Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Wakako Yamauchi Interview
Narrator: Wakako Yamauchi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Torrance, California
Date: July 8, 2009
Densho ID: denshovh-ywakako-01

<Begin Segment 1>

TI: So today is Wednesday, July 8, 2009. We're at the Torrance Holiday Inn. And then running the camera is Dana Hoshide, and then I'm the interviewer, Tom Ikeda.

WY: I do remember your name. Dana, I'll remember your name. Hoshide.

TI: So, Wakako, I'm going to start at the beginning. Can you tell me when and where you were born?

WY: When? In 1924, October 25, that's my recorded birthday. But my mother said that I was actually born on the 23rd. But after three kids, they didn't know what to name me. [Laughs] Real imaginative people, huh? So they called me Wakako, the "youngest kid."

TI: Oh, so that's what "Wakako" means?

WY: "Wakako" means. It doesn't mean... you could write it in a form like poetry or something like that, but that's not what they meant. They meant I was the youngest kid. [Laughs]

TI: And so it took them a couple days or so to figure --

WY: Yeah, to name me that.

TI: And then they could do the birth certificate.

WY: Yeah. So the midwife said, "Well, you better not give her real birthday," so they made it on the 25th instead of the 23rd. But I always look at my horoscope, and I look for the 23rd.

TI: Well, so when you celebrate your birthday, what day do you use?

WY: I don't use any of 'em, but my daughter remembers the 23rd.

TI: And where were you born?

WY: Where? I think I was born in Westmorland, Imperial County. Westmorland, California.

TI: And you mentioned a midwife. So did the midwife come to your home?

WY: Yes, and she stayed overnight, so it was a Japanese midwife, Kaniye-san. And she did all the births and the deaths, too, I think.

TI: And so you mentioned you were the third. Can you just tell me your siblings, when we're talking about your birth order?

WY: My oldest sister's name is Yuki, and she is born in 1921. My brother's name is Isamu, we call him Sam, and he was born in 1922, I believe. And then I was born in 1924. Then we had a little baby brother who tragically died in an accident, and my mother was having a postpartum depression and she was very, very, she felt very responsible for his death. So she consulted a psychic and he told her to have another child, and that's how we have the little girl whose name was Kiyoko, and we called her Kibo. But she passed away... I can't remember the year, in 1983 or something like that. It was a leap year.

TI: I'm curious, you mentioned your mother consulting a psychic. Was that like a Japanese?

WY: Japanese.

TI: And was that common? I've never heard of a psychic...

WY: I don't know. I think she, they subscribed to this Kashu Mainichi, which is the more liberal of the two newspapers. And I guess there was an ad in the paper for a psychic. But he just advised her, very common sense, that she should have another child. And to let you know the kind of psychic it was, if it's a girl, name her Kiyoko, Kiyo. And if it's a boy, name him... gosh, I can't remember the name, 'cause it was a girl.

TI: That's interesting.

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

<Begin Segment 2>

TI: In going back to those -- well, let's first talk about your parents. So your father, can you tell me his name and where he was from?

WY: His name was Yasaku Nakamura, and he was from Shimizu. And my mother's name was Hamako, like "beach," "hama," Machida. And she was born in Shizuoka. I think they're the same prefecture, I'm not sure.

TI: And in talking about your mother, in your book, I think you mentioned she had a special relationship with a neighbor when you were quite young.

WY: Sugiyamas?

TI: Nakayama?

WY: I guess... is that what I called it?

TI: Right, Sono Nakayama. But part of the reason was that you ended up, I think, living with them for a short period of time, and it had to do with a, I think the house burning or something? Or something happened to your house, so you had to live there for a while?

WY: Oh, that was much later. But the, it was not... actually, their name was Sugiyamas, and they came from the same area, Shizuoka, as my mother and father did. So they were farming together, and I guess it's because Asian immigrants weren't permitted to own land. And so they would get together and lease, and divide it up. I think that's what happened. And especially those in the same, who come from the same prefecture, they had a lot in common. And so they, that's how I got to know them. I think my sister later on married one of the boys in that family.

TI: Okay, so that was Sugiyama.

WY: Sugiyama.

TI: Yeah, because I think that comes in later when your brother married. But I just wanted to ask you about... so you were born in Westmorland, in the Imperial Valley.

WY: I believe so.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

TI: And I just wanted to start having you tell me some of your early memories.

WY: My what? Early memories?

TI: Early memories of the Imperial Valley.

WY: Well, my early memories of going to school in country schools like two-room schoolhouses. And even when you're very young, although I don't say three or four, but maybe about ten or so, you're out there weeding the farm, pulling out the wire, what do you call it, things to protect the plants, and stuff like that. You were out there working. But during the winter, there was a lot of time on your hands. So I used to read the, my mother and father subscribed to the more liberal of the Japanese newspapers called Kashu Mainichi, and I used to read Hisaye Yamamoto's column. I told you about that. And she wrote under a title, "Napoleon Says." And I thought, "Oh, I like the way this person, this guy writes. I could really go for him." [Laughs] But it turns out, through our meanderings, we met each other. It turned out she was a girl.

TI: Did you ever ask her why she used "Napoleon Says"?

WY: No, I never did.

TI: We'll have to ask her that.

WY: But she was the first person I'd ever read that wrote about what we Japanese eat, and she validated my life, you know? And how we used to fight with our siblings. That's... yeah.

TI: And so what resonated with you when you read this was just those little simple everyday things. The food, the...

WY: Yeah, and that's my life. Nobody, I used to read Ladies Home Journal or something like that, you know, all the time. Because my father, he was a sucker for traveling salesmen. They would sell him anything. And I used to read the serials. They used to have stories running in and out all the time. And the first time in my life, I read about something that was about us.

TI: Now, do you recall about how old you were when you first read her work?

WY: Well, I could have been about... I could have been about fourteen or fifteen, because I remember reading her when, during one of those breaks that I had at the farm. And it was very warm, it was a winter day, but it was warm, and I was reading her column. And I said, "Oh, this person really can write." And her sense of humor was not obvious, that kind of thing. And it just really blew me away.

TI: So I'm curious, did her writing get a similar reaction from other Nisei when they read it? Did you ever talk with other people?

WY: Yes, I did. Eventually, we ended up meeting the same people, because we couldn't, weren't (allowed) to own land, so we'd lease land and move, lease land and move. And I said, well, you know, I remember I went to Oceanside and I met some Japanese kids. And they lived in what they called Kumamoto Mura. And I said, "Oh, I really like this person who writes in the column called 'Napoleon.'" And they said, "Oh, that person. She lives in our Kumamoto Mura." I said, "She"? And they told me who she was.

TI: Well, did these people like her writing, or they thought that it was just...

WY: No, they thought she was very, you know, she was intruding and telling about their lives to everybody.

TI: Oh, so interesting. It's almost like, that she was being maybe too private or going to...

WY: I don't know. I really enjoyed it because, as I said, it's made my life valid. But they didn't like her, I knew that. And I don't think she liked me at the beginning. She said, "Oh, I did, too," but she didn't like me at the beginning. I was too forward.

TI: Do you recall how you went about to meet her the first time?

WY: Oh. Well, (...) when I said, "Oh, I really like this person who writes "Napoleon," (a friend) said, "Oh, she lives in our Kumamoto Mura." I said, "Oh." And so they introduced me to her, but it seemed like she was very cold. But that's the way she is, she's just not very forward.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

TI: Okay, so I'm going to bring you back a little bit. And you talked about school, it was like a two-room schoolhouse? Can you describe a little bit in terms of who the other students were?

WY: Oh, they were mostly Japanese because we were farmers in that area. But, see, I did go to a school, several schools, that were white, you know. Because, and the district called Number 8, that I'll remember. And then by the time I was in fourth grade, I was in this Trifolium District, which there were just two rooms. One to third and fourth to eighth like that.

TI: Well, I mean, where you grew up was so close to the border, the Mexican border. Were there very many Mexicans who were farm workers also in this area?

WY: Yeah. They weren't farmers, they were laborers.

TI: Okay, laborers. But then weren't they also in the school?

WY: There weren't very many. I think there was one black family called the Meltons. And the boy was the same age as I, so he was in fourth to sixth grade. Then after, after sixth grade, we went to Westmorland school, which was a town school. And up to the point where we were growing up, we, there were Japanese and blacks, and a few poor whites. And they went to school to the eighth grade, but by the time we were in sixth grade, they started cutting us off and sending us to town school. But at that point, I thought... oh, I guess it was one black family called the Meltons, can't remember what the white family's name was. We called them "poor whites," 'cause they used to call us "Japs."

TI: But it was mostly Japanese families.

