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

<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.

<Begin Segment 2>

TI: And where did your father go in the United States of America?

KO: Came almost off the boat into Oregon.

TI: Okay, so almost directly to, like, the Portland area, right there?

KO: Right, right.

TI: And so what did he do? When he got off the boat...

KO: Well, actually, I think he was recruited to work for the railroad before he even came to America.

TI: Okay, so right away he's working with the railroad. And any stories about those early years when he was with the railroad? Did he talk about that at all?

KO: I got most of my information from my mother who talks about places like John Day, Oregon, and Vernonia, Oregon. But the company was building trunk lines. Trunk lines are smaller lines connecting the railroad to the main line, the main line from back east to Portland or from Seattle to Portland or from California to Portland, but there were lumber mills which were producing lumber, and they had to be taken to the big market also. So she talks about building the... in fact, the company was called the Oregon Trunk. And they were building small lines from these mills to the main railroad lines where she talks about spending a little bit of time in John Day and in Vernonia.

TI: Okay, so it sounds like these work crews would go to these places, sometimes remote areas, and they'd just connect the lines to the main line, and they would move around. And what was your role? I think you mentioned earlier, at least when you were born, he was a foreman. On these work crews, what was his role? Was it also like a foreman?

KO: Well, no, he started as a track laborer, but had been eventually promoted to foremanship in the Portland yard.

TI: And when he became a foreman, then he became more, I guess, what's the right word? Headquartered, or he didn't travel as much to these other places, or did he still have to move around quite a bit?

KO: No. After, when he was established in Portland as a foreman, it was a stationary kind of a position. And the Portland Yard is the place where all the tracks met at the Portland Union Depot. But all the lines from different places came to that Portland Yard, and where we lived, the center of the yard, there might have been twenty lines of tracks with the boxcar placed right in the center of that, and extended from what would be edge of Japantown, almost two or three miles downstream of the Willamette River.

TI: Oh, that's interesting, because I've been there. So yeah, so Japantown, two or three miles? I mean, it stretched that much in terms of the railroad area?

KO: The railroad yard began just north of Japantown and extends almost all the way to the St. Johns Bridge, that's downstream of the Willamette River.

TI: So that's a huge area.

KO: Yeah. And his position was to maintain these lines of tracks and manage the crew. So he would get his orders from downtown, and then he would pass the orders to his crew and go from, to different sections of the yard to maintain the tracks.

TI: So was your father's English pretty good?

KO: Father's English was quite good. He actually at one time had stayed with the principal of an elementary school as a houseboy. I don't know how that worked, but anyhow, he apparently lived with the principal, learned English, went to night school as well while he worked on the railroad.

TI: So having interviewed quite a few people, I mean, having, I could see where his ability to speak English would be a big benefit in this work environment, and would make him very valuable to the railroads.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

TI: Let's talk a little bit about your mother. How did your mother and father meet? You mentioned they came from the same village. Tell me how they met.

KO: I don't know if he ever really met her before he was married to her, but they certainly knew each other, I mean, the families knew each other. Because when I visited Okayama, the Onishi house was just across the field from the Suyama house by cutting through the fields, if I went by the road, then I would go up the road an eighth of a mile and then less of an eighth of a mile to the Onishi house. But my father was thirteen years older than my mother.

TI: Okay, and he left when he was twenty-one, so your mother would only have been, like, eight years old.

KO: That's right, yeah. And the story is my father was now thirty years old, and at the time, the Portland community was still quite young, but he was recognized as an up and coming leader in the community. And someone said, "To be respectable, you've got to be a married man. A bachelor doesn't really have much status." So the fellow said, "You should get married, and the Suyama woman, girl, is now growing up. She's eighteen years old, and if you want me to, I'll put in a good word with the Suyama family for you. And so my father said, "Well, you can go for it then," and that's the way it was. The marriage was arranged, my mother was married when she was eighteen or nineteen by proxy. My father never returned to Japan.

TI: Going back to the person who first approached your father saying he could sort of make this arrangement, so do you know if that was common in Portland? Was there, like, a person who did this, or was this just a friend of the family that did that?

KO: I think that was a general practice. The word the Japanese have for that go-between or that matchmaker or whatever it's called is a baishakunin. They introduced families to each other and speak about, "How about your daughter marrying this man because I, could I arrange a meeting of the two?"

TI: And then you said "by proxy," so explain that. How do you get married by proxy?

KO: I don't really know what the, how the Japanese got married, but by proxy would be a fellow would stand in as the husband if they had to appear before the magistrate or the courthouse or whatever it is. Because she can't just go by herself and saying, "I'm going to get married." There's got to be a body, and the proxy is that body.

TI: Now, did you ever ask your mother how she felt about this? Because she had, maybe she did or maybe she didn't even know who this man was, and she would be leaving your village to go across the ocean to a new country. What did she say about that?

KO: I think it's just the duty of a young woman to, if the mother and her parents say, think it's a good idea that you do this, then there wasn't much to say about it. Although I know there are others who would say, "Well, I'm not going," but most dutiful women would say, "Oh, if you say so."

TI: Did she ever talk about whether she was fearful or excited? Did she just have the sense it was just going to be an adventure for her, or was it really just, "I just have to do this"?

KO: She was really an outstanding woman. I mean, she was very independent in the sense that, "I'm my own person and I know how to handle all these kind of things." I was trying to think of words to describe my mother and my father both, but words don't do it. They were just outstanding people.

TI: For your mother, where was she in the birth order?

KO: She had two older brothers and she was the only daughter.

TI: Did she ever talk about, or did you ever notice, did the age difference ever matter to your parents?

KO: I don't think so. I know in counseling me about marriage, she would say, "You should be certainly older than your, whoever you choose." And not only older, but you should be six or seven years older even.

TI: Because she's thinking that the marriage should be more patriarchal in terms of the man older and I guess more established, more senior to the woman?

KO: I don't think she'd ever say "senior," but I think what she's saying is the man should be more mature if he's gonna marry. And it takes a, I guess, a boy to mature, a little bit longer.

TI: Okay, so not even in terms of senior, but it just takes men longer to reach that stage.

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: Okay, that makes sense.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

TI: You said it's hard to really put words to describe your father and mother, they were both outstanding. Is there like a story or example, thinking about your father, that maybe he did in the community or at work that would kind of show how people respected him?

KO: Yeah. My father, in his position as a foreman, as a person who would tell other people what and how to do things, he was never an authoritarian, where he'd say, "Do this, or..." he would tell the guys and get the work done, but he'd say, he was very diplomatic. He was direct, but he was never bossy about it. And he did command a lot of respect. He was quiet, but quiet's not the right word either because he reserved his words and spoke when he really meant to get the message across. He was not a yacker, but he spoke when he needed to speak, and when he spoke he spoke in a manner that got work done. I know as a boy, a child, I was never yelled at. A lot of Nisei kids I know say, "Gosh, my old man just called me names," and do this and that. I have never had that kind of experience.

TI: And how about outside the work and family life for your father? Was he involved in any other, like, community activities?

KO: Right. He was, in fact, one of the things that he wanted us, his kids, to do, was also to balance family and community. Be connected with your community and get out there and do things. That was very important. And because he was one of the early arrivals to the Portland community before 1905, I don't really know how large the Portland community was. But I think the Portland Buddhist Church was established in 1910 or so. I'm not sure of that, but someplace around there. My father was one of the founding members of the church.

TI: And did he play, besides helping to establish the Buddhist church, once it was up, did he play a role at the church?

KO: I don't know what it is, but I know he, there was a setup, the organization of the church, had a collection... I don't know how you say that, but to collect funds or to raise funds or to maintain funds for the church, there were some committee people who went and visited families in the community. And almost collected the monthly dues from them, but I know he did that quite regularly.

TI: So it's almost like a, it sounds a little bit like a social service agency run by the church where they would collect, in some ways, donations to help out those families that were in need? Is that the kind of thing...

KO: I don't know if the money was used in that fashion, but it was mostly to maintain the church itself.

TI: Okay, to maintain the church itself.

KO: Paid for the minister, for the priest, maintain the building.

TI: How about because your father could speak English, was he ever placed in a role to represent the community in non-Japanese situations?

KO: I don't know how much... I don't think there was much going on in that fashion, but I don't think he did that.

TI: Okay. I was just thinking, and this is before your time, but even when the Buddhist church decided to buy the property or things like that, just these business transactions, because your father spoke English. I was wondering if he was brought in to help with those kind of matters.

KO: I'm not aware of that.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

TI: So let's now talk about your mother a little bit. Same kind of question. Is there, like, an example that would help me understand how other people saw her? Like was she involved in groups or anything, and what were those people saying about her?

KO: I use the word independent in the sense that she, I don't say she was standoffish. We as a family were standoffish because we were isolated in the yard, whereas the Japantown was almost a mile away. But my mother was active in the Buddhist church as well as the Konko church, which was the Shinto, which was her faith. And so she was active in both the Buddhist church and the Konko church. But she was social and yet she was very independent. This is a few years back, since that time, but her independence and her, I don't know, being her own person. After my father had retired from the railroad, he bought a hotel in south downtown Portland. And one of the things that... I take it back. This is after the war even. My sister had bought two hotels, and Mother volunteered to manage one of the buildings for her, which happened to be in an area of three or four other Japanese hotels. And when Mother moved into this hotel, the other neighbors came to advise her on how to run the business. And one of the things they said was, "And don't rent to black people. We don't really, you rent to one person, then there'll be a whole bunch of other black people coming." And my mother, without any hesitation, said, "Thank you for your concern, but I feel that housing is one of the human necessities, and all people need housing, and no one should be denied that on the basis of their race."

TI: So where did that come from? Because in the same way, from the interviews I've done, yeah, there was there a fear or ignorance with many of the Isseis when they talked about, say, blacks, or other races. For your mother to have this viewpoint, where do you think that came from?

