Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Shigeko Sese Uno Interview
Narrator: Shigeko Sese Uno
Interviewers: Beth Kawahara (primary), Alice Ito (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: September 18, 1998
Densho ID: denshovh-ushigeko-01-0026

<Begin Segment 26>

BK: But the off-shoot of that, the by-product of that, was that you were really at the center, you were at the hub, you knew what was going on then in the International District community?

SU: Uh-huh. I've always worked in the International District. Because in 1960, well, we were the tenants of Rainier Heat and Power Company, which had its office just up the block. And this hakujin man used to come every day, practically, to eat lunch. And one day, he said, "I'm looking for a Japanese girl to come and work in our office." I said, "Okay. I'll see if I can find somebody." Well, the only girls that were working the office at that time worked at the bank, but nobody wanted to leave the bank to work for Rainier Heat and Power, 'cause they didn't know what kind of company it was. And so one day, I said, "How about me? I think I'll go work for you." So we sold the, Chick's ice creamery right away.

And then I started working for Rainier Heat and Power and Company. Which was an all-man's, menfolks only, that used to work there. There were two men in the office, and about five in our steam plant, which is where Uwajimaya, present Uwajimaya is. And then we had two attorneys downtown who did the legal work. And so when I went to work there, I was the first Japanese to work, first woman to work. So when I would answer the phone, "Rainier Heat and Power Company," there'd be a silence on the other side. They thought they had called the wrong person, because they heard a woman answer. So I worked there for, let's see, I went to work there in 1960.

And in 1970, my boss passed away. So then I had to take care of the place by myself. But I still had the steam plant and ten other buildings all over. Rainier Heat and Power Company was the largest landlord down in International District, ten buildings, including the Seafirst, post office, United Savings, Bush Hotel, Uwajimaya, and all the hotels in-between. So it was fun working, because in the first place, the first ten years I had been working under this hakujin person who really treated me very kindly. Of course, the work was nothing. I mean, it was very easy, because I had been an accountant all my life, so that the book part was simple. And typing was simple. Better than my boss, who used to go like this. [Pretends to type poorly] But I could do all that.

BK: So when he passed away, you just stepped in?

SU: That's right.

BK: Uh-huh.

SU: Uh-huh. Of course, I had those two attorneys downtown who did the legal work, but the rest of the decisions and all, I had to do. Worked for them. I remember one New Year's Eve, I was making these Japanese things for our New Year's Day. Get a call after midnight from the hotel, and saying, "Oh, it's leaking all over." So I asked my husband, "Take me down there." And he said, "What can you do?" "Well, I've got to call different people to do the work." And it was so nice, because those hakujin people, too, the plumbing and all that kind of people, were so good to me. So it was, that's one of the opportunities that I think evacuation gave, especially us women, the Japanese women, a lot of opportunities. See, before war, I could never have thought of, I don't think they would even think of employing Japanese there, although the tenants and all were Japanese people.

BK: And excuse me. Why do you think then, after the war, do you think there was something about the war experience or the evacuation experience that somehow made it more okay to hire an Asian?

SU: Yes. And they must have heard from other sources that Japanese people were dependable and could do the work, see. So that even Boeing's -- look, of all the Japanese that have started working at Boeing, before war, even if you majored in aeronautics, you just couldn't find a job. They couldn't even go on the visiting trip with the rest of the classes from university. So, at least three of my friends went to Japan and found jobs there, because they couldn't find anything here. And look at all the college graduates before war that couldn't find any jobs, so they had to work in the markets again, and do menial work.

BK: As you were breaking this new ground with Rainier Heat and Power, during that time, did you realize what kind of opportunity you had at that time? Or was it only in retrospect that you're able to really appreciate that you were the first Asian, the first woman, to be in this kind of a position with them?

SU: Well, I just took it for granted. Isn't that terrible?

BK: Oh, no, no, no.

SU: Well, you had to prove yourself, of course.

BK: Absolutely.

SU: If I couldn't do all that work -- because when my boss hired me, the first day, he says, "I want you to come, so we can look over what you can do." And so I looked at their books and all, and the requirements, I thought, "Oh, I could do it." So right away, they hired me for the next day. So that's because of the background. You have to --

BK: Yes.

SU: Have that background going. Just because you're, you are Japanese or a woman doesn't mean that you could have gotten a job like that. But for years, I'd been working in an office, and I knew how to talk on the telephone.

BK: Right. You were well qualified for that.

SU: By that time. So I worked for them for twenty-eight years, until -- it was estate, really. A sixty-year estate, that we were doing business as Rainier Heat and Power Company. So in the end, we sold all that property to mostly Asians, to, according to their bid. We had to go to court. They had to bid it, and bid for their, the property. So...

BK: As you reflect back on your twenty-eight years, is there any particular highlight, high spot, of your career there that you can think of?

SU: Well, lasting one is the sale of Uwajimaya. We didn't have to go to court, because, well, for, Tomio and I have been very good friends, working on political things, activities. And when he asked for that property, well, legal, the legal offices that was the right time to sell, and we should sell. We got rid of the steam plant that was down there. So now, Tomio always says, "Well, if it weren't for Shigeko, we wouldn't have that Uwajimaya." It wasn't really that way, but by that time -- my legal officers were just great people. Whatever I said, they would do. So they were kind enough to put all that responsibility on my shoulder.

BK: Well, you were down there. And you knew exactly what the market would bear. And so I'm sure they had that trust in you. Sure. Right.

SU: It was fun.

BK: Wonderful.

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