Jiro and Tama Ishihara
104 Nimrod Drive

Age: 62

Interviewed November 17, 1988

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer,
with appreciation for the sponsorship of The Federal Savings Bank.

Would you each tell me where you grew up and a little bit of the background of your experience growing up.
Tama - I grew up in Richmond, California, a town of approximately 30,000 in 1941 across San Francisco Bay, and I grew up in a community that had a very, very small Japanese population, probably no more than a dozen families, and so I grew up in a very integrated population. I was born in that area, and I lived there until evacuation, at which time I was a junior in high school.

Jiro - I was born in Los Angeles, Califo'rnia. We lived in a community which was approximately fifty percent Japanese in an area which encompassed probably one-half a square mile. It was an integrated community, but most of my relationships were with other Japanese. I went to grammar school in the area, junior high school in the area, and commuted to a city high school which was four or five miles away.

Can you each tell me what your parents did, whether they were U. S. citizens and when they came over?
Tama - My parents were married in Japan and came to the U. S. in 1922. They were not citizens because the law was that they could not become citizens. My father was a painter for the Santa Fe Railroad, and this was his occupation from the time he arrived in the U.S. until we were evacuated out of the area.

Jiro - My father arrived in the U.S. as a single man in 1903. He was married to my mother in a family-arranged marriage, known in those days as a picture bride, and my mother came to the U.S. in 1905. They were married in a U. S. ceremony in San Francisco and moved to the Los Angeles area in 1905. My father worked at that time as a farmer, later he worked as a fisherman; and at the time of my birth he was a fruit and vegetable peddler in our neighborhood.

Did your family own land?
Jiro - Our family rented the home they lived in and did not own any land.

Tama - My family owned a small house. We owned it in Richmond.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, you both were in high school?
Tama - Yes, that's right.

When this particular incident occurred, do you remember what your reaction was?
Tama - I think the reaction was total surprise. I think we were stunned. We really didn't react. It just seemed unbe- lievable. We didn't realize that this was a fact that Pearl Harbor had happened.

Jiro - I can recollect Pearl Harbor Sunday. We were in church, and after church we heard rumors about the attack at Pearl Harbor. It was a shock and there was sort of disbelief. That evening the roundup of what was considered to be dangerous enemy aliens had begun, and before sundown one of our neighbors had been arrested by the FBI. There was a lot of rumors, and I would say more fear about what might happen than anything else would be the reaction that I can recall.

And what was your neighbor that he was arrested?
Jiro - I have no idea. In many cases I find that people do not realize that World War II had begun in 1939, and prior to Pearl Harbor the government had already compiled a list of possible dangerous enemy aliens.

What type of people might they have been afraid of?
Jiro - I would suspect some of them were actually people connected with the consulate. I have no idea, but some of the men who were arrested later in the ensuing days were on the list because they were heads of community associations. In many cases I would say some of them were really innocent and had been put on the list because of some remark by a neighbor. I would suspect that the man who was picked up next door was high on the list.

So someone who might have been active within the Japanese community might have been suspect?
Tama - Yes, within the Japanese organizations.

Can you each then go through the events as you remember that followed?
Tama - Well, for me it was really disbelief and shock, but for the first two or three weeks it was a little normal. I went back to school, I remember, that next day. There was a special assembly called at our high school at which time we heard President Roosevelt's speech declaring that the U.S. and Japan were at war. I was there. I don't even recall being worried or uncomfortable, which I think shows the kind of relationship I must have had in that town, in that school. I never felt discrimina- tion. A sixteen year old doesn't think quite that deeply about what the consequences might be.

And you felt very much of an American? You were a U. S. citizen.
Tama - Yes. I never felt any discrimination all my growing-up years, and so my reaction and my life were not too changed other than there were things that began to happen in and around the community like buttons saying, "I am not Japanese," began to appear. I still remember those buttons.

This would be another Oriental wearing that?
Tama - It was probably Chinese because at that time I think the Chinese were the most dominate number of the Asians, at least in Richmond.

