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1-Introductions and Early Life
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My name is Brittany. My name is Ashley. We are interviewing Chizu Iiyama on May 6, 2006 in El Cerrito, California.
My name is Chizu Iiyama. I was born November 14, 1921. I am 84 years old. We lived in San Francisco in Chinatown as Japanese Americans. The Japanese group in Chinatown was very, very close, so that we had a really marvelous childhood. I went to schools in San Francisco, which again, was a wonderful period for me in my life. Then I went to the University of California in 1938. It was on December 7, 1941 which was a big change in terms of my life experience. I was at the university and shortly thereafter we were removed from the Bay Area and I went to Santa Anita. My sisters were living in San Francisco, Japantown, and so they didn't go until much later and we were separated. We felt we would never see each other again. Then, fortunately, I was released from camp fairly early. I lived six months in a horse stall in Santa Anita and six months I lived in Topaz which was up in Utah.
When I left, I got married. I met my husband in camp. We got married out of camp, then went on to Chicago. I went on to New York City and, again, great place New York City. That was when I really felt like I was free. Then we went back to Chicago and I worked there with the Chicago Resettlers' Committee. Then I went on for my master's degree at the University of Chicago and I got it in early childhood and in child development and education. Then we came out to California and lived in Berkeley for a short time, then found a home in the Bay Area. We've lived in El Cerrito now for a long time. And I got a job. I worked for a while with young children when my children were young, so that they were with me while I was working. Then I went on and got a job with Contra Costa College. I taught early childhood education and child psychology, development, etc. for about seventeen years. Then I retired and went to Japan. I stayed there for six months and tried to feel what it was like to be a Japanese living in Japan, rather than a tourist. Then I came back, and we have been active in many, many different organizations after we came back. I'm very political and learned that while we were in camp. I have had I think a really wonderful life.
Family and Childhood
Where were you born?
I was born in San Francisco. At that time my mother didn't go to a hospital. It was a midwife.
What is one of your most memorable childhood moments?
It was a wonderful childhood. Everybody says, "You mean you really enjoyed school?" School was a wonderful experience for us because the teachers were so kind. We were very poor, and the teachers made sure that we were given very special attention. