Densho Digital Archive
Steven Okazaki Collection
Title: Nikki Bridges Interview
Narrator: Nikki Bridges
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: December 11, 1983
Densho ID: denshovh-bnikki-01

<Begin Segment 1>

Q: Can you tell us what moments stand out from the camps that stay with you? Things you saw?

NB: Well, the men who didn't have any jobs, the older ones, decided that they would make carp ponds, so they stole the cement from the construction sites and dug holes in the area between the barracks and covered it over with cement, filled it up with water and then went to the Colorado River and fished out the carp and put it in the ponds. Unfortunately, the water was full of cement leech and killed the fish. They looked terrible all floating belly up in the pond. And I made some kind of association in my mind of the carp and us, which was a little morbid, but then I think the times were morbid.

We jitterbugged, we danced at the mess halls, and they were decorated with crepe paper. I remember Frank Sinatra had just made a big hit and he'd sing This Love of Mine which is a very difficult song to sing. He did it well, but when the Nisei did it, it was terrible. We had talent shows in which the standard show-offs would sing, and they couldn't sing very well. And then occasionally there'd be a young kid who had a lot of zip and style. I remember one was a cousin of Emiko Omori's who sang Chattanooga Choo Choo. He was about ten years old, he was the darling of the camp. There were trees planted along the administration buildings that grew a little bit, they were maybe ten feet tall. One day, someone went and wired crepe paper flowers to them so it looked like spring. We never knew who did it, but it was a nice touch. I remember, too, a bachelor died when, I think the first day or two after we got there, and so the ladies stayed up all night and made crepe paper flowers and fashioned them into wreaths for his funeral. And I don't think he ever got that kind of attention when he was alive.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

NB: When we first... well, Pearl Harbor was sort of the beginning. But before that, there were harbingers, the Issei were all forced to register. The Alien Registration Act took place and I had to take my parents down to the post office to have their pictures taken and register their thumb prints.

Then when the war came, we listened to all the same programs on the radio, although we have to get rid of the shortwave immediately. Walter Winchell spent a lot of time denigrating us and making us spies and traitors. And he was the one that was foremost among the media people who urged us to be evacuated, that the government do this because we were such dangerous people. We were going to poison the water supply and we would be signaling to submarines offshore because a lot of our farms were on the coast. So my parents became increasingly anxious and didn't want to plant for the next year. And then the agricultural man came by and told us we had to plant. And then he asked us what we were doing with our tools and our farm equipment and our horse and that sort of thing. And we tried to carry on, and at the same time, it was obvious that we were going to be sent away. My father had a truck which we just abandoned and we sold all the tools and the toolshed for fifteen dollars. We had a '39 Plymouth that we sold for two hundred dollars with the proviso that the man who bought it would drive us to the high school where we were supposed to congregate.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

Q: Why wasn't there more dissention, why didn't more people refuse to go to camp?

B: Oh. Well, for one thing, the median age of the Nisei at the time was nineteen and they were the citizens. The leaders of the community were Issei and they were forty-five and they had no power at all. And also the first, within the first week the FBI had rounded up everybody who had any kind of standing in the community who might have been a leader. So the Nisei were young and inexperienced and also because we were all pretty well brainwashed into wanting to do what the hakujin wanted us to do. And that was to be docile and accepting of whatever the decree was.

Q: Do you have any feelings about why it's taken so long for the Nisei to articulate some of the shame, looking back?

B: Yeah, I think that what happened was we were young at the time, we were... the median age as I say was nineteen, an age in which we should have been establishing our identities and saying to ourselves, "This is who I am, I like who I am, and I am a farmer, I am a gardener, I am whatever I am. And I have worth as an individual. "Well, when you have your country that you love banish you and say, "Get out of my sight, you are suspect and a traitor," it does things to you emotionally. And I didn't even, I refused to think about it as a major moment in my life until maybe thirty years later. I looked back, it was like a thirty year double take. And I said, "My god, I allowed this to happen to me?" And then in my fifties, when I was able to look back and say that was a terrible thing and I went through all kinds of emotional trauma, feelings of rejection, and internal family strife because of it, the enormity of what happened to us became clear. And then it was... then I was able, having established some sense of security about myself, to speak out and say the things that I did say.


NB: I think the unhappiest time, the period of adjustment, was when we first got there. And the importance and the enormity of what was happening to our lives dawned on us. And I was still feeling pro-American. I was an American, I didn't feel Japanese. But my mother and my father would say to me, "How can you be pro-American when they've got us in this prison camp in the desert?" And I would say, "Well, I can't help it, that's what I am." And they said, "But real Americans aren't locked up." And all could do was cry. So we established a truce after a while because it seems silly to keep on fighting. But it wasn't a very friendly feeling within the family.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

NB: About redress, I think it's necessary that we all be paid a chunk of money. I would have liked to have seen more than twenty thousand, and I'm not even certain that that's in the bag. But it will mean a lot to us because we did spend nearly three years on the average in these concentration camps for something that we had no control over, that is the, our relationship by birth to the people in Japan who were at war with the United States. And for the U.S. to treat innocent people, select them out as we were selected, for our ancestry and put in the concentration camp, is a terrible thing in terms of our history of being a democratic country that does not imprison people without due process, that doesn't take away our property without due process, all these things that we believed and felt strongly about. And now, forty-some years later, it still sticks in our craw. And until the matter is settled, it's always something that makes us unhappy.


NB: My parents were quite old at the time it took place. My father was nearly seventy and my mother nearly sixty, yes. So they were independent farmers, they leased land and worked it, managed to make a living, although it was pretty sparse. And then when the concentration camp experience took place, they lost that... well, the base where they were farming, and they lost the desire to want to start anew. And when they came out there was no work for them, and they couldn't go back, we didn't have enough of a capital. I think we had about three hundred dollars in savings. So I came out to San Francisco and started to work in the War Relocation Authority office, which was the agency set up to help the evacuees. And I worked for $1440 a year, and managed to support us all, and I supported them until they died.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.