Densho Digital Repository
JACL Philadelphia Oral History Collection
Title: Warren H. Watanabe Interview
Narrator: Warren H. Watanabe
Interviewer: Herbert J. Horikawa
Location: Medford, New Jersey
Date: August 27, 1994
Densho ID: ddr-phljacl-1-2

<Begin Segment 1>

HH: Today is August, Saturday, August 27th, the time now is two o'clock, and we are at Medford Leas in the interview. May I have your full name, please?

WW: My full name is Warren H. Watanabe.

HH: And the name of your wife?

WW: My wife's name is Mary.

HH: And how many siblings do you have?

WW: I have one living younger sister and one older sister who died a number of years ago.

HH: When were you born?

WW: I was born on August 12, 1921.

HH: Where were you born?

WW: San Francisco, California.

HH: California. The name of your parents?

WW: Isakatsu Watanabe and his wife's name is Toshiye.

HH: Okay. Let's see. You were born in San Francisco, and as you remember San Francisco, what kind of city was it while you were growing up?

WW: Well, I grew up in the Japanese section of San Francisco. It was a small, relatively a very small city then. As a matter of fact, the size probably has not changed very much because San Francisco is on a peninsula, and the city area has not changed or cannot change very much. But I recall it as... what I think of is the community itself around the Japanese section. We lived right in the middle of it, and it was a very easy place in which to live. The shops were half a block away or a block away, and the life was, to a large extent, centered in the community. There was a local church and a local Boy Scout troop. The grammar school was a couple blocks away, and it wasn't until I went to junior high school up the hill to a place called Pacific Heights. That was for two years, and it wasn't until I went to high school that I think I went well beyond the boundaries of the Japanese community. High school was Lowell High School, which was a little bit far away over, I recall somewhere near Golden Gate Park, although I haven't been back there, I don't remember. As I grew up, I know I went beyond the community and went out to the library and the Civic Center and so on. But all in all, I think it was a rather pleasant place. Certainly in my youth, I wasn't aware of anything very much beyond that particular group of people.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

HH: What was your father's occupation?

WW: He, at the time, became aware of what he was doing, and was the executive secretary of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. Now, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce was the organization of Japanese businessmen in San Francisco, and that included all the people who had businesses, including the substantial group in town around Chinatown and Grant Avenue, merchants as well as the shopkeepers, the people of various occupations and professions like Father Herb, that's when I got to know him. And he was in that job through... I think through most of my life until maybe the early 1930s. And about that time, I think the Japanese government... oh, let me go back a bit and point out that what the Japanese Chamber of Commerce did was to act as an organization that took care of the problems of the businessmen insofar as they related to relationships within the city, and also the relationships where the, whatever the contacts they had in Japan. Like, for example, the Grant Avenue merchants did a lot of a lot of exporting from, importing from Japan. And I used to work with my father on that, and then a lot of firms in Japan that wanted to sell things in the United States used that office, my father's office as a means for introducing their products to the possibility of American interests. Now that last part of his job became important in the early '30s as the Japanese government decided that they would make a more substantial push to try to expand their exports from Japan. So they used him and his office as a central point for information and product information, essentially, act more and more as a conduit from Japanese companies to American companies to American companies. And I recall he made many trips back and forth from San Francisco to Tokyo or whatever, back in the days when your travel was by ship. I remember going down to say goodbye to him as the ships left. During the late '30s, the Japanese government decided to set up offices called the Foreign Trade Institutes. And the one in San Francisco was run by my father, so I suppose he transferred almost entirely, really entirely to becoming an employee of the Japanese Foreign Office. From the local business center executive to employee of the Foreign Office, and obviously that made him fairly prominent in the view of the FBI and other agencies in the government who were by then becoming very suspicious of Japanese activities and Japanese businesspeople. So that, in turn, led to the night of December 7th, or the afternoon of December 7th, when he was picked up immediately, together with a group of people. I don't know, was your father picked up then? And interned from that day, actually, he never did return home.

