Like a great American novel, Irene Suyeoka’s story took dramatic twists and turns and occasionally plucked triumph from the mouth of peril. When she completed her narrative, at age 87, it turned the page of a rich, complex life.
She liked to say that her Japanese American story began when her grandmother left Japan on a ship bound for Hawaii. Her father, Shinishi Nishimoto , married her mother, Nancy Miyamoto, there and they eventually settled in Fresno, California, where she was born. But under the pressure of the Great Depression he decided to take the family to Hiroshima. Years later her parents returned to the US and left Irene and her sister with relatives to finish school. Her subsequent return to California made Irene a kibei—a Japanese-American with a youth spent in Japan.
“A kibei is a perpetual outsider,” Irene wrote in 2008 for Voices in Chicago, a publication of the Japanese American Historical Society. “(She is) an American while in Japan and a Japanese when she returns.”
She arrived back in California just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I remember my mother fearfully burying all of the pictures from my life in Japan in the garden,” she wrote. Yet, fortuitous timing of that return may have saved her from being stranded in Hiroshima during the war and sharing the fate of many of her former classmates, who died when the atom bomb was dropped on that city in August, 1945.
One thing she did not escape: She, her parents, and sister were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps. That amounted to a four-year imprisonment for the innocent 18-year-old. Government suspicions focused inordinately on the kibei, Irene recalled. “They called us ‘the most dangerous element.’”
Following the war, she moved to Chicago, where she met Bauhaus artists Else Regensteiner and Julia McVicker, organizers of the Reg/Wick Weaving Studio. Through the Studio, she eventually garnered assignments to weave for corporations and top interior designers. And Irene was drawn into the groundbreaking Bauhaus art movement and chose to study at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I think she blossomed after meeting those ladies,” says her husband George Suyeoka. “I’d like to think she blossomed after marrying me, too.” The two met in Chicago, wed in 1952, and had two children, Genn and Mia.
Also, Irene possessed a love of flowers and gardening. So she mastered and taught ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangement.
During the 60s, Irene became a member and administrator in the North Shore Weavers Guild. After practicing and teaching her craft for six decades, she was honored by the Guild at a ceremonial dinner in 2009.
October 25, she died peacefully at home surrounded by family. George recalls his wife as “a good mother, teacher, and artist.”