KO: Well, I don't know, but she was a very religious person. But I think the fact that we lived apart from the Japanese community for a long, long time has something to do with, we think this way, whereas the community together might think, you know, what's common in that community. And I feel that the Onishi kids grew up in the same way. When I went to school, out of the railroad tracks and to Atkinson school where ninety-eight percent of the kids were either Japanese or Chinese, I felt a little bit out of place. I noticed that these kids all do things together, by consensus, and if someone says, "I want to do this," they don't get to do that. I mean, they listen to, "Well, what do you think? I'll do it if you..." well, I didn't grow up that way. If I said, "I think I'll go to the river to fish," or something, I went to the river to fish. No one told me, "Well, I'll go if you go." But the Onishi kids grew up that way, and there was just, I do notice that there was this community kind of thinking that went on, which is somewhat foreign to me. And I think my mother grew up that way, too.

TI: And do you think that difference and more of that independent streak was a function of living outside of the community, or do you think that was a function more of who your mother and father were?

KO: I think it was kind of innate in them.

TI: And then, perhaps, enhanced by not living in the community.

KO: Right, right.

TI: Really interesting.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

TI: So I kind of want to now talk about the boxcar, and living in the railyard. So why don't we just start with what did your home look like?

KO: [Laughs] I don't really remember that much about it, but I don't know what the dimensions of a boxcar is, but it might be twelve feet wide and a hundred feet long. I don't think it was a hundred feet, maybe fifty feet long, a rectangle. The company had remodeled it to put a sink into the boxcar, and drew cold water to the faucet, put a stove in it for cooking and for heating water. And then as the family grew, my father added a shed or an extension out of the boxcar for another bed. Anyhow, five of us, as I remember, the five kids and mother and father slept in two beds. But there was one bed in this extension section, and another bed in whatever floor space there was. But there was only a sink and a wood stove for the cooking, ice box, there was no electricity pulled to the boxcar, so all the lighting was done with railroad lanterns or kerosene lamps. It was very bare living.

TI: And were there partitions of any kind or was it just pretty much an open space?

KO: It was a relatively, an open space.

TI: And your parents, did they sleep in the addition, or did they sleep in the main boxcar?

KO: [Laughs] Actually, my mother and father and my brother and me slept in one bed together. And my sisters, the three of them, slept in the other bed together.

TI: So two beds with seven people? And so it sounds like there was kind of a cooking area, so it's probably where the, I guess, the kitchen would be. How about like the bathroom? Where was that?

KO: There was apparently a furo, Japanese-style bathtub, built for not only our family, but for the five or six working men. There was a string of, actually, a string of boxcars, ours was one of them. And then there were two or three other cars for the workers. And they apparently had access to this Japanese-style furo also. Now, I say that -- my sister and I don't agree with that -- I thought we used to take a bath in a wooden barrel in our own kitchen, but she says there was a furo that was used by all the five or six workers there in the yard as well.

TI: And in that area, is that where, like, the restroom was also in terms of the toilet and things like that? Where was that?

KO: There was no such thing as a toilet. [Laughs] The chamber pot was the toilet, and every morning, the night after, there would be a pit that my mother would have to empty the chamber pot into.

TI: And your family lived there for years. It wasn't a temporary thing, this was for some time.

KO: No, no. I lived there from the time I was born 'til about eight, and I did not see -- when you talk about a toilet or bathroom -- when I was eight and the family had to move out of the yard because apparently the health department or somebody said, "This is not fit health-wise for a family to live in," my father had to look for a rental house. And we found a rental house with a bathroom, bathtub, flush toilet and all that, which was the first time in eight years that I ever saw a porcelain bathtub and a flushing toilet.

TI: And do you remember what you thought when you saw where you were going to move and what it was like? What were you thinking?

KO: Well, when we moved, we moved into this house which had been vacant for a year or two. And the house was one step away from the wrecking ball itself. But it was adjacent to the railroad yard where my father could just go to work out the front door and then walk to work. But the plaster from the ceiling had been falling onto the floor, the woodwork was molded, black with mold, the bathtub was unwashed for a year and a half or so, so it was black with fallen plaster and black soot and whatnot. Took a week for us to clean up the house and get it to a livable condition. And then we saw, you know, we enjoyed the house, actually. We were there for two years, and then a wrecking ball came and took the house away. It was a big, big cleaning job.

TI: But I guess after it was cleaned up, you felt that it was kind of an upgrade from living...

KO: Oh, yeah. It was a Victorian-style house. It actually had two floors, and the ceilings were, instead of today's eight-foot ceiling, the ceilings were like ten foot. And there were actually gas fixtures, gas light fixtures from the ceiling. And from the second floor down to the first floor, or from the first floor up to the second floor, was this beautiful old banister that came.

TI: Boy, it sounds like it was, at one point, a really grand house.

KO: Yeah, yeah. My brother and I and the sisters, too, used to slide down the banister, polish the whole woodwork. [Laughs]

TI: That's good. Going back to the, living at the boxcars, you mentioned earlier that you were the only family. And so did, over that time you were there, did other families live there maybe temporarily, or were you just...

KO: There was, the first, about the first three years of my life, there was the Oka family, Mr. Oka, his wife, and his three kids lived in the yard. But they moved out when I was about three. I might have been four, because I have some memories about Mr. Oka and the Oka kids, too.

TI: Oh, while they were in the...

KO: In the yard there. But most of the time we felt we were the only playmates we ever had, so we were close that way.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

TI: Yeah, when, growing up in the rail yard, do you remember, were there certain rules? Because it might have been a dangerous environment if you did certain things? Were there certain things that your dad and mom said you have to be very careful about this?

KO: Yeah, right, right. The tracks ran north and south through the yard. The first, anyhow, the first avenue outside of the yard was Twelfth Avenue. Eleventh Avenue came and dead ended at Lovejoy. Well, anyhow, the yard, if this table is the yard, Tenth Avenue came to Hoyt Street, Eleventh Avenue came to Hoyt Street, and then Twelfth Avenue ran past Hoyt Street all the way to Quimby. The only way we could get out of the yard was to go clear up along the railroad tracks to Lovejoy Street which was the first paved street. If we wanted to go to visit some friends, and there were some Japanese families living on Twelfth, you'd have to cross the railroad tracks to get there.

TI: And these are active tracks?

KO: Yes, because the whole idea of the yard was just not for maintenance, but trains came from all over to be reformed again to go to different destinations. So there was constant movement of trains and engines. And so we were never to actually cross the tracks, that's dangerous. Although the shortest route was from our house across the track to Twelfth Avenue, which was only a block away. And I think my sister Miyo talks about how she didn't want to go up to Lovejoy Street and over to twelfth and then down to Northup or whatever. And she started to cross the track and then was scolded by a railroad worker because she almost got caught between trains. But yes, we ran or walked along the track to the first paved street.

TI: So one big rule was never cross the tracks.

KO: That's right.

TI: And so any other kind of rules that you had to follow, like... yeah, that you remember? Like when you were playing with balls and stuff, that was encouraged, or just anything like that? Or could you pretty much do anything you normally would do, but you just had to do it in more of a confined space?

KO: There was really no space for, other than the boxcar... we went to the playground, the North Park Blocks were about a half a mile away where most, all the kids from Japantown, Chinatown, met and played. And so we spent a lot of time at the North Park Blocks.

TI: Now did you, was there ever a stigma attached that you lived in a boxcar? So you had the other Japanese kids, they were in Japantown, they were living in houses, and then you and your siblings lived in a boxcar. So at the end of play, you would go one way and they would go the other way. Were you ever teased, like, "Kenji, you live in a boxcar," versus a house?

KO: [Laughs] You know, no kids ever came to our house. I don't think they ever knew where we lived. No, I was never teased about that. I don't remember being teased in any particular way. The only, I think the only thing that, if there was any, I don't say teasing, but I did have an inferiority complex, because it seemed like all the kids had paved streets and nice clothes and bicycles and scooters and things like that, and we didn't have any of that stuff. And I don't think I said it quite, I wasn't quite as vocal about that, but my sister, one of them, said, "I hate being poor." And my sister Fumi made it her life's goal to say, "I'm gonna make money and be comfortable, but I'm never gonna live like this." My other sisters didn't quite see it that way. My sister Miyo admired my father's hard work and his leadership in the community. My sister Masako says those were character building, to do without and to be strong and resourceful. I never heard my brother talk about things, but I think he was a little bit... when he moved out of the yard, he was six years old, so I don't think he remembers too much about it. I may be wrong about that.

TI: Well, and how would you say it affected you? You talked about your siblings, like one say, "I never want to be poor," and focus on that, what was the impact on you?

KO: Well, I tended to exaggerate and lie a little bit. Like the bicycle I never had... but because none of the kids ever came to our house to check me out, I'd say, "Oh, yeah, I got this bicycle, but we can't take it out because it's kind of new and dangerous," and stuff like that. I have to, even at this time in my life, gosh, eighty-six years old, have to say, "Now, don't lie, or don't exaggerate." [Laughs]

TI: Interesting. But when I think about what your father was doing, he was a railroad yard foreman. So I'm sure there were probably discriminatory practices in terms of maybe not paying him as much as maybe a white foreman, but it was probably, for the Japanese community, a fairly good paying job, wouldn't it be?

KO: I don't know if it was good paying or not, but of course, the railroad company loved him and loved all the Japanese workers who came because they weren't being paid like white people would, or a respectable white person wouldn't work that hard for that kind of money. But it was, he was respected in the community as, you know, I don't know how you would say, but my sister Miyo especially loved my father so much. A few years back -- when I say few years, like twenty years ago -- when someone was writing about the Japanese community in Portland, she would come to me and say, "Would you tell them how good your father was and how important he was to the community?" But he did have a position of respect. People would say, "If you want to go find (work), go down to the North Bank and talk to Onishi." And some of the young fellows I remember used to come to the yard looking for work. Not that my father could hire them directly, but he had the position to say, "I'll recommend your name to the company and we'll see what we can do."