WY: Yeah. And they were, like, they were mostly Okinawans, they were a very close-knit group. They went to picnics and they went to church and all that together. But we went to Buddhist church, and we were kind of loners. There weren't enough Shizuoka-kens to get out a picnic with.

TI: Yeah, before this interview, I just checked kind of what the weather was like in the Imperial Valley. And we're, right now, this is July, and I just looked at the temperatures, and it would normally be every day in the hundreds.

WY: Yeah, it was hot.

TI: It would be almost all summer, the high temperatures would be sometimes over a hundred ten degrees, and there was like no rain for weeks and weeks and weeks. I mean, what was it like growing up in that kind of environment?

WY: It was hot in summer and it was cold in winter, but you don't know any better. And then you're all involved with yourself when you're a kid, you know. And everybody has the same problems, it was during the Depression, everybody wore tattered clothes and put cardboard in their shoes and things like that. My mother always said, "There's no excuse for not having clean clothes," she says. But I remember it was during the Depression, nobody cared, because we were so involved with ourselves. Everybody was in the same boat.

TI: Okay.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

TI: So going back to your parents, can you just tell me a little bit about what they were like, starting with your father.

WY: Oh, my father was a quiet man. I thought about this much, much later, but he had a tattoo from (left shoulder to left elbow). Now, that is a yakuza emblem, and he was a very silent man. This is much, much later that I thought about it, maybe he was a refugee or something, I don't know. But my mother was not a "picture bride," so apparently the family agreed to it, whatever it was. My father did not speak much. And my mother was a schoolteacher because she went to, was a Japanese school teacher because she went to (Japanese) high school. That was very unusual for an immigree...

TI: Immigrant.

WY: ...immigrant to have that much education. So she was teaching Japanese schools.

TI: And so within the community, would you say, like, your mother had perhaps more education...

WY: Than most?

TI: ...than most.

WY: Yeah, because they were "picture brides," and they were brought in from, by a marriage... what do you call them? Agents or something, yeah.

TI: Marriage brokers?

WY: Broker, yeah. And my mother and father, my mother always said -- and my father would snort and walk away -- she always said that her father -- it's a long story, you know. Her father had nothing but girls, and so they had what they called yoshi, where a man comes in to marry. And at the very end of their sex lives, I guess they had a little boy, baby boy. And the guy that came in to take over the family got, what do you call, got jealous, and started embezzling. So by the time my mother was ready to marry, their reputation, they were bankrupt. So that's why she married my father. [Laughs]

TI: Oh, so let me make sure I understand this. So it was probably one of her older sisters married a man and he was yoshi so he took the family name.

WY: Yeah. And they prospered.

TI: And they prospered. But then, later on, I guess your grandparents had a boy. And then this man, this son-in-law, became jealous.

WY: Yeah, and he figured he's had no, we was not gonna inherit any of this, so he started embezzling. And then when they found out -- he was a tea packer, my grandfather -- and so when they found out (they were) bankrupt. So they told him to get out, "We won't sue you or anything, just get out." And they told the wife, (their daughter), "You want to get out with him or you want to stay here?" And she said she's going out with him, so she went out.

TI: Interesting. So going back to your father, the idea of a tattoo, I haven't heard very many Issei men with tattoos like that.

WY: I know it.

TI: So have you, did you ever come across anyone else with that story?

WY: He was not a talker, and I didn't -- [coughs] excuse me a minute. I didn't ask him, but this was much later that I thought about it. Much later.

TI: And your mother never said anything about it or anything?

WY: No, no.

TI: And you never heard the other men asking him? Because when they took a bath or something, it would be sort of visible.

WY: Yeah. I guess they had the manners not to ask, you know. But you're right.


TI: So let me ask again about your mother. So what was your mother like?

WY: Oh, I just adored her. She was so pretty, you know. Of course, everybody thinks their mother is pretty. She was so pretty, and she was better-educated than most people, the immigrants' wives, and she was teaching Japanese school. She used to tell me stories, but the stories that she told me were very mature stories about... in those days they would have arranged marriages and they wouldn't permit you to remarry unless the families were from the same social class and all that. And she would tell me about, because I was the last one home, my sister and my brother were older and they went off to school, she would tell me stories. 'Cause I'm always after her, "Tell me a story, tell me a story." And she would tell me these stories about lovers committing suicide. That's why my stories are all so sad. [Laughs] I remember when people, when this guy had come to... Nobu McCarthy, you've heard of her. Her husband is Cuthbert. Cuthbert, can't remember his first name. Anyway, he... god, I forgot what I was gonna say. Anyway, he asked, somebody asked him -- he used to come over because Nobu was directing the play, And the Soul Shall Dance. He used to come to the theater all the time and go and sit down and watch the whole thing all over again. Somebody said, "Are you enjoying the show?" He said, "I never enjoy this play." [Laughs]

TI: Oh, because it was so sad? [Laughs] That's good. Well, going back to your mother and father, did you have a sense -- because the Japanese were very class-conscious. Did your mother, were your mother and father from the same class?

WY: Well, like I say, he had a tattoo from here to there. This is much later when I grew up... she claims that because her father went bankrupt that she got stuck with this guy. [Laughs] But he didn't talk much. And much later, I thought... every time we'd hear a car coming, we'd throw a towel at him on a hot day so that he'd hide his tattoo.

TI: Oh, interesting. So you knew that there was something wrong with the tattoo...

WY: That it was not a common thing, because nobody, even small tattoos, we never saw them on other people's father.

TI: How intriguing, that's interesting.

WY: And then much later, I thought, "Gee, was he a refugee from someplace?" you know.

TI: That'd be a whole story in itself. [Laughs]

WY: Yeah, he rarely talked. We would ask him to tell us a story, all he'd talk about is the boat coming into America, and the sharks waiting with their mouths open. He made it up, I think. [Laughs]

TI: Or I was wondering if it was like a metaphor for the people waiting at the docks for them or something?

WY: Could be, I don't know if he was that deep. Maybe he was, but he just never spoke as much.

TI: Well, because the reason I asked was, in your play And the Soul Shall Dance, there was, for one couple, there was a distinct class difference between one of the characters and the other. So I was just wondering if you got some of that from...

WY: I don't know. This is, like I say, much later. "What was he doing with a tattoo?" you know. [Laughs]

TI: Okay, good.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

TI: Just in terms of family friends growing up, were there any family friends that kind of stood out in your mind that your, either your parents or you were close to?

WY: Well, that was, you know, that was way, way early. So I don't remember... we lived with another family that came from Shizuoka, too. But it was so long ago, I have very little memory of it except that I do remember, that's when I found out that girls and boys were sexually different, because we all took baths together. But it was very natural, normal, I guess.

TI: So describe that. When you're on the farm and you take a bath, what kind of furo or bath did you have and how large was it?

WY: Oh, we had a big tub. And underneath, we built a fire. Because you can't sit on a hot tin tub, there's a raft in there. You had to wash yourself outside of the tub so that you don't soil the water and get it dirty before everybody else goes in. And you go in. When you're kids, you have a good time scrubbing each other's back and stuff like that, and you notice the differences. But it's just so natural because it starts out from day one.

TI: And this would be with the neighbors, not just your family.

WY: Yeah.

TI: And generally, what was the order of who took the bath? Would the kids take it first or last, or when would you...

WY: I think we took it first because you had to put 'em to bed, you know, or before they... I think that's, we took it first. It seems to me that I don't remember our parents going in first.

TI: And was there like a whole, the ritual, so you would scrub yourself, go in, and this would usually be at night when it was dark?

WY: Yeah.

TI: Or was it still light?

WY: Well, we had a lantern. It wouldn't, summertime, it was light quite long, and then in the winter... you had to build a fire under the tub.

TI: Good.

WY: That's where I got the brilliant idea of the fire, of the girl reading and the bathhouse burning, that's what happened.

TI: Yeah, so I think in the opening act of And the Soul Shall Dance, it starts with the bathhouse being burned down. So you said that actually happened? With your family or with another family?

WY: With my family. And we went over to this other family to bathe. And the wife over there was acting very peculiar. Says, "Is she nuts or something?" I asked my mother that, "Kichigai (desu ka)," you know, Nagaoka-san. And she said, "No, osake nonderu kara." And that's where I got the idea to write the story. One fellow that came from that area said, "You know, I've been wondering who was this family? I think I knew who it is," and he nailed it.

TI: And so very much in your writings, they're based on real people.

WY: Real people and real incidents.

TI: And, but you, are they kind of verbatim, or do you kind of change them a little bit?

WY: Well, I have to, I had this... first of all, I learned in grammar school that you have to decide from what angle you want to tell the story from... I can't even remember the words. But the all-knowing angle or subjective "I," narrative "I," or third-person or second-person, "you." So I guess I -- because I was telling these stories -- the easiest to tell a story is to write it, you know. I said, "I think I'll just act like I'm talking to somebody."

