Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Kenge Kobayashi Interview
Narrator: Kenge Kobayashi
Interviewer: Alice Ito
Location: Klamath Falls, Oregon
Date: July 4, 1998
Densho ID: denshovh-kkenge-01

<Begin Segment 1>

AI: Well, today is Saturday, July 4th, 1998, and we're speaking with Mr. Kenge Kobayashi. My name is Alice Ito. We're here at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Oregon. And Mr. Kobayashi, I wanted to ask you a little bit, to go way back actually, and ask about your parents, where they came from and about what time they, what year they came to the U.S. if you happen to know.

KK: Well, they came from Japan in 1910. They just got married and they were a young couple, and they farmed in the Imperial Valley raising melons and tomatoes for thirty years. They were hard working and... until the war started. Oh, we moved to Inglewood, California, right in 1940 and we started farming there. That's when the war broke out.

AI: And when were you born?

KK: I was born in Imperial Valley in 1926, July 25th.

AI: 1926. So you were still quite, rather young when the war broke out.

KK: Yes.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

AI: What do you remember about that day when Pearl Harbor was bombed?

KK: Well, I was kind of shocked, embarrassed, and went to school that day, and that's when we were called into the auditorium and President Roosevelt made that announcement, and I felt really bad so I kind of slid under my seat. [Laughs]

AI: And what was going on at your home at that point? You were aware of the bombing and your parents clearly having been...

KK: Oh, yeah. We were shocked, of course. The family was in sort of a turmoil there. Didn't know what was gonna happen and what, and I think they were afraid what somebody, the government gonna do or the people around would do. So it was a stressful time.

AI: Did your mother or father speak very much English? Did they understand very much English at that point?

KK: They understood English, but they didn't speak too well.

AI: And did you have any brothers or sisters?

KK: Yes, I have two brothers and one sister.

AI: Do you recall any family discussion as to your concerns?

KK: No, I don't recall anything at that time, but we were scared. For one thing we were scared because there was this army artillery battalion. They camped right next to our house about a couple blocks away. There was a slough there and they had guns out there, anti-aircraft gun, and all of a sudden one time the plane flew over, a UFO, unidentified plane, and they were shooting at it. And this gun went off, scared the daylights out of us. Our window broke. It shattered our window and the whole house moved. And so then they had curfew.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

AI: We were just talking about that period after Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and I wanted to ask a little bit about what happened when curfew was instituted? How did that affect your family?

KK: Well, my father couldn't, was afraid to go out to do some shopping for food and stuff like that although we were able to go to the store and back, but we had a curfew in the evening. And the irony of that is that at the same time -- this was around Christmas -- at the same time I got scarlet fever, I got, and the doctor came and quarantined our house so we couldn't go out anyway. [Laughs]

AI: Oh, double.

KK: And then they had the announcement by the authority to turn in all our contrabands to the police station so we had to do that and take our guns and binoculars and swords and everything and that was sort of traumatic.

AI: Now, your family was still farming at that time? Is that right?

KK: Yes.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

AI: And so as time went on, what did your father decide to do about the farming? Did he prepare for the spring planting?

KK: I have to go back a little bit and say that at that time General DeWitt have signed the zones, where the restricted zone we were near, in fact, half mile from North American Aircraft plant so we were in the restricted zone, which he designated as a red zone. So we had to move out of there and we only had a few days to move out.

AI: What did you do?

KK: So we had to get rid of all our stuff. My father ran around trying sell things, but nobody bought. So finally this unscrupulous guy came over and wanted to buy the whole place for $75. We had no choice because we were running out of time so we sold it to him for 75, all the house, farm equipment, tractors, horses, and barn and whatever and the crop that was coming up, our crop. All for $75.

AI: When was that?

KK: When?

AI: Do you recall the month?

KK: That must have been around January... January or something like that.

AI: And where did you go to live then?

KK: We went to a place in Compton, which was in the yellow zone which was inland a little bit at a friend's place. They had a extra house there so we stayed there.

AI: And you stayed there until evacuation?

KK: Well, no. They then said that people had to move out of the yellow zone so we moved from there to more inland and that's when we had to evacuate, but we were moved three times.

AI: Right.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

AI: So can you tell me about evacuation and where you were taken?

KK: Yeah. We were taken to the -- well, we got on a train at the train depot and were taken to Tulare, California, which is near Fresno. And we lived in -- they had these horse stalls and we lived in one of those stalls, and my sister had hay fever and she was sneezing all the time. But it was no privacy there and hot.

