[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]
<Begin Segment 1>
MN: Okay. Today is Wednesday, January 11, 2012. We will be interviewing Takenori Yamamoto. We are the Centenary United Methodist Church, Tani Ikeda is on the video camera, and I will be interviewing, my name is Martha Nakagawa. And Tak, I want to start with your father's name. What was your father's name?
MN: How about your mother's name?
MN: What was her maiden name?
MN: I want to ask... let's ask, which prefecture did your parents come from?
MN: It's not very common for people to immigrate from Ehime-ken. Do you know why they left?
TY: Well, you know, they were the last children in their family, and they would not have been left anything. And so their idea was to come here and see if they could make a fortune living and working here.
MN: So then like most of the Issei families, I'm going to assume your father came to the United States first?
MN: Where did he first land?
TY: In Seattle.
MN: Do you know what he did out there?
TY: I think he worked in a hotel.
MN: And then I guess he kind of worked his way down to the Los Angeles area?
TY: Yeah. But my mother met him there after she came from Japan as well, so they migrated to San Francisco and then Los Angeles and then to Orange County.
MN: So when your father was, when he got married and your family, your mother and your father lived in Orange County, what kind of job did your father have at that time?
TY: My father had been a carpenter for some time, so he couldn't find work there. So he would take a week of work someplace else and then stay there. And Mom raised the kids.
MN: So your father's customers, were they mainly Japanese Americans or hakujins, or who were your father's customers?
TY: I think initially they were, 'cause he didn't speak English well. But a lot of hakujin types in Orange County hired him.
MN: So you said he would be away for a while?
TY: Yes, he would be gone the full week and come home on the weekend. So it was probably easier for him that way, he didn't have to contest or work with the kids. [Laughs]
MN: So your mother mainly just raised the kids on her own?
TY: Oh, yes. Yes, she did.
MN: So when your father was away, did you miss your father a lot?
TY: I just assumed that's the way it was. I never really thought to analyze why my father wasn't there, he just wasn't.
MN: So let me ask a little bit about you now. What year were you born?
MN: And then where were you born?
TY: In Los Angeles. I was born outside of the Japanese hospital and near Hellman Park, and transported back to Orange County after I was born.
MN: Does that mean you were born and delivered by a sambasan?
MN: What is your birth name?
TY: Takenori Yamamoto.
MN: Now most Niseis of your generation, they have a, like an English name later on. Did you ever pick up an English name?
TY: No. People called me Tak, but that's short for Takenori.
MN: Now you're the fifth of eight children, is that right?
TY: That's correct.
MN: I'm going to run down the names of your siblings and where they were born, and tell me if I'm correct.
MN: Kikuko; born in Seattle; Fumio, born in Seattle; Yasuko, born in L.A.; Shoji, born in L.A.; you, born in L.A.; Yoshi, born in L.A.; Nori, born in Poston; and Kimio, born in Poston.
TY: That's correct.
MN: Now were all the children delivered by a sambasan?
TY: Well, let's see. Up to Yoshi, yes. Then, of course, when we went to camp, they went to the hospital.
MN: Now I know you were born during the Great Depression, but did you ever hear of your parents talk about how tough those years were?
TY: I think if you live through it, they wouldn't have to tell you. You saw that you didn't have much of anything. Maybe because we were already poor, how did I know that we were lacking anything? But like food-wise and everything, we didn't lack for that, because my mom chopped the chickens up, so that kind of thing was not a problem. She raised the vegetables, so we had all of those things. There was an ample supply.
MN: So your family didn't have to go to, like, dumpster diving or anything like that.
TY: No, we didn't have to. I don't think there was a dumpster anywhere or we wouldn't go. [Laughs] We were right next to farms.
<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 2>
MN: Now your father was a carpenter, and you mentioned that he was known for building the stages for the various kenjinkai picnics?
MN: Do you remember being taken to a lot of these kenjinkai picnics?
TY: Yeah, because we had stages. So that was much after '47, so my brothers and I would go and help my father set the stages up. I think my biggest being proud of my dad was when they put together the stage in Poston, the one and only stage, there are pictures of it everywhere. But that's the one that he was responsible for, and I'm most proud of that.
MN: You know, now that you mentioned the Poston stage, can you describe that to us? What does it look like?
TY: Oh, I wish I had a picture of it. Here it was a regular mainstage, and then they had a hanamatsuri, which was a thing that goes off to the side. And then when dances start they would start from there and go on, because that was like, like that were part of coming to the mainstage. And to me, that's what I always thought it was like, it was great to see that. When we moved back to Los Angeles, they used Koyasan in the same fashion, and I think that was neat.
MN: Now, how was your father able to get permission to build a stage in Poston?
TY: I think the fact is they wanted some kind of entertainment for the troops, for the people that were there because it just wasn't anything. They had movies in the auditorium, after the auditorium was built, but other than that, there wasn't. So this was a nice thing for us to have. Now, of the three camps in Poston, we were in Camp I. And it was the only one that had that. Now, we were envious of, I think, Camp II, 'cause they had a cement pond. We just swam in the irrigation ditch, so they were at a different level than we, and we kind envied that.
MN: But going back to this stage, where did your father get the material?
TY: Okay. Since he was the carpenter and he could request some of this material, and they were readily available to him and his crew. So he got cement and wood and stuff like that, and that's what they mainly needed to create the stage. So that was a good thing for us, 'cause we were able to do that. But of course that would only go on during the summer, 'cause wintertime, who's going to watch an outside stadium? But when he set it all up, you still had to bring your own chair, so you had your own little folding chairs that everybody sat in and watched the production, whatever it was. And they all had a great time.
MN: What about his tools, though? Was he able to bring his tools into camp?
TY: Well, he had his tools that we carried into camp, but later on, since he was the head carpenter, they had stuff like that available to him and his crew. So we weren't lacking for saws, hammers and stuff like that.
<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 3>
MN: Now I want to go back to your prewar life a little bit. And you were living in Orange County, and is it Westminster?
MN: What was the neighborhood like that you grew up in?
TY: Well, as far as I remember, it was a very rural setting. Some paved streets, more dirt roads, and I think the thing that was more important to us was that there were Japanese farmers, not truck farmers, they actually owned the land. So they were quite well-off. And that's how it was for us. I remember when we were there for some years, we lived in an abandoned church that my father converted to housing us. And that was an interesting thing because he never did take the pews out. They were still in there, so here, as a kid, running through that place was fun. At that time, I think it would have been my two brothers and myself. My older brother being more responsible, of course, but the rest of us, we were just, we would raise hell. And my mom didn't care too terribly much, because as long as they weren't doing it in the house, she didn't care, that was okay. So it gave us a spot to be in, so I thought that was neat.
MN: Now who were your playmates?
TY: Well, at the time it was just my brothers and sisters, that's all there were. There were hakujins around and Hispanic types, but we never associated with any of them.
MN: So your father is a carpenter, and at home, did he, like, build the family ofuro?
TY: Oh, yes, we had those wherever we went. So whether we were accultured to understand any of that while it was there, here is a boiling tub of water, you get in it. And I think that that was part of our introduction to being Japanese, I guess. Now, the thing that... I don't want to say the word "isolated," but I think the only neighbor that we had that we particularly enjoyed was a woman next door to us, her name was Mrs. Patterson, and she was a retired teacher. And at the time, she must have been in her, oh, probably in her seventies. And I remember when we came out of camp, we were staying in Toyo Hotel, and my father and mom wanted to go visit Mrs. Patterson 'cause she was close to ninety then. So they wanted to go and visit her because they enjoyed her. And at one point, in Mrs. Patterson's house, there was plumbing, but they didn't have like porcelain fixtures. So my father built her a sink out of corrugated tin, and so she had a place to wash her dishes and stuff like that. And when we came out of camp, she wanted to show me that, the tin washbasin. And I was kind of impressed. I said, "Oh, this is kind of good."
<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 4>
MN: Now you were only three years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but did you notice a change in your family atmosphere after that date?
