Densho Digital Archive
Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann Collection
Title: Kazuo Shiroyama Interview
Narrator: Kazuo Shiroyama
Interviewer: Raechel Donahue
Date: 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-skazuo-01

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

<Begin Segment 1>

KS: My name is Kazuo Shiroyama, spelled K-A-Z-U-O, last name is S-H-I-R-O-Y-A-M-A.

RD: And, Kaz, where were you born?


KS: I was born in Monterey, California, 1930.

RD: And your parents?

KS: My parents were born in Japan. My father was born in Shizuoka-ken, my mother was born in... I'm sorry, retake that, I got the place mixed up. My father was born in Aichi-ken and my mother was born in Shizuoka-ken.

RD: And do you know when they came here?

KS: I believe it was 1924.

RD: Where did you go to school?

KS: I went to school at Avalon Boulevard elementary school in Wilmington, California.

RD: And what was your life like before camp? What I'm looking here for is an "all-American story."

KS: Oh, we played football, Kick the Can... oh, we went swimming a lot because we lived right next to the Los Angeles Harbor. Our neighborhood was a bunch of Japanese families that was composed of the fishing industry, and all our parents worked either in the fishing cannery or on the fishing boats. And the fishing boats were docked right at the end of our little neighborhood on a dock there in Los Angeles Harbor, Wilmington, that is. And also did a lot of swimming, diving off the fishing boat into the harbor, and spent all summer long in our bathing suits. And next door to our little Japanese fishing village was a little ship repair shop, and they were contracting with all the Hollywood movie studios and they were refurbishing and building, fixing up sailing ships and all these types of interesting seacrafts for the movie industry.

RD: Was your father involved in that at all?

KS: No, that was all separate from our fishing industry of our Japanese neighborhood.

RD: Yeah, so they were doing, and they even had the tanks and everything that they were using in those days to put boats in.

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

<Begin Segment 2>

RD: Do you remember the day and the days that were leading up to when you were told you were going to be going away?

KS: All of the men in our neighborhood were taken away by the FBI, because they were all fishermen. And all the Japanese involved in fishing were taken away because of the high risk conditions. And that just left the housewives and children. And so we had no relatives here, but a close family friend had a restaurant business in Japanese town, and she managed to get us over there to stay at an empty Buddhist temple so that we could register as residents of Japanese town. There were three families living on that Buddhist temple, right on First Street there. And we waited until we were notified to be sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center, and we were just allowed to take one suitcase per person.

RD: Let's backtrack a little bit. How were you told?

KS: I don't remember. Being twelve years old and the oldest in the family, I had a younger sister and brother... apparently my mother and the other two mothers of the two families living in the Buddhist temple were notified when to be at a certain corner to board the bus to be driven over to Santa Anita. And apparently many families were notified to be there at that given day and time, because there were more than three or four buses there. Nob, do you remember how many buses were there? There was about half a dozen buses there. But there was a lot of people waiting to be boarded, so they were all notified.

RD: Do you remember seeing people you knew?

KS: No, because we were from Wilmington, and because of our family friend in Japanese town who got us to move into the Buddhist temple, I knew nobody in Japanese town.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

RD: Tell me what you remember about the trip to Santa Anita.

KS: I don't remember anything other than getting on the bus, sitting in the bus watching things go by and looking out the window. And then when we reached Santa Anita, I don't remember anything at all about what happened after we got off the bus. That's all a blank. All I remember is our barrack was the first barrack from the fence, and we had one of the rooms.

RD: Were you scared?

KS: No.

RD: Tell me you weren't.

KS: No, I was not scared. I remember the room, a rickety one-by-six or one-by-twelve, the floor and the walls were rickety and there were spaces in between that we had to plug up with newspaper to have a little privacy so we couldn't look through the cracks into the room of our neighbor.

RD: Okay, so now, and then, because we talked all about us in Santa Anita, so you were there for a few months?

KS: Yes, we were there for four months.

RD: And then how did you find out about what was gonna happen with Heart Mountain? Did you have any idea that that wasn't where you were gonna stay, did you know you were gonna be moved somewhere?

KS: I had no idea that we were going to leave Santa Anita. All I knew was that my mother said we're moving, we were told to move, rather, and of course, we all packed up our things into our one suitcase we had. And I don't remember how we were transported from Santa Anita to the train station. I don't remember that at all. All I remember is being in the train for approximately three days, I think.


KS: I don't remember what we ate. I don't remember what we were fed. I draw a blank there.

RD: Now I know that they had all the shades down, right?

KS: No, I remember looking out. Yeah, probably peeked. [Laughs]

RD: Did you know anything about Wyoming?

KS: No, because I had no idea that's where we were going.

RD: That's what I wanted you to say, the day you left for Heart Mountain you didn't have any idea?

