Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Martha Nishitani Interview
Narrator: Martha Nishitani
Interviewer: Sara Yamasaki
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: May 15, 1998
Densho ID: denshovh-nmartha-01

<Begin Segment 1>

SY: Well, this is May 16, 1998. [Ed. note: the date is May 15, 1998.] I'm Sara Yamasaki, interviewing Martha Nishitani at the Densho office. And we'll just begin talking a little bit about your family background. Your father, Denjiro, and mother, Jin, had four children, and were living on their estate in Nojiku, Japan. Now this is an estate, before you were born. But what do you know about that Japanese estate?

MN: Well, all I know is what I've been told or what I've heard from my older brothers and sisters. (In 1960) when I went to visit the area, I learned a little bit more about it. And it seemed that, on a little rise, and a flat area was where our home was. And it was a large home. (...) It was like, in the medieval times. It was a special place to repair tools and a special place where, to make tsukemono and a place to store fruit and vegetables, and a barn. And these were kind of separate from the house, but they were places to do things like that. And the house was quite large, and the space was quite flat and large. And I walked up there, and I could look out, and it was very beautiful. There were trees in the distance and other hills. And it must have been nice to live there to see all that, picturesque (setting).

SY: Was there a garden there?

MN: Yes. There was an orchard, too, I understand that. And they had persimmons...

SY: So it was really a lovely place. But like in 1906, when your parents had, actually, a number of children. Hiromu was seven, Sadako was four, Yutaka, two, and Misao was just born, your father decided to leave Japan, as did many Isseis, and come to America. So why did he decide to come to America?

MN: Well, he came because he was supposed to learn how to grow big oranges, like they do in California. Because in Japan, they have these little oranges that, which are very nice, but for some reason, I guess they wanted to raise big oranges, too. And so he did start out. On the way, the San Francisco earthquake came, and so he couldn't go to California. He had to be rerouted to Seattle. That's how he landed in Seattle, and that's how our family lived there.

SY: By the, so in some ways, you would have lived in San Francisco, had it not been for that earthquake.

MN: Right.

SY: Do you recall any stories on his journey on the boat, or when he first came to America?

MN: Well, when he first came, there was a religious man, a Reverend, I don't remember his name. But he met all the Isseis that were coming from Japan and he got him a room. And he didn't know how to do the bed, so he just laid on top and he kind of smoothed it out in the morning. And he worked, I think he worked on a farm and he worked with a wealthy family who had an estate, and he became their gardener.

SY: Right.

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

<Begin Segment 2>

SY: I remember you saying that, basically, over a period of (sixteen) years, he did a lot of various jobs, and one was the caretaker and gardener of that Trenholme estate. (Narr. note: Father worked on the Trenholme estate for sixteen years.)

MN: Uh-huh.

SY: And there, two more children were born, May and George. And then he later leased five acres in the Lake City area, and became one of the first Lake City settlers in 1912. Do you remember any stories about these early homesteading days?

MN: Well, it was all stump land, which means it was not cleared. And at night, you could hear the cougars crying. And the stream that went through the place had these large salmon that would come up to spawn. They were about two feet long. And he had to clean out all the stumps, and to cultivate the area. And he had built a greenhouse. And so he started his florist and nursery that way.

SY: Well, it was on this property that Tom, Woodrow, you, and Constance were born. And so really, here your life began on this five-acre property in a family of twelve. Can you help me visualize this property, as you remembered it?

MN: Well, it was five acres, and it was quite, quite flat and it was divided in the middle by this stream, a creek. And he planted rows and rows of little trees, all different kind of little shrubs. And on the edges of the property, he grew these Japanese cherries and plums and pine and a George Washington elm, which is still in the northeast corner of the property. And in the middle, over the stream, was a big willow tree. I think it's the biggest willow tree in Seattle.

SY: The George Washington elm, I know, is very important to you because it's still on that property. Why is that elm so important to you?

MN: Because in the '20s, thirteen -- let's see, no, eleven cuttings were sent from the original George Washington elm at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. And because it was University of Washington, I guess they wanted some George Washington elms. And the head of the Botany Department gave my father one of the cuttings, and that's the tree that's in the corner of the property. And not too long ago, there was a, there was a disease called "elm tree rot," and it practically killed all the elm trees in this country and in Europe and there were very few trees that were spared. And I think our tree, being way out in Lake City, in the country, didn't get this little bug that was responsible for all this. And so I had (our elm) put in the Elm Tree Registry back in Madison, Wisconsin. And I, since I grew up with this tree and since it was my, a link to my father, I really cherished that tree. And it's beautiful. In the fall, the whole corner of the property is one big yellow cloud with the yellow leaves from that tree.

SY: You know, the property is now sold to another company? Is that right?

MN: Yes. Weight Watchers bought it in the early '70s, I think it was, with the stipulation that they would not remove a single tree from the property. The man that bought the property, he loved trees, too, so he could understand how we felt. And he had, Weight Watchers needed a lot of parking area so he built parking lot areas to conform with the trees (...). So there are two or three different areas where you can park out there.

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

<Begin Segment 3>

SY: This area became known as Oriental Gardens, because you had gardens and a florist shop there, became a business. But what made this area, why did, why was it called Oriental Gardens?

MN: Well, I'm not sure. But I think it was because there weren't very many nurseries in that time. And I think the Oriental Gardens was probably was the one, one and only, maybe. So all the people that were building houses needed to have shrubs and they would come and buy shrubs and the trees, and so they could transplant them into their homes.

SY: Your father's property and business became pretty well-established, so much so that he eventually gave up his Japanese birthright and property in 1918, and bought the Lake City property in the name of his American-born son, George. Why do you think he was so successful in his business?

MN: Well, he was very ambitious, and he had something to sell that customers needed. And I think he, he just got successful. He was a pleasant person, and he got along with his public very nicely.

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

<Begin Segment 4>

SY: You said he's quite, he was quite ambitious. Do you think that that is a value, or there are other values that your parents instilled in you and that you carry with you today?

MN: Well, yes. I think we were taught to be honest and to respect our elders. I mean, I was, I was a little bit afraid of my father in some ways because he, I knew he could be real severe, if he, if he wanted to be. [Laughs]

SY: In what way?

MN: And he... well, he really made us kids toe the mark. We had to -- we knew when to speak and when not to speak, and not to talk back (...).

SY: What would happen if you passed that...

MN: Well...

SY: ...line?

MN: I don't know that he ever struck anybody, but I know, vocally, he let my brothers have it.

SY: Would he speak in Japanese, or would it be in English?

MN: Well, we spoke both Japanese and English and I think he probably spoke in Japanese, but I'm not exactly sure.

SY: Do you remember speaking to him in Japanese, or did you always use English? Which way did you communicate with him?

MN: I didn't speak to him very much. But then I, I have some fond memories of him, although I was only five or so. And they're all not good memories. But, we didn't speak too much, I don't think.

SY: So even, even though you have some fond memories, are most of your memories more painful, or...?

MN: No. I remember he saw me carrying a little puppy one time, and he smiled at me. And he had all these gold teeth in front, and I could see all these gold teeth. And he used to go grocery shopping, and he'd always ask my mother what to, what to get. And I would hang on her, and I'd say, "Tell him to get some candy," and he did. He bought me a nice, big brown sack of candy, like this. All for me! And he gave it to me. And he did that twice. I mean, that I'd always say, "Buy some candy." The first time, he brought, it was a big bag of jelly beans and the second time, it was a big bag of Nabisco crackers. [Laughs]

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

<Begin Segment 5>

SY: Was it really in 1920 when you were born, you had so many older siblings. I mean, your oldest brother, Hiromu, actually married was, at that time, a woman in your neighborhood named Pearl DuBry, and she was a Caucasian woman that he'd grown up with in the neighborhood. Back then, interracial marriages were uncommon. How did your family and Pearl's family respond to this marriage?

MN: Well, I was only six months old, or maybe I wasn't born yet. But anyway, when I was old enough to realize the situation, there didn't seem to be any problems. (...)

SY: Pearl's parents?

MN: (...) We had a little place on the property where Pearl and Hiromu lived. And then across the street there was another house where her family lived.

SY: And did her family live there all the time?

MN: Well, they moved there. It was a house that we had built for them and they had -- she had lots of brothers and sisters. But I think they were just brothers and the father and mother that lived in that house.

SY: Now why did your parents, or your family, build a house for Pearl's family?

MN: Well, I don't know. I guess they needed a house. [Laughs] And he was kind of the -- employed as a guardian. And it was...

SY: Pearl's father was employed?

MN: Yeah, as a guardian 'cause George was not of age, he was not twenty-one yet. But the property was bought in his name. So I think they needed a guardian. I'm not sure, but...

SY: A guardian for George?

MN: (No), for the property...

SY: Oh, for the property.

MN: And the business and everything, I think.

SY: Oh, I see.

MN: So he was employed, I would say, this is Grandpa DuBry was employed.

SY: So you called him Grandpa DuBry?

MN: Grandpa DuBry and Grandma DuBry. And she was a wonderful cook. She used to bake, and bake bread, so good.

SY: So did you used to go over to their house to eat?

MN: Well, sometimes. And then, and then she would bake bread and bring it to us, sometimes.

SY: So you saw their family often.

MN: Yeah.

SY: So their family, was their family more a part of your family?

MN: Not really a part. It was just Grandpa and Grandma because the brothers had all moved.

SY: Oh.

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

<Begin Segment 6>

SY: Well, then a little bit later, actually, when you were six years old, after a period of your father not feeling well, he passed away. What do you remember about your father's death?

MN: Well, I remember the night he died because there was a lotta hustle and bustle going on, and running back and forth with, I imagine, hot water bottles or whatever towels, or whatever were needed. And then I remember standing in my nightgown and watching this going by. And then later on, I noticed that my mother wasn't sleeping in her bed, she was sleeping in my brother's bed, and she was crying. And I said, "Why are you crying?" and she said, "Papa died." And it -- that didn't mean very much to me because somebody dying was, new, was not familiar.

SY: Right, you were six years old, right. How did the household change after your father's death?

MN: Well, it was decided that Pearl and Hiromu would take over the leadership, and of course my mother couldn't run a business. So they ran the business. And then we -- so we had two households. Pearl and Hiromu had two boys, two young boys, and then my mother had about eight children, I guess. Anyway, we stayed in our big house, and then Pearl and Hiromu had another house. But we, although we lived separately, we shared meals. We ate together. So that was the only -- that was the big change.

SY: So in some ways, it's -- you had many older adults raising you?

MN: Yes.

SY: Who would you say -- who raised you when you were young?

MN: Well, I guess Pearl and my sister, Misao. And they had bought our clothes and made our clothes and dressed us, and pulled on our galoshes before we went to school, saw to it that we had breakfast and all that. So it was kind of a, kind of a change from...