AI: About what months were you there in Tulare?

KK: We were in the summer month. We are evacuated in May and so it was through summer month and then until, I think, it was about the fall, fall that we were moved to Gila River, Arizona.

AI: What's one of your lasting memories of Gila River?

KK: Oh, that camp was dusty and people were getting sick and dying from what they call valley fever, but all in all it was a pretty good camp. It was hot and dusty, but as a young kid I was having fun playing baseball and all that stuff.

AI: So you would have been about sixteen at that point?

KK: Yeah, sixteen.

AI: Gila.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

AI: And what about school, did you have high school?

KK: Yeah, we had high school and stuff. I was going to school. And the big event was when Eleanor Roosevelt came in and talked to us, but she was very sorry about the whole thing. She apologized and everything.

AI: Do you remember feeling anything when she apologized?

KK: Yeah. I thought she was -- it was nice of her to apologize like that, and I felt she was a good person.

AI: But at the same time...

KK: Yeah, I can't say the same for the husband. [Laughs]

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

KK: But we were having fun and it was kind of enjoyable until the questionnaires came out.

AI: And that was in 1943?

KK: Yeah.

AI: And can you tell me what happened then?

KK: Well, of course, my folks and my older brothers -- I was a little young so I didn't have to answer those questions, but they all answered no because they were bitter. My father felt insulted being asked those questions 'cause he had no intention of going back to Japan or anything or he had no allegiance to Japan and here they asking them questions after they take all the property away and everything so he was bitter. And the other thing was he didn't know if -- where to go home to 'cause there was nothing left so the alternative was maybe Japan. We should go back to Japan 'cause there is nothing here. So that's why he answered no. I don't think it was any loyalty to Japan or anything.

AI: So he made that decision, but then how about your older brothers?

KK: Well, they felt, whatever they do, we should do it, too. We should stick together.

AI: So their decision was mainly based on, sounds like, wanting to stay together as a family.

KK: Yeah, uh-huh.

AI: Did you have any family discussion about that that you recall?

KK: Yeah, but I wasn't in on that discussion. I think my older brothers and sister was, but I stayed out of it.

AI: And did you have any sense, had you heard any rumors, or did you have any idea of what might happen because of their decisions?

KK: No. Well, I didn't know what was gonna happen. I didn't know why they asked the questions from the first place, but it kind of tore a lot of us apart because it separated families, it separated friends. I made good friends there and all of a sudden we had to part when the decision was made that we had to go to Tule Lake. There was a lot of divisions and things like that.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

AI: Was there much tension in the camp after people had made their decisions?

KK: Yes, there were. There were fights going on and people getting beat up and -- between the "yes-yes" and "no-no" people.

AI: And so people were accusing each other of things.

KK: Yeah, right. In fact, I hate to say it, but I remember they beat up some JACL members and they, the JACL, some of the head were hiding out in the hospital. Somewhere.

AI: For safety.

KK: Yeah. They were afraid to get killed.

AI: So at that point some people really blamed the JACL --

KK: Yes.

AI: -- for the tension and the disturbance.

KK: Right, yeah.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

AI: Well, then what happened next?

KK: Well, we were shipped to Tule Lake.

AI: By train?

KK: Yes, right, train. And as I said from a fire to a frying pan or whatever you call it because Tule Lake was another hot frying pan to me.

AI: When did you get there to Tule Lake? What months, do you recall?

KK: God, I think it was in...

AI: Late '43, maybe the fall?

KK: It wasn't cold yet so it must have been fall.

AI: And what did you find? What did you find when you got to Tule Lake?

KK: Oh, it was very desolate compared to Gila River, which was all white barracks and clean looking, it was tar paper barracks. It was ugly and inside was even more ugly and smaller. We had very small space.

AI: Your family was all still together in one space?

KK: Yeah well, my sister got married in Gila so she was in another section, but there was five of us in that one little space with that one pot belly stove. But then I got used to it and I thought it was -- we started playing baseball and football and stuff. It was kind of enjoyable, gettin' to be enjoyable, until the... when Okamoto got shot by that guard and things start to happen after that.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

AI: So I wanted to ask to you back up a little bit and if you could describe what the Tule Lake camp atmosphere was like before Mr. Okamoto was killed.

