Densho Digital Archive
Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community Collection
Title: Nobuko Omoto Interview
Narrator: Nobuko Omoto
Interviewer: Joyce Nishimura
Location: Bainbridge Island, Washington
Date: October 22, 2006
Densho ID: denshovh-onobuko-01

[Ed. note: Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

<Begin Segment 1>

JN: Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little about how, what life was like on Bainbridge before the war?

NO: Yes, I'm Nobuko -- they call me Nobie -- Sakai Omoto. And I was born on Bainbridge Island, December 20, 1923. And my father was a farmer and we lived in a shack according to standard now, because it was across the street from where the McDonald is now. That's where I was born. And I heard, probably you heard of Dr. Shepherd who was a doctor on the island and helped all the Issei ladies have their babies at home. Uh-huh, and since our parents didn't speak English very well... although my father did get around speaking broken English, but Mother didn't speak very much English. So, the Japanese were kind of a close-knit community. But until I went to, started school at Lincoln grade school, I didn't speak English very well. And I know teacher said, "Nobuko, speak English." [Laughs] Because Japanese girls get together and speak Japanese, you know. I remember that very clearly, but...


NO: I didn't have very many Caucasian friends because the Japanese were so close-knit and they did everything as a picnic or gathering, you know, as a Japanese community. Then after I started school, I had a lotta other Caucasian friends and they were all good to me, and all the teachers were very good and I liked school. So interesting because I didn't know very much then. No radio, no newspaper. But at school you get the Weekly Reader and reading books and math and, so it was really something new to me and I really enjoyed it. And well, I'm, my father and mother had six children, one son and five daughters, and I'm the third child. In 1929, my father started clearing land, you know, the old-fashioned way, horses and dynamite. The first 5 acres where the Commodore school is now. My father... many people were interested in that land during the war, but my father said, "My six children got good, free education in America," so he is gonna practically give it dirt cheap to the school. That's where the Commodore school is. And during the next ten years he cleared more land, and I think there is approximately 25 acres there now, which is all now a part of the Bainbridge Island School District. And that was a given at nominal cost also. You know, my brother and my father got together and... well, I told you we lived a simple life, but we enjoyed it.

JN: Tell us about your family and their occupations in 1942.

NO: Well, we were still... I was a student and my father was still farming. And the sad part is he cleared land because the old place where he was renting wasn't very, was all worn and the soil would get pretty old. So, and the, where he planted that last crop was full of blossoms, you know, because it was the first year of picking. And the sad part is he wasn't able to harvest it due to the war. But the Filipino that took it over said it was a bumper crop. So that was a, we were fortunate we had someone to take care of the place while we were gone. But I was a student, and I don't know, I think my sister helped work in the office part-time and my younger sisters were all in school and I think my brother was helping on the farm at the time.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

JN: Think back to December 7, (1941), Pearl Harbor Day. What do you remember about that day? Where were you? How do you, how did you feel, and how did your family react?

NO: Well, I think that was Sunday. And we were home, and I, my father and his friend were in Bellevue visiting a family, and when they heard about Pearl Harbor they hurried back because they thought they might be stranded in Seattle, you know, if they take the late ferry so... I didn't know where Pearl Harbor was. You know, I know, because I knew where it was big, but I had no conception of how big it was. And if it took fourteen days for the, you know, Mom to come to America, I said, "My, Hawaii must be far, too, you know." So, but I had no association with the people in Japan and actually, it scared me. It shocked us. I think we were all scared because they said Japanese are "Japs," see. And being of Japanese ancestry, I was really -- at my age -- I was really scared.

JN: How did the rest of your family react?

NO: Well, the Isseis were kind of scared, because they weren't citizens. So... but the Issei had a conception that Japan is a strong country, many Isseis did. I don't think my father... but I heard many Isseis felt that Japan cannot lose. So they had kind of, little confidence in it at first, but later on it turned out differently. But we were very... I think I was more on the scared side, because I didn't know how everyone will react.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

JN: Did your family do anything that reflected being scared in terms of what they owned and... that was Japanese and...

NO: You mean before the FBI came?

JN: Yeah, like where, yeah.

NO: Yeah. I think we had a curfew, I don't remember. But my father, I remember he had a bat by the door. In case, you know, we weren't very big people, you know, you don't know. So, but a we didn't encounter anything that was.. they were good to us, I think. As a whole they were good to us. And I, I was so naive and didn't know much, I just went along with what was heard and what was said, so... but we were very careful. We were very careful, we stayed home a lot. Go to school and come home and study and, and help on the farm if, whenever necessary.