HH: You said that's the last time you saw him?

WW: I saw him a couple of times before we were evacuated, visited down wherever they were holding him. And before they sent him inland to Missoula, Montana, I believe, which is where the internment camp was. But after December 7th, I had no formal contact other than to shake hands or pass clothing over or whatever. And that was really the last time I ever saw him because he... I did not see him after the war. I got in touch with him finally after the war was over, but never did get to Japan. And he died, and shortly thereafter, my mother died, both in Japan. So the net result was, that that was it.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

HH: How old were you when the war broke out?

WW: Well, I was twenty, I think, born in 1921, yes, twenty years old.

HH: And what were you doing at that time? I mean, not specifically that day, but...

WW: Oh, what was I doing then? Well, I was going to the University of California at Berkeley, I was commuting back and forth from San Francisco to Berkeley. And I had started Cal in 1939, I believe, so I had... I was just finishing my second year.

HH: I see. So when the war broke out, then it became... I guess it fell upon you to close up the household?

WW: No, it fell upon my older sister.

HH: I see.

WW: She had already graduated, just barely had graduated from Cal, and therefore she had a degree, and she wanted very much to find a job at that time so that she could support us since my father wasn't there. But we soon found out that that was impossible for anybody of Japanese ancestry. So she took care of closing up the office and getting rid of things while I went back and forth, and thankfully was able to finish off, essentially, that particular year of college. And I think most of our, the cleaning up of the house and selling the things and so on was done by her... my younger sister was much too young at that time.

HH: Typically, the FBI came right in and stood guard of all the materials in the office. Was that true in your case?

WW: I believe they closed it up and sealed it. And then they may very well have searched it, I don't know. But there came a time when they released the contents, and at that time, then the [inaudible] went down and went through the motions necessary to dispose of everything. There was, for example, something he called a commercial museum. This was a display of Japanese products. I don't know whatever happened to all those things, but I believe she got some merchants to come in and bid on the items and bought and took things away. But like everybody else, the losses were almost total. Recovered essentially nothing.

HH: I assume then, after you closed up your home in San Francisco, you and your sister, that you went into Tanforan.

WW: Yes. The next step was, essentially, the evacuation process, when we were told to report at a certain street corner on a certain date at a certain time with a bag or whatever, and this we did. We arrived at Tanforan, which was a racetrack within San Francisco, and remained there for... let's see. We were taken from our homes to Tanforan, I think it was, must have been about March of 1942, and I believe we left Tanforan, September, sometime later that year, for Topaz, which was a relocation center in the middle of the state of Utah, south of a town called Deseret, which is the heart of Mormon country, I guess the heart of sugar beet country. And we found ourselves in this absolute wasteland, barracks, barbed wire, watchtowers, everything, the whole works.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

HH: How long were you there?

WW: Well, let me see, that was 1942. So I stayed through '43, and I believe I left at the end of '43.

HH: 1943.

WW: Either December of '43 or January of '44, I don't recall precisely. And then I left under the auspices of the Student Relocation Council, the Quakers, essentially, to whom I think I and everybody else owed a real debt of gratitude. They made arrangements for me to go to the University of Chicago. I had wanted to go to one of the Midwestern colleges, but there wasn't much choice on our part. And I had finished two years of chemistry at University of California, Berkeley. So with some extra credits besides the three years. So when I reached Chicago, I was able to enter the college with two full years of college completed. And I'm trying to think now how I did this, but at the end of 1944... let's see, yeah, okay. So after one full year of college at Chicago, I got my bachelor's degree. So somehow or other, I must have compressed something. I think I took four quarters, they were on a quarter system. And having completed my degree, and incidentally my older sister also came to Chicago, and there she was able to find work that she could do in which he had sufficient salary, so she helped support me during that time. And at the end of that time, after I got my bachelor's degree, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, but I decided I would probably take a master's degree or whatever. And before I knew it, I was on a PhD program. And I stayed on that until the middle of 1948, when I finished the PhD program.