KK: Well, it was okay. I think, I knew there was pro-Japanese element that was trying to spread rumors and stuff there, but it didn't bother me. I noticed my father was getting a visitor all the time by this pro-Japanese person, and he got tired of listening to him so he turned his back every time he come. But, could I tell you a funny story? I heard about all these people listening to rumors and spreading rumors around about Japan doing this and that, they gonna to invade one of these days. So a friend of mine and I got together and we captured these seagulls that was flying around, and we painted red meatball on the wings, and a few days later there was a rumor that Japanese zeros was flying around. [Laughs]

AI: That sounds really like the kind of prank that a young high school fellow would play.

KK: Yeah.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

KK: But you want me to tell about Okamoto?

AI: Yeah. Who was Mr. Okamoto?

KK: He was, their family was from Heart Mountain, I think, and we knew them, my family knew them. And he was working, he was a truck driver working outside the fence, and when you go out through the gates, you have to show your pass to the guard. But he has been going in and out, in and out every day so this guard knew him so he just waves him on. But, this one day it was a new guard there who just came back from the Pacific war, and he told him to halt. So he halted and he told him to get out of the truck so he got out, and he said, "Show me your pass" or something, give me... so he -- this driver was kind of cocky, I guess, he just threw the pass on the ground. And this guy told him to pick it up and they started to argue and all of a sudden he shot him, the guard shot this guy. And this is what I heard 'cause I wasn't there to see it. I didn't see it, from their family story, but they said that they called the medics and everything, but this guard kept everybody away with the gun and so he bleed to death right on the ground. So we had a camp-wide funeral and one of those fire breaks they had, and there were thousands of people there at the funeral. And it was after that, even during the funeral, somebody was talking about how this guy murdered this guy. Anyway, it started, I think that was the catalyst to the riot that happened because people start talking and everything. And I'm not saying that was the only reason, but there's other reasons too, but everybody start talking, pretty soon everybody got all hepped up and started walking towards the administration building.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

AI: And what happened next?

KK: Well, one of the thing that they found out was the WRA was stealing some food like meat and selling on the black market, which we were supposed to get. So I, as a kid, I said, "Well, we're going to go in there and steal the meat back." So we went in the cold storage, and we lug out all these meat and took it back to our mess hall, and we had steaks for a whole week. [Laughs] But in the meantime they were throwing tear gas at us and everything and pretty soon there was martial law. And then the army came in with their tanks and started shooting the guns and everything.

AI: Were you there during the shooting?

KK: Yeah. But they didn't shoot at anything, they were shooting at people's, up high, so they didn't shoot anybody, but they were scaring the hell out of everybody. And they were coming between our barracks, the tanks, and shake. Our whole barrack was shaking.

AI: What did you do?

KK: We were hiding under the bed scared. [Laughs] Anyway, we didn't know what was gonna happen. We thought they're going to start killing everybody. Who knows?

AI: So people were really afraid for their lives?

KK: Yeah. So everybody stayed in and they wouldn't come out, but then the military start -- the other thing was the military start delivering the food to the mess hall. And we were watching 'em and they just drive up and threw the -- all the food down from the truck and a lot of the things broke, eggs broke and everything. They didn't care. They just drop everything and they just went. That's how they were delivering the food. And I thought at that time, "Well, what is this anyway."

AI: So during martial law lots of the normal operations were stopped and operations that were normally carried out by the internees, internees were not allowed to do that so the Army had taken over some of these, such as delivering and so forth.

KK: Yeah, and they closed the school and all that stuff and we were under curfew. But it was kind of a bad time for us.

AI: And do you recall what else happened during that time of martial law?

KK: Well, I heard -- this is from hearing -- that they arrested a lot of people through the FBI, and they arrested a lot of people and they put them in the stockade.

AI: Did you know anyone who was put in there?

KK: No, uh-uh. No, but then that kind of subsided.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

KK: Then pretty soon things were back to normal where we were delivering our own food and stuff and everything, but the school opened again. But then shortly after that there was a group called the Hoshidan and Seinendan and they were pro-Japanese group. It wasn't a big group, but it was a small group, but they started pressuring everybody to join. And the leader was in our block, and he says to all us young people, "You better join." So we all joined. We had to shave off our head. And as I said before, I thought it was just a exercise club or something so we exercised, but we did commando trainings and marching around and blowing bugle and stuff.

AI: What did you think about those activities?

KK: I hated it. I didn't want to be part of it, but everybody else was in it so I just kind of endured it.

AI: Did you receive lectures?

KK: Oh, yeah, everything.

AI: What kinds of things were they teaching you?

KK: To be physically fit, to go back to Japan and fight for Japan, things like that.

