Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Lawson I. Sakai Interview
Narrator: Lawson I. Sakai
Interviewer: Patricia Wakida
Location: Emeryville, California
Date: March 13, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-472-14

<Begin Segment 14>

PW: And then, of course, you got married and then you moved to San Jose, oh, I'm sorry, to Gilroy. And you described the wedding and your first child, and where did you live exactly? Did you live with the family?

LS: No, we moved up in 1948 into Gilroy. We found a little small house, I think we paid six thousand dollars, something like that. I think my father-in-law bought it for us. It was a small house, but we were a small family, so that's where we lived (in) 1948. Until 1953, '54, I can't remember the time. The farming operation had gone bust because the weather in Gilroy was so bad, he lost his summer crop, he lost his winter crop, and he said, "I'm going to pay off all the farmers that farmed for me, pay them off and quit farming." So 1951, I had to find something else. So finally I found work with Driscoll strawberries, and at that time, as the Japanese were coming back in 1945, Mr. Driscoll was doing very poorly farming in Santa Cruz County. He was using soldiers in Fort Ord to harvest the strawberries and to drive the trucks to market. So when he found out that a lot of Japanese people are moving in, no place to live, no work. He leased three hundred acres in Madrone, all virgin land, and he said, "I'll make you a deal. I'll plant the strawberries, and if you take one acre, I'll give you a cabin to live in, and we'll split the profits 50-50. And eventually up to six hundred Japanese families worked for the Driscoll organization all through Santa Clara Valley. And a lot of the boys and families who had manpower, from one acre, went to two acres, to five acres, made a ton of money between 1945 and 1955, they were able to go out and buy land in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Mission, Berryessa, San Jose, because there was a lot of open land in the Bay Area. Of course, they probably pay maybe a hundred dollars an acre. And eventually, as the boom came to Santa Clara Valley, they were getting a million dollars an acre, so they were able to sell the land and retire. And so a lot of Nisei did quite well from that. But the Driscoll family was a lifesaver. It gave all these families a place to live and some way to earn a living, which paid off for many of them.

PW: And your father-in-law, Mr. Hirasaki, you said that he had some trouble in the very beginning with restarting his business, but how did it do in later years? Did he continue farming?

LS: Well, he quit everything in Gilroy. He kept the land, but he leased it out to whoever wanted to farm, but he just got rid of everything. He started going to Japan and trying to raise chili peppers and garlic in Kumamoto. About every other year, it would get rained out or lose its complete crops, and, of course, there's not much land, open land, so he would have to contract with small farmers, and maybe they'd grow one acre or something, or half an acre, and you got maybe fifty, sixty families growing a little bit. So that didn't work out too well, either. So in the meantime, Mineko's mother had diabetes really badly and it affected her vision, and then she had a stroke, and we were... my father-in-law asked us to take care of her while he was in Japan. So instead of going to our home in Gilroy out to the ranch a couple miles away, they said, "Just move out there and sell your home." I had built a home in the early '50s sometime, so we had that home empty for a year. And then the second year, we did lease it for one year, then we sold it. But in the meantime, my father was spending more time in Japan, and after her mother got a stroke, he decided, "I can't get proper care for her here." Those days, this is like 1960 or so, there weren't any nursing homes, that industry hadn't started yet. So he took her to Japan, and he said, "I can leave her in a hospital, full time care, and at least she won't suffer like she will at home." So that's what happened, and I think a year or two later, she passed away, never recovered. So he was spending more time in Japan, so in the meantime, he wanted my wife to take over the yard and the house that we lived in. It was his house, but he wanted her to have it. He didn't want the boys to have it, there were two young boys and one older boy, that's another story. But when the family couldn't afford to keep it, the family had to sell off 7-800 acres. Because they had to pay county taxes, they had to pay life insurance on the eight children, corporation, eight members of the corporation, and they had to pay the mortgage, but my father had a mortgage on the property. Well, financially, nothing worked out, so we finally decided, but we kept eleven acres, ten acres plus a one-mile driveway, so it wouldn't be landlocked. It was in my wife's name, but since she's not a Hirasaki, she was a Sakai, our two younger brothers are Hirasaki. So she said, "I think we should give the title to the boys." I said, "Why not?" we're just tenants here. So drew up the papers and we just left with a life estate on the property, but it was owned by the two boys who didn't live with her, they were married and had their own homes.