Jiro - All I can recollect is because of rumors I didn't go back to school for probably a week or so, and the first restric- tive orders started to be issued. There were the early curfews and contraband orders for the enemy aliens, but early in February the contraband curfew orders were for all persons of Japanese ancestry. By that time there were all sorts of rumors.

There were curfew times that you had to be home by 8:00?
Jiro - Actually, our curfews were from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and you couldn't go any further than five miles from your place of residence and your place of work. Contraband included such things as cameras, binoculars, besides weapons. In my case I had some older sisters. The oldest already had a family and lived in a more military sensitive area, and so they moved earlier than we did. I also had a married sister who lived in Chicago. We are talking about something like three months in which there was a very chaotic time. By the time the actual exclusion order in our neighborhood came, it was probably a month after the first groups had been moved, so we had some sense as to what was happening.

So generally the deportation orders began in April 1942.
Jiro - The actual exclusion orders started in the end of March 1942.

Tama - That's when the orders began to come out from the Western Defense Committee.

When you were unpacted, April, was that the date?
Tama - Richmond happened to be a community that had shipyards. There were certain communities that had, well the shipyards are a good example, and near the coast they wanted all the Japanese away from those areas; so we were moved from Richmond to Berkeley, California, where we had family and friends. From Berkeley, California, we were relocated to the assembly centers and to the relocation centers. That was the progress of our move. Actually I don't know the exact dates, but it seems to me we were moved out of Richmond probably in February and we weren't there a long time before we finally were moved to the assembly center.

And you only could take certain items, what you could carry?
Tama - Yes, that was the issuance that said we could take just what we could carry. When we moved from Richmond to Berkeley we took personal belongings but we left everything else (our furn- iture) in the house. We were very fortunate that we were able to rent that house. We didn't know what was going to happen, but we assumed that we should really just put that into order. We were fortunate to find someone to rent it furnished as it was, so we really didn't take anything. We took just what we had that were personal belongings - no furniture, no household goods.

Jiro - In our case we stored the furniture with some other families, but in most cases the families sold their belongings for whatever monies they could get, since we didn't know where we were headed and felt that cash was what we needed. Some people probably made a lot of money on the crisis sales. This included businesses, fishing boats, all sizes and shapes.

Tama - In both of our cases we did not own a business, and the families we knew that had businesses really were the ones who took a severe loss. They lost the business, and they lost the property that was involved with owning that business. El Cerrito, California, which is just north of Richmond was the community where there were many Japanese families who raised flowers. They were in the nursery business. I know that they suffered a loss because they had a big business - greenhouses, lots of valuable property, and the stories we heard those greenhouses were sold and some of them were vandalized or broken into.

It is very sad. So even though you may want to sell something in this crisis situation, some of the buyers were taking advantage.
Jiro - I would say they all did. We did have friends who were willing to take possessions for us. In my case my father had been given a sword when he left Japan, and he wasn't about to turn that in, and we did find a family that was willing to hold it for us until the end of the war.

Is there something about the Japanese tradition that permitted your families to get through this?
Tama - Yes, definitely. It was a combination of things. At the time the evacuation order was issued our parents couldn't become citizens. Their children were citizens, but for that reason there was not the political clout to have someone fight for them about the evacuation order. My daughter has commented, "Why didn't the Japanese fight back and do something about this?" There were isolated cases, but the Japanese didn't have the political clout. Also, it is a trait of the Japanese people themselves. They take the attitude -- The evacuation order has happened; we know it is not right, but it seems as if there isn't anything really that we can do about it, so let's make the best of it and we'll see what happens in the future.

That's a stoic attitude.
Tama - Yes, it's very much a Japanese philosophy, not just in this particularly where it seemed to apply so well but in many of their living situations. This is an attitude of philosophy that has come down from generation to generation, and actually it probably has been passed on down to us from our parents.

Jiro - They never made waves.

Tama - They didn't give up.

