Densho Digital Archive
Steven Okazaki Collection
Title: Chizuko Iyama - Ernie Iyama Interview
Narrators: Chizuko Iyama, Ernie Iyama
Location: El Cerrito, California
Date: December 11, 1983
Densho ID: denshovh-ichizuko_g-01

<Begin Segment 1>

Q: Ernie, could you describe the evacuation, what you did or where you were?

EI: Well, up to the time of the evacuation, I was working at the county in the election department for about five months previous to evacuation, and I actually worked until the day before evacuation. It just happened that the county clerk, Wade, was a good person and he kept me on until the last day. And that was the reason for my working there. And then of course the fellow I worked with was about my age too and we got along well. And the type of work we were doing was re-precincting in the main, in the county, we would go out and try to break up the areas into about 250 voters in each area so that each precinct had about that number, or we would estimate that they would have that number in a year or two.

Q: Can you describe the preparations for evacuating and then the assembly center and your impressions?

EI: Well, actually, we had a lot more time than the people in the south had. Because by the time it came up to us, we had about, oh, two and a half or three months' time. So we were more or less prepared for it, and what happened was I, I was living with friends. I was a bachelor because I came back from Japan alone and what we did was four of us, four of us got together and stayed at a, in a flat of one of the fellows whose uncle had gone inland to avoid being sent out. He thought that if he went inland, that they wouldn't have to move again but they had to move again anyway. But, so we were in this flat and then on the day of evacuation which was the first part of May, I think it was about May 3rd, I don't remember the exact date, and we went into an assembly center, we had go to by bus. And we were really surprised when we went there because we went into these horse stalls which we weren't expecting. And the stench was really something because they hadn't cleaned them out or anything, and the boards had cracks on the bottom so all the stench that was in there for years, you know, came up, and especially on a warm day, it was really bad. So we had to leave the front door open because that was the only way we got ventilation. There's no windows. And this was mainly for bachelors and couples, and the families went into the barracks, but it was really bad for us. It was really something because you can't, you can't explain what it's like because sleeping in there and that stench was really bad.

Q: Which camp did you go to?

EI: Oh. We went into Tanforan. That was the racetracks that we went into, and that's the reason for going to these horse stalls. Because they utilized the racetracks and used all the horse stalls, and where they had to, they built these barracks, army barracks which had tarpaper on the outside and very flimsy. And families were put in there, but they were all in one room so it was very difficult for them too.

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

<Begin Segment 2>

Q: Chizu, can you, where were you, or the assembly center did you go to, what were your impressions?

CI: Yeah, well, we came from San Francisco and I was going to Cal at the time and my father had been taken after Pearl Harbor, like many community leaders, and so we were left with a fairly large hotel that we had to dispose of. And we had more difficulty in terms of time because we were given three days to leave San Francisco. We were the first group from San Francisco, and so my sister had to work out all the details about the hotel and we all had to just bring whatever we could carry in two suitcases. We went to Santa Anita, we had no idea where we were going, and we were on the train and kept asking, "Where are we going?" And we finally ended up at Santa Anita. Again, we were a group from the San Francisco area. We were probably about the third group that went into Santa Anita. And so we had, again, real difficulties of trying to adjust to life, I think, like Ernie said, in the horse stalls. We, I can remember my mother being extremely depressed and having real difficulty because my father wasn't with us, my older sisters had to make all kinds of decisions, and we had to get ourselves adjusted into this camp life. It was very difficult and it was very, we went in April and we were in Santa Anita. It was okay April and May in the sense of weather, but come June, we really hit that hot Los Angeles weather. Most of us were not used to it, and living in the horse stalls in that time was really very difficult. We felt especially sorry for the women that we saw with young children because they had such a difficult time with putting their babies who are in the crawling stage into the dusty old, dirty horse stalls and also with having to adjust to the food situation, the washing situation and things at the camp. When I went into Santa Anita, I did have a chance to work with a group of people on the educational recreational aspects of camp and that kept me very, very busy because there were so many problems that arose with the fact that this was totally a new experience for everybody including people in charge who didn't seem to know what they were doing.

Q: Which camp did you go to?

CI: I went to Santa Anita. And that was again a racetrack.

Q: No, then where did you --

CI: Oh, from there. We went to Topaz and that's where I met him. We went to Topaz. But I could remember that first day we went into Topaz, there was a, there was a windstorm and, and there was, the whole place was just blacked out. We came in, evidently, there wasn't a place ready for us and we had to spend that night really in terrible circumstances because they couldn't figure where to put us, they put us into schools or whatever it was.