TI: Oh, interesting. And like for instance you mentioned, in your case, the bathhouse burned down. How did that happen?

WY: Well, we burned the fuel, they always let me do the burning. And there's brush and logs and stuff, you burned it under a tank of water. The tank of water has to have a raft on it because you'll burn your feet off, you know. I guess I was... I can't see, sometimes you start getting involved in the story, you don't know if this is truth or, "Am I lying?" I think (with) the bathhouse, this is what happened. I do remember that I was not watching the thing. The bathhouse was made out of wood, you know, burned while I was reading or something, and then it was too late to (put it out). And then we went to this house to -- because the guy was also concerned. He said, "Come over to my house and take a bath." And (because) my mother was complaining, "Now we have to bathe in a bucket," blah, blah.

TI: So I'm curious, in your case, what was the reaction of your parents when the place burned down because you were reading and not paying attention?

WY: Yeah, boy, I got it. [Laughs]

TI: From both your father and mother?

WY: No, my father didn't say (much)... "Ah, urusai." He says, "It's burned already, just forget it."

TI: But it was your mother who...

WY: And then my mother said, "Well, we'll have to bathe in a bucket, everybody will see us." "Nobody passes around here," my father says. And then Mr. Nagaoka invited us over to his place.

TI: Oh, that's good.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

TI: Okay. There was another, in your book, there was another person that was mentioned, a Mr. Yamada.

WY: I don't know, I probably changed the name. What was he...

TI: He was an Issei bachelor that had his own place. You mentioned at one time you might have even stayed with him because he had like American breakfasts versus the miso soup? Does that ring any bells?

WY: Well, let's see now. There was a guy named Obata-san. I think it was Kobata, but we used to call him Obata-san, and he was a bachelor. Very handsome. Of course, I didn't know anything about it, but he remained a bachelor all his life. And I think he got shot in of those concentration camps. He wandered too close to the fence, and then the guard tower shot him. But he was very handsome, and he used to have grapefruit for breakfast. We had gohan and miso shiru and tsukemono, you know, things like that. I do remember that. He could have been gay, but he didn't look gay. Who knew? [Laughs]

TI: But it seemed like you were attracted to him because he gave you gifts.

WY: Yes, he gave Christmas gifts. It's always the same, a little mirror and a hairbrush and a comb, but he waa the only one that gave us Christmas gifts. And he used to eat grapefruit in the morning and we had miso shiru and tsukemono and gohan.

TI: And that was interesting, you mentioned possibly being gay. But I'm just curious, in general, were there, especially amongst the many Issei bachelors, were ever people identified as being gay? Did you ever...

WY: Never. I don't even think they knew what it was, my parents. But my mother used to say that there are actors in Japan that take, of course, they take the part of the female. And, you know, of course, female actresses were not prevalent in those days. It was considered kind of a shoddy profession, you know. And so they didn't think anything of it. But I remember she told me once that, "This particular actor is very well-known for playing female parts. They say he is so wrapped up in his female parts that he even does knitting and sewing to keep himself in touch with the female (roles)," that's what she told me. I don't think she was even aware of, you know.

TI: So that was never really discussed or known really in terms of...

WY: Just "wrapped up in his work." [Laughs]

TI: In your writings, you do a really nice job of capturing sort of that Issei male population, those workers. I mean, were there... what kind of experience did you have with the Isseis, the Issei men?

WY: Well, see, the workers were seasonal workers, they followed the crops up and down California. I think I said that in one of my stories. And they were single men, and they were, a lot of them were drinkers. Very few were young and handsome, but there was one, (Suzuki-san), that I thought, "Oh, he's so good-looking." But he never seemed to be interested in women, he had a home, house, he was like my father. He didn't own land because they were not permitted to own land, but he was working for himself. My mother would make curtains for his windows and things like that.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

TI: So let's move on. That in about 1940, there was a big earthquake in the Imperial Valley. Can you describe that and where you were when that happened?

WY: We used to have earthquakes quite often there. And, but every year, every two years or so when we had to move because the lease ran out, each house was made just large enough to push on a truck and move it. So that's what we did, we pushed the... there would be two sliding grids from the ground to the truck, and the neighbors come over and everybody pushed that house, (an) out house, just the house, just to fit a truck. And we moved to the next place. And my mother would say, when we had the earthquake, my mother would say, "Don't worry. This thing will not fall down. It's used to being squeaked and pushed and squeaked and pushed." So that's what, but we did run out of the house (in an earthquake). And my mother had a blanket out there. My sister was old enough to have a boyfriend, but I noticed that they didn't lie down together, close together. The boyfriend and my brother lay down together. [Laughs] My sister and I lay down together.

TI: Oh, but that's interesting. Because of, so there were lots of earthquakes. And your house, I didn't realize this. So whenever you had to move every two or three years, it was like a mobile home or something.

WY: Yeah.

TI: I mean, you would just, the house would come with you. That's interesting. Going back to that two or three year lease, why were the leases so short?

WY: Well, I guess one of the things was that the earth had to be replenished, and they would, you know, they would plant alfalfa for two years. Even when we used to get into a new piece of land, move into a new piece of land, my father would have to order huge trucks of, I remember it was chicken manure, and then dump it in the ground, then caterpillar it, plow it. The earth was very infertile. Then every two or three years they would plant alfalfa.

TI: And what kind of crops did your father plant?

WY: He had tomatoes and cantaloupes and zucchinis. We called it Italian squash in those days. Oh, I hated that . It was tomatoes and squash, I hated squash, too, and zucchinis. That's the way I remember it. Now, other people... and then in our own garden we had Chinese peas and imo and nappa and daikon, stuff like that

TI: So going back to the 1940 earthquake, after that, your family then moved to Oceanside?

WY: It wasn't the earthquake. It was about the time of the earthquake, yes, it was, but it wasn't the earthquake that made us move. My father had a lettuce crop that was not even worth harvesting. And he met, he was in partnership with this one single guy, and they didn't even harvest it because it was just not worth it, and my father had to go find a job. It must have been very difficult for him, because we moved to Oceanside during the summer, where he could work as a laborer, and we stayed there until the war. My mother got a job in a Japanese boarding house. She cooked there and made the guys breakfast and packed their lunches, (made their suppers), the working people, these single guys. And then when they came home, came back to the boarding house, they took a bath or shower or whatever. Or bathtub, there was one bathtub. And then we built, she had the landlord build a bathtub, Japanese bathtub, and they would take (baths) in there.

TI: That's interesting. Going back to the lettuce harvest, so was this pretty prevalent throughout the Imperial Valley, that the farmers really took a beating that year? I mean, if your father had to just not harvest all that lettuce, it must have happened to other farmers, too? Do you recall?

TI: Yes, I think so, because a lot of 'em moved out of Imperial Valley that year, and I remember a whole family of them called Edos, with about ten, eight kids and a father and mother, had to do that, too. And then they were living in tents. And I was doing a schoolgirl job, working in a white family, taking care of the laundry and cleaning the house and all that. Because I was tired of the clothes I had to wear, that my mother, sometimes she would take things and turn 'em inside out because they'd be so faded from my sister's use. And then remake my clothes.

TI: Wow, so it's a whole different hand-me-down, where the hand-me-down, that she would have to reverse just...

WY: Yeah. And I remember she reversed (a) coat to do that, and it looked pretty good. Until I raised my hand to answer the teacher, and I saw where she had patched all this in here (under the arms). [Laughs] But that's the way it was.

TI: Oh, so you took another job just so you could buy clothes?

WY: Well, yeah, and tried to be independent. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get out of... it's a funny thing. I wanted to get out of the desert area. I told my brother, "I haven't decided, I don't want a cemetery plot." So what I want my daughter to do is take my urn -- 'cause I paid for that, I got my cremation paper -- and throw it out in the desert, and let me ride with the desert wind. And my brother says, "You know what? That's what I'm gonna do, too." I said, we just wanted to get out of there so badly, now we want to ride with the desert wind (forever after).

TI: And so you have fond memories of the desert?

WY: Well, now we do. Those days, we wanted to get out of there.

TI: Now, do you ever go back to the Imperial Valley?

WY: Once in a while. I went about two times, you know.

TI: And are there very many Japanese farmers left in the Imperial Valley?

WY: There's only one, I think, the Asamens'. See, they bought their farm when their eldest son came of age, and they were able to buy it under his name. So they do have property there. But most of us didn't have kids old enough, and if we did (have kids, we) didn't have the money. It was during the Depression.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

TI: So let's go back to Oceanside. So after your father's crop failed that year, he became a laborer in Oceanside, and your mother worked at a boarding house. So what did you do in Oceanside?