TI: Which, again, I'm thinking about the years he was doing this, this was the Depression. For many people, it was really hard to even bring in enough to just eat and have a place to stay.

KO: Right.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

TI: So, Kenji, when I listen to the story about living in the boxcar, so your father was the foreman, this was during the Depression, and you were saving, the family was saving money by living in a boxcar. So it seemed like, rather than being poor, your parents were just very frugal and practical rather than not really having resources, because they probably could have bought a few more things if they chose to.

KO: Yeah. Actually, I don't want to say my father could have been rich, but one of the things that happened in his life was that as a person of stature in the community, there would be people who came to him and said, "I'm planning to start a business, but I need to go to the bank and get a loan. Would you co-sign, could I use your name and have you co-sign the loan?" And my father did that for four or five different people, and was left holding the bag. So anyhow...

TI: So let me make sure I understand. So "left holding the bag," so these, quote, "partners" essentially defaulted on the loan and made your father responsible for them?

KO: That's right.

TI: And do you know how difficult that was for the family? Did that kind of wipe out family when these things happened? Or maybe "wipe out" isn't the right word, but really depleted, maybe, the family savings?

KO: That's the way, I think that's the way it was, that the money that he had in the bank was paid, used to pay off someone else's loans default. But it was the Depression time and we were frugal. The word frugal really means a lot to me, and brings up memories of a lot of stories. But my mother would take us kids at the beginning of the school year for back to school clothes shopping. We would buy new trousers and new shirts and new sweaters, but she always bought it a size or two bigger because she says, "By the time June comes, it'll fit you." [Laughs] So we'd buy these trousers and we'd roll up the cuff or something, or she would stitch it a little bit shorter and then let the hem out as we grew during the year. Or if the trouser had a hole in it during the year, baseball season started, and we'd be sliding and tearing the knee, we'd have a patch on the knee. And then maybe another patch on top of the patch. And by the time September next came, we had had three patches on the knees. I used to feel with my "football uniform," I'd never skin my knee because I had so many patches on it. [Laughs]

TI: So you had to really take care of your clothes, because it had to last a whole year.

KO: It did. And my sister, Fumi, who, like I say, complained about, never wanted to be poor again. Of course, she's complained that the dress that Masako wore two years ago was passed on to Miyo (then) handed down to the third. She was the third owner of this dress, and you know, the colors were faded and all that. She said, "Gosh, I'm not going to do this, live this way."

TI: But that, yeah, I mean, a lot of families during the Depression era probably were doing the same thing.

KO: I'm sure.

TI: I mean, when you went to school... well, I guess you talked about it earlier. You felt, you mentioned that sort of sense that maybe others had more than you, so kind of embellished what you would have.

KO: Well, I remember especially the kids who came from town, they had access to a professional barber or something, because their hair, I thought their haircuts were always neat. My haircuts, my mother used to cut my hair with a hand clipper. Renso Enkoji's mother was a professional barber, and she had an electric clipper. And the boy always looked so neatly haircutted.

TI: So you noticed those things.

KO: I did notice those things. And sometimes the hand clipper and her pulling away from the head didn't quite coordinate, and she'd yank out a bunch of hair and I'd complain about the whole process. But yeah, it was mostly appearance, I guess. And then my mother was very frugal. When she made sandwiches for our school lunch, she would save the bread wrapper, and then wrap the sandwich in the bread wrapper. And I was noticing the kids from town, their mother was putting their sandwiches in nice waxed paper and maybe a relatively new paper bag or something, or they'd have lunchboxes and I didn't have that kind of stuff.

TI: And when you're young like that, you notice those things, it is hard. Going back to the boxcars, how about the relationship with the workers down there? Did you ever interact with the other men who were living in the boxcars?

KO: Not really. I didn't even know the others by name, except for Mr. Oka, because Oka kids, there were three of them. I don't know the names of the other Japanese workers.

TI: Or I'm curious, for holidays like Christmas, did the family celebrate that? And if so, how would they celebrate, like, Thanksgiving or Christmas in the boxcars?

KO: Well, we were a Buddhist family. So I don't really remember celebrating Christmas, we never saw a Christmas tree. Even birthdays, I don't really remember celebrating birthdays. New Year's time, because of my father's position, there were the other Japanese visitors coming to the house and dropping boxes of mikan. There weren't that many visitors, but I can remember getting boxes of mikan from Japanese visitors.

TI: Now would your family decorate the house for New Year's in any special way?

KO: No.

TI: Now, on New Year's, did your father also make the rounds? Did he kind of go and visit other people?

KO: He might have, but I knew we never did... actually, as far as traditional Japanese customs, we weren't that Japanesey. My mother... well, even she wasn't that Japanesey. My father, of course, had left Japan, saying goodbye, and he never talked about his own family. I didn't ever know anything about what his parents did, who his brothers and sisters were, or anything.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

TI: So let's move to school. You mentioned the Atkinson Elementary. When you started school... well, let me back up. When you were, before school, did you speak mostly Japanese or English?

KO: I think it was mostly English, because I don't really remember too many conversations with Mother or Father.

TI: Because you had older siblings, so in that case, a lot of times, it is English, because the siblings are speaking English. And so tell me what it was like when you started going to school? What was that like for you? You mentioned Atkinson where it was, you said ninety-eight percent either Chinese or Japanese?

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: And that was kind of a different experience for you?

KO: Yeah. But because my sisters had all preceded me to school, they would tell me before we even got close to Atkinson that, "You're gonna meet Ms. Brody, you're gonna meet Ms. Cramer. In the fourth grade you're gonna have Ms. Strout, in the fifth grade you're gonna..." and so I knew pretty much what to expect of school, and it was everything they said it was. Sure enough, Ms. Cramer in the second grade would do this, and in the third grade, Ms. Brody would do this. And in the fourth grade, Ms. Strout, you don't even drop your pencil on the floor because the room is so quiet. But somebody dropped a pencil on the floor and Ms. Strout would say, "Now, who made all that noise?" And then the kids being honest would raise their hand and get rapped on the knuckle with a ruler. [Laughs] I was kind of pre-warned of what school was going to be like all the way from grade school, actually, into high school, because my sisters all went two years following, and the teachers were still there.

TI: So it sounds like you had a very close relationship with your sisters, that they really kind of looked out for you, they helped you kind of prepare yourself for school and things like that.

KO: Right, we were very close. In fact, I kind of joke about it. We were so close, we used to almost sleep on top of each other, two beds and seven people. [Laughs] But that was one of the important things to my father, that the family stands together, and we stand up for each other, you take care of each other. And today, we are still very close. And I find it in my own kids, they compliment each other, they speak highly of each other, and we did the same thing. My sisters would talk about how smart so-and-so is and how hard working so and so is and so on.

TI: That's not always the case. Oftentimes you would get sibling rivalries, and it's hard to, in some families, you don't see that as much. So it's very, I guess, brave that your family was able to promote that. And that, you said, came more from your father, you think, or from both parents?

KO: Well, I'm sure it was from both parents, but there was never strife between brothers and sisters.

TI: I want to ask you, when you were growing up, did you attend Japanese language school?

KO: We did. We went to the regular public school day, and then at four o'clock, run down to the Japanese school.

TI: So just walk through a typical day for me. So like a school day, from the moment you wake up, just kind of walk through a day. I'm just curious how your day flowed.

KO: All I could think of, the years we lived in the rental house, we would leave the house at 7:30 or so to walk up to Atkinson school, which was about, almost a mile away. And then walk east to the Japanese school. Atkinson was on Eleventh Avenue.

TI: And even going back to when you woke up, describe what would be your breakfast.

KO: I think it was probably a Japanese type of breakfast, tea and rice and maybe a fried egg, and I don't say bacon, but a wiener or something like that. I know one of the things, oftentimes we were asked, "And what did you have for breakfast?" and the kids would raise their hand and say, "We had toast and we had eggs," and how do we say, "I had tea and rice and some ochazuke with tsukemono"? [Laughs]

TI: But then you mentioned at Atkinson there were a lot of Japanese.

KO: That's right.

TI: So that wouldn't be that uncommon then?

KO: No, no, it wouldn't.

TI: And so you would, yeah, have your breakfast and you would walk a mile from Atkinson.

KO: Yeah, and then we'd go...

TI: To the Buddhist...

KO: To the Japanese, which was on Fifth Avenue. So we'd walk the six blocks from Atkinson to the Japanese language school.

TI: And how long would you have to be at the Japanese language school?

KO: That'd be four to six o'clock. And then walk home.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

TI: And describe the Japanese language, like your class there. How many other students would be in there?

KO: It was quite a large... this was the North Portland Japanese Language School. There was one in the south end also, as well as one farther to the east side, but the North Portland and the South Portland Japanese schools were quite large, and a typical class might have twenty students in each class.

TI: Okay, so yeah, it is quite large. And how was that for you? Did you enjoy Japanese language school?

KO: Well, I really wasn't that serious about it. [Laughs] They used to rank kids. I don't know if they did that in Seattle, but they used to, at the end of the year, rank each student from one to, if there were twenty kids, ranked one to twenty. And I might have ended up eighteen or something.

TI: So towards the bottom of the list.

KO: Yeah. [Laughs]

TI: That's pretty stressful to be ranked like that. And would they share that information with the parents, too?

KO: I'm sure they did. I don't remember how they used that ranking, but, of course, they always recognized the first and second, you know, the yuutosei.

TI: Now, what was your parents' attitude towards education, both the Japanese language, but also the regular school? Did they ever talk to you about education?

KO: They did, and, of course, for my father, it was most important that we learn English and do well in school to prepare ourselves for the American mainstream. He didn't really talk too much about, "I want you to be good in Japanese also." My mother used to say... and it wasn't important that we be number ones and number twos, but she said, "As far as the Japanese language is concerned," she says, "you should know how to speak the language a little bit, because your heritage tells you that you're going to be able to, you're going to have to use your language sometime. So it's important." But they never beat us and said, "Your grades aren't good enough." Never.