SY: From having...?

MN: From living with just my father and mother.

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

<Begin Segment 7>

SY: So who would you say had the greatest influence on you, growing up?

MN: Well, I think Pearl influenced everybody. And then my sister, Misao, took care of me when I was an infant, I guess, because she had just come from Japan. And then soon after, my mother had Connie. And she, she had to go to the hospital when she had Connie. So then she took care of Connie. And I think Misao took care of me.

SY: She had to go to the hospital...?

MN: To deliver...

SY: Oh, for delivery.

MN: Because everybody else was born with a midwife.

SY: So she got to go to the hospital, as if it were a little bit more of a luxury?

MN: Well, she had to go because she had -- there was a problem birth, I guess.

SY: Oh, there was a problem. What happened?

MN: I don't know. Connie got born in the hospital. [Laughs]

SY: I see.

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

<Begin Segment 8>

SY: It's interesting that Pearl was someone who influenced you a lot growing up. How did she influence you? What sorts of values did she instill?

MN: Well, she was a beautiful woman. She was a blue-eyed blond. And when I went to school, I noticed that the girl that sat in front of me had long corkscrew curls, and I didn't look the same. She told me, she said that, "Even though you don't look the same as the other students in your class, you are an American citizen just like the rest of them. So you shouldn't feel any different than they are." Luckily, the kids in this class, they treated me just like everybody else. And so I never felt any racial prejudice all through school. And that was the kind of advice that stuck with me. "You're just like everybody else, you're an American citizen." So I always kept that in the back of my head. So all my business doings and things, I don't think I woulda had the courage to do some of the things I did, if I didn't have that thought.

SY: When you grew up in Lake City, it was a time when there were very few people of color. Did you ever wish that you looked different from the way you did?

MN: Well, I did, not because (...) I didn't want to be a Japanese. It was because all the girls had such pretty hair. So Pearl said, "When you're nine, we'll dye your hair blond." And so then (...) I felt all better about that. So, but when I became nine, I'd forgotten all about it. [Laughs]

SY: Did you ever begin to think that your hair was beautiful the way it was?

MN: Well, not until I was in college. Somehow, my hair grew long, and it was quite attractive. (...) At noon, I'd go to the ladies' room and there was always another girl there. And she had the most gorgeous red hair, and I thought, "What beautiful hair." And she used to say, "You have beautiful hair." Then she said, "Well, I go to the beauty parlor once a week." So I thought, hers isn't natural, mine is. [Laughs]

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

<Begin Segment 9>

SY: With having Pearl, a Caucasian, blond, blue-eyed woman in your, as a strong person in your life, and being in an area growing up where there are very few people of color, what ways did you have, participate in the Japanese community, or did you participate in any Japanese traditions?

MN: Well, there were a few Japanese families besides us in the area. They were truck farmers, I guess. And my brother used to always go to Japanese town to buy Japanese food, rice and the miso and the tofu and things like that, which he enjoyed and my mother enjoyed. But I, myself, don't ever recall going to Japanese town.

SY: Do you remember ever eating Japanese foods?

MN: Yeah, we ate Japanese food. But we ate mostly Yankee food. And Japanese food -- we had, actually, we had both, but emphasis was on the American food. My mother and brother always enjoyed the Japanese food.

SY: This is Hiromu and your mom?

MN: Yes.

SY: I see.

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

<Begin Segment 10>

SY: When you were growing up in, at Maple Leaf Elementary, can you think back as, was there anything in particular that stood out as a strong memory for you about your elementary school experience?

MN: Well, I -- my first grade teacher meant a lot to me, because I was, I was quite shy, and I couldn't carry a tune. [Laughs] But (...) she wanted me to get over my shyness. So every time there was a program, she'd put me in it, whether I could sing or not. And she -- I remember there were three of us, and I couldn't sing. I guess the other two did all the singing. (...) I never would raise my hand to, to answer any questions or do anything. And so she kept her eye open to see whether I ever raised my hand.

SY: It's funny that later on in your life, you weren't shy at all about being on stage.

MN: Well, (...) that was part of my work, so...

SY: So you had to do it?

MN: Yeah, I had to do it.

SY: So were you always a bit shy about being on stage and performing?

MN: Well, no, I wasn't shy. Actually, when I had to perform or do something, I'd do it. But just in general, I was shy about talking to people and being aggressive.

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

<Begin Segment 11>

SY: And then how about if you were to look back at your high school experience at Lincoln High School? Is there anything that really stood out for you as influencing your life, or staying with you today?

MN: Well, that's when I first started dancing.

SY: In high school?

MN: Yes, because tap dance was the thing. So when it came to PE time, I signed up for tap dance. But then the tap dancers (...) were dismissed early (...) to take their showers because they could do it a lot faster than the modern dancers. And I didn't know anything about modern dance, but on the way to the shower room, I peeked in the gym, and I saw these modern dancers, and they were in beautiful drapes. And they were rising and falling and dancing around, and I thought, "That's for me. I mean, that's what I want." So the next quarter, I signed up for modern dance, and all the rest of my gym in high school was in dance, modern dance.

SY: Actually, almost the rest of your life was in modern dance after that.

MN: Yeah. And that's how it started. I can still visualize looking through that gym door and seeing those dancers.

SY: And the PE teacher at the time was Katherine Wolfe?

MN: Yes.

SY: And she became a very important person to you. What did she do to...?

MN: Well, she knew I loved dance. I guess she could sense it. And when we had auditions to get into dance drama, somehow, I was number two from the top. Somebody was better than me. But anyway, I was surprised because we had to do a little piece of choreography, and I think that's what put me up there in second place.

SY: The choreography?

MN: Because I wasn't too, I wasn't very limber, as far as the technique goes. I wasn't outstanding.

SY: Was there something that she said to you that made you realize that you had a particular talent in choreography?

MN: No, she didn't. But she, she stayed kind of friends, and she wanted me to take another year in high school so I could continue, but then I wanted to go on. And then the -- Pearl Harbor -- and she came to see me. I mean, she wanted to know if everything was all right.

SY: You mean she came to see you while you were at home?

MN: I was at home, yeah, at home. And she came with a pretense of buying a geranium or something. But anyway, she wanted to see that I was all right.

SY: So she kept in touch with you after high school? Is that what you're saying?

MN: Yes. And then after we got back from evacuation, she started a little dance group called the Intercultural Dance Workshop. And she had me, a Japanese, and she had a colored girl, and she had a, there was a Jewish girl and, then there was a beautiful blond, I don't know what she was. But anyway, we met once a week. And we danced and we choreographed, and she taught us dances. And then every three months, we'd go to one of the recreation field houses and put on a program because I think it was partly sponsored by the Park Department, this program.

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

<Begin Segment 12>

SY: When Pearl -- when the -- there was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At that time, your family had been established pretty well in Lake City for probably about thirty years. What reactions did you get from your neighbors and clients of the Oriental Gardens?

MN: Well, the neighbors were still very friendly, and they'd come and want to know how we were. And it didn't seem that we lost any clients. We had this retail business on the highway, and we still had customers coming. So it didn't seem like it made very much difference. But I think down in Japantown, there probably were serious incidents.

SY: Well, what personal experiences or feelings did you have after the Pearl Harbor bombing?

MN: Well, I had a very impressive experience because I was going to the university and I was also living on Mercer Island. I was kind of a mother's helper to a doctor's little son. So I'd go up to the toll plaza and get on the Medina bus and come into the city, and then go to school. But the day after Pearl Harbor, Monday, I was climbing on the bus like I always (did), and the bus driver looked at me, and he said, "I'm sorry, but I can't take you." He couldn't take any Japanese in or out of the city. So I backed off the bus, and there wasn't anything to do but walk across that bridge. So I walked all across the floating bridge. And I think I cried most of the way. And I was wondering, "Why, why do I have to do this? What'd I do to deserve this?" But then I had to walk through that dark tunnel, and I was afraid maybe somebody would stop or something. But I walked all the way to Rainier Avenue and got on a city bus and went to class. And I was late for my art class. And I told the professor, "I'm late because I had to walk across the bridge," and he says, "Well, that's okay." He didn't make any fuss about it.

SY: So at the time of the bombing, you were a university student, but you...

MN: Yes.

SY: Are you saying that you didn't feel any reactions from students or professors or anyone else, other than that one bus driver?

MN: Well, that was quite an experience for me. But then the doctor took me in his car back to work. And then, then he'd take me to, to Seattle, too. So I didn't have to ride the bus anymore. But that was about the only experience that was serious, because of Pearl Harbor.

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

<Begin Segment 13>

SY: Well then, how did you hear about needing to be evacuated?

MN: Well, later on, because we didn't evacuate right away. Oh, I think Pearl Harbor was in December, and we didn't evacuate 'til March. But I didn't sign up for winter quarter, so I was at home.

SY: Why didn't you sign up for winter quarter?

MN: Well, I wouldn't be able to finish anyway because we'd be evacuated, and so it was...

SY: Oh, so you...?

MN: There was war, and it was just not, not the thing to do.

SY: So when did you hear about being evacuated?

MN: Well, I think, I'm not exactly sure. It was just the Isseis that were going to be evacuated at first. And then they decided to evacuate everybody that had one drop of Japanese blood in 'em. They'd have to go. So...

SY: So what happened to Pearl and Hiromu then?

MN: Well, they were separated. And she and her boys stayed on the property and ran the business. And he went to Puyallup and then to Minidoka with the rest of us.

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

<Begin Segment 14>

SY: What do you remember about going to Puyallup?

MN: Well, we got on a bus in the University District, and we went, and we went through the gate. And there was, it looked like hundreds of little black heads. And it seemed like everybody would come to the gate to welcome the newcomers. So they were hollering and yelling and waving their arms and welcoming us. And I'd never seen so many Japanese in my whole life, in one spot. And I was wondering, "My goodness, how am I going to get to know these people?" Because they all look alike. [Laughs]

SY: They looked like you did. [Laughs]

MN: Yeah, they looked like I did 'cause I was used to seeing groups with blond hair and red hair and brown hair and black hair, but here was all black hair for the first time.

SY: So how was it getting to know Japanese Americans and Japanese for the first time in your life?

MN: Well, I had known some in high school, there were, in the whole school, Lincoln High School, there were sixteen Japanese, I think. And then at college, there were, and they had a Japanese organization called Fuyokai, something. And so it isn't that I didn't know some Japanese or hadn't had friendship with some, but it was just that, having so many at one time. And then of course we were busy getting our apartment, and stuffing our mattresses with straw and...

SY: So you had an apartment?

MN: Well, it wasn't exactly apartment. It was a little room that was at one time the Frederick & Nelson concession. Frederick & Nelson was written across the top.