WY: I went to school, I was still going to school, high school.

TI: So you're in high school, and what did you think of Oceanside? Coming from the Imperial Valley to Oceanside, which is sort of nearby San Diego, by the ocean.

WY: Lot of fleas in that beach. Oh, I hated (...) to go to the beach, 'cause there were so many fleas. but there was a group of Japanese that lived in an area called Kumamoto mura. And I made friends with some of the girls there. So it wasn't unpleasant, but I missed the Valley kids, you know.

TI: And was there a difference between the kids growing up in the Imperial Valley versus the kids more in the city?

WY: Yeah, I guess so. Basically, these girls, they were, the Mori sisters, they came from one family. But they danced, and we never went to dances and things like that (in the Valley).

TI: And so how did you feel about fitting in? Was it hard sometimes for you?

WY: It was a little hard. But there was a guy that was interested in me, I guess, because he would call me up and say, "You want to go to the dance?" He liked to dance, I guess. I said, "I don't know how to dance, I don't want to go." And then one day the girls said, "We want to go to this dance but we don't have a way to (get) there. (You'd) better ask Henry if he would take us." I said, "I just told him I didn't want to go." "Well, tell him you changed your mind." Well, I was really, I was always doing what people tell me to do (...). So I told him that. He said, "Okay." He took us all. I had to swallow a lot of pride, but I had to ask him.

TI: Well, and then eventually, who taught you how to dance? Was this Henry or the other girls?

WY: I never learned how to dance. [Laughs] I never learned how to dance. I have no sense of rhythm.

TI: So did the people in the city just seem just more sophisticated because of the dancing and things like that, or how would you characterize...

WY: They were more carefree.

TI: Oh, more carefree.

WY: They were more carefree.

TI: And part of that was because they didn't have as many, like, chores or responsibilities as...

WY: Well, I guess they didn't have, the parents were working so hard that... well, ours worked very hard, too, but we went to Buddhist church or the Christian church and they taught us manners and behavior and all that. but I don't think these people had that kind of thing (in Oceanside).

TI: Interesting.

WY: Yeah. Later on, much later on, there was one guy that was interested, from Japan, that was interested in getting a community center together. See, they didn't have that kind of thing.

TI: So this is 1940. And then why don't we move to the war? 1941, December, do you remember where you were when...

WY: Yes, I do. I went to see Sergeant... we lived in town, my mother was running this boarding house. And I could go, just two blocks down, there was a movie house. I went to see Sergeant York and I came home and my mother met me at the gate. It was a fenced-in yard, and she met me at the gate. She said, "Japan is at war with America." And she had just finished paying for the car, just finished paying for the silverware and the dishes, and we had to go to camp.

TI: That must have been hard.

WY: Yeah.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

TI: And so your, I'm interested in the boarding house in terms of, did you have a sense of how, any reactions from the Issei men about the outbreak of war? Did you notice anything about their reaction?

WY: Well, not too much, because you're so self-absorbed when you're young, you know. But I do remember that one guy was a Kibei from Japan. And he used to tell me all the time, "You Nisei think you're Americans, but you..." you know. "You're not Americans, 'cause why are you in camp for?" and things like that.

TI: I can't remember which story it was, but there was, one of your stories, you wrote about kind of a boarding house and the Issei men. And there was one scene where a young girl, one of the, I think he might have been a Kibei or something, came in and approached her sexually. Did things like that happen in the boarding houses?

WY: Well, it happened to me.

TI: Oh, so this was an actual memory?

WY: Yeah. The guy knocks on my door, and I was so innocent, I guess. My (room)... no, no. Didn't have a key or lock. And so I opened it and he comes in and he starts putting his arms around me. I said, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Come on." He says, "You want to kiss me, don't you?" And I said, "No, get away from me. Get away from me. You better stop that or I'm gonna yell." And my father was playing cards a couple of doors away, because it was a boarding house, so they'd play cards in somebody's room. And I said, "You better get away from me or I'm gonna yell." And he kept at it, so I yelled. I called my father. I said, "Oto-san!" Whole bunch of men came running. [Laughs] And they didn't say a word. They didn't say a word, the guy didn't say a word, he sheepishly went out the door, nobody said anything. Next day, another guy came over and put a lock on my door.

TI: Did your father ever say anything?

WY: Never said a word. He opened the door -- well, the door, I guess we didn't lock it, the man didn't lock it when I opened the door. I don't think I locked the door. I didn't think anything of it. And came in and started approaching me and I said, "You better stop it."

TI: And how did that sort of change you or make you think differently about things?

WY: Oh, those guys were single guys and they walk in -- they always used to tell dirty jokes to me and things like that. I didn't know what they were talking about. I'd just wave my hand at 'em, and they'd laugh and they'd go away. Nobody ever tried that on me (again).

TI: Well, how would, like, for instance, someone older, like your mother you mentioned was very attractive. Did she have a way of dealing with these, sort of, bachelors?

WY: Well, as I (saw) it, because my father was always around, nobody did that as far as I can see. Because once my mother got the boarding house, the landlord said he would fix it to city regulations, "For you alone," he said. "I don't want anybody else to be in charge of this thing. I will fix it to comply with city regulations." And then my father just stopped going to work. He would just sweep the sidewalk and things like that. So no, I don't think anybody bothered her or anything. Maybe that's why he stopped going to work. [Laughs]

TI: Yeah, I'm just wondering. Because again, these Issei men or Kibeis, bachelors...

WY: I guess they respected my father's presence, you know.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

TI: So let's go back to, so now after December 7th happened, what did your family do? What was next after ... so after December 7th, you mentioned you heard about it after watching the movie Sergeant York.

WY: Sergeant York, uh-huh.

TI: So what happened, like, for instance, when you went to school?

WY: I went to school, and I remember I went to the history class, and they talked about "Japs" attacking Pearl Harbor. And it became very uncomfortable. So all of us quit going to school in January. Besides that, they were talking about incarcerating us. So that's what happened. Our history teacher started talking about "Japs," and it was very uncomfortable. I think by the beginning of January, we were all out. And then I think in February we were processed (into) camps.

TI: And so where did you first go? When you had to leave, where did you go first?

WY: Poston, Arizona, that's all I remember. That was the place, and I stayed there until I could get out.

TI: And what was your reaction or your... yeah, your reaction when you went to Poston? What did you think?

WY: Well, I thought it was very unfair. But at the same time, I was just a kid, you know, and it was fun. I got to meet Hisaye, and we became very close friends. But Hisaye didn't have a mother. The father was kind of, didn't take care of the kids at all, and Hisaye was like a mother to three of her brothers. So she took her kids, her three brothers, and started going to Massachusetts to relocate there. And she was the cook and did the cleaning, and the big brother was the butler and the chauffeur. Those days, the war was going on and all that. Boy, she had a lot of nerve. She went to Massachusetts with three kids, three boys.

TI: Interesting. Before she left, though, she was working at the Poston Chronicle. And you also worked at the Poston Chronicle. Can you tell me what you did at the Chronicle?

WY: I was a cartoonist. I couldn't do it, but I was a cartoonist. [Laughs]

TI: So you were a pretty good drawer then, you would draw things?

WY: Yeah, well, I used to... art was my major in high school. I never dreamed I would write, never.


TI: Well, so you first mentioned how you first started at the Chronicle. You were just drawing cartoons and didn't think of yourself as a writer. So when did you start writing?

WY: Well, that's when Hisaye had a nervous breakdown and I thought somebody should be telling our stories. But her son said, "She never stopped writing." I don't know when I started.

TI: So describe, when you first started writing, how did you start? What did you do?

WY: Well, first, I started, first I wrote a story called And the Soul Shall Dance.

TI: That was your first one?

WY: Uh-huh. And I thought it was a pretty good story, you know. So I tried to sell it to Redbook and those American journals. They sent me a nice rejection, but they weren't interested in Japanese stories. And so I quit writing. I said, "I'm not going to write stories I don't know about. If they don't like it, then the heck with it. I'm going to write just Japanese stories for the Japanese papers," and that's what I started doing. Rafu Shimpo, Kashu Mainichi used to have a Christmas edition that they took stories for, and so I started writing short stories for them.

TI: But when you first wrote And the Soul Shall Dance, do you know where you were when you wrote that?

WY: I was out of camp, I think. I think I was... I think I must have been married already. Because I was married in 1948. I showed it to my husband, and he said, he read the first two pages and he said, "I can't read your stories," like that.

TI: Because it was painful for him?

WY: I guess it was.

TI: Interesting.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

TI: So let's kind of walk through this. So you were in Poston, and then so you were there with, initially, your... is it your brother, your sister?

WY: My brother went to...

