Densho Digital Archive
Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection
Title: Homer Yasui Interview II
Narrator: Homer Yasui
Interviewer: Margaret Barton Ross
Location: Portland, Oregon
Date: October 10, 2003
Densho ID: denshovh-yhomer-02-0005

<Begin Segment 5>

MR: Can you talk about living conditions in those early days?

HY: Yes. The living conditions were relatively primitive, but I would have to speak from my own experience in Hood River because I don't know about how it was in the cities. But in Hood River when we were growing up, again, again, Hood River was a small town about a little less than 3000 people. It was in, the valley itself was a rural community, and this was where most of the Japanese people lived. They lived outside of the city of Hood River. The biggest other town, I guess, would be, oh, maybe Odell, and Odell has maybe, had maybe 150 people living there. I mean, it was really small. So the family outside of the town of Hood River who lived in little farmhouses and maybe separated a quarter a mile, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and so they had to depend upon themselves rather, so they raised a lot of their own food, and they came to town to the Hood River Yasui Store for the staples and so on. But the farm folks, the Japanese farm folks -- we're talking about the Japanese now in the valley -- most of them had what they call an ofuro. This is a Japanese style bath which is usually built, made in an outbuilding, and the way you do that, it sounds kind of primitive, but it was kind of nice, it's in a different building by itself, and they have a, usually, it was a concrete tub but could be metal, and the bottom of the tub, they'd have, they'd have slabs of iron, and they've actually build a fire underneath it, and you boil the water in this tub. There's a tap, just a cold water tap that pours water, and say it's the size of a fifty, sixty, seventy-gallon tub, and it's usually, it was usually round, and you put this old kindling wood in there and paper and you strike a match, and it boils the water, so you get kind of boiled in the tub if you let it get hot. But of course, there's always the cold water tap too. And then they had boards, these are floating boards, because you can't stand on the bottom on the hot iron, you know. So they had these floating boards, and sometimes the boards are -- you'd be standing on the hot iron. That didn't happen very often because you're very, very careful. But those baths were the greatest things, you know. They were very relaxing. What you do in the Japanese tradition is you soap yourself and wash yourself and rinse yourself off real thoroughly outside of the tub, and then you get inside the tub to soak and relax. And to this day, it's still a great, great thing, but you can't find that much anymore. In those days, that's the way the farmers were. They had the ofuro. So in Hood River where I lived, we had a bathtub and that wasn't nearly as much fun, much more efficient, but it wasn't nearly as much fun. Never get your feet burned. [Laughs] Oh, yeah.

But and again too, there was a food situation too because we ate ethnic foods. Now when I was growing up, we ate a lot of rice and things like misoshiru which was still staples, and rice is still a staple. And to this day, I far prefer rice to bread. I mean, bread is okay. But to me, it's no, nothing like rice because with rice alone I could live on that. I can't eat just a piece, loaf of the bread and live on that. But so food was a very, very important thing. And then of course in the Hood River, there's certain festivals that was very, very important just like now, probably of prime importance was Oshogatsu. That's New Years in Japanese, and that's a highly important event. And so the Japanese people would gather. And usually what would happen, Christmas later on became important, but let me tell you about Shogatsu. They'd gather at this Japanese community hall which maybe at max had a capacity of maybe 400 people, not the entire Japanese valley population. And then they'd have movies, and these were, in those days, these were silent movies. And before I can remember, the silent movies had a kind of an interpreter, translator, and he's called a benshi. And he'd sit on a wooden bench in front of the screen, facing the audience, here's the picture shown back here, and he'd intone, "And the samurai come charging up and... [yells]." This is what the role of the benshi, he took the parts and [speaking in falsetto]. He'd take all the parts of the character of the screen because it was silent, see, and that was the benshi. And my sister says oh, they were great, but I don't remember the benshi at all. Now, later on, they had subtitles, but of course, the subtitles were in Japanese. For little kids like us, we couldn't read this. Then eventually, about two or three years before the war, then they have silent movies, and it was in Japanese, very popular type, what we call chambara. These are the sword fighting, two men sword fighting. They were very, like the American Westerns were at one time. And so the Japanese community would gather and they'd have celebrations.

Let me tell you another interesting thing about Hood River. I can only speak of Hood River because I've had experience with it, and that was called tenshosetsu. Tenshosetsu is not celebrated anymore, but what it was, in those days, now, I'm talking about particularly from the 1930s until war, 1941, okay. Tenshosetsu was actually in my experience the celebration honoring of the birthday of Emperor Hirohito. It's his birthday. And what the Japanese would do, they'd gather again in this Japanese community hall, 400 of us and so on, they'd have a very solemn ceremony on this stage up there. There'd be a big photograph of the Emperor Hirohito and his Empress Nagako, and it would be covered with a black screen. And then when everybody, everything, preparations were made, everybody would stand at attention. The curtain would slowly part, and there was a picture of the emperor, and then bow very deeply. It's very solemn now, no laughing allowed on this business. Anyway, then some leader, usually it was an Issei leader, so frequently, not infrequently, it was my father. He'd get up, and he'd say, "Tennouheika banzai," and everybody would say, "Banzai, banzai, banzai." Can you imagine what a white person walking outside of that would have thought, what the hell are these Japs doing in there? They're getting ready for a banzai raid? They're doing something patriotic. Oh, man. If the mayor of Hood River came by at that time, they would have been appalled, I think.

But they'd have to understand, the Issei were only citizens of Japan. They have no possibility of becoming an American citizen. You know why? Because in 1922, Takao Ozawa was refused citizenship by naturalization. This was a very important seminal case. He was an Issei born in Japan, but he was reared in Hawaii, and he married a Nisei. And he never spoke Japanese, attended American schools and American, not American schools, churches. But he applied for citizenship in 1922, and the United States government, it went to the Supreme Court, and they refused him because he was an alien ineligible for citizenship. Well, that's very interesting, so that was a seminal case, and that really disheartened Niseis because, there's no way you can overcome that. This is the law of the land. Well, I think a year or two later, there was another Supreme Court case. It was based on race, okay. The Japanese were a Mongolian race, and the only people who could be naturalized in those days was the white race and the black race because the 14th Amendment or 17th Amendment, 14th amendment, well, whatever one it was, allowed the blacks after Civil War to become naturalized, to become American citizens. So it included only the white race and the black race, not the red race. Okay. So, the Japanese were yellow people and, therefore, ineligible. Well, in 1923, another case come up. This one was a case of Thind, T-H-I-N-D, against the United States. He was an East Indian, and he applied for citizenship in the United States, and he was refused because he was not a white person. He says, "Wait a minute, I'm an East Indian; I'm a Caucasian." By definition of Caucasian is white. Well, the color is not right because he's dark, so they refused him too. So it was very, very confusing in those days. Wait a minute, on one hand they say citizenship is determined by race. On the other hand, they say it's determined by color, and yet black people is a citizen, and Thind is not as black as the native, of the blacks in America, so it was highly confusing. But that's, those were the two Supreme Court decisions. So anyway, getting back to all this, because of the 19, the Takao Ozawa decision, Supreme Court decision, the Issei knew that they couldn't become citizens in the United States, so what the heck. Of course they're going to put all their faith and trust in their own land, and of course they're going to do it in their own leader. Why the Americans did that and President Roosevelt, so and so, is only natural; so of course, they're going to celebrate their own holidays. What else could they do? So yes, they had tenshosetsu and tenshosetsu was a big, big thing, banzai. [Laughs] Oh, that was fun.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2003 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.