SY: Where, this was in Puyallup?

MN: This was in Puyallup. It was under the grandstand.

SY: So you were busy getting that...?

MN: Then, little by little, there was a couple, three families that kinda hung around with us, and so we had a little nucleus of friends. Naturally, so then that way, I started to recognize people and recognize their names.

SY: Did you...?

MN: Made some close friends.

SY: So do you still have those friendships, even after you left Puyallup? Did you keep those friendships?

MN: Yeah. And one of the boys married my sister, Connie. (...) So we're related now.

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

<Begin Segment 15>

SY: After leaving Puyallup and then riding the train to Minidoka, what were your first impressions of Minidoka?

MN: Well, it was, it was interesting to see barracks. There were six barracks, like army barracks, on each side. And in the middle, there was a mess hall and a laundry room, there weren't any toilets. They had outhouses at first. But the sagebrush. (...) Just as far as you could see in any direction was sagebrush. It was so different from cedar trees and pine trees that I'd been used to seeing.

SY: What was your feeling while you were going from one place to the other? What kinds of feelings did you have?

MN: Well, it seemed like it was no-man's land. There was nothing that looked like civilization. It was just all sagebrush and a couple of water towers.

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

<Begin Segment 16>

SY: So what did you do in camp?

MN: Well, I, first I was a file clerk for housing, but I didn't know anything about filing, and so I think I messed everything up. [Laughs] Especially when boys went out to work in the sugar beet fields and things like that, you had to do something with a card, say when they left or when they came back, or... well, anyway, I'm sure I didn't do a very good job. But it was...

SY: So then did you get another job after that?

MN: It was fun. We had an office and everything, but we did a lot of goofing around. And then...

SY: Like what?

MN: Well, we'd come and go when we wanted to, and we could move around. We didn't have to sit down all the time. But some offices, there was just absolute silence, everybody lined up, sitting. So you really felt like you were in an office.

SY: What made this office different from others?

MN: (It was so informal). I guess the people in it. They just kinda goofed around. [Laughs] You didn't feel like you had a job, (but the work got done).

SY: What did it feel like?

MN: (Too much time for the amount of work.) Well, I did file clerk. And then there was, the next room, there was a bunch of guys. And they drove the trucks for housing, to deliver people and deliver mattresses and things like that.

SY: When you say it didn't feel like a job, is there some reason that it felt...

MN: Well, because it wasn't very serious. If you didn't wanna go, you didn't have to. And you could take off and go to the canteen, if you wanted to.

SY: And were you paid?

MN: Oh, yeah. I think we were paid, I can't remember, $15 a month or something like that.

SY: Oh, I see. So you were paid, even if you did a good job or a bad job?

MN: Yeah. [Laughs]

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

<Begin Segment 17>

SY: Some people who were in camp had the opportunity, I guess, to have experience with some Japanese cultural activities, sometimes for the first time in their life, such as flower arranging or dance or calligraphy. Did you have any first-time Japanese cultural experiences in camp?

MN: Well, most of them were done by the Isseis, the flower arranging and the calligraphy. And they had Japanese theater, too. And they didn't have any Japanese dance, except Bon Odori. But the gang that I was with, I was the only one interested. And I tried to get 'em to go to the Japanese theater and I tried to get 'em to dance, but they weren't interested. And I wasn't strong enough to just say, "Okay, you guys go. I'm going to stay here."

SY: So you, basically, never got a chance to explore the Japanese cultures?

MN: Well, I was interested in the theater. But I wasn't interested in the flower arranging, 'cause I had worked with flowers all my life.

SY: Oh, that's true.

MN: And calligraphy was beyond me. [Laughs]

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

<Begin Segment 18>

SY: If you were to think back on your camp experience, who do you think in your family was most affected?

MN: Well, for the better, I would say my mother, because she worked hard all her life from six o'clock in the morning she was up watering the greenhouse. And late at night, she was busy in the greenhouse. And it wasn't easy work. So now in camp, there wasn't anything for her to do really, so she spent her time sewing. She made, she was working making quilts and she had five daughters, and I think her ambition was to make one for each one. But I think one of my sisters got a finished one, and one of my sisters got one that wasn't finished, and I never got one. [Laughs] So I don't know. But I think that it was a time for her to get some rest and to have some social work with other Japanese women because she was stuck out in Lake City and she didn't go to Japantown very often. So I think it (...), socially it was good for her. But for my brother, he was separated from his wife, and I don't think that was very good.

SY: How did it affect him?

MN: Well, he missed her, but she did come and visit one time. And she stayed for a few days. They had a good time together. They were given a separate room, so they could be together.

SY: And so she left the Lake City property and visited?

MN: Well, she came to visit.

SY: Wow. How did the evacuation affect you?

MN: Well, it was kinda like a vacation. I didn't have to go to school. I didn't have to be a mother's helper and so there was kind of a relief not to have to do that, but... and I got to meet a lot of friends, new people. And I got exposure to the Issei and how they were different from the Nisei.

SY: How were they different?

MN: Well, they, primarily, I felt that they didn't like us very well. They didn't approve of us dancing. Well, it's just that -- I think it was a chance for the young kids to kinda get away from their parents, too, so they weren't -- they didn't have to buckle under to them so much.

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

<Begin Segment 19>

SY: And so, in some ways, was there a lot of freedom for you, in ways you'd not felt before?

MN: Well, not too much, 'cause I never felt any pressure from the Isseis, from my mother or brother. But I know some of them, my friends, felt that their parents were always watching to see how many shoes were outside the door, so they'd know if somebody had come to visit and things like that.

SY: This was a time you said there were lots of socializing, lots of dancing and things. Did you meet any interesting people that you continued friendships with afterwards?

MN: (...) On Saturday, we got to push the dining room tables back and use the floor to dance. So we had dances. And there was one boy who had a system where we could play records so we did that and then other blocks also had dances. So that was about the biggest social thing.

SY: Before camp, had you done any of those kinds of socializing activities?

MN: No, I didn't 'cause, well, all through high school, we -- I didn't go to any dances or anything like that. And in college, too, there weren't very many occasions for the Japanese to get together to dance.

SY: So, in some ways, was this like the first time you were able to meet men and date?

MN: Yeah. And it was, it was not exactly date, it was just everybody, a free for all, everybody. And then kids would come from other blocks, too, so it wasn't just our block.

SY: So during this time in camp, and socializing and being with Japanese Americans and Japanese, more so than you had in your whole life, did you get some sort of Japanese identity within yourself that you hadn't had before?

MN: No, I just felt the same. And I think all the kids that I met, they were just like me 'cause they had lived and gone to school, so they were very Americanized. They didn't seem to be Japanesey, so to speak.

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

<Begin Segment 20>

SY: So, when you left Minidoka, where did you go?

MN: Well, I went to Caldwell, Idaho where I had a brother who had a truck farm. And my mother and my sister Connie and I, went and lived there for about a year before the ban on the West Coast was lifted. And then we immediately went back to Seattle.

SY: So you were there for how long?

MN: About a year.

SY: I understand when some people returned from camp, they'd had experiences with people who were prejudiced. What was your experience in Caldwell?

MN: Well, not -- it wasn't bad. But one time, a little boy said to my sister and (me), "Get outta town, or I'll sic my dog on ya." But that was about the only thing that was a bad experience. It wasn't a bad experience. He knew that they were talking to a Japanese person.

SY: What did you do after he said that?

MN: I just kept walkin' home. I didn't pay any attention to him. [Laughs]

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

<Begin Segment 21>

SY: So you returned to the Lake City place after Caldwell? Is that right?

MN: Yes.

SY: Did you notice a change in the way clients or neighbors responded to you after having been in camp?

MN: Well, no. There were some that were very friendly. They came to visit right away. But there wasn't too much retail business going on, because we couldn't -- they weren't able to get oil to run the boilers because it all went for war efforts. So in the summertime, they raised cucumbers and tomatoes in the greenhouse, and took 'em down to Pike Place Market for sale. But, so, there wasn't an awful lot of business.

SY: Was the property changed at all?

MN: No, but the greenhouses were, we started to raise plants again, in the greenhouses.

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

<Begin Segment 22>

SY: And what did you do, then, after camp?

MN: Well, I, Katherine Wolfe got me back into dance. And one time, when I was in one of these dance programs in the field houses, all the girls (said), "Now you sit down here, and eat your cookies and drink your punch. And there's a guy (...), that he wants to meet you, so we'll send him over." So I was sitting there eating my cookies and drinking my punch, and a woman sat down beside me. And she said, "You are a dancer. Go study with Eleanor King." And, oh, I felt great, I was in seventh heaven. And the guy never showed up. I told Katherine Wolfe about it. And I think she kinda felt bad 'cause she didn't wanna lose me. But it took (...) half a year for me to get enough courage to go to a professional school. And so then I went to study with Eleanor King. And she seemed to like me, and she liked my choreography. So I was with her for about six years, and I was in her dance company. And (...) learned an awful lot about dance and performing.

SY: So this woman who just happened to see you in the field house, what do you think, why would she know that you're a dancer?

MN: Well, I didn't know who she was, but later I found out she was Maxine Cushing Gray, and she was the dance, music, and art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And she had danced with Eleanor King, and she had danced with Doris Humphrey in New York. But she realized that there was no future in dance, so she took up journalism. So she was basically a dancer, too.

SY: Did you ever discover what she saw in you at that time to say that you're a dancer?

MN: Well, I don't know. Maybe she saw that I had potential or maybe she was trying to get a new client for Eleanor King. [Laughs] I don't know.

SY: So Eleanor King became, in some ways, your first...

MN: Professional teacher.

SY: Professional modern dance teacher.

MN: Yeah.

SY: And what did she teach you?

MN: Well, she taught me technique to develop a dancer's body for strength and coordination. And she also taught me about choreography, how to make expressive dance.

SY: What did she, how do you do that?

MN: There isn't really anything, except that if you want -- if you're a dancer, you have to draw from yourself. You can't copy somebody else. You draw from yourself, from your own feelings and your emotions and your heritage and everything that's you. You draw from that to express something in movement and it should be beautiful, even though the subject is not good and not pleasant. It should be done so it has a sense of beauty to it and then you have to be able to communicate that over the footlights, to an audience. She told me, well, she taught that you conceive an idea or feeling or emotion, and you execute it in movement, and then you project it to an audience. And (...) that's what she taught me, as far as choreography goes.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

SY: During this time, modern dance was not really viewed as, in the way modern dance is viewed now. What was the public opinion of modern dance at that time?