TI: And how would you say your grades were at the regular school?

KO: Well, in grade school, I did great. I mean, after the fourth grade. Up to the fourth grade, well, I did good in grades one, two and three. Ms. Strout I really had troubles with.

TI: She was the, kind of the mean one?

KO: Oh, man. And it might have also been part of the... it was beginning to be a little bit more academic in fourth grade. But I think my eyesight was hindering me, too. So when it came to reading, I had a hard time reading. And although I loved all the subjects, but it might have been the fourth grade that I got a pair of glasses, too, but it came a little bit late. But in the fifth grade, I really blossomed. And my fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grades were just terrific. I loved school, and I did a lot of different things, and I was recognized. By recognized, I mean when teachers wanted someone to do something in front of the class or to represent the school or something, I would often be recommended.

TI: So you were one of the better students, the top students?

KO: I don't know what it is, but I was quite lucky that way. So when I was in the eighth grade, I was chosen to be the school patrol captain. I think I was in the sixth grade when I was given a role in a radio play which was broadcast through the whole system. When I was in the role of the school patrol captain, I was chosen to go to the Portland Chamber of Commerce luncheon, which was honoring school patrol people from the whole city, and I was chosen to be that person kind of thing.

TI: Okay, that's good.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

TI: And about this time, when you were in the eighth grade or so, was about the time that your father retired from the railroad business. So tell me why he did that, or what was going on with your father and why did he decide to leave the railroad?

KO: Well, at age sixty-two, he qualified for social security, and I think that was the... and he was sixty-two and his health wasn't really that great as far as laboring and things like that was concerned. But he waited until he qualified for social security.

TI: So at that point, he could then retire.

KO: He retired from the railroad, and bought this hotel. Because, see, in 1940, it was almost approaching '41, I think it was late 1940, Masako was nineteen, Miyo was seventeen, Fumi was fifteen, I was thirteen or so. Bones -- Hiroshi... Hiroshi's nickname is Bones. We had not called him Hiroshi for years and years.

TI: Now, did you have a nickname?

KO: No, I didn't.

TI: Okay, was he about the only one who had a nickname then, Bones? I'm curious, so why'd you guys call him Bones?

KO: I don't know, you'd have to ask him. [Laughs]

TI: You mean you know, but you won't tell me?

KO: Yeah. [Laughs] But anyhow, because his kids were still young, my sister Hisako was (married) at the time, and my brother Kumao had then passed away. But to support his young family, he bought this hotel with whatever monies he had. But the time, it was time for him to receive a pension, his social security as well.

TI: And so did the family then move into the hotel and live there?

KO: Right.

TI: And describe the living arrangements then. Here you have five kids and parents, hotel, so what was the living arrangement?

KO: Well, we had, it was a thirty-two room hotel, but the family took three of those rooms. one room for the kitchen/dining room kind of thing, one large bedroom for Mother and Father, my brother and me, and then another room for the three girls.

TI: So even though you were thirteen, you were a teenager, you still stayed in the same bedroom as your parents, you and Hiroshi.

KO: Yeah. [Laughs]

TI: So that goes all the way back to your boxcar days.

KO: That's right.

TI: When you were living in the rental home, did you then live with, did you still stay with your parents, or were you in a different room?

KO: Pretty much the same. That first house we lived in had a large bedroom, and my mother and father slept in one (bed), Bones and I slept in the other bed in the same room, and the girls had a bedroom upstairs.

TI: Okay. So going back to the hotel, what was the name of the hotel?

KO: It was called the Albion, A-L-B-I-O-N.

TI: And where was that located?

KO: On Southwest Third and Salmon Street.

TI: Okay. And what was the, who was the clientele in the hotel? Who stayed there?

KO: I don't know if they were all daily transients or not. I don't really know whether we had some regulars who stayed... well, they must have been, because one of the so-called regulars who stayed there was Dick Sugimura's mom and dad. When they first married, they married and they stayed at the hotel until time to go to camp.

TI: And during this year that you had the hotel, year and a half, were there certain chores that you had?

KO: Right, right.

TI: And what were these chores?

KO: Well, one of the chores I had, aside from helping with the vacuuming, and sometimes even making beds, the stairs, it was a second floor, second, third floor hotel, you could walk up to the second floor, and the hotel business was there. My job was to polish the brass, what do you call it? Each stair, each step had this brass step anyhow, tread guard or whatever, and my job was to shine that every weekend. That was one of the jobs.

TI: And vacuuming and maybe helping with the beds and things like that.

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: And how did you feel about going to live in the hotel and having this business? Was that, did you have any thoughts about that?

KO: No. Of course, we grew up, we grew up laboring, I mean, my father taught us, Bones and me, from the time we were six and seven, eight years old, how to saw wood and hammer and chop wood for the wood stove. And one of the, because we lived in the yard, we used to scrounge for scrap metal and stuff like that. It was all country kind of living. So work is something that we did and we enjoyed doing, and having chores at the hotel was no big deal. We were glad to jump into it and do that.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

TI: So I'm going to now jump to December 7, 1941, Sunday, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And I want to ask you, so where were you and what were you doing when you heard the news?

KO: Uh-huh. Well, Sundays in the Japanese community at that time of the year was always a basketball Sunday. I don't know who scheduled the games, but basketball games from A Class basketball players down to C Class basketball players, and girls, all played on Sunday afternoon at the Peninsula Park. So December 7th was like most other Sundays during that time of the year. We'd leave the house to go to Peninsula Park by bus, get into our basketball uniforms for an afternoon game, play our game and then watch a few of the other games being played. And then I remember walking out to the street to catch the bus back home, and for some reason, we felt there was something different in the air. And then got on the bus and heard the news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. But the thing about it is, couple years before the war, most Japanese Americans felt that Japan... well, not just Japanese Americans, but there was two or three years before Pearl Harbor, there was always talk about the possibility of war between Japan and America. It was nothing new. And so when...

TI: And where did that sense come from? Why do you think Japanese Americans sort of felt that that was going to happen?

KO: Well, there was... when America -- I don't say took sides with China, but America did take sides with China in this conflict between Japan and China, and was giving aid in the form of military aid to China, and then sanctioning Japan, cutting off their supply of oil from Southeast Asia, and this diplomatic effort between the Japanese diplomats and the U.S. And all of this was covered in the newspaper about the tension between the two countries.

TI: And newspaper meaning the Japanese newspapers, or the daily?

KO: The regular daily newspaper. And in 1937, you know that the U.S. gunboat, the USS Panay was bombed in China on the Yangtze River. That's an act of war kind of thing. And then, of course, much later, and closer to December 7th, General Chennault was, had organized his Flying Tigers and was flying against the Japanese. The question of war was not will it happen, but when will it happen.

TI: So with this going on, earlier you mentioned in elementary school, that ninety-eight percent of the school was Japanese and Chinese. So Japantown and Chinatown were pretty close to each other, and you and other Japanese American kids were growing up with Chinese American kids. Were there ever any conflicts, given that China and Japan were at war? I mean, you're all kind of schoolmates, did that ever present any tension between Chinese and Japanese?

KO: For some it did; not for me. But I wasn't, I wasn't in that part of town, so I was kind of an outsider looking at this situation, when I see some Japanese kids talking about the Chinese kids, and the Chinese kids talking about the Japanese kids. I wasn't... because I was physically separated from that, I didn't have any real harsh feelings about Chinese. In fact, I had, some of the Chinese kids I knew didn't have any harsh feelings about Japanese either. There's a little bit, I don't say different in Seattle, the communities are a little bit larger. But I'm sure that even in Seattle, they were, Japanese kids were outsiders from this, too.

TI: And in Seattle there were incidents where there would be sort of rock throwing between Japanese and Chinese. And they were Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans, they would actually have rock throwing. Did anything like that happen in Portland?

KO: I think there were maybe some horse chestnut throwing. [Laughs]

TI: So not necessarily rocks, but chestnuts. And maybe some words said back and forth, but nothing that serious.

KO: Yeah, I don't even think there were too many words spoken either. It was, this community was a little bit closer together, smaller.

TI: Okay, good. So going back on December 7th, it sounds like when you and your sisters then got the news, and your younger brother, that it wasn't a total surprise. That there was a sense that something might happen between the U.S. and Japan.

KO: Well, the sense that something might happen was certainly there. All this talk about Japanese this and Japanese that, Japanese Americans no different from Japanese, I mean, the whole Japanese race is just, you know. And especially the Hearst papers were just full of it. Which I mentioned had made me so angry, because it wasn't... nothing like that describes me. I'm not Japanese, first of all. Japanese are over there, and I'm a Japanese American.

TI: So in the media, this confusion between the Japanese enemy and Japanese Americans who were in the United States, and Portland, and there seemed to be a confusion between the two, or lumping them together maybe.

KO: Yeah. It was a real insult.

TI: Now, did you, as you saw this, did you get a sense that because of your Japanese ancestry, that that was going to be a problem?

KO: Well, I knew, had a sense that the way the thing was building up -- when I say the thing building up, this group of anti-Japanese in America, especially the Hearst people, something was gonna happen. Because they're calling for it. They're calling for us to be locked up. And so there was no question that something was going to happen, we are gonna be affected.

TI: Now was there something that you could -- I know it was a long time ago, but a particular article or editorial or something that made you worry more than the others? Or was it just more of the general tenor of the press?

KO: It was the general tenor of the press. There were some outspoken, I mean, it's almost like today's voices against President Obama. That group of people who call him a socialist, a Marxist, a Muslim, a foreigner and so on. Same kind of voices heard then about us.

TI: Kind of this extremist, not really true, almost virulent in terms of...

KO: Right.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

TI: And so during this time, what was the reaction of your parents? Did they ever talk about what was going on, or did you ever hear them talking about what was going on?

