Densho Digital Archive
Friends of Manzanar Collection
Title: Bill Watanabe Interview
Narrator: Bill Watanabe
Interviewer: Sharon Yamato
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 8, 2012
Densho ID: denshovh-wbill-01-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

SY: We're in Centenary United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. The date is February 8, 2012. I'm Sharon Yamato, and Tani Ikeda is on camera. So Bill, we're gonna with a very basic question. Can you just tell us your full name, and when and where you were born?

BW: My name, Yoshiyuki Watanabe, and I was born at Manzanar, California, January the 5th, 1944.

SY: So then the obvious question is, I, since I referred to you as Bill, where did that come from?

BW: Well, I had a younger brother who was a year and a half younger than me, so my parents named him Yoshimichi, and being born Americans, Yoshiyuki, Yoshimichi, I mean, they're long, they're foreign-sounding, so I shortened my name to Yosh and my younger brother shortened his name to Yosh. And so his friends called him Yosh, and my friends called me Yosh, but it was confusing at home, as well as, people would call us and ask for Yosh. And so my brother and I thought, well, why don't we pick American names to distinguish ourselves, so we eventually (settled) on him picking Bob and I picked Bill, which still sounded kind of similar, so it was still confusing for some people 'cause they would call me Bob and call him Bill. [Laughs] So we should've picked George and Henry or something. Anyway, so I became known as Bill over time.

SY: And your, you never thought of the word, of the name William. It was always Bill?

BW: Yes.

SY: Since you named yourself.

BW: We were only six or seven years old at the time, so I didn't even know about William.

SY: Interesting. So your parents, then, were Japanese-speaking, so if you could tell us a little bit more about their family? Or maybe we start with your father, talk a little bit about where he, where he came from in Japan and how he came to this country.

BW: Well, my father, he -- I guess it was called a yobiyose -- he came to this country in 1920 at the age of sixteen, from Fukushima, Japan. And so his family were farmers, and my grandfather, his father, was already here. I don't know when he arrived here in America, but my guess is probably around 1900, 1910. And so my father joined my grandfather here in California, and apparently for a number of years they worked together. They were migrant farm workers, and I heard they worked farms from Seattle all the way down to Imperial Valley, depending on the weather and crops that were kind of coming online. So they did that for a while, then my father and my grandfather moved to Utah and they did some work in Utah and things like that, so they were moving around, taking jobs where they could take it, and worked in all kinds of different things. Apparently my grandfather ran a movie theater in Salt Lake City. My father was a houseboy for a while in Utah, but he also said he worked in the copper mines in Utah, Kennecott copper mines. So that's what they did.

SY: Quite a few things that... so your grandfather obviously came here when he was young -- well, he already had a family in Japan, then, by the time he came here.

BW: Yes, my grandfather had two sons. I don't know why my father was named Rokuro, because the "roku" is six and the "ro" is a suffix for male kids, but he was the number one son. I mean, it didn't make any sense. My father didn't know why he was named Rokuro either, except maybe they thought it was good luck or something. But he was the number one son, and then he had a younger brother.

SY: And his younger brother stayed in Japan?

BW: His younger brother stayed in Japan, and eventually my, his younger brother took over the family farm and everything else. My father chose to stay here and to give up his rights to the farm.

SY: So do you know anything about the family back in Japan that he left?

BW: Well, I did visit them when I went to Japan, but I don't know a whole lot. They were farmers, and they still have the farm, so they're pretty much tied to the land. Although the farmers today over there can be quite rich because of the land that they own. But my grandfather, there were stories that I heard that he ultimately partnered with some friends to invent or build a gold-mining sluice machine, which could filter dirt and look for gold. I'm not sure, I guess it was in California somewhere, and this must've been around like 1915 or something like that. But eventually other competitors kind of took them out of the business, and so my grandfather lost a lot of money in this investment and so he was quite disappointed and then went back to Japan.

SY: And your grandmother, did she stay in Japan when your grandfather came over?

BW: Yes. I, on my father's side, I don't recall that my grandmother ever came.

SY: And your grandfather's name, full name was?

BW: I don't know my grandfather's first name.

SY: You, you never met your grandfather, then?

BW: No.

SY: And obviously...

BW: I never met either of my grandfathers.

SY: And so when he came, is it the assumption that when your grandfather came it was to -- or maybe I shouldn't even give you a suggestion -- what, why...

BW: Why did he come?

SY: Do you have any idea why he came?

BW: To make money, I suppose. I mean, the, chase the dream of making money and eventually going back to Japan as a wealthy person, or at least having raised enough money to take care of the family.

SY: And he had siblings, do you think?

BW: You know, I don't know that.

SY: So your father, then, obviously came to meet with his father when he came. That was...

BW: Right, so my father came here, as I mentioned, when he was sixteen, and then his father returned to Japan a few years after my father came. So they were together for a few years, and then his father went back to Japan and then my father chose to stay.

SY: So now, did he live, so he was raised, then, probably, by your grandmother, your father? 'Til the age of sixteen.

BW: Yeah, I'm not sure when my grandfather left Japan and how old my father was at the time. Since his younger brother was born, I would have to assume perhaps it was after my uncle, my father's younger brother, was born. But I would assume his mother raised them, since the father was absent.

SY: And your father's full name, then, was?

BW: Rokuro Watanabe.

SY: Watanabe. And his younger brother's name, full name?

BW: You know, I'm sure I have it somewhere, but I don't remember.

SY: I think it's, yes, I think it's in here somewhere too.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright &copy; 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.