KS: I had no idea when we were going to leave and where we were going.

RD: And that still didn't scare you?

KS: No, because my mama was in charge, and listened to what Mama did. She told me what to do and when to do it, and I obeyed.

RD: Were there guards on the train?

KS: I don't remember.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

RD: And what was your first impression of Heart Mountain when you got off the train?

KS: I remember the whole area being very desolate, just sagebrush, desert kind of surrounding, with... just complete emptiness, it was desolation. And here's this one mountain sticking up there, which I found out was called Heart Mountain.

RD: And then you had more barracks, and what did the barracks look like in your first impression?

KS: Like Santa Anita they were all lined up neatly in a row, they were all black tarpaper shacks again. But these surroundings were desolate versus Santa Anita. We're still in the city in Santa Anita with some trees and growth, plants. But Heart Mountain was just a desolate space, there was nothing there.

RD: Do you remember when it first started to snow?

KS: Yes. We had no winter clothes, summer clothes, actually. And it was my first experience with seeing snow.

Off camera: Can you say that one more time? One sec... there you go.

KS: It was my first experience with snow. And I went outside and I grabbed that snow and made a snowball and was snowing it around and eating it and everything. Yeah, I remember that.

RD: It was kind of exciting, huh?

KS: Yeah, first time I felt and tasted and felt the coldness of the snow coming down from the sky.

RD: And then pretty soon you realized how unpleasant it can be, right?

KS: Our first blizzard, oh my gosh. Yeah, it was extremely cold and the blizzards were just terrible.

RD: Do you remember how long it took before your place became comfortable? Because I know everybody worked very hard on their barracks.

KS: Their room, their one family room. Well, my father was gone, of course, and so there were neighbors who helped my mother build a little kitchen table out of scrap wood. And in the center of the camp they had piled all the scrap wood from building the entire camp, so there was a huge pile of scrap wood. So we would all go down there and pick up all we could to build tables, benches, chairs or whatever from that scrap wood. From that scrap wood, I believe our neighbor, Mr. Matsumoto, and some of the other neighbors... there were some bachelors, too, living in the next barrack, and I think they helped build my mother a little table, a kitchen table and some benches, and that was the only furniture we had in the room. One table, two benches and one larger bench, which replaced the living room couch, was a large bench. That was it.

RD: So everybody just had cots, right?

KS: I haven't been in...

RD: I said cots to sleep on.

KS: Oh, yeah. We had the GI cots, the army cots, and the mattresses and the olive drab U.S. Army blankets. And they issued army surplus clothing, and the navy pea jackets, that came in handy because they were big and heavy, and that really did the job out there in the wintertime especially because it was so cold. I remember a lot of the people wearing those black pea jackets. And, of course, everybody started ordering winter clothing from the mail order catalogs, Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and Spiegel. The mail order companies did tremendous business from all of us in all the ten camps. [Laughs]

RD: But how could you pay for everything?

KS: My mother worked, and workers received sixteen dollars a month, and the professionals like doctors and such got nineteen dollars a month. So you had to accumulate and save, and I guess my mom had some money with her, too.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

RD: So did you know where your father was?

KS: No, we didn't. My mother received letters from him, and of course, with the return mail address, she found out that he was at Bismarck, North Dakota, which is, the winters are one of the most severest in the nation there in Bismarck, North Dakota. I remember my father sending us photographs, midwinter photographs of Bismarck, I remember those photographs with those huge snowdrifts, and the icicles hanging over the roof awnings. And then my father --

RD: Almost made you feel lucky, huh?

KS: Yeah, the winters in Wyoming were not as bad. Pretty bad, but not as bad as Bismarck, North Dakota.

RD: And when were you reunited with your father?

KS: I believe it was somewhere between two and three years ago after that, maybe two and a half years or so. He came and our block manager made an announcement in the mess hall as he always did when he had announcements to make for the people living in the block. And he introduced my father, and my father was working in the mess hall at his camp. I believe at that time it was out in Crystal City, Texas, or it might have been another camp in New Mexico, Santa Fe, there was another camp in Santa Fe, it was one of the two. And so the block manager asked him if he'd like to work, and since he was working at the mess hall previously, he said he'd like to get a mess hall job here. So he started working in the mess hall, our mess hall that we ate in. And since he was employed at the mess hall, he would bring home eggs and bacon and such for breakfast, and we'd just cook it on our stove, and that would help us to eat at home rather than lining up in the mess hall there before we eat our breakfast in the mess hall, so that was a plus.

RD: And you could cook it on the stove that you'd already brought?

KS: I think my mother had a hotplate there besides that. Every room had a coal-burning stove. That got pretty hot, too.

RD: And so you had guards. Did the guards have guns?