KO: Not really. It was relatively silent in our house.

TI: What about your older sisters? So they were a little bit older, one had already graduated from high school. Did they have concerns? Did they talk about what was going on?

KO: Not... my oldest sister Masako graduated high school and then went to business college for a year and a half or something. And finally got a job, it was 1941, early, with a Japanese American paper similar to the North American Post here. Of course, when December 7th came, the paper was put out of business, so she was no longer employed. My sister Miyo...

TI: And when you say they were put out of business, were they shut down by the government?

KO: Right, right.

TI: Because it was like Japanese language and English? Was it kind of the combination?

KO: Yeah.

TI: Okay. And do you recall the name of that paper?

KO: I think it was just called the West Coast Times or something, (might have been the Coast Times). And my sister Miyo graduated high school in '41, June of '41, before Pearl Harbor. But she went to work as a housegirl, which was common for many Japanese American women at that time. And so she worked for this particular family all the way through to the time of our incarceration. Fumi was still in high school, and I was beginning high school also. Bones was in the sixth grade or something, seventh grade.

TI: And so after December 7th, when you went back to school, did anything change?

KO: Not for me. I did not, never encountered any students saying anything. Our friends remained friends.

TI: But eventually, as Japanese and Japanese Americans got the orders to leave, how did the school handle that?

KO: I know if anyone at Lincoln High School said anything. I didn't hear anything about anything at school.

TI: And so eventually the Japanese American students just left, and that was how it was kind of handled? Like they didn't have an assembly or they didn't have an announcement or anything to explain what was going on?

KO: [Laughs] No, but I don't remember whether anything was said, but I know May 4th or something, that was a Friday I think, was the last day of school for me. And I remember a couple of my friends coming by the locker to say goodbye, but I don't know how they got the word, whether I had told them this would be my last day of school or whatever.

TI: So these were non-Japanese Americans who came up to you, your friends?

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: And at this point, this is Lincoln High School? How many Japanese Americans were there? Like in terms of in a typical class, would there be a few in each class?

KO: Yeah, a few in each. I don't know what the total student body of Lincoln at the time was, but if there were five hundred kids at Lincoln, there might have been fifty Japanese kids.

TI: So about one out of ten would be Japanese. So not a majority, but a significant number of Japanese at Lincoln.

KO: Yeah, there might have been four or five in each class.

TI: So the word was probably, if you were going to remove that many people, the word probably got out somehow. But it wasn't something you shared with your friends. It wasn't like you told people, "We have to leave," you just kind of were quiet about it.

KO: Yeah.

TI: Did any teachers ever talk to you about what was going to happen?

KO: No.

TI: And you didn't mention to your teachers that you were going to be leaving and wouldn't be back?

KO: I don't remember any of that.

TI: How about the hotel? Did business at the hotel change after December 7th in terms of more, or not more, but fewer customers or anything like that?

KO: I don't think so. The hotel was... Third and Salmon Street in Portland is like saying First and Second and Bell in Seattle. It was downtown, and there was a lot of traffic. I don't think anyone boycotted the business and such.

TI: Okay.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

TI: During the pre-interview you explained to me that in February -- and this is about a week after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 -- your father was in a discussion with other Issei men. Can you tell me about that and what happened to your father?

KO: I wasn't there. My sister Masako was home, because she was unemployed now. But said that Papa and this Mr. Sakano, who... we'd known Mr. Sakano for years. And in fact, when we were living in that first house I described, after we cleaned it up, Mr. Sakano had come to live in one of the rooms. He was an outspoken bachelor, but on that particular day, he was very pro-Japanese. My father was pro-American, in spite of what President Roosevelt said. And because of the nature of the, of Mr. Sakano's arguments, my sister tells me my father really got agitated, and during the discussion, said, "I don't feel well, I'm going to bed," and had a heart attack on his own bed. That was one week, February the 26th, after the President's announcement.

TI: And was it fatal at that moment, or was he taken to the hospital, or what happened?

KO: It was fatal.

TI: And did your sister Masako know right away that he had died, or did he, like, go to his room and almost like to take a nap or something, or he was found out later? Do you know how that...

KO: I don't know, but when I came home from school that afternoon, Father was gone already.

TI: What was the reaction of Mr. Sakano? It sounds like he was a family friend, and they had this heated discussion, but my sense was he was a friend of your father's, and it appears that his discussion may have contributed to the heart attack. Do you know anything about how he felt about what happened?

KO: You know, I have not seen Mr. Sakano after that. In fact, I don't even know where he went or where he is. I mean, he's long gone, too, but that was the end. Never saw Mr. Sakano again.

TI: What was the family's feelings towards him? I mean, your mother, did they in some ways feel like he was the cause of that? How would you think about that?

KO: I think in all matters, my mother and father's lessons for us is, "It's done with, we go on with it." Didn't ever blame Mr. Sakano for this or that.

TI: Okay, so you come home, and you find that your father had a heart attack and died. What was your reaction?

KO: I don't know. You know, I kind of feel guilty that even today, that I lost my father but I have never grieved it. I feel a little bit guilty about that. How come, or how am I supposed to deal with it? What am I supposed to show? I must have been too young or something.

TI: Now that you've had time to kind of think about that, the sense of not able to really grieve, there are other people who are young who would, if they lost a parent, would grieve. So maybe not just age. Do you think there were some other factors, or why else do you think you didn't grieve?

KO: I don't know. But I'm trying to think about the way I deal with all personal relationships, and I don't think I'm the only one. We don't really get that close to people. And here I'm talking about my father, and I have a great deal of respect for my father, and I learned a lot from him, but I don't remember any conversations about this and that with my father. But he taught us how to work, he taught me how to hammer nails and saw wood and things like that, how to build a fire and how to lift things. He was an excellent teacher that way. And so all my life I've done heavy work, but I've never hurt myself, mainly because my father taught me how to work. But emotionally I've never really gotten real close to people. I'm a friendly person, I don't have any favorite persons, I have a lot of friends, but I can't say, "This person is really special." My wife is special, and I've learned to say some things in words to tell her that, but I think part of it is just me.

TI: And this was even before this happened? This was like even growing up, you felt like this? Although you mentioned you're close with your sisters. Or is it even that, there's still kind of this sense of, there's still a little bit of distance or something between you?

KO: It's not a distance, we are close. [Laughs] In the last two or three years, if you can believe it, she's ninety-two, and I do go visit her. In the last two years, I have learned to hug her goodbye when I see her.

TI: This is Masako?

KO: [Nods] Until then it was almost like shake hands and say, "I'll see you again."

TI: And going back to Masako, she was home when your father had a heart attack.

KO: Right.

TI: How was she when you came home? How was she dealing with this? It must have been pretty traumatic for her to kind of...

KO: I don't really remember her. But I think I can say for most of us kids, the five of us, the six of us, we're pretty controlled, I think. Well, of course, there are times when I can remember crying so hard that it disrupted my sister Fumi's funeral service. She and I were very close, and I couldn't help myself. But generally speaking, we're pretty even keeled. I think of the five of us, Fumi and I were probably the more emotional that way. And yet, at the same time, I'm saying I'm quite distant to a lot of people.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

TI: So about this time, the government started enforcing things like curfews and things like that on the Japanese community. Did those things hinder the... I'm guessing you had to do memorial services for your father and all that. I mean, was that difficult during this time to make those kind of arrangements?

KO: Well, the funeral service for Father was a daytime service. I don't think a nighttime service was the norm, even at that time.

TI: And was this held at the Buddhist church?

KO: No, it was held at the funeral home.

TI: Now, I was thinking that your father, because he helped found the Buddhist church, having a minister from the church would have been probably the norm. But then in many communities, the Buddhist ministers were all picked up by the FBI.

KO: That's right.

TI: And so I was wondering, like then, do you remember who presided over your father's memorial service?

KO: No, I don't.

TI: Because in many cases, the people who would normally do that weren't around.

KO: That's right.

TI: Do you remember the memorial or the funeral service and what that was like?

KO: No, I don't.

TI: With your father gone, talk about how your family just coped. I mean, so it was the time period where weeks later, about six weeks later, you started finding out that people are going to be removed from Portland. You have this hotel, so there's all these things that have to happen in a short period of time right after your father has died.

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: So tell me what was going on as a family. How did you guys do this? It must have been very difficult.

KO: Yeah. Well, the leadership of the family fell on Masako. She was now twenty-one. But she did have some good Caucasian friends, one of them was an attorney who helped her through the business of straightening out the business papers, rewording the lease so that Father could be relieved from the... I don't know how long term, what kind of a lease agreement he had entered into in 1940, but I'm sure to rent space in this building and run a hotel business, you don't say, "Well, I'm going to run it for a year, will you rent me the place?" It's usually for five or ten years. But my sister Masako, with the advice of an attorney friend, took care of the business that way. My mother was...

TI: And taking care of it was to, I guess, to end the lease so that the transaction that was...

KO: And then selling the business.

TI: I see.

KO: You end the lease agreement with the owner of the building. After that you have the, you have all your furniture and the furnishings, business arrangements with the fuel company and the laundry companies, things like that you have to disconnect.

TI: And so your older sister kind of took care of all those.

KO: Yeah. And then, of course, for the personal things of our pre-moving, you have to sort through the stuff that you are gonna take with you, because you can only take what you can carry.

TI: And during this time, you mentioned earlier your oldest sister, (Masako), had returned to the United States about 1936. Where was she during this time?

KO: She came back in '36 and married in '38.

TI: Okay, so she was with her other family.

KO: Yeah, and she and her husband were living about forty miles away from Portland.

TI: So that's why (Masako) was taking care of all this. Now during selling all these things, was the family able to get fair prices for the things they sold?

KO: I don't think anyone got a fair price for... I have no idea what the final settlement was. But no one ever got anything that they thought they should get, or even personal things like a bicycle I had. I'd just bought a bicycle six months earlier. I don't remember what I paid for it, but if I paid fifty dollars for it, I know that I didn't sell it for even close to fifty dollars. But that was about the way it was. The general feeling here is one cent on the dollar or whatever it was.