AI: But it sounds like your father had no intention of going back.

KK: Oh, no. My father was against all that. He wasn't in on that at all, but us kids were. But after a while we were relieved because all the leaders were pulled out, and they were sent to Bismarck or Santa Fe, New Mexico, and so it kind of slowly dissolved. And I was happy then 'cause I was getting out of there.

AI: While you were in that Hoshidan, were there some other young people in there who really were believers?

KK: Yes, there were a lot. A lot of Kibeis were in there, but I won't say all Kibeis. There was a lot of Japanese Americans in there.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

KK: The other thing was that I think it's those group that started that renunciation thing. They says if you're going back to Japan, you gotta get rid of that citizenship because you going to be Japanese.

AI: Did anyone try to encourage you to do that?

KK: Yes.

AI: What did you think about it?

KK: Well, I didn't think much of it, but fortunately I was under age. It was seventeen and over, but my brother and sister renounced their citizenship, and I blame it on them really 'cause they didn't want to actually, but they just -- I think they were afraid. So I'm just saying that they weren't that big of a group, but they were most powerful people in camp. They were persuading everybody and everybody was scared of them.

AI: Why were they scared of them?

KK: Because they went around beatin' up people and they just threatening people.

AI: So they did use threats and physical force --

KK: Oh, yes. Physical violence.

AI: -- to persuade or force people to join in.

KK: That's right.

AI: I see.


AI: So you were saying that your brother and sister had decided to renounce their citizenship.

KK: Right.

AI: And what happened after that decision?

KK: Then it was getting closer towards the end of the war and people were starting to go out, and they were detained from going out because of that... so they came out. They were probably the last to come out, people who renounced citizenship.

AI: So did you and your parents leave earlier?

KK: Yes.

AI: Before your brother and sister?

KK: Yes.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

AI: When was that? Where did you go?

KK: 19... well, it was right before the war ended so it must have been 1945 in the summer. Well, I graduated from Tri State so I felt I should strike out on my own. So I went to Sacramento where a group was going to a place called Clarksburg who had a camp set up, farm camp, labor camp so I went there. And my family went to Lompoc, California, and worked on the farm there. And at that time in California around the area there was a lot of discrimination, and they couldn't buy food in the town or anything. They wouldn't sell them food so they had to go to the next town to buy food and stuff. So they were kind of miserable. They wrote to me about all this so I told them to come to Sacramento, people are nicer here. So they came to Sacramento so we worked on the farm there for awhile. Then after that we moved to, back to southern California, and my folks started to farm there. But I think what I want to say was my father going back to work on the farm and everything, I think made him a lot more happier because he was very unhappy in camp. He had nothing to do. And after all he was the bread winner before and all of a sudden he had nothing to do. And I kind of blame myself, us kids too, because we kind of neglected him, and now I think about it, I knew how they felt.

AI: It must have been very hard for your father that he had gone through, as you mentioned earlier, thirty years of hard work then the war, incarceration.

KK: Yes. He was law abiding and he was doing good and all that. It wasn't only the monetary things that was taken away, his pride was taken away.

AI: But through it all he never did intend to leave.

KK: No.

AI: He intended to stay and then it sounds like he did start up the farming again.

KK: Yeah.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

AI: And did he continue farming for a while?

KK: Yes, he did.

AI: Because at that point he must have, his age --

KK: Yeah, he was in his fifties, in the fifties and sixties. And he was a happiest when he was on the farm. But he lived 'til he was ninety. So he lived a good life.

AI: And what happened with your brother and sister and their citizenship?

KK: That's where Wayne Collins fought for their citizenship back through court, and his main reason was that they were, they were duress, influenced to renounce their citizenship and so they won. They got their citizenship back so they have Mr. Collins to thank for.

AI: Now, in the meantime you had been farming for a while after the war too.

KK: Yes, I was on the farm.

AI: And did you stay with your parents for a while farming with them?

KK: Yes, until I went to school, art school.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

KK: And then I was drafted because that's when the Korean thing was starting to come up.

AI: What was your reaction when you got your draft notice?

KK: Well, the funny part of it is that I thought maybe they would find out about Tule Lake and all that so I says, "Wow, they gonna make it rough on me or something when they draft me." So I, from the beginning I told them that I had this record, that I was in Tule Lake and my family was no/no and all that stuff, and they laughed at me. They said that has nothing to do with this.

AI: And so then you went into the service.

