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2-Tanforan Assembly Center & Topaz
I'd like to go back to Tanforan. I remember you mentioned that there was a library that somebody made?
Right. Two of the ladies who lived in Berkeley and graduated from Mills College. I think they wrote to their friends, and it was easy for them to come to Tanforan and give us books.
What sort of books did you read?
I don't know, but I know my younger sister said she read all the Nancy Drews. The library would be in a barracks room, so it wasn't huge. But it was nice to have some books. We couldn't take books with us. If you could only take what you could carry, that had to be your clothes and bedding. There's not much more you can take.
Do you have any specific memories of wanting to take some items with you that you had to leave behind?
No, not really. But I know we didn't take enough soap and hand lotion. If you live in someplace like Tanforan, you're outside, and you get windblown all the time.
So you had no...
We didn't have hand lotion, or face lotions or anything like that.
So it sounds like you didn't have a lot of trouble letting go of a lot your possessions.
That's interesting, because for me, that would be a huge thing for me.
Right, because you would have records and all that kind of stuff. Records, you're past that! You'll have discs and whatever, your music and everything. I think then too, maybe we didn't have very much of those electronic things like you have these days.
Do you think it would have been different if only you had to let go of your possessions and not everyone was doing it with you?
You mentioned that a lot of people set up their own classes. Do you remember taking any of these classes? Or your friends taking any of these classes?
I took a class in Geometry from a man who had his PhD in math. So he would start out by saying, "two lines are always parallel, and they don't cross again, but they could if you do this that and the other thing." Or he would go off and he'd say, "If you get into Euclidean geometry," and I'm thinking, "No we're just doing plain geometry here." So, a lot of people who know things about subjects, they're not necessarily good teachers because they don't know how far back to go.
Right, you have to start simple.
You have to start with something very, very simple.
Do you remember taking any non-academic classes?
No, I know there was a teacher that taught art. Some of the men built a garden in the middle of Tanforan racetrack. That garden existed for a long time in that racetrack. They carved boats and made the garden very nice. The kids drew that garden. They just had paper and crayons, but they would draw that garden. I've seen some of those. They're very nice.
Schooling Within Topaz
You talked about how in junior high you weren't allowed to join certain clubs and maybe play on the basketball team. But in Topaz, you had your own school.
Right, we had our own school, so we could do whatever we wanted. I think a lot of the boys, especially, got into what I would call "waste time." The teacher would say "do this, that and the other thing." They would say, "waste time" and they wouldn't do it.
And that affected their grades?
That affected their grades. It was a little over three years we were there, so that's a lot of schooling to miss out on. Although I must admit, when I look back on my yearbook and what these people did with their lives, they did okay. I think they did very well, as a matter of fact.
So even though their grades suffered, and they wasted a lot of time, do you think they somehow benefited from the experience of having their own school?
I don't know. I don't know if the benefit came from there. Both of my sisters were very fortunate when they went back to school. My one sister went to St. Louis with me, and she was beginning high school—freshman, ninth grade I guess it would be. She had never seen a sentence diagramed. Her teacher said, "If you don't know how to diagram a sentence and you come in to see me, I'll show you".
She was working as a maid/babysitter to support herself while she was going to school, because my family was still in camp. She had two boys that she had to feed breakfast make lunch for them, make sure they got off to school. Then she had to go to school herself, ninth grade. She visited this teacher who taught her how to diagram a sentence. My other sister, too, had never taken certain math courses. Her teacher told her, "You come and see me after school and we'll get you caught up." Both of them were willing to do it, and they did it, but they were lucky to have teachers that helped them.
Now my brother, I always felt, never had that opportunity. But he wasn't a cute little kid either. He had a hard time in school; he even had a hard time when he went to junior college. So he joined the army and the army sent him to school. He actually ended up at Cal Poly, and challenged a lot of the courses, and graduated cum laude. When he finally got going, he got going. But there was a good chance that he wouldn't have been able to do that.