JN: What do you remember about the FBI roundups? How did that affect your family?

NO: Oh, that was really scary. I came home from school, because we lived near school. I came home around three-thirty, and I saw these two men and I didn't know what was going on, because they must have been at our house for some time. And I, I think they went through the whole house, the outside, and I really didn't know what was going on but I saw those great big FBI men come in, lookin' around. And it really... I was really more of less petrified, what to do. But I felt very fortunate I had older sister and brother that I could kind of lean on, because I didn't know what they'll do. Later on, they took my dad around five o'clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, "What is he doing?" I said, "He's praying because he didn't do anything wrong." And, but they took him anyway. So it was before dinnertime and we were sad, we were crying, shocked, scared. And later on, I don't know what time it was, there was a knock on the door, and we got more scared. Then we opened the door, and here was Dad, they brought him back. They took him to Fort Ward with other Isseis. But if he had taken him on the ferry to Seattle, I don't think he would have been able to come home. They would have taken him to Missoula like other Isseis. But, I don't know why, but we were so grateful to see him return. Because actually he was very active in Japanese community. Why he was returned, I don't know, but I thank God for that. He came home.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

JN: What was your reaction and your family's reaction to the order saying that they had to leave Bainbridge Island?

NO: Well, that was another scary moment. When we were ordered to leave, I think it was my father and my sister or my brother went into town, because we needed suitcases and a few necessities. And so they brought home suitcases, you know, those old-fashioned flimsy ones. They couldn't afford the best. So, and then I think, I think I remember clearly my father thought that Niseis and Isseis would be separated. So he gave a... he went and bought tin plate, tin cup, and a silverware for each of us to take in case. And then Mom made a money belt and wrapped up so we could tying around our tummy and gave each of us cash, so we'll have something. So, that was very scary, too. And...

JN: So, preparing, what are your memories about, of your family preparing to go to Manzanar?

NO: When we had the one-week notice?

JN: Uh-huh.

NO: That was a horrible part. We were told we could only carry, take what we could carry, and that wasn't much because I had three younger sisters. But I had a little suitcase which I really stuffed it. And then I had a little shopping bag, stuffed, and I had couple school books. And then I put layers and layers of clothes on because you can't, you can't carry all that. So I remember that, carrying layers of clothes and my little belongings. But it was a... to leave our new farmhouse, and we didn't know where we were going, it was very... another scary time. I think the whole Pearl Harbor to evacuation all along was very, a stressful time for many families, including me, yeah. And did you want to know about that leaving? Or...

JN: Uh-huh. And what happened, how did your family take care of the farm or all their belongings?

NO: Okay, we were very fortunate. We had a great big farmhouse, and there was a nice Caucasian lady and a son lived in there for I think twenty-five dollar a month. And we had a Filipino, one of the workers, help harvest, took over the farm, and we were very fortunate that we had someone to take care of our place. Whereas in other part of California, all that, they had to give up everything. But I think as a whole, Bainbridge people were fortunate because we had nice neighbors. At least we... the people were good to us.

JN: Did people help you pack? Or, how was the packing...

NO: What... you couldn't pack much.

JN: Uh-huh.

NO: See, just your few clothes you have and all that, you couldn't pack much. I'd like to tell you about the school. We had a very nice principal, Mr. Roy Dennis, and he was very understanding and he was real good to us students. And they allowed us seniors to correspond so we could get our diploma. So that's why I had schoolbooks in my baggage, which was heavy. But I was determined, see. And he was so good to us. I named our first son Dennis.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

JN: What are your memories of March 30, 1942?

NO: Oh, the day we left, it was a very lonely feeling. Big army, that convoy truck, came and loaded up, you know, and took us down to the Eagledale dock. And it was very difficult to leave with just little belongings and move away from the big open space. And when went to the dock, the other schoolchildren, students, they skipped school and came to say goodbye and we cried and we hugged and it was hard to say goodbye. And my dear friend, a young classmate, I asked her to send me clippings from Times and P-I. So she did, and also sent me a scrapbook, which I brought today. And I still keep in touch with her, she lives in Seattle now. Very good friend. And when we got to Seattle, there was a train waiting for us. I didn't know where we were going, but we all got on, herded us onto the train. I think at all that time we had to keep our shades down... for our protection, they said. And the soldiers that escorted us, they felt sorry for us. In fact, I had an autograph book which many of them signed. And they were very... and to this day I don't know where it went, but I wish I had it. And when they got to Manzanar they were shocked to see the place in the condition we were going to. And I think some of them says, "Oh, I'm going to come after you one day," you know, to take us back. So I thought that was very comforting. But for many of us, people didn't leave the island. They lived, only for, just, they went West Seattle, or first time on the train. Of course, I went to, being on a train before with my mother when I went to Portland in 1940, but to many it was the first trip, first time on the train. And not knowing where you're going, it was very... a scary time for me.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