MN: Well, there wasn't a very big public for modern dance. But it was anti-ballet in philosophy. Ballet is beautiful, and it's a set in a vocabulary of movements that have been established since Louis XIV. And everything falls in that frame, and you don't make up anything of your own. But in modern dance, you learn how to use space and rhythm, and develop your body to a instrument that can express you. And then, if you lift anything out of the technique class, off goes your head. You have to do your own movement, and your own movement comes from your own creativity and whatever your subject matter is. But you're not, you don't use your technique as a means to an end. It isn't -- technique is something you leave when you start doing your own dances. But you use that technique that your body has developed, to help you express yourself better. Without technique it's hard to express yourself.

SY: So if -- so it's very different from ballet...

MN: Yeah, 'cause ballet...

SY: Because ballet is very technique-centered?

MN: And it's all set, the arms and legs. (...) I don't know whether you could say it defies gravity or not. But it's an upward movement, (...) you get up on your toes. They're on their toes, and they go, they go heavenly. But in modern, you take off your shoes and you go barefooted and you can use the floor level, the floor. The earth is very important, as well as going up in the air and standing on your feet. And it developed (...) mostly after the first World War in Germany and in New York. And Mary Wigman was the main dancer in Germany. And they had suffered so badly from the first World War, so her movement was always down, down towards the floor, low swings. And so people get the idea that modern dancers roll on the floor and grovel on the floor. [Laughs] But if the subject matter demands it, you do. But like Martha Graham, her movement is not flowing and lovely like ballet. It's more -- it's strong and percussive. So is life. So the modern dancers started using different ideas. And the different ideas demanded a different kind of movement, different kind of technique. And that's how modern dance came into being. But since everybody was used to seeing ballet and how lovely it was, they thought, "Oh, boy, that modern dance, that's dirty dance." [Laughs] But it's not the same today. They're both -- they're almost alike now. The modern dancers are doing ballet, and the ballet dancers are doing modern. It's all interchanged now.

SY: But back then, it was -- modern dance was not really publicly accepted as dance. It was a different kind of dance and, also...

MN: Well, it wasn't very well-known. It was just known in New York. That was about the only place that people knew about it. And then John Martin, he would -- he was a good reviewer. He reviewed dance. And he would review modern dance and that's one of the main reasons that it got known. But then with television, wham, it really took hold then so the whole world knows what modern dance is now.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 24>

SY: What did your family view, how did your family view you, you barefoot and hair down and dancing on the floor? How did they view your dancing modern dance?

MN: Well, they never saw me dance. I went to class and danced. So they knew I danced, but they weren't sure what it was all about. But they did come to some of the concerts that I was in.

SY: What was their opinion of your concerts?

MN: Well, I think after they saw it, I know I heard my sister say, "You know, I think maybe we oughta help her." [Laughs]


SY: Well, I was just wondering, what do you think they meant by that when they said...?

MN: Well, they weren't doin' anything. They were just letting me go my own way. And so they thought that what I was doing was worth some help, I guess.

SY: Oh, they meant help you, you mean to support you?

MN: That segment of our family (has) always been (supportive) [Interruption] And out of that family, I produced two dancers, Marcia Sakamoto...

SY: Out of your own relatives, or your sister?

MN: Out of this family. Yeah, my sister's family. Marcia, her daughter. She did the most. She went through Mills College, and she taught at Ohio University, and then Washington, D.C., and started her own school in San Francisco, and taught at the University of Hawaii. (...)

SY: And then, and you...

MN: She was one of my prodigies. Then Leslie (Ishii) also studied dance, and she's in theater down in (Los Angeles).

SY: Oh, so when your family said they wanted to help, that you need some help, it meant to support you?

MN: Well, they wanted to accept me (and my work and think) that it's worthwhile.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 25>

SY: How about your mother? Did your mother support you, too?

MN: Yeah, she always supported me. Yeah.

SY: How did she show her support with you?

MN: Well, 'cause she did my jobs at home a lot. I (had) to take the eleven o'clock bus home, and I'd get off and I would see her silhouette in the window (as) if she was watching for me. I told you about she bought me a typewriter. (...)

SY: She bought you a typewriter to do what?

MN: Because I was using the Oriental Garden business typewriter. And then sometimes I'd have to take it to the studio with me to do some typing there and then my brother would get mad because he wanted to use it (...). So, but I needed a typewriter, too, so she bought me a typewriter.

SY: And you said that your mother would be waiting for you late at night, and you could see her waiting for you through the window?

MN: Well, (...) there was a window that she could look out and see the bus stop and see me get off. So she probably was worried about (my) getting home.

SY: So once you got home, what would she say or what would she do?

MN: Well, she just, then she'd go to bed, I'd go to bed. [Laughs]

SY: And this was in the Lake City house?

MN: Yeah, that was in the apartment behind the store greenhouse.

SY: And at that time, did you and your mother sleep in separate rooms?

MN: Yeah, she slept in one room and then, well, let's see, she used to sleep in the big house. And then later on, she slept in the same apartment behind the store where I slept. But it was quite different after the war when we came back because my sister May had gotten married in assembly center. And my brother Tom was in the army, and he got married to a girl that he was courting before the war. And then my brother Woody got married, too, to a girl. They were going together before the war, but they got married while (he was) in the service. So three members of the family (...) did not come back after the war. So only my mother and my sister Connie and I were there, and (...) Pearl and Hiromu and their two boys. (...)

SY: So all, when you came back from the war...

MN: That's who, (...) our family had diminished.

SY: Shrunk. [Laughs]

MN: Yeah. And then Connie got married, and I took off to dance. [Laughs]

SY: Oh, I see.

<End Segment 25> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 26>

SY: And during that time, you were at the big house? You called it the big house?

MN: Well, there was a big house that my father built (circa 1914). (...) There was a greenhouse and there was a store (...). And behind that store was an apartment, and that's where Pearl and Hiromu moved to when the store greenhouse was built, and that's where we all ate (after my father died and before the war). We all went there to eat. Pearl and Hiromu and the two boys lived there, and then we went to the big house. And that's when I'd get to be with my mother.

SY: Okay. And when you were with your mother, you were in the big house?

MN: (Yes).

SY: And what, you mentioned one time that there was a very special relationship that you had with your mother at the end of the day? You wanna tell me about it?

MN: Yeah. Well, it was that we'd eat dinner, and then we'd go to the big house. And there was this pot-bellied stove, and she'd have a fire and she had a rocking chair. And we'd play around and talk to her. (...) You know Japanese people aren't very affectionate. But since she had raised my little sister Connie 'cause she wasn't well after Connie was born, and so, and my sister Misao raised me. So Connie was very affectionate. And she was younger than me, and so (...) my mother would let her sit on her lap and rock her. And they'd laugh together and everything. And I'd stand by the edge of the rocking chair and wished that I could sit on her lap and be rocked, too. But I never got to sit on her lap that I remember, but I just stood as close to the rocking chair as I could. So she -- the Japanese people don't show affection like they do now. (...) (This) was when we were still in grade school. But I mean, after the war when we came back, it was my mother and my sister and (myself).

SY: After the war, the three of you were together?

MN: (Yes).

<End Segment 26> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 27>

SY: And I understand that besides studying modern dance, you also studied Japanese dance, ballet, Spanish dance, and Kyogen-ko Mai, which is a Japanese comic dance?

MN: Uh-huh.

SY: I mean, when did you have time to study these other dance forms?

MN: Well, they were usually once a week and then not very long. So that's when Eleanor King was still in town that I'd go up to Cornish and take ballet classes because I knew that that was, that ballet was important, an important technique and I wanted to have (...). And then May Tsutsumoto was in Eleanor King's dance company, and she was a Japanese classical dancer. And she studied with Madam Nakatani. And so we'd go down with her once a week, take a class. And there was a Greek girl and a black girl and me and May. [Laughs] (...) So that was our little class, and we'd have a lesson once a week. But that didn't last very long. It was only a few months. But, but I continued to take ballet.

SY: You know what...

MN: With the Ladres and Mary Ann Wells. So actually, I've had more ballet classes than I've had modern. I mean, I've studied more ballet (...) than modern. So I studied with Mary Ann Wells and I studied with the Ladres and I studied at Cornish (School).

SY: You've had so many different dance teachers. From which teachers would you say you drew the most technique or perspectives?

MN: Well, I think, I think I got most of my dance from Eleanor King because she taught me (...) technique and she taught me composition.

SY: Was it with Eleanor King that you began to consider dance as a career, then?

MN: (Yes), I think so. I think I was hooked, and I knew I wanted to be a dancer.

<End Segment 27> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 28>

MN: But I wanted to dance ever since I was six.

SY: Ever since you were six?

MN: Six. I don't know whether I told you that.

SY: How do you know that?

MN: Well, when I was six years old, I was in the first grade. And I developed a toothache. And so I was sent home and taken to the dentist to have the tooth fixed. And then after we went to the dentist, my sister-in-law, Pearl, took me to see (...) the movie, Les Miserables. That was the first time it came with Frederick March and (Charles) Laughton, (...) that was the first Les Miserables that was (filmed). (...) They had a vaudeville along with it. And in this vaudeville there was a dance and there were, oh, about six girls in long blue gowns, and they danced flowing type movement. And I guess I just sat up and stared and watched. And after it was over, I just fell back, exhausted. And all the people started tittering, laughing around me. (...)

SY: Oh, laughing at you?

MN: (No), because of my reaction. And then I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a dancer, that I wanted to dance. And in grade school, there were two, three girls that came from (...) wealthy families, and this was in the Depression. And they got dance lessons, and whenever we'd have a program, they got to dance. And, oh, I was just, wanted to be their friend and wanted to dance, but I never said that. I just said, "I wanna be a school teacher," because if you wanted to be a dancer, they think you were gonna be a nightclub dancer or (...) a prostitute (...). 'Cause people didn't pursue dancing as a career. So anyway, I got to be both. [Laughs]

SY: Oh, that's right, because you're a dance teacher. You're a choreographer and dancer. So in some ways, your wish came true.

MN: (Yes).

SY: But back then, when you were six, you said it was a secret. When did it not become a secret?

MN: Well, when I started, I guess, with Eleanor King. Because after I came back from the war, when I started studying with the intercultural dance workshop that Katherine Wolfe started, that, I knew I was going to dance. But then when I started with Eleanor King, I really thought, this is dance, this is what I always wanted. Because she always gave technique and then she'd always give composition. And she liked the things that I choreographed.

<End Segment 28> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 29>

SY: You mentioned that modern dance, in that it was different from, or is different from ballet, that you develop from the technique you express it in your own way. And you had choreographed once your first piece, called "Credo in Conflict." And that was a piece that was actually expressing your conflicting feelings between your love of dance and also your obligations that you felt you needed to uphold with your family, taking care of your mother and the florist and all those things. Tell me about this piece.

