Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Julie Otsuka Interview
Narrator: Julie Otsuka
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: May 2, 2005
Densho ID: denshovh-ojulie-01

<Begin Segment 1>

TI: So today's May 2, 2005, and today we have Julie Otsuka as our interviewee. And in the room we have Megan Asaka, who's the secondary interview, and on camera is Dana Hoshide. And Russell -- your last name, Russell -- Perreault is in the corner. So I was just mentioning as we were starting, to Julie, usually I'm, I interview people who are much older. I've done now close to forty interviews, and I tend to focus on, actually, the older Nisei men who were, tend to be vets and things like this, so is a departure for me.

JO: And why the men?

TI: Well, the men, because oftentimes when they talk about war stories, we find that they're more comfortable telling the stories to a, to a male rather than to a female. And so I tend to do more of those interviews, so we tend to get a little bit different result based on who's, who's interviewing. And so that's, that's just what we found. And the other reason is because I've done a lot more research on things like the 442 and the MIS, about their experiences, so I can ask more probing questions.

JO: Right.

TI: But what I thought we'd do is follow a similar format and do a, first, a life history with you, and just sort of ask questions that I would ask someone that I normally do, and then we'll just go from there and see how it goes.

JO: Okay, that sounds good.

TI: So the first question I usually ask people is when and where were you born?

JO: I was born in 1962 in Palo Alto, California.

TI: And what was the name given to you at birth?

JO: Julie Hideko Otsuka.

TI: That's interesting that your middle name is Japanese. We, in Seattle, we did this survey where we found that people born -- or Japanese Americans born after 1960 were generally given a Japanese middle name...

JO: Oh, it was too threatening before, to...

TI: Yeah, and right after the war up to about 1959, generally they were given sort of an Anglo middle name. So, for instance, I was born in 1956, so my middle name is Kevin.

JO: Oh, that's, I didn't know that.

TI: Yeah, it's really interesting.

JO: That's interesting.

TI: So, it's just interesting.

JO: Well, my mother went by Alice, by her American name after the war. She was Haruko before, I think, yeah.

TI: Yeah, so it's really interesting in terms of '62 and having a Japanese middle name. Now, did you have any siblings?

JO: I have two younger brothers.

TI: Okay, and their names?

JO: David and Michael.

TI: Uh-huh. And how much younger are they?

JO: Michael is two years younger than I am and David is six years younger.

TI: Okay, and they were also born in Palo Alto?

JO: Yes.

TI: Okay.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

TI: And then tell me about your father. Where was he born?

JO: He was born in Gumma-ken, Japan, in Omama, which is, it's a tiny mountain village about sixty, I think, minutes outside of Tokyo by train. It's a very, it's a tiny, tiny town.

TI: And so how did, how did he come to the United States?

JO: He came here in (1950) as a student, and I was doing some research, I think it was very difficult during those years, right after the war, to get a student visa, but somehow he managed to. So he came here to go to graduate school. So first he went to University of Maryland, and then later he ended up at Stanford. And I remember him saying, I think when he first came here, he told people that he was Chinese. So it was probably not a great time to say that, to admit that you were Japanese, but I think that he was treated fairly well.

TI: Hmm. It seems, yeah, it would be... and what was his field of study?

JO: Electronic engineering. Yeah, I do remember him saying that he had one Filipino classmate who one day showed my father his wrists, and he said, "Do you see these scars? Do you know what they're from?" And my, my father said, "No," and he said that he had been dragged around -- I don't know if it was in Manila, by Japanese soldiers, and they tied him up by the wrists. So, but I don't think -- I mean, if he was ever attacked for being Japanese, I didn't hear any of those stories. He just missed being drafted by two weeks, and his uniform was all laid out and ready to go, and then the war ended. I remember, I mean, it's interesting for me to hear his side of the war. He, all the students then had to work in, I guess, the munitions factories after school, and so he would go in and he said that towards the end of the war, there was so little material left that there was just nothing to do, so they would go there -- I don't know what they would do. And I remember he also built -- 'cause he's an engineer now, remember, and he built a crystal radio set and he would listen to it, which was illegal, but he would listen to it, and so I think he knew that Japan was losing the war. (Narr. note: Actually, he converted a regular radio to a short-wave radio, which was prohibited, and listed to "Voice of America.") And I remember he, I think that he would listen to the radio reports that were issued by the government and they would say, oh, that the battle would be, I don't know, a hundred miles away from the coast, and then the next battle would be eighty miles, seventy miles, sixty miles offshore. And so even though Japan was reported to be "winning the war," the battles were coming closer and closer to shore, so clearly something was going wrong for the Japanese. So, and he, I think, knew... I think he knew that Japan was about to surrender before they did, just 'cause he, I think he was able to listen to "Voice of America" on his crystal radio set.

TI: Well, things like the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did he learn about that on the radio?

JO: Actually, I don't know. I should ask him, 'cause he's still, he's still around. I don't know how he heard about that. I don't know.

TI: Now, I've heard that right after the war, most families in Japan suffered incredible hardships, I mean, because, right after the war. Do you know how it was that he was sent to the United States at this point?

JO: He, well, for one thing, he lived in a -- it was a small town, and so it was too insignificant to be bombed, although I can, I remember him imitating the sound of a, I guess it was a (B-29), I think they were (B-29) planes, the sound of the plane. They would fly overheard every night on the way to Tokyo, but I don't think that their town was ever hit. And he came from a fairly well-to-do family, so they were landowners, and so they had tenant farmers. And so his family was never short for food. I think most of their land was taken away by MacArthur after the war, but he, I don't think he ever went hungry. I know that he, he hates to eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, because all they ate, I think, during the war, they ate a lot of yams and pumpkins, so that's one thing that he really can't stand. But, but they were never, they were never hungry, and I don't know how he -- I guess there must have been enough money to send him over. I don't know if it was, I think his, actually, his mother, his father was, I think, a banker or a businessman, and his mother was a pawnbroker, and she actually did much better than her husband. And they were a fairly prominent family in the community, and he was the only son, and he apparently knew that from a very early age, that he wanted to go to America. I don't know what his parents thought when he was leaving, I don't know if they expected him to come back at a certain point, but I think that he knew that he was going for good.

TI: Did you ever get a chance to meet your grandparents on your father's side?

JO: No. Well, I was, when I was eighteen months I went with my parents so they saw me, but, of course, I don't remember them. I think his father was dying then, and then his mother died a few years later and so I never, I never really knew them at all.

TI: That's interesting. And so after he graduated with his electrical engineering, what, what kind of work did he do?

JO: He went to work right away in Palo Alto, I think, for Varian Electronics designing communication tubes for satellites. So he worked in satellites for all of his professional life. That was his field of specialty.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

TI: And how about your mother? Where was she born?

JO: She was born in Berkeley and she grew up there, and then when she married my father, she moved to Palo Alto. I think for a while she might have worked in Sacramento, but she spent most of her early years, in her early adulthood in the, in the Bay Area, and then we moved to Southern California in (1971).

TI: Going back to your mother, her parents, where, did they come from Japan?

JO: Both of them were immigrants. Her mother came from Kagoshima, and she was the daughter of, I think, a Methodist minister. And... Methodist or Baptist? I think Methodist. And he, her father came to this country to proselytize, and she was the youngest daughter. And all of the other daughters, I think, had married, and he wanted to keep her at home just to take care of him. And so she somehow -- I don't know what kind of visa she had, she somehow got a visa to travel with her father when he came to the States to, on his preaching tour, and she bolted. And she, she didn't want to go back because she knew that she would never marry if she went back to Japan. She would have to, she would have to stay at home and take care of her parents, so she -- and she was considered very old to be unmarried, I think she was thirty-one. She was born in 1900.

TI: So this was about 1930, 1931 when she...

JO: It must have been. I'm trying to... yeah, I think. And she really wanted to find a husband, and so she gave a talk about education at, to some, I guess it was a Japanese congregation somewhere, and her future husband, my grandfather, was in the audience, and he was about fifteen years older and I don't know much about how they met or their courtship, but I think he saw her give this talk. And I actually don't think she knew a lot about education. Maybe she just wanted to stand up there and advertise, I'm not really sure. She had, I think, two older sisters who had already come to this country, but one of them she was very estranged from for years, I'm not sure why. And the other...

TI: But she must have been a pretty remarkable woman, because it was unusual back then to have a woman, especially a Japanese woman, in front of an audience giving talks like this.