So where do you think all these kids got their ability to do it?
I think that in our families, there was always a culture of trying to do your best. We probably always did what we were supposed to do in school. If you're supposed to hand in "from here to here," or read "from this to that," we always did what we were supposed to do. I think that even in a working situation people were that way, doing what they had to and doing it well.
When you say we, who is "we"?
I think the second generation. I have a feeling that in many immigrant groups the second generation works very hard and makes the best of the opportunities that are available. Then, as the generations stay in the United States and life becomes easier, maybe everybody relaxes too much? I don't know. It seems that something happens. It's a very gradual "something," so it doesn't seem like a big problem.
So in the camp the kids didn't care that much about school and didn't follow that "work hard" culture. How do you think that experience affected the rest of their life?
I think they got over it when they went out.
So they were just back to the old culture?
I think so.
What do you think caused that old culture to disappear in the camp?
It's hard to say. I don't really know. I know a lot of kids didn't try very hard when they were in camp. Part of it could be that it was really a lot of fun to be with people that are just like you. It was like being on an eternal picnic or something. There were times where you really, really felt bad about what was going on. But other times, it was fun to see so and so, and such and such, doing whatever.
Would you say you had a lot of good times at Topaz?
I would say that most of the time, I was probably happy enough. There were other times when I remember distinctly thinking, "am I such an awful person that they would put me in something like this?" On a daily basis I think I was more concerned about this guy or that guy, this girl or that girl, or what I was going to wear or whatever.
Do you think you had it easier than some people?
Oh yes, I know. I know I did. But I didn't know it at the time. I was in a writing class and one of the ladies raised her babies in camp. She had her babies in camp. Baby food and all that stuff, and no refrigerator. She had to walk to the hospital everyday to get food for the babies. She said one time the food had maggots in it. Now, you could hardly imagine raising babies without pre-made formula and bottles and liners, and all kinds of stuff that I'm sure you don't know about. Diapers that are pre-folded or pre-whatevered, disposable things. They really had a hard time. This lady said to me, "you know, some people had a good time in camp, they even have reunions." I thought, "Oh my. I've worked on every reunion our camp has had".
Do you think mothers had the hardest time?
It's hard to say who had the hardest time. I think a lot of men worried about how they would ever get a job. I know that when I left camp, I thought, "Gee, do I have to get a job and support my family? I'm just out of high school." They wouldn't let people, aliens, have jobs. There were a lot of places that wouldn't allow it. In fact, there were a lot of schools that wouldn't take Japanese Americans. If my dad couldn't get a job someplace, and he certainly couldn't get citizenship... He couldn't get citizenship because Asians were denied citizenship. If you don't have citizenship, you can't work in a big factory, or a lot of the jobs would be unavailable to you.
Do you remember what your parents did when they were released?
When they got back they did their gardening and cleaning again.
Was it easier for you to find work?
Not necessarily easier. I got a job working at a laboratory. I got the job because my friend's father. He worked on somebody's garden. He said to the fellow, "You let me work on your garden but you don't let any of the Japanese work in your pharmaceutical company." The next day I got the job.
Your father was a priest right?
He was a salvation army officer.
He was a religious man?
He was a religious man and he believed in common working people preaching the gospel. Like the original disciples were all just working people. That was his goal, to be like that.
What kind of role did religion play in your family?
Every once in a while I'll meet somebody and I'll say something, and they'll say, "Oh, you do that?" I think I'll say, "Yeah, I like to go to Reno, or I like to do this, or I like to do that." And they're surprised.
What are some of those things?
I like to go and gamble. I know that when I was young and I used to play the piano in church, I used to like to paint my nails bright red. It would drive people crazy.
Why is that? It was unusual?
You have to do something, you know? But, my parents were strict. Even after I was engaged to be married to the person that I'd been going out with since Tanforan, my mother sat up and waited for me to come in the house. I had to be in by twelve midnight. Since we didn't have a car, it was often very difficult. But we did it. And my kids think it is hilarious.