TY: Well, I can say probably for my older brothers and sisters, since they were going to school, I think they felt a certain... I don't say rejection from some of the schoolmates, because they didn't relate that to me, but they did in fact have that happen to them. And I think that that kind of like made us even closer. Here we were a cluster of, what, five souls, and so we were tighter bound, I guess, in doing things. Now one of the other things was that from that place prior to us going to camp, we were removed from the church 'cause they wanted to... I don't know if they wanted to, whatever they do to them, but we were told that we couldn't stay there any longer. So my father inquired about another friend who had a large ranch, and asked if we could stay there. 'Cause it was only going to be a matter of months before we were all going to be incarcerated. So he said, "Sure, come on." So we went over there, and that was only, like, about maybe three miles from our house, and this was on a large farm. One of the few places where Japanese owned, because their sons were citizens, so they didn't have to worry about their parents, and I thought it was really nice. So I used to go for rides on their sleigh that they would like when they pull asparagus and/or whatever. They had this horse in the front and then they had the sleigh in the back, and then one of the sons would put me in a trash bucket and I'd sit in there while they collected the asparagus. I had a good time. I'd go to sleep, it was fun.
MN: So your family then had to move already out of this church to this ranch, so did your family... what did they do with all the furniture?
TY: Well, most of the stuff was stuff that my father made, so it wasn't a big deal. It was portable and made out of wood, so it was okay, and my mom upholstered it, so it was no big deal.
MN: So when you were preparing to go to camp, then, did you have a lot of things to get rid of or was that already taken care of?
TY: No. There was a place that we had to house them, I don't remember where exactly, but I remember the father had built this big chest, it was probably maybe five feet by seven feet, that would house clothes. So he took it someplace, and we went to camp without that. It was okay.
MN: Did your siblings or your parents explain to you that you had to go into a camp?
TY: I don't think it made much of an impact to me. I think the thing is, more importantly was the fact that we were somewhat segregated by ourselves anyway, just Japanese. And so it wasn't unusual for me to associate Japanese because I didn't have any other Caucasian and/or Hispanic friends. So it was not a big deal.
MN: Now, where did you gather to go into camp?
TY: Okay, we didn't have to gather. What we did was that we were told to get to Union Station, and we got in the train and that was it. We didn't... like people in J-town, they got a semi truck and they dropped them off. No, none of that happened. We were just there. I guess, I don't know if we got there by trolley or what, but we got there.
<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 5>
MN: Now, did you go straight to Poston or did you go to an assembly center first?
TY: Directly to Poston.
MN: What do you remember of the train ride? What was the train ride like?
TY: Hot. Hot with the shades down, 'cause they didn't want you to know where you were going. What that was gonna do, I don't know. Was I going to run off the train later and find my way back to L.A.? I don't think so. But that's whose ever logic it was. We were on the train with the blinds down, and I don't think we saw anything until we got to camp, when they let the blinds up.
MN: How many days was this?
TY: I think a day and half. Boy, it felt like a forever process, 'cause it was hot and we were going into Arizona. I think we were getting there in September, so it was hotter than blazes. So I can't really tell you.
MN: Did you get, like, motion sickness on the train?
TY: No, I was just excited to be on the train. So hard to say, I don't know what anybody else felt.
MN: How about, do you remember eating anything on the train?
TY: Yeah. I don't know where we got 'em from, but we had sandwiches. I don't think I was ever thrilled about sandwiches, but hey, you got what you got.
MN: Was this your first time eating a sandwich?
TY: No, my mom made, too, but ours was Japanese American sandwiches. [Laughs]
MN: When you say "Japanese American sandwich," what do you mean? Like a bologna in there? Shoyu?
TY: Well, they had kind of stuff, but if you went to someplace where they made bologna sandwiches, you know, it was just slapped on with mayonnaise and maybe lettuce, and on a white piece of bread. And that was it, that was your sandwich. Now, Mom made it with tender loving care, so there were a lot of other things in it besides lettuce and tomatoes to try to make the bologna tastier, maybe even fry it.
MN: With shoyu?
MN: Do you remember any African American porters on the train?
TY: No, there were no porters, just the military guards to "keep us safe."
MN: How did you feel about these soldiers on the train? What was your feeling towards them? Were they friendly towards you?
TY: Oh, they weren't antagonistic or anything, they just there. They were like part of the upholstery.
MN: So this train took like a day and a half you said, where did you sleep?
TY: In the chair we were sitting in. They were upholstered, so it wasn't like I was, had to suffer or anything.
MN: Do you remember what the toilets were like?
TY: No, I don't know if I used them or not. All I know from what I remember is that back then, the toilets were exposed to the tracks. So if you sat on one of those things, you could see the track below. That's what I remember.
MN: So basically they were just like a hole and you just...
MN: Once you got into Arizona and you neared Poston, where did the train stop?
TY: It stopped in Poston itself, at the train station, and then the bus took us from there to the camp.
MN: What was your first impression of the camp?
TY: Well, we got there at night, so it was hard for me to see anything. And all we were told to do was to... well, not for me, but for the kids that could, to get out and go and get hay and put it in these mattress bags, 'cause that was going to be your sleeping thing. That's all I remember.
MN: So you said you got there at nighttime, was it still warm?
TY: Oh, yeah. No air conditioning.
<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 6>
MN: And then you mentioned that you ended up at Poston Camp I.
TY: Camp I.
MN: What were some of the first things you did when you got there? You talked about the hay, what other things do you remember doing when you first arrived there? Did you go to the mess hall and eat?
TY: I don't know if we did anything that first night or not. First off, I wouldn't have known where the mess hall was. 'Cause we were at the end of that particular block, and the mess hall was at the other end. If you saw the map, you see how they are. They have the latrines in the middle, or as they call them, "restrooms." And then, down the middle, and then they had one storage facility, and off to the right side of this double wide building which was the... nani, the mess hall.
MN: So what about the first few days? Did you go out and explore?
TY: I don't know. It was too wilderness-like. Here it was, well, no streets, they just had cut down some bramble bush, I guess that was it. So there wasn't much of anything to entertain yourself with. So you stuck around the camp, right around the block, 'cause that's the only place you knew. You didn't want to go too far, and if you had into another block, who's to say you wouldn't have gotten lost? 'Cause they looked identical, every last one of them. I know I didn't for the longest time want to leave my block, 'cause I knew where lived. And I think it was grilled into me what my block address was, which was Block 28-8-D. I said, "Oh, okay, I've got that clear." So if I should ever get lost, I could just say that. Block 28-8-D.
MN: What was your reaction to the public restrooms?
TY: Well, you know, initially, it was kind of shocking because when you went to the restroom, there were all of the stools. And you looked down and you saw every last one of anything. And I think some of the people are, Japanese would say, "hazukashii," because they've never been to a place where you had to expose everything when you sat down. And then you try to ignore everybody by looking straight ahead, so no eye contact. And I think as kids we learned that, don't embarrass anybody, look straight ahead. Don't sit here and talk to anybody, just straight ahead. I think that's one of the good things I learned.
MN: How about the mess hall? What was your reaction to going into this huge place and eating with a lot of people?
TY: Well, you know, they had tables set up for families, so you go there, pick up your metal tray, and walk down there and they would put whatever they put on it, and then you'd walk back to your table. And then of course we had a whole table to ourselves, 'cause there was eight of us. So, you know, we would fill up a table.
MN: And did you usually sit with your family?
TY: Initially I think we did. We all did at the beginning. Later on, they started to know friends, and so they were then off to several friends.
MN: Now what sort of food do you remember eating in the mess hall?
TY: Well, one thing I remember totally that I still hate today is... it looked like shoe leather and it tastes like shoe leather. And I thought that's what it was supposed to be until I went into the service. I had it then, and I said, "Oh, this is good, what is it?" And they told me and I said, "Oh, I would never have guessed, because I remember in my childhood I hated this stuff 'cause it was terrible." Because the people that they volunteered to cook, the reason they volunteered is they got the leftover nani or the food or whatever. And so that's what they do, but they didn't know anything about cooking. They just do all that, you could just throw stuff on top of the stove and cook it.
MN: So is this like a steak or was it liver?
TY: Yeah, it's liver.
MN: Oh, liver.
TY: Steak? Are you crazy? [Laughs] Liver. And so when I went into the service, they said, "We're having liver," and I thought, "Oh, yuck." And I was reluctant to eat it, but when I looked at it I said, "Oh, this doesn't look like that gray stuff I had in camp." 'Cause they didn't know how to cook it, 'cause it was actually cooked. And said, "Oh, this is good." So after that, I had no problem eating liver. Liver and onions is my favorite dish.
MN: Now, the winter of 1942 you were only four years old, but do you remember when Poston Camp I had the huge strike?
TY: You know, it was hard for me to say that I knew the whole huge strike. They had a strike, but then there were always kind of like a lot of unrest in the camp anyway. So I don't know if I could discriminate between one or the other. So yeah, it happened, but I don't know that I knew the difference.