EI: It rained that night.

CI: Yeah. It was rainy, it was dust storms and very hard.

Q: What were the fears of people -- either of you can answer this question -- at the time?

EI: Fears of the people?

Q: Yeah.

CI: Well, the, that all of us were, one of the first things that really was difficult for us was not knowing what was going to happen to us. Everything was so uncertain and my mother was sure that we were all going to go out to become farm laborers and that we were all going to be shot, and she would talk about that a good deal. We had the opposite, naive expectation that the American democracy would never do those things to us and so we had to, to deal with that uncertainty. That was very difficult. I guess the second thing was certainly in terms of the bitterness that we felt about being in this situation because we had been brought up on the American dream and American democracy, and it was very difficult for people like us who were students, having to take the reality of what was happening to us with our own, all of our ideas as to how Americans were treated. And I think that was psychologically probably the most difficult to deal with.

In terms of reality, the camps were certainly not good for families. We all lived in one, we lived in one room and there were five of us who were adult children, in a sense, living with my mother. My father came back to Topaz, he was released after a while on the basis that there was no reason to hold him. And so we lived rather uncomfortably in a large, in a room, one room, in a large barrack that was shared with three other people in their own separate rooms. That was, you know, I guess the fact also that we were so close to one another. We were not used to living on top of each other, and that not only included our families, but it included other people all around us, like everybody living all together in one place for a period of time.

EI: Yeah, well, as Chiz is saying, camp life wasn't like some people think camp life is. When you think of a camp, you think of going out to a summer camp and having a cabin and, you know, having fun and all that, but this camp was different. And, of course, first of all, we only went in with what we could carry. That was all that we, so you can imagine the people who had little children who couldn't carry anything except maybe a doll or something, and they had to carry the children's clothes as well as their own. So you can imagine the difficulty they had. And because they couldn't bring much, of course, Sears Roebuck did a whale of a job then because people bought by catalog, you know. And, of course, the difficulty was we were all in this congested area and the rooms were...

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

<Begin Segment 3>

EI: So even in Tanforan, I got elected in the council which we'd never would've gotten ordinarily because you know, we were looked at as, you know, Communists and so forth, you know, they call us all kinds of names, and then that carried over into the camp, too. So we had progressive people in the camp, too. I got onto the council which made it a little bit easier, I think, for the people in there because we weren't afraid to say things to the administration, you know. To get whatever we thought should be done for the people. So, that I think was different from other camps, you know. At least I think that. See, I became a city, well, another thing was when I walked into the camp, here was this guy, Art Eaton, he was going to school with me at Cal, you know, so immediately, when I walked in, he said, "Hey, how about working for me?" See, he was in housing, that's why I got into housing right away. And we had to fight with them all the way on that. This, this is another thing about the camps . The camps weren't already built. They built them as we came in and they were just barely keeping up. And if it rained or something, they got behind, see, and that's the reason why when Santa Anita group came in, they didn't have the roof on yet and they said it was gonna rain that night. And so we asked the administration to put these people in where the school was because school block, see, they're all in blocks, you know. So many people in a block. And so we asked to put them in the school and they said no, because school is in the center, they want to keep it in the center. And I said, "Well, you can ask them to move out again. And after the roof's up, you know, for a day or two, let them stay in there." And they said, "No, once they get in there, they won't move." So we said, "Well, what difference does it make? Because it's only one block away and people are walking all day in the camp anyway. So what difference does it make if they walk one more block?" [Laughs] But they wouldn't do it, so they moved these people in and then that night, it did rain, and people who had babies and things like that, so we had to commandeer trucks and things like that and we put them in the hospital. But even there, we had, we had trouble with the doctors, because we had to fight them, you know.