JN: What was your first impression of Manzanar?

NO: It was horrible. I could have just sat down and cried. Because we were the first evacuees and there were... we were separated into blocks. That first and second block were filled by bachelors or volunteers, I heard, and Bainbridge people were in the third block. And we had... it was a long barrack, flimsily built, and we had the end room. And it opened up like a barn door, that particular room, roughly built. And winter it was cold, wet, muddy. It was awful going to the central washroom, and it was awful going to the mess hall. First, the food wasn't very good, people got sick. And summertime, wind blew. And the building was so built in a hurry, the sand came up between the, of the floor and the, by the windows, the wind came and the sand came in all over and we had one big pot belly coal stove which we had to haul our own coal. It was dirty. But how else could you keep warm, see? And, and we had a rough, bumpy straw mattress with two army blankets. So, I think that Sears-Roebuck had a good business because we needed more things, so a lot of people ordered, eventually ordered.

And when I got there, I was called in for a job. And there were twelve of us there, eleven men and me. And they looked at me and they had me down as "Nobuo," that's a man's name, boy's name, and I'm "Nobuko." So I know, this David looked at me and says he couldn't put me on a truck or any hard work. [Laughs] So he put me in charge of lost and found, which I didn't like. But later on I worked in a warehouse taking inventory. And I did my homework and in June, I think the principal or the superintendent sent us the diplomas and they had a little graduation ceremony for us. So that was nice.

But after eleven months, there was a riot in Manzanar. And a bunch of us were in the mess hall, we're gonna watch a movie, then all of a sudden we heard the roar, uproar and screaming. And I saw a pipe, wrapped up in sheet, hitting those Kibeis. There was a pro-Japanese and then a pro-... and boy, did we get scared, so we ran home, separate ways. And then later I got home, there was a gunshot, about two or three, and some innocent bystanders were killed. That's when the Bainbridge people petitioned that we want to move to Minidoka. So we were in Manzanar eleven months and we did move to Minidoka in February of 1943.

JN: Can you tell us a little bit about what triggered the riot? What was the reason?

NO: I said there was a conflict between the Kibei... you know who they are? American-born but raised in Japan, and then there was a pro-American... but all I heard was a gunshot and actual people getting beaten up in the mess hall where we were all sitting around on the floor ready to see the movie. But I, what triggered it, I don't know, but I know... I think about three were killed. Innocent, innocent people. And that really got us scared because I think people on Bainbridge were more on the reserved compared to one... but we did get along, however. But we wanted to be with the Seattle group, so we moved to Minidoka.

JN: Did the soldiers get involved in the, in the riot? Or was, did they stay out of it?

NO: Well, there must have been some... they met at the, by the ad. building. That's where the shooting was, by the ad. building, by the entrance. So, I think that the security guards were... they must have shot. They must have shot, uh-huh.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

JN: We'd love for you to share some of your personal stories and memories, good or bad, about Minidoka or Manzanar.

NO: Well, when you moved to Minidoka, the buildings were more better built. It was still muddy -- [laughs] -- and cold. But we got along very well there and it was easier for people to relocate, get a pass for a day or two, or they could go bean picking or they could go housework and... we were more free, and, and the camp was cleaner. But I didn't stay there too long. Anxious to get out, I went houseworking for a sick lady and that was the worst experience, I think, to work for a sick lady. I went bean picking so I could get out, to Caldwell with a bunch of people. And, but later on I finally was able to relocate to Minneapolis with my younger sister. But I didn't stay in Minidoka that long, but what little short time I also did work in the hospital as a kind of aide. But I realized that the world is a big place, and I was naive before, but I had to grow up fast, become more independent, which I did. So, you had to be to be strong because you were separated. But it was awful experience.

JN: Did your parents and your younger sisters stay back in Minidoka?

