Molly Murakami grew up in the Twin Cities, and, like for so many of us, St. Olaf was always on the radar. It’s close enough to feel like home, but rural enough to feel some independence from family. She fell in love with the St. Olaf art department and the buildings. Serendipitously, just before her first visit to campus, an article from the St. Olaf magazine came out, with a special family connection. The article was about Yoshiteru Murikami, Molly’s grandfather. While he was not the sole reason Molly landed at St. Olaf, their connection runs deep.
Yosh grew up on Terminal Island, a small grimy fishing village on which his father owned a supermarket. However, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Yosh and his family were evacuated, displaced from their home, and sent to internment camps. They were some of the first Japanese American families to be removed from their homes. They were moved to Manzanar, Calif., the site of one of ten American internment camps. The residents were forced to learn to live in a new situation, and, despite the horrors and indignity, a community began to grow.
It was through this community that invited professors to visit the camp that Yosh met a professor from St. Olaf, who told him about the college and its impressive music department. He was admitted to St. Olaf directly from the internment camp, becoming one of the first Asian American students on campus. He became a true member of the St. Olaf and later Northfield Community, teaching music at local schools. When Molly gives a stranger her last name, to this day she still gets asked “are you related to Yosh?”
Circumstances landed them in the same place, and she says “it hit me a couple times throughout the years that I was there, I’m in the same place he was, I’m seeing the things he saw, the building he saw… It was fun to sit back and think about being connected to somebody who’s so important to me, but who I never had the chance to meet” Unfortunately, Yosh died suddenly in 1975, and the two never got to meet. But Molly continues his legacy through her art, exploring history, identity, and family stories. She reflects “He’s kind of like this figure, an icon that’s floating in our lives I never got to meet, and that’s something that spurred the story.”
Her full length graphic novel “In Your Path” Molly directly addresses her relationship with her grandfather. Where their stories intersect, where they cross paths, where their footprints overlap. What started as a biography of Yosh’s life transformed into a reflection on their relationship and a series of questions directed to a passed on figure. Which begs the question, what does it mean to write to someone who can never answer?
“I think [Yosh] was a very interesting puzzle piece in St. Olaf’s grand scheme. He was a big member in the Northfield community, well known and well-loved. Yosh always approached everything with so much love. He was a teacher. I think that he wanted to educate people, and I think that he felt that if he could be a point of entrance for someone who had never met someone outside of their own race, he would’ve said let that be me. Because he’ll welcome them. Now we have a different vocabulary and a different mindset approaching this. It should not always be on the marginalized person to educate everyone, but Yosh was alive in the ‘50s, it was a much different environment. Because Yosh was such a teacher he wanted to lead by example. He was always a guy who led from the heart.”