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

<Begin Segment 4>

CI: One of the most difficult periods in camp was the time when we all had to, I guess it was in April, wasn't it about... I remember somewhere around there, March or April of 1943, when we had to put together, they put together a package for people who wanted to leave the camp, had to sign certain kinds of declarations and also people who are volunteering for the army and the draft registration all went in at the same time. And it created a lot of problems in camp. I was working with social services at that time and so I sat in on a lot of the family discussions that people were having. It was very difficult. Because mixed into was a lot of the bitterness that people felt about what had happened to them in evacuation, the uncertainty of what was going to happen to them in the future, the feeling that we should not sign any declaration that says that we are willing to forswear allegiance to Japan because there were some people for whom it would mean that they would have no land if anything should happen to, you know, in the future in the war. And so there were a lot of mixed feelings at that time and I could see a lot of tragedies that were developing. There were instances, for example, of people who had children in Japan and therefore wanted to check to make sure that their children were okay, but at the same time, they wanted to stay in the United States. And I know of one family where, you know, the families just separated along those lines. People who were gonna stay and people who had to go back to Japan, not because they were disloyal, but because they had family that they had to check on. We had instances where the parents were very discouraged about what had happened to them and therefore did not want their children to volunteer for the army. At the same time, we had people who were very strong about demonstrating loyalty and therefore joining the army. And so the whole camp was put into a terrible situation because people could not under the circumstances make what they think is a wise and reasoned decision. That was very difficult, and I saw families split as a result of it. And I've talked to some people who've told me that even today, they just don't talk about that period because it was so painful to them.

EI: Yeah, I think the government made a mistake on that because they didn't look into it before they made up the questionnaire, so they just sprung this questionnaire on the people. And as Chiz was saying, there was a lot of confusion because, you know, you had feelings about trying to be loyal, and on the other hand, certain members of the family wanted to go to Japan and then, of course, the other thing was the Isseis, if they renounced their, what they said, loyalty to the Japanese emperor, that means that they would be citizens without a country. No citizens here, no citizenship here, and no citizenship in Japan. And so there was a lot of confusion and even among the Nisei, there was a lot of confusion because they didn't know exactly what to do because they felt that this was their country and they wanted to fight for it, yet they had feelings for their parents, too, you know. And so that was one of the reasons why there was so much dissension in the camp around that time around this question of whether you answered "no-no" or "yes-yes."

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

<Begin Segment 5>

Q: Well, yeah, if we could go through, you can just go through loosely of the accommodations, the food, activities, the saunas and hot tubs.

CI: We did have hot tubs. [Laughs] The Issei just took it over.

EI: Well, things got better later, but at the beginning, naturally, none of us had the experience of... well, for one thing, living together like this, and the army barracks were just rooms, no closet space or anything. And no ceiling so that they just had a wall and then next door, the gable of the roof was open, you know, that space and so there was no privacy. And people who had children, like Chizu's sister had a little baby, was three year old then?

CI : No, born in camp.

EI: Oh, she was born in camp. Well anyway, so you know, the baby would cry at night and they'd try to keep it quiet so it wouldn't bother people. And then, of course, some of the people didn't like the noise because they couldn't sleep and things like that, so there were all kinds of problems like that. And then of course, those who had teenage children had difficulty because it was, they were all in one room and you have girls and boys, you know, teenage girls and boys all there together. And it was difficult to try to get some privacy for them, so they had to hang up either blankets or sheets and things like that. And, of course, they were not well-built buildings, so that when we had a sandstorm, it all came inside through the windows and the doors and even the floor, you know, the space between the boards, because they just, boards that were nailed down and as they dried, they separated, you know. So it was very difficult that, and then in the mess halls, we... they called them mess halls, the kitchen and dining room area where all of us went together, the cooks had never cooked for that many people before. There were about 250 or so people to a block and they had to cook for these people. So at the beg inning, it was, the place was a mess, really, because things weren't cooked well and of course, the things that the WRA gave us were for Caucasians, you know, the type of meal. And we wanted rice and things like that. So we had to petition for that and get it in and finally we got it. So then they started cooking Japanese meals and things got better.


CI: That was really hard because you're cramping, you're feeling terrible, and then when you're coming out, the soldiers are waiting for you with their lights, and the moment you come out, the lights follow you as you go back to your barracks. It was very humiliating, I think, for a lot of us, that first week in camp in Santa Anita was just horrible. And we had, they didn't have enough supplies and also we had like really bad food which caused us, our stomachs to really revolt against it, so I can remember some of those situations but those kind of like ameliorated afterwards. But the food in camp, of course, with, I don't remember how much it was, even the little inadequate food that we had was under attack by Congressional committees and we could, you know, think of what it did to our morale to read about the fact that Congress was saying that we were being treated too well and that they should cut down our food allotment because the food was very, very poor. However, the cooks did do a good job, I feel like, for the kind of, for the kind of food that they had to work with. When we got into the relocation centers, then because the people in camp also grew their own food and fresh vegetables, etcetera, things got better because of that. Again, my mother used to spend so much time waiting in line because the Issei didn't have very much to do. And so they would spend great numbers of .hours waiting outside of the mess halls and she used to laugh and say, "Seems like in camp all we do is stand in line." Because that was really the way her life was, very much so.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

