Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Eric K. Yamamoto Interview
Narrator: Eric K. Yamamoto
Interviewer: Lorraine Bannai
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: April 17, 2009
Densho ID: denshovh-yeric-01-0001

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LB: This is Lori Bannai interviewing Eric Yamamoto on April 17, 2009, in Seattle, Washington. Eric, can you start out by telling me your name given to you at birth, and when and where you were born.

EY: Eric Ken Yamamoto. I was born in Hawaii, 1952, in Honolulu, same place my parents were born.

LB: Okay. Tell me a little bit about your mother's family history. Her name, her parents, her parents' immigration.

EY: My mom's Tomiko Tatsuyama, and her parents came from Japan. Farmers, came to Hawaii -- at least the father, a very traditional story, poor in Japan, seeking a better life, moved to Hawaii, work on the plantations. And my grandmother came as a "picture bride" later on. And so they started work on the plantations and actually moved into the urban center of Oahu in Honolulu to work on the pineapple cannery. So my grandfather there was a mechanic and helped fix things. My grandmother worked in the fields. Of course, the men work inside and all the women, she had to work in this backbreaking labor during the summer picking pineapple, and then raised ten children along the way.

LB: And your mother was number...

EY: My mom was, I think, right in the middle. So there were three girls, and she was the middle girl. Very interesting story about my -- with ten kids and both parents working, each kid had to take care of the kids below. And the thought was for the girls, eighth grade education and that's about right, and then after that, go to work. And so that was true of my mom's sister just above her, Auntie Mildred. Then my mom came along, and she liked school. And she went to this Farrington High School, which was one of the very, the second public school in the whole, Honolulu. And because her family lived in the Japanese camp, and there was a Filipino camp, you had all these ethnic camps emerge because these were the people who came off the plantations to then work in the pineapple cannery in the center of Honolulu. So in Kalihi, very poor, urban area, they had these camps. So she learned very young how to take care of young kids. The peddlers would come and they would, she would order the, buy the fish and buy the vegetables because her oldest sister was working. And my grandmother at night would sew the rice bags, sew all their underwear and clothes for the ten kids, so my mom grew up in that environment.

And what really made an impression on her and on me today still is that at that time, there was no social services. But some very important people in the community realized that these ethnic immigrant families had no access to health care, they couldn't afford it. So they started an organization called the Palama Settlement. And it's right in, a stone's throw from where my mom's family lived in the ethnic camps. And it provided the first health care, dental care, taught kids swimming, all kinds of very important things. So that kind of center and that kind of community-based outreach became so significant to the communities. And that's still there, and I've gone to speak at that place many times and have an affinity for it even though I never went there as a kid. And it really kind of helped me realize the significance of communities and helping people who are new to the communities who are struggling.

LB: Tell me about your father, his name, his family background.

EY: Can I finish the story about my mom, too?

LB: Oh, absolutely.

EY: And so my mom, for a variety of reasons, decided that she wanted to go to this new high school, which she did. And then she decided she wanted to go on. And that was a time where women, especially Nisei, didn't really go on to higher education at the university. And her father was very strict and said, "No." And her mother was very compassionate, quietly supported my mother. So my mother, who had no money to go to the university, said, "I'm going to go." And her father said, "If you do," essentially, "we're gonna disown you. Because you need to work, and girls don't go to the university. You're lucky to go to high school." And so my mom still said she wanted to do it. So he pretty much disowned her in the family, but her mother supported her. So it was a very tough time for my mother, who worked very hard, very stubborn, very committed, to earn enough money to go to one semester of the university. And realized, not thinking that, "What happens after one semester?" Well, that was 1941, and so the war broke out in December, the university was closed. So she then went to work ultimately for the provost court -- there was martial law in the courts -- as a stenographer. And so she got to see the inside of, sort of, military justice. And so she was this Asian American woman in the military courts, and developed certain skills. And when the war was over, the university opened, she came back. And then she learned that there's actually such things as scholarships to help poor people without resources coming from Asian American families. And so it was there that she met my dad and a lot of the 442 veterans who had returned from the war, and who were finishing up their undergraduate education. And so it was there that she became part of this, this larger group. And it was also there that she is a very smart and very intelligent but unknown sort of quantity at the school, was tapped by a very famous professor of sociology, Andrew Lind, who was studying race relations in Hawaii as part of a larger national project. And so he gave her a leg up as a research assistant. And so she got to really develop herself and really learn in a very significant way. So that influences what I do as a professor, too, and I really spend a lot of time choosing my research assistants. Not just those who are top of the class, but oftentimes those who have some spark and some real potential, and I try to help bring them along and kind of help open doors for them. So that was my mom's story in a nutshell.

LB: Did she get her degree?

EY: She got her degree.

LB: In sociology?

EY: In sociology, and she helped Professor Lind with these projects. And then she married my dad and they moved to Chicago where my dad was going to graduate school. And so she raised, came back home to raise our family. And after I was ten, she went back to work and she went to work back in the University of Hawaii. And ultimately became the head of the graduate admissions office, and became the Chief Graduate Admissions officer, handing all the applications for graduate admissions at the University of Hawaii. Did that for about twenty-six years, and was much beloved at the university.

LB: So she worked until her, there until her retirement?

EY: Her retirement, yeah.

LB: Pretty remarkable.

EY: And you asked about my dad.

LB: Let me ask one more question about your mom.

EY: Okay.

LB: You said that she was, of sorts, disowned. Did she end up having to move out? Were her relations, did her relations with your grandfather remain strained?

EY: Well, they were strained for a long time. She doesn't talk about it much, but I think that he didn't speak to her for a long period of time. But because of my grandmother's influence, my mom was allowed to stay in the house and be part of the family, somewhat estranged from her father but still part of the family. But then my grandfather warmed up eventually. I was told when he started having grandchildren, when I came along, I got very close to him, he was very good to me. And he did mechanics, carpentry work, so he'd make me little toys and things. And so I just remember him very fondly even though everyone kind of describes him as kind of an ogre of sorts. So things warmed up. The sad thing was both of my grandparents, as was typical in that time, on my mom's side, had worked so hard that they just really had worn themselves out. So by early sixties, they were pretty much worn out. So my grandmother, I used to call her "Bent Grandma" because she had osteoporosis, and early sixties, she couldn't, she was at a right angle. And they both passed away in their mid-sixties within one week of each other. I think just kind of got worn out.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.