KS: Yes, the guards all had guns, and they were pointing at us. The reason I say that is because a number of people said the guards were protecting us. If they were doing that, the guns should have been pointing outwardly, not inwardly. [Laughs]

RD: And didn't that make you nervous? I talked to Shig Yabu who said he used to go up and ask them if he could see their guns. You were older.

KS: I never went near a camp guard, never spoke to one. But occasionally I would glance up at the guard tower and see that there was a soldier up there with his weapon.

RD: And how about the people like the project managers and the camp managers? How did they treat you?

KS: Are you talking about the...

RD: Well, they called the project managers, the people that did the administration, you probably didn't interact with them very much. But you had a lot of Caucasians who worked there in camp in the WPA.

KS: I don't know. I can't answer that question because I was too young. I was just a young kid and I don't know how they were treating us as inmates there.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

RD: And so you had friends with you in Heart Mountain that you had met in Santa Anita? No?

KS: No, I didn't know no... until I joined the Boy Scouts, Troop 333. And Donald, who came from Santa Anita, San Jose to Santa Anita, he ended up in my block, 29, and I met him for the first time when he joined Troop 333. And Shig Yabu joined Troop 333, we're all troop members, Boy Scout 333 Troop members.

RD: What did the Boy Scouts meat to you there?

KS: My camp experience is based around Scouting and the troop activities. Those were the highlights of my stay at Heart Mountain.

RD: Do you think it would have been significantly different if you hadn't been a Scout?

KS: Definitely, because they had little ruffian groups out there that I was running around with before I joined the Boy Scouts. And if the Boy Scouts weren't there, I probably would have continued messing around with these little delinquents from Los Angeles. [Laughs]

RD: So there were little gangs?

KS: Well, you know, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, there were just little juvenile delinquents, yeah.

RD: And what was your main form of recreation at Heart Mountain?

KS: Boy Scouts.

RD: I know, but did you have, were you on any of the ball teams?

KS: Oh, yeah. Our grammar school, I was in the sixth, seventh... sixth grade. The seventh grade they had just finished building the high school, so we transferred over from Block 28 barracks, which was the sixth grade. And at that time we had a grammar school football and baseball league which I was a part of. I was in my Block 28 sixth grade football team and baseball team, and we played all the other grammar schools in the camp, I mean, yeah, grammar schools in the camp.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

RD: So when you left after a few years, you're about ready to go into high school, right, when you left camp?

KS: Yeah. Started as a freshman.

RD: And was it uncomfortable for you to re-acclimate that into what we would call regular society? You'd been in prison, essentially.

KS: Yeah. Well, when we left camp, we were of the group that had no destination and no money. So the government set up temporary camps in several parts of Los Angeles. One was the Lomita air strip, army air strip which is now Torrance airport. And there we were sent, and there was a government office there to try to rehabilitate us back into society.


RD: So you get out, did you face a significant amount of prejudice when you came out?

KS: Yes. That was my first experience with prejudice. Of course, being in the camp, we were isolated from the general population, so we had no experience with prejudice from the outside until we left the enclosure of the camp and got back into Southern California here. And that's the first time we had to face and intermingle with the general population. And that was my first experience with racial prejudice, being a victim of racial prejudice.

RD: Do you think that it damaged you permanently, did it change how you felt in your place in society?

KS: Yes, I think it affected every one of us who were victims of racial prejudice after we were removed from the camps. It took me a long time to get over the anger.

RD: Well, you don't seem bitter. Why is that?

KS: Well, in time, it just kind of wore off. I remember whenever I heard the word "Jap," I would just kind of go a little nuts and crazy, and I'll start swinging first and ask questions later. And took me a long time to get over that.

RD: Do you remember Ben Kuroki coming to the camp?

KS: Yes.

RD: Speaking of the word "Jap," because he used it.

KS: He did?

RD: In his speech, yeah. He's still trying to get over that. Well, he was made to read it, the drafting statement.

KS: Well, one of my delinquent friends in Heart Mountain married Ben Kuroki's younger sister, Mary Kuroki.

RD: But you remember his visit there? Because he was a big...

KS: I remember the notice and the big hoopla about him arriving, but I didn't go and actually see him. But I know that it was big camp news that he was coming. It was big news, big news at the camp.

RD: Yeah, he was a big war hero.


RD: So you've managed to get past it. What is it the Japanese say, "Don't forget"? "Don't be bitter but don't forget"?

KS: I don't know that saying. [Laughs]

RD: So does it stay with you every day?

KS: At my age now, no. I'll be eighty next month. But it stuck... well, it's a matter of degrees. It gradually slowly leaves as you get older, like your memory. And the experiences has less effect on me for a number of reasons, as you intermingle with society and start making friends, and the incident becomes more and more ancient history. The younger generations coming up, I never married, but brother and sister's kids and their kids, they all intermarried. Most third and fourth generation Japanese kids that married outside of their ethnicity, almost entirely. Great majority of the Japanese third and fourth generation had married people other than Japanese.