HH: That's still at the University of Chicago?

WW: Yes. All of '45, '46, '47, and then into the middle of '48. And I got my PhD degree in the summer of 1948, which was probably the last time that Robert Maynard Hutchinson ever appeared in person and put the hood over a PhD graduate, probably his last major appearance before he retired or went on to other things. So that's the extent of my formal school.

HH: I understand it, he took a postdoc at MIT.

WW: Yes. And then after I got my degree, I was fortunate enough to be recommended to a man at MIT for a postdoctoral research associate. And that was an excellent experience, really, the transition from being a student under the gun to being a research associate, a quasi member of the faculty able to do things without having to really account for my time or having to worry about exams, it was quite remarkable, so I enjoyed myself tremendously. And near the end of that year, I applied for a, what at that time was probably the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship available, which was one given by National, what they call the National Research Council, which was an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. And to my great pleasure, I was granted that scholarship. In applying for that scholarship, one could name a person with whom one wanted to study, and the man I named was at Columbia University. So I spent one year at Columbia, this was in 1948, close to 1949. And at the end of that time, the professor with whom I was working had had a number of substantial contacts, wartime contacts with a group of chemists and chemical engineers. And one of the members of this rather illustrious group, who worked researching rockets and things of that kind, had then gone down to work at Rohm and Haas company. And Professor Louis Hammett, with whom I was working at Columbia, became a consultant to Rohm and Haas. So he recommended that I go down there and see what the possibilities were. In 1950, I believe we were either going into or coming out of the Korean War, and this was a lull in the hiring of professionals. So I decided that, well, if I can get a job in the industry, this would be a lot better than going off and trying to get a job teaching somewhere. So I was able to get a job at Rohm and Haas. And that brought me to Philadelphia in 1950, and that's where I've been ever since.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

HH: When and how did you meet Mary?

WW: In Cambridge when I was at MIT. [Laughs] And that's a typical JACL story, I suppose. In 1948, after I got to Cambridge, or, yes, at MIT, I knew someone there back from San Francisco, Jin Kinoshita. Jin and I had been friends in the San Francisco community. He himself had gone to Harvard. I think he either was in the middle of taking a PhD degree, or had already gotten one. The Boston Japanese Americans had just formed a chapter of the JACL. So Jin says, "Hey, come on down, let's go there." And that's where I met Mary. It was a short-lived JACL chapter. I think it lived for maybe two or three years, and then it vanished, and it might have sprung up again and again, maybe two or three times since. I'm not sure whether it's alive today or not, but I met her there And we got married in 1950 and came down to here to Philadelphia together.

HH: Let's see. When you came to Philadelphia, you didn't really know anyone except for the person who invited you to come down.

WW: That's right. Oh, no, I did know someone. I knew the Inouyes, yes. I think I knew them from San Francisco. There were always these connections no matter where you go. And I knew all the, I knew the father and the mother and they had their hotel here. They were marvelous people, wonderful. I knew your father, I don't know, was he here then? I don't remember. So I'm sure I saw him at the Inouyes more than once. So there were, that makes two, you see, the Inouyes and your father. And that's about it. So I spent most of my time at work. You know when you're newlywed, you don't really need very much in terms of contact with people, because you're very much wrapped up in yourselves, especially when we were both starting out on new jobs.

HH: In your life, there seemed to be some kind of trend. When you were in San Francisco, you lived in a Japanese community, stayed there most of the time, but gradually as you grew up, you started spreading out to the larger part of San Francisco, of course you were into the larger part of San Francisco. Certainly when you went to Cambridge, you were in an area where there were very few Japanese Americans. So seeing a person whose identification with Japanese Americans was probably intensely strong, especially with your father's activities, intensely strong one time, changing radically through the course of time. That sounds about right?