TI: And so was the family able to store some of the things someplace, or was it just really sell everything?

KO: We didn't do anything about storing anything. Everything was sold, what we could sell, given away, or burned or trashed or something. We had nothing left.

TI: So you were literally what you could carry was what you had left.

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: And you had to do that in a matter of weeks?

KO: I don't remember what day exactly in April the people of Portland were told to go, but it was, I would guess we were, we had two, three weeks...

TI: To do that. To essentially liquidate everything.

KO: Yeah.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

TI: And so what were you left with? When you think about what you brought to the Portland Assembly Center, what did you have left?

KO: Well, it was summer. We didn't even think about winter. So we put into the suitcase our summer clothes, shirts and trousers and a few sweaters, maybe a jacket or something. And we had to bring our own bedding, too. And so the duffel bag was filled with our bedding, blankets and sheets and pillow and whatnot. And I put my baseball glove in. About the only, that was about the only non-clothes item I took. And in the suitcase you put your trousers and a couple of pairs of shoes or tennis shoe or something like that. But it was basically our clothes and our bedding. They said take dishes and kitchen utensils, too, so we dutifully took plates and knives and forks with us, too.

TI: And where did you go, where did the family go to get picked up to go to the assembly center?

KO: I don't really remember how we got there. I don't remember whether it was an army truck that came to get us, or whether it was a truck that we had hired to take us there. I don't really have a clear picture of that. Because I tend to say something, and my sister says, "I don't know if that was it." [Laughs] But when we were living on Twelfth Avenue, one of our neighbors was the Bauserman Transfer Company, and I got to know Earl Bauserman personally. I mean, I was a twelve year old boy, but Bauserman was a young fellow in his thirties or something. And somehow we hit it off relatively well. But in my memory, it seemed like we went to Bauserman and asked him if he would drive us to the assembly center. I don't think it was an army truck coming to the south end neighborhoods and picking all of us up.

TI: And when you got to the... so describe the Portland Assembly Center. What did you see and feel when you first saw it?

KO: [Laughs] Well, the Portland Assembly Center is completely different today. Today it's a lovely, modern facility. But in 1942, the Livestock Exposition Building was a huge barn. It was a red barn colored wooden building. It was a huge building, but it was wooden, it was barn red, had an arena in the middle of the complex. It was a place where stock people brought their livestock to sell and to sell and buy, and they were shown in the arena. But around the arena were the livestock stalls and whatnot. On the floor of the building, they had partitioned, put plywood partitions like office cubicles in, say, today's large building. And each family was given a space, I don't know, I'm going to guess twelve by twelve. But it was just plywood partitions of twelve by twelve rooms.

TI: And do you recall what you were thinking or feeling when you saw all this?

KO: Well, I think I... because most of my growing up was isolated from the Japanese community, I mean, as far as the living is concerned. I think I remember thinking, "Gosh, I never saw all these Japanese people before." I don't remember too much other than that, it was... there was a certain amount of excitement among young people, to see the buses come and wondering where these people are coming from. But they were coming from, a lot of them were coming then from out of town, so the question was, are coming from Gresham, are they coming from Astoria, are they coming from Forest Grove?

TI: And so this is 1942 after your birthday, so you had just, what, turned fifteen at this point?

KO: Uh-huh.

TI: So describe kind of a typical day when you're at the Exposition or the Portland Assembly Center. What would you do?

KO: Well, a lot of it was play. They did a wonderful job of organizing the community by having recreation departments, education departments. Of course, the meals were organized, too. But we would be assigned to eat breakfast and lunch and dinner at a given time. But there was a, right away there was a recreation department to organize activities for kids and for youth and young adults. So there were organized baseball games, there were even classes for those of us whose education was interrupted. And then lot of times just hang out and mess around. But, of course, sports was really important to me and for the whole community. One of the things that happened was I signed up right away to play baseball. That was really one of the good fortunes. I had not belonged to a baseball team before that time. The baseball we played was in the parks department kind of thing. So I signed up to play baseball, and I was assigned a team to play with. And I came under some real good tutor, some good coaching.

TI: So these were maybe older Niseis who were coaching the team?

KO: Uh-huh.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

TI: And going back, you said the food was all organized. Like at meals, did you eat with your family, or did you eat with your friends or your siblings, or how did that work?

KO: Well, it was mostly eating with friends almost from day one. The three years from 1942 to 1945, about the only time we saw Mother and my sisters, too, was when we came back home to bed. Almost all the eating was done with friends.

TI: Now, was your younger brother usually with you, or was he with his friends?

KO: He was with his friends.

TI: So that really changed -- and I'm thinking from a fifteen year old's standpoint, you probably didn't mind that. That was probably an interesting time period for you to wake up and you're off and you're on your own pretty much.

KO: And I'm independent, I have no allegiances to any one group. And even with the group that I played baseball with, I was still independent. So I might have eaten some meals with my teammates, but I also ate some meals with other people. One of the... if there's such a thing as a wonderful thing about the camp experience, is that I at fifteen was able to make friends with and meet people much, much older than I, and some younger than I am. And just went from here to there and observed all kinds of people. I was not stuck with my own group, and didn't do anything else other than. So today when I... I lost a friend who was older than I was. But when he and I would go to lunch, he'd talk about his friends. But I was able to join his conversation and say, "I remember doing things with him also." But I had found myself learning about life, about all kinds of people. Because generally speaking, I am an observer. I'm an outsider kind of thing, but I was curious and interested in other people, too.

TI: That's good. On the other hand, were there, you mentioned things... sometimes I think you as a fifteen year old had lots of independence along with other teenage boys. Did you or the others ever get in trouble because you guys do something that because of that lack of, perhaps, parental supervision, did things that maybe weren't appropriate?

KO: Well, the other... I don't say the others did, but I was independent enough to say, "Count me out. I'm going to leave you guys, and you can do what you want, but I'm not going along with it." So I found myself doing things like after the baseball practices, if you can picture twelve guys going to the canteen at the same time, and then browsing around the store and some picking out stuff to pay for at the counter, and the clerk is so busy with this crowd of people, that a few of the other guys are pocketing the candy bar or package of gum or something. And I found myself after baseball games not going to the canteen with them anymore.

TI: Because you saw that happening?

KO: Yeah. And I would tell them that, "Not right, but you guys do that," or individuals who were doing that, and the guys would kid of joke on me and say, "Preacher, just cut it out. Go if you want to." But I learned to play golf in camp. I didn't need somebody else to be there, so a lot of times after baseball practices, I would pick up a golf club and go out and hit golf balls in the sagebrush.

TI: Okay, so you could essentially self-select in terms of what you decided to do.

KO: Yeah.

TI: I've interviewed other people from the Portland area, and they talk about when the weather got hot, there was a problem with black flies and things like that? The smells and black flies has come up. Do you recall the black flies when you were there?

KO: It didn't bother... I didn't really pay too much attention to the black flies. But it was a real hot summer; it was a record-breaking hot summer.

TI: That's what people said. So it wasn't... for some people, they said it was not very pleasant staying there. So after the Portland Assembly Center, people were then moved to another camp. So where did you and your family go?

KO: We went to Minidoka.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

TI: Okay, so describe... can you remember the journey from Portland to Minidoka, how that was done?

KO: Not really too much other than getting on a train one afternoon and riding with the shades closed. I don't remember whether we were fed, even. I know somebody else from another... well, from the Puyallup camp talking about going to the dining room and eating, but I don't remember a train like that for us. I do remember taking a peek from under the shades. We couldn't raise the shades, but I took a peek one morning. It was early in the morning, and being a railroad person, I used to... when I used to ride the train as a boy, used to always look out the window and would know one station after the other. On this ride, I happened to lift the shade and I recognized that, "Hey, we're in Huntington." And then put the shade down and rode to Minidoka.

TI: So it seemed like you were kind of pleased that because of your experience, you could look and know right away where you were, and so in your mind you could even know, okay, so this is where we are, and we're probably going here, and this is how we're going, all those different things. So then, but eventually you got to that Hunt or that Minidoka area. And what was that like for you?

KO: Well, I'm not exactly sure, but I think the train track took us off the main line to a siding at Eden. I think that's where it was. And getting off the train, you were saying, "There's nothing here." And there wasn't anything there, just miles and miles of sagebrush. There was no station at Eden.

TI: So it was just like a, yeah, just a platform where you just get off.

KO: I don't even remember whether there was a platform.

TI: Or just getting off onto the ground. But then you're eventually taken to the camp, and what were your first impressions when you saw Minidoka?

KO: Well, whoever organized this whole thing did a real good job of getting people off the train, onto buses, and to this community of black tarpaper barracks, and knew exactly where to go. That really surprised me.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

TI: Okay, so Kenji, we're coming back from a break, and we had just gotten you to Minidoka, and kind of some of your first impressions. And we talked about how it was pretty organized in terms of getting you from the train onto a bus, into camp, and then right to your tarpaper barracks. So describe what you did when you got off the bus at your barrack? What was that like?

KO: Well, whoever, like I say, organized it, knew exactly where the bus is supposed to take us. And then someone at the end of the ride said, "Onishi Family is assigned to Barrack Number 1, Apartment B. Of course, the whole experience of being lifted, forced from our home to camp five months prior to this, and a couple years before that had made me so angry, the insults that we endured. But almost -- I don't say almost as soon as we got there, maybe a week or so, the anger, of course, I harbored for three years.

TI: I'm sorry, the three years that you were there?

KO: Yeah.

TI: But how about after? And we'll get into this, but were you angry after the war about what happened?

