On Difference and Disability in “Secret Harvests”

David Mas Masumoto has a reputation as a remarkable writer. His previous work includes Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm (1996), Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil (1998), and Four Seasons in Five Senses (2003), among others. A third-generation farmer from California, his writing focuses on farming, his Japanese-American heritage, and what it means to live a good life. 

His latest work, Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm, is thematically similar to his previous books but for the central revelation — a late-in-life discovery that his 90-year-old maternal aunt, whom he has never met or heard discussed, has been living in state care for 70 years. To reckon with this “secret” family member, Masumoto weaves speculation, family history, and farm sense into a story that is at once very specific to his family but is also rooted in the broader American landscape.

Secret Harvests is broken down into segments, the titles of which invoke both his family history of internment and Shizuko, Masumoto’s aunt, who was born a healthy child but became disabled after contracting meningitis at age five. For instance, the third section, “Prison,” details the family’s incarceration in Gila River Relocation Center, including the moment when the Sugiomoto family must turn over Shizuko to the county sheriff to be a “ward of the state.” During this very difficult moment, as Shizuko cries out for her family, her mother asks the authorities for a promise: “‘Yakusoku,’ she said. Promise. Then added, ‘Make them vow that they will take care of Shizuko. Make them agree to this obligation. Yakusoku o suru.’ Honor the Promise.” The pain of having to ask the very same people imprisoning them to take care of their daughter is excruciating. 

While Masumoto details the difficult life in the internment camp, he also writes of the difficult life that Shizuko must have experienced in state care. From 1942 until the 1950s, it’s not known where Shizuko lived–how many institutions housed her, who, if anyone, showed her care. She was treated as an outcast, just as her family was in the internment camp — “Marked as misfits in a wilderness.” The notion of gaman, acceptance or perseverance, is what helps the family through the difficult years of internment, and it’s gaman that Masumoto imagines must have helped Shizuko to weather her dark years of institutionalization. His concluding lines of the chapter entitled “Bedlam” —“Isolated. Trapped. Abandoned. Accepting vulnerability. Shikata ga nai. It can’t be helped.” —encompass both experiences. 

Later in the text, Masumoto connects the redress for those who had been in internment camps with the redress he feels is owed to those disabled Americans who have been mistreated by the system. “Shizuko is not America’s problem,” he writes. “America and attitudes and policies towards people with disabilities are the problem.”

One of the many beauties of this work is its complexity. Masumoto struggles to make sense of his family’s circumstances. For instance, the theme of “Shikata ga nai” or “It can’t be helped” pervades the book. Sometimes Masumoto seems to take comfort in this idea, as when he describes weather interfering with his harvest, damaging his fruit; at other times he bucks against the idea. He writes of those who rejected internment, such as Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu, those who rejected gaman or acceptance, when he considers how his family coped during those years when they were kept as prisoners. “Could gaman be a sign of weakness?” he asks.

Masumoto sees a connection between his aunt and farming. Shizuko may not be perfect by typical American standards, but that does not make her any less acceptable than other people. Just as the Sun Crest peach, Masumoto’s favored crop, may not be as rosy as a more popular variety, he keeps growing it for its unrivaled flavor. Additionally, he remembers some farming wisdom from his father, “Nana korobi ya oki, or ‘fall down seven times, get up eight.’ It was the wisdom of a farmer who accepted the winds of nature. It was the strategy to cope with our family’s struggles; to endure with tolerance.” This book is a meditation that calls for tolerance for a spectrum of differences — racial, cultural, intellectual, and more.

Ultimately, the reader comes away from Secret Harvests with a sense of reverence for farmers and caregivers as well as an understanding of Masumoto’s family history, which is representative of so many Japanese-American families’ experiences in the last three generations. Reading this book will make you reconsider the value of difference, whether you are considering people or produce at the farmer’s market.  

Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm
David Mas Masumoto
Red Hen Press
Published April 18, 2023