Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Jim Matsuoka Interview
Narrator: Jim Matsuoka
Interviewer: Martha Nakagawa
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: May 24, 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-mjim-01-0017

<Begin Segment 17>

MN: Okay, I'm gonna ask you more about the Japanese American youth culture in the 1950s in L.A. What was that like? You talked about clubs.

JM: One of the reasons we had so many clubs, segregation was a de facto thing. We were segregated whether we liked it or not. I mean, everybody was that... nobody told us we couldn't do this. It was just a unwritten rule. It's just like certain manners today, like I don't walk over and bonk you on the head. [Laughs] I don't say, "Martha, you were ten minutes, two minutes late," bango, you know. I don't do these things. You just don't do it. You'll be ostracized if you do that. Japanese Americans stuck with Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans stuck with Chinese Americans, blacks with blacks, whites with white. You don't cross the color line. Mexican Americans with Mexican, you don't cross the color lines. And as such, you developed your own society. Because, okay, if we had to, if our society was a Japanese American society, then we had to determine what we liked to do and what the young people liked to do and all these different things. What was cool, what was in, what wasn't, you know, what was uncool. And what was cool in those days was to be part of a athletic club. And I think that comes from the older Japanese Americans of the '30s because they all kind of gathered around the various athletic clubs.

MN: You're talking, you have this list here, you're talking like the Olivers?

JM: Yeah, people like that.

MN: The Cougars, the Exclusive 20 that you have listed, they were not athletic, were they?

JM: No, maybe not, but I think the Olivers were based around baseball, things like that. But the whole idea was that you would, you would have these athletic club, you know. And then you would have girls' clubs, too, and they weren't, they weren't athletic clubs as such, but they, they were formed to throw social events like dances and parties, house parties and all that. And, of course, when they had a house party or they threw a party, they would like to invite clubs. So that made all the more reason why young males would want to join clubs. So our whole idea was that we would join clubs whether we were athletic or not. And then the problem becomes like any other thing, like the things that, the trouble between Block 9 and 10 and 11, some rivalry starts to break out based on your geographic location or who or what you are. And I would say a lot of clubs remained clubs. They were clubs to the very end. They had these basketball leagues and what have you. Others began to develop in a different, different form. They became more like club/gang-like. And that's what transpired. When I was, when I moved to my new home, I was sort of like, and I was going to Belmont, I just didn't know a lot of folks. So the first thing I began to do is go to Hollywood Judo Dojo just to go somewhere. And I had a friend that would come by and we'd go out to a movie now and then. Essentially, I wasn't part of any social scene. So one day, I'm walking to my judo class, and I hear this car come up. It's one of these monster cars, vroom, it's my cousin in there. And my cousins were sort of like the epitome of cool in those days. He had a ducktail hair, you know, his hair was long, you know, and slicked back with a ducktail. And he's got these dark glasses on and it's evening, and he'll wear the, he'll wear the dark glasses, it was cool to wear dark glasses whether it was pitch black or not. It's just the whole idea of looking cool. He's in this monster, you know, car, and with the pipes just revving away. He said, "Hey, Cuz, what are you doing?" And I remembered him from before, so I was just talking to him and he said, "Well, what are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to judo." He says, "What are you doing Saturday?" I said, "Well, nothing." He says, "Why don't I come by and pick you up and we'll go to a dance if you're doing nothing else." I said, "Yeah, gee, I'd love to go to the dance." Sure enough, that Saturday, I hear his car outside. And I go out there, and there's about two or three other guys in there, you know, and he introduces me around. He's very proud of me. He says, "This is my cousin." I don't, I don't think he had any other relatives. And he tells everybody, "This is my cuz, da-da-da." Oh, I said, "Glad to meet you," and what have you.

And we take off and we're going to a public dance, and that's like the Tuesday evening programs of that day. Everybody went to a public dance. And this was at Normandy playground, and you went over there. Well, there was a whole bunch of dos and don'ts, of course. You had to look a certain way, you had to dress a certain way. The in clothing for guys our age was what they called a wrap. It was like a jacket with a tie around the coat. So that, I mean, if you wore that, you were cool. Or you wore a nice sweater, a dark sweater. Not like the dark sweater... something like I have on right now. And dark pants, and a very expensive pair of shoes. And not tennis shoes or anything like this, a Florsheim or Regal, something that cost you sixty, seventy bucks to look cool. And you had to have a haircut. If you didn't have a haircut, it was like you might as well go there unbathed. 'Cause you had to show that it was a razor cut around your ear, and your hair was perfectly... so if you showed up there, it was cool. And you walked in and they were playing these Doo-wop type of things. "In the Still of the Night," "Earth Angel," all that stuff that you hear. And not everybody would dance, not everybody. We were all in various clusters or groups, and I couldn't figure that out for a while. And I was standing there with my friends soaking it all in, you know, you hear this, it was a gymnasium and sparsely decorated. It was dark. Because it was a gym floor, everybody kind of knew that you better not smoke, otherwise we wouldn't have these dances anymore. But still, some people still lit up because you could see the cigarette smoke. And I ran into some of my friends from the west side who I did not like, 'cause they were trying to kick my butt, and they were like gang wannabes. They were like gang wannabes. And they came over to me, I said, "What the heck?" and they kind of looked at me and they said, "Are you with those guys?" I said, "Yeah. I came with them." They said, "Well, what time are you having the fight? When is the fight gonna take place?" I said, "What fight?" Said, "You're with them, aren't you?" I said, "Yeah." And they said, "I thought you guys were getting in a fight." And I didn't know what he meant by, "You guys," and, "What fight?" So I just kind of pull away from them, I walk back over there to the guys I came in with. And I said, "Do you know anything about a fight that we are supposed to be in?" And all of a sudden my cousin comes back and, "Hey," he says, "hey, don't worry about nothing, man." He says, "We got the backing of this group over there." And I said, "The backing?" Apparently the guys I was supposed to be with were supposed to fight somebody that evening. I had no idea about that. That was rather amazing. Later on, when I went back to the guys, these gang wannabes from the west side, I just gave 'em a dirty look like, you know, like, "If I were you, if I'm with these guys and something's gonna happen, it might be with you guys." [Laughs] They caught the hint and they took off.