MN: Well, it was, as you say, it was a conflict between wanting to dance and feeling the obligations I had to my family and to the business. And it just seemed like the more I danced, the more I was drawn away from my family and my mother and the business. And so that was the conflict that I -- and I didn't know whether I was going to have to give up dance or not. The dance came very easily because it was foremost in my thoughts and feelings. So I didn't have any trouble with composing it.

SY: And what did you discover when you choreographed this piece?

MN: Well, it was quite a satisfaction that I could put this into movement. So I kinda knew this is what I wanted to do.

SY: So you mean it was a satisfaction in realizing that you could capture this conflicting emotion in movement?

MN: Yeah. And then I could -- I knew that I could in the future, could capture and put into motion any subject matter that I wanted to, to dance about.

SY: So in some ways, that became a turning point for you to really focus in on dance, would you say?

MN: I think so. And of course, Eleanor King was very supportive. She liked the dance, and she liked the costume.

<End Segment 29> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 30>

SY: Did she ever say anything to you, so that you knew she was supportive or that, say anything of -- to encourage you to look at dance as a profession?

MN: No. She just, she just liked what I did. And she let me teach some of her children's classes and her ladies' classes. And of course, I, I was in a position to make costumes for her, because I had started college as a textile major. So I made most of her costumes for her. (...) I was a big help to her (...).

SY: I guess you were so much of a big help that she actually eventually entrusted you to teach and operate her dance school while she was away on trips to New York. Why do you think she entrusted you with her dance school and students?

MN: Well, it's because there wasn't anybody else studying with her that, that she felt they could do it. And they were busy going to school or they had families to take care of and so I was a logical person to ask.

SY: But you were busy going to school and had family to take care of, too.

MN: Well, (...) but then, I had a half a day. (...) Classes usually met in the evenings around six o'clock or so, or 6:30 or 7:30. So I was able to get away from the florist shop and, and it wasn't exactly every day. It was, I think it was Monday, Thursday, and Saturday that I taught. And she had a couple of cats, too, that I fed.

<End Segment 30> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 31>

SY: Were you also going to the university at this time?

MN: No. (...) I had gone to the university, and I was in my sophomore year. And then the war broke out, and so then I went to Minidoka and all that. And this was after I came back. (...) I didn't go back to the university until I got hired later on.

SY: Hired?

MN: Well, so Eleanor King stayed until around 1950 or '51. And when she left...

SY: Oh, she left for...?

MN: She left for the University of Arkansas, where she got a real interesting job, where every entering freshman had to take some of the five arts. And so they had to also take dance, and so she had a very secure position there, and so she left the studio. So I rented the area and started a school of my own. And she was supposed to do a concert for Northwest Friends of the Dance, which was an organization which sponsored dance, (...) all different kinds of dance. But since she left town, I was asked if I would fill in for her. This, I think, in the coming March. And so I got a group of about, I think there were about five of us, and I did a concert. And that felt real good to me. (...) Then in the fall, they asked me to do another concert so I did a second concert. And these concerts I had to choreograph pieces for. So then I was doing a lot of choreography. And then (...) I did a third concert at Cornish, on my own, and had to pay for every cent of it and sell tickets and everything. And then in 1954, I went back to Connecticut College to study for the summer. And when I came back, my studio was not available. And so I had to find a new studio, and that's when I moved to the University District. At the same time, I received a job as choreographer for the opera theater productions in the music department under Dr. Stanley Chapel. So I moved to the University District, a new studio and a job. But the job said, you have to go to school in order to hold this job because (...) they couldn't hire anybody from the outside. So since I (entered) school, they could hire me. That's how I got back to university. Took me twenty years, but I finally graduated. [Laughs]

SY: Oh, and you graduated and got a job.

MN: Well, no, I got the job, (first in 1954 then graduated in 1958).

SY: Well, you got the job and then graduated.

MN: (Yes), (...) I (also) had to teach my own classes. And then I was getting kinda well-known so everybody wanted a lecture, demonstration, or somebody wanted a TV program, or somebody wanted to do a concert at a college (in Bellingham) up north, and then (...) Reed College, and, oh, several different colleges wanted a concert. So I just automatically started doing a lot of concerts and a lot of programs, besides teaching and besides doing choreography for the university. And (...) I taught for three years at Helen Bush School (...).

SY: You taught dance?

MN: Yeah, I taught dance (for) all the grades in one day. It was (hard).

SY: Busy.

MN: It was hard (...) doing all that and going to school.

<End Segment 31> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 32>

SY: And were you also working at the florist at that time, too?

MN: Let's see. Yes. I was living there, but I wasn't doing much. I was gone most of the time. And in the meantime, my sister May came back from Minnesota. And she, she would go to the gardens and help out so I didn't feel too badly about taking off.

SY: But you'd get home, you'd go back at night?

MN: Every night I'd go back.

SY: And you'd see your mother?

MN: (Yes).

SY: I see. Boy, that sounds like a really busy time.

MN: Well, it was hard because I had to stay up 'til around 2:30, in order to get my studying done (...) I took the least number of hours that I could. [Laughs] And that's why it took me so long to get through college. But anyway, I survived. I don't know how, but I did.

SY: So how many of hours of sleep would you say you'd get?

MN: Well, not very many. I couldn't go to bed about 2:30, and then I wouldn't have to get up until around eight or nine...

SY: And then...

MN: 'Cause the shop didn't open 'til around ten.

<End Segment 32> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 33>

SY: During that time, you had your Martha Nishitani Dance Company, you had your Martha Nishitani Dance Studio, and you were basically the only modern dance, private modern dance school, in the Northwest. Is that correct?

MN: Right, at that time. That was in the early '50s.

SY: So when people were asking you to do all these things, it was basically, there were no other opportunities for people to learn about modern dance?

MN: (Except in the P.E. Department at the U of W.) And since I was working at the university, I was exposed to quite (a large) audience. Then, so people got to know me. And then they sent their children to me. So actually, I do modern dance, but my, my (forte) is creative dance for children. And I was the first one to start that in this area.

SY: How is creative dance for children different from modern dance?

MN: Well, in theory, it's about the same thing. But the thing is that you have to use images for children. You can't say, "Okay, first position," or you can't say, "releve," because who wants to do that when you're five years old? What difference does it make? So that you can say, "Well, get in first position. Now bend your knees and so you look like a frog. And put your hands out and then open your fingers and you look like a frog. Okay." And then you can say, "Now get your balloons." And then we always say, "I want a red balloon. I want a green balloon. I want an orange balloon." And they all get a couple balloons, and the balloons pull 'em right up onto the half-toe. So they're up on the half-toe. So you don't say, "releve." You say, "Now, take your balloons and go up on your toes." And so they do that. And one little girl said to me, she wasn't going up. She was just standing there and (...) I said, "Aren't you going to go up with your balloons?" And she (said), "My balloons are busted." And so I (said), "Oh, here, take mine." and so she finally went up on the half-toe. So creative dance is, there's basic technique involved, but not very much. But then they learn the basic locomotive steps like walk and run and jump and hop and skip and gallop and slide. They do those and they love (them). They like to go around the room galloping.

And then I try to teach 'em some (...) rhythm. And the rhythm is not like metric, like you play the piano. But the piano player is there, so we say, "I like apple pie, apple pie with ice cream." And so they clap that, and they'll do it on the drum, and then they'll get up and dance it. Or they'll say "Tom, Tom the piper's son," and they all dance that or they can dance, "Medium rare, T-bone steak," but the words make the rhythm. (...) The piano player's sittin' there, and they each, (with the piano), get a turn on the drum. And then they dance it so then they (learn) rhythm. (...) They have a little dance drama. (...) Every nine weeks the parents come in so we make a little dance. In the fall, we usually have a witches' dance. And we have a big pot, and we make witches' brew, and put things in it, like something off the ground and something out of the trees and something out of the sky, so we get the feeling of different levels. And then we do a snowflake dance and there's the mean Jack Frost comes in and freezes all the snowflakes. And then spring comes in with warm hands and melts them all down into a nice big stream. (...)

SY: Oh, I see. So what you're doing with these dramas and images is you're incorporating those with modern dance concepts...

MN: Yeah, and then...

SY: As like level, and you...

MN: (Yes). And you saw the one where it was negative and positive space. Where you're in an egg and then you're out of an egg, hatched, and so you have no space, and then you have spaces. And they did that about the little (pheasants) being (hatched).

<End Segment 33> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 34>

SY: So you were the one who basically first were able to create, or had the idea of teaching children with images?

MN: Yes, that's a lot easier than (...) standing at the bar and doing battement and plies 'cause little children like to have fun. And so I like to instill the idea of dance in them, so that they'll never -- they won't hate, but they'll love it and keep studying. So a lot of people teach creative dance. I don't know how they teach it, but I teach it based on other art forms, too, like color and shape.

SY: You know...

MN: (...) I took a course in comparative arts. And so it was a real good course. It was three quarters, and they had musicians come in and they had sculptors and (painters). And when they did the dance part, they asked me to dance. So I danced and explained what modern dance was. (...) So children can learn concepts when they're very young.

SY: And how young do you think a child could begin to learn these concepts?

MN: Well, I always started with four, but then all my competitors start with three-and-a-half. So I thought, well, I guess I better start with three-and-a-half. But I would rather start with four, but I do start with three-and-a-half.

SY: So do you have a lot of competitors now?

MN: Oh, yeah. They're many many schools in the city here that teach creative dance.

SY: But when you first started doing this, were there other people doing it then?

MN: No. I was the only one.

SY: So, how many students at the peak of your popularity? How many students did you ever have at the time?

MN: Well, children and adults together, I had about 250. And that was hard because I was doing everything. And I'd have to teach two classes after school, and one after dinner, and on Saturdays. So it was (...) just after I started working at the university and got exposed to the big audiences (...) when my children's classes started growing.

<End Segment 34> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 35>

SY: When you were working at the university, you were the opera theater choreographer, and you had produced many operas. But how was choreographing for the opera theater different from choreographing your own dance company?

MN: Well, in the first place, when somebody does a set and somebody does the costume and somebody does the music and somebody does the singing, and this necessary evil called dance has to be put in here and there in most of the operas that I worked in. But there are operas that have dance scenes in them. Especially just for dance. So, but, well, like for instance, Hansel and Gretel has the gingerbread children, (...) and so I got to take a lot of my kids over there. And they had to learn to sing with their eyes closed and dance.

SY: Why with their eyes closed?

MN: Because the gingerbread children, their eyes were closed.

SY: Is that something that you actually put in the choreography?