JO: Yeah, I never really thought about that. Yeah, although I think teaching was a fairly common profession in Japan for women who did choose a profession. So that it wasn't unusual that she was a teacher, and she did teach for several years in Japan as a schoolteacher, I'm not sure what grade, before she came over.

TI: And so from that talk, your grandfather and grandmother met and they then got married?

JO: Somehow they did. I don't know, I don't know more than that, though. I should find out, but it's, I think it's too late.

TI: And then your, your mother was then born shortly after, because she was...

JO: My mother was born in 1931, so my grandmother -- maybe she was a little, maybe she was in her late twenties when she came over. 'Cause she probably would have to find a mate right away for, for visa reasons, I would imagine.

TI: And so they grew up in the Berkeley area?

JO: My mother?

TI: Your mother.

JO: Yes, yes, she did.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

TI: And then, so when the war, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, what happened to your grandparents and your mother?

JO: My grandfather was, he went to work on December 8, 1941. He was the general manager of a, I think it was called the North American Textile Company, it was a Japanese-owned trading, trading firm, import/export firm in San Francisco. And he, I think, was called into the office to work the next day, or maybe he just went of his own because it was a Monday, I'm not sure. And he, and he never, he didn't come home from work that day. And he, I think the FBI was arresting maybe directors of companies, of Japanese companies, and I think another man who was really higher up than my grandfather, I don't know if they called him in to take this man's place because they knew that someone, someone would be arrested, but I'm not sure. But I do remember hearing a story about how this other man fled, I think, somewhere, and that he was a gambler. I can't remember more than that. I almost remember his name. But in any case, my, my grandfather reported to work, and he, and he was arrested there. And I don't think my grandmother knew for a few days what had happened to him. Maybe somebody from the company called her, I'm not really sure what went on.

TI: Now, did you ever get a chance to talk to your grandparents on your mother's side about, about this, this period?

JO: No, well, my grandfather died when I was eight, so... but we later, in the late eighties found a stash of letters that he had written to his wife during the war years from the camps where he was to the camp where she was, and they were shoved into the fireplace. And we found them on the day that we were moving my grandmother out of her house in Berkeley where she'd lived for at least sixty years and into, into a housing complex for the elderly. And in the fireplace, my aunt and uncle, I think, were cleaning it out, and they found my grandmother's wedding veil, a pair of white silk gloves, a piece of wedding cake that I think she'd kept in the freezer for sixty years, and then this box of letters which no one had ever seen. And then, so we took them out of the fireplace, I think she wanted to burn all of these things. And so that, what I'm saying is I know a little bit more about my grandfather and who he was and what he'd gone through during the war because of those letters, but not because I'd ever learned anything from him directly, because he died when I was so young. And my grandmother, by the time I started...

TI: Before, I mean, going back to those letters, this is really interesting. When you read those, what, was there anything that, that surprised you or stood out as you...

JO: Actually, the one thing that, that stands out in my mind is that he said, "Oh, how wonderful that Haruko won the, the tap dancing contest." And I just, I, I mean, I can't picture my mother as being a tap dancer, especially in the middle of the desert, but they had, they had talent shows, right, in the camps. But my mother has always just sort of passed herself off as being just sort of a klutzy kid and -- I think it was tap dancing, I should go back and look at the letters, but it was something completely unexpected. And most of the details are very weather-related, because you know how Japanese always start letters with a description of the weather, which I didn't know until I started doing research, but now I understand why, whenever I talk to my father, he's always like, "How's the weather?" And I at first thought, "Why does he always ask -- " it's just so boring to talk about the weather, but then I realized it's a very Japanese thing to ask about the weather first, so all of his letters talk about the weather in Santa Fe or Fort Sam Houston, or Lordsburg, New Mexico. Those were the three camps where he was kept. And at first he was in Missoula, Montana, so the weather there, of course, was very cold, and then once he went to Texas and New Mexico it was very hot. But they were all censored, so there was a lot that he couldn't say in those letters.

TI: When you say "censored," what, how did you know that these letters were censored?

JO: I actually didn't ever see any blacked-out areas, but I know that many people who did send letters, that parts of it were blacked out. But I remember my grandmother making the snipping motion with her fingers and laughing, so I think a lot, some of the letters which I didn't see, the ones that were cut up, I guess maybe she didn't save them, some of them were just cut to shreds and were unreadable. But I know as a rule, all mail, all detainee mail -- actually, they were considered prisoners of war, the men who were arrested by the FBI -- were censored by the government and I think they weren't allowed to mention place names and they couldn't reveal too much. So the letters are pretty... they're not terribly interesting. Oh, another thing that was interesting was that he still had to pay taxes, so he would give my grandmother instructions about a lot of bank, banking instructions about what to do. And then there was a discussion about whether or not to go back to Japan, and that was -- my grandfather wanted to go back. He thought that there was no future for them in America, and that the only way that they could remain together as a family would be to request repatriation to Japan. My grandmother refused to go, and so my grandmother, remember, is in the camp with the two kids and she's separated from her husband, and she said no, she wanted to stay in America.

TI: Now, how did you know that? Was that through a later conversation?

JO: No, it was actually mentioned in the letters, so -- which sort of surprises me, because you might not want to let on to the censors that you wanted to leave, although if he had to fill out an official form I guess it'd be public information anyway. And I remember him saying to her in the letter, "You think very carefully about your choice and don't discuss it with anyone. It's your decision and your decision alone." And afterwards, he abided by her decision, so she, she did not at all want to go back to Japan. And I think also her family relations were very, I think they had cut her off completely when she stayed in America, so she was sort of disinherited or disowned. So there's a lot of anger on her part towards her family; I think she did not want to see them again.

TI: That's interesting.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

TI: Now, going back to your, your mother, she was, you said, 1931, so she was about eleven or so when she went into the camps.

JO: Right.

TI: Does she talk very much about the camp experience?

JO: She, there are a few anecdotes that I remember her telling to me when I was a kid, and, and this is why I never thought camp was such a terrible place, because the anecdotes were sort of amusing. And she would mention camp, she would mention camp: "when we were in camp," or, "we knew these people in camp," so I knew about camp, but I didn't, it just seemed so, it was just a normal, just another word in our family vocabulary, but I didn't, we didn't talk about it once we left home. I don't know why, but as a kid you just intuit these things, I just knew that maybe people might not know what I was talking about. But when I was a kid, the stories that I remember her telling me are about when she was in Topaz, the time, there was a young boy who, I guess the bathhouses were segregated; there was one for women and one for men, and one day a young boy, he was probably seven or eight, crawled up onto the women's, the roof of the women's bathhouse because he wanted to spy on the women below as they were bathing. And then the roof caved in and it collapsed and he fell into the baths below. And then she would tell me about the time in, when she was in Tanforan, which was the assembly center at San Bruno where they spent the summer of '42. I think the cook there, one night he used baking soda by mistake in the -- or Ajax by mistake in the biscuits instead of baking soda. So these were just sort of funny stories, so camp seemed, it seemed fairly harmless.

I also remember her telling me about her last day at school, and this is, it's sort of what I'm interested in, is what was it like for the children who were left behind after the Japanese left, or how do you explain to a classroom full of kids why some of them are leaving and some of them aren't. And she might have been the only Japanese American girl in her class or maybe one of two. But in any case, the teacher asked her to stand up and had the entire class say goodbye to her. My mother felt really humiliated. I think she was very embarrassed and didn't like being singled out, but I, I actually think that the teacher meant it as a, it was a gesture of goodwill, I think. I don't think that the teacher meant to embarrass my mother, I think that's just how my mother took it. And so, so she said goodbye to her class. And I remember when she came back after the war, that the -- I guess the quality of education that she received in the camp was not so, not so good, and she came back... I don't know if she was starting, she might have been starting at Berkeley High, and she told me that she was in English class and that they were reading (Sir Walter Scott's) Ivanhoe and that it just seemed very, very hard to her and she was very scared. She didn't know if she'd be able to keep up with the class work or not, but in the end she was able to. And so those, it was really the story about the boy on the roof of the bathhouse that I think I heard over and over as a kid.

TI: Well, you mentioned that it was your grandmother and two children, so your mother and another sibling of your mother?