NO: Yeah, they stayed back because the two were in school yet, see, and my brother was in the army. Yeah, they stayed back. And, but my sister, probably she told you, she left after she got married and worked for a farmer or a rancher, uh-huh. But I didn't, only stayed in Minnesota one year. Because the war was over, so I came back in November. Although I wanted to continue onto another schooling, but it was twenty below, it was too cold. And my father and mother, I felt that we should come home and help in what little way we can. So, we returned in November, my sister and I, younger sister.

JN: How did your parents manage with being in Minidoka, and did they ever share their feelings or...

NO: I... no, they didn't say much. My father tried -- I think many Isseis tried -- but they were older and they felt that they had to start all over again. I think that was very difficult for many. I think some of 'em gave up. But my father tried, but he passed away, sadly, in 1953. But at that time, my brother was old enough to carry on. But he was also going to school, too, so... somehow we managed. And lotta, maybe probably half of the Bainbridge people didn't return because they were all relocated to different areas. Like, now the Isseis are all gone and Niseis are getting up in their years. And maybe the people in our age, close to eighty and beyond, remember the camp life more than the children that went to camp after, before they were ten. So, but this is something I don't want anyone to go through. It's a very awful experience and many people struggled, many families were broken up. And I heard some committed suicide because... especially ones in California, they had to give up their business. Because they really had it rough, according to my friends. They had to... they were so angry, they used to just chop up their furnitures and break their refrigerators because the people tried to take it from them, or offer just dirt cheap. But we were fortunate, most of the people, I think, on the island were glad to see us come back. So I think we were fortunate. But it was a struggle to start over.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

JN: You sort of mentioned it, but what did your family do when they came back after the war and how... what was it like? How were you treated? What was the situation with your family's property?

NO: Okay, the house was okay. Whereas there was some people had some of their storage stuff taken. But, as far as I know, I think, I haven't heard anything missing from our big house. We had, we put everything in one room. And by the time we came back in November, my folks were kind of settled in their house. So, I think that people were actually good to us. Those people that's been there, you know, long, long time, I think they were real good to us. In fact, I go to those class reunions and I had a great time. I had a great time. So, of course, I didn't stay on Bainbridge too long because I got married. So, actually, I didn't stay on Bainbridge that long... first eighteen years and then couple, few years afterwards. But still, Bainbridge seems, feels so close, because it was once a close-knit family, community, I mean. Even my friends in California, they get together as a Bainbridge group, where there's quite a few down there, that Niseis.

JN: So where did you meet your husband? Was that after the war or during the war?

NO: Oh no, he was part of a family friend. He -- oh, he was also raised on Bainbridge, so his two younger brothers used to work for my dad. I noticed that he would come and pick his brothers up, by strawberry picking and all that. But I knew he went into the service but I had no idea where he was. But when I read from Manzanar... he sent me a little gift and I said, "Oh, so that's where he is?" [Laughs] So I just wrote back and forth. I thought it was nice to write to soldiers, so some people gave me their names and, "Would you write to me?" So I wrote to several. But I don't know, he's just... we knew his family from years back, because they had once farmed near, close to our old farm. Because our old farm was near where that, across the street from McDonald's where the lumber, lumberman is. Well, that was part of my old, our old farm we rented. Where I was born in that shack. [Laughs]

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

JN: Well, today, how do you feel about what happened to you and your family during the war? How do you feel about the memorial? What would you like to say to visitors?

NO: Well, that was a very historical event. And many... and before, a lot of people didn't know where Bainbridge was. But now that we get so much publicity, I think this memorial will be really great because it's a history and it should be carried on. So, if it's just books, it would be just hand-me-down things. But if you have some people that really experience this, all this, I think it's, I think it's a wonderful idea. People are more interested about Bainbridge and the, all the memorial... not only the Bainbridge people, but our friends and outsiders.

There's one thing I'd like to share. When I was unable to be with my graduating class in 1942, they had the graduation. I sent telegram and after twelve years I was very sad I couldn't be there, so I just sat and cried. And I heard that there was thirteen empty seats on the stage for us seniors. So, that was very touching. And in 1992, the graduating class of Bainbridge High School gave us, gave Sachi Nakata three days' notice if she could come. She asked me to join and so another lady, Sue Nishimori, Yonemitsu now, we went to this graduation, with the blue caps and gown, and we were the first three to walk down. And they gave us a standing ovation, and then we just marched up like all the seniors. We got our diploma, and I really felt that, "Oh, I did graduate from Bainbridge High School after all." And that will stay with me forever, and my youngest son came and took the video of the whole thing. So, that is very memorable to me.