<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 7>
MN: Now you also earlier talked about your father being the head carpenter at Poston, and you talked about him building the huge stage with the hanamichi. What other projects did he work on?
TY: Well, you know, almost all the camps, they had to... well, every block in our area needed other things to get done. Like, for instance, he just had like a floor and walls and windows maybe, but that's it. And so if you needed someone to help set up stuff, like build shelves under it, whatever, my father would more than willingly that kind of stuff. Or make tables or whatever, stuff that people could use. 'Cause we were gonna, say we were gonna be here the rest of our lives, so we might as well make do, you know.
MN: Did you really think that, that you were gonna be there for the rest of your lives?
TY: What do I know? I mean, here I was, three and four, right? And they said, "Well, you're gonna be here for eight years," that's a long time then. Of course, I wasn't there eight years. It was just the fact that any number of years would have been stuff I couldn't count.
MN: So it sounds like your father's skill was really in high demand?
TY: Yes. And then he started several different crews. 'Cause when we came out of camp, some of the crews in camp became his people that he worked with outside, building stuff. So he trained them to become junior carpenters, I guess, whatever, so they had a way out. They didn't have to be, like, for instance, a lot of the Japanese came out of camp and they became gardeners because that was the only thing that they could do. Well, here there were people with some skills that could do carpentry work and they were always wanted.
MN: What kind of things did your father make in your block?
TY: Well, let's go back to our building. Whenever he could get supplies and stuff, he would create Japanese-looking parts, our apartment. He made a tokunoma. 'Cause it was already separated between Apartment A, B, C and D. And Apartment D, he built this Japanese place where you could put your flowers and stuff like that. And of course, that was always something that other people wanted. So he said, "I could build you one, but I don't have the materials." So he would help if they got the materials. And so that was his big thing, to do that kind of stuff, 'cause he wanted the place to look sort of like Japan. 'Cause after camp, after we got home -- I say "home" -- we got to L.A., wherever we lived, he always built a Japanese place for your hana and your tea ceremony stuff. So we always had that. Other people, of course, lived in their American houses with their American furniture and that was it. So we were... I'm not saying we were unique, but he was so wanting to keep a little bit of Japan there, that's what he would do. I thought that was neat.
MN: Oh, I've seen photos of your sister Kimiyo, beautiful work after the war. I would love to live in a house like that with a tokunoma and ryouka, the shoji, and then you had the garden outside, it's beautiful.
TY: Yes, that was really nice. That was really nice.
MN: Well, you know, you were very young, but did your father take you along when he was working?
TY: Not really, unless it was like just a few hours away. Nothing that took any longer than that because you know kids, they don't have any kind of way to concentrate beyond that time. So he knew, said, "Now, don't take this ratty kid with you."
MN: You shared about your father creating this garden and pond in your barrack?
TY: Yes. When my youngest brother was born, he had a skin rash. And during the summer it was unbearable, but he couldn't take him to our... I don't want to call it a swimming hole, but what it was was part of a large irrigation ditch, because he couldn't watch him. So he decided, well, I'll make a pool next to the house between the two apartments. So I don't know where he got the cement, but he made the pool there, and my brother was able to swim in that thing to keep cool. 'Cause that was the only way that he'd keep the rash down.
MN: Let's see now. When Poston Camp III had to be built, what was your father's role in that?
TI: I just think he just did some modifications for people as far as I remember.
MN: Did you, were you able to go with your father when he was helping out with camp?
TI: No, that was too far away. I think the nearest camp I went to was Camp II, and that maybe two miles away. But that was like a whole new experience for me, two miles. So, yeah, it was a relatively interesting setup. I think the thing that, more importantly was... the thing I remember was the hospital. Because the hospital was just another one of those double wides, but they had wards in them. And I think the thing about it is I thought for the longest time that nurses were Japanese, because they all were, as was some of the teachers at school. There were some hakujin ladies later on, but the people that lived and worked in the camp were Japanese people that had gone to, let's say, college, but didn't graduate yet. And so they were, not the high school teachers, but they were the grammar school teachers. And to me that was an interesting kind of setup. I think even my oldest sister was a teaching assistant, 'cause I saw her in a couple of pictures where... she wasn't in any of my group, but she was with some other people. And they enjoyed her 'cause she was very good with kids. And so I think that was part of being who I became later, the fact that here was this woman who -- I guess girl, who wanted to get into that kind of stuff and was able to. Don't know if she would have been able to do it if we were still outside camp, 'cause they would have definitely required a B.A. and she didn't have that. So, yeah, it was an interesting setup.
<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 8>
MN: Now when you were going to school in Poston, were there any hakujin kids of administrators in your class?
TY: Well, I think like maybe the principal and a few teachers, but that's it. So I don't know of any -- so it was hard when I came out of camp to understand that there were people that were not Japanese that could be black and/or Hispanic. And I think that that was a thing that I had not experienced before, because in camp, all you ever saw were Japanese and maybe a few whites, that's it.
MN: One more thing I want to ask about your father is the auditorium. Did your father work on the auditorium?
TY: No, he didn't really work on the auditorium, 'cause that was basically done by the contractor, and maybe they did some modifications but that was it. I mean, the building itself was built by the contractor.
MN: And these were outside contractors?
TY: Uh-huh, the ones that come in for twenty hours a day.
MN: You know, when you were in Poston, did you attend a Japanese language school?
TY: I avoided that. Because I didn't want to, and my mom didn't force me to, so I avoided it was much as I could. I think later on I took a little bit of it, but not much.
MN: So when you said you avoided it, did you just not go and told your parents you were going?
TY: No, I never told her that, 'cause she knows where I was going. So I just said, "I'm not going."
MN: How about church? Did you go to church in camp?
TY: Yes, I did. I think... I had no idea what church I should go to, so I made my rounds. I went to a... I think I went to a Methodist, I know I went to Buddhist 'cause that's where I sort of related to. But it was all very interesting to me, and I didn't have any... I didn't feel like I belonged to anything in particular, but it was interesting to go to. I think, for me, after I came out of camp, that I understood that I really was Buddhist, and so I went to Koyasan. So that was where I started to understand who and where I should be going.
MN: So when you got into camp and you're with a lot of these Japanese American kids, were you able to make a lot of friends?
TY: Not really, because we were, in the very beginning, a family with no means. We didn't have any money like some of the kids that had come in from middle class families whose father was a doctor or something, professional. And they would... this is not necessarily lorded over you, but you knew, they were saying, "Look, I got this, you don't." And so I think what I did was sort of stick around with my family, 'cause it was large enough that I could socialize with them, and that's what I did lots of time.
MN: So there was already kind of this strata going on.
MN: Do you remember if there was, like, any talks of burakumin?
TY: Not really. Not that I could remember.
MN: What kind of games did you play, then, with your siblings or with yourself? How did you spend your time?
TY: Before I went to school, I think they played all of the hide and seek, throwing the ball over the barracks, that kind of stuff. So nothing like baseball 'til later on. So we were, not restricted, but we didn't have like a diamond yet or anything like that, so you had to do what you could do. Later on, of course, they had regular sports, but that wasn't until later on, maybe a couple years later.
MN: What about your mother? Your father was doing a lot of carpentry, what did your mother do in camp?
TY: Taking care of babies. Because I had two younger ones in camp, so she was busy all the time.
MN: I imagine that she had to wash the diaper, there was no disposable diapers?
TY: No disposables. She had to dispose of the kids. They just had the diapers that she had to wash.
MN: That's like a twenty-four hour thing.
TY: Oh, yeah. And I think at the time, like for instance, between my brother and sister, Kimio and Nori, I think it's about eighteen months. So you know one wasn't out of diapers yet and she was still having to wash theirs. I remember once, though, my mom sent me off to get the formula for my brother. And I said, "Oh, this is the milk product," so I opened the lid, tasted it, said, "Oh, this is yuck." I don't see how they got any kid to drink that stuff, I'm serious. I'm trying to think of that formula that they had, but it was terrible. And to this day, I think about the poor kids who drink that stuff, I said, "Oh, no. I'd rather starve." [Laughs]
MN: Well, now, your mother was, she delivered the two kids in camp, until she delivered them, was she able to walk to the hospital to deliver the babies, or how did she...
TY: As far as I remember, she walked to the hospital, because it wasn't that far away. It was at the end of our block, so it wasn't like she had to go for miles.
MN: And she never had any complications with the pregnancy?
TY: Not that I know of.
MN: Now your mother's also known for her haiku and beautiful calligraphy.