PW: So I've heard that there was a very famous building on that property, too, that your father-in-law -- 

LS: It was a national historical monument. My father-in-law was a wealthy farmer. In 1941, his land, and subleased land with a lot of his farmer friends, he had 1,500 acres of garlic planted in the ground. Now, a hundred acres would have been a tremendous amount of garlic. Here's a Japanese Issei farmer, 1,500 acres, you know, going gangbusters. They really thought big. You have to admire the (Issei), how they think big. Most of the Caucasian farmers would never do that, they're too scared. But it was all or nothing. Well, in 1939, there was a World's Fair at Treasure Island in San Francisco, The Japanese pavilion was built to display what the Japanese were like, because the Manchuria invasion, the China invasion and all that, the American press that Japanese are nothing but barbarians, they are nothing like the Western culture. And so they built this pavilion to show the American people, we have culture. They showed how they produced silk, how they made kimonos, clothing, how they made lumber products, they showcased what they were doing in Japan. People were impressed, it was the best exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair. Well, when it closed in 1940, they had to dismantle everything. So my father-in-law was wealthy enough, he went up there and he bought most of the pieces of the main pavilion, had it taken apart, because it was built in Japan, piece by piece, no nails, brought to the Treasure Island, rebuilt. There were six Japanese carpenters to built it. They stayed, they tore it down, he hired them to rebuild it on his ranch in Gilroy. They worked for nine months in 1941 to reassemble that Japanese house. He hired the same architect that built the garden at Treasure Island, he built the garden in front of the Japanese house. It was attached to the old, with a long hallway, with the old farmhouse, that was there originally. Eventually it was taken away, and in (1949), a new bedroom wing was attached to it. Big, long, sprawling house. But I can't remember what year, but the historical society came from Boston and spent a week there videographing and viewing, and unfortunately, everything they gave us, 2007, burned up in the fire, everything was lost. So we lost everything, and we were just lucky to get out alive.

PW: What happened with the fire?

LS: It was Sunday morning about one o'clock in the morning, it was raining, and in 1940 when they built houses, they used what they called Romex cable. The copper wire is covered by this, what they called Romex, and they just string it in the attic all through, and then bring it down and put it in the plug. But it's all open wire going all over, even going outside. And a lot of it rodents had eaten away, some of it had just corroded, and we're sure that it sparked. And dry cedar for the Japanese house just must have lit up like that. We lost, a lot of the things were made specifically for the exposition by very famous artists and so forth. There was a large, ceramic vase worth, who knows how much? There were these hangings that were written or drawn by a very famous Japanese artist, probably worth at least at least a hundred thousand, there were seven or eight of those. My wife made, you know the Japanese dolls you see? You put each hair in the head one by one. There's a class, a Japanese woman from Japan came and taught her class, there were maybe thirty, forty students on how to make these dolls. They worked, I don't know, a year, two years. We had four cases like this, like the samurai and the dancer, she had four, one for each of the children. And all the special artwork from the World's Fair, everything, it just melted. Even the silverware, you couldn't find a trace of it, it was so hot.

PW: What date was this?

LS: 2007. So we were at the bedroom wing at the far end, and my wife heard the smoke alarm back there. Well, she opened the door, it was just black smoke. Slammed the door shut, I opened the drape and I could see the big red flame. I still have a lot of pictures in my camera. Somehow, we put our clothes on and got out the side door as fast as we could, and we dodged through the (smoke). And I guess I grabbed the camera, must have been, my small camera must have been out there. Because I went outside and I couldn't do anything, so I took a whole bunch of pictures of the house burning. The rural fire department came, but the main Japanese house was completely gone by then. The hallway was starting to burn, started to burn the bedroom wing, and that's when they finally put fire retardant and water, but it was all ruined. So we saved very little, and I think it was a pretty tough shock for her, I think mentally, it just, it was tough for her.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.