TI: He was in the army, wasn't he?

WY: Yeah. Oh, no, wait a minute.

TI: No, he went to Tule Lake.

WY: Tule Lake, yeah. He was first, he was with us and then he decided that, "If they're going to treat us like that, I'm just going to go to Japan."

TI: Okay. So your brother initially was with you, then after the "loyalty questionnaire," he went to Tule Lake.

WY: And before they sent him over, the war ended with the atomic bomb. And so then he said, "I'll join the army," and he joined the army. 'Cause he didn't have anything else to do. No trade, no...

TI: So your brother was initially in Poston and then went to Tule. Your sister was there for a while, and then she went to Arkansas?

WY: Yeah, to marry (a) Sugiyama.

TI: Who was that same family that...

WY: Yeah, right, right.

TI: ...that you took baths with, I think, a long time ago, possibly?

WY: Yeah, yeah.

TI: And then you were the third. So where did you go?

WY: I went to San Diego with my mother, 'cause my father passed away in camp.

TI: But first, but first you went to Chicago?

WY: Oh, yes, I went to Chicago.

TI: You went to Chicago, and you worked in, I think, a candy factory?

WY: Yeah, I was running a wrapper machine. I hated machinery, it would scare me. [Laughs] The things were spinning around like this, you know, it just scared me.

TI: So how did you decide to go to Chicago? What was in Chicago?

WY: Well, let's see. Because everybody was going there. My friend was going there, Jeannie, and she was going to join with a group of girls that were going to be nurse's aides, nurse's aides. And so I didn't want to be a nurse's aide so I went to a factory and got a job in a factory. And then, because she went to live with these girls in a nurse's home, I had to find a place to live. So her brother found me a place to live with this little old lady from Latvia. [Laughs] Every time I'd have guests she'd just corner them and start talking religion. And I said, "Mrs..." I've forgotten what her name was, "you can't do that to my friends."

TI: She sounded like a sweet little lady, though.

WY: Yeah, sweet little old lady. Then I moved out with my girlfriend, and we lived together for a while. And then what happened? Oh, we lived together in Chicago and then my father died in camp. I don't think he wanted to get out and look for a living again.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

TI: Okay, so let's start the second part. And what we were talking about was you were in Chicago, and then you heard that your father had died in camp. So why don't we pick it up from there? So after you heard that your father had died, what did you do next?

WY: Well, my mother didn't tell me that he had died, but he was very sick. So I rushed, I closed my, whatever I had, packed up a suitcase and came back to Poston. I was going to call it home. And he had already passed away. In fact, I was carrying my suitcase and it was night, and they dropped me off at the administration building, the bus. And I was walking home and I could hear people chattering. Because the people had already left camp, most of 'em, and there were just a few left, like my mother's family. She didn't know where to go. My father was ill, and I said, "Oh, he passed away." I left him when he was sick in the hospital, 'cause I wanted to get out of there so badly. He got well, but he did -- my mother tried to make me feel very guilty and said, "He keeps asking what happened to you." She said, "(Wakako) left." Anyway, he got well and he came home for a while. And then when the atomic bomb fell, I guess he just didn't want to go through that again, you know, making a living again at, he was fifty-eight, but that was considered pretty old. And he didn't want to do that again, and I'm pretty sure that's why he had ulcers, which is an emotional disease.

TI: And so you, do you think part of it -- so he had ulcers, he wasn't really that well, but then the atomic bomb dropped in Japan, two of them, and then the war came to an end. And then, essentially, the camps were going to start closing down. So are you saying, or do you think that it was hard for him to think about going back out and restarting?

WY: How could he start a farm, start working in a field at fifty-eight? In those days, it was considered quite old. Like they say, that sixty-two was considered the oldest that people, we used to get, and they didn't think they had to pay all this...

TI: So you think, perhaps, he just, in some ways, gave up?

WY: Yeah, he had ulcers and he started bleeding.

TI: And so how was it for you to hear that your father had --

WY: Well, I felt bad, but I'm a survivor. And I just, I was young, and I thought... I felt bad for him, but I thought that's the way of his escape and I could believe it. I would do that, too. And my mother didn't know where to go, so she said, "Let's go to the place the last group is going, San Diego." And from San Diego I moved to L.A. to go to art school.

TI: Just, I'm just curious, a little bit, so you were one of the last families to leave Poston?

WY: Uh-huh.

TI: So what was Poston like in these last few weeks when people were leaving?

WY: Yes, there was... I can't remember too much, actually, but I find that sometimes... I don't (have) those dreams anymore. But shortly after we left camp, I would dream that I was walking through fields of alfalfa about that wide, and the wind would be blowing and I was going through camp-like (grounds) and I would see people walking around. (They) were walking around so sadly. Because they were homeless. (The government had given) us twenty-five dollars apiece (to relocate from camp).

TI: Now, I'm curious, with your father, what kind of service did the family have, and what happened to the body? What did you do then?

WY: Oh, when I came home, I could hear people chatting, so I said, "Oh, he's dead and this is his funeral." It was his funeral. It was not his funeral, it was his wake. And the next day there was a funeral. My mother had him... there were very few people left in camp. My mother had him cremated, and I remember she was... I think this is in one of my stories. We were going with the last group of people that were just going to San Diego, we didn't know where to go. So she had his remains in her lap and she said, "They're still warm." So that's where we went, where everybody else, the last people were going. And my mother got a job in a tuna cannery, and I left there. Oh, I got a job at Kodak, what do you call, snapshot developer? (Photo finishing.)

TI: Like a photo developer?

WY: Yeah, yeah. That place, and I worked a year or so and then we were looking for a job. My sister and I, my sister was a crack stenographer. She got all these diplomas and all this, she couldn't get a job, racism was so great. And we went to this little (signs), it said, "Help wanted." We got off the bus, it was the last stop the bus made, and we were gonna walk to our trailer camp. And it says, "Help wanted." "I'll tell you what we'll do," I said, "we'll go in there and if they say, 'Oh, we just filled the job,' we'll say, 'Then you won't need this anymore, we'll just tear that (sign) up and leave.'" (But) they said, "Oh, sure. We need..."

TI: Oh, that's interesting. But when you see a "Help Wanted," you would think that if they walked in there and they said, "Oh, no, we filled it," that they were just saying that because you were Japanese.

WY: Yeah, we figured that. So I said, we were gonna say, "(Then) you won't need this anymore," and we'll tear (the sign) up. And that's what we were gonna do. I would have done it, she may not. But she got a job in the darkroom and I got a job developing those pictures. Sitting over this smelly old chemical developing those pictures and throwing 'em into the neutralizer all day long. [Laughs]

TI: I'm curious, what about your, the brother who went to Tule Lake? What happened to him? Where did he go?

WY: He didn't go anyplace. The war ended with the atomic bomb, and he -- oh, he joined the army at that point. He didn't have any skills, no money, anything, he decided to join the army. And he joined the army, and I guess he got out, and then he went to work for a farmer in Escondido or someplace. It was near Oceanside, inland a little bit more. And he was driving a truck for a while, and then he went to... what was the name of that? Occupational school called... I can't remember the name of it (Frank Wiggins School). And he was taking certain technologies like running machines or making machines or something. He ended up working in that field. So it wasn't too bad.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

TI: Well, you mentioned you stayed in San Diego about a year, and then where did you go?

WY: I came to Los Angeles. I was going to go to art school, or so I thought. I was living with Hisaye Yamamoto for a while, and I thought... she used to charge me ten dollars a month for room and board. [Laughs] And I thought, oh, I'm just making a real... and she was cooking all the time. I was taking advantage of her, so I left there, and I roomed in with another lady and I cooked my own meals and paid half the rent. And I was getting on Hisaye's nerves, too. [Laughs]

TI: So you went to art school, and then what did you do after you finished with that?

WY: I went to art school... oh, I met Chester, my husband.

TI: Okay. And tell me a little bit about Chester's family. Because there was a connection with your brother, I think.

WY: Yeah, yeah. They were all in Tule Lake, they were going to go to Japan, you know. And I guess Chester's family is a very tight-(knit) family. And, oh, Chester's mother asked my mother for my mother's home address in Shizuoka because she wanted to investigate my family (in Japan). I was (mad) when Chester told me that. I said, "Well, give me the name of your family. I'm gonna have my family investigate your family.'" [Laughs] Pretty nasty person.

TI: Oh, I see. He asked for... because he started dating you or was interested...

WY: Yeah, the mother said that, "Let's have the name of the family so we can see what kind of family she comes from in Japan." And I told that to my mother, and I thought she would get mad. But no, she gave me the name. I guess it's ritual.

TI: Well, and she felt like she had nothing to hide, probably, too. [Laughs] Oh, interesting. So you met Chester.

