Densho Digital Archive
Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection
Title: George Iseri Interview
Narrator: George Iseri
Interviewer: Alton Chung
Location: Ontario, Oregon
Date: December 5, 2004
Densho ID: denshovh-igeorge_2-01-0009

<Begin Segment 9>

GI: I don't know whether you get this story or not, but how bad it was is a person could get an engineering degree at a university. A very good friend of mine, he's about the same age as my oldest brother, died here a couple years ago, but he had a degree in engineering and there was no use for him to go knock on doors for a job. He knew he couldn't get a job. Sales people like my brother Tom, he graduated at a business college, and he got a job with the Lilly Seed Company which is quite an accomplishment to get a job with a Caucasian company like that. But of course, you see, they were selling seed to the Japanese people, so they could use him. The doctors, some of them did okay. I know pharmacists. Joe Okamoto here was a pharmacist, he passed away here several years ago, but he's in the produce business here. He couldn't find the opportunity to get into his profession and make it where he could make a living, and so he diversified in something else. There were so many stories of thes Nikkeis or Niseis that got an education and couldn't get their jobs. Today, look what we got. If you got a Japanese name, I think you got a foot in the door already, and I think it's probably the same with the other Asian groups but especially the Japanese Americans and Sansei. We've got Sanseis retiring today. I had a whole bunch of them in Japan with me in October from the Seattle area and San Francisco and Los Angeles area just barely sixty years old and they've retired already, the Sanseis. And here us Niseis, many of us, we don't have retirement benefits because we couldn't get jobs that had retirement benefits. We had to make our own way, and those guys are better off than we are. So it's the tireless work that your organization have been doing has just been great, and I just can't imagine looking back sixty years wondering what was going to happen to us to be able to have the kind of life we have.

By that, I think I should include that I served on the city council here for nine years. And when my term expired, I was appointed and then I served two years, got unanimous, majority votes. When I ran for mayor, I got whipped by a lady who was, had been a schoolteacher here for thirty some years. She knew a lot more people than I did, so that took care of that. The same year that I came up with cancer and couldn't perform my job anyway. I was accepted into the Lion's Club. It's been fifty-six years I've been in the Lion's Club, the oldest and the longest member in our home club here which Joe Saito, by the way, was a Lion's Club member when I joined. Tommy was also a member, but neither of them were able to stay with it. Did I mention the nursing home here? I served thirty-four years on the board there. The point I'm getting at is that I've lived in an era here where the respect for us Nikkei has come to a point that we don't have to be ashamed of being a Nikkei in any way; although, that's not what the story was, way back.

When we came here, we had some tough times. But we were very lucky here that the mayor in Ontario, named Elmo Smith, opened his arms and got the city, the community people to do the same, the majority of them, and welcome us to the community, thank us for coming. And granted now, there were some who were sorry to see us come and wished the hell we get out of here. But the majority of them that went with Mayor Elmo Smith, he was the first one to hire a Japanese housegirl, a relative of mine. And so Ontario was pretty good, and the rest of the cities pretty much had to fall in because Ontario's economy was pretty darn good because of our business here. And so the other communities are a little rougher than Ontario was, but it wasn't long before they joined the fold. And we've had some wonderful days when we lived in Weiser as well as when we lived in Payette, Idaho. Our children grew up in Payette, Idaho. Two of them went through, all the way through school there. But you see, I was still involved in business in Ontario, so this is my place of business although my home is across the river for a while. But Mayor Smith become president of the Senate of Oregon and later was elevated to governor when I think the Governor McKay, I think it was, and five state officials or plus four state official was killed in a plane wreck in Southern Oregon I think it was. Anyway, we had that type of backing. By the way, probably this was covered before. The Japanese people here by the way had built, of Treasure Valley had built a community hall out here and perhaps the story been covered and I don't know the details of it. But they deeded the property to the city and Mayor Elmo Smith was mayor and the city leased it out or loaned it out or whatever to the, for a naval air station during the war, and it was returned to the Japanese Nikkeijinkai after the war. So the Nikkei here along that line had a lot to offer the community. But then at the same token, Ontario treated us well because I know throughout the country there were, the history of some prominent American organizations that wouldn't give the property back to the Japanese after they had deeded it to them, so it was taken care of during the war you see. So we had an excellent community here. We had a little tough times in Idaho because of the governor. I won't mention his name but was very, very outwardly hated us. But today, we are invited, we have been for two, three years now. The Remembrance Day, February 19th I believe it is, Governor Ken Thorne invites us over to come on over, and he gives us a day to remember that day that we were ordered to camps.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2004 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.