JO: She had a younger brother, and then there was also a cousin that -- this is, her, (my grandmother) had another sister who lived somewhere in Southern California, who had had a son, and the sister died. This is the sister she was estranged from, and I remember, I think my mother, my grandmother was living in Berkeley when she, her sister was dying of tuberculosis of the throat. I think she took the train down to see her dying sister whom she hadn't spoken with in years. I think even on her sister's deathbed, I think they couldn't speak. Or it was, it was something very painful, I don't know what happened. Something went down between the two of them, we don't know what. But anyway, her sister died, leaving behind a son, George, who was actually murdered years later, he ended up being a lawyer. And he, the son was, I think for a while he lived with his father, and then he ended up, he was, he was with a foster family, white parents, when the war broke out. And he was actually taken away with, from them, and sent to, I don't know which -- I know that there was Manzanar Children's Village, right, for orphans. I mean, orphans were even pulled out from orphanages. I don't know where he went first, I think he was in a separate camp, and then during the war, my grandmother, I think, maybe sent for him to take care of her sister's child, because that seems like the right thing to do, and yet somehow it didn't work out; I think he stayed with them maybe for a year and then she sent him away. Something went wrong, I don't know what happened. I know it's a painful story for my grandmother -- well, she's dead now, but I don't, I don't really know the details. And my mother now has Alzheimer's, so I can't, I don't know, I'll never, there's so many things that I won't, I just won't know. So George, the cousin, was with them for a year.

TI: But in terms of the nuclear family, so you just talked about your grandfather, your grandmother and then your mother and your uncle. It almost parallels the characters in your book in terms of...

JO: Right, even the ages parallel, also.

TI: We'll come back to that later, but I just, I didn't realize that.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

TI: I'm going to jump ahead a little bit. So after the war, how did your parents meet? So I'm really kind of jumping, 'cause your dad at that point was here in the United States, going to school, and then became an engineer, and then your mother... I should probably ask, so what did your mother do after she graduated from high school?

JO: She went to Cal Berkeley and she studied... I guess it was maybe biology. She ended up working as a lab technician. Also after the war, just so you know a little bit about what happened to the family, my grandfather came back in not so good health, and so he had, he had several strokes, and so he was unable to work and so my grandmother went to work as housecleaner, which she did for the next thirty years, even when she didn't have to work anymore, she still insisted upon working. So my, my mother went to work as a lab technician and I think, maybe when she got her first paycheck, she got her parents a television or something. Anyway, things were hard at home and yet they did, things had been good before the war, they were actually fairly well-off so they had bought their house, I think that was bought and paid for. So they were in better shape than many Japanese American families who came back after the war. But, so my mother went to Berkeley. After Berkeley she started working as a lab technician. I think for a while she was in Sacramento and then maybe she came back to Berkeley or maybe to Palo Alto, I can't remember, I think she was working at a hospital. And my father was, I guess he graduated from Stanford and was working for Varian. I know that he, he wanted to get his PhD, his English was not very good, and so he actually got it a few years ago, just years later. But I think it was actually through his university in Japan, he wrote a thesis, he just, just wanted to do that. Not that he needed to, he was retired by that point, but he never got his PhD in this country in any case.

So he started working, and I remember once seeing a photograph, looking through some family photographs, and there was a photograph of my father and a very pretty woman and I said, "Oh, who's that?" And he was engaged to, I think, a Filipino woman, or maybe she was Chinese. And then her parents did not like the fact that my father was Japanese, so the engagement was called off and somebody introduced my father to my mother. I don't know if it was the sister of the formerly engaged young woman, I don't know who it was, but somebody made that introduction.

TI: And this was when your father was in Varian or at Stanford?

JO: I don't know if he was still a grad student then or if he'd started working, I don't really know. I could ask him, though, 'cause he's...

TI: That's interesting. So it was the parents of this other, either Chinese or Filipino, who said, "We don't want you marrying a Japanese."

JO: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

TI: Did, had your, did your dad ever talk about that?

JO: No, I'm talking, he just, we just got him online a few years ago, and actually, I should tell him to "Google" her; I don't know what happened to her. [Laughs] He might want to find out.

TI: That's funny.


JO: And I don't know much about their courtship. I remember, I think my father, I think he took her to symphony in San Francisco, that was maybe their first date, and she fell asleep. But I don't really know much more than that.

TI: That's interesting.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

TI: Let's talk a little bit more about you now. So as a child growing up, was this in Palo Alto?

JO: It's in Palo Alto for nine years and then when I was nine, we moved to Palos Verdes, which is in Southern California.

TI: While growing up, what kind of student were you?

JO: I was very, I was a typical Japanese American student. I was very diligent, I was, I always did my homework and I was a perfectionist. And I was just sort of a, I guess a pretty, like, quiet, nerdy kid.

TI: How about hobbies or activities?

JO: I was interested in reptiles. I had turtles from a pretty young age, I loved to read, I did some drawing but not very seriously. Well, I went through the typical girl horse phase and so I would just draw horses over and over and over until I got it down, got the horse down and could draw a good horse. But that's just sort of robotic, I mean, it wasn't really creative. I also remember drawing Charlie Brown over and over and over again, so those are the two things that I fixated on. But I liked to read a lot. What kind of hobbies? I don't think I was really obsessed with any one thing. I think I liked to make things. I know that... we didn't have a TV 'til I was five, so my brother and I would, we'd make up stories a lot, so storytelling, and we shared a room, I think, until I was thirteen. And so there was a lot that went on after dark. We'd just, we were, I was in the top bunk and he was in the bottom and we'd make up stories. I hadn't thought about this, actually, I haven't thought about this for, you know, for a long time, and we would, we would make up stories for each other and, or if he was being read a story at school he'd come home and tell me about it. And we'd sometimes make puppets for each other and put on shows. So I guess, actually, story was part of our childhood, but I never thought of myself as being a kid storyteller, and I wasn't, certainly wasn't an aspiring writer when I was young. I just, to me, it just seems like I had a pretty normal childhood.

TI: Now, was your mother working during this time?

JO: No, no, she stopped when she, yeah, I guess when she started having children, she stopped.

TI: Now, growing up, did you participate in very many Japanese American activities, either in Palo Alto or later on?

JO: No, my, my parents tried to send me one, one year to Japanese school on Saturdays, and I guess the only way I could do, they could get me to do it was if they, they sent -- my, my best friend, the boy I grew up with, was Tommy Yoder, who lived next, in the house next door, and he was this kid with blond, curly hair. And so his mother let him come with me, so we went to Japanese school together. But I, I think I was very bored. I just, I really didn't like it which was also, I guess, a very typical response, so my parents didn't force me to, to go on. I think one year was enough. So I wasn't exposed to a lot of Japanese culture, they weren't involved with any churches or anything. My father's an Episcopal, so there wasn't a lot of contact with...

TI: So you guys, did you ever go down to, like, the San Jose Nihonmachi for, to eat or anything like that?

JO: No, no. We would sometimes go to Chinatown in San Francisco, but I actually don't remember eating a lot of Japanese food except for on New Year's Day we would have a huge feast. Mostly because my grandmother was a, she knew how to make all the Japanese dishes, so we'd spend all day just chopping vegetables. But I don't think we ate... no, no.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

TI: And so when, or did your mother ever talk about the camp experience with you, or did you just hear her talking with other people about it? Or how did it come up?

JO: No, not... it just came up sort of by the by, or just really, just as a reference point, or when she was talking about certain people that she knew, or when she was referring back to that time. But she never... it was just something that had happened to me, my ancient-seeming mother in her own childhood. So it was not something I really gave a lot of thought to, and it also didn't seem to be something that either that she was terribly obsessed with or even angry about, although I know that it was extremely difficult for the family after the war because of their internment experience. I think life was just turned upside-down for them.

TI: So when did you first start learning about the incarceration or internment of Japanese Americans?

JO: Actually when I started writing the book. So years and years, I didn't think about it. I mean, I just, it didn't, even when I started writing fiction -- and I started writing fiction late. I didn't start writing 'til I was thirty. And when I did start writing seriously, I wrote comedy, just comic short stories, and so it never even occurred to me to write about the war, quite frankly. It just, it, so I think that I had taken some Asian American Studies classes in college and read some of the required books, and so I'd learned a little bit more about the internment experience when I was in college. But it's not something that I gave a lot of thought to for years.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

TI: Okay, so let's, so you graduated from high school about, what? 1980?

JO: Uh-huh, 1980.

TI: And this was from which high school?

JO: Rolling Hills High School.

TI: Okay, Rolling Hills, and then after that you went to college? Where'd you go to college?

JO: I went to Yale.

TI: And what was your field of study at Yale?

