Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Jim Akutsu Interview
Narrator: Jim Akutsu
Interviewer: Art Hansen
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: June 9 and 12, 1997
Densho ID: denshovh-ajim-01-0045

<Begin Segment 45>

AH: Well, you're a bright person, very bright person, and you learned a lot of different skills and stuff when you were in prison and I think any situation you would find yourself in, you would convert it in one way or another into a learning experience. And I'm wondering, there's things beyond skills and stuff, sometimes I think like when we have a university we try to not only train people, we try to educate people and sometimes the biggest things they need to be educated is about life and about values. What did you get educated in, in what way did you get educated at prison aside from simply trained? What did you learn about life and about yourself?

JA: Well, number one, when I was there, I did a lot of physical things because number one, if I get out, I might have to fight somebody. So physically, I lifted weights, wrestled, boxed with Indians or Mexicans of my weight, to train myself physically. So when I came out I was physically trained, and whatever, if I want to go to machine shop I was able to. So I ended up in Olympic Foundry because the training I got in the prison. So anything I did there, I did so I could use outside. And another thing I did was chicken. They put me in charge of chicken laying eggs. And when I was in charge, we'd bring in many day-old chickens and we'd have big chicken house, fifty, sixty, hundred thousand chickens, and I was in charge of that. And I knew exactly what to do if I were to start a chicken farm. I had that much experience. Then, they talked about turkeys so I said, "Yeah, I want to learn how raise turkey." So, I raised turkey for two seasons, so I'm pretty well-qualified to raising poultry.

AH: I was trying to get at what you might have picked up about a philosophy of life, and about people, and about yourself, and values, and everything and how society ticks, and how power corrupts, or whatever else, that's the kind of larger questions, I guess.

JA: Yes, I went through all of that and I know. But to me, when I get out I gotta start making a living, because we lost our house, my parents lost their business. So I had to get back and whatever, that I had to make a living, that was number one. And whatever or wherever I went, I was never able to get an engineering job, always dishwasher, gardener, or janitor. So anyway, that was just a temporary work. What I was still trying to get into my profession. And I went down to the civil service when they gave, they handed out notice of, posted notice of engineering test. So I go down and they say, "Sorry, we haven't got any." So what I did was, okay, if you don't have it, then that's it, I'll come again. [Interruption] Okay, let me complete this.

AH: Yes.

JA: When I came back, I couldn't find engineering work, just like I told you, janitor, gardener, dishwasher, fine. But I wanted to break into that, and it was that civil service was looking for engineers, and I went to apply. "Sorry, no application," but after second, third time, there was a fella that went to school with me in line, and I waited for him to go all the way to get the application. After I was told they don't have any, he got his. So okay, I'm going to get back in line. So I got back in line, I got up to the clerk, and, "I'm sorry, we don't have any applications." So I said, "Hey, I heard this once, twice, three times and you told me today, half hour ago, and here's the guy that was way behind, he got one. I'm going to stay here. Until you give me one, I'm not going to move off the counter." So I stayed there and I wouldn't move. Somebody, a head of the section came and talked to me. "Sorry, give me the application I will move. No application, I'm going to stay here." So all of a sudden, wham, I got jerked off the counter. And they called the King County sheriff and they dragged me up to King County, wherever it was, ninth floor, and here they're going to fingerprint me, and what for? Disturbing the peace or whatever charge. So I said, "Okay, you win," and I said, "Okay, fine." So they let me go. So then to break that discrimination, I went to Urban League -- that's the black league, the other one was Neighborhood House -- and I said here, because I used to be working together with these people to get jobs for minorities, blacks, Mexicans, Jewish or whatever it was, so I went there and I talked with whoever that was there. So they say, "Just pay a dollar and you become a member." So they had called, "Say, what's the idea, this is the Urban League and you have refused to give an application." So next time I went I got the application, I passed the test way up high and the way they assign is out of the top five, you could take four. And then, six, seven, eight, nine comes up and then here I'm sitting on top and I'm not appointed or assigned. And I was getting pretty well ticked off again. And about that time City Light wanted somebody up at Skagit, and about that time I also got a call saying that, "The city engineer will take you." So I started at the bottom as junior aide and I did very good.

AH: When was that about, Jim?

JA: About '48.

AH: Oh really, that close after... because you were only out of prison by '47, weren't you?

JA: Yes, but I tried to get in as engineer, but you go to the engineering company and they'll say, "Are you in a union?" "No." "Sorry." Or if you go out in construction, they give you the same.

AH: And you had a presidential pardon by then, too, so you allegedly have no prison record. So when you go into apply, that shouldn't be on anything that you apply for.

JA: That's right but when they asked, I just put down anyway, and I put down presidential pardon. But anyway, I broke into the city engineering department. But it wasn't easy, I had to fight, and fight, and fight to get in. And once I got in I did such a good work that they asked me, "Would you recommend somebody, Japanese American?" So I'd recommend another, another, another, and pretty soon, "What about Chinese?" Okay, I'll get Chinese. At that time they were working to get professional work, and I had opened the door, and I got them started. So once they got in, they got hired, and then they would take the test and they naturally passed. So more and more and more Asians started. So I opened the door for the Asians.

AH: And a black organization, in a sense, opened the door for you. So you could see this as an alliance, in a lot of ways, of people who are being oppressed for one or another reason.

JA: And that's why I joined the Urban League and the Neighborhood House. But we were already working as Asians, Blacks, Filipino, Chinese, together to get our fair share of the professional jobs.

<End Segment 45> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.