JN: Do you have anything else you'd like to share?

NO: Well, I want to thank you all for this. I think this video will be a very important part of this whole evacuation and all that. And I think people will really appreciate and enjoy seeing it. Because it's coming out of the person or people that really experienced this, and they're trying to express what they remember. I think I am even looking forward to seeing all the, whole videotape one day. And I do hope that a memorial will at least completed or mostly completed because there aren't very many Niseis left on the island. And they're all, and the rest of them are all scattered throughout the United States. And the Sanseis are all scattered, too, and they don't know too much about evacuation, they only know what they hear. So, so I think this is a wonderful project, Japanese here are doing, and I appreciate it very much.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

JN: You mentioned some people that helped... do you remember any Bainbridge Island families in particular that really helped you out, you know, after the war or before you left? The family that lived in your house, were they neighbors?

NO: No, no. She was one of the working ladies, a single mother with a son. In fact, I hardly knew her because see, having an older sister, she made all the arrangements. And I know one lady, I think my sister used to help at the, was it was it Bucklin Field company or something? And I think they stored our, something for us. And I remember, I think it was Ms. Biggs, my math teacher, I think she visited camp once. So as a whole, to me, I didn't feel prejudice at all. I think Bainbridge Island people are more on fortunate side because the people on the island were good to us. I feel that way. I didn't feel any prejudice. Maybe there were a few, but I didn't hear of it.

JN: And you probably weren't looking for it, so you didn't know, you don't even... sometimes it's a lot of, in your attitude and how you look at things.

NO: Yes, but all this experience is something that you'll never forget, but you don't dwell on it. A person's life is too short; you must go forward all the time. But the thought of evacuation is something that's a memory you won't forget But, you don't dwell on the past; it's not good for me.

JN: Well, your parents must have been wonderful with all of their teenage children and trying to keep you focused and what to focus on and not to dwell on your difficult situation. That must have been very difficult for them.

NO: Yes, because my folks stressed education. Because my father lost his father -- no, mother, when he was a young boy. And he has some education, but way back in the 1800s, not many were able to go to school. So if they had a few years of schooling, that was doing, they were good. Whereas my mother came from kind of a good family so she has all kinds of education, so she stressed study, read, study, study. So they both stressed education. So that same thing went on to me, to our children. I said, "Study, study, study." So, even my son, when he decided to go to law school, he said, "I'd better work first." I said, "No, you're not." I said, "If you work first, I'm not gonna pay for your education." I said, "You go and if you quit, that's it. So you make up your mind," I said. So he finished. [Laughs] I said, "You, your job is to finish school. My job is to send you to school." So, I did that with our three children. Now I'm blessed with seven grandchildren, so I have no complaints. I feel very grateful and fortunate. So, I think the best thing that happened to me is a having my family that's so lovable and supportive. And I don't know if I should mention it, but the most important thing to me when I went to Minneapolis, I became a Christian, and that has been very helpful to me. And I have been a member of the Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle for sixty years now, and I was baptized by Reverend Andrews. And I was, and he performed our marriage. So I have very... I just feel richly blessed. And to be able to have this interview at my age, I want to thank you.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

JN: What... can you talk more about just what your, why the memorial is so important for, for us to build a memorial?

NO: Well, I haven't, I've been there once and I plan to go again. Being the first evacuees and the first evacuation in America, I think it's a wonderful a memorial. I'd like to see it done while more, while the Niseis are alive, and I think it's very meaningful because history must go on. And I think people will learn a lot from, once the memorial is built. I think they will understand more of all the situation and all that, and I'm all for it.

JN: Do you see any parallels with what's happening now in the world and...

NO: Well, I think there's gonna be a turmoil. We pray for peace but I don't think there'll ever be peace because there's been war going on for centuries and centuries. So, I just... sometime I hate to hear all that news, and see all the suffering, and people are homeless and all that. Even though we went to camp, at least we had a roof over our head and three meals a day. They weren't the best, but at least we weren't starved. So, compared to that, what other people are going through in the world, the killing and all that, the flood and all that, it's something we can't control but it kinda makes me really sad. So I can't, it's not the best, but I can't complain of the past. It will always stay with me, but life must go on.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2006 Densho. All Rights Reserved.