Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Hank Shozo Umemoto Interview II
Narrator: Hank Shozo Umemoto
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 6, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-462-13

<Begin Segment 13>

TI: So I wanted to now ask you, we did your interview about eight, nine years ago, and then after we did your interview, a few years later you came out with a book. The book was Manzanar to Mount Whitney, and I wanted to ask you, one, why did you write the book, and what the reaction was?

HU: Oh, I really didn't have any intention of turning it into a book. It'd be once a month I wrote a short, maybe a few hundred words, one page essay on some of the things that happened, just for the fun of it. And I continued that for four years. So after four years, I had about fifty stories, and then Karen... and that was it, I was just running for the fun of it. And Karen said --

TI: So Karen's your daughter, right?

HU: Yeah. Says, "Do you mind if I send it to the publisher?" I took that as sarcasm. [Laughs]

TI: Oh, so you thought she was kidding, she was joking?

HU: Joking, yeah, she was making fun of me. [Laughs] So I said, "Yeah, go ahead."

TI: Because you didn't think she was going to do it?

HU: I didn't think so. And I was sort of upset because I thought she was making fun of me, but she did, she did send it. And the manuscript -- I wouldn't say manuscript, but things like that goes to a publisher, there was the screening person. They look at it and say, they say, "Oh, maybe this is good, it's worth it." Well, according to the screener, she told the publisher, "Don't bother with it, just forget it." But then what's his name, Malcolm... anyway, the owner of the publishing, Heyday, I guess he was curious, so he read it.

TI: Oh, so the publisher, that's unusual. Usually the reason they have screeners is they get so many, the publisher never, only reads the "good ones," right? The only ones that get through.

HU: Yeah. Somehow, I don't know why he read it, I guess he was sort of curious. He read it and he wrote me and said, "It's too unprofessional."

TI: Your piece was too unprofessional?

HU: Yeah. He said maybe you can get an...

TI: An editor?

HU: ...editor to kind of liven it up or something, and he'll consider it. So I asked Naomi...

TI: Oh, the writer, the mystery writer?

HU: Yeah. But then it was a little different, she tried, but then the publisher had something else in mind. So I worked with the editor at the publishing, and the thing I liked was that they didn't change anything that I wrote, but they coached me and they tried to -- oh, Naomi gave me the idea, came up with the idea of integrating the hiking story with my personal stories. So I'm hiking and I have a flashback of something that relates to that in my life. So anyway, the editor at the publishing she wanted to make it have continuity, from childhood to adulthood. Otherwise, if my story was just nothing but different stories, they wanted to make it sort of a story of a life. And then, so we started doing that, and then there were certain parts of my life that I skipped. Like I was married two times, that I didn't want to talk about that, so that's completely gone. They said, "Hey, fill this up," and other parts, so I ended up writing about twenty-five more stories to fill in all these gaps. And then it was published. It was something that was absolutely unintentional, and I never wanted to be a writer anyway.

TI: Well so it was published by Heyday, what's been the reaction to the book?

HU: It's okay.

TI: Do you know how many books have sold?

HU: Yeah... right now about 2,200.

TI: And so have some people written to you or told you that they read the book and their reaction to it?

HU: Yeah, it's funny. In fact, a few months ago, the guy, his name is Walter Imahara, and he was our neighbor in Florin. And they went to Rohwer, and then after the war, they moved to Louisiana. And Walter's older sister was my classmate, May Imahara, and it was funny because Walter sent me an email and says, "I read your book and you're from Florin." And then we sort of exchanged the notes, and in fact, he told me what happened after moving to Louisiana. In fact, he's coming down this summer because he has a relative in Torrance, so we're getting together.

TI: Oh, so it's been a way to connect with people.

HU: Yeah, it's sort of a funny way to connect.

TI: How about anyone from Manzanar when they read it? Any comments from anyone who was at Manzanar?

HU: Yeah, there's another one, my brother, Ben, had a Kibei friend, what was his name? Sakamoto, and they were both working as police in Manzanar.

TI: The internal...

HU: Yeah. And Sakamoto was sort of instrumental in having Ben declare "no-no" and going to Tule Lake.

TI: And when you say, "instrumental," meaning that he convinced him?

HU: Yeah, he was a Kibei.

TI: Right. So Sakamoto also did the same thing?

HU: Yeah, so he went to Tule Lake, but he stayed here. [Laughs] And then so it's a funny thing, because a hakujin lady out east read my book and told Sakamoto's daughter that Sakamoto is mentioned in this book, is there any relation? So he contacted me and we had lunch and talked about what happened. It was kind of an unusual contact.

TI: Now, has anyone read the book and wasn't pleased? They said, "Oh, Hank, I don't like your book"? Did anyone say that?

HU: I'm sure there are, but they never contacted me. [Laughs]

TI: They didn't tell you to your face, huh?

HU: No.

TI: Oh, that's interesting. Are there any ideas to do another book or to do more writing?

HU: No. That book was just sort of an accident that happened.

TI: So I finished all my questions. Is there anything else that you want to talk about, anything other... I only looked at Little Tokyo, but after that, is there anything else that you think is important to talk about?

HU: Yeah, I think there was a period when it was easy to get into the workforce or to begin life. By that I mean everybody at the same level. And there was nobody that's ahead of you that you had to catch up, and whether you're old or young, we were starting from ground zero, and we had equal opportunities sort of. Younger kids, they were able to get better education because your parents are established, and their older siblings, they're older, and they were able to work and support them and send them to college. But in general, when you're starting out your life, you're beginning at the same level.

TI: You're talking about, like, right after the war?

HU: Right after the war, right.

TI: People essentially had nothing, right?

HU: Right. So for me, if I were nineteen or twenty today and go out in the world, I don't think I could make it.

TI: Oh, interesting. Because you feel like if you started right now, there'd be so many people that have so much more as a starting point, more money, more connections, more education, it would be harder.

HU: Yeah. I can't be washing dishes or pots, I can't be doing gardening. When I started gardening, I was proud, hey, I'm an entrepreneur. But today, you do see any Sansei, Yonsei or Gosei doing gardening. So yeah, I'm very fortunate that I grew up in the time we had equal chance, opportunity. And even in business, I started the printing business in 1973, and I was in it for thirty-three years before I retired. And that was only a short time, only it was twenty, twenty-five years after camp, and it was different than it is today, where we would go to a Japanese restaurant or Japanese barber shop, we patronized somebody that's a Japanese-owned business.

TI: So the community would support you, the Japanese?

HU: Yeah, so I had ready-made customers to begin with, to compete with Speedy and PIP, those big shots. So that way, too...

TI: So what you're saying, I think, is, I guess when you look at your grandchildren, it's a much harder place to survive and succeed.

HU: Unless you're so humble that you don't care about what you do.

TI: That's good. Well, so Hank, thank you again, this was a really good opportunity to get into this. We're almost two hours in, so okay, thank you.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.