WY: Through my brother because he was in Tule Lake. And my brother said -- Chester told me later -- my brother said that he used to show Chester my letters because he says, "I can't understand this," he said to Chester. Said, "(These are) the kind of letters my sister (writes) -- " he was bragging, you know. And Chester said he thought, "Boy, I'd like to take her down a notch or two." [Laughs]

TI: So what was it about your letters that...

WY: The language was too highfalutin' for my brother. But I think he was bragging: "Look what kind of letters my sister writes." (And) Chester says, "I'd like to take her down a notch or two."

TI: But obviously he was somewhat interested, because...

WY: I guess so.

TI: ...he wanted to meet you.

WY: We met when my brother Sam picked up Chester to go to a wedding of friends they made in Tule Lake. And I was in the car when he picked up Chester, and boy, what a guy he was. In those days they used to have one full seat like this in the front, and they put me in the middle, and I could feel his fingers on my... [points to shoulder]. And I thought, "Man, this guy really is fast." And so he wanted my home address and I said, "I'm not going to be there very long. I'm going to move to Los Angeles." And he said, "Well, when you go to Los Angeles, I'll give you my address and you could call me or something." I didn't call him. And then he wrote me a letter, I guess he got my address through my brother and wrote me a letter. He (said), "I thought you were gonna call me." Just, that's all he said on it.

TI: Now, during this time, when Chester was interested in you, were you interested in him?

WY: Well, I thought he was pretty bold, you know. And you don't feel attracted to somebody just because they're there. But I didn't like somebody (like that) -- I thought he probably does that to all the girls. (And) I was interested in going to art school. But he kept persisting, I don't know why. He usually likes good-looking girls. [Laughs]

TI: Well, I'm sure he was attracted to you. And not only probably your looks, but maybe your mind in terms of how you thought and talked?

WY: Yeah, but most of (our) Nisei guys are afraid of smart (girls), and I was always showing off. [Laughs]

TI: And so was, do you think Chester was intimidated by you also?

WY: No. He wanted to take me down a couple pegs.

TI: So he had high self-esteem, too.

WY: Oh, he was going to UCLA and all that. I didn't go to college.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

TI: So eventually the two of you decided to get married? Do you recall how that was decided?

WY: Well, he was quite persistent, you know, so I got to like him. He was funny, too, very funny. It's my kind of humor, and I like that. I judge people on their sense of humor.

TI: And do you recall when you got married, what year?

WY: We got married twice. We got married in Las Vegas. We were staying -- he was staying with a black family, and they said, "You guys should get married." So they took us to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas was very, very prejudiced then against blacks. So we got married in a little tiny room called Wee Kirk O' the Heather. [Laughs] And we came home, they wouldn't -- our friends were black and we couldn't find a hotel that would put us up, so we had to come home. And (Chester) had a trailer in the back of this black friend's house, so we lived in the trailer. Every time his mother and father would come to Los Angeles, I'd have to move out of the trailer because he hadn't told them yet. And I said, "Gee, I don't like this. This guy is under his parents' thumb." And I told him, "I think we should tell him," and he says, "No, no. We'll tell them when it's time." Well, the Korean War got on, they wanted him to be married because they didn't want him to go to war. So they said, "You (can) get married anytime you want." I said, "Just tell them that we're already married." And he said, "No, no, we don't want to do that." So we got married again at his brother's house.

TI: Oh, interesting. So you were married in Vegas.

WY: In Las Vegas.

TI: But he wasn't able to tell his parents?

WY: His father was very domineering.

TI: Oh, and so you guys had to get married again.

WY: Yeah. And you know what his father told him? "We thought that Wakako was so overbearing that you couldn't say a word. But now we notice that you seem to be holding the upper hand." And then, oh god, it's amazing. And then once that show got on the TV...

TI: Oh, your play And the Soul Shall Dance?

WY: Uh-huh. We were divorced, you know. We were married twenty-five years, and we were divorced. And all of a sudden his mother calls me. Isn't that amazing what a little bit of, you know, success --

TI: And she called you to say what?

WY: She said, "Oh," she said, "you did such a beautiful job," and this and that. And I said -- he remarried right away, you know -- I said, "Look, I'm no longer your daughter-in-law. You shouldn't be talking to me like this." "You'll always be my daughter." The minute we got divorced, nobody wanted to tell her, 'cause they thought she would be so upset. And then she finally found out and she says to me, she called me up and says, "Well, those things happen."

TI: It sounds like she liked you.

WY: No, she didn't like me.

TI: Oh, she didn't?

WY: No. She thought I was very domineering, you know.

TI: But yet she called you right after the divorce.

WY: After the divorce, because she was so glad that -- oh, no, right after the play went on TV. See what a little success does? Everybody's your friend.

TI: Interesting.

WY: Yeah, isn't it interesting? I said, "Look, I'm no longer your daughter."

TI: So I'm doing some math here. So it looks like you were married about 1950?

WY: 1948.

TI: 1948, and you said you were married for twenty-five years, so you divorced around 1973, '74?

WY: '74, uh-huh.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

TI: So you were married in 1950, you're in Los Angeles, and so what kind of work did Chester do?

WY: He was going to school, and I was... what was I doing? Oh, I was working in factories and this and that. We weren't being able to make ends meet, so I started going with this friend of ours, black friend of ours that used to do catering, and weekends I used to go catering with her. So that we could have --- well, she used to give me twenty-five dollars a day, and that was a lot of money in those days, you know. So I started going to cater with her, paying our electric bills and things like that. Then pretty soon he says, "I bet I can get Rose some parties so that she could cater, I could get her the parties and she could cater." But black people are not like Japanese, they're not (obsessively) punctual, at least Rose wasn't. And that used to burn him up, you know.

TI: Oh, because he would find these parties for her...

WY: Yeah, and then, and he'd be the caterer and she'd bring the food and she'd come in late, or she'd be singing while she's cooking and not worrying about the next day or anything like that. And he didn't like it so...

TI: And you were probably caught in the middle because she was your friend.

WY: No, she was his friend.

TI: Oh, okay. The other job, I read someplace where you did something with shower curtains?

WY: Oh, yeah. After that I used to paint shower curtains, hand paint. I was working in... yeah, I was working as a helper in a shower curtain factory, you know, where they hand paint shower curtains. You go over there and do the pink flamingoes, blackbills, blackbills, like that. And the woman that was the head of it got married and had to leave. And so she said, she trained me to be head. And then the boss came in, and all of a sudden, the woman is training another person to be the head. I said, "What's going on? I thought I was supposed to be the head." Well, he thought, the boss thought that the customers, the clients might come in and see me head, and not like it and cancel the order. I said, "Well, let me talk to him." I (told him), "You're a Jew, you ought to know what prejudice is. Why are doing this to me? I'm next in line here." And, "I didn't do that to you, I didn't do that to you," (he said). "Then," I said, "we have no quarrel then. I'm the head." And so he had to make me head.

TI: Wow, you were really direct, weren't you?

WY: I was. Because you've got nothing to lose at this point. And then...

TI: And it's interesting, earlier you said... it didn't seem like you were as direct. You used to say, you used to do what people told you to do, and now, at this point, you're much more direct.

WY: Yeah, yeah. But I had nothing to lose. And then he's Jewish, and I said, "You ought to know what it is to be Jewish, what it is to feel racism." And then he says, "I didn't say that." "Then there's no problem." I was very direct, you know. There's nothing to lose. And then you get kicked around so much, you just got to stand up for your rights.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

TI: Now, during this time, sort of like in the 1950s, early '50s, were you doing much writing during this time?

WY: I don't think so. I think the first story I wrote that I really liked was And the Soul Shall Dance. Then I tried to sell it to a white magazine and I couldn't sell it, so I said --

TI: Right, so was this after your daughter was born, after Joy was born that you wrote this?

WY: I think so.

TI: Okay, so let's just document this. So you had a daughter Joy.

WY: 1955.

TI: She was born in 1955.

WY: And I think that the Soul went on in 1970-something.

TI: Right, but did you write it earlier, though? In about 1960 you started writing for the Rafu.

WY: Yeah. I wrote it earlier. And then, oh, I (remember) what happened. Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Jeffery Chan and Lawson Inada were, you know, all this talk about Asian Americans, 'cause the department in the universities, they had no text. And they were talking about compiling a book of short stories that they could use as a text for these university departments. And they called it Aiiieeeee, right?

TI: Right. It came out in 1974, that was when I started college, so I remember when that came out.