WW: I think so. I think, yes, of course. You start out highly concentrated, and then you spread out. I don't think I was ever very conscious of what I was or who I was. Even from early childhood. I'm sure I was conscious that, say, when I went to grammar school, there were a number of people of Asian ancestry, young children, and I was one of them. But we were obviously still a minority in that neighborhood. And when I went to Chicago, it's hard to say, but Chicago, of course, was full of people from all over the world. And when I went there, I lived in International House, which again, was a collection of everybody from everywhere. When I went to... but my contacts were almost exclusively within the Department of Chemistry and my colleagues there who were, there were no other Asians there. And then when I went to Boston and to Cambridge, there were very few Asians.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

HH: To what extent were you aware of racial and ethnic prejudice during this time?

WW: To what extent was I aware of ethnic prejudice? That I think is almost impossible to answer. There are some attitudes that you're almost born with if, like me and like you, you grew up as a member of a minority community. And pretty early on, I took it for granted that people would have certain attitudes towards me because I was not like them. Very, very early, I decided I didn't give a damn about it, I didn't care one way or another what they felt or what they said. And so far as I was concerned, I was essentially invisible in my ethnicity. I dealt with everybody on equal terms. And I think that resulted in a reaction of people who were just dealing with me in the same way. So in answer to your questions, did I feel any effect of ethnic prejudice, the answer is not really very much.

HH: I'd have to say then that you know these things exist, prejudice and bigotry exists, but as far as you're concerned, you would minimize the importance of any kind of prejudice or things like that in your life.

WW: Well, I don't know what things helped me and what things hurt me. My ethnicity, I'm sure, helped me in many, probably crucial moments, and I'm sure hurt me in similar moments. But these things take place in, somewhere in Neverland, you see, it's happening around there. And what you do is find yourselves in, what I do is I find myself in a position where I either can't accept what I find, or don't want to accept what I find. And almost always, I think I was able to live with whatever situations I found myself in. And I am convinced that doing so, I helped myself a lot more than I hurt myself.

HH: Is that something that could be generalized to other people as well, do you think? People who are members of other ethnic, racial minorities?

WW: Well, can that be generalized? No, I don't think so. I think either you're born fortunate enough to be unconscious of other people's attitudes towards you, or being able to be unconscious of other people's attitudes towards him, or you cannot. If you cannot, no matter anything I say will not help. But I had a number of things I worked extremely valuable. One, I grew up in a family, my father was a college graduate. He was well-respected in his community, he's well-known, and I think he was paid enough so that we were never uncomfortable in any way. When I went to college, I could go to college, if I wanted to commute and take the train every day, I could do that. After a while, you owned a car, and if I wanted to drive across, I did that. I think that kind of life develops is a fairly smooth shell as it were, a hard shell. And whether for good or for bad, very little got through.

HH: You were able to go about your business.

WW: Yeah, I just go about my business. I liked to think that I'd treat everybody as they are.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

HH: To what extent do you feel that your sense of values or beauty or religion or whatever has been affected by your Japaneseness?

WW: Well, to what extent has my sense of values been affected by my Japaneseness.

HH: Values, beauty...

WW: I would say substantially. It's intellectual more than emotional. But I have a feeling for [inaudible] and asymmetry as opposed to symmetry. And beauty, which arises entirely from everything I've learned and seen and experienced of things Japanese. Japanese paintings, their homes, their culture. All these things I learned as I grew up, although they were not immediate, direct experiences. I grew up in a standard Victorian-style house, like all my friends did. And it was not until much later in life that I began to see these things firsthand. And indeed, I have never been comfortable in any fully Japanese environment, but I know what it is, and a lot of the sense of values I have, I recognize. Oh, the most important influence, obviously, are my parents, my father and mother. And their sense of morals, what is right and what is wrong and what kind of obligations are expected of you and what you can do and what you cannot do. All these things are very strongly instilled in me, and there's no way I can get rid of them. So this is Japanese. It's their sense of values, so it's there.

HH: Well, thank you very much, that concludes our...

WW: Fine, thank you very much.

HH: It was wonderful.

WW: Pleasure.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.