So later on that night... I kind of enjoyed the dance, I didn't do, I didn't do much dancing at all, but in those days you did a slow dance which was very easy to do. You just grab your partner, just kind of hung on. Just kind of rocked around, you know, 'cause the music was very... you know what I mean? You know what Doo-wop is, right? So prior to that it was the foxtrot, which was... and if you didn't know how to do the foxtrot, you were in bad shape because you invariably stepped on your partner's foot, you know, it would be embarrassing. But here we did the slow grinding type of music, you know, which was fine, 'cause you got to grab your partner and hang on, you know. And of course, you let go and stood away when they did the fast dance, and they called that, at that time, point in time, we called that the "Jit," which was short for Jitterbug, which was really a cool-looking dance. Very few people could do it. My cousin could do it to perfection. Or they had this other thing that comes right out of the ghetto. It was sort of like the dance that the blacks did, and you would just hold hand with each other, and just kind of do the, you know, freewheeling. And I think we got a lot of our cues from the dances that they had down there in south central, 'cause they used to televise those things. Oh, that was the strangest programs you ever saw on TV, they'd go right into the heart of the ghetto. And I used to fear for the TV... I was wondering, "I wonder if they're ever gonna get out of there alive." They were giving them the hard, hard look, you know. But they would do that type of dancing, and you'd have the whole paraphernalia. You would wear a hat and a coat. So we had all these various things happening, and a supposed fight, people dancing, and it was, it was quite different. It wasn't a nice, everybody dance type of thing. It was just more like a gathering with dancing. And at the end of it all, you would invite some of the girls, "We'll drive you back," or what have you, if you came with somebody. And we'd all go to drive-ins, and we'd all sit around and have our chicken in the basket for a dollar and what have you, and our French fries. It was a good time. I thoroughly enjoyed those public dances, and went to those things for a year, couple of years, in fact. And, of course, they kind of evolved into house parties and things like that. And I even went to a dance out in Stockton one night, 'cause we didn't have anything to do. My cousin said, "Hey, I met this girl from Stockton, and she says they have a, they have a party there every night, I mean, every week." I said, "Yeah, we don't have anything going on here in L.A. this week," he said, "Well, let's go to Stockton. And this was like, we were having coffee at twelve midnight, said, "Yeah, let's go." Jump in our cars, gas was twenty-nine cents a gallon, we were blazing through. But at that time, that was the culture of that time. It was who you associated with, what you did and all that. They were very prescribed.

And a lot of people think (...) the group that I was with was a gang from the get-go, but really, we weren't, if you were that, it wasn't any good because nobody would invite you to parties. And so in a sense, it kind of evolved in that direction because people would want to beat your butt up for something, and you wound up defending yourself, and then you wound up attacking them, and things got from one stage to another. So in a way, it kind of killed the public dances because the fighting started breaking out between people, and for whatever reason. And yeah, I can see the reasons, if those wannabes were there one night and I had some of my friends, and maybe this would be my time to get back at them, you know, things like that. People trying to settle those old scores, that happens.

But I had a friend, too, that... interesting guy. He always felt that somebody was staring at him. And I swear the guy got into more scrapes, and he would come back and says, "That guy's looking at me." I said, "What do you mean he's looking at you?" "He's looking at me." And in this day and age, I think they call it dogging you, "mad dogging." In those days, it's sort of like he's really looking. I said, "No, get away from that. He's not looking at you." Next thing I know, [makes sound effect]. All hell's breaking loose, and it's my friend, and he's after the guy that's quote/unquote "staring at me." Oh, give me a break. But you know, these are, these fights started over these little petty things, no rhyme or reason for it. And, and this was the thing about it, too. These women, I swear to god, they instigated half of that stuff. They would come and tell us, "Oh, I heard that so and so, this happened. And I heard that they were out to kick your ass." [Laughs] Now, what are you gonna say in that case? You know, are you gonna tuck your tail in?" Sort of like, "Oh, is that right?" Well, we got to make sure we find where they are, and we make sure that we show up with a little bit more people than they have. And you could see the process of how it began to develop.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.