CI: I was working in the recreation and education department in Santa Anita, so we began to organize classes for the children because we felt, this was, I had gone in April and April, May, June, we felt that the children should have some education. So we were very fortunate in the sense that among the evacuees, there were many people who were qualified to teach and we had, we had some PhDs teaching children because, you know, they wanted to share their knowledge with the kids. So we did develop elementary school and high school for the children in camp. The rooms in Santa Anita were the grandstands, so that we had children sitting with their teachers in the grandstand trying to teach whatever they had very, of course, we had no, no supplies, very inadequate supplies. Again, what people on the outside had donated that came through the libraries, and these were basically the American Friends Service Committee and the churches did donated some, some books and things, and everybody scrounged around to see what they could use to teach with. But being good Japanese kids, they were, you know, in classes and they were being taught their... then recreation, in terms of recreation, we organized a lot of, again, activities, with the people so that... if you remember, the average age of the evacuee at that time was nineteen. And so that we had a lot of schoolchildren who were still, you know, of that age. So I think we had a nursery school, too, for the children. But it was, when we got into the more permanent relocation centers, that these things began to then develop in a much more organized fashion. And at that time, I was working social services but I do know schools were there. My brothers went to school. And they had Topaz High School, I remember, and Topaz grammar school. And also that he children's education -- one of the things that I felt was very ironic was to hear, kids used to love to sing and they would sing God Bless America and, you know, sitting in camp and hearing the children sing these songs is really very touching. It was hard.

EI: Pledge of Allegiance too. [Laughs]

CI: Yeah, yeah. I do remember that was hard.

EI: Yeah, that was one of the things. Well, one of the things, one of the good things that came out of the camp was that they organized a co-op in there, cooperative, and they were able to get things through the co-op for the people. And we were fortunate to have this fellow, Emile Sacarach, from, he came out here and he was a co-op member here, became one of the heads out here. But that helped a great deal, too, in alleviating, helping the people out, getting things and things of that sort. And then the other thing was that she said we were both in the social welfare, not social welfare, social department but --

CI: Social welfare department.

EI: Social welfare department, was it?

CI: Yeah, we worked with families.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

EI: So we had a lot of problems that we had to deal with within the camp and it's amazing because there are a lot of small things that come up which you don't realize, and you have to take care of them. Like even squabbles with the neighbors and things like that. And, of course, the other thing was the problem of getting furniture, there's no wood around so you can't even make it if you want to, so people had to...

CI: We scrounged around, though, didn't we?

EI: Scrounged around and find scraps of wood here and there and also, when they got crates, they would break down the crates, so you could see how they made the furniture, you could see all kinds of furniture that they made from these things, and that's what they had to do to make do, you know.

CI: One of the things that, I guess, comes through is the creativity of the Japanese, really came through. I can remember seeing, you know, people who had never really had any art classes or anything before making beautiful objects of art out of whatever they could find. And when we were in Topaz, they would find, like, old branches of the bushes and go out a little bit and find rocks and polish them and make all kinds of works of art. And I know that it's a shame, I think most of them just disappeared after the war. It would have been a very interesting thing to have kept them because they did so much with it. The other thing we saw, in terms of like classes, that there were a lot of classes that were organized and people like my mother went to classes, in terms of English and speaking English, Americanization classes. Classes... one of the things that we saw, for example, were men doing a lot of knitting, things that you ordinarily would not have seen. Knitting, crocheting, all kinds of crafts classes came up. And I think a lot had to do with the fact that the population they had was so creative and willing to share and willing to organize, so that there were lots of classes and things going on, lots of organized recreation, so that they made that time as meaningful as possible even though it was under terrible circumstances. Yeah.

EI: I think at the beginning, when we went into the camp, there was a lot of anxiety, especially among the Issei because they didn't know what was gonna happen to them. But after a year or a year and a half, then they realized that they're not going to harm them, but they're just going to keep them in camp, then think they relaxed a little and I think that's when they began to do all these kinds of things like carving things and... and the creativity came out. Because for the first time a lot of the Issei were able to relax like this. You know, had time, so they began to do all these things. And a lot of the creative things came out, as she said, and it's bad that some of them were lost.

