“Spunky” and game for most anything, Chieko Yamane Miller was a bright and lighthearted Japanese lady. Her ever-present positive attitude, and love of family, animals, and nature were a true testament to her ability to surmount incredible sadness pressed upon her as a child.
Born in 1936 in Korea, she was one of five children born to Japanese parents when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula. Her father was a civilian railroad employee conscripted into the military when Japan’s imperialist army moved into mainland Asia. After Japan lost in WWII, her family relocated to a Russian internment camp in present-day Pyongyang, North Korea. Her father became the camp barber in order to support the family, but lack of food, mistreatment by the Russian soldiers, and uncertainty were constant companions. Eventually, with American assistance, the family traveled by transport ship back to Japan. After a one-month quarantine her mother was allowed to disembark, and Chieko’s last memory of her mother was of her parents going to the hospital but only her father returning. Her mother died just one week after returning to Japan, unable to recover from (likely) cholera.
Post WWII was difficult, and the children’s care was split between extended family, but once her father regained employment with the Japanese National Railway, the family was reunited in Hagi, Japan.
As her father did not remarry, Chieko and her older sisters became de facto mothers to themselves, cooking, cleaning, and helping manage the house. Chieko, herself, was in no hurry to marry, having experienced the responsibilities of motherhood. She wanted to be a businesswoman and attended one of the first co-ed high schools focused on training future business leaders. To the fascination of her children, she was an expert abacus-user and until her last days could easily add and subtract mentally without the aid of a calculator. Her dream was to open a coffee shop and so she moved to the Tokyo-area to learn the trade. There she met Hilton “Don” Miller, a U.S. Navy sailor stationed in Yokosuka, Japan in the mid-60’s, and after several of his proposals her adventurous spirit convinced her to marry him in 1967. They soon moved to Pensacola, FL where Don was briefly stationed, and after daughter Nancy’s birth, the family traveled cross-country in a blue Volkswagen bug with dachshund Joe-Joe to NAS Whidbey, where their second daughter Susan was born a year later. The Pacific Northwest became the “forever home” for Chieko.
Dependable and hard working are apt words to describe her (and most Japanese women in Oak Harbor!). She helped to support the family by working the night shift at Stokely’s cannery, then Greenbank’s Loganberry Farm where she and friend Sumisan trimmed and retied every vine one winter. She retired from Technical Services, Inc. (TSI) where she was one of their lead electronics inspectors. TSI’s Sonicare toothbrush contract was so successful that a special $10,000 bonus from the company owners was used to landscape the front yard to look like a Japanese garden, complete with flowering cherry tree, sculpted conifers, and walking path. In her later years, she enjoyed sitting on the retaining wall to watch the neighborhood kids play and to ensure that none of them climbed on her prized moss-covered granite boulder.
Chieko was famous for her omanju pastries, always selling out at bake sales. The family is still looking for her secret recipe in her effects. Her creativity was boundless – her daughters delight in memories of their home sewn matching outfits, Mom’s homemade fig, blackberry, and strawberry jams, intricately decorated birthday cakes, and scarves and comforters of somewhat questionable color patterns. The family loved joining in her annual matsutake mushroom and fuki hunting trips in local Whidbey woods.
Chieko was a faithful supporter of Japanese sumo wrestling, taiko drumming, and enjoyed singing along to Mori Shinichi. Wandering the Asian food aisles at Saar’s and getting take-out from DH Buffet Chinese Restaurant was always fun, as was feeding tortillas to seagulls at City Beach, and island drives with Susan and her family every summer.
Chieko found great comfort in her Shakunage-Kai (Japanese ladies association) and Nichiren Shoshu Buddist faith community. Her daughters wish to thank Chieko’s inumerable friends and strangers alike who treated her with such care and kindness, especially in her senior years as a widow in Oak Harbor.
In Japan, Chieko is survived by her elder sister Toshiko Nagakura, nieces, Makiko, twins Yoshimi and Mitsuyo and niece Kyoko. In the U.S., she is survived by daughters Nancy (Bruce) Herbert, and Susan (Jim) Woolard and their two children Summer and Cooper. Precdeded in death by her parents Hosaku and Kiyo Yamane, sisters Sachiko and Michiko, brother Yoshinobu, and her husband of 40 years, Hilton ‘Don’ Miller (Chief Miller).
The family invites Chieko’s friends and colleagues to join them at a luncheon on Saturday March 4th from 12:00 – 3:00 pm at DH Buffet Chinese Restaurant located at 551 NE Midway Blvd, Oak Harbor. Irashaimase (welcome)!