty on the same island where his brothers were stationed; a sibling clash was averted when the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, where their mother and brother were living, ending the war.
Rotner Sakamoto is a self-described Japanophile and a noted scholar of U.S.-Japanese relations. After graduating from Swampscott High School in 1980, she attended Amherst College, where, as an Asian Studies and Spanish double major, her interest in Japan was piqued. In 1984, she moved to Kyoto, Japan, for a one-year fellowship. She soon found that learning Japanese in a U.S. classroom was “but a drop in the bucket” toward mastering the complicated language. Ever a lover of languages, she remained in Japan for four years, becoming fluent in Japanese, which she calls her professional language.
Rotner Sakamoto returned to the U.S. in 1988 for graduate school at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received both a Master’s Degree and a PhD. Her dissertation, on the policy of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards Jewish refugees during World War II, was the basis of her first book, “Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: A World War II Dilemma,” published in 1998. Her academic work caught the interest of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which hired her to work off-site as an expert consultant on their Japan-related projects.
Shortly after moving back to Tokyo in 1994, she had a chance meeting with Harry Fukuhara at an event for Holocaust survivors. As the two developed a close relationship over the course of four years, Rotner Sakamoto became interested in his family’s story as the subject for her next book.
“Harry was an esteemed retired colonel in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service who had been decorated by the Japanese government for his contribution to U.S.-Japan relations. He was at a point where he wanted to take stock of his life. So were his siblings. I could not get their story out of my mind,” she said.
Rotner Sakamoto learned about Harry’s younger brother Frank, who had been a private assigned to a suicide squad in the Japanese Imperial Army, their Aunt Kiyo, the colorful founder of a venerable traditional-sweet shop in Hiroshima, and their spirited sister Mary, who had been interned with Harry at Gila River in Arizona.
“Each possessed a compelling story,” she said, explaining why she decided to include the lives of Harry’s brothers and family in the book. “Constructing the dual narrative was demanding, but, in the end, I believe, absolutely essential.”
The story of an immigrant family struggling with their loyalties and facing the difficulties of separation and internment involves multiple, overlapping layers of American, Japanese and military history, and has universal appeal.
“The Fukuhara saga was a great big American story, resonating with monumental history, rich with drama and redemption,” said Rotner Sakamoto. “That’s what I loved about it.”
If the letters and emails she has amassed is an indication, the story has resonated deeply. One Iraqi war veteran was moved to write to her about his personal realization of discovering that POWs are not the enemy, they were just young men. “To think that a Japanese story in the 1940’s is connecting with an Iraqi war veteran is really meaningful to me,” said Rotner Sakamoto.
The book also has a lot to say about immigration and how immigrants are treated, hot button topics today. “I always hoped the book would resonate with all Americans, because most Americans are from other places,” she added.
The book is widely available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and even at Costco. Rotner Sakamoto, who now works as a history teacher at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she lives with her daughter, Anna, a high school freshman (her son, Masa, is a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont), is enjoying the moment.
“Yes, years have passed, but the moment has turned out to be perfect,” she said.