CI: It's too bad like some of the songs and things that, especially among the Issei, was really fascinating, because they had their Issei poetry classes and things, and a lot of things came out there, but it's just lost after the war, people didn't do that.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

CI: Yeah, okay, I think one of the reasons, certainly, is that after the war, life was very difficult for the Japanese American. It meant, for example, that most of us had nothing, absolutely nothing, and many of them had young families of children who were just beginning to grow. And so many people held two or three jobs in order to make it, in order to make enough money so that they can get enough of a down payment for a house and to try to build up a family home. And also busy getting their parents out from camp and taking care of the older people who by that time were really, had a real difficult time. The Issei were about fifty at the time of evacuation and by the time they left, they must've been fifty-four, fifty-five, very hard for them to find jobs. And so the Nisei, then, had to take care of not only their growing families, but the Issei, their parents and all. And so as a result, I mean, there was little time for anything because they were so busy working at, as I said, two or three jobs. There was also the other factor of... let me just explain, at the time that I left camp, I was going out to go to school, and I was given very explicit directions at the time we were leaving, we were one of the first people to leave camp, and I was told at that time, "Be sure that you don't congregate in groups of more than three, be sure that you don't speak Japanese outside," in other words, don't call any attention to yourself. And that was made very clear to us when we were leaving so that we remembered this very strongly and did not want to cause any problems because we were afraid that all of the Japanese would be hurt if we did anything that called attention to ourselves. And therefore it was again that very strong feeling that you really had to kind of like make it in the American society by working hard and not complaining and doing any of these things. So that was part of the problem, I think, that we had. And I guess the third problem that I could see is that there's a whole thing that, I mean, some people, we didn't feel that way, but some people felt that it was, it was a shame, that it was, that we were considered not quite American citizens by the way we were treated and therefore, it was something that was rather shameful that happened to us. And there's a whole thing in Japanese culture that has something to do with, again, leaving all that behind and kind of shikata ga nai and, you know, looking forward all the time to doing something. And so we kind of like pulled all of that together and were in a sense, a quiet generation. Very busy, trying to make ends meet and trying to develop a life for our children that we didn't have. And as a result, I think that there was a lot of quietness about it. We weren't particularly affected that way because we worked in other organizations and we were not quite as restrained about those kinds of things. So our children, we told our children about camp life, we told... I did speak too groups and told people about camp life and all. But not with the same kind of feelings that we have now about... you know, as we get older, we look back and see what happened. I guess part of it is a reflective thing as an older person and seeing what was really wrong and trying to seek redress now.

EI: Yeah, I think Chiz touched on it, but I think there was a history of discrimination against the Japanese before the war, and because of this, I think there was a feeling that there was no use fighting back. Because we're not going to get anyplace anyway. I think that's partly the thing, and of course the administration stressed that too as Chiz said, in not congregating together in too big of a group and not showing your Japanese profile so much, you know. And I think that's one of the reasons. And the other one, I think probably is because people didn't want to talk about it for various reasons. And she mentioned one of them, that our cultural background, you know, prohibited this because they thought it was a shame to talk about being in a camp. And I think even today, there are a lot of Nisei who don't want to talk about it to their children even. And I think it's probably difficult for them to talk about the camp life. I know when I first started to talk about it, we didn't talk about it for years in the open, we talked about it among ourselves. But when I first went public and talked about it, I know this anger came out, which I didn't realize, and it got very emotional. And I think that's probably the kind of feeling that most people would get when they start talking about this.

CI: Yeah, I think you saw that when they had the redress hearings, and a lot of the feelings people had just repressed because at that time we couldn't deal with it, came out. And that was really fascinating to see and I was glad that it expressed itself that way. The other thing was that we didn't have any models. We had no models before of any minority group that did anything to right wrongs, and I think it was the black Civil Rights Movement and this whole concept of really standing up and ensuring equality of some kind. I think that was the first time that we really saw a group doing something, and that, Ernie and I had tremendous admiration for the black movement, And then it was wonderful to see it spread into other groups. I can remember the Third World Strike at San Francisco State and feeling very positive and warm about the fact that there were Asian groups as well, willing to, to stand up and demand the rights of citizenship and the rights of students all over. I think it was part of that, too, is that our American history never had, or at least we were not aware of groups of people being able to stand up and make changes like that.

EI: Yeah, I think it's true that the whole Civil Rights Movement encouraged us too in a way. And I know that I speak out a lot more than I used to, you know, if I feel that I'm being discriminated against and a Caucasian is doing it, I'd tell him off, you know. [Laughs] And you're not afraid to do that anymore whereas before, you sort of kept quiet and took it. And I think, as she said, this whole Civil Rights Movement, I think encouraged a lot of us to come out and do these things and that's why it's probably come out so late.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.