Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Toru Saito Interview
Narrator: Toru Saito
Interviewer: Martha Nakagawa
Location: San Jose, California
Date: December 1, 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-storu-01-0004

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MN: So when the government issued the order to have all West Coast Japanese Americans put into camps, how did your parents or your older siblings explain this to you? Or did they even explain camp to you?

TS: Well, my mother, being Japanese speaking only, she, I know she didn't have any knowledge of... but in my situation was a little bit unusual because just before, my mother still remembers, by the way, May 10th was a Sunday and that was Mother's Day, and that was the day my mother, my father and my four siblings were put into the Tanforan racetrack stables, but I was in the San Francisco General Hospital because I had these earaches and I remember those horrible earaches, and I was in the hospital, they had a crib next to the bed. I was only four years old and I couldn't speak English and they had no bilingual staff in those days, so I was completely isolated. And so what, all I did was look out the window from the second story and between the buildings was a sidewalk and a bird bath, right below my window, so I would watch the birds come down and play in the bird bath. And one day I was looking outside and I saw my father, followed by these two hakujin men with black coats and hats, and then a few minutes later my father appeared at the door and the nurse brought my clothes to me, and I'll never forget, she brought my clothes like, like a waitress would bring food. And I jumped out of the crib, put my clothes on. I don't know who these men were, my father's, you know... we went downstairs, got in the back seat of this car. It was a green car with a white star on the door. The two men got in the front and we drove through San Francisco down to San Bruno. And to this day I've never been home, since I went from our home in Japantown to San Francisco General to Tanforan and subsequently to Topaz. So that was the first time. And I remember distinctly walking through this, there was this giant cyclone fence that was twenty feet high and there was a door cut in the middle on the bottom of it, and I went through the door with my father and we went into this office and they, they had my father sign papers and whatever, and then I went with my father down rows and rows and rows and rows of these buildings, these stables and whatever, and we walked down one, between two buildings and there was my mother and my sisters. And I still remember that, 'cause I missed them 'cause I was there for six weeks, couldn't speak the language.

And so consequently, because of that experience I have never been able to travel. I have never wanted to travel, because I've had this anxiety attack, even in high school, when we used to go to dances, and I remember we were in Stockton for a dance, the Stockton Buddhist church, and the sun was just going down, it was a summer day, and all of a sudden I got this terrible anxiety attack. I wanted to get home so badly, and, and it was because, a Jewish girlfriend of mine figured out, she said, "Toru, because of your going, leaving home, going to the hospital, then never returning back --" I've never been back to this day, to our home, and after the war they tore it down, so to me to travel is to come home and in my mind's eye every house on my block is there, but my house is just an empty lot. And I get these terrible anxiety attacks, so I have no desire to travel. Of the, well, there were five of us originally and then there was eight after my stepfather came, and everybody in my family's been around the world or to Japan and I'm the only one who has never had any desire to travel, never went to Japan, never care to go to Japan. I'm not, I just like to stick at home.

MN: And you said you were in the hospital for six weeks?

TS: Uh-huh.

MN: Did you have any idea what your family outside, what they were going through, that they had to go to Tanforan while you were in the hospital? Did you know all of this was going on?

TS: I knew nothing because there was no communication. We didn't have a telephone, and I don't know if I told you, but my mother remembers May 10th, Sunday, was Mothers' Day and my mother still remembers that on Mothers' Day she was put into Tanforan. So I knew nothing about this until I went with my father and these two men and checked in at Tanforan. That was, that was surreal, for a four year old kid. Because in Japantown it was like being in Japan; everything was Japanese. There were seldom, if ever, any hakujin there. They had no business in Japantown, never came there, no more than you see hakujins walkin' down Harlem. So for the first time, here we're surrounded by these barbed wire fences and all these hakujins with rifles keepin' us prisoners, so it was a rude awakening. It was a hell of a introduction to hakujins. I learned, even to this day, hakujins to me are the enemies 'cause that was my orientation to hakujin. Never seen 'em before, now they're surrounding us with guns and looking mean to us.

MN: When you go through this, the cyclone fencing and you go through these, all these buildings and you see your parents and, were they living in the horse stalls?

TS: Yeah.

MN: So how did you feel about all this, looking at them at a horse stall?

TS: Well, I was only four years old. I was four and a half 'cause my birthday's in December. This was June. I don't know, I guess as a kid you adapt to things, and I remember the, some of the older men were building a Japanese tea garden, a pond, and my brother and I would go to play there. It was a totally new environment, and there was no, there was no fear of being kidnapped or anything because we were all prisoners, so we were able to roam around. The only problem was it was so easy to get lost because the buildings were all identical, and we couldn't read numbers or signs or anything. But, yeah, I guess in retrospect it was, it was kind of a, it was traumatic, but I don't think it was, at that point, had the effects that I realize today. Yeah.

MN: And then earlier you said you didn't really speak any English, so once you went into the Tanforan Assembly Center, did the other kids that spoke English tease you?

TS: The other kids all spoke Japanese like we did. But I didn't have any friends, per se. We, we stuck to my sister Mae, my older sister, Akiko, and there's Akiko, Tomiko, Toru, Jiro, Benny. And my sister Mae was our surrogate mother, so she kinda kept us in line or kept us organized, whatever. So we were well managed. We weren't out doing whatever, and our world really kind of shrunk to our, our barrack. And I remember distinctly my sister Jane had a ball and she threw the ball and it went under the barrack, or one of the buildings, so I went crawling underneath there and it was the nails sticking out and I got this huge gash in my head. Blood was running down my face and my father came and grabbed me and they took me to the hospital and they did whatever. I remember that distinctly.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.