JO: I ended up majoring in art, and I hadn't taken a lot of art classes before. Actually, I hadn't taken any. I don't think I'd ever taken any art classes when I was a child. And I remember my first year at Yale, I took a drawing class, and I remember I got an A-plus, and I was just, I think I got an A-plus because I was very unschooled and there was something very free about the way that I drew. I really didn't know what I was doing, so maybe, it was something sort of free and very naive and childlike about the work that I did, and I didn't know anything about perspective, but I had something which I guess the instructors saw, and I just really liked, I liked drawing. And then I took a sculpture class and I just, I fell in love with the figure and working in clay.

These were all new things for me, so it's really, I mean, my experiences at Yale were just, they were really wonderful. I spent most of my time, once I decided that I wanted to pursue art, in the studio, and then my junior year I started taking painting, which was much harder for me than sculpture. Sculpture for some reason came very, fairly easily. I actually recently got in touch with my old sculpture professor, I think my first aesthetic imprint was made by this man. And we learned how to look at the figure, or we learned how to see by looking first at a bone. You have no preconception of what a bone looks like. It was maybe a thigh bone from a cow or something, some sort of animal. And we looked at it, it was on a stand, and you just look at what you see, and then you draw the lines, and you sort of rotate and you draw it and 360 degrees, and you just look. And then you try to use that same way of seeing on a head. And I think normally if you, you would, if you were told to sculpt a head, you would make what you thought a head should look like. But we used that same way of seeing, which is very abstract, to look at the lines on the head, and then... so that was sort of how I learned to look, and it was very abstract. And then you got to the figure and used that same method of look, just look, look at the lines and look at the curves and how things move through space. And I was just fascinated by that, and I thought it very absorbing. And then I started painting, and I just loved the stuff of paint.

The friend that I'm going to see on Bainbridge Island, we started painting together the same year, and she always painted -- she was making the kind of paintings that I've always wanted to make, and we were always sort of looking at each other's work. But I, I love color, and just the material of paint, oils, and I loved painting more, but technically I wasn't as adept at it, and that, I think, ultimately was what frustrated me, but it's what I, I continued to pursue painting for a few years. I started grad school in painting.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

TI: I'm curious, as you're pursuing this sort of focus on art at Yale, how supportive were your parents in this direction for you?

JO: You know, they didn't really, they've always been very hands-off. I don't know what they thought. And I think it was also a different era then. It seems like young children, young kids, now are very -- and probably for a good reason -- concerned about their career. I think, I mean, I started college in 1980 and it was still, sort of, the '60s were still in the air at that point, and I think I was -- or maybe the students that I'd been friends with in college were all sort of very idealistic and, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. And my parents didn't ever push me in any one direction. I mean, I remember when I was a kid for a while, I just fell in love with my pediatrician and I thought -- Dr. Dr. Klein or Dr. Kleinman was wonderful and I wanted to be a doctor for a while. And then I guess that wore off, and I just didn't, I really didn't know. And I think that I'm glad that I didn't know, it was just very open and very naive, I think. But they, no, they never said, "Look, how are you going to support yourself?" They, they never, they never really asked that question. I think, I think that in a way, even though my mother is Nisei, they were sort of typical immigrant parents in that they really didn't know the lay of the educational land. They didn't really, I don't think they understood what it meant to go to an ivy league school, I don't think... I feel like I didn't have a lot of information going out there. And then when I got to Yale, then you run up against some of these kids who have just gone to the best prep schools on the East Coast, and a lot of very savvy, very cultured New Yorkers and that was just, that was a shock and a little intimidating for me in the very beginning. People, just kids who had grown up just steeped in the world of culture, which I had not been. And yet, I don't regret having grown up in California. I had very outdoorsy -- and then once we moved to Southern California, I spent, every summer I was at the beach and it was just a freer time. I think childhood was, and I could leave the house in the morning, go bike riding all day long and my mother wouldn't -- as long as I was home for dinner, it was okay. And parents didn't really know where we were, what we were doing, and I think fortunately we were good, we were fairly good kids, so they didn't really have reason to worry.

TI: I was just curious, so when you chose your art, so it was kind of hands-off. So was it a case where they didn't even necessarily encourage you? It was just sort of like it was up to you, Julie, in terms of what you wanted to do?

JO: Yes, that's exactly how it was. They didn't encourage or discourage.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

TI: And so after you graduated, you went, you continued on to graduate school?

JO: I, I actually went to Berlin for one year. And my father said he would support me for a year, and then I was just on my own, and so I went to Berlin. It was West Berlin back then.

TI: And why Berlin? Why did you decide Berlin?

JO: Because my friend, who now lives on Bainbridge Island, was going there. I had no idea what, what to do, and she said she was going to Berlin, "Do you want to come?" And I said, "Okay." I, seriously, I did not have a plan. Let's see, I went there and I took a language. I was in a, at the Goethe Institut, I took language classes in German and I loved learning German. And I became, by the end of the year I was fluent and I was, I mean, I, I knew enough to get into the university there, but I decided not to stay. I took the university entrance exam in German just because I thought for visa reasons I might want to stay, but I ended up coming back. But, and my friend and I also rented a studio and were painting there. So it was a very free, wonderful year and, I mean, West Berlin, it felt like, really, the center of the world. Then I came back and I actually returned to New Haven and I worked as a waitress, I was waiting tables five nights a week and renting a studio downtown and trying to put together a portfolio for graduate school. And then the year after I did start graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana. Failed miserably, just had, that was my first bout of doubt that I'd ever experienced in my life. It's just something, it was all psychological but I just lost all faith and fled after, I think I left in, started in September, I left a little after Thanksgiving and I didn't know what to do so I just, I went to New York, so I'd met -- a friend of mine, I'd met a friend in Berlin and she was from New York, and so I knew one person in New York and it seemed like a good city to go to, and I started temping, doing temp work. So...

TI: And painting on the side?

JO: No, I decided to give up painting for good.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

JO: So I started temping... I was living with a couple...

TI: And this is about, what? 1987 or so?

JO: Yeah, actually, it was. I landed in New York in January of '87, and it was a couple -- at first I was doing, I was working for... he was, I think he was a classical music promoter, just secretarial work, and living with this couple. And they said, "You know, you really should study word processing if you want to make good hourly money." And so I went to the Betty Owen Secretarial School, and I learned how to -- I didn't know how to word process, 'cause we still used typewriters when I was in college, and I learned MultiMate. And, and then I went to a temp agency, I was always -- the two things I'm glad I learned are how to type and how to swim. And I went to a temp agency and I was really fast and accurate typist, and they sent me out to, the first job that they sent me out to was the company that I ended up working for until, actually, the book sold. So I, I worked evenings.

TI: And what, what company, what kind of work was this?

JO: They, it was a construction, it was a major construction management company. Back then they were called Lehrer McGovern Bovis, now they're called Bovis Lend Lease, they're owned by the Aussies, from Australia. And I was working evenings for them -- oh, at first I was working days for them as a word processor, and then I think after about six months, I really got the yen to paint again, I really missed it. And so I enrolled in an art school called the New York Studio School on Eighth Street, and it's, it's not a degree program. It's full-time, all day long, and I, I made an arrangement with the company I was working for. They, they loved me 'cause I was a really fast, I was a fast typist. And they bought me out from the agency, and they allowed to work me -- let me work in the evenings after I'd finished art school. So I was all day long in the studio, and the tuition wasn't really high. I was able to support myself, and then I'd go work for the construction management company in the evenings, and they would just leave me whatever was, the unfinished day, day crew had not finished, I would pick up. And then at a certain point, years later, I learned how to desktop publish.

TI: So these were long days, that you -- I mean, so you'd go to school all day and then you would work.

JO: Yeah, I was thinking it was great for the couple that I was rooming with, 'cause they never saw me. [Laughs] And then I would just, I would get home fairly late, just take a cab home. They'd send me home in a cab or a car, and then I'd get up early the next morning and go to art school. But it really worked...

TI: And I'm sorry, then you said you went into desktop publishing. So you took your word processing and your, probably your, your sort of art background to start...

JO: I guess. I never thought about the visual skills, 'cause I don't have any graphic design experience. But we, at work, I, we all learned how to use a program, a desktop publishing program. We were, I was in the marketing department and then we were putting out proposals. I still say, "we," even though I'm no longer with them, it's so funny how you identify with the company. They were putting out proposals to bid on buildings, so we made some very good-looking books.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

TI: And so as you're doing this, at what point did you start thinking about getting into writing?

