Ode to A Buddhahead Dad

By Edward Iwata

January 30, 2023

Ode to A Buddhahead Dad

Dad is a chain-smoking, poker-playing, John Wayne-loving carpenter. A blue-collar Baryshnikov who swings hammers with sinewy grace.

Dad and his pals call themselves buddhaheads---street slang for Japanese Americans. He believes in Uncle Sam---until his immigrant parents lose their livelihood and Los Angeles farm during World War II.

That’s when the U.S. military herds 110,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps. Dad’s family stays at Manzanar, where the Mojave Desert meets the Sierra Nevada in California.

Some Japanese American men suffer trauma and what social scientists called “psychic castration” for decades.

“I told you I don’t want to talk about it,” Dad snaps at me.

Making up for lost years, Dad takes me on childhood fishing trips near Manzanar. He shows me how to tie hooks and lures, how to clean and cook brook and rainbow trout.

At his nursing home deathbed, I thank Dad for everything. Despite his dementia, his eyes look at me and tear.

To honor him, I hike a 12,000-foot alpine trail overlooking Manzanar. I talk to Dad, breathe his scent of sweat and sawdust. At a small lake, I pull out my fishing rod and start casting. As the sun falls, I rush down the trail, nearly plunging into a runoff of snow and volcanic rock. The stones, shaped millions of years ago, can crack my skull in a second.

Shaking, I kneel to catch my breath. I get up and trek down the mountain. If I peer through the dusk, I can see Dad ahead of me.


Edward Iwata is a journalist and former Stanford University educator whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, McSweeney's, National Geographic, Newsweek Japan, San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, USA Today, and many others.

Image by Jeffrey Hamilton courtesy of Unsplash

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