KO: No. Well, I better not say that I wasn't angry after. But my anger, the stewing that I had inside of me disappeared almost immediately after I was inducted into the service. Because for the, from May (1942) until I was eighteen, I was so angry that I said, "Damn, I'll show them what color my blood is." And I could hardly wait until I was eighteen. And when I passed the preinduction physical and was inducted into service, I said, "Oh, this is the day I get to do, show you who I am," and the anger disappeared.

TI: And it's in many ways, I'm thinking at that point, too, you are just an American GI. You're probably being treated just like every other American there.

KO: Right.

TI: Maybe not well, but you're being treated kind of essentially the same.

KO: Because it was a time when black soldiers were still segregated. And I was now a "white soldier." When we got to... one of the first things that happened when I was in the service was when a train came to the Texas border with New Mexico, they unloaded the train. They unloaded all the people on the train, and then told the black passengers, "You guys get into that train." And the white passengers get to stay in this train. And I'm thinking, "Well, what am I supposed to do?" And someone said, "Well, you go over there with the white people." But it was that way in the service, too. I was a "white" soldier.

TI: So it's really interesting, in some ways I would think, maybe not confusing, but it's very, here you just left a period where because of your ancestry, your race, you were singled out and put into this place, and now you come out, and you're being treated in a very different way. And it sounds like that difference in treatment really kind of shifted your thinking about being bitter or angry, and now, because you're treated this way, you're not as bitter.

KO: Well, just the fact that the government has, three years before that, they shut off the military draft to Niseis by saying "ineligible for military service." And now you're saying, "You are eligible for military service, and we welcome you into our ranks."

TI: Well, and to continue to the military induction, many of the Niseis, I was going to ask you, this was at a time period you came out of Minidoka, the war was either, at this point, either over or just winding down. And a lot of the Niseis were recruited to join the MIS to help with the occupation, especially those Niseis with Japanese language skills because they were needed and they were actively recruited. And so I was curious, so when you were inducted and you went through basic training, what area of the service did you go? Where did you go?

KO: At the time, the Air Corps and the Army were one. The Air Force was formed later in, closer to 1950-something. I just happened to, after the aptitude tests were given, they assigned people according to their aptitude, and I was assigned to the Air Corps.

TI: During those tests, did they ever test for Japanese or ask you about Japanese?

KO: No, no. I did take a Japanese test after I was at, in the weather service, because sometime in late 1946, I don't remember what month it was, but might have been October or November, they did come and ask if I would take a Japanese language test and go to Japan, because they were transferring air bases in Japan back to the Japanese. And I couldn't even read the first word. [Laughs]

TI: I mean, would you have been interested? Then you would probably have to re-up and stay in the military longer.

KO: I was interested... I was hoping to go to Japan, I mean, just because I'd never been there before. But I don't know if I would have... I enjoyed every day of the service, but I don't know if I would have re-upped to do that. [Laughs]

TI: And so where were you stationed?

KO: I was stationed in the Panama Canal zone for my overseas.

TI: And you were doing weather service?

KO: Right, weather observing. It's drawing weather maps from which the forecasters make their analysis.

TI: So it sounds like a, for you, a pretty good job, pretty interesting.

KO: It was.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

TI: We jumped around a little bit, we covered your military service. I'm going to now take you back to Minidoka and I guess one question, so you came from the Portland area, kind of knew the Portland community. At Minidoka, you're getting... and at the assembly center, you started getting people from other outlying communities. But now at Minidoka, you now have this large contingent of Japanese Americans from Washington state, and mostly from Seattle. I'm curious, how did the Portland and Seattle people get along?

KO: I don't know. [Laughs]

TI: Well, did you come in much contact with Seattle Japanese Americans?

KO: Well, we lived in Block 31. Block 29, 30, 31, 32 on up to Block 39 or so were all Portland people. But at the same time, Block 36, 38, 40, 42 had Seattle people. So those blocks ran side by side with Seattle people. Most of the Seattle people lived below Block 28; from Block 1 up to Block 28 were almost all Seattle people. I don't know of any Portland families down that way. (...) But every now and then -- of course, I met a lot of Seattle people from the lower blocks in high school there. And like I say, I don't really get close to a lot of people. I see them and observe them and appreciate their being there, but I really never got to know people real close. And yet, today, a lot of people that I met during that time are friends of mine, since I have come up to Seattle.

TI: And you kind of knew them through that camp experience because of Minidoka?

KO: Right.

TI: Like my parents were there, and about the same age as... I think my mom may have graduated from Hunt High the same year that you did.

KO: Yeah, and your uncle, Chuck Kinoshita, I remember from when he must have been about fifteen or so, there was one year when Chuck and his bunch of friends went out from camp to work at the Twin Falls labor camp during harvest, and I was there with my bunch of friends. We might have even been in the same building at the same time. But I remember your uncle from camp days, and then, of course, much later here in Seattle as well.

TI: And growing up in the community, kind of a Sansei experiences, you're always impressed that your parents know so many different people, and I think it's from the camp experience. Because you would say, "How would you even know this person?" "Oh, they were in Block so and so," or, "I knew them in high school." Because, yeah, their network of... and I wouldn't even say friends, but just people they know, because they would all say, "I think they were so and so from here," and so that's kind of a common thing I hear. So that's always interesting to me.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

TI: So we had mentioned Hunt High School, so just tell me about Hunt High School, and maybe the quality of education. We're going to get to it later, but I know you were an educator, and I'm just curious, when you look back at those years and the education that the Japanese Americans got in places like Minidoka, just your impressions of that education.

KO: Well, I think... first of all, I looked so forward to going to Lincoln High School when I was a boy, and finally getting there and then being taken out of there, that I had a negative attitude toward Hunt High School. So I didn't do real well in Hunt High School. I was kind of distant, disinterested in school as such. I went every day, I didn't really make any real close friends. I didn't make any real enemies, either, but I didn't make any... I sat there kind of disinterested in the whole thing. There were a few teachers that I really admired and worked hard for, but there were others who were not, I don't know where those guys came from to teach, but there were some classes that just were, I don't know, just not worth the time I sat there. And, of course, physically, the building, the school building and such, there were some classes where we did have individual desks to study at. But some classes where we sat at picnic tables and we had no textbooks, and it turned out to be one hour class of just BS. But I was especially grateful to a math teacher by the name of Hunt, Ecco Hunt, and I was interested and I thought I learned quite a bit in her algebra and geometry classes. I can't really think of too many other teachers that way.

TI: So it sounds like the education was mixed, I mean, it was pockets of good educators, but there were others with maybe not really good instruction. When you think about Minidoka, was there any time that was really hard for you? Do you recall any difficult times when you were in Minidoka?

KO: No. Although physically I had a lot of energy to play this and that, but something, I don't know, I had a finger here that started to crack and bleed, and I think that has something to do with emotion. But I bled for three years. I had to change my bandage every day for three years because it cracked and bled.

TI: And you think it was caused by emotion, and that goes back to something I was going to follow up on, kind of these three years being angry about what was going on. So you think it was that anger that...

KO: I kind of think so, and I had a break out of other things, too.

TI: That you think were based on, more, the emotional kind of reaction?

KO: Yeah, because I haven't had it since.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

TI: So tell me about this anger. How did it manifest itself? Did you talk to people about it? Where did it show up?

KO: Well, it didn't show up. I tend to stew about things. I think about things, and the more I think about it, the more I stew. So it's kind of keeping it inside. I think that's part of our family way of doing things.

TI: And where was that anger sort of directed towards? Earlier you mentioned how the media, the Hearst newspapers and how, what they were doing. Was it directed towards the media or was it to the government or to the camp administration? Who were you angry at?

KO: Yeah. I've been asked that question before, and I have never blamed the government. Because the government was lobbied by this group of anti-Japanese immigrants which go way back fifty, sixty years before Pearl Harbor. Those people wanted the Japanese out of their society. They did everything to get these Japanese out of here, like they got the Chinese to stop coming to America, they wanted the Japanese to stop coming to America, and they wanted Japanese farmers "out of our valley, they're taking more of their share of the market than we are, they're catching more fish than we are, they're taking jobs away that we, good hardworking white men should have," kind of thing. That movement is the stuff that forced us to move off the coast. It's to that group that I address my anger.

TI: And were there in the Portland area or you were aware of, particular groups that you felt that towards?

KO: Well, one of the... this was the coalition of labor unions, of farm producers, of patriotic groups, the American Legion, the VFW. In fact, I had an experience with the VFW which I don't know if I ever mentioned it to you or not. But our hotel on Third and Salmon was directly across the street from the VFW clubhouse. And one evening I came home and sat down for dinner. This was before 1942. I had just finished delivering the evening paper and had come upstairs to have dinner, and a policeman came up, almost followed me up the stairs. But about five minutes after I sat down for dinner, knocked on the door, and when my sister opened the door, he pushed the door so she had to back up, and he said, "I want to see that kid who just came up the stairs." And I was sitting at the table, he came over and said, "Grab a broom and follow me." And we didn't know what he wanted, but we don't talk back to policemen and say, "Tell me what it's all..." So I went down the stairs with him, and Salmon Street was strewn with glass. And the traffic was beginning to back up because they couldn't pass this street. And the policeman says, "Now clean it up, Kid." And I started to say, "I didn't do that." And he pointed at the VFW hall and said, "Hey, see all those guys over there? They saw you do it. Those are my witnesses." And I had to clean up that street of glass before the traffic could move on. But I've forgiven the VFW, but I have not ever been close to the American Legion.

I do donate a few bucks to the VFW because even after the war, the Nisei vets came back home to different parts of the communities, and they weren't allowed membership into the American Legion. That almost goes back to the World War I days, too, when Japanese veterans came back home and they were not allowed membership into the American Legion. At least the VFW started to open up a few posts for Nisei vets.

TI: And so this incident that, where you had to clean the street of glass, did that happen before or after Pearl Harbor?

KO: It was before Pearl Harbor.

TI: And why do you think they essentially chose you or picked on you to do that? I mean, obviously it was probably, they said... why? Why did they do that?