WY: Oh, yeah? Oh. And then (they) asked me -- oh, Hisaye told me they were looking for a textbook to put together, and she says, "Why don't you send them about five stories?" And I said, "Okay," and I sent them five stories. And I didn't hear from them for two years, and I said, "Oh, (my stories must have fallen) over the side of the desk and (they're) still there." And then about two years later, Shawn Wong called me and said they really love Soul and they want to publish it. I don't think they gave me any money for it, I'm not sure. And then they published it, and it just got, took flight for some reason.

TI: And then how did it go from the book, Aiiieeeee, to become a play?

WY: Oh, Mako said he read the story, and he said to me...

TI: And we should back up. So Mako, at that time, was the director or...

WY: Artistic Director of East West Players.

TI: East West Players, and Mako, the actor, you're talking about, the well-known actor.

WY: Yeah. His name is Iwamatsu. Mako said that he'd like to see it in play form. And I thought, I know about those play forms. People don't have your experience that you write the play from, they misread everything you meant to say, and then they write the play. So I said, suspiciously, "Who will write it?" (...) "You will," (Mako said), "You will." I said, "I've never written a play before." And he said, "I don't care if it's a flop or a hit. All I want you to do is get the feeling of the short story into the play." I said, "I can do that," and so that's what I did.

TI: And so how did you learn how to write a play?

WY: Oh, I sent my daughter out to get a book on how to write a play. [Laughs] It says you put the stage directions here, and then you put the name of the, you center the name of the speaker, and then you start writing. I said, "Oh, my gosh, too much work." So I put the stage direction over here in capital letters, then I put the name of the speaker on this side. Because otherwise you're changing the... in the old days they had the typewriter, you got to center the... so I said, no, I'll do it my own way. So I did it that way.

TI: But how did you learn how to construct a play? Because you have to think about the staging and all that, I mean, weren't those things that you had to learn how to do?

WY: Well, no. As Mako said to me, "I don't care if it's a flop or a hit. (...) I (just) ask you to carry the feeling into the play." That's all I tried to do. And I changed the whole format because it was too much work to do the, what do you call it, indentations all the time. So I put the directions in caps, and then put the caps over here, so that there was no pushing the tabs. [Laughs]

TI: Now, do you recall how long it took you to take your short story and make it a play?

WY: I don't know. I think I must have written it about six times, which is very little, considering. I thought, "Oh, my god." First I had the, just like the short story, I had a narrator in there walking by, talking about the past and this and that. And then we tried it with that. And then I had a neighbor come in, and I thought I'd have a gay neighbor come in and talk to the narrator and make friends with her and all that, and that didn't work out. Mako didn't like that. And then he said, "Listen, I will just start out with just indicating what year it is by the costume and the lights and indicating this is the past." There was no problem.

TI: Oh, so Mako really helped you.

WY: Yeah, he did.

TI: It's like back and forth, you would give him a draft, he would give you feedback, then you would rewrite.

WY: Uh-huh. Although he said he didn't care, you know. Or he said, "I need a little time here to change clothes." "Okay," put in a little time. I'd just write in a little scene.

TI: And how was that, kind of that experience for you, creating the play?

WY: Well, I couldn't have written... because he said, "Forget the narrator, I'll do it with lights and costumes." And he would tell me when they needed more time. And then he gave me the confidence that he didn't care, as long I... and I would rather have done that. I said, "If it's gonna flop, I'd rather that I make it flop than (let) somebody else make it flop," you know.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

TI: And so, eventually, so when did, when was the play first produced?

WY: As... oh.

TI: By the East West Players? This must have been, what, late '70s?

WY: Not quite late '70s...

TI: Was it '77?

WY: I don't really know. I think it was more like, I think the book came out...

TI: The book came out in '74.

WY: Was it?

TI: Yeah. So a few years after.

WY: So he read that, uh-huh, and he told me. Frank Chin and Shawn Wong came over and visited me one day and said, "Let's go to the East West Players and see the January 1st show." And I said, "Okay," we went there, and they said, "Mako wants to talk to you." So they went somewhere else and I talked to Mako, he said, "I want to see the story in play form." And he helped me along.

TI: Okay. So when the play was first, the premier, when you first saw it, what did you think when you saw it?

WY: Well, there were so few characters. They had two casts. And once something is a success, boy, you got trouble on your hands. They fight like animals trying to get the part, you know. That's what I thought. Success is really terrible.

TI: And so what you saw was...

WY: I liked one group better, and it didn't include Mako's wife. And the other party kept pushing me, and so I said, well, the party that wanted to do it at KCET didn't want Mako to be the director. He wanted it because he's white.

TI: Oh, but going back to that very first play, what was your role? Wasn't Mako the director, so wasn't he in control? What role did you have in that first...

WY: I saw that, and then sometimes we would disagree. One time he threw his beer can down on the floor, he was so mad at me. [Laughs]

TI: And what would you guys argue about?

WY: One of the actors was not doing what I wanted him to show in the play. And I told Mako -- and he said, "God damn." [Laughs]

TI: But then that was your role, was to make sure that that feeling...

WY: Yeah, 'cause I don't want --

TI: ...that feeling that you wanted, you wrote about.

WY: I don't want, if it was going to be a flop, I want to be the one that flopped it, you know. 'Cause I want my message through, not somebody -- 'cause I did it from my experience. That's why when you get a screenplay from a book, you get a totally different picture sometimes.

TI: This is where your obsessive-compulsive side comes out? [Laughs]

WY: Right, right. [Laughs]

TI: So I want to go to the first time it was played to a live audience. And what was the reaction of the audience when they saw the play?

WY: They didn't know when the play was over. [Laughs] There'd be ten people in the audience, and I'd have to start clapping. And then when the Times premier critic saw it, he could not stop talking about it. Because they'd never seen a play in the... see, this is Japanese-style writing.

TI: And when you say Times, it was the Los Angeles Times?

WY: Yeah.

TI: So this was the big daily newspaper in L.A...

WY: Yeah, he loved it. He couldn't stop talking about it. He called it one of the ten best plays of the year. Because they'd never seen anything like that. This is Japanese-style writing. That's why I call it Songs My Mother Taught Me.

TI: So this is kind of interesting, because up to this point, you were really not known other than published in Aiiieeeee, which, the readership wasn't that large, to all of a sudden being sort of rave reviews from the L.A. Times, which is a subscription of millions of people. So how did that change your life?

WY: Change my what? Life?

TI: Yeah, how did it change your life?

WY: Oh, I got a little more respect. [Laughs] But then, you know, I'm old. I was old then. I was in my fifties then.

TI: Well, how did it change your relationship with, say, the community?

WY: Oh, well, gee, you'd be surprised at how many people keep flocking around you. I'm not a very social person. I talk like I am, but I'm not. And it was hard for me. It's hard for me -- once I get talking, you can't stop me, but it's hard for me to meet you. I'm obsessive-compulsive. "God, what does he want from me?" [Laughs]

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

TI: Well, so it played to rave reviews, and then you mentioned how they wanted to do a TV version of that. And was it KCTS that wanted to...

WY: KCET, that's our channel...

TI: The public...

WY: Public channel.

TI: Public TV. And so describe that. So how did they approach you?

WY: They fight. They're two cats; oh my gosh, success is terrible sometimes.

TI: But at this point, you own the right to the play?

WY: Yeah.

TI: And so they have to negotiate with you for the rights to the play?

WY: Well, yeah. They gave me, they give the writer something, quite a healthy sum. Like they gave me ten thousand something. And then the actors get paid their union wages, but because we had two casts, they'd tear each other's eyes out trying to get (the roles). (The big guns) didn't want Mako to be the director, because they wanted a white director. I said, "Mako, if you don't like it, tell 'em you don't like it, and I'll go along with you." But he said, "Let it go." And then what happened? He gave it up. I don't know whether he said, "Let it go," but he gave it up. And, oh, (the actors) started fighting for the roles, so I said, well, because Mako didn't want to be co-director. He gave it up, I guess. So I told the director, I said, "You go in there and see which one, which cast you like better." I said, "I don't like this," so he chose the cast.

TI: And then, so you now went from being almost unknown to then the successful play locally, to now being on TV. What was the reaction of people -- you mentioned your mother-in-law, or your former mother-in-law calling, but it must have really escalated in terms of...

WY: Yeah. I said, "You shouldn't be calling me, I'm not your daughter anymore." (Chester had remarried and had two kids). She didn't even like me.

TI: So how about other people? Who were some other people who contacted you?

WY: Not too much. Nisei people are very reticent about things like that, they don't bother you. I remember I said to one lady, I said, "Oh, you wear the cutest things." You know, she has (clothes rotting in her closet)... my age, too, you know. I'm always getting solid colors or something. And she said, "Oh, that's because you're a writer." I didn't even know she knew (...) I was (a writer). I said, "Well, that doesn't make any difference." And she said, "Oh, yes, you've got better things to think about." That was kind of nice of her.