JO: I, it happened very organically. I think I, I continued to paint fairly happily for about a couple years, and then again I started having major, just attack of doubt, and I just suddenly, I just couldn't even put down a mark on the canvas without being sure it was wrong and I'd just become extremely self-critical of myself while I was painting. And one day I just realized I was miserable. And I had started, painting had been a very joyous act for me in the very beginning, but it was like the more I learned, the more I realized that I, the more I realized I had to learn. And I just, I just, I was just, by the end, I just couldn't, I couldn't do it anymore, and I just, so I just stopped. I was twenty-seven when I stopped painting, and it was really like my dream to, to be able to make a good painting, I think. I just couldn't do it, and so I stopped, and I continued, though, to work as a desktop publisher in the evenings, so I had a fairly steady source of income. And then I just began going to my neighborhood cafe. I was just, I was so depressed, I really felt like an utter failure, and I would just, I began going for long walks up and down Broadway in the morning and then in the afternoons, I would just go to my neighborhood cafe and this is when I started to read. I just read fiction and I hadn't read a lot of fiction until then. I just started to read a lot of contemporary fiction and then I would go, around four-thirty I'd just head off to work. And so I did that for about three years, I just read. I was just very depressed and I just felt completely washed up. And that, I think, was how I, I began to become, I just found reading stories to be terribly consoling. It was the one time when I could sort of forget about myself, me and my small life, for a few minutes in the day, just getting absorbed in somebody else's story. So I just, I really liked reading stories.

And then I, I met a guy at the, at the cafe, and he was an ex-Zen monk and he was a writer himself, and we began to date. And I would just write these little short vignettes about him and I'd jot 'em down and he'd just crack up. And I guess they were funny, or he thought they were funny. And so writing for me, actually, it was just something I started to do to amuse my boyfriend at the time, and it was a form of communication, he also wrote. And so it was just sort of a fun thing, very, no stress, no expectations. And then when we broke up, again, I was devastated. I was thirty, and I remember, I really did like to write, and it came to me much more easily than painting did. His best friend was teaching a writing workshop, and so he suggested I sign up for it, and I did, and it was great. So that's sort of how I got into writing. Just, it was, there was not, I didn't decide, "Now, I'm going to stop painting and now I'm a writer." It took years to realize that maybe this was something I wanted to do. But I felt like I had nothing to lose and I didn't think I would end up being a "serious writer," it was just something that I enjoyed, really, in the beginning.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

TI: Well, as you started writing and took these workshops, was it, was it pretty evident that you had a lot of skill at it? I mean, did the instructors start --

JO: I was funny. I mean, what I wrote was, people would never, you'd never know it from reading my book, but I, people would laugh. And so I had this certain comic sensibility which people seemed to respond to. And I had a nice turn of phrase. The style is very different. I think the style in my first book is very sort of clipped and short. But I think the style in my comic stories is just more digressive and just completely different. But I think my writing was -- I mean, I, I did well and I enjoyed it, and it just seemed to come. And then because I was older -- I thought I was older, now it seems young -- but when I was thirty-two, I thought, well, maybe I should up the ante and apply to graduate school, and so I did. I applied to Columbia and they took me on the basis of my comic stories. So I still hadn't really written about the war at that point. But then I look back at some of the exercises that I did when I was taking just the, the more casual writing workshops, and even then, there was sort of, I could see that, sort of glimmers of what I was about to write about in years later, about the war, they would come up, just very sort of indirectly. But it's not stuff, the war was not stuff that I was thinking about consciously. I never thought, "I want to write a book about the internment someday."

TI: But the whole writing, was it, did you get that same passion for writing that you had for, say, painting and art?

JO: Yeah, you know, I think I did. I think whatever I do, I do obsessively. And I did, and yet, it wasn't so fraught with -- I mean, just the idea that I could fail and, I mean, now I feel like I could fail, but back then it was more, it was something I really just enjoyed. And, and yeah, I think I do love, I mean, I do... I think that the medium of language for me is just, maybe it's 'cause we learn, we speak from the age of what, two, whereas you don't paint from the age of two. It just came to me pretty easily, and yet it was challenging enough to keep my mind in that state of flow, which I think, you need a task that's just difficult enough to do, but not too difficult. And I think writing is it for me. I think painting for me was a little too difficult. Or maybe if I'd honed my skills, it wouldn't have been. I don't know.

TI: Well, I'm curious, as you were growing up through school, I mean, were you always a pretty good writer? Did teachers always say, "Oh, Julie, you're such a good writer"?

JO: Yeah, they did, but I never really thought, that didn't mean oh, I want, didn't mean I wanted to be a writer. And I just thought, you know, the things that sort of come easily, you don't really give a second thought to. I chose the thing that was really hard, which was painting, rather than writing.

TI: But at what point did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? Was it during, when you were in graduate school? At what point did you start calling yourself a writer?

JO: Not until the book came out. No, I was an aspiring writer, I think, for years, but when people asked me what I did, I think, I said, well, I'm writing, but I would never say I was a writer. It seemed, I don't know, it was a loaded word, and I just felt like I didn't know what was going to happen with me and my writing. I really had no idea.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

TI: So what happened after you graduated from, from the graduate...

JO: From Columbia?

TI: From Columbia. What did you do?

JO: I, well, I continued to word process. But while I was at Columbia -- and that's when I started, my second year there is when I wrote the first chapter of the novel, which is, I wrote it then as a story, "Evacuation Order No. 19." And so I started writing about the war while I was in school, and I was encouraged, I don't think I would have continued to write about the war unless I'd have been encouraged by my advisor there, Maureen Howard. And it is funny, I think that occasionally in life somebody just gives you a green light, but it's so important. You just need like one "yes" voice, I think, is all you need to hear. But she basically said, "Yes, go ahead."

TI: Well, what was it that she said that made you...

JO: Oh, I think she just said, "I think you should continue writing about this." And it really was something, I just thought, at first I, when I wrote that first story, "Evacuation Order Number 19," it was, it was an aberration for me to write anything, it was the first serious story that I'd ever written and I just thought, "This is odd," you know, "where did this come from?" And I thought I would just write it, get it out my system, put it aside and return to my, to comedy, to writing comedy. But then the next story that I wrote was what is now "Train," the second chapter. So clearly, I mean, I think it was very, I think that book came from a very deep, unconscious place. It's not something that I ever deliberately sat down to write. I just feel like it welled up out of me somehow, and that's when I began doing a lot of research, was when I realized that I didn't, I did want to take the writing of the book seriously and I didn't know enough to tell the story.

TI: So I'm curious about, when you say "research," what kind of research did you do? What books or what documentaries, or what did you do to do research?

JO: I, I read a lot of -- not a lot, 'cause there aren't tons out there, but collections of oral histories, and some memoirs, I read memoirs written by former internees, and then the standard secondary source history books about the internment. I reread my grandfather's letters, I looked at -- oh, Dorothea Lange's photographs that she took for the War Relocation Authority, I looked at some of those. And actually, a friend of my uncle's was looking through her photographs online, and he came across a photo of my grandmother and my mother and my uncle, right after they had arrived at Tanforan. And so, and that was sort of, that was very strange to see.

TI: So this was a photo that Dorothea Lange took of your, of your family?

JO: Uh-huh. And they just arrived, and you can see my grandmother is wearing, she's very well-dressed, she's wearing, like a very nice wool coat, you can tell it's a nice wool coat, and she's talking to about five or six white men in army uniform, and all the men are pointing in one direction. I think they've just arrived. You can see, in the background there's a huge structure, it's a concrete structure, which I think is the grandstand, and they're probably directing my grandmother to the barracks. And her son, my uncle, is carrying her purse underneath his arm like a good boy, and he has just this heartbreaking look on his face, of great concern, and he's looking, he's not worried about where they're going to be sent, he's looking at his mother's face. He's just reading Mom, that's what he's doing, and he knows that she's a little distraught although you can't, you know, she's, she's very Japanese in a way, doesn't show too much. And she's much more Japanese than the woman in the book, by the way. And you can tell he's concerned about her, and then with my mother, all I can see is just the back of her head. She's just got these two black braids wrapped up around her head, but that's all I can see of her. So I looked at photographs, I also looked at some collections of drawings and watercolors, paintings that were done by some of the internees, which since there's not a lot of photographic footage of the camps, since the internees were not allowed to bring in cameras, so... and I'm very interested in what things look like, I think. I have to picture things in my head often before I can begin to write about them. So that's why I really like looking at photographs and then looking at drawings of the camps, too. And then, oh, also, I like reading poems just 'cause I think imagery is just very rich. So I read some poems about the camps.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

TI: So Julie, when you, in the last, before we interrupted, you were talking about how you used, you looked a lot at photographs and things, and it was interesting, as you were describing that photograph of your, of your grandmother and your uncle and your mother, it reminded me of you, I mean, that's kind of like how your book is written. It's just so descriptive in how things were written. And it just occurred to me, when I talk to most writers, it's, they tend to, at least in my conversations, focus more on the narrative and what happened, and oftentimes they look at diaries and, to get their, sort of, inspiration to write. And you're the first one that I really, it came across that you really look at things like images and photographs.

