Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: Frank Isamu Kikuchi Interview
Narrator: Frank Isamu Kikuchi
Interviewer: John Allen
Date: November 6, 2002
Densho ID: denshovh-kfrank_2-01-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

[Ed. note: the beginning of this interview is missing due to technical difficulties.]

(JA: Tell me, how old were you in '41?

FK: I must've been sixteen, and my birthday is October 21st, so I guess it was a couple of months after my sixteenth birthday.

JA: Tell me a little bit about your family back at that time, where they came from, what they did.

FK: Well, I know now that my father and my mother came from two separate areas of Japan and they were married here in this country. Both of them had broken marriages. My father came from a province or area known as Iwaki, that's way up in the northern end of the main island, and my mother came from what you call more or less the southern end of that same island, she's from Fukuoka. So they're two separate areas, and they got married here, they got to know each other in this country.

JA: What do you know about what motivated them to come to the United States?

FK: For a fact I know that my mother wanted to get away because she had a horrible life in Japan. Her father was of samurai lineage and he never knew how to work and he never did work. He did have land, and to sustain himself he would sell off little bits of land every year and that's what their income was, sales of land. And they were pretty impoverished, yet because he was samurai-type, he was sort of the, all say spoiled, and he wouldn't work, he'd drink and enjoy life, and my mother suffered as a result because she was just a little girl. And she must have been only about nine or ten in those days that I'm talking about, that's when her mother contracted cancer and she had to take care of her mother, and this was despite the fact that she was so young and she hadn't gone to school. In fact, she never did get any education in Japan to speak of. In later years after she came to this country, she did attempt to learn English, but never acquired speaking skills very much.

JA: What led your father?

FK: You know, I was never ever that close to my father, but from what I understand from his brothers and all, that he was the oldest of the brothers that did come to this country, and they all looked up to him because he was the oldest, and apparently he was the most successful. We were in the Seattle area. In the old days, my father started out as a laborer with the Great Northern Railway in the Montana-Idaho area, and he finally became the cook of that group, and he) acquired some skills in speaking. He was the one that was, all the other Japanese would use, he'd be the one that they'd use as an intermediary because he spoke pretty decently, and he was able to write, too. So, you know, it's amazing, I don't know where he got that knowledge and everything, but he was able to write and speak pretty well for an Issei.

JA: Tell me what were some of the restrictions that he might have been affected by in this country in terms of property, citizenship.

FK: Well, as I told you, my father was, in the early days, was pretty successful, considering that he was an immigrant. And one of the things he acquired was a pretty nice, I hear it was a pretty nice apartment house. And he could not own that himself or acknowledge ownership, so he used to have to have a white man do all his intermediary work with the tenants and everything to do with the apartment. He was the owner, but he didn't have anything to do with running the place. And I know it was a pretty nice apartment because we're talking about the early '30s where he had the refrigerators in them, and for that reason we had a refrigerator in our house, it was from one of the apartments. And that was... it seems funny now, but that was one of the... you know, hallmarks of success, when you get a refrigerator, an electric refrigerator. Not an icebox, but it was one of those that has that round canister on top and he had one of those, and we always had a nice car and we'd get one about every two or three years, a nice car. My father also had this odd business that you would never ever hear of these days, but anybody that was living during the time of prohibition would know there were such businesses. It was the kind of business where he would sell anything you needed to make home brew at home. Naturally, with the end of prohibition, that business was wiped out. But because he sold that kind of stuff, you're sort of on the fringe of racketeering. He would have racketeers come to his place and they'd muscle him, I remember, because there were oftentimes real mean-looking guys used to come to our store and they all had suits on and they were big guys, red face, and, you know, they'd come in three or four at a time and they'd be in discussion in the back room, and I know they were involved in not home brew, but making brew to resell. And my dad must have been doing pretty well because I remember we used to have warehouses, big warehouse, you know, rented ones, I guess, but full, stocked to the ceiling with sugar, brown sugar, and all the condiments you need to make brew.

JA: It's a pretty unusual story. [Laughs]

FK: It is, Oh, the thing is, it's an unusual business. You never hear about it anymore, but it was legal to make it at home. So you'd have these racketeer-types muscling and pushing.

JA: Well, it sounds like your father had made a pretty good success of his life.

FK: In those early days, yeah, until that business got wiped out with the end of prohibition, and he got talked into buying a share in a syndicate, bought a coal mine, or leased a coal mine in Utah. That was a fiasco. He lost it all there. We went to Utah to pick up the pieces because the promoter was a pretty smart Japanese guy that arranged everything and everything was in his name and he died of a heart attack. And you know how it is when a guy dies and everything's in his name, it goes in probate and all that stuff. So for a year while we had the coal mine, it was in limbo and we just couldn't get it going.

JA: Did you -- in growing up, in the years before the war -- ever have any personal experience with racism by virtue of being Japanese lineage?

FK: I would say most of it came not in the... I didn't feel it in the early days, but more later. In Seattle, where I'm talking about, I was too young to really know. My parents did, though, because you know, like I say, my dad couldn't own property and he had to run, buy an apartment and have somebody else run it and things of that order. And my mother used to tell me that salesmen used to come to the door and she'd refuse to buy and they'd say, "Why don't you go home, you goddamn Jap," and stuff like that. I didn't quite understand that because when you're a young kid, you don't know racism. Of course, as I, when I came to L.A. I realized -- I was older then and then I realized there was a lot of racism in this world. And I think it was worse during the war years, though, and after the war.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.