Densho Digital Archive
Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann Collection
Title: Bill Shishima Interview
Narrator: Bill Shishima
Interviewer: Raechel Donahue
Location: California
Date: 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-sbill-02-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

RD: So, where were you born?

BS: I was born in downtown Los Angeles about 180 years after Los Angeles was born.

RD: You can, by the way, make these answers as long as you like, they don't have to be short. Tell me what is that part of Los Angeles?

BS: It was downtown Main Street I was born in, and we had a midwife that helped my mother deliver.

RD: And what is that area now?

BS: It was, at that time, way back in the 1930s, it was Mexican town, but my parents had a Mexican grocery store.

RD: How did they have a Mexican grocery store?

BS: Well, I feel my parents was overflow from downtown Little Tokyo, where all the Japanese people were assembled. But since it was a full house, my parents opened up a Mexican grocery store over there on Main Street which happened to be all Hispanic people there. And we had our customers from Chavez Ravine, Chavez Ravine being the site of Dodger Stadium today.

RD: And what was the grocery store called?

BS: The grocery store was Mercado Plaza, so actually it's "Market Plaza," which was taken after the name of Plaza Park right there on Main Street across the Pico House, and also my dad had Hotel Plaza, which was a half a block away from the grocery store.

RD: All right, now, where were your parents born?

BS: My parents were born in Japan, and I believe my dad came over when he was a teenager, about seventeen years old in 1910, and then my mother came about 1924.

RD: And did they become naturalized citizens?

BS: Yes, but it wasn't until forty years they were here in America, because they were ineligible to become citizens. But in 1952, the law changed and my mother got her citizenship at the Hollywood Bowl in 1953.

RD: And where did you go to school?

BS: I went to a local Catholic private school in Little Tokyo, which was about a mile away from home.

RD: Do you remember what it was called?

BS: Oh, the school was the Maryknoll school, or the St. Francis Xavier school. It was started by the Japanese missionaries way back in 1915. So we had, from kindergarten to eighth grade, population of the school about five hundred students, I believe we had one Chinese American and one Filipino, all the rest were Japanese Americans.

RD: But you lived in essentially the Mexican neighborhood. Who did you hang out with?

BS: Yes, it was a Mexican neighborhood, so my school friends were all Japanese Americans but my home friends were all Hispanic or Mexicans.

RD: And what was your life like in terms of, you know, you were sort of just a normal American kid. Tell me what your day would be like.

BS: Well, I was a little bit sheltered, but at home, my parents were too busy -- I hate to say it -- but too busy, so they sent me to a private school because longer hours. But sometimes I would accidentally on purpose miss the bus home from school so I could meander through Little Tokyo and maybe stop at, I called it our "reading room." It was the unusual reading room, because when too many kids assembled there, they asked us to leave. That happened to be the comic book section of the drugstore there in Little Tokyo.

RD: How big was Little Tokyo then, anyway? And I know you wouldn't actually remember, but how big do you think it was?

BS: Well, I heard at that time that, in the 1930s, the peak population, there was about 35,000 people of Japanese ancestry within a three-mile radius of Little Tokyo.

RD: And how close is Little Tokyo to [inaudible]?

BS: About half a mile. So we were half a mile from Japanese Town and right next door to Chinatown, and I lived in Mexican Town.

RD: It's almost like living in San Francisco, it's almost the same thing. We had heard a rumor in San Francisco that was a very popular one, was that the reason that they, the Japanese people were sent to the camps was because the Chinese people didn't want to obey the same curfew. Did you ever hear that?

BS: No, not really. I haven't heard that one.

RD: That's a good one, though, huh?

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.