Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Michiko Frances Chikahisa Interview
Narrator: Michiko Frances Chikahisa
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Skokie, Illinois
Date: June 17, 2011
Densho ID: denshovh-cmichiko-01-0007

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TI: So let's move on and let's talk about your father's business and how that kind of evolved and grew over time. So you mentioned last that he was in the wholesale produce business, so why don't you talk a little bit about his business?

FC: His business, he was in partnership with a Mr. Shiraishi. I think his name was Katsuzo Shiraishi. I don't know how they got to know each other, but they were, in those days the Isseis made their connections with people of the same ken, so he was also from Fukuoka, and he got, he was sort of the brains of the business and my father was the PR man, the front man. My father was pretty charming. So they made a good pair, and they named their store Southwest Berry Exchange, and then the initials was SWBX, which is another thing my father was proud of, that he had this fancy name that could be put in just initials, SWBX. And he had a lot of farmers up along Santa Maria, Guadalupe, San Luis Obispo, and so he took a lot of trips going up to visit the farmers. This is before supermarket days, so the farmers and the wholesale produce guys had personal connections with these farmers, and they'd go up and look at the crops and decide. And so while his name, business was named strawberries he actually dealt more with, I think it was celery and other kinds of vegetables, not so much fruit, because there was another Japanese market that was called United Celery. They laughed because he had more to do with strawberries and my father had more to do with celery. [Laughs]

TI: Even though his was the berry company, he did celery. That's funny. So he had these Japanese farmers, he would buy the produce from them, and then who would he sell it to?

FC: The grocery store owners, the small businessmen, they'd come and they'd look at the produce and buy it off the trucks. So the employees he had were guys that drove the trucks to go pick up the produce and bring it into the market.

TI: And it would sell off the trucks? They wouldn't unload it and display it? It was more just...

FC: I guess so. He had a couple of stores in the market and they would have boxes of his stuff, and the buyers would come and purchase what they needed.

TI: And so Japanese farmers, would he sell to Japanese markets?

FC: Japanese markets.

TI: So it's all kind of this inside the community.

FC: Yes, exactly. They all depended on each other because of racial prejudice and inability to really open up and bring in other kinds of, they were pretty exclusively Japanese. And they, the farmers didn't always speak English, so they would come to someplace where there was a Japanese connection. And he also had some local farmers, like in Downey and Santa Fe Springs and that area that did a lot of truck farming, beans and lettuces and things like that. So he had a variety of produce.

TI: Okay. Earlier you mentioned him as more of the PR person, but I'm trying to get a sense of, so when he would go out to the farms, for instance, and look at crops, would he be the one who would negotiate in terms of, for your celery crop this is how much we can pay, do all that?

FC: Yeah, he was doing all that.

TI: So he was kind of like the buyer also.

FC: Yes.

TI: Go out there and do all that.

FC: And then when, sometimes the farmers would themselves come into town and he would love to wine and dine them, so he would take them out to Little Tokyo and they'd eat. Those early days my father drank a lot, and I don't remember this so much, but my older sister remembers him coming home pretty, pretty much, pretty drunk and staggering. [Laughs] And she was always concerned because my mother was left alone so much. My mother never worked outside the home, so unlike a lot of Issei women, she didn't earn any money. And my father was proud of the fact that he could support the family.

TI: But your older sister was maybe concerned that if something happened to your father, what would happen to your family?

FC: She would see my mother kind of depressed, left alone, and when my father would come home drunk she would be really, really upset. And so I didn't, I didn't know that part, but my older sister knew it and felt very, very sad for my mother, and she had some pretty negative feelings about my dad for a long time.

TI: Because of the drinking or what, all that carousing about.

FC: Yeah, and felt like my poor mother suffered so much. But I think by the time I was old enough to participate in family activities, my father had pretty much settled down. I don't think he was drinking quite as heavily, and so he had now kids that are ready to go to school and he sort of began to think more in terms of the family.

TI: Earlier you had mentioned that your mother had a hard life, and this is part of, maybe, the hard life. I mean, here she was in Japan, well educated, on this career path, and her parents had probably all these future plans for her, what she would do and perhaps who she would marry.

FC: Exactly.

TI: And she sort of decides to come to Japan based on this letter. Did she ever talk about regrets or anything? Did you ever hear about that?

FC: Never. Never. It wasn't until, as I said earlier, my father died and she spent an evening telling me all the problems that she had. She even said that she thought my father had fathered a child outside of marriage before she arrived and that he would brag to her that he had a son but that he was in Japan, but I don't know that anybody ever identified, whether he had any contact.

TI: So it was kind of mean for your father to say that to your mother.

FC: Yes. They used to, they used to argue a lot about his drinking, and they used to particularly argue when we would get ready to go on a picnic 'cause my father considered himself some kind of a cook because of his short experience.

TI: At Mount Wilson.

FC: At Mount Wilson. [Laughs] And so he would have his own ideas about how the food should be prepared, and he and my mother would be up until way after midnight preparing this feast for us to take on a picnic. And they would, and of course, he'd be drinking the sake on the side, so they would be arguing while they're cooking the food for us.

TI: And you would hear that as you were in bed listening.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2011 Densho. All Rights Reserved.