TY: Oh, yes, yes. And this is the thing that's so sad. She really wanted to do that, but you know when you think about the fact that she didn't have the time for it, and yes, people had asked her while we were in camp even to compose some haiku for them, because they had this thought and they would like to have it put down. So my mother, "Sure, when I have the time I'll write it up for you." And she would do it in a beautiful hand. And she only went to, I think, probably the seventh or eighth grade dake, and she felt very comfortable and not intimidated by any of the people that went to college. The thing that was impressive was when we came out of camp, on the emperor's birthday, they had asked people to submit poems and to write prose, I guess, and she would submit them and a couple of them got accepted by them. But of course she didn't use her name, she used... you know how they make these things up, she used the name, I can't remember what it was, but she used that. And she got published by them. I never saw it, but I heard about it. I was very taken by the fact that she had this capability.
MN: Well, I think your sister has a lot of it translated, right?
TY: Those are the later ones.
MN: Later one. Now, when your, when the government started about drafting the Nisei out of camp, was your oldest brother old enough to be drafted?
TY: He was, but one of the things that kind of kept him from going was that he had a heart murmur, so he was exempt. So I thought, I was glad for that. I didn't know anything about being exempt, but I saw all these other people signing these sheets that they didn't want to go, but felt that they needed to go, so that's sad.
MN: You know, when all this started to come out and the "loyalty questionnaire" came out, was that an issue in your family?
TY: Not really. Because whatever it was, my mom and dad... well, my mom more than anybody, stated, "We can't go back to Japan. We didn't want to be there, so what's the point?" She was strongly against going back there. My father was saying, "Well, we can always go back." She said, "You go. I'm keeping the kids, we're staying here." So she was the strong one.
<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 9>
MN: What about holidays? What was Christmas like in Poston?
TY: You know, we celebrated Christmas outside of camp, so it was no different in camp. It's just that it was with more people. But it was kind of fun. I think the more important holiday for me and my family was the New Year, so we celebrated New Year.
MN: How did you celebrate New Year's?
TY: Lots of food. Even though it was camp food, my mom would redo them. If you got it from the cafeteria or the mess hall, she would bring it back to the mess hall and redo it, so we would have something different than what everybody else had. [Laughs]
MN: How about like mochitsuki? Did they have mochitsuki?
TY: Yes, they did. My father either made it or brought it with him, you know, the actual cement round thing?
MN: The usu?
TY: Yeah. And my mom used to move the mochi around with her hands, my father beat on it, and I said, "Uh-uh, you'd never get me to do that." Because someone miss hits and then you've got your whole hands stamped. I said, no. But she did it, was okay for her.
MN: And then you shared it with your whole block?
TY: I don't know about the whole block, I think some apartments around there. 'Cause there were eight kids already, so who are we gonna give it with? [Laughs]
MN: How did you eat the mochi?
TY: Well, when it was first made we would eat it like that, and then later on we would try to get it... well, we had a fire, what is it called? One of those things that you could heat up the apartments.
MN: Potbelly stove?
TY: Potbelly stove. So we would cook the mochi in there so that you could get it, that kogeru, and then we ate that with shoyu and sugar. I don't know if we had sugar, it must have been honey, huh?
MN: Sugar was rationed, I know.
MN: And I'm kind of wondering, do you know where you got the mochigome?
TY: I don't know.
MN: So I know a lot of the families ordered from mail catalogs?
TY: Yeah, we got ours from "Shasu Robaku," Sears & Roebuck, or "Mongenmori," Montgomery Ward's, yes. So those were our big suppliers.
MN: So when you were growing up, did you know Montgomery Ward's as "Mongenmori"?
TY: Yeah, so when I came out, I didn't know where else to go. Where's Mongenmori? I don't know. Shasu Robaku, where do you find that? I don't know.
MN: Let me go back to the Christmas, though, did your family trade presents?
TY: We didn't have any trading, 'cause we didn't have that kind of money. So we just took whatever we got. Maybe a toothbrush or whatever, toothpaste.
MN: Did your mother ever make you things for...
TY: Oh, yeah. She's famous for making things, or darning socks. But we each would get a shirt, 'cause she would write to Mongenmori to get the materials and then she would cut out the shirts and we would each have a new shirt at Christmastime. So all of the boys got new shirts, and my sister, my youngest sister got a new dress. Because at that point, my older sister was taking sewing lessons in camp, so she could sew, too. So she would sew their clothes.
MN: So now your mother's ordering this material and she's making these new shirts for you boys and your sister, was it from the same material? Was it the same shirts?
TY: Well, for the boys, it was all the same shirts. But for the, my sister, no, different material.
MN: So you were kind of wearing identical clothes.
TY: Oh, sure. You could tell we were all Yamamotos. [Laughs]
MN: Any other memories you have of Poston?
TY: I remember it being really, really cold in the wintertime, and really, really, as they said, mushiatsui in the summer. Those are the things that I remember more than anything. Now as far as other things, I don't really remember, not well, anyway.
MN: Well, how did you keep yourself cool during the mushiatsui summers.
TY: Jump in the irrigation ditch.
MN: How would you learn to swim, though?
TY: Drowned. My brother and I one day went there to the swimming hole. It was a Saturday, so there was nobody there, so we jumped in. We thought we had the paddleboards, but the paddleboard slipped out and I didn't have it. And my brother couldn't get it, so we were struggling like crazy pulling on me to get to it. So we eventually got out, but later on, a friend of my family taught us how to swim, which was a good thing. Because what do you do all summer, sit in the shallow end?
MN: And then during the wintertime, how did you keep yourself warm?
TY: Well, before you go to school you sat in front of the hibachi like thing, just to get as hot as you could. And the coat that my mother ordered from Mongenmori, we would wear that and go to school. It was always these heavy wool things, but what do I know?
<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 10>
MN: What year did your family leave Poston?
TY: At the end of 1944. Because we got back and then my father first left camp to find us a place to live, 'cause there were eight of us plus two. So he had to find us a place and so the Toyo Hotel, which was then called a hostel, he had gotten two rooms which would have been fine, but when he went there, there was another family, didn't have a unit at all, so he gave up one of the rooms. So it turned out that we, it would have been eight of us in this one room, and one double bed. But what happened was my older brother and my oldest brother found another friend, I think, to bunk in with. And so they moved there, and so that was fine, it's come down to a few. And then my two older sisters went out to Pasadena to become housegirls.
MN: But then there's still six people, right?
MN: And you have two beds?
TY: No, just the one double bed.
MN: How did you sleep?
TY: One, head to toe, toe to head.
MN: That must have been pretty crowded.
TY: Well, we were kids then, we were little, so it was okay.
MN: And you know, you spent your formative years from three to six in camp. What did it feel like to leave Poston?
TY: I think the thing that was most interesting for me anyway was when we moved to the Toyo Hotel, we went to Amelia Street School, which is right there by the freeway, no longer. And so when we were there, most of the people who went to that school were black. The problem for me was I had never interacted nor seen blacks. So it was hard for me to discriminate -- not discriminate -- the word would be I didn't know how to tell the difference between either of them. [Interruption] In class one day, we had drawn names, and the teacher said, "Well, just buy them a gift." So I bought the gift, but I couldn't remember the kid's name. Geez, what am I going to do? So when I took it back to school, she said, "Oh, I have a list here." So she was able to give that gift to that kid. Because all I saw was black. I didn't see anything else. It was very difficult initially. I think for the first year, that's most of the things that I found that I identified with, was just the color of your skin, that was it. And I didn't see nor recognize anybody else as individuals. Except Japanese, because those are the people I saw all the time.
MN: This gift exchange was like a Christmas gift exchange?
MN: Do you remember what you got this...
TY: I was giving that thing to my sister who got it for us.
MN: So when you also moved into the Toyo Hotel, were there African Americans living in the Toyo Hotel?
TY: No, there were nobody but us Japanese. 'Cause they were looking for housing. Now, there were some blacks that were moving in from other places, but they were not moving in there. One of the things I remember, I remember this vividly, downstairs of the Toyo Hotel was a chapel. And I used to sort of look in and see who was in there, because here I hear all this singing, and they were singing gospel music. And so I got into that, I said, "This is fun." So I didn't know any of the lyrics or anything, but it didn't matter, it was going to be fun. So I went down there and I just sang and sang and sang, they just thought, "Who is this Asian kid?" But I had a good time. It was kind of fun.
MN: So there was a... you mean there was an African American congregation and they didn't kick you out or anything?