TI: And I'm curious, what was the reaction of the writing community, other writers, to the success of And the Soul Shall Dance?

WY: You mean like white writers?

TI: No, Asian American writers.

WY: Asian American writers?

TI: Like people like Shawn Wong and Frank Chin?

WY: Oh, Shawn has always been nice to me.


TI: And so, but there were some authors that, perhaps, were...

WY: They don't pay much attention to these kind of things, you know. After all, they've been writing a lot longer than I have.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

TI: How did it change you to go through this process?

WY: Me? Well, it changed my whole life, because I was really in the dumps with my divorce. Seems like when I'm really in the dumps, something changes everything. I was really in the dumps.

TI: Yeah, because you were divorced '74, and then all these things happened with your play.

WY: Yeah, by '77, huh? And then my mother-in-law called me.

TI: How about your daughter? What was her reaction to all this? Because she would be in college at this point? Yeah, in college, probably.

WY: No, I don't think she was in college. She didn't make a big deal about it. I remember one time I was so miserable, I said, "Joy, I don't think I'm going to make it." She was sleeping, sound asleep, and I woke her up. That was after my divorce. "I don't think I'm going to make it." She says, "You're strong, you'll make it," then she rolls over. [Laughs]

TI: She probably knew that you were a survivor.

WY: Yeah, I guess so, huh?

TI: Did you ever hear from Chester about the...

WY: Oh, yeah.

TI: And what was his...

WY: He said, "We should never have gotten divorced." I was very polite, I said, "No, we shouldn't have." By that time, I'm a survivor, you know. I decided, "No one's gonna ever treat me like that again." I mean -- no, I didn't say that. I said, "I'm not gonna let anybody..." I tried not to blame anybody. I'm not gonna let anybody make me feel like that again.

TI: And so, you mean, the hurt that you felt going through the divorce, you didn't want that to happen again.

WY: Uh-huh, yeah.

TI: But by doing so, doesn't that kind of shut some of your emotions?

WY: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. But what can you do? That's what you are.

TI: But how does that impact you as a writer? Doesn't that kind of... what's the right word? Block you in some ways as a writer?

WY: Well, like Hisaye, now, you've read her stuff? I think she's a terrific writer. But one thing she doesn't do, she doesn't go in there. Did you find that? She says things like -- this is what I found out. Once, once of her relatives, her hair started falling out. I said, "That girl is under great stress." (Hisaye) said, "What are you talking about?" "Her hair is falling out. She's under great stress." She says, "That's not why her hair is falling out." See, she won't face it. And there's a lot of things she doesn't face. She said, "It was a permanent that she got." I said, "If it was the permanent, there'd be a rash of people having their hair fall out, because permanents come in gallon jugs, and (beauticians) take out what they need, and (...) put it on the hair." And the next one comes in, they take a little bit more. I said, "That's not why her hair is falling out, it's because she's having stress." (Hisaye) wouldn't believe that.

TI: But in the same way, when you made a decision that you weren't going to allow other people to hurt you that way, sometimes, isn't that feeling that you've felt...

WY: It's tearing yourself up.

TI: Yeah, but that's part of your writing, isn't it? I mean, when you look at, when I read some of your writings, that emotion comes through. And that's why I was wondering if that, for you to make that decision, doesn't it block some of your, that feeling, that writing?

WY: Well, maybe it does. Maybe it does. But that's the way I felt. I just said, I didn't blame it on him, because I knew that we were both very needy people and we were just clawing each other for our needs. So it wasn't his fault. But then by that time, by the time he discovered it, he'd already remarried and had two kids. Well, I had already, when he left and he got married, I (had) said, "That's it." I'm a survivor.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

TI: So after the success of And the Soul Shall Dance, what did you do after that in terms of writing? What was next?

WY: I started writing more stories, I think, you know. I don't know what I did. I think these are all, most of them were written afterwards, you know.

TI: But that really helped launch...

WY: Because to me, that was the best story I'd ever written. And then -- oh, that's what it did to me. I tried to sell it to white magazines and I couldn't do it, and then I said, "No, I'm not going to worry about white magazines, I'm going to write what I know, what I love, what I know." And validate other people's lives as well as mine, you know, just like Hisaye's writings had made me feel right about myself. So that's what I did. And then I thought to myself, "You can't write anything trying to please somebody else." Because if you do, you (always offend someone). You can only write what you truly feel inside, and forget everybody else, because there are too many people you have to please.

TI: No, I think you're right. I think when you do that, I think it's really, then your voice comes though. Because it's your voice, not trying to please someone else.

WY: Unless you're doing science fiction or something like that. Yeah, I believe that. And then that's why I figured, "Gee, I don't want anybody to do my plays, write my plays, because I wrote it from my experience. He doesn't know what I'm talking about," because he's from a different generation, or, you know, things are not like that anymore. So I'd rather flop it myself. [Laughs]

TI: So going forward, are you still writing or plans to write more?

WY: No. It's a lonely job. I wrote one play, one short story early this year. If I find something -- I don't really create plays, I write stories of real people in real situations. They're not really creative stories, but I write it in my way, and then I try to find the depth of that. Even though the guy's drunk all the time, people call him a drunk, I try to find out what makes him... things like that. But these are all stories about real people and real situations.

TI: Do you find that when you write about people or see them, that you see people differently than most other people? I mean, I'm thinking of just writers, and when they go to family events or friends, do you see something that other people don't?

WY: I try to, I really try. I said, well, you gotta figure where she's coming from. My daughter's mother-in-law, she was in... that Korean country during the war, and she's tight. Well, how can she help it? She was a Japanese in Korea -- not Korea, Manchuria, and she had some hard times. I try to think in those terms. Because when you're writing, you've got to think in terms of what motivates people, not just yourself. Sometimes I think... yeah... you got to figure, okay.

TI: So when you do that, when you see somebody and you see how they react to something, do you almost like think of their story? Like, "Oh, so they grew up here, so it must have been like this?" And do you naturally just do that?

WY: Not everybody's. [Laughs] I usually see something that really moves me. I don't write unless I want to. I'm not a real writer, I just write when I feel like it. And usually it's something, real people, real situation, they're not creative, you know.

TI: This has been so fascinating. I've learned so much...

WY: Oh, you have?

TI: this last, especially in this last hour. I'm curious about how you as a writer made all this happen, it's really been interesting.

WY: Because they're real stories. That's easy to do. And you don't stray from the characters, 'cause they're real characters.

TI: And it's just those stories that are so powerful. I mean, you're right, you're just a, in some ways, you have this knack of observing. But capturing that, putting it on paper, it just seems like it's such a powerful thing.

WY: Thank you. I try to put myself in that.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

TI: Well, so I'm at the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about in terms of your career, your life, anything that you learned, anything else that you wanted to talk about?

WY: I'm just surprised that, you know, like you coming to my door and asking to talk to me. I said, gee, this is old stories of a different time, of a different group of people that had a totally different outlook on life. Why are you so interested still? I'm just amazed.

TI: But I hope you understand that for me as a third-generation, what you did through some of your stories is you brought to life the Issei generation that I never really knew because of the language barrier. And so I knew my grandparents, but yet I didn't know them. And you've captured them as individuals in a way that I was never able to understand. And that's what your writings have always done for me.

WY: Thank you. I guess those -- see, that's why I think to myself, my grandkids, they don't care.

TI: Oh, well, I know many in the community really are thankful.

WY: I told Joy, "I have two of these (books) left, I've already signed them for my grandkids," two of 'em, Alyctra and Lucas. She said, "You already gave us one." [Laughs] "Oh, I forgot, excuse me. Well, here's another."

TI: Well, and this is, that's the other thing, that you're hoping to publish another book in the next year or so?

WY: Yeah. I've been a very, very lucky person. The first one, this first one, Garrett Hongo did all the work. The second one, a woman named Lillian Howan is doing all the work. To me, another book, that doesn't matter this late in life. It's not going to make me better or worse or richer or poorer. But I appreciate, 'cause I wouldn't go through that kind of trouble for anybody, even myself. So Lillian Howan's going to bring the other book. She said that University of Hawaii Press is -- I'm talking loudly because I can't hear too well -- University of Hawaii Press is printing it, and she's been after them. She said, "It should be out by the end of this year." I don't know, the economy's tanking. And I don't really care. I really don't care, but then I'd like to see it out, because she's working so hard. To me, one other book is not going to do that much for my life or my money, my economy.

TI: But what you have to understand is it really helps, I think, people like me and others who are interested in this to be able to read --

WY: But there are so few of you.

TI: Oh, I don't think so.

WY: I think so.

TI: Well, Wakako, thank you so much for your time.

WY: You're welcome, Tom. My goodness, I'm pleased.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.