RD: Why do you think?

KS: I think the desire to be American.

RD: Survival.

KS: And America is white, Anglo-Saxon White Protestant, that's America, always has been. And so those who weren't, the only way they could try to be that is to marry one another or become, try to become part of a group of white America, which I did. I was pretty good at that, I was pretty successful at intermingling with the non-Japanese.

RD: But before you went to Heart Mountain, you were already in that society. Didn't you consider yourself a sort of integrated American at that point?

KS: Oh, before... you're talking about before Santa Anita?

RD: Yeah before Santa Anita.

KS: Before Santa Anita, at the Avalon Boulevard elementary school, I had no concept that I was any different than any other kid. At that age, I don't think most, any kids really have a concept that they're different. You're all speaking English and we're all going to school and learning the same thing, doing the same thing, playing the same games and sports and all this, Lone Ranger and all that stuff on the radio. Yeah, I had no idea that I was different until the war started.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

RD: Okay, so finally, what would you like the younger generation to take away from what you're telling us?

KS: You mean all the younger generations of our country?

RD: Yes.

KS: Oh, that's a hard question to answer. That's a heavy question. [Laughs]

RD: Well, you can start over again if you like.

KS: Well, they should understand that to be a victim of prejudice... first of all, you shouldn't victimize anybody because of race, color and creed. But I would say in our imperfect society, and human beings being what we are, we all have our ego-centric nature and our identity, racially, and it's hard to expand beyond that to try to treat others equally who are different from you in ethnicity and in culture. That's a difficult thing to do. But since America's made up of so many ethnic groups, race, color and creed, this is the only country in the world that really had to face this, to really, you know, e pluribus unum, we had to all come together as Americans. We're all from, people are from all different parts of the world, made up our country. So now I can say now, at my age today, that there was a gradual evolution into integration slowly, as we look back on American history, it's slowly being integrated, ever so slowly. But intermarriage I think has helped a lot in breaking up of these racial differences, because what's intermarriage anyway but breaking up racial differences, right?

RD: Good, I like that. Anything you want to say?

KS: About what?

RD: About anything that we haven't covered. We have all your stories from Santa Anita, but if there's anything in particular you'd like to address? Because remember this is for the museums, too.

Off camera: Do you think your parents did a good job of hiding the fact that you were being so discriminated against from you because you were children? I mean, they obviously knew what was going on.

KS: Well, my parents' generation, the Japanese culture is "don't make trouble, stay in the background, don't be a showoff, be respected, respectable, study hard, don't do anything wrong." That was very important in Japanese culture. My parents never spoke of racial prejudice or being prejudiced against, they never mentioned that at all to any of us kids.

RD: What did they tell you about why you were in the camp?

KS: I never asked her and she never told me, but I believe she felt like we all did, we were all victims. [Laughs] She probably had the same question I did: "Why were we?" but the reason was obviously that we were of Japanese ancestry, that's why we were being shipped inland and treated with a lot of caution because of our ethnicity. We look like the enemy.

RD: How did your parents rebuild their lives?

KS: Well, when we got released from camp and we ended up at the Lomita air strip, there were jobs being offered from the government office there. And they were menial jobs working out in the field picking beans and such. And I remember going out to the field with my father picking beans, stoop labor all day. That was the first time I ever worked physical labor, eight hours out in the field. And I'll never forget that because it was so physically hard on me that I decided then and there that I'll never do this kind of work again. And that was the incentive I needed to get out of college, go to school and get out of college. [Laughs] That's all I needed was that one day out in the field. Oh, that almost killed me.

RD: Hard work for a former juvenile delinquent, wasn't it?

KS: Wasn't ready for that work. It almost killed me.

RD: So how did you make it to college?

KS: Well, let's see. From Lomita air strip, there was a big flower grower named Fred C. King incorporated. And he needed permanent workers on his huge flower ranches around the Torrance area, Torrance, Redondo Beach area in Gardena. And so he built a little trailer camp for twelve Japanese families, of which we were one of the twelve families. So we moved from the Lomita air strip into this trailer camp right off of Torrance Boulevard there between Redondo Beach and Torrance. And there I started my first year as a freshman was at Narbonne High School in Lomita where we were placed at the Lomita air strip. And then from there we went to the Fred C. Caine trailer camp, I started my second year at Redondo Union High School. And then my third and fourth year at Torrance High School. And by then, my parents were working out in the field for Fred C. Caine flower ranch. And then I started El Camino college, and then we moved next to a Japanese nursery and my parents worked at the nursery. We rented a house next to the nursery, and I went to El Camino college there while they were, they wanted me to get an education, so they basically were putting me through school.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.