KEN MOCHIZUKI (author of picture books Baseball Saved Us, Heroes, and Passage to Freedom, and young adult novel Beacon Hill Boys) -
“While growing up in Seattle , Washington, during the '60s, there weren't books about us. Literature for young readers consisted of fairytales/folktales from Asia and "Five Chinese Brothers." After graduating from the University of Washington with a B.A. in Communications, and after a few years as a professional actor in Los Angeles , I decided instead to become a writer. Returning to Seattle during the early '80s, I committed myself to learning the craft of writing, becoming reporter/editor for Seattle's International Examiner and Northwest Nikkei .
Ten years of journalism helped immeasurably in learning how to write. Determined to make a living as a writer, I also wrote for a variety of mediums: public service announcements, video scripts, government reports. I had never considered writing children's books, but in 1993, my first picture book, "Baseball Saved Us," was published, followed later by "Heroes," "Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story," and a young adult novel, "Beacon Hill Boys."
One thing led to another: a performance piece on the internment; technical advisor for the film version of "Snow Falling on Cedars"; presentations for the U.S. Army on the history of Asian/Pacific Americans in the U.S. military; a musical version of "Baseball Saved Us."
A writer writes the first work to be published, it's been said. After that, one has to know why they write. I have done presentations about my books around the country, mostly at schools. I stress that I was born in Seattle , my parents were born there, that my grandparents are the ones from Japan . Yet, I'll be asked by a student afterward: "How long have you been in this country?" On the positive side, a while middle school student said to me: “We were assigned to do reports on “heroes,” and I did mine on the 442nd.
"I know why I write."
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Q&A with KEN MOCHIZUKI about his picture book Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story (Questions posed by Mrs. McCauley’s 6th grade class at Helmers Elementary School, Valencia California, September 2003)
Q: Do you know if Chiune Sugihara kept a diary?
A: I don’t know about that, but I kind of doubt it since he was a very busy man. His wife, Yukiko, might have since she wrote a book on her family’s history called “Visas for Life.” I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in the life story of Chiune Sugihara and his family. The Lithuania incident I focues on in “Passage to Freedom” is just a fraction of their entire World War II experience.
Q: Do you know if Chiune Sugihara’s other children are still alive today?
A: Chiaki is still alive; Haruki died shortly after the family’s return to Japan after the war. Another brother born after World War II, Nobuki, lives and works in Belgium.
Q: How old is Hiroki Sugihara?
A: Hiroki Sugihara passed away in 2001 at age 65.
Q: Did you watch any films to get information also?
A: At the time I was writing this book, there were no films about Consul Sugihara and his family. There are now. There was a dramatic short film that focused on Consul Sugihara issuing the vias, and nother documentary on Consul Sugihara.
Q: Have you ever talked to Hiroki Sugihara personally?
A: Yes, I first met him in 1995, when he came to Seatlle and spoke at a synagogue about his father. While researching and writing “Passage to Freedom,” I interviewed Hiroki over the phone when he lived in San Francisco. I talked to him at different times, and the total interviewing time amounted to about three hours. I wanted to get the story more from his point of view.
Q: Have you written any other books elated to World War II?
A: Yes, both my other picture books, “Baseball Saved Us” and “Heroes” take place during World War II, or the subject is related to that war.
Q: Have you met Chiune Sugihara before?
A: No, I never have. Mr. Sugihara passed away in 1986. I wish I had, for that would have been a huge honor. I did meet a “Sugihara Survivor” in Houston, Texas. She was three years old when Consul Sugihara issued her family the visa to leave Lithuania. She showed me the actual visa; I held history in my hands!
Q: How long did you have to talk to Hiroki Sugi hara to get the full story of “Passage to Freedom”?
A: As I answered in Question #5, I called Hiroki long distance from my home in Seattle, interviewing him three different times, which amounted to a total of about three hours.
Q: How long did it take you to write “Passage to Freedom”?
A: About three months, when usually I would take around six months to write a picture book story. That means writing usually three major drafts of the story. Even though “Passage to Freedom” is a lot longer and more complicated story than my other picture books, I had less time to write it. I had to get it done in less time if the book was to be published by a certain time. You will be amazed at what you can do when there is a deadline!
Q: Were you in Japan when you wrote the book?
A: No, I have never been to the country of Japan. I was born in Seattle, Washington, as were my parents. My grandparents were immigrants from Japan, and the first grandparent that came to America arrived in 1907.
Q: Who/what inspired you to become an author?
A: I have always liked stories in any form: sitting around a campfire telling and listening to scary stories, reading them, seeing them told through movies or TV shows. It wasn't until I was in my late 20's when I really wanted to become an author. Why? Because I wanted to tell the stories that weren't being told.
Q: Why did you decide to write "Passage to Freedom"?
A: The story of Consul Sugihara began to emerge in the American media when Hiroki and his mother Yukiko started touring their own photo exhibit on their family's story in 1994. I read newspaper accounts of the story, and it was too good to pass up. What Consul Sugihara did, and what the family experienced there in Lithuania, was better than any fiction anybody could make up.
Q: How long did it take you to gather all the information?
A: To research this story, I thought I would be spending long hours in libraries and archives, trying to piece the story together. When I met Hiroki in 1995, he placed most of my research into my hands: his mother's memoirs in the book "Visas for Life." Hiroki published that book himself. And what better source was there about the family's experience than a book written by a family member? Reading that book, and a few others that existed about Consul Sugihara, plus interviewing Hiroki, took a total of around three months.
Q: What were your feelings while you were writing this book?
A: That's a good question that can be answered in a couple of words: heavy responsibility! When you are writing about people that actually lived, and the whole world is going to see what you wrote about others, accuracy is everything! You have to do everything possible, check and re-check the facts, to make sure you are accurate. Non-fiction is all about accuracy.
Q: How old was Mr. Sugihara when he died?
A: Born in 1900, Consul Sugihara was 86 years old when he died.
Q: What is your favorite book that you wrote?
A: I am often asked that question, and my answer is: Do you have brothers or sisters? What if you went up to your parents and asked, "Out of all of your children, who do you like the best?" Your parents would probably respond that they love you all the same. The same goes for my books—they are like my kids. I gave birth to them, raised them, watched them grow and change, and then sent them out into the world. I will admit, though, that I like certain aspects of my books. I like "Baseball Saved Us" because it is very kinetic—lots of action moves the story along. "Heroes" I like because, even though it is my shortest book in terms of amount of words, it contains the most themes. I like "Passage to Freedom" because—and I think you will agree—it is an epic, with a cast of hundreds in a moment in history.
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