JO: I don't, I mean, I don't know why I do that. I wasn't aware of that until after the book came out and people said that, "Oh, it seems like you work very visually," and I didn't, I wasn't really aware of that, but I think... well, I was, I mean, I was so fascinated by the landscape and the desert. That just seemed like a character in itself, and I think, I do think, maybe sort of in, in pictures. 'Cause I really have to see things first. And then, I mean, where else, I mean, you can just look at a photograph of like a camp, the camp general store and then see something like Boilfast thread, you know, where else are you going to get a great detail like that? And I also just like knowing what people look like and what they wore. Also, I spent a summer looking at old newspapers from 1941, from the Bay Area and the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner and the Berkeley Gazette, and what I really like looking at are advertisements, like style, what people, again, to see what people are wearing and to see what they're eating and what things cost. And, and plus, there's really no narrative in my story. Just, things happen and this family really is fairly passive. They just react, so they're reacting to major historical events, but, and I felt like the narrative, the narrative sort of speaks for itself. We all know what's going on. They're home and they're taken away, and then they go back home; that's basically the story. So it's not really personal story except for it's personal in the way that that whole experience felt to those people.

TI: Well, while you were doing your research, you mentioned how it wasn't until you started writing this book that you really started reading and learning more about what happened to Japanese Americans, and in a more detailed way. Were there any things that surprised you in terms of what you learned? That stood out, like, "Oh, I didn't know this," or any of those "aha" type of moments?

JO: I'm trying to think. Maybe I actually knew more than I was aware of. Maybe I'd absorbed more about that experience than I, than I realize. I don't think anything really surprised me. I mean, you just hear story after story of hardship and despair, but that didn't -- no, except for the tap dancing in the desert. [Laughs] That was the one thing that just, it was like, what a beautiful, lovely, in a way, sad moment. And then I guess it's always the... I mean, I do, I did look at memoirs. I would read memoirs and I just loved to find the occasional anecdote that just, that works. And another anecdote that I remember my mother telling her, me, but much later -- not when I was a kid, but just, about the day that she... you could, if you had money, you could order from the camp. You could order goods through mail-order catalog, either Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery Ward's, and she ordered her, a pair of crepe-soled shoes, and I guess those, maybe crepe-soles were all the rage, and the day she got those shoes was just a great and wonderful day in her life. So things, I guess those were little moments of joy, or little things like reading about how, how somebody grew an orchid in a, in a coffee can. So I guess those were, those were sort of like bursts of color. That's how I see them. Sort of moments, just little incidents that stand out against the vast, sort of gray, dusty background of the desert. These are the things that, I think, catch my eye.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

TI: And so as you, as you were starting to write the book, I mean, what was the process? You mentioned how the first chapter was pretty much written when you were in graduate school.

JO: Uh-huh.

TI: And then you wrote the other, what, four chapters. I mean, how, how long did it take you to do this, where did you do it?

JO: I wrote it all in my neighborhood cafe, pretty much. It took me about five and a half years, and I made it up as I went along. And I didn't realize, I think, until I finished the second story that the first and second, what are now the first and second chapters of the book might be the beginnings of a much larger piece. So it, the book sort of crept up on me slowly. It was clearly stuff that I had to write about. I mean, that first story just came out of -- actually, it started with a visual image, just a woman standing on the street reading the evacuation notice, that's all that I had to start with. And I just tried to imagine what she would do after reading that sign. And so that, that was really just, that was the seed of the story, it was just this image of a woman looking at the sign, what would you do?

And the third chapter, which is the long chapter that's set in the camp, it was definitely the hardest to write, and I spent about nine months writing and rewriting the first paragraph of that story and I just couldn't, I was getting very discouraged; it just wouldn't work. And then I had this week in New York in which I... I was sitting at the cafe one day, and I looked up and my brother, David, who lives in San Francisco, I saw him walking towards me. And so I looked up and I waved and, and it turns out it wasn't my brother and I was smiling and waving at a complete stranger. And then a couple days later, the kid in the gym, he was collecting IDs, well, he reminded me of my brother, too. And then a couple days after that, I saw a guy who was a dead ringer for my brother on street, and I thought, "Well, that's what happens when you really miss somebody, is that you suddenly see them everywhere." And that was my, my "aha" moment for the right beginning for that third chapter. I thought, okay, there's a young boy, he misses his father terribly, he's in the camp, and everyone in the camp looks vaguely like... they have black hair, ethnically, you know, small eyes, everyone, so he suddenly mistakes every man for being his father. And that, so that just came to me just sort of out of the blue. So who knows, I mean, I think writing is, it's a mysterious process. You don't know where things come from and you don't know what's going to be a trigger for the story. But once I had that, that thought, then I began to write and I could, you know, I could go, get beyond the first paragraph. But that, and I just hammered it out, just section by section and it was just, I think it took me, it might have taken me two years to write that. It took a long time.

And I had, when you're writing historical fiction, it's really important that you get the historical facts right. And so there are just so many details, but the details had to be right. Like the mountains did have to be in this direction and, you know, the news that they're hearing has to be accurate, and actually, at one point, my father is very interested in the stars and in astronomy and when I was doing my fact-checking afterwards, like, I had to know was there actually a full moon on that day and so he found a, a formula that somewhere, maybe in Sky and Telescope magazine, somewhere that you can calculate, you can go back in time and figure out, at what phase of the moon was on any day in the past hundred years. So he figured out and actually, one day there was a full moon on the day in which I said there was a full moon, but that was a coincidence. But, yeah, 'cause there's just a massive amount of information that I had to put into my head before I could begin to tell that middle chapter.

TI: And so as you write these sections, did you, did you send them out for review so people could do fact checking or things like that?

JO: Not 'til, well, the first chapter of the novel was, it was published in the Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops anthology. And after it appeared there, there was another woman who was also in that anthology and she, she sent me, she said, "You know, I think my agent might be interested in your work." She was a fellow classmate at Columbia, and so that was how I got in touch with my, my now-agent and I, by the time I talked to her, she, I had written the first and second chapters and I sent them to her. And so, and my advisor had also seen the second chapter and really liked it and had seen part of the third chapter. And then when I finished writing the third chapter I sent it to my agent and then fourth and fifth also. But it wasn't fact checked 'til after it was accepted for publication. Then the fact checkers at the publishing house also checked, but really, I feel like I did all of my own fact checking, but still there are some things that you're going to get wrong.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

TI: But just to give you some feedback, I, I read it and I've been in this field for now, like, nine years. And I really felt you did an excellent job.

JO: Oh, thank you.

TI: I mean, oftentimes when I read these historical novels, I mean, they're, they're really stretched, or there are inaccuracies, and I didn't find that at all with your book.

JO: Oh, good. 'Cause I didn't want people to notice the history too much. You don't want, I didn't want to oversaturate the book with historical facts.

TI: But yet you had these, these little things that would come in...

JO: Just enough, that's all I wanted.

TI: And I really, I really enjoyed that.

JO: Oh, good. I'm glad that it worked. 'Cause I just, that was another thing I was wondering as I was writing the book, was can I pull it off, and also will it feel true to people who actually went through that experience? That's, that's what I really wanted to know, I didn't know.

TI: And in particular, I really liked the third chapter, too --

JO: Oh, thank you.

TI: -- from the boy's perspective. And there was that, in particular, I just -- and maybe because I'm male, but I could, I could imagine sort of that's what a boy would, sort of, go through and think and feel. Especially there was that, not only you talked about how he'd always look for his father and see him in these different men, but just that one sequence where he did walk under the, the guard tower, and under his breath would say the, "Hirohito..." that, you know, I can just see myself doing that at, at ten years old or something.

JO: Right, you just can't help but say the word, the forbidden word.

TI: Yeah, that was really good. So I just wanted to give you that feedback. From a, from a historical standpoint, I thought you did an excellent job.