TY: No, no. I think they also felt isolated anyway, so anybody that wants to come in, fine, come in and help yourself. And what would you do in a church, kick 'em out? Get out of here. [Laughs]
MN: Tell me what the living conditions in the Toyo Hotel was like. I mean, was it like camp? Did you have to have a communal bathroom and kitchen?
TY: Yes, everything was communal because there was no... like, for instance, on the second floor that we lived on, there was one bathroom and a kitchen. And so everybody on that floor had to share the kitchen and bathroom, so you had to sort of like time it so people were out of there so that you could continue doing it. And that was one of the sad parts of that, but I think you kind of learned because you came from camp. You didn't have all that privacy anyway, so what's the big deal.
MN: Then your family's trying to recover from camp, what did your father do for a living right after?
TY: Well, I think when he first came out of camp, he was looking for any kind of work, 'cause he didn't have his tools right then. And so he had to do what he could. And one of the things that he did was try to find a place for us to relocate to. So he found a place in East L.A., it's called Boyle Heights, and we moved in there. But before we can move there, he had to modify this four-car garage to living quarters, so that's what he did. And then so when we got out of there we had this newly furbished garage.
MN: But where did you go to the bathroom?
TY: There was a small... [interruption]. It didn't have a bathroom, it's just a toilet, dake. So we had that. So that sad part of it later on, though, was here there were eight of us using this one little bathroom, and so it's kind of difficult. I mean, "Hurry up and come out, hurry out and come out." So when I bought this house that I live in now, I looked around and I said, "I don't care what kind of house it has, I don't care if it's only two of us, I have to have two bathrooms." That's a requirement.
MN: And so your family's living in Boyle Heights now. What was it like living there?
TY: You know, that's the first time that I to interact with Hispanics, 'cause that's who the other basic population was. And I remember there was this thing they used to run around, 'cause they didn't know the difference between Japanese and Chinese. And so they had this little jingle, "Chino, Chino Japonese." So that went on forever. I think after a while they sort of said, "Well, they're not reacting, I guess we should just stop." 'Cause what do we know from anything? How can you possibly get us too riled?
MN: And then from Boyle Heights your family moved to South Central in 1950?
TY: Yes -- go ahead.
MN: No, go ahead.
TY: No, you go ahead. [Laughs]
MN: When your family moved to South Central, did your father pick up African American customers?
TY: Yes, yes.
MN: What kind of things did he build for them?
TY: Well, modifications to houses. [To cameraperson] Oh, how many minutes? Five? Okay, we'll shorten that. Anyway, so we had primarily African American clients, and he had no problem with it. Except, of course, when he spoke English to them. His English was poor, so he would ask one of his sons to come and translate if they needed to understand fully. And he had no problem with that. Now, the only thing that I had a problem with was when we used to do work for Japanese who had since come out of camp, you talk about Jewish, serious, they were worse than anything. Because they would say to my father, "Oh, I'd like to have this work done and this is what you agree to." Father said, "Okay. Then, as soon as -- and as well as anybody knows, there's a thing called change of plan. Change of plan means you have to charge more. So he would charge more, but the Japanese ones would say, "Oh, no, you told me this was this amount. I'm not paying any more." So thereafter, we said, "No, we're not going to do anything for you unless you agree that this is what you're going to do if and when you make a change." 'Cause it was hard, really. You talk about whatever that is, it was very difficult to get them to understand that, no, no, you go someplace, and let's say you had a suit made and then all of a sudden you want to change the suit, they charge you for that. They don't do that for free. And it was hard for them, or they didn't want to understand that that was going to cost them more. Yeah, he didn't have any problem with Mexicans and/or blacks as far as doing modifications and telling them it's going to cost them more because they made a change. Those Japanese ones, you got to watch.
<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 11>
MN: I wanted to ask you, what was it like living in South Central L.A.? Did you see a lot of street fights?
TY: No, there weren't a lot of street fights as such, 'cause this is 1947 when we moved to that area. So there wasn't that kind of gang stuff that we have now. I think the thing that was so funny was, for me, was the fact that I got to understand black women more because they could be assertive. I remember one day, I was totally amazed. I was standing on the corner of Tenth and Central, and here was this black woman chasing her husband out there. "I'll cut you, I'll cut you," and she was running down the street with this big butcher knife. And I said, "Oh, this is wild. I don't know anything about this, but it's wild." [Laughs] That made an impression.
MN: What about Japanese school? Did you go to a Japanese school?
TY: Okay. While we were there, my father did some work for a Japanese school teacher. And she's accredited in Japan, not here, and so he had asked if she wouldn't mind teaching Japanese school at our house. And so she said, "Okay," then she said, "could I bring some students?" which she did. And I think that was my first exposure to formalized Japanese school. And so the problem I had with that was it wasn't the Japanese we were using at home. And so it was little different and a little more stilted, but it was something I could understand, so we took all of us, from oldest brother down to my sister Kimiyo, we were all exposed to Japanese school.
MN: So at home, were you speaking a dialect?
MN: How long did you attend the Japanese school?
TY: As soon as I could get to being in the Boy Scouts, 'cause that was my out. 'Cause she taught on Fridays, and Boy Scouts was on Friday night. So I said, "Oh, I'll join the Boy Scouts."
MN: Which Boy Scout troop did you join?
TY: 379, which was the Koyasan church.
MN: The well-known Koyasan 379. [Laughs]
TY: There you go. [Laughs]
MN: Did you join the drum and bugle?
TY: Well, you know, we all had to play that. My brother bought me one. I was a terrible bugle player but I blew on it to make everybody... I'm glad everybody was loud, otherwise they'd have kicked me out, probably.
MN: And you know, a little earlier you talked about your father working on the Koyasan stage. Did you go and help your father when he was building this thing?
TY: I think it wasn't like did I help, I think everybody in my family were obligated to help my dad. So all of my brothers and myself would go down and no matter were gonna do, if we pounded nails or not, we were there putting up the stage.
MN: Now did the Koyasan stage have the hanamichi also?
TY: Yeah. That had to be built. So if you go there, there's nothing there that resembles anything like that. They had to build it. And then I didn't understand this, too, but why they would do the stage in the main portion of the auditorium, they raised it about three feet. So I think, to me, at the level that it would normally be would have been more logical. But they raised it to three feet, so the hanamichi had to be up that high, too.
MN: So now the stage that we see at Koyasan now, is that part of the stage that your father built?
TY: I have to go and see. I don't know... I have not seen it.
MN: Were your parents a part of the, were they Koyasan members?
TY: Yes, because there were was no Zentsuji then. I didn't know that that's what my mom and dad were church members of in Japan. So when we came down here, the only one that was closest to it was the Koyasan and not the... nani. Which is the one down the street down here?
MN: There's the Jodo Shoshu... the Nishi Hongwanji?
TY: Nishi Hongwanji. So they were not gonna go there, so Koyasan was the closest one that they could find.
<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 12>
MN: Let me ask about your school a little bit. You attended Lafayette junior high school later on. What was the ethnic makeup of the Lafayette junior high school?
TY: I would say it was probably fifty percent Japanese and/or Japanese American.
MN: How did you get along with the other students?
MN: And then from there you went to... which high school did you go to?
TY: Well, I was supposed to go to L.A. High School, 'cause that's the district that we moved to. But I knew I didn't belong there because the people that I met that were Japanese who went to L.A. High School, were kids from well-to-do families, their fathers were doctors and whatever. My father was a carpenter, where the hell am I gonna get that kind of money? And you talk to all the kids, I don't know about now, but then, you talk to some of these, "Well, I have four cashmere sweaters." I barely have a nylon one, what are you talking about? So I knew that I couldn't go there. Poly was better for me because we were all upper, lower middle class kids from all levels, but that's what we all identified with. So once you got in, you didn't even have to think about it.
MN: What year did you graduate from high school?
TY: Okay, I graduated the summer school in 1955. People say, "Summer school?" I said, yeah, my friend and I went to, in the very beginning we left elementary school -- not elementary, junior high school, we went in, and then we took our summer classes. So when we took our last summer class, that completed according to them the year's worth of school. So we were able to graduate a year ahead of everybody else. 'Cause all the friends of mine who didn't do that graduated a year later.
MN: Now when you were growing up, did you get involved in any of the Japanese American clubs or gangs?
TY: No, I was never part of that nani, what was that group called? My younger brother was in it.
MN: Is it west side, the Constituents?
MN: Your brother was in that?
TY: Yeah, Yoshi was in it, who has since passed, but he was in that group.
