Densho Digital Archive
Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection
Title: Kenji J. Yaguchi Interview
Narrator: Kenji J. Yaguchi
Interviewer: Linda Tamura
Location: Lake Oswego, Oregon
Date: April 20, 2014
Densho ID: denshovh-ykenji-01-0005

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LT: So when you began school in first grade, did you speak English or Japanese?

KY: Mixed. I spoke, and that's the reason why my first grade I failed. I had to take first grade over again because I couldn't pass it. And once I mastered the English language, school was simple. Then I really enjoyed going to school.

LT: Can you share an example from first grade about the challenge you had in communicating with your teacher?

KY: I had no problems after the second grade. I had real good communication with my teachers, and I had real good grades. Mostly As, a few Bs.

LT: In fact, by the time you were in high school, your grades were very good.

KY: Oh, yeah. When I was in high school, favorite subject is history. I loved history. I never thought I'll graduate first in the class, but end of the year, I was, I graduated as the valedictorian of the class. I never thought I'd ever get there. I wasn't trying for it.

LT: Quite an accomplishment for someone who had difficulty speaking English in first grade.

KY: Yeah, yeah.

LT: Well, in fact, when you began school what was the makeup of your class in terms of Japanese Americans and white Americans?

KY: About half, fifty-fifty.

LT: Okay. And did that create confusion or issues in terms of different backgrounds and looking different?

KY: No. My best friends were all white Americans. Matter of fact, when... maybe I'm jumping the gun, but when we were in the assembly camp in Puyallup, my classmate would come and visit me almost every day. And we were there about four months, and I still communicate with 'em for, until just recently because they passed away now, most of them. Not too many of us (are) left.

LT: Do you have any thoughts about what it was that you or your teachers or your friends did in the early days in school because you looked different, you came from different backgrounds, you didn't always speak the same language? What was it that promoted such cohesiveness?

KY: You know, it's... I didn't know any difference, really. Because like I said, once I mastered the language, it was simple, because you were able to communicate with your other classmates. So it was fun going to school. I just loved to go to school.

LT: Well, not only school, but you also participated in a lot of activities in school.

KY: Oh, yeah. When I was eight years old I started judo, and we used to have tournaments all over Tacoma, Seattle. Two teams in Seattle, Kent, Auburn. Yeah, I used to look forward to go to those tournaments.

LT: And then at school you also participated in activities.

KY: Oh, yeah. In high school I was a wrestler, and I was state champion for three different years. And I played (football), baseball and track.

LT: And football?

KY: Oh, football, oh, yeah. As small as I was, I played varsity football. I was a hundred and seventeen pounds, and I'm the lightest guy in the whole team. And in 1938 we won the state championship, so we already had a good team.

LT: So I'm wondering, you worked a lot at home on the farm, you participated in judo, you participated in school activities, athletics, and you also were valedictorian of your high school class. How does one person juggle all of that at one time and still also develop such strong friendships?

KY: I don't think it was hard, I thought it was just natural. Everything came natural to me in high school.

LT: It would be wonderful to learn your secret. You did attend --

KY: You know, I kind of think it was probably, indirectly my father probably taught me all those things.

LT: In what ways? What did he teach you that resonated in your life?

KY: Well, because of the things he used to tell us, like he said, right and wrong. These are two things you got to follow. He said, "Never follow this one, you follow this one." And that was his, gist of his speech, most of the time.

LT: You did attend Japanese language school for a while.

KY: Yes. I went because my father was the president of the Japanese school. I didn't want to go, but (in) the second year (...) I punched the schoolteacher. [Laughs] And, of course, that expelled me. I was glad to be expelled.

LT: How did your parents feel about that?

KY: You know, they didn't say anything about it. My father didn't punish me or say anything. I don't know why, he probably thought that maybe I would, I did the right thing, I don't know. I have no idea what he was thinking about.

LT: Well, growing up, you balanced American and Japanese culture. What did you learn about Japan and Japanese culture from your parents?

KY: Gosh, I never gave that a thought. But I think one of the things they taught me was gaman. That was probably the principal thought behind the Japanese people was be able to gaman.

LT: And how would you translate that?

KY: Forgiveness. You forgive anything that... whatever happens in your life, you have to be able to forgive it, especially if it's real wrong. Forgive those who will try to harm you, because basically they don't really intention to do it, but it happens.

LT: Can you give an example from your early life?

KY: You know, I never had any problem like that, because of my training in judo and wrestling, I wasn't afraid of anyone. So that never entered in my mind.

LT: Thank you.

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