In a sense it may have had a calming influence, that tradition, in a tough time.
Jiro - There is something to be said. There is a long history of anti-Oriental prejudice and legislation in California. The Yellow Press has been there and the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese immigration in 1924. However, other than the very white supremacist-type press, right after Pearl Harbor the press actually came out and said, "Stay calm. These are resident Japanese and are American citizens." Really, other than very isolated incidences, there was not the type of rioting that had happened to the Germans in World war I. It was only around February when all the press and organizations started to clamor for the removal of the Japanese from California.

What were the camps like that you were taken to. First there were detention centers, right?
Tama - Yes, assembly centers which were temporary housing while the relocation centers were being built. The assembly center where I was had very crude camp grounds. It was formerly a race track in San Bruno, California. They had many stables for the horses, and this is were they made temporary housing. We had to clean out the horse stalls and paint them, and that was our housing. There were some barracks at the assembly center hastily put up; but the majority of people lived in these horse stalls, and there was a community mess hall and community bathing. The relocation centers were probably a little better. They were all barracks. They were newer, but still it was a very crowded housing situation. Unless it was an unusually large family, one family shared one huge room, and then we all had a community mess hall. They were set up in blocks, and there were probably about ten of these barracks which had four units in each block, one mess hall, a community washing facility and community bathing in another building. I guess what I could say about the housing is that it was horrible.

Jiro - Something that you left out was the fact that all these camps were rigged with barbed wires and had armed sentry posts. I would say the impact of being placed behind barbed wires where we could not go out is more of an emotional thing than the barracks themselves. In the case of my family, we were moved by military convoy to Santa Anita racetrack. Again, the stable area stalls were cleared out for housing, barracks were built in the parking lot, and there were mess halls that served something in the order of 2000 persons at a sitting. The worst part about the facility was that there were community toilets, and as I recollect there were no partitions between the toilets. This had quite an emotional effect on a lot of the people. From Santa Anita we were moved later in the fall to southern Arizona to what was called Gila River War Relocation Camp, which was on the Gila River Indian Reservation. There were barracks and more orderly blocks and better facilities, but still had the barbed wire.

Tama - One thing I would like to add, and I remember it and friends of mine who were in camps still remember to this day and so does my husband, were the dust storms. All these camps were out in the desert, and I can still remember the terrible dust storms which would come up unexpectedly. It was something, I think, difficult to describe unless you had been in it. I can recall walking home and suddenly unexpectedly in the middle of the day a dust storm, a sand storm, would come up and it was just suffocating. If you happened to have left your windows open in the house, it was worse -- the sand that came into the barracks. I still remember that it was just suffocating - the sand storms. Unless you have been in a sand storm like that, it is hard to believe that it could be so bad.

Jiro - That is something I don't think most Americans realize - the American desert. When we say "desert" we think about the hot Sahara desert. Well, the deserts of the U.S. are on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. They are flat as far as you can see, but they happen to be about anywhere from 5000 to 6000 feet in altitude. Consequently, you have very extremes in temperatures. It would be 80 or 90 degrees in the afternoon, and water would freeze at night. So looking back now at some of the pictures of the people getting on the buses to go to camp, all the little kids are wearing the heaviest clothes that you could imagine, and this was April in southern California. There are two reasons -- that was a way to carry things and the other thing was that we had heard from the earlier evacuees about what the conditions were like.

You came from a large family.
Jiro - I had four sisters and a brother, and I am the youngest of the family.

What was the impact of the relocation on family life, living in a communal setting like that?
Jiro - This was just a very exciting adventure. Only after it became apparent what our parents must have gone through, not knowing what might or might not happen that day, or the next day, or how long this was going to continue. As a sixteen year old kid I had a great time. It was something new. I also had a bicycle; and although I was only sixteen, I was able to get a job as a messenger. I would go around the camps, go eat at all the six mess halls.

So this was a big area?
Jiro - I am talking about Santa Anita. There is the parking lot, the grandstand, the stables, and the field. It is a very large area. There were a lot of people packed in this very large area. The one thing that was difficult was everybody's shoes would wear out just walking around on the pavement.

