Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Gus Tanaka Interview
Narrator: Gus Tanaka
Interviewer: Linda Tamura
Location: Ontario, Oregon
Date: April 23, 2014
Densho ID: denshovh-tgus-01-0001

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LT: Today is April 23, 2014, and we are in Ontario, Oregon, with Dr. Gus Tanaka, and Teddy Tanaka, his wife, Dana Hoshide, the videographer, and me, Linda Tamura, are also in the room. So we are asking Dr. Tanaka, Gus, about his life. Dr. Tanaka, I know that you prefer being called Gus.

GT: Right.

LT: And you were born on August 3, 1923. What was your given name?

GT: I beg your pardon?

LT: What was your name that was given to you when you were born?

GT: My father, immediately, I understand, decided to name me Augustus. At least, in part, they always assumed that it was because I was born in the month of August. But he was thinking in more grandiose terms. He was thinking of Augustus, the Roman emperor, who assumed more and more dictatorial powers according to what we read about the early Roman history. And he was thinking of a more grandiose future for me than just knowing me as Augustus, born in August.

LT: Did that happen?

GT: I don't know what happened. I don't feel any different than anyone else. She certainly didn't feel that I was granted any inherent extraordinary powers of command and so forth, but it made a good story for a while, anyway.

LT: Sure. So you were called Augustus, or Gus, by your father. And what was your Japanese name when you were born?

GT: Masashi. Don't ask me what those characters stand for. I don't think I was ever told, and I never have asked. And they're both gone now, so it's too late. [Laughs]

LT: Okay. Well, you were born in Portland, Oregon, and your father, who had a storied life of his own, graduated from the University of North Dakota, and then from the University of Oregon medical school in 1920, and he established a medical practice in Portland's Japantown.

GT: Yes.

LT: And I understand that your father and mother chose not to live in the Japanese section of town, but in fact they purchased a home in Northeast Portland where the community was white.

GT: It was entirely white, yes.

LT: What was it like for a young kid growing up in a white community?

GT: Well, when I grew up there, I could hardly speak or understand English, because it was a segregation that existed. We moved to the Fifty-fourth Street address, and it was part of the Grant High district, but more closely, it was closer to the Roseland Park elementary school, which was five blocks away from us. And it was embarrassing for me because I could not speak in English to the neighbors when I had the opportunity. I learned how to speak English when I was introduced to my first year elementary school class. The kids would talk to me, the teachers would talk to me, there was only one language, that was English, and so I quickly picked up understanding some English. But the problem is, it was only in the school. Over the weekends and holidays and after school, the kids wouldn't want to talk and play with me. Their parents objected to that very viciously. They said, "Get away from him, you're not supposed to talk to him." So it was very difficult there in the beginning. The thing that really frightened me was in my first year in elementary school, I understood nothing that was spoken by the teacher and the class. And the first exam I ever had, of course, my performance was zilch. As a matter of fact, I got a... my first report card, one of the things that stood out like a sore thumb was a red U for spelling, Unsatisfactory.

LT: U for Unsatisfactory.

GT: Yeah. And when I got home, my dad scolded me for being so stupid. I couldn't explain to him why I couldn't spell, because I couldn't understand the word I was being told to recite. So he went down and talked to the teacher and gave her his idea of what a responsibility of a teacher like her should have, and would try to "introduce him to the language more aggressively." And that helped, because by the time I was in the, about the sixth grade, I was a straight-A student and leading the class. And it never stopped. I was, when I graduated from Grant High in 1941, that was in the spring of the same year that the war started at Grant High, I was an honors student at Grant High. I was designated the Diamond G scholar. It was so designated because there are eight semesters in a four-year high school, and the first two years we were granted either a white or a blue certificate saying that we were honors students. And then there are four points on the pin that we received as a third award, and then after that, there are four edges, they would give us little pearls embedded in there. And at the final, on the torch, they put a little diamond chip, that we were diamond grade scholars at Grant High. And so I learned the hard way how to study and so forth. Well, one of the problems was that I studied like the dickens, because I was very puny, I was not good in any athletic situation. Dad was getting so worried about my being puny and missing so much school from illness that he got me started, he enrolled me at a YMCA swimming program and taught me how to swim. And then he also started me with playing golf when I was about, starting when I was about the fourth grade, and got me a little kiddie golf set. And I would ride my bicycle about two miles toward town, and there was a driving range that had a pro that would teach the kids how to play golf. And that's how I learned the game of golf. But it didn't help me very much socially with the kids, 'cause they would have parties and other special gatherings. Somehow or other, no one ever said, "Hey, come join us and play." I led a pretty isolated life through my childhood, although it started to improve a little by the time I graduated from Grant High.

LT: Well, in fact, when your parents moved into that neighborhood, your mother chose not to go to the hospital when you were born because of the feelings. Can you explain that?

GT: Well, first of all, she could not speak English, could not understand what was happening. And she had heard stories from other Issei women that they don't treat you well in the hospitals. If you can't understand them, they don't try to understand you. And so she just did not want to go to the hospital. And so Dad got her a laywoman midwife who came in and delivered me at home, and that's how I came into this world. But my mother, even when she, as we grew up, she learned, had a pretty good idea of what we were saying in English, but she could never really converse in English.

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