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: ddr-densho-1003-9-24

<Begin Segment 24>

SY: And once you got accustomed to going to school, going to the, from your elementary school onward, did you enjoy it? Did you, were you a good student? Were you...

BW: I was a pretty good student. I did okay in school. Japanese school, we didn't, just played around.

SY: In general, would you say that the Japanese kids were better students?

BW: I would say so. I almost had a, kind of a sense of racial superiority going to the Japanese school 'cause this classmate was student body president at her junior high school, this guy was student body president at his high school, this person was this, valedictorian, this person over here, salutatorian. So I was kind of thinking very ethnocentrically, like, "Wow, we must be pretty smart." And I was doing okay. And my friend Dick who I sat next to, he became student body president. So without really being conscious, I think there was a little bit of a superiority -- so when I went to college, I can still remember thinking, "You know, I used to think we Japanese were smart, but these Jewish people are really smart." [Laughs] But I realized it's not that they're smarter, they, they have good work habits. But at the time I thought, yeah, Japanese was smart.

SY: And you were still a minority in the, in the regular school? You were still...

BW: Yeah, pretty much. My junior high, there were only three non-whites. There weren't even Mexicans there then. This is 1957, '58, '56, '57, and there were only three Japanese students. There were no Chinese, no Filipinos, I don't remember seeing any Mexicans, almost all white. And most of the white were Jewish back then.

SY: So all these kids that went to Japanese school, they were, they were in different schools. They, this Japanese school pulled from --

BW: Yeah, my friend Dick, he went to San Fernando High School, and most of my classmates in Japanese school went to San Fernando. I, because I lived in Granada Hills on a farm, I went to Northridge Junior High. And it turns out there were three of us, and Sam Kihara was student body president. [Laughs] So I did kind of feel like, "Oh yeah, we're good." But it was interesting too, Northridge Junior High, I felt like a foreign exchange student. I was so different. And so other people noticed me because I was different, so I became very popular, actually, without even trying. They remembered me, my name, kind of like a foreign exchange student. So in a way it was a, kind of a positive experience 'cause I was really shy and that helped me to kind of come out a little bit, I think.

SY: Do, I mean, did you really have a concept of what a foreign exchange student was like then? Or did you just feel different?

BW: No, not at the time. As I think back, that's kind of how I felt.

SY: And like, so did you, were you in student government? Did you do that kind of thing?

BW: No.

SY: You just, just were fairly popular.

BW: I think I knew half the school within one year, yeah. They were very friendly, so it was nice.

SY: And what high school did you go to? What high school did you end up going to?

BW: So then, see, I went to Northridge Junior High, and then I, we moved to Lakeview Terrace, so then I finished up at Pacoima Junior High. And then Pacoima Junior High at that time, though, was a racially mixed junior high school, so there were Latinos, there were blacks, there were mostly Japanese and majority white, but it was very racially mixed. Most schools back then weren't. It was either white or black, and the rest of us kind of filled in. And so when I moved from Northridge Junior High, which was all white, ninety-nine percent white and heavily Jewish with very Jewish names, Weinstein and Baumgartner and all these names, then I moved to Pacoima Junior and we had Smith and Mendoza, so I thought, "There's something different here." [Laughs] Couldn't quite put my finger on it. But so it was nice being there and seeing the diversity and kind of experiencing that diversity, although there were some racial tensions too. Then graduating there, I went to San Fernando High School.

SY: So what was the experience like, though, moving in the middle of your junior high school? Was that traumatic in any way? Was it, you had to make a whole new set of friends, was it...

BW: It was traumatic, but -- I shouldn't say it was traumatic -- it was different. The whole school experience was different. And again, when I went to Northridge Junior High, I had no idea what junior high was all about. I didn't know you went to separate classes. [Laughs] No one told me, or maybe I was just oblivious and I wasn't listening. I remember going to my first class, found it, sat down there, and then everybody left. I thought, "Where are they going?" And then the teacher had to explain to me, "Okay, you're supposed to go to different classes for each hour." So she says, "Your second class is in this room." "Is that how it works?" So, but that was, after that I felt quite comfortable. So moving to Pacoima, my cousin was there and he kind of took me under his wing, so he helped me a lot. So it was nice to have my cousin, so we were together for two years.

SY: And your younger brother came with you as well?

BW: And then my younger brother started at Pacoima Junior High. My younger brother was quite outgoing, so he was very active in student government and stuff.

SY: And your, you were a fairly, what kind of student were you? Were you...

BW: I was probably, I might've been, like, in the upper ten percent, but I wasn't a star. And I was very shy.

SY: And how about sports? Were you involved in sports?

BW: Sports, I was attracted to gymnastics, so I did gymnastics in junior high. And I did gymnastics in high school.

SY: Were, did your parents encourage sports at home, or was that something --

BW: No. But my older brothers did. My older brothers put a horizontal bar in the backyard. They also put in a basketball court, which I think most kids would love to have had their own court, but we never played. [Laughs] So I never got good at basketball. But I liked the horizontal bar, so I did that and did that in junior high. And I found out I was pretty good at it, so it was kind of fun.

SY: So your, what other kinds of extracurricular things were you involved in? Did you, what did you do after school? Do you end up working on the farm?

BW: No, only during the summers. We didn't have to work on the farm. So we did gymnastics, and so my parents allowed us to stay after school and they would pick us up, like around five o'clock.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright &copy; 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.