KO: Well, of course, I was the only Japanese boy in the neighborhood. This clubhouse is a big storefront, they could see me coming and going every night. I had a paper route, and they could see me from the window passing by all the time.

TI: And so when you went upstairs, at that point, did someone just throw a bottle or something? Or how did that broken glass even get there?

KO: Well, to litter the street with that much glass, all it takes is ten guys with a whiskey bottle in each hand and just all throwing at the count of three or something and it's done.

TI: And going back to the policeman, was he in on it? He knew that they had done that and was just going along with that, or did he just believe what these guys said and was kind of duped by them?

KO: He might have even just been, he might have just stopped there at the VFW hall at the same time. He might have been, I don't say a member of the VFW post there, or whether he just thought to say hello to the guys and they decided that they would do that, and our friend here in uniform can go and get that kid.

TI: And you were able to not lose your temper? I would think that most people would have really been upset about this.

KO: Well, I was upset not to lose my temper, but my brother says, "I think he was crying pretty hard."

TI: That you were crying pretty hard?

KO: Yeah.

TI: When you had to do this? And when you finished doing that, what did the police officer do or the men watching? Did you notice them do anything?

KO: No, I don't, but I think they just kind of walked away from the window and I went back up to my place.

TI: Well, thank you for sharing that. That's a painful memory.

KO: Yeah, yeah. But I've gotten, like I say, I've gotten over it enough to donate a few bucks to the VFW. [Laughs]

TI: I think you're a bigger man than I am. I don't think I would have been able to do that.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

TI: Just to finish up with Minidoka, is there any other memories that you have of Minidoka that you wanted to share?

KO: Well, the positive side of the whole thing, I kind of... I used the Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's... she had a quote in her book --

TI: Farewell to Manzanar?

KO: -- Farewell to Manzanar, where she says we set aside or contained our anger and went about to establish some kind of normalcy in our life. I think that describes my experience pretty well. Because I learned, I didn't contain my anger... well, I contained my anger. I didn't do anything foolish, but there was a lot of good things about what we did with ourselves. One of them, of course, was at least, even if you didn't like school, you still went. Because I had graduated with one quarter hour credit for my graduation.

TI: Say that again? You graduated with one...

KO: One-fourth hour.

TI: One-fourth hour? So I don't quite still understand.

KO: I think that time was, you were required to have thirty-two credits to graduate. If you had less than thirty-two credits, you've got to repeat something. I had thirty-two and one-fourth hour credits.

TI: Oh, I see. So you did the minimum, essentially. I get it.

KO: [Laughs] But that qualified me to go to college.

TI: And after you graduated from Hunt High, I think you told me that you then moved out of Minidoka, so let's talk about that. So you finished high school, what did you then do?

KO: I had an adult cousin, a fellow who calls himself a cousin of mine. I didn't really know the relationship, but I think one of my father's sister, whose sisters were older than he, married a fellow named Shimizu in Japan. But anyhow, there was a fellow named Shimizu in camp who was fifteen or twenty years older than I was, maybe even older. And he was cooking at the Twin Falls labor camp after the war. So I left camp in June, and he promised me a job at the Twin Falls labor camp kitchen. So I went there to work in the kitchen to wait for my draft board to call.

TI: Okay. So it was kind of like he had this job in Twin Falls that you could go to. And how did the people in Twin Falls treat Japanese Americans?

KO: Well, there were some parts of Twin Falls you just didn't go to. I remember going to a restaurant in Twin Falls waiting for a cup of coffee, and the waitress would go past you, past you, pass you again, like you weren't there. I never did get waited, so I got up and left. And then there were a few places, by word of mouth, they say you could go there and have, be served, or you could go there and be served, but don't go there because they don't want you there.

TI: So you had to kind of figure or find out and talk with people. Were there any other incidences like that Twin Falls restaurant where you knew that you weren't wanted?

KO: That was the only time I experienced that.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 24>

TI: Okay. So I'm going to jump around. So we already talked about you going into, being inducted and going to the military. So I want to now go after that and talk about after you were discharged. What did you do then? What was the next thing you did?

KO: I was discharged late in December of '46, like December the 21st or something. Then I went to the University of Portland, asked for admission to begin January. So it was almost right after Christmas vacation or something I started school in January.

TI: So you didn't take any break at all, you just went right from one to the other. And I'm guessing that at this time, your mother and older sisters, or one of them, are now reestablished in Portland? What kind of work are they doing? Are they back in the hotel business, or what are they doing?

KO: My sister, Hisako, and her husband bought a hotel in Portland after they came back from camp. And that was 1945, and my brother-in-law, Hisako's husband, died of a heart attack in early 1946. But I don't know, my sister was really quite astute in business. There's a whole bunch of stuff that happened, the city was building a new off-ramp from a bridge and they wanted her property, and she negotiated with them and had to relocate. She bought, with that money, she bought two hotels and then had Mother take care of one and the other.

TI: And this was Hisako that did this?

KO: [Nods]

TI: Okay, good. So yeah, so they're there, you started at the University of Portland, and I'm guessing on the GI Bill, so that's being paid for. And what were you studying?

KO: I started in the School of Business, but in '48 decided to go into education.

TI: And is this when you transferred to Lewis and Clark?

KO: Right.

TI: And so tell me why education?

KO: Well, my sister Masako was a teacher's aide in camp, talked about the joys of being in a classroom with a bunch of kids and so on. And in camp, I was in this baseball group of kids, but I was demoted from my age. When I was first assigned to play baseball in camp, in assembly center, the Showa organization of teams had a Class A and a Class B team. The Class A teams were like your dad's caliber of play. And then they had a junior -- I don't say a junior group -- but the Class B team was just below that, and I was assigned to play Class B baseball, but I was a third string catcher on that team. And then the fellow who organized the whole organization started a Class C team of kids who were a year or two younger than I. But I was assigned an everyday position with the Class C team, so I elected to play Class C. But all the other guys on the team were a year or two younger than I am. So putting it the other way, I'm the oldest guy on the Class C team. But anyhow, in camp, I was the oldest of this group of kids, but there were a lot of smaller kids that I saw playing football and baseball, too. And I showed up on the playground, and I don't know if they asked me or whether I imposed myself on them, but I became their coach and mentor.

TI: And so it seems like you liked that role, of mentoring younger students.

KO: Yeah, yeah.

TI: So that kind of made you think that education would be an opportunity to continue that, where you could continue to mentor younger...

KO: Right, right.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 25>

TI: So after you finished and get your education degree, tell me a little bit about your career. What did you do?

KO: Well, I looked for work with high hopes, and was told in 1950, from a lot of districts, "We're not interested in you." A couple of districts said, "We're interested in you, but I don't know how the community will accept a Japanese in our community, because we ain't had none."

TI: And this is in the Portland area?

KO: This is the state of Oregon, actually. But I substituted in 1950, '51 school years, and I looked for work, a regular job, and I couldn't find one in teaching. That was, I don't say the end of my school teaching in Oregon, but that was the end of my school teaching in Oregon.

TI: And then what did you do?

KO: Well, I fell back on my military experience as a weather observer, and applied for work with an airline which had opened a position of dispatcher's aide, which required weather experience. And I applied for that job with an airline that was expanding their route to Portland, and had a call from them saying, "If you want a job, you can come tomorrow and start if you want."

TI: Okay, so that became your career then.

KO: Well, that became a career for the next three years or so. I came up to Seattle to work for Pacific Northern Airlines. But I worked for my Washington State teaching certificate at the same time, and in 1953 started to work for the Seattle Public School District, which became my career.

TI: Okay, and so what grade level did you teach?

KO: I taught grades four, five and six, mostly, with half of the time in physical ed.

TI: Okay. And I'm curious, what school were you?

KO: I started at High Point School in West Seattle, then I went to Olympic View and John Rogers in the north end, and retired from North Beach.

TI: Okay. And so a long career with the Seattle Public Schools.

KO: Well, thirty years.

TI: That's pretty long. [Laughs] So to sort of bring this interview to an end, I like to kind of just have you just reflect a little bit in terms of when you think back about the war years and what you and your family went through, now even thinking of that time when you were angry, and I'm wondering, how do you think that changed? If you thought about your trajectory before the war and what your life was going to be, and then the war happened, how do you think that changed who you are and what you became?

KO: I don't know if the war changed me. In writing about my own memoirs, I think I was the person I am today at about age twelve, thirteen, fourteen.

TI: So before the war.

KO: I am that person, I think. In terms of accepting everything that comes in your life, and still going on, these are just... if there are glitches, it's just a glitch, you go on with it. But looking at things positively, of course, the war experience we had was and is and will always be unjust, and it shouldn't happen. It was wrong, but our government faced up to it and said, "We were wrong." They even said, "We're not going to let it happen again," and that's true. It was just one, as far as my life is concerned, it was just one part of it. I've gone on and done a lot of different things, and every part of my life has just been an interesting experience.

TI: I'm curious, when you were a teacher, did you tell your students what happened to you during the war?

KO: Often. In fact, a few years back when the Olympic View school, the old Olympic View school was razed and a new building was put up, they had a celebration of the alums from Olympic View school. And kids I had forty years before that, the kids I had in 1950-some, were there, and I remember one of the kids now, sixty years old or something, telling me, "Gosh, I really appreciate the things you've told us about your experiences including the camp days." I have often talked about... of course, I did more talking than teaching. [Laughs]

TI: No, I think it's important that students knew or heard what happened to you, as well as the other teachers, I hope they did also.

KO: Yeah, yeah. But I do still speak, go to schools and speak about the Japanese American experience.

TI: Good. So is there anything else that you want to talk about before we end the interview? Any question I didn't ask that...

KO: No, if you have any questions (I have answers for) everything...

TI: No, this was fabulous. So, Kenji, thank you so much for doing this.

KO: Thank you.

TI: It was really, really interesting, and I learned a lot, so thank you.

<End Segment 25> - Copyright © 2014 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.