Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Paul Bannai Interview I
Narrator: Paul Bannai
Interviewer: Alice Ito
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: December 28, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-bpaul-01-0006

<Begin Segment 6>

AI: Now, when you were there working on the melon farms, about how old were you? And what were, did you have a --

PB: Oh, that time I was about eleven, because when we left Arizona and came to Boyle Heights, it was my very last year. That was 1932. So I'm twelve years old, my last year in grammar school. And I remember this because in 1932 when we moved into Boyle Heights, it was the year that they had the Olympics in Los Angeles. And my father, for whatever reason, I don't know -- he'd never said anything about being sports-minded or taking part in sports -- but in his diary he put down all the Japanese that were winning the different swimming meets, the races and things. And we went to the Olympics. Now, I remember that. I don't remember who I went with, but in his diary he put down that we went as a family. But I remember the Olympics very well 'cause I remember sitting in the stands, and as I say, at my age, twelve, it didn't make too much sense to me who was winning or what it was all about. But I do remember that I went to the Olympics in 1932.

I remember that when we moved there to Boyle Heights that my father was working for a tofu company, Matsuda Tofu. And he had to find work which was not strenuous because of his injuries. And I do remember that he was making tofu. And later on he went into the sales. He would load up a truck and go down to town to different areas and drop off the -- they had the, a, little cans, little five-gallon cans with water in it, put tofu in it and drop 'em off. But I do remember that, going with him to the train station because they would ship tofu to various areas throughout California and different places. But because our daily dietary supplement was tofu, aburage and all that I remember very, very well. But that was my last year in grammar school. I went to a school called First Street School in Boyle Heights. From there I went to a junior high called Hollenback Junior High and then went to Roosevelt High.

AI: Oh, excuse me. Before we get on too far into your schooling, I wanted to ask about that first year in Boyle Heights, and...

PB: Yes.

AI:, Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in the Los Angeles area now. And at that time, could you tell me a little bit about the ethnic makeup of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, because it seems like that was very different from the places you had lived before.

PB: Oh, very different primarily because the makeup of the population was a little different. Boyle Heights at that time was primarily a Jewish community. And we had Brooklyn Avenue, which was all Jewish shops. We lived between First Street and Boyle Heights. And our first house was on Saratoga. I think it was 210 Saratoga. Subsequent that building was bought by Chuo Gakuen, and it became part of a Japanese school. Now, I say this because there were a lot of Japanese that settled in Boyle Heights. It was kind of the center where Japanese settled. I think it possibly may be because of the composition of the people there. Right down from Boyle Heights was a place called Flats. And down there was a Russian colony, lots of Russians. There were Slavs, Russians, primarily Jewish. And as a result of that, I think that there was very little prejudice. And as a result of that, the Japanese settled there.

We had, and my folks were active first in the Tenrikyo Church because of its contact with some reverend in Utah. There was a Buddhist church on Mott Street, the next street over. And then over on Evergreen Avenue near the playground, was our Baptist church. Now, because of my age or whatever it may be, I would go with my folks at Tenrikyo. I went to Buddhist church for a while. And then I became very active in the Baptist church, primarily because I belonged to a group called the Golden Bears. We used to have Nisei basketball and different sports activities. And we would have to belong to the Cougars or the Golden Bears. I belonged to a group called Golden Bear Juniors. And a lot of them were very active at Baptist church. And I met Paul Nagano, who became a very prominent minister. In fact, at that time I think there was a fellow named Ernest Ono still around. And one time we even discussed the possibility of all of us going into ministry. Fortunately I didn't go in 'cause I couldn't minister anybody, I'm sure. But Paul Nagano did, and he did a very good job, still doing a very good job.

So this was Boyle Heights. My association with the churches, with the Nisei sports clubs and social clubs, and it was the beginning of what you might call my future activity with all the Niseis and Japanese Americans, even though many of my friends were Jewish, were Russians, Slavs, other nationalities. We didn't have too many what you might call old-time, 100 percent Americans. They were all descendants of immigrants within the last generation or so.

AI: It sounds like it must have been just so different from your previous communities that you lived in. Was it kind of a shock to you or a jolt to be plunged into this new world of people from so many different immigrant backgrounds and so many different cultures, and also to be part of a, for the first time, a Japanese American community?

PB: No. I don't know. I guess at our age we accept what was at that time, and I never thought of it in that context that here these are, you know, first generation of people that came from Israel or wherever they came from. But the younger people were all Americans. We didn't speak any other language except English. And as a result, I think that there's a lot of difference. We never had prejudice. We didn't think of those kinds of things. In fact, I remember, and maybe it's a little premature, but when I was in high school, we had no blacks in school. And I remember that I, I was what they call the athletic manager. I took care of all the teams and their things. And I remember that one time they said -- you know, we have the Russians. I remember the Kornovs, both of 'em, they were very good players, football players. We had Frank Katsuyama. We had several Japanese that were on the football team that were very good. But somebody asked me one day, he says, "You know, there is a school downtown where the blacks are, and they have good black players." So I thought about that, and I remember going down to the produce house to visit my friend who used to drive to school. And I asked him about it. And we induced or asked one black fellow to come to our school, and he became a hero because he was a good player. [Laughs] But he was the only black that we had at Roosevelt High. But I don't think that it was because of prejudice or anything. It was just that everybody selected a place that they wanted to live to be comfortable, and my folks, of course, Boyle Heights was where they -- my father had the tofu factory to work, where we had the churches that we could go to, and it was a very comfortable place to live. And we never thought about living anywhere else. But when I look back, it was the right choice and right place.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.