JO: Oh, that's really, that's very nice to hear. Yeah, 'cause you don't, the last thing you want is for a reader to get hung up on something that's wrong or to get distracted, yeah.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

TI: Well, in general, what has the reaction been from, first, the Japanese American community? Have you heard much?

JO: You know, I don't, I haven't heard terribly much. I mean, the people who come to my readings are people who like the book and doing book tour on the West Coast, often after a reading, a few older internees would come up to me and tell me, and thank me for writing the book, and I just feel like I should be thanking them. But I, I don't actually know what the overall response has been in the Japanese American community. I can't, I can't really say. And also, I, I mean this probably sounds strange, but I don't, I don't know any Japanese Americans in my New York life, and the ones that I know here on the West Coast are all relatives. So I'm not really in touch with the Japanese American community, so I actually don't know.

TI: So places like Berkeley, where the story takes place, they haven't done much in terms of the community, in terms of reading it and talking about it?

JO: I don't know. I mean, not, not that I've heard of. I really have no idea. I don't know.

TI: And the other question in terms of reactions, how about schools? I'm curious, like in, like, middle schools and high schools, have you heard much response from, from those areas?

JO: I, it was recently approved by a New York City committee that has to approve, I guess, all books that are assigned to high school students have to be pre-approved. So the book has been approved, it's on their list, and teachers have started assigning it to the kids in the New York City public schools. I don't know about other school districts. I actually, a friend of mine who's Japanese American -- I actually met him in the emergency room when I went there with my mother to take her to the ER room, she'd fallen down. And it turns out the ER doctor -- and she, of course, was talking about me to the ER doctor -- and it turns out that his father was the exact same age as the boy in the book, and was also in Topaz and had gone through those same experiences. And he did a, I think an informal study of the school districts or schools in the L.A. area and found that almost none of them even, even taught about the internment in the history classes, not to mention English classes. But I still think that it's something that's not, that's really not too talked about. And even learning about what's going on in Bainbridge Island is interesting. The teacher there was saying that up until now, that the internment had been given maybe a brief paragraph in the history books, and there's so much history right there on the island. So I don't know if it's being used more in schools now or if it will be. I'm hoping that it will be.

TI: Because I was thinking especially, I mean, I know quite a few schools use Farewell to Manzanar --

JO: Right.

TI: In both middle school and high school, and I would think that this would be another good option for, for teachers to use. I'm just curious if there was any, any sort of traction in that way. Maybe it's still early.

JO: Well, I know it's being used, it's been chosen by several college campuses as the book for incoming freshmen to read over the summer, but I don't know about, I don't know about junior high and high school. Although I learned when I was, I was out in Topeka, Kansas, for Topeka Reads, they'd chosen the book, and I was talking to the librarian there, and I didn't know this, but I guess every book, maybe, that is assigned to young people is assigned a grade level, and she told me that the language in my book was sixth-grade level. [Laughs] Which, and the content was ninth grade so -- which was surprising, but I guess not that surprising because I think my vocabulary is very Hemingway-esque and pared down. But I thought, "Sixth-grade level? Okay." [Laughs] It was just funny.

TI: Yeah, no, because after reading the book, I did recommend it to my son's, my son's school. He's in high school right now but the middle school teachers often have me come in and talk, and I suggested that they look at, at your book in addition to Farewell to Manzanar, or as another option for that. So I was just curious, because I thought it was really appropriate for middle and high school also, in addition to college. So just, I was just curious.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

TI: Another question I had, while you were writing the book, were there things that sort of, that you learned about yourself in terms of your Japanese American heritage while writing the book? Did... yeah, were the things that... yeah, was there anything there?

JO: Yeah, I think, I think I learned... I think I learned about, more about where my mother is coming from. It made me understand her better just in terms of parenting style and you think a lot of Japanese American parents are very critical of their children, you never praised your child in front of somebody else, and I always just thought that was my mom, and she was never happy with me. But it turns out that she's all Japanese American moms, supposedly. So I think I learned culturally a little bit more about, just about some of the norms, behavioral norms.

And then, well, even, I mean, even talking this morning about calling up room service, 'cause my breakfast didn't arrive for the longest time and I just sort of sat back and I waited and I thought, "Well, maybe they're just late, they didn't tell me how long it was supposed to take," and whereas Russell takes three minutes and is immediately on the phone. I just kept on waiting and then I was sort of amazed even, well the guy said, "Well, we forgot to write down the number," and I didn't scream at him. I don't know if that's Japanese or if it's just me, but... and yet, and yet, you know, my -- this is slightly off the topic -- but my mother, she's not... my mother is pretty feisty, and so is my grandmother. I mean, they're not, they're not typically demure women and there's, I think, a vein of anger that just, that runs through the family. So, and in a way, I know what Japanese is just from growing up with a Japanese father. I know about that reserve and that concern with appearances and all that. But, I mean, I myself feel pretty American, but then there are moments when I realize that actually, I'm not as American as I think, you know, like this morning with the room service.

TI: Well, that's interesting. So you would, you would put sort of being more aggressive as an American characteristic.

JO: I would, and... or maybe it's just a more New York characteristic. [Laughs] I've been out there for seventeen years. And, you know, I can be pushy when I need to be, but, and yet my mother, I think because she had to interact more with the general culture than my father did, he just went to work and he brought home the paycheck and he provided for the family, but Mom was American whereas Dad was always a foreigner. And I remember my best friend, the first time... I think I was staying with her family in London and my father called. And her father answered the phone and almost hung up. I mean, just that my father had such a heavy Japanese accent and they were like, "Who is this man?" almost though it was a joke. And I forget that my father has a heavy Japanese accent, 'cause I grew up hearing him talk and he just talked like Dad. But my, my mother had to be more aggressive because she was out there and had to make sure her kids got into the right classes, just because she was out there interacting more, whereas my father wasn't as much. But, and I do speak up, but sometimes it's... actually, sometimes I feel like I'm, like I'm too hot to get offended, or too quick to get offended. Like sometimes I'll just easily -- and I'll think, "What's that about?"

TI: And usually is it around, sort of, racial issues? Or when you say you're offended -- or what, what are your hot buttons?

JO: No. Well, it'll just be something stupid like I'll be in an elevator and I remember once the man said it was rude to hold the door open for the next people who were coming into the elevator -- this is in New York. And I said, "No, actually, it's rude to close the elevator and to go quickly before they come," and we just got into this screaming fight on the elevator. And... or at the cafe one day, a woman, she didn't want me to sit in a certain seat. And I said, "Look, I have every right to sit in that seat." There was a black cat on the seat which I didn't see, and, "I didn't know there was a cat on the seat," and yet I think that human trumps cat in a cafe. And so we ended up getting in a fight. And so I think, I don't know what, or sometimes I think I'm very territorial also. If I feel like someone's not sharing the space correctly, like at a table at the cafe, if they're taking up too much space, I'll just put my stuff over theirs. So I don't know where that comes from -- I mean, maybe, well, the Japanese are very territorial, right? [Laughs] We know that. But so I, I don't know. It's hard to know where things come from. But sometimes it will just, a flash of anger will just come out, and yet it takes me like an hour to call room service and I don't get mad. So it's hard. I don't really know where things come from and what's Japanese and what isn't.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

TI: So I'm curious, when you finished your book, what were your expectations? When it was all finished and it's off to be published, what did you think the reaction would be?

JO: I really didn't, I had no idea. I mean, I thought it would just be sort of quietly, respectfully received, but I had no idea that it would be received the way that it has been received. I mean, everything that's happened with the book has been wonderful and a complete shock and surprise.

TI: And what part really surprises you? When you say it's shock and surprise, what surprised you?

JO: Well, I think... you know, I don't think -- I was just writing the book for very personal reasons. I didn't write the book to make a political statement, I don't feel like, 'cause you heard about how it came about. I mean, it was, it's not that I thought, "Oh, this is an untold story that must be told, I must tell the story." I think it is an untold story that hasn't been told enough, and I'm sure that there are many other takes on the same experience that we haven't heard yet. But I just don't think I realized how, how important the story actually is, and that people would be -- I didn't expect there to be much interest in it. I mean, who wants to read about a bunch of Japanese people wasting away in the desert during World War II? It just didn't seem like very sexy material to me. It wasn't like what my classmates were writing.

TI: So why do you think people are, are interested in this story?

