In 2019, Regina Boone captivated millions of viewers in Japan when NHK broadcast her incredible journey to uncover what happened to her Japanese immigrant grandfather.
Boone again wowed an audience — this time, online — as the special guest speaker Feb. 28 at the virtual BCA National Council closing program, “Immeasurable Encounters: BCA Past, Present and Future.” She described her odyssey from Virginia to the Midwest to a small fishing village in Japan — and the meanings, messages and lessons learned along the way.
“I want to talk to you about the Dharma of my life story,” Boone said at the start of her presentation. “Dharma, as you know, is the universal truth taught by Buddha that says life involves suffering, but there is a way out if you follow the Eightfold Path — right understanding, intention, speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
“My journey towards this understanding has involved many people, many experiences, many locations, patience, and much pain,” she continued. “Now I see how life comes together as a cohesive whole.”
Boone, “a photojournalist, a truth seeker,” described the life-changing trip in researching and finding out about what happened to her paternal grandfather, Tsuruju Miyasaki. He was born in Nagasaki prefecture and was just 14 when he left Japan. He arrived in the United States in 1922 after living in Marseilles, France, for a few years, and opened two restaurants in Suffolk, Virginia, in the Jim Crow South.
Miyasaki married a Black woman and had two sons — one of whom, Raymond H. Boone, was the father of Regina Boone. Raymond H. Boone was the late founder of the Richmond Free Press in Virginia, a crusader for justice and a lifelong journalist.
“On the face of it, it is the quintessential American story — an immigrant comes here to make a way for himself, he does, then creates something new,” Boone said. “But there are darker forces at play that would upend this tale.”
Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, Miyasaki — like other Japanese nationals in the United States, including Buddhist ministers — was rounded up, detained, incarcerated and classified as an “enemy alien” without proof of any charges.
Boone said the government’s action turned her grandmother into a single mother and her father — who was 3 at the time — and uncle into fatherless boys.
“For much of his life, he did not speak much about his Japanese heritage,” she said. “The pain of this fatherless child was all too real. All of these details, unbeknownst to me most of my life, was shaping and preparing me for now. What I have learned is that there are no coincidences.”
Boone, who was a photojournalist for 14 years for the Detroit Free Press, also spoke about how she came to meet 2-year-old Sincere Smith, whose body showed the effects of the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Her photo of Sincere appeared on the cover of Time magazine and made CNN’s list of “100 photos that defined the decade.”
She accompanied a Free Press reporter to find out what it was like living day to day with the poisonous water. She said Flint residents were using bottled water for their everyday needs — cooking, bathing, as well as for pets and plants.
The Flint water crisis began in 2014, when the city began taking water from the Flint River without treating it properly, contaminating it with lead, and continued through 2019. In January, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was criminally charged along with eight others.
Boone said she connected with Sincere during that visit to his home — and then described her own childhood. She was 4 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a year to live. “Dealing with cancer made me compassionate, made me love underdogs, helped me consider people who are different,” Boone said.
She would later move with her family to Baltimore and graduate from Spelman College in 1992. She joined the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program and taught English to Japanese students in Osaka for three years.
But the “program that would change my life forever” was when she was accepted into the 2017-18 Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Her project became the search for her grandfather. “I did it because it was my father’s last assignment for me,” Boone said, recalling his wish to her as he lay dying of cancer in 2014.
“He challenged me from his bed to dig for the truth, our truth,” she said. “I was given a heavy task. I took many deep breaths after my dad slipped away, pondering how would I accomplish this daunting task.”
She said it would “change my path, my thoughts and even the pages of history.”
One memorable trip that Boone took was to the Midwest Buddhist Temple, where she met with Resident Minister Rev. Ron Miyamura, who found a diary by founding minister Rev. Gyodo Kono. Rev. Kono wrote that he officiated Miyasaki’s funeral in August 1946.
Boone said her trip to the Midwest Buddhist Temple was “quite emotional” and a “full circle event.” She said she “felt the presence of my ancestors.”
Miyasaki, who was incarcerated at the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas during World War II, was sent to Chicago in 1944 as part of the government’s plan to resettle Nikkei. He contracted tuberculosis and died in Chicago — never able to return to his family in Virginia.
“He had so much hope of getting back home to Suffolk, Virginia, to my grandmother and my dad and it’s not fair that he had to be separated from his family,” Boone said on the NHK documentary. “It’s not fair that all the other people of Japanese ancestry in America had to be separated from their families and broken apart. It’s just tragic.”
In her quest, Boone would eventually travel to Minamishimabara in Nagasaki prefecture, where she met two elderly Japanese women — Sumie Miyazaki, whose father was Tsujuru Miyazaki’s older brother, and her sister Yurie Murata. It was an emotional meeting — Boone was crying as soon as she stepped out of the van to meet the women.
Inside their home, the women showed her the obutsudan where they had the same black-and-white photo of Tsujuru Miyazaki that Boone had carried with her on her search.
“I feel that my grandfather, father and I illustrate the interconnectedness of all of this for us — for Black Nikkei, for Japanese Americans, for Black people, Japanese immigrants, and just for all people.
“I realize how discovering family history has a distinct purpose and destiny,” she continued. “It helps us understand who we are and where we’ve been. But if we pay close attention these are lessons, there are road maps that offer clues on how to pave our collective future. My journey. Deep into my past is a search for a better future for everyone. If the future is to be lived, the past must be understood.”