Densho Digital Archive
Topaz Museum Collection
Title: Bob Utsumi Interview
Narrator: Bob Utsumi
Interviewer: Megan Asaka
Location: Emeryville, California
Date: July 31, 2008
Densho ID: denshovh-ubob-01-0007

<Begin Segment 7>

MA: So let's talk a little bit about your move to downtown Oakland. You said your father --

BU: Bought a photo studio.

MA: -- opened a photography studio.

BU: Uh-huh.

MA: Can you talk a little bit about that and living in downtown Oakland?

BU: Yeah. He, he bought this photo studio from Tsuji, Mr. Tsuji, T-S-U-J-I, and they were going back to Japan. And my dad was a amateur photographer, and he was working as a, actually, a janitor at a big apartment complex. And so I think he got help from my grandfather, got a loan, and bought, was able to buy the nursery -- photo studio from Tsuji. And this was in February of 1940.

MA: And what was the name of the studio?

BU: Oh, he changed it to Utsumi Photo Studio.

MA: Utsumi?

BU: From Tsuji Photo Studio to Utsumi Photo Studio. Right around the corner, there was another photo studio, Shigetomi, but my dad took over, and on that street, on Franklin Street there, there was several Japanese businesses. There was a beauty parlor, barber shop, little gas station, pharmacy, and within about three block area there was other, other stores.

MA: So was Franklin Street sort of the center of the Oakland Japantown?

BU: Oakland Chinatown, yeah, yeah. It was actually Chinatown where we were, and with these few Japanese stores, businesses interspersed within it.

MA: Was there a separate Oakland Japantown, or was most of the Japanese business, they were in Chinatown?

BU: Well, you know, that, in Oakland, there was no, that was it, no one ever referred to it as Japantown. They always referred to it, you know, if you had a business in Chinatown. But they, in Oakland, there was no big concentration of stores and people. There was several people that lived near the Buddhist church, but around the Methodist church, there wasn't a concentration. But most of the business in Oakland by Japanese were cleaners, small cleaners -- well, I take that back. There was one cleaners that was large, one of the larger ones in Oakland. And then there was other cleaners, laundries, lot of mom and pop stores. Lot of shoemakers. But there wasn't a big concentration of Japanese.

MA: And the Chinese, what did, what sort of businesses did they do? Like grocery stores...

BU: All kinds. At that time, there was only about four restaurants, but they had the small mom and pop grocery stores, couple of herb shops, barber shops. Yeah, you know, I forgot specifically what they were.

MA: And what were the relationships like between the Chinese and Japanese prewar?

BU: Prewar? Although there were, you know, we got along, but there was that Japan-China war going on, so they never really got close to each other. They each kind of observed each other's privacy, they never comingled. They never jointly did anything; they always did it separately, but they competed, but in a friendly way. I shouldn't say friendly way, but...

MA: But there was no overt, like, animosity or anything like that?

BU: I don't think so. The kids, I know, had I gone to elementary school when my folks went to, bought the studio, I would have gone to a school that was predominately Chinese -- elementary school that was predominately Chinese. The ones of my friends that went to that school, they, they didn't have any problem with 'em. They had Chinese friends, but there was never that real close relationships between Chinese and Japanese.

MA: And you think that's partly to do because of the war?

BU: It was a cultural thing, yeah. And because of the war.

MA: Japanese invasion, uh-huh.

BU: Yeah, and I think they were always, been competitive, too. And a lot of it, I really believe the older Japanese, yeah, always kind of looked down on the Chinese, I really believe that. I think Japanese people themselves are, have a tendency to do that with all people. My wife felt that when we got stationed in Japan.

MA: As a Japanese American?

BU: They looked down on the, they looked down on the Japanese Americans. They, all the Japanese wives, the officers' wives, the haole, the Caucasian ones, all had a great time in Japan, they were, felt like they were treated well. But all the Nisei, Sansei wives that were there, all felt this, that they were not equals to the local Japanese. And, well, of course, we were stationed up in Misawa, in northern Japan, we were not in the Tokyo area, the cosmopolitan area.

MA: That's interesting.

BU: I think that had something to do with it.

MA: So going back a little bit to your father's photography studio, was it like a portrait studio?

BU: Yeah, mostly...

MA: So people would come in for weddings or...

BU: His main business was weddings, funerals, family pictures, portraits, passport photos.

MA: And was it mostly Japanese customers?

BU: Mostly Japanese, yeah, Every once in a while, a Chinese person or Filipino would come in and get a passport photo, but it was not a booming business. They made it, but barely, I guess. And the ironic thing was, I say he bought the place in February of '40. In February of '42, he had to turn in his cameras.

MA: So he had two years.

BU: Because he was an Issei, he was an "enemy alien," he had to turn in his cameras (which) essentially put him out of business.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright ©2008 Densho and the Topaz Museum. All Rights Reserved.