But family life obviously had broken down in terms of the strictness, the rules.
Tama - It varied, I think, from family to family. In our case, maybe because there were just two of us, two girls, a very small family, my mother was very determined to keep the family together, to make sure we ate together. I don't think in our particular family as far as dining together and sharing one room together, it didn't change too much. We were just living in a closer, crowded quarters, but my mother made an effort to keep us together. I think it was probably easier because there were just the two of us, two girls.

Jiro - It probably was the teenage boys, and I was the youngest and probably given more freedom, all the guys that I knew, we just went off on our own.

From there you went to actual camps like in Utah.

Tama - Yes, when I am talking about keeping the family together, the assembly center time was really very short. I don't know exactly, but maybe three or four months, and the time spent in the relocation centers was much longer. It probably averaged anywhere up to two years for a family, one-and-a-half to two years, so I remember more of what went on in the relocation center rather than the assembly center.

Which relocation center were you in?
Tama - I was in Topaz, Utah.

You went to school there?
Tama - Yes. They did have "a school." An attempt was made to have schooling, and I did graduate from Topaz High School. My sister who is just a year older actually did not go to school in camp. She was a senior at the time of evacuation, and she received her diploma from Richmond High School, which was very good. The schools were okay, I guess that is the best way to put it. There were two or three outstanding, dedicated teachers. On the whole I don't think the teachers were very good.

Jiro - It was in the fall when we moved to Gila River Reloca- tion Center. I went back to high school there. It was in the barracks. Most of the teachers were fellow internees who were college graduates, probably not trained as teachers; and there were caucasian teachers that were hired locally. The facilities were very poor. The lab facilities were very minimal. It was really a joke I would say. I had a very poor chemistry teacher. The teacher who I remember taught English. She was a Quaker who volunteered her services to teach us in camp. I still remember her as probably the best English teacher I had. I was not the greatest English literature student, but I found the Canterbury Tales very exciting.

If you remember it after all this time, that was great. You also benefitted from Quaker education?
Tama - Yes, because the Quakers started the student relocation movement. They went out to search schools that would accept students coming out of the relocation center. I went out of camp as a student to Carroll College, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and that was under the auspices of the Quakers, who set up the student relocation movement. All the kids that I graduated with went out to school right after their senior year.

Jiro - That program started very early, and there were many kids that went to college away from camp, continued college education. They were coming in a year later after we graduated.

Tama - I wasn't the first one. There were many who were in college at the time of the evacuation, and so they went out probably a year earlier. I am sure the student relocation movement started very early, I don't remember the exact date.

You were able to leave because of your sister in Chicago?
Jiro - There was a release program from the camps to other than the areas from which we were moved. My sister, who had moved to Chicago prior to us going to camp, was able to guarantee residence for my sisters who were in camp with me. So my two sisters went off to Chicago as soon as the release program began. I graduated from high school. My sisters had been able to get a job guarantee for my father in the factory where they worked and so I accompanied my parents to Chicago. This is September, 1943.

After I moved to Chicago, I was called up in the draft, and because of a childhood ear defect, I was not accepted for service; so I went to work in a glove factory with my father. In September, 1945, I enrolled at Roosevelt College as a freshman in mathematics. At this juncture we could go and take extra credits, go year-round and finish college in three years, and I graduated in 1948.

My father never ever mentioned anything, or we didn't talk about such things as patriotism or what have you. In fact, we were very close. We went fishing and did a lot of things together. We communicated without talking, I think. I can remember that before this release program started we were in camp and there was the infamous Questions 27 and 28. Question 27 said something like -- Do you foreswear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan? Question 28 said -- Would you serve in the armed forces of the United States? There was quite a commotion and discussion in camp because it was sort of a catch 22. It was felt that if you foreswore allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, they would point at you and say, "You must have been subject to the Emperor of Japan." On the other hand, why should you go into the armed forces when they had you locked up and had you classified as 4-C as an enemy alien. At that time my father told me that he could understand why he, as a Japanese alien, was at camp, but he couldn't under- stand why the rest of us, who were American citizens, were being treated the way we were. However, he gave me "your country right or wrong" speech. Essentially it was, "This is your country; you have no other place to go."