MN: And Mo was in that group. Mo was in the older group, and Jim was in the Black Juans. But you didn't get involved in any of that.
TY: No, that wasn't my kind of stuff. I was more civic-minded. Get me in the straight and narrow and I could do that. After all, I was in the Boy Scouts, how could you possibly ask me to go in the Constituents?
<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 13>
MN: Now, after you graduated from high school, what did you do?
TY: Well, I decided, what am I gonna do? I don't want to go to LACC, so I said, oh, here's a school just down the street from me, Metropolitan Community College. I went there. And I said, oh, I'll just secretarial science, whatever. So I went there and had no idea what it was all about, just, "Oh, I'll just go here, at least give me two years then." So I went there and I did other things. I did my classwork, but I found other stuff that I could do. I could do displays, stuff that I wasn't even getting credit for, but I worked myself into doing that so I could do displays and stuff like that. It was kind of fun.
MN: You're artistic.
MN: Kind of like your mother, I guess.
TY: I guess.
MN: Well, your dad is artistic, too.
MN: So after you graduated from there --
TY: I didn't graduate from there.
MN: Oh, you didn't?
TY: No. What I did was in 1956, I said, "Oh, I've had it with these people so I'm going to go into the service." So I went into the air force. And the thing about it is, that is goofed up is that I did not officially withdraw, which goes against your records. So I said, oh, well, not to worry, I'm already in the service, I won't think about it. And then when I came back out, I was going to reapply to join them, and one of the instructors there who was my instructor when I was going there four years previous, said, "Tak, you can't just jump in again because you didn't withdraw officially, so you have to make up the units that you screwed up on." So I said okay, so I did that. And it was easy enough. I had to screw up another half a year in order to finish up stuff I didn't do correctly, which was okay.
MN: Let me ask you, why did you decide to join the air force?
TY: My best friend, hakujin guy that I knew at Poly, we graduated together, decided he would enlist in the army. I knew I was not going in the army. I was not going to run around in the mud and all that kind of stuff, I already knew that. So I was not going into the army, even if he was my best friend, I was not going to do that. And it was interesting because it then gave me another option. I could go into the navy, I could go in the coast guard, I could go into the air force. I said, you know, air force is nice. First thing, when I went to recruiter, I said, "I don't want to fly a plane." [Laughs] So he looked at me like, "You're the first candidate for a plane, are you crazy? We're talking about millions of dollars here." And I said, "Oh, no." So he said, "Okay, well, there's other jobs that you can do, so fine." I didn't know there were other jobs, I just thought the flying thing was all they did in the air force. So that's how naive I was. So that was the beginning for me, anyway.
MN: Did you encounter any racism in the air force?
TY: I think I was a novelty because in my... I guess you can call it a squad, but I guess it'd be like a company in the army, I was the only Asian, in fact, only Japanese. And so I was a curiosity more than anything. And so it was kind of interesting for them because they didn't know what to do with me, the people that were in the service. There were blacks, Hispanics, and whites, but I was the only Japanese. And so for me it was like a learning experience. I knew that I had a speech impediment. Because what I did was, you know, most of the Japanese would come out of schools where they had just worked with Japanese, you know how rapidly they speak. We understand each other, but other people don't. So what I had to do was to take the time to speak clearly and slowly and I was able then to -- which was in some way good for me. Because here I was now required to speak slowly so other people could understand me, and I thought that was kind of good.
MN: Now, on your discharge paper, you were categorized, there was, like, only two categorizations. Share with us that story.
TY: Okay. When I started to... at that point I had already served four and a half years, and I didn't want to be going around doing craziness. And so the black officer who was discharging us said, "I see in here there are only two classes of people, Caucasian or negro." So I said, "Hmm, I think I'll put down Caucasian, that'll be okay." They discharged me with that. I thought, "You guys are so stupid. How can you even... 'Takenori Yamamoto' is Caucasian?" Well, anyway, on my discharge paper, that's what it says.
MN: So after you were discharged, and then in '57 you took this cross country Greyhound bus trip. Can you share with us some of the experience you had with the segregated bathrooms and the segregated restaurants?
TY: I think the thing about that was... this was in 1957 when I was being enlisted. I had known that they had these segregated bathrooms, but I didn't know how it applied to me. Was I white or was I black? And so I went to a couple of places in the South, and what I did was I'd always sit next to the rail that separated the black from the white when I was eating. Because that way I said, "Well, they can tell me to just go on the other side, no problem." But someone told me at the very beginning, "You sit on the 'white' side." I said, "Oh, the 'white' side, okay." Well, it was like... I don't know. I didn't understand how that worked out, but I figured, whatever. As long as I got my food.
MN: Did you ever have any problems sitting on the "white" side?
<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 14>
MN: Now I'd like to ask about your experience of being a gay Nisei man. There are very few Japanese American Nisei who are publicly coming out gay. When did you start realizing that you were gay?
TY: When I was in the service, prior to being discharged, I wrote my mom to tell her that was gay, so I had to look up the word "homosexual" in the Japanese dictionary. And I wrote it down, and my sister read it, Kimiyo read it. And she had to look it up in the dictionary 'cause I had written that word out specifically. And so when I got home, my mom says, "What do you mean you're homosexual?" I said, "That's what I am." She said, "Are you sure you're just not going through a phase?" And this is why I didn't want to fight with her or not, because she just felt that I was just going through a phase and I would come out the other side. Well, I'm here now seventy-three, and I haven't come out the other side yet, so I don't know what she's talking about.
MN: But when did you kind of realize that you were gay? Was this in the air force or when you were even younger?
TY: I think even younger. I think probably when I was six or seven, though I never acted out then, but I had this attraction to males and I didn't understand how that was. And then I was in elementary school or in junior high school, same thing, I was attracted to males. But I said, oh, well, you have to sort of date girls. So when I was in high school, there was one very homely girl. I thought, well, this will be my way, so I'll go date her. Oh, what a response I wanted, it was terrible. But it was a thing that I thought, well, this will satisfy my need to work around this issue, but it didn't work. It didn't work at all. I didn't turn straight. [Laughs]
MN: And you know, when you're going through this and you're doing this pretending, how does it feel like inside? I mean, what are you feeling?
TY: Well, first off, not being emotional about it, because it's something that you can't control. And you say, "Well, I'm doing this for other people, I'm doing it for them so that they won't see me as something different." But in the ultimate, you are actually hurting yourself because you really aren't being truly who you really are. Of course, I learned that later on.
MN: You know, you came of age when the American psychologists were still diagnosing gays as a disease.
MN: How did that make you feel?
TY: I just totally ignored it. So I think until 1967, when I met Terry Gock, who is Dr. Gock and works in the Pasadena Asian Pacific Clinic, he was working on an issue that -- 'cause he himself is gay -- and so he was working on an issue that stated, "Well, how can you say I am a threat to society?" And so they went through that whole thing. And so when it finally came out that it was okay -- not okay -- but that that was not a mental disease, that it was okay, that's when it came out to where you could be more or less who you are.
MN: Now when did you take the big step and admit to yourself that you were gay?
TY: I think before the beginning of -- well, actually, when I told my parents in 1961, I think that's really when I accepted myself being gay.
MN: And did you meet a lot of gay men in the air force?
TY: Actually, no. I think it was probably, my hand, I could probably say there were probably five that I met. There might have been other people, but they were still closeted, so I doubt that I would have ever met them.
MN: So 1961 is sort of the official, would you say officially you came out? Is that when you started to explore your sexuality and seek out gay men?
TY: I wasn't even seeking out gay men in the service. This was in -- anytime from '57 to '61 I was seeking them out. I would go to, they would say, in town, where I'd meet Germans, because I knew it wasn't going to be a problem. But if I met a military person, I wouldn't even know what the consequences are. So it was easier.
MN: What are your thoughts about the U.S. government's policy towards gays right now?
TY: Well, you know, I don't even know what it is anyway. Is it you tell them or you don't tell them? And if you tell them, someone gonna put you out? I mean, I don't...
MN: I think they're not supposed to now.
TY: I know, but if you had to admit it, does that mean you're now on the step out? I don't know that either.
MN: Now, once you came out of the air force and you are now, you had come out with your family, how did you go about meeting gay men? I mean, this is still a very dangerous era for gay men.
TY: Sure. You know, there are always gay bars, so what you have to do is to see another gay person who will tell you where there's another gay bar. This is how I found out what my connections were. Go to Main Street, the druggiest part of the place, and to meet some of the nicest people, but you'd have to go to those kind of locations in order to find them.