MN: No. That's in the libretto that gingerbread (children's) eyes are closed. And they don't get to open their eyes until the witch gets burned (in the furnace). And then they all come to life and they open their eyes. [Laughs] But there were two operas, Gluck's Orpheus has only three characters in it and everything else is (danced), a chorus of mourners, and the happy spirits in the Elysian fields, and the furies at the gates of hell, and then at a finale was the, kind of (court) dance. And the person who did the sets, he was all for putting a, maybe three or four flights of stairs and five columns. [I said], "It's no place to dance. (...) Gee, can't you take some of those stairs out?" I said, "A couple of my dancers are pregnant, and I don't want them to..." Sometimes they would adjust. And then the (man) that did the costumes, he was all set to do great costumes. So we had panniers. They looked like life preservers around our waist, and then three or four different skirts and little wings on our back (and wigs). And you couldn't move, you couldn't dance. (...) You could move your arms without the body. And one of the directors was very anti-barefoot, so (...) we always had to wear shoes which we weren't used to. And one time we tied blue ribbons around our big toe and then up around our ankle, and that was supposed to be a shoe. So then (...) once in a while, like in the Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutti, they needed little kids to fill in here and there so then (I) got to use them. And then in Gluck's Orpheus, I got to wear a platinum blond wig like Marie Antoinette. I looked pretty good.

SY: So you finally got your wish to become blond? [Laughs]

MN: (Yes). I was strawberry blond.

<End Segment 35> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 36>

MN: And the best one that I ever did was The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore. And that's a madrigal opera. And the singers are in the pit and everything was danced on stage. And it was a challenge, but I loved doing it. And I even asked Dr. Chapel if we could do that, and he said yes, but I don't think he knew what he said yes to. (...) So he (got) the record out, and that's what he followed, because he couldn't figure out what we were doing so he just played it like it was written. And we danced the whole thing, and it was a real success.

SY: When you say that was really satisfying for you, what was so wonderful about that piece?

MN: Well, it's 'cause I could use my imagination. (...) there was a poet, and the poet -- and he's an artist. And it was the same feeling, that the artists are frowned on, like the modern dance was not accepted. So here's this poet, and he -- and everybody, the townspeople, they think "Oh, he's crazy, 'cause he won't do this and he won't do that." All he does is reads poetry. And he has a unicorn, and they think it's terrible. And then finally they think it's, oh, the thing. So they all have to get unicorns. And then pretty soon he shows up with the (gorgon). And then everybody wants one of those. So it's the artist that's way ahead of his time. And then the general public accepts it and copies. And then at the end, he has the manticore. (...) So they all get manticores. And then they think, "This guy's goofy. We gotta do something about it." So they get their swords and (weapons). They're gonna storm the castle. And then they find that the poet is dying, and that the unicorn was his youth, and the gorgon was his middle age, and manticore was his old age. And he sings about how they're dear to him. (...) And then the townspeople (...) put down their swords and (weapons), and they kneel and they accept him. So it was, it was a great experience. And I got to use my (dancers), some of the singers and some of the children so it was (...) all my, it was my stage, the whole thing. The singers were in the pit. The orchestra was in the pit. [Laughs]

SY: And it was your story, too, in some ways?

MN: Well, I could feel it -- because this poet was suffering from being persecuted by the general public, so, because they didn't, they didn't understand him.

SY: Did you feel in some ways persecuted by the general public?

MN: No, I didn't. I just felt that it wasn't an accepted type of dancing like ballet was. There was a lot of folk-type dancing and ethnic dance going on in the city. Lots of ballet schools, but...

SY: So you didn't feel persecuted. How would you say you felt?

MN: No, no. I just felt that it wasn't understood very well. It takes quite a bit (...) for anybody to understand and learn about anything, for that matter. (Especially if it is new.)

<End Segment 36> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 37>

SY: And yet in this day and age, people accept contemporary dance, modern dance, as easily as ballet, if not more so now.

MN: Yeah. More so. But it's not the same thing. It's, most of the dance, well, some of it has meaning and feeling, but a lot of it is a spectacle or to entertain, not exactly to say anything profound. (Technique has developed greatly over the year.)

SY: Oh. So today's dancing is quite, are you saying it's quite different from the dancing you did?

MN: Well, it's more for entertainment, like on TV and generally speaking, they do fun things.

SY: Like, like what would be a fun thing?

MN: Well, it's a rhythmic thing or a popular song, and dancing to it. There isn't the seriousness of (...) the modern musician or the modern artist, the modern dancer.

SY: When you say serious, do you mean in that it's not conveying a message?

MN: No. It's that the subject matter is not -- just entertaining and saying something for fun. When, they don't go home with something to think about.

SY: Well, for you then, would you say that emotions were very important to inspire your choreography?

MN: Well, you're emotion, emotionally involved in your choreography, I think. And it depends upon the subject, how intense you're involved. Now, right now, I'm very interested in the welfare of domestic and wild animals, as well as ecology, trees, and things like that. But I, though I'm really involved in these things and donate a lot to these two causes, I can't see it in dance yet. I don't know whether I ever will, but I do have a profound feeling for these two subjects that a lot of other people do, too. And a lot more people are getting involved. Now this idea of, well, you know, in Bellevue a horse got killed? There was a horse that was brutally killed, and they're trying to find out who did it. And it's just quite a, quite a shocking thing, and quite a big group that are working on this, and it's on TV. And so, so what, way back when, so somebody killed a horse? That would be the end of it, but not now, because, and...

SY: And if this were, if you, if this had occurred in the '50s, would you have been inspired then to choreograph a piece about it?

MN: (...) My interest in animals and ecology started probably in the '60s or so when it was becoming noticeable. But I (...) think they're big subjects, and I don't know how you could choreograph it.

<End Segment 37> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 38>

SY: There were many things that inspired you to choreograph. And way back in 1951, you created another solo for yourself called "Shepherdess." What inspired this dance?

MN: I think, basically, it was my maternal instinct because all my friends had married and had children, and I had an urge to have a child. And in those days you could have a child, and you didn't have to have a husband, you could just have a child if you wanted.

SY: In those days?

MN: (Yes).

SY: You could do that in these days. [Laughs]

MN: (Yes). But anyway, I couldn't do that because even though I wanted a child of my own very badly, because I couldn't teach then, if I were pregnant. So I thought, well, I'll go to Hawaii and I'll adopt a beautiful child, Eurasian, maybe part-Chinese and part-Hawaiian or something. But it would be a beautiful little girl and I could bring her back and then have a child of my own. But then I thought, that's not very practical, because I'd be teaching on the dinner hour, and I would never be able to put her to bed. So I just thought about it for a while, and then as time went on, this maternal urge left me. And so I didn't have to -- didn't worry about having a child. And I decided, well, I've got everybody else's child. I've had hundreds of little children that belong to other people, but they were mine, too.

SY: So what this dance was, then, was an expression of your yearning for a child?

MN: Yeah, my maternal instinct. So I called it the "Shepherdess," because it was based on affection and loving a little lamb. So that's how I, it was like holding a child or holding a lamb, same idea.

SY: What happens to you when you dance this, knowing that the whole choreography has been inspired by this feeling inside? What happens to you, as the dancer, when you dance this?

MN: Well, it's a very good, satisfying feeling, one of the nicest feelings that I've ever had in dancing.

SY: Does it happen to you every time you dance the piece, or is it just sort of at different moments, you're lucky when you catch it?

MN: Well, it's almost every time. But I haven't danced it for a long time. But it's one of the dances that I have the strongest feeling for.

SY: Actually, you performed this "Shepherdess" dance at the Connecticut College Summer School of Dance.

MN: Uh-huh.

SY: What was the audience response to this piece?

MN: Well, I was surprised because it was mostly the faculty and other people that were witnessing it. And when I got through, the head of the music department at Julliard said, "That music was too slow. That piece is never played that slow." And I said, "This is a recording from an album that was done in Italy, and so I didn't make it this slow. That's the way it was." And then somebody else said -- I carried a little crook, like shepherdesses do. I came in with it, and I put it down. And then I did all this dance about the little lamb and about the lovely weather and everything. And then I picked up my crook and the little lamb in my arms, and I exited. And somebody says, "You can't bring a prop on stage and not use it." And I thought well, never heard about that before, but it was a situation where I didn't need to use it. And then, so I went out and stood on the porch, and I was thinking about this. (...) I felt kinda low about it all. And then one of my, one of the dancers, the modern dance teacher, came up and he says, "Martha, your dance was beautiful." So then I felt a lot better.

<End Segment 38> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 39>

SY: Just, any artist is often faced with critics. How have you dealt with the criticisms of your work?

MN: Well, I've never had a lot of criticism, negative criticism, and it's just reviews after a program that... and to tell you the truth, I've never had a review that was negative. It always had something positive to say. So I was lucky, I guess.

SY: So this, in some ways, the comments from these people about "Shepherdess" was maybe the first time...?

MN: The first time and it hit me because it was the bigwigs in the dance world that said it. But the people, the faculty that I wanted to see it, they weren't there, which was too bad.

SY: So who was this dancer afterwards who came up to you and said your dance was beautiful?

MN: He was (Lucas Hoving). I don't know whether he has passed away or not. (...) he wasn't too famous then, but (...) he became famous later.

SY: So, what do you think he saw in your work that the others didn't see?

MN: Well, I think he was sensitive and down-to-earth, and could see what the dance was all about.

SY: Oh. This is, in some ways, it's going back to the, your idea that modern dance needs to communicate more than just the moment of being entertained?

MN: Right. Well, that's what I always thought. And this was something personal so it was easy to dance.

<End Segment 39> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 40>

SY: Much of your choreography's been inspired by feelings and emotions. What else would you say influences your choreography?

MN: Oh, my love for my home, that I didn't realize how much meant to me until the property was sold. But while I was still living there, I choreographed two pieces. One was called "Transit into Dormancy," and it was about the effects of winter weather on vegetation. And this property had lots of beautiful maples that turned to gold and red and yellow, and then they would fall. And then the willow tree had all these leaves that would fall. So it was a dance that had falls and resistance to falls. But in the end it, one last fall. But it was done with the idea that they're going into dormancy and that spring will bring back a new life. So it wasn't, it wasn't death, but it was a very down, down-type dance.

SY: Modern dance --

MN: And then the other dance related to my home was called "Water Images," and it was based on the creek that (...) ran through the yard from the very first, it was bought. It's now officially called Willow Creek. But it was pure water, and you could look down and you could see salamanders and eels and crawdads. And on top there's little skippers skipping around, and little blue flies and, like dragonflies, I guess, and butterflies (...) and watercress, and all these wonderful things about the stream. Then we'd wade in it, and we'd make a little dams. (...) And so I did this dance called "Water Images", and it was based on all these little things, little pebbles and birds and all those things. And this is a dance that I did in collaboration with Channel 9. I had done a movie of, let's see, four of my dances with Raring Film Company. And the fella that came and watched the dance, he went out of town, so he left it up to somebody else. And this other guy, he was not interested in the dance, he was interested in the girls. So it was heartbreaking because he didn't capture a lot of things, and he missed a lot of (dance) that he should have gotten. So Ron Ciro at Channel 9, he says, "Well, why don't you come over and we'll make a film together?"