Did you both meet in Chicago?
Tama - Yes, we did meet in Chicago. I was working in the laboratory at a hospital, and his sister also worked there. That's how we met, through his sister. My major in college was bacteriology, and that was my first job out of college.

You have been silent until very recently about this whole experience. Can you comment on that?
Tama - That is a very interesting question. When I talk to friends or others who had been in the relocation camps and who now are roughly our age and who have raised families perhaps on the east coast and the midwest, nobody can really seem to answer why we didn't talk about it. It isn't a feeling of guilt. It isn't a feeling of shame. There have been panel discussions by third- generation Japanese groups to find out why their parents didn't talk about it. I cannot think of anybody who has come up with a compact, reasonable answer.

Jiro - Probably a psychiatrist would say it was guilt. I am talking about people being incorrectly imprisoned. You come up with this same type of reaction.

Tama - When the Middle School eighth grade began an immigration project, each child was supposed to pick a country and do a report on it. There were some students in the Concord Middle School who chose the Japanese internment. We would have one student maybe the next year, and there would be a couple of more, and maybe there wouldn't be one the next year. Gradually we began to talk about this with our children, but not to any extent. It really was just sort of isolated statements or questions. Of course, when all the lobbying and work on the redress bill, which really began two years ago, began to come out, I think then we probably began to talk about it more. Not even to that extent, really.

The media sought you out this summer because of President Reagan's declaration. I would like you to explain that and also what you have decided to do with your particular shares that you will get.

Jiro - In 1981 under the Carter Administration, Congress formed a committee to come up with a report on relocation. That report found that the unjust thing was done solely on the basis of race. It was a case of racial prejudice, war hysteria in the shortcomings of public officials. Their recommendation was that the government apologize and that all persons that were put into these camps be paid $20,000 each. That report was issued in 1982. Since that time the finding of that report was never reported out of the House Sub-Committee until this last Congress of which Representative Barney Frank, from Massachusetts, was the head of the sub-committee. The political climate being what it is today, it was passed by the House and passed by the Senate. Then on August 10, 1988, President Reagan signed House Resolution 442 into public law, which is called the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and accepts the finding of the committee with some modification.

When you do get that financial redress, your decision was to use it ...
Tama - To give it to the Concord-Carlisle Scholarship Fund. We had always supported the Concord-Carlisle Scholarship Fund, but it goes a little deeper than that. The Japanese have always held education as a very important part of their lives. The teachers in Japan are revered. They are put into probably a specialized category where they are very much honored. So that philosophy, that thinking, was passed on to us from our parents, who really felt education was a very important part of their children's lives. We grew up with this kind of philosophy from our parents, and so we passed the same thoughts and the same philosophy on to our children. When the redress bill was very close to being signed, it was obvious that Reagan was going to sign it.

You see, we never thought, any of the nisei, that this bill after all these years would ever become law, so we sort of were skeptical. We didn't think that it would actually happen, but when it came so close to Reagan signing it, my husband and I decided that this is what we would like to do with the money. We sat our children down and told them what we were planning to do. The wonderful feeling from our children made us feel very good because they agreed. They thought it was a good idea. They didn't complain or grumble about us giving the money away, which probably would have been passed on to our children. So this is how this all came about, the fact that we are giving it to a scholarship fund.

Jiro - The main motivation is that we would like everybody to remember that this thing happened in the U.S. It is a memorial to our parents. They were the ones that really suffered. It also left us to do something for our community, which has been very kind to us.

Tama - We have really enjoyed our life in Concord. We were here for thirty years, and it really has been a pleasure, a wonderful life for us here. So there are several reasons to give to the community -- a memorial to our parents and also something for future generations to remember, to hope that they will know such an event did occur and that hopefully it will never happen again in the United States.

Text mounted 3rd October 2012. RCWH.