MN: Were you able to meet a lot of Asian American or Japanese American gay men?
TY: Actually, I think I only knew one in 1962, '63. He's still a friend of mine, but that was the only original Asian or Japanese American that I met. And we ran around together for a little while because, you know, here we were Asian Pacific, here we are.
MN: Were you the same age, or was this an older man?
TY: No, he's about a couple years older.
MN: But, I mean, how did it feel to meet another Japanese American gay man? Did it make you feel a little bit less isolated?
TY: I never really felt isolated, even in Germany. Even though I might have been the only Japanese American out there, I just see that what I had out there were like hakujin types. And in the air force we never talked about it. So it would be hard to really say what it was like. I think the thing that solidified for me who I was and that I could feel comfortable was my roommates. One day when we were going through all those crazy telling each other everything, I told them that I was gay and that, was that a problem? And he said, "I don't think so," because I didn't try to come on to him, so it was okay. But I think that that was the thing that a lot of them felt, that, "As soon as we get to meet these people, of course they're going to come on to me, and then what do I tell them?"
MN: Now you've been in a very long relationship with Carl. How did you meet him?
TY: On Main Street. And he was then a wrestler, so we talked about it. And of course he was always fascinated with Japanese from Japan, which I'm not, and we talked about that. I said, "I can speak a little Japanese, but I'm not Japanese from Japan. So if that's what you're looking for, you'll have to go elsewhere, 'cause I can't change." And so it worked out after forty years, fifty years, I guess it's okay.
MN: It's a long relationship. You've been together more than, you know, straight people.
TY: Yeah, sometimes I look at that and I say, "Hmm." [Laughs]
MN: And Carl is of, is he of German descent?
TY: Well, actually, he's English. His last name is Finch but his background is more or less English.
MN: Now Carl, of course, he's English, so you're in this interracial relationship. Has that ever been an issue?
TY: Not for me or my family. 'Cause I don't think his brother and/or sister know of me. So that's okay, they're gonna die shortly anyway, so what do I have to worry about? [Laughs]
MN: How did Carl react when he found out you were in a camp during the war?
TY: Lots of talking. Because it's the kind of thing that... he's from Chicago, so he never knew about the fact that people were incarcerated or anything like that. And so it was like, "You didn't know?" I guess all of us on the West Coast think everybody knows, but that only limits it to just the people on the West Coast that knew about people being incarcerated, really.
MN: Now you and Carl were already in a long-term relationship in 1980s when the AIDS epidemic came out. Did you have friends that passed away from AIDS, or was that an issue with you and Carl?
TY: Well, after I found out how AIDS was transmitted, Carl and I talked and I said, "Listen, if you come down with AIDS, I'm not going to have anything to do with you. And I think the only way we can avoid this is for you not to have anonymous sex, because who knows what these people are..." because after that, there were people that we knew, that he knew, who had passed away from AIDS. And he said, oh. So it was like here's an awakening, he just thought it was like somebody else in the background that he never would have heard of. And I think until it becomes to a point where you recognize that person as being someone that you know, then it doesn't make a difference.
<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 15>
MN: Now you started to organize the Asian American gay and lesbian group. What year did you organize that and how did you get the word out?
TY: Okay. It was 19... I'm going to say '67. It was 1967. Well, there was a gay activist by the name of... can't even think of his name.
TY: Pardon me?
MN: Are you talking about Morris Kei?
TY: Yeah, Morris Kai.
TY: Yeah, he was the one that had a Japanese American lover. And so that was one of his reasons for wanting to get a Japanese or an Asian American group together, so that they would be supportive of his lover. Well, Roy never did come into our organization, he kept himself out, which was okay. But Morris was like a sponsor for us, so we used to meet at his house, which was a large barn. So we would have, like, sixty people in this place and have a meeting. And it was kind of fun. And that's when I started to see that there were other Asians out there, but it appeared that almost all Asians had a hakujin lover. It just never worked out that there were two Asians together. Now, you might find two hakujins together but you never found hardly any Asians with an Asian person. And so that was kind of a phenomenon that we needed to work out. Because we felt that -- well, and back in that time, if you were Asian and you were going with a hakujin, well, that was "potato and rice," because rice being Asian and potato being, of course, hakujin. So they said that's an okay kind of a thing, but "rice on rice"? That's a little too strange. That hadn't worked out for us yet. But then of course if we would have thought about it, said, "What about all the Asians back from the middle, in Japan and/or other places where they are 'rice on rice'? Is that a problem or not?" And so I guess we had to work around that, because we were, I suppose, only to "potato and rice."
MN: So it sounds like there was just more than just Japanese Americans coming up. You're talking about Asian Americans, were there other Chinese, Cambodians, Vietnamese?
TY: When we first started, we were primarily... well, the only ones that I knew for sure were the Japanese American types like Japanese Hawaiians and myself, and those were the friends that I still have. But I think initially when we started off, we only knew of those types, we didn't know any other branches of any other kind. And right after our organization started, which was Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays, there was another group that started that was primarily Asian on Asian. And so I think the part that I was getting to was who would have thought to start an organization on Asian on Asian only? That would be if I were in Japan and I had only the option of a Japanese person being my lover, that would happen. But here, it's almost unheard of.
MN: What kind of things did you folks share about? You're saying about fifty people, sixty people showed up, and what were the meetings like and what did you discuss?
TY: I think initially it was just social, initially. Later on, we decided we need to do it educational, so we need to work out workshops. One of the things we did do was to formalize the organization and we drew up a bunch of bylaws and submitted that to the membership, and that's what we still have as far as I know. They might have modified it a little bit, but it's still that basic concept of who we are. I think the thing that's so important was that there was no way to legitimize ourselves without that, because once we submitted our bylaws to the state, that became our reason for existence, which was kind of good.
MN: Were there any people that objected to having this group formed?
TY: A lot of hakujin types had a problem with that. They thought, "Oh, no, can't have this." And then my being outspoken, I said, "Well, then get the hell out. We don't need you. We need to form for ourselves." And so that's how it came about. I think a lot of people hated me because I was so outspoken that way, but you know, that's just how I am.
<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 16>
MN: Let me ask you now about your involvement with the Manzanar Committee. You've been with the Manzanar Committee almost from the beginning. How did you get involved?
TY: Well, I heard about them sort of on the cusp of something or other one day. And so I asked the contact person, who was Sue, to come to our... we were having a, I was taking a class at East L.A., it's an Asian American class, and I asked her if she could come to that and then talk about Manzanar and Manzanar Committee. So she did come, and then she explained to us why she felt it was important. And I said, oh, god, I got to get involved with this group, 'cause this is something that... maybe not Poston, but this is the only group out there that's gonna address the kind of thing about being Japanese and incarcerated. And that was good. I have since met, of course, Bruce and Gary and everybody else, but without Sue being the one who came to our meeting, our class meeting, I wouldn't have been involved. It just seemed like a natural kind of a thing. Because after that meeting with Sue, I wanted to talk to my brothers and sisters who are older than me about what it was like for them to go to camp. And my sister said, "Oh, it was nice, it was social." She never got into how she felt ultimately, which is more important than anything else, but we never got around to that. She's still living, my sister's living in Fresno. Of course, we never talk about that part of the war.
MN: Now, you visited Manzanar before the official pilgrimage. I think it was the '67 that you went?
MN: What was the reason that you went out to Manzanar?
TY: Well, I wanted to see what a camp looked like. Because, see, I had Poston, and that's all I had in my mind. So when I went there, of course, there were no buildings. All they had were the entry guard shacks. And so it was like a total... I don't know, total, I didn't feel comfortable there. I didn't feel uncomfortable there, but there was nothing that would speak to me. The only thing that they had was the auditorium, but it wasn't usable because what they were doing at the time was storing equipment for snow and everything in the building. So that wasn't something that you could access. So that was okay. The only other thing that they had there beyond that was the cemetery and the monument there. So I went there, and it was kind of moving. I couldn't read it, I had it translated for me, but I said, "Oh, okay, this makes sense." But in order for it to be a cemetery, they had to have so many spaces in the dirt. So I think some people placed rocks and put names on 'em, 'cause otherwise they wouldn't qualify.
MN: Now, did you take Carl with you at the time?
TY: No, I didn't think so because I didn't know what kind of involvement he was gonna have. So later on after I'd been there a couple of times, I asked if he wanted to go, and he went out of curiosity. And he has no problem with it since.
MN: You mentioned you went out to the cemetery, and I don't think the cemetery had a road out there.
