Searching for Tetsu (Part 1)

Cousins Naoko Shimamura and Terry Weber during a visit to The Rafu Shimpo. Shimamura spent 30 years searching for Terry, who was adopted from an orphanage in Japan. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

From Kashiwa, Japan to North Torrance, a remarkable 30-year quest to reconnect and find lost family.



First of two parts.

Naoko Shimamura and Terry Weber were meant to find each other. It just took more than 30 years.

How the cousins were reunited is a tale of luck and good fortune, but also a story of remarkable tenacity. Of how family is lost and then found. A journey that spans from Kashiwa, Japan to a typical Japanese American home in North Torrance. Ultimately it is how the heart can expand and welcome new family members, and how at long last, a mother and son find one another after a lifetime spent apart.

Weber put it best as he marveled at the events that have so profoundly shaken up his life.

“This is like a Korean drama,” Terry said simply.

The story begins with a mysterious phone call as Terry practiced putting at the Chester Washington Golf Course in Los Angeles last January.

“It was Eri Moriyama from NHK. She said, ‘We’d like to fly you to Tokyo for NHK Family History,'” Weber recalled. “This is about somebody who has been looking for you for 30 years … It’s about your father Yojiro.”

Yojiro Shimamura was a painter and poet with dark hair. His paintings are vivid and bold, evocative of the early works of Van Gogh. Most prominent in Yojiro’s portraits are men and women with large, haunting eyes. What was behind those eyes? During World War II, he worked as a painter for the Japanese Imperial Army. While serving in China he contracted tuberculosis, a highly infectious, deadly disease.

What is behind the dark, expressive eyes? A portrait of Kimiko by Yojiro Shimamura. (Naoko Shimamura collection)

He eventually recovers and returns from China to become a teacher. He marries Kimiko Tazawa, a beautiful young woman he met at Zushi High School. Together they have a son on June 18, 1950. They give him a name of steely strength. They name him Tetsu (iron).

But the family’s happiness would not last.

Yojiro’s tuberculosis returns and he is hospitalized. His wife would bring him delicious meals and carry ice in a bucket to calm his fever. By day she worked at a flower shop in Ogikubo and raised her infant son on her own, taking him to bathe at the local sento.

As Yojiro lay dying in the hospital, he would write poetry longing for his family. With a line drawing, no longer the muscular painting, but a weak scrawl, he depicts a happier time for Yojiro, Kimiko and Tetsu. He draws Tetsu with wide eyes and chubby cheeks.

In his poem he says:

Byoki no naotta Shijin-san

The Poet, recovered from his illness

Tsuki no yoru ni ikimashita

Journeys in the moonlit evening

Aisai Chimi (Kimi) to tsuredatte

Accompanied by his devoted Chimi (Kimi)

Donguri Tetsu mo ikimashita

Tetsu — round like an acorn — also tagged along

Aiken Po mo ikimashita

As well as Po, their beloved dog.

Overwhelmed, Kimiko, 20 years old, makes an agonizing decision. She takes Tetsu to an orphanage to protect him from tuberculosis. He is two months old.

Yojiro dies in 1953, just 37 years old.

Yojiro Shimamura kept a journal as he lay ill in the hospital. In words and illustrations, he imagined life with his family.

* * *


Joe and Esther Weber, with their adopted children Anna and Terry.

Joe and Esther Weber with their adopted children Anna and Terry.

Terry didn’t know about his birth parents Kimiko and Yojiro as he grew up.

He is in many respects typically Japanese American. He lives in North Torrance with his wife Sharon, plays basketball and the ukulele. His daughter Lauren and son Mark both played FOR/GEO basketball. Lauren was a princess on the 2010 Nisei Week Court. Mark became an Eagle Scout with Torrance Troop 719. Terry marches in the Nisei Week Parade with the Vietnam veterans, an acknowledgement of his service in the U.S. Navy during the war. Like Yojiro, he is artistic and in his youth he painted birds in the style of Audubon.

But his last name belies a complicated family history. He grew up knowing that he was somehow different. The first time he realized this was when he went to school for an open house when he was in the 1st grade. The teacher, not understanding that the white couple were in fact his parents, said, “Terry, I thought you were going to bring your parents.”

“I said, ‘These are my parents,’” he remembered. “It was the first time I realized there was something different about me. Every time I was confronted: is your father Caucasian? Are you hapa? Why is your name Weber? What are you?”

Sitting at his home in North Torrance, Terry says he remembers St. Odelia’s Tuberculosis Home as if in a hazy dream. He has memories of sitting at a table with a woman with a white cloth around her head standing behind him, not letting him leave until he finished his porridge. It was a nun at the orphanage. Yet the head nun took a liking to Tetsu. Most children would be sent to a boarding home after two years old, but she kept Tetsu at the orphanage, and would take him with her on errands.