KK: Yeah, I was drafted. Stayed in for a year and a half 'cause they let the draftees out in a year and a half if you stayed in the active reserve. So I said okay, I'll do that. And when I went out, I started to go back to school again and the Korean thing started so they activated the... so I went right back in and so I was in there during the Korean thing.

AI: So ironically after being no-no, then turn around, the government wants you, and you become a vet.

KK: Yeah.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

AI: And then what did you do after your service?

KK: Well, I continued going to the art school, get my degree, and when I came out went to Chicago. I got married when I was going to art school and moved to Chicago and worked there for ten years.

AI: And started a family.

KK: Oh, yeah. Started my seven kids. [Laughs]

AI: Well, now as your kids were growing up, did you ever tell them anything about what happened during the war years?

KK: No, I didn't because -- I don't know, I think it was a negative which I didn't feel like burdening them with that so I never did. But just recently I told the kids when I got them together I said, I asked them why they didn't find out what happened to me during World War II, and they says, "Well, maybe you seemed like you didn't want to talk about it so we didn't ask." So they don't know anything about it. So maybe next time we have this pilgrimage I'm gonna try and bring them so they will understand it more.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

AI: And your wife, had she been incarcerated also?

KK: Well, she was born in Crystal City, Texas, and her family was from Peru, and I think they were worse off than we were. They were kidnapped from Peru. Well, first the father was kidnapped and they didn't see the father for a whole year and a half, and they got together at -- they didn't know if he was dead or alive, but finally they got together at Crystal City, they reunited there. And when the war ended, they -- nobody wanted them. Peru didn't want 'em back, US didn't want 'em back, Japan didn't want 'em. So they were stateless really. But the irony of that is that well, Collins helped them too to stay in the states, and they moved to San Diego. And the irony, as I say, was that three of the boys -- they were a family of seven too -- and three of the boys joined the military and one died, got killed in Vietnam as a hero. He had silver star, bronze star, and all that, Purple Heart; and the mother was a Gold Star mother. But yet he was a Peruvian when he joined. All three of the brothers were Peruvians.

AI: They were Peruvian citizens?

KK: Yeah.

AI: And your wife? Well, she was born in Crystal City.

KK: No, she was born so she was US citizen.

AI: And did your children know anything about her family story?

KK: Yeah, I told them about. In fact, I persuaded my wife to write a book about her family, a personal story, about her family.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

AI: Well, now as time has passed there have been a number of books and documentaries and some recorded history about camp, but when we were talking earlier you had mentioned Mr. Okamoto's death and how he was killed. I haven't heard much about that at all. Why do you think that is?

KK: Yeah, I couldn't understand it either. I read books, all those books, most of the books about Tule Lake and all that, and they all seemed to omit that and talked about the accident that happened on the farm where the truck overturned or something. But that also happened, but that wasn't the catalyst of the riot to me. I believe Okamoto's incident was what caused the riot really.

AI: And it sounds as though there were at least some witnesses to his death since, as you mentioned, if the guard was standing there while he was bleeding and medical personnel came, at least the medical personnel would have seen him.

KK: Yeah, right. I know.

AI: And yet there aren't too many accounts of this.

KK: Yeah. The funny part of it is that I read all these books and they hadn't mentioned -- no books mentioned about Okamoto so, all of a sudden I was thinking maybe I was dreaming all this thing happening. So I called my sister in Los Angeles and asked them about that, and she says, "Yeah, that happened." In fact, she knew the guy. My sister knew the guy that was killed and that caused the riot and all that. She told me now so all of a sudden I felt it was true.

AI: And your family got this information directly from Mr. Okamoto's family.

KK: Yes, yeah. But I just wanted to put the record straight.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

AI: Well, is there anything else you wanted to describe or discuss or comment on?

KK: Well, I think out of all this experience I want to pay a tribute to my folks, the Isseis, and also I want to thank people like Collins and also the 442nd because it made that a little easier because there were so many discrimination in California, and they helped to talk to the people and it changed in the sense that found out about the 442nd, they were more lenient. And I also am proud of the people who resisted too like the Hirabayashi and Korematsu and Yasui 'cause they were the champion of the redress movement. And I'm very thankful for coming out with people like you who is persuading us to tell our story. I finally feel a closure or whatever, because I could honestly speak about all this happening and it makes me feel good. And the other thing is I'm thankful for America, the Constitution and civil rights because at the end, that won out.

AI: Yes. Well, I thank very much for sharing your story and spending this time. I really appreciate it a lot.

KK: Sure, okay.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.