TY: No, it didn't. What you had to do is go through the camp and come out that way. But then you come to a fence and then you had to cross over.
MN: You didn't get stuck in the sand or anything?
TY: No, I was very careful.
MN: Now, in comparison to Poston, when you saw Manzanar, it's very different. What was your reaction? Did you think this... I mean, all the different camps were going to be all different?
TY: Well, when I went to Poston, and I went more recently, they still had the grade school buildings up. And it looked different. I mean, I thought to myself, "This is where I went to camp, this is where I went to school." Out there, it would have only have been one of those tarpaper shacks that they would have had school in. And I thought, oh, god, that must have been terrible. 'Cause I know how much colder it got than Poston.
MN: Now you also attended the first organized Manzanar pilgrimage in '69. What do you remember of the pilgrimage?
TY: Actually I don't. They all kind of run together. After all, I'm seventy-three, what do you expect?
MN: But it's the first one.
TY: For somebody, yeah, but it... I don't know.
MN: Was the flatbed truck out there? I mean, did you help out --
TY: No, no, we didn't have a flatbed truck, 'cause that came later on. Once we got in contact with the Park Service, we were able to get those kinds of things. I think I took my pickup truck and we stood on top of that. Not on my cab, but on the back. So that's some way of looking out and seeing what was happening.
MN: Oh, I always thought the flatbed truck, that's why you always have the flatbed truck.
TY: No, we had to request that.
MN: Was there a feeling back then that people wanted to preserve the camp?
TY: Say that again?
MN: Was there a feeling, back in the '60s, that people wanted to preserve that camp site?
TY: I don't know that we were talking about preserving anything. I think it was just a place to go to acknowledge the incarceration. I don't know that we were we were trying to preserve anything. We were there and here was a monument and that was it.
MN: Now, did your involvement in the gay and lesbian community help you, help radicalize you to get involved with the pilgrimages?
TY: Well, what I did later on was I tried to integrate my gay life, my gay group, and come to Manzanar. So for the first couple of years, they did come and they were part of the crew of people that helped clean up the place and stuff like that.
MN: Was it hard to get Carl to come out and help out?
TY: Nah, no problem.
MN: How do the Manzanar Committee people react when you said you were gay and you were gonna have your gay and lesbian friends come out?
TY: I think initially, well, the people that I knew well were like Sue and the Rundstroms, and Sue Embrey. So they were very supportive, so it was hard for me not to include everybody and feel comfortable.
MN: So you never had problems with the other Manzanar Committee people saying, "We don't want people like this involved"?
TY: Right. If they did, they said it somewhere else, not in my presence.
<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 17>
MN: Now, you've been helping out at the annual pilgrimages. What were some of the memorable pilgrimages?
TY: You know, I think some of those were the people that have since passed away. The ones... I can't remember, Carl Yoneda and his wife, Carl was very outspoken. His wife wasn't, but she was very supportive. I remember one sad time... they're union people, so they don't believe that people should sue people. But one year, she was walking at the hotel, the hotel we stay at has these little steps that go down, and she overlooked that and so she tripped and fell and hurt herself. And at that point, I thought to myself, they should have striped it so that she could see that it was not the same level. And they never would think to sue, because they are, they believe in not doing that kind of stuff. And I thought, that's just the way they are, I would have sued. [Laughs] But that's just the way she was. But I think also, too, being who they were and who I was, and the fact that they accepted me and Carl all the time, that it was an okay kind of a thing.
MN: You know, what you did for the pilgrimages behind the scenes is sort of a thankless job, and I don't think a lot of people know everything you've done. What kept you motivated? It's such a thankless job.
TY: Well, I think I had the truck, I had the equipment, so I felt that I could do this, so why not? I wasn't thinking to rattle cages or anything, but it was something that I could do. And it might have been behind the scenes, but was still something that needed to be done. And I'm not exaggerating, but if I didn't do it then, who would have done it? Like who would have gotten the sound system, who would have got the stage, stuff like that.
MN: And I think one year you forgot something and you had to come back.
TY: Yeah. Clever me, huh?
MN: And you did all of this. And you know, Sue was the face of the Manzanar Committee, but are there other people that you think should be recognized for what they've done?
TY: I think in getting the part of Manzanar being designated a historic monument, is Rose Ochi. Because she really, and Sue together, went to Sacramento many times to voice their support for acknowledging who we were. And let's see, who else? Warren was the initial, one of the people, but he fell away after it became involved in politics, so you don't hear about him now. But he was available at the time. Well, I especially enjoyed the fact that our Mayor Bradley was one of the people that was very supportive and that we could count on him for city support and city funding for some of the expenses. And all we had to do was write to them and they would do it without a problem So of course when they started separating into little Parks Department and all that, it was a little more difficult, but other than that, it wasn't a problem. Let's see, who else? Oh, one other person I remember, she has since passed away... I can't think of... one of them used to teach ondo. Exactly.
MN: I know who you're talking about, she's a little...
TY: Yes, yes.
MN: Oh, god, I don't remember her name but she always --
MN: She always led the ondo.
TY: Yes, yes. And the thing about it is initially we were gonna do the musubi thing one time, but after that it became a yearly thing so everybody got involved. When we first started off there was like four or five of us trying to put together that whole thing, and said, "We have to have to it for the reverends, we have to have it for the people that perform." We were making dozens of musubis. And then of course what I would do and Sue would do also was that we would cook the chicken at home and bring it so that we could use that as part of the lunch.
MN: Yeah, I know the committee people make that on Friday, all the musubi, and I think they still do that.
MN: You know, when they were talking about like wanting to make the Manzanar site into a national park, what were your thoughts on that?
TY: I didn't have any idea. I didn't think about it. I'm not that forward a thinker. So it was Sue's and Rose's push, a lot of that came about. Because they saw the need for it, and so therefore other parks, national parks, that benefited from that because of the first push. So of course they think they're the first ones, but said, "No, you guys are not the first."
<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.
<Begin Segment 18>
MN: Let me ask you about redress. When talks of redress came out, did you think that was possible?
TY: I didn't think it was possible, but I was supporting it, whatever. I remember when we went to one of the hearings in the state building, and there was this hakujin woman who was saying, "No, they don't need that because they were not put in concentration camps." And she went off like that and thought, oh, god, I'm glad I came to this, because now I could really see where we are up against the wall. So therefore I didn't think we were gonna get a lot of support for it, because here was this crazy hakujin woman who was making these remarks. But it passed anyway, which was good.
MN: Are you talking about Lillian Baker?
TY: I didn't say it. [Laughs]
MN: So you were there when she took that paper away from the veteran?
TY: Oh, yeah, I thought, "What is with this crazy woman?" And then of course, Sue, she used to have this, they would call into a station and go through that whole thing. I said, "Sue, why do you respond to her? All she does is upset you." I can't talk to her, she just has to do her thing. [Laughs]
MN: Were your parents alive to get redress?
TY: No, they didn't get redress. They passed away before.
MN: You know, you weren't at Manzanar, but would you like to see Poston be as preserved and built up as Manzanar is right now?
TY: Well, Poston has... if you're looking at stuff, buildings, 'cause they still have the school buildings there. Some of them crumbled, but they can be easily fixed, and they have a monument. Someone put that up there and I thought, "What is that?" It looked like a smokestack. That's what it looked like to me, I don't know what... they didn't consult me about it. Some San Francisco portion of the Manzanar people designed it, but whatever.
MN: Are you happy with how Manzanar is going now?
TY: Well, I think in a way I am, and other times I'm not. Because I think they're developing more of a... what, a... what? I'll pass on that. I was thinking that they were developing this hierarchy of people that you get to that and then who do you talk to afterwards? Who is it that you want to speak to? The guy who's in charge of the park portion of it now is a Japanese Hawaiian, so I don't know if that means anything or not, but it's the beginning of something. Because when there were hakujins in there, we could do terrible things to them. But we got a lot of the things that we needed through them, I don't know how much more we can possibly get. I know all these other people were going through the idea of building a national park or national... nani? Lot of that whole thing is... I guess one of the things that Rose also said is you can't say it's the same thing for every one of them. There has to be something unique about your wanting to get this designated. And I think that that's a thing that we forget. Oh, well, we'll just do another Manzanar. That's not it at all.
MN: I've asked all my questions, but is there other things you want to share with us that you want to add on to? Your life, Manzanar Committee or your gay and lesbian activities?
TY: I don't think so. I think I've done it all. Thank you very much.
MN: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.