JO: Well, I think part of the reason is because of September 11th and what's happened since then and what's going on now with Muslims and Arabs and the parallels that can be drawn between then and now. Just, things seem to be coming around again, civil liberties-wise. And maybe we have enough distance from World War II to be able to talk about it now, maybe it's just time. I mean, I think it takes a while to be able to look at something. Maybe it takes two generations before the people who can even begin to tell the story can speak, and maybe that's how long it takes the people who can maybe listen to the story, maybe that's how long it takes them to be able to hear it. I don't really know. I don't think that there would have been a very receptive audience to the book ten or twenty years after the, after the end of the war.

TI: So are you sort of anticipating or surprised that there aren't more books written by... whether it's Japanese Americans or younger people --

JO: Yes, about that experience.

TI: -- about, about the experience?

JO: Yes. I thought, while I was writing the book, "Better hurry up and finish this book quickly, because there are probably dozens of other people like myself who are the sons and daughters of former internees who are writing this exact same story." And yet I finished my book and I don't know where they are. I wonder, are they, are they not writing this story? Are they just not writing? Is it a demographic thing, there aren't a lot of us left at this point? I mean, the Chinese Americans started writing in the '70s: Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, they were, they were out there from very early on, and I don't know why there aren't more Japanese American fiction writers. It's sort of, I mean, do you have any ideas? I'm actually sort of baffled.

TI: No, I, I'm curious, too. That's why I'm asking.

JO: Are they out there and writing and we just don't see them, or are they, they're not out there?

TI: See, I'm not aware. I really don't know of other projects going on like this.

JO: 'Cause this is, I mean, now it seems like anyone who's a Japanese American writer, it seems like it would be the obvious story to tell. But, so yeah, I don't know.

TI: Yeah, I don't either. It's, and that's why it's... and it was kind of, I was thinking about you because in some ways, you grew up on the West Coast and pretty close to the community, but then you're in New York, in some ways removed from the community and you're the one who writes the, the novel about it.

JO: I think it might have actually been a good thing that I wrote it out there, so pretty much in seclusion and isolation. I don't know what would have happened -- I mean, I don't know what would have happened if I had written it out here. And it's interesting to see where, it seems like there was a lot of interest in the book certainly in New York, but not, definitely not in Los Angeles, I don't think at all. I think it was given a short review in the LA Times a couple weeks before it came out, and that was it. And so I thought there'd be more interest on the West Coast because that's where most of the former internees live, but I think it's, seems like on the East Coast there's a lot of interest in it 'cause it's a new story for them; it's an unknown story, I think.

TI: Right. Because you mentioned how you've been to other cities, and most of the cities you've been to in terms of doing events and things have been more in the Midwest or East, and not as much on the West Coast. And that, again, surprises me, and that's why I'm just curious about why that is.

JO: Yeah, me too. I'm not, I don't know. Or maybe they've already heard a lot of stories about the internment or have seen, or it seems like there are more Japanese American theater groups, or maybe there's just more, maybe the story's more in the air and they don't need to hear other versions of it.

TI: But see, I'm not sure if that's true, because taking the, sort of example of Seattle, and Seattle has in the last month or so, we've really sort of taken hold of your book. I mean, Seattle Reads has adopted it, I know lots of colleges are reading it, and we, Seattle was probably the third largest Japanese American community before the war, so we were very much part of that story. Bainbridge Island was the very first community to be taken away, so, so of most communities, we are probably most tied to it. And I think when people read your story and they hear about it, it's really powerful. And so I'm --

JO: But it's not new, right?

TI: It's not new, but it's different. I mean, it's, and I'm not sure why it's not taken off more than it has. Or maybe it will; maybe it's just taking some time to sort of, sort of make its way up and down the West Coast. I'm curious, especially in places like the Bay Area and Los Angeles, why it hasn't taken off.

JO: When I was on the first book tour, I did a reading, I was scheduled to do a reading in Brentwood, and nobody came. So, and that was the only time, that was the only city that happened in was in L.A. So I don't, it's curious to me.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

TI: Now, was your mother able to read this?

JO: She did say that she read it, but I, her... her dementia or Alzheimer's is, she's still in the early stages, but I don't think she really remembers what she reads, and it's gotten worse in the past couple of years. I think she did, I remember her saying about the middle chapter when she read it, and she may have read it earlier, before the book came out, I can't remember. But I remember her saying, "Well, you know, Julie, I didn't really smoke cigarettes in the camp," and I had to explain to her that the character was not really her, it was somebody that could have been a little bit like her. But she was a little clearer in the head then. But when the book finally came out, I don't think she really realized what it meant, that this book had been published.

TI: How about your father? What has his reaction been since the book's come out?

JO: He's, I think he's very happy for me. He's, he's very Japanese and very... he's just a pretty quiet man. And I remember somebody was asking me if my parents, they said, "Oh, your parents must be so proud," and I said, "I don't know." My father must have been nearby, I said, "They've never said that they were proud." And this was about the time when my father, we just got him in, we'd gotten him to use e-mail, and he sent me this e-mail like, "I'm so proud of you," like "proud" in all caps, like many exclamation points, "I'm so PROUD of you!!!" [Laughs] "Thanks, Dad." I mean, I know he is, he just doesn't come out and say it. He's just typically Japanesey. So, but I think he's happy for me.

TI: What about your brothers? What has the reaction been from your brothers?

JO: They're very supportive; they're happy, too. Yeah, no, they're very excited for me. And I was thinking, but one of my brothers teaches philosophy, and it's political/moral philosophy, so it does seem like we're sort of obsessed with the question of justice and how people behave. And then my other brother's a lawyer, so maybe that's... but they're, they're both very happy for me.

TI: So I'm curious, are you now being asked to be more of a, like a spokesperson about what happened to Japanese Americans, or you mentioned earlier the connections with Arab and Muslim Americans. I mean, are you asked to speak more along those lines?

JO: No, actually, most of the invitations have been in reference to the book and the book only. 'Cause I'm not an historian, so, but I inevitably get questions about, about how this book is resonating to now, to post-9/11 events. And I do get questions asked of me as if I were an historian and an expert on the internment, which, there's a lot that I don't know.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

TI: Now, Megan, did you want to ask some questions about the, the novel itself, some themes or anything?

MA: Well, actually she touched on the, the character of the brother. I just noticed from hearing you speak, a lot of the things that you mentioned come out in the brother's, kind of story. Just little images, details, the turtles and the horses and the themes of children being left behind. He has that friend that writes to him, and concern for his mother. I just thought that was really interesting.

JO: Yeah, I, I think I really strongly identify with him as a character.

MA: I think a lot of people do.

JO: He just broke my, I don't know, I just really wanted to take good care of him. I felt like the girl was sort of feisty and strong and she'd be okay, but eight is just a really vulnerable age, and I think that psychologically at some level I'm stuck at eight, like that's a very vivid age for me. It resonates with me even now, at the age of eight, it just seems very real. And I think I just, I really, as a writer I just wanted to take good care of him and I could also sort of, his sense of wonder might have been of just being in the desert. Just, just as a kid, just being in a new physical environment and there are different bugs and insects and animals. I think kids are very interested in animals; I know I was. And so there's also this sense of wonder even though it's a terrible thing that's happening, and yet he does have his childhood there.

MA: It makes me think of the scene when they're on the train and they see the horses running in the night. It's one of my favorite images.

JO: Oh, when he looks out and sees those horses? Yeah, that's also like another, it's like a flash of color. It's not, it's bad, but it's not all bad, and you can still, yeah, I think that sense of wonder is something that I just wanted to keep alive for him.

TI: I'm curious, when I finished the book, I found myself wanting the story to continue. I mean, I really, it's almost like okay, I wanted to keep reading. And I'm curious, are you planning to do anything more with, with this in terms of more writing? Perhaps a follow-up novel to this?

JO: No, actually what I'm writing now is more of a prequel. Not literally, it's not the same family characters, but no, and I don't know what I'll do for the book after that, and I can't think beyond where I am now, but I haven't thought about doing a follow-up to the first book.

TI: 'Cause just something to think about, it's that resettlement period that is the story that's really not told in terms of, of the Japanese American community.

JO: That's really true. And that, that was the hard time, I think. That's when things really got hard, is when they came back and had to put their lives back together. It's true, it has not, I think people are, no, it has not been told, it's true. That's true.

TI: I was just curious and I was really... and again, it's meant as a compliment, because I really just said, "Oh, it stopped." I just wanted it to keep going. Like, "What happened?" [Laughs]

JO: "What happened?" I think we all went, "What happened?"

TI: Well, good. That's, thank you so much for your time.

JO: Oh, thank you.

TI: This was really interesting.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 2005 Densho. All Rights Reserved.