MN: He invited me to come over. I had this piece of music that had several short pieces on it. My accompanist sent it to me from France, and it was either eighteen seconds long or thirty-eight seconds long or twenty seconds. Anyway, so I made an image for each one of those pieces of music and in between, the cameraman had, well, he had two pools of light about eight feet in diameter. And there'd be one image in one pool, and then while that was being filmed, another group would be in the other pool. And in between, this poet would recite a line of his poetry and it was a beautiful poem. I never realized how beautiful it was, until I read the whole thing together. And then, he moved to the next pool of light, and then he'd move back. And he, Ron Ciro, also sent one of his fellows down to the canal to get some water filmed. So he filmed a whole bunch of water and then he told me to fit (...) film onto the image, because some images needed a rippling and some needed a flat, still water. (...) So it became a mixed-media film. It had dance, it had music, it had poetry, it had the camera, and it had film of water. So we filmed it at Channel 9. And the poet said he didn't want any "damn dancers" dancing on his poetry, so (I) had to (record) the lines of poetry between the images. He finally came to see it filmed. And he saw the run-through, and he was quite impressed and he says, "I think I'll have my name put on there." So his name (...) is printed differently. Somebody (added) his name (to) the credits. And then we all went out and had Chinese dinner afterwards. [Laughs]

SY: Sounds like fun.


SY: At the time that you were doing Water Images, had you ever seen a film where, which incorporated poetry and music and dance before?

MN: No, I hadn't. It just evolved. And it didn't dawn on me until after it was all done that it was a mixed-media and it incorporated a lot of different art forms.

<End Segment 40> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 41>

SY: What else inspires your choreography, besides now, motions and feelings and memories and nature, memories of your childhood at, playing in the yard?

MN: Well, sometimes a lovely piece of music. Like one time I was walking down the street, and I was going by the music store and I heard this wonderful piece of music. And I went in and bought it. And then I found out it was by Antonio Soler, a Spanish composer, and it was called "Primero Concerto." So I wrote to Spain, and we got copies of the music, sheet music. And it was for organ and piano. But when I premiered it, I had -- I was lucky to have two pianos. So (...) it's just a lovely dance and it's a pure dance; it has no, no subject matter. I dedicated it to my ballet teacher, Mary Anne Wells. She was teaching (ballet) for me at the time (...). Anyway, it's just a lovely piece of music, and it needed some lovely movements. So it has no story (at first).

SY: And when you say "pure dance," then do you mean that that's when there's no story or no message or...

MN: Well, yeah. And it's just lovely movement, and there is kind of a story. (...) It's for three girls, and then a fourth girl comes in. And it's kind of a friendship between girls, and then she leaves so that's, that's what it is about.

SY: This is, earlier you'd mentioned that modern dance now, or contemporary dance now, just entertains and whereas before, there would be a message that you'd leave with. Would you be, would it be fair to say that then, in many ways, contemporary dance now is pure dance?

MN: Well, yes. And it usually is rhythmic, quite rhythmic and, with a little jazz mixed up into it, but it isn't pure dance. Well, maybe it is pure dance, but usually it's, usually a fun thing, or it can have a dramatic aspect to it, too.

SY: Pure dance?

MN: (Yes). But I guess Soler, I call it "Primero Concerto," I guess it does have kind of a subject matter. It's a trio of girls, and then a fourth one comes in. And so they have a foursome and they dance and then the fourth girl leaves again. So it's kind of a story of friendship (...). But I mean, I think that comes through, but it doesn't have anything profound about it.

<End Segment 41> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 42>

SY: When you talk about different types of choreography, you choreographed something that was, in some ways, different from many of the other pieces, and people were all dressed fully from head to toe in black. Could you tell me about that piece?

MN: Oh, that was also a dance that had nothing to do with any emotion or... it was called "Line in Design." (...) We did it in class. We explored straight lines and curved lines. And if, when you stop to think, there isn't anything in this world except straight lines and curved lines. And straight lines can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or you can put a series of diagonals together and you have a zigzag. And if you take a curved line, you can have a circle. It can be concave, it can be convex. You put (...) a convex and a concave together, and you get kind of a meandering line. So that's all there is in this world no matter where you look, there's straight and curved lines. So we worked on that as a study, and then finally we (added) the idea of directions. You can go up and down, and front and back, and side and diagonal, two sides in a diagonal. So with that, we had straight lines that went up and down, and front and back, and side and diagonal. And then you could bend that line, and you could still have up, front, down, side, diagonal, and so forth. And then curved lines, you could do concave and convex, and you could do that with your body. So, so first thing we were working on was these bent lines and straight lines. Then had a, a composer came in. And he looked at that, and he composed this music for straight lines. Then he went away. And (...) I choreographed the curved lines. And then he came back and he looked at it (...) and he came back with the music for curved lines. And then I combined both curved and bent lines, and they, it developed into kind of a sculptural pattern, which was really quite lovely. And he came back and he wrote the music for that. So it was -- dance came first, music came second.

SY: Wow.

<End Segment 42> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 43>

MN: And that's, dance is an art form that can stand on its own, which Doris Humphrey proved in her "Water (Study)."

SY: And "Water (Study)" was a different one from...?

MN: A dance that she composed (...) back in 1928. And it was an abstraction on an ocean wave. And the movement was based on breath rhythm. And in 1954, when I was in Connecticut, she reconstructed that dance. And she let me be in it, and I was the backwash. [Laughs] There's never been a dance better, that's better than that, or, it's the most beautiful dance there is. They did it at the University of Washington this year (1998). And it was thrilling to see it because it's these ten dancers, and there's no music. It's just based on their breath rhythm. And nothing has ever been done that's more beautiful than that. And it survives time. (...)

SY: What makes that the most beautiful piece you've ever seen?

MN: Because the movement is there, and it's so expressive. You can just see this ocean wave, and the way it ripples and it goes onto the shore and backwashes out.

SY: And you hear no music?

MN: There's no music. But you can just, you can just see this wave. And there's the wave that (goes) up and falls, and it's (...) based on an ocean wave. And you can't miss it. You see it. You see the different ways the water moves. Sometimes it's still and just moves side to side. (...) So dance is an art form that can stand on its own. Everybody thinks it has to have music, it doesn't have to. But we usually always have music with dance now. She was very courageous when she did that, but she proved her point. Actually, dance is, I always say it's the mother of arts because you move before you do anything else. You move in the womb, so movement is first.

SY: Before any other form of art.

MN: Oh, yeah.

<End Segment 43> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 44>

SY: You know, you've explored so many different dance forms. You've choreographed, you've done opera theater, you've lectured. Which dance-related experience would you say has taught you the most?

MN: Which has taught me the most? Well, I think it's lecturing and talking about modern dance, like I'm talking to you. Explaining, getting a chance to say things about modern dance as an art form. I think to enlighten an audience about what dance is. And contemporary dance, modern dance, can be thought about as modern art is, and about modern music. It's not classical, it's modern. And it wasn't accepted at first, either. Modern art was frowned on. (...) So I think a chance to enlighten people about modern dance is the most satisfying thing that I've experienced.

SY: Well, you've received many awards and recognition about your contribution to modern dance. I mean, you've won awards, such as the Outstanding Woman of Achievement, Who's Who in America, Asian-American Living Treasure Award. You've taught many professional dancers and professional teachers. Of all these things you've done and awards you still get, do you have any regrets as to what you've been doing and what you couldn't do?

MN: Well, no. I don't have any regrets. I wouldn't want to have it any other way than it was. I mean, I think I was lucky to be able to live life and the things I love the most. And it was financially very difficult at times. But I do feel lonely sometimes because (...) all my friends, they send their children, and their children's children and they have, and my relatives, too, they all have lovely homes, lovely cars, lovely children. That is what I gave up for dance, but I really don't regret it, because if I wanted to stop now, I could have a lovely home, I think. And I have so many lovely things that people have given me. And before I even entered into dance, I bought my silver and I bought my china, like all girls did in those days. And here they're all packed away, never been used. But I don't know if, it would be nice if I could do that. But still, I don't wanna give up dance. I wanna be the way I am right now and stay that way. But I know that physically, I don't know how long I'm gonna live, but I can't dance forever. And I can, there are things that I've taught that I can't do myself, technically, but my students can. (...)

SY: No regrets?

MN: No regrets.

SY: During the time when you were so busy, did you ever wish you had time for something else?

MN: No. I just knew that this is what I had to do. And I had to do it, regardless of how long it took. I had to do it. So I did. But I did give up, one time (...) I gave up three television shows, because I just couldn't, I just couldn't work it in. And I felt sorry for this woman, and I called her and told her I couldn't do it, but that's the only time I ever turned down something that would have been nice.

SY: Wow.

<End Segment 44> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 45>

SY: In some ways, you did get a chance to be a mother. And you got a chance to do everything you've wanted to do, because you said... I mean, even now, you teach young children.

MN: Yes.

SY: What would you say you're doing? What's your life like now? What are you doing currently?

MN: Well, I'm still teaching. Not on a large scale, like I did before, so it's a pleasure. And I've been teaching for so long, that it's not difficult to teach. And I can work on individuals. Like there's one girl (...) she's a lovely dancer, but she has such flat feet. And I'm working on that, to get her to stand correctly and get off her arches. It's little things like that, (...) and I'm a real stickler for body alignment. And I know how to get people to stand up straight and I know all about leg alignment and how to get people to have their legs lined up, their knees lined up. So if I can't teach 'em anything else, I can teach 'em how to stand up straight, so that they can enter a room with dignity. [Laughs]

SY: If you were to choreograph a solo piece for yourself right now, what would inspire your movements?

MN: Oh, let me see. What would inspire my movements today, now? Well, I might, it might be a certain amount of loneliness in it, because I'm between four walls an awful lot of the day. And also I have my cat, and I, I love my cat very much. And I've always had a cat. I've never been without a cat. So I might choreograph something about a cat. [Laughs] But I'm not so sure I'd ever do that. But I do have a fondness for all animals.

SY: Now that dance is not so much a part of your life, but a comfortable part of your life, what other things are in your life that you didn't have time for before?

MN: Oh, well, since the dance is not constantly such a demand, (...) at one time, I said to myself, "You just can't do this. You gotta do somethin' else, too." So I joined my graduating Lincoln High School class of single women, divorced women, just women. So we have lunch together a couple times a year. And then the class of '39, everybody gets together a couple times a year. And I'm the official photographer. I take pictures and then give 'em to the director. I don't know what he does with them. But anyway, so those two things. I've joined (two) classes of '39, but I don't go to church. But I go to all the dance concerts that I can, and I go to the opera. That's about all I do.

SY: But you teach several times a week. Isn't that right?

MN: Yeah, about five times a week.

SY: So you still keep pretty busy?

MN: Oh, yeah. Friday's my day off, but otherwise, I'm busy.

SY: Because you're also doing, you continue to choreograph and lecture. Is that right?

MN: Not so much. Not so much. Well, I did, I do some lecturing, but I don't do an awful lot of choreography. What I do is with the students in the class, but not for concerts. I finally gave up doing concerts, because it was too expensive to get a hall and do all the advertising and everything. But a lot of concerts I did, in all the universities around the Northwest, where they'd pay for your transportation and overnight, if you had to, and things like that. But I don't do that very much, either.

SY: I thought you just choreographed a piece not too long ago for a university?

MN: Oh, that was for the Seattle University. Yeah, I did. It was for Roshomon.

SY: That was not too long ago, wasn't it?

MN: No, it was about a month ago, a month-and-a-half ago.

<End Segment 45> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 46>

SY: You had mentioned one more thing that I really would like to touch upon, and that was when I first met you, you mentioned how much you think about your mother at night even, to this day. Tell me about that?

MN: Well, I, really felt that after my father died, my sister and my sister-in-law, they wanted to raise us, raise us with all the advantages as possible, with the right clothes and the right everything. And so that was quite demanding. But at night when I was with my mother, and we'd sit around the big stove with a wood fire in it, and she in her rocking chair, and my sister and my brother and me. And we could just let our hair down and do whatever we wanted to, and it was so nice. That, that I remember her, and she was always tired from working, but she would be in her rocking chair. And I always felt that my mother had me in her thoughts, foremost. So when I'd come home late at night, I'd get off the bus, and I could see her silhouette in that window. She'd be watching for me, and that was a very comforting feeling, that somebody was waiting for you. And at one time, I was using my brother's business typewriter 'cause I needed a typewriter, and sometimes I'd take it to the studio with me. And then he would want it. And he was always complaining about the typewriter (...). So my mother bought me a typewriter, so I could have one of my own.

SY: Why is it, though, when you, you mentioned when you wake up at night, sometimes there's a lot of guilt that you have felt?

MN: Well, I have guilt because of the fact that she, she was always, for me. But towards the end, when I spent more time dancing than taking care of her, and I could have seen to it that she had warmer clothes or more comfortable shoes, or didn't have to do the cooking. And 'cause I used to do the grocery shopping and do the cooking, until I just got so involved with dance that I couldn't. And then when I was going to school and working at the university and doing all this teaching, there was just, I was always so tired. But it never dawned on me how much pressure was going on her because what I was supposed to be doing, she would have to do. So she was, always had my, my feelings first. And then, and she had a chronic back injury that -- it would, every once in a while when she'd twist or fall (...) it would come back. And it would take a long time for her to recover from it. I had taken her to the doctor several times, and tried to get exercises and things for her, but then, she had hurt her back, and she was in bed. And I had been in Canada, seeing a program (...) and when I came back, my brother said that she had fallen and she was in bed. And she was in pain, but she'd never say very much and then she said, she said she thought maybe she would die because she was eighty-two at that time. And so I got my sister to get medication for her. So she, she was taking that and getting slightly better, but then... I never knew what happened, and I never asked, but she died when we were gone to the (Seafair) parade (...). Anyway, then this terrible guilt feeling, because I could have made her life so much easier, if I'd just been a little more thoughtful. So (...) it really bothers me still to this day, and she died back in the '60s. But I never have gotten over the fact that she was the one person who thought the most of me and did the most for me, but I neglected her. I really neglected her. And she didn't get sick and die. She (...) just, (suffered) a few days, and then she died. And I wasn't even there when she died, I was at the parade. (Hiromu was there with their mother.) And I didn't want to go to the parade, but my sister wanted me to go, so I went. Anyway, so that's, that's a guilt feeling. And I stopped choreographing for a long time after she died, because I just couldn't bring myself around to do anything in dance (...). And I think I'll always, to the day I die, think about her at least once a day. There's hardly a day that goes by that I don't think about her, because no one else ever loved me as much as she did, or gave me the attention or feelings that she, that she gave me. And I just ignored her towards the end for which I can't forgive myself (...).

<End Segment 46> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 47>

SY: Well, in some ways, this is such an opportunity to tell future generations about things that are important. What would you say from your life experiences are important?

MN: Well, I think young people should try to be honest. They should -- honesty is a very important... and respect their elders. I think they should learn to respect their elders. You see so much, especially on TV, where the mothers and the fathers are looked down to, or considered stupid (...). But I think children should respect their elders.

SY: What would you say to people who have a passion for what they want to learn and do, such as you did with dance, yet they also feel connected to their family? I mean, what choices would you suggest?

MN: Well, it's hard to choose, because I know... when my sister and brother-in-law came from Spokane to visit, I should have been home and entertained them because they didn't come very often and it was hard for my mother to take care of guests, and... but I had to go to rehearsal and I just couldn't, couldn't stay home. I had to go to rehearsal. And I think I voiced my feelings and Eleanor King (heard me). And she said to me, (...) "You have to do what you feel is most important to you." And I thought, "Dance is most important to me." So, with that thought in the back of my head, I kept on dancing, until my mother died and then it was a shock. Then I just wondered (...) whether I should have thought that or not. But she was gone, and there wasn't anything left but to dance so I just kept dancing.

SY: So would you tell your students the same thing as Eleanor King had told you?

MN: Well, yes. I think it's not just true in dance. I think it's true in everything. You should pursue what you love the most. And if you really love it, you have no choice. You'll do it.

SY: And that's what you've done, that's for sure.

MN: Yeah, that's what I've done. Yeah.

SY: Well, you've really contributed a lot to modern dance, and to dance. And I just really appreciate being able to interview you. Thank you very much.

MN: Well, it was nice talking with you, Sara, too.

<End Segment 47> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 48>

SY: It must be hard, a hard thing to love, you love your mother, to love dance even more. Must be a hard thing, in some ways?

MN: Well, I've often thought I should go to a psychiatrist and tell him this problem that I have, and they probably could solve it for me. But because it's, it's a pressure, I mean, is to wake up in the middle of the night, and say, "Oh, I wish I'd done it differently."

SY: Yeah. It makes me think about a lot of artists, or people who've, in some ways, sacrificed their life, almost like martyrs, to make a change in society. And it's a -- I think it's a lonely place to be.

MN: Yeah. Because Eleanor King was kinda my person who I looked up to, and she gave up her family and gave up... well, I don't know whether...

SY: Marriage?

MN: But I mean, I think she had boyfriends, but she didn't ever get married, because... and then the dancers that I, that I had danced with, or danced for me, if they were married and had children, it was hard for them to come to rehearsal. And there was one gal that just loved to dance, and so she'd bring her two children. And she'd bed 'em down in the back room, and then we'd rehearse. The darn kids tore all the covers off my books. [Laughs] And there's this, this one girl that danced in "Transit into Dormancy," her little girl would cry every time at the end. She'd cry on that dance, because I guess it was sad to her, to see the dancers go down on the floor.

SY: Oh, so she was getting the message, too.

MN: Yeah, this little tiny girl.

<End Segment 48> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 49>

MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is a picture of the Oriental Gardens, my father's business. And I think this picture was taken about 1915. You can see the Oriental Gardens sign, greenhouses, and all the wooded area behind. There were very few houses around that time. And this lower picture is my mother with her beautiful hat, my father, and Hiromu. And May is in the background with our dog, Puppy.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oriental Gardens, gee. What's that funny-lookin' tree?


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] Then we pumped the water into that tower. And then we had irrigation system, pipes through the gardens.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] Great. Get to see the people. That's the important part.

ME: That's a great hat that your mom has on.

MN: Yeah, isn't it? When my father (...) brought her off of the boat, he had to go onto the boat and dress her, because she didn't know how to dress. And on the way home her hat flew off. [Laughs] And some neighbor found it and brought it to her. [Laughs]

ME: What was the puppy's name?

MN: Puppy.

ME: The dog.

SY: It was Puppy.

ME: It was just Puppy? [Laughs]

MN: It was Puppy. [Laughs]


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is a picture of me taken by one of my dancers. It isn't any dance, it's just an improvisation.

ME: When was this taken?

MN: Oh, I'm not sure, but it must have been in the '60s, sometime.

ME: Is that at your studio?

MN: Yes, that's at the studio.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is a picture of the first dance I choreographed. It's called "Credo in Conflict." And it was about the conflict between my desire to dance and my obligations to my home and my mother.


SY: That's a nice curve. Curved lines, straight lines. [Laughs]

MN: Messy hair. [Laughs] Whoever took that picture, should have... see, that's the costume I made, too.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is another picture of my first solo, "Credo in Conflict." And I'm reaching for my desire to dance.

ME: That's beautiful.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is a picture of a solo called "A Shepherdess," which was taken at the Henry Art Gallery. It's about my maternal instincts, which I kind of resolved. And I'm holding a little lamb.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is a dance called "Transit into Dormancy," and it's about the effects of winter weather on vegetation. It was a group dance, and there were three figures representing vegetation. And this is a single picture of the vegetation.

ME: It was a dance for how many people?

MN: It was a dance for five people. There were three dancing the vegetation part and two dancing the weather part.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is also from "Transit into Dormancy." And this figure represents the weather. There were two figures dancing the part of weather.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is from the film called Water Images. The images were from the creek that ran through our property. And it was about the creatures under the water and the creatures above the water. This particular trio represents salamanders.


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is also from the film Water Images, and it represents the water grass that grew along the banks of the creek.


[Still photograph]


[Still photograph]


[Still photograph]


ME: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] Okay, this image and the two previous images, would you please tell us what the piece is called that these images are from?

MN: The piece was called "Line in Design," and it was not intended to be a dance. It was a little class project in straight and curved lines. All lines are either straight or curved in this world and this represents a diagonal line. And the two previous pictures, the first one was on straight lines. They were straight and bent lines and the second was on curved lines. All three represented pictures from "Line in Design."


MN: [Voice-over while viewing a photograph] This is an opera theater production done at the University of Washington in the music department, under the guidance of Dr. Stanley Chapel. I was choreographer for these operas and this opera is Dido and Aeneas. (The hunt scene)

ME: What year was this?

MN: Well, I'm not sure what year it was. But I think it was in 19-, about 1956.


MN: This is another picture from an opera theater production at the University of Washington and it is the tavern scene from the "Beggar's Opera."


MN: Trying to depict the French dancers in France. In France, they had French (court) dancers, and we were trying to copy them. That's what this dance is about. (Kurt Weill did a take-off on this opera. Mack the Knife was a song from his stage play.)

<End Segment 49> - Copyright © 1998 Densho. All Rights Reserved.