Densho Digital Archive
Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection
Title: Kenji Onishi Interview
Narrator: Kenji Onishi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: March 21, 2014
Densho ID: denshovh-okenji-01-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

TI: So today is Friday, March 21, 2014, and we're at the Seattle office of Densho, and this morning we're interviewing Kenji Onishi. And so, Kenji, I'm just going to start with you. And can you tell me when and where you were born?

KO: I was born April 24, 1927, in Portland, Oregon. My father was the railroad track maintenance foreman. So the company had offered the family a boxcar to live in for the family housing.

TI: Oh, so that's interesting. So when you were born, were you born in the hospital, or where were you born?

KO: Generally all the kids, and there were seven of us, were born in the boxcar. Sometimes the midwife would come if she had enough warning, and some of the kids were born with Father delivering them.

TI: Wow. Was that common with other families who were in the boxcars?

KO: I don't know. [Laughs] I have heard other people, you know, living in boxcar houses, but in the Portland Yard, we were the only family.

TI: Well, so before we get to the boxcars and living there, so you were born in 1927, so this makes you eighty-six years old. So that's always good for me to remember that. What was the full name given to you at birth?

KO: It was Kenji Onishi.

TI: And you mentioned siblings, you had, there was a family, there were quite a few kids. Why don't we just walk through, because you mentioned there were seven of you.

KO: Right.

TI: So why don't we walk through, from the oldest to the youngest.

KO: My sister Hisako was the firstborn. She was born in 1914. I think her birthday was June. And then I had a brother who was born in 1918, and then the sisters...

TI: And going back to your oldest brother, what was his name?

KO: My oldest brother was Kumao. Then Masako came in 1921, Miyo, Miyoko, came in 1923, Fumiko came in 1925, I was born in 1927, and my brother Hiroshi was born in 1929.

TI: So that's a long, I mean, from Hisako to Hiroshi, that's a fifteen year period for the kids. That's a pretty wide age gap. And it looks like there's an earlier one with Hisako, and then a short gap, and then it looked like the rest came pretty regularly after that, almost like every two years you would have a child. And at the time you were born, were your, all the older siblings were there, too, so was it a pretty large family?

KO: When I was born, my sister Hisako had been taken to Japan to show Grandmother. And when she was in Japan, fell ill and was not able to return to America with mother. So Hisako lived in Japan with Grandmother until 1936. My brother Kumao was born in 1918, but died in 1927 from a childhood accident or illness.

TI: Wow, so that was right when you were born.

KO: That's right.

TI: And do you know what kind of illness?

KO: No. My sister Masako says, "Gosh, my memory in the old age is just going, and I don't remember." And my sister Miyo thought he was a victim of an accident of some kind. She says that someone threw a rock or a battery and it inadvertently hit Kumao in the head, but no one really knows for sure.

TI: So let's talk, and I want to establish your father and mother. So can you tell me your father's name and where he was born?

KO: Uh-huh, he was Kyusuke Onishi.

TI: I'm sorry, can you say it one more time?

KO: Kyusuke was born in Kibitsu, Okayama, Japan. And my mother was born also in the same village, Kibitsu, Japan.

TI: And what was her name?

KO: Masuko Suyama.

TI: And going back to your father, do you know what kind of work your father's family did?

KO: They were, they were farmers, but I'm not sure what the nature of being a farmer in Japan is. I kind of think anyone who had a small plot of land was a farmer. And I don't know, it seemed like when I visited Japan, there was a large plot of acreage there, and the houses were all on the side of the road, and I think they all shared almost like a pea patch kind of setting, but I don't think they were large scale farmers or something.

TI: So it's almost like they almost just made enough to support the family maybe just a little bit more?

KO: That's right.

TI: Or like extra money to buy other things?

KO: I think so. Or if they sold things, they sold it cooperatively, because each rice farmer would take his share to the warehouse or distributing center. But I think they were a farm family.

TI: And so do you know why your father decided to leave Japan and come to America?

KO: He was the third or fourth son of six or seven children, and he saw the handwriting on the wall. Says, "The future in Japan is grim and I don't see it here. That I would seek my fortune in America instead," because he had heard talk of others who had left the village and gone to America. So he made up his mind that he was going to come to America to establish his future.

TI: And about what time, like what year did he come to America?

KO: He came in 1898 at age twenty-one.

TI: Wow, so that's kind of cool. So your family came to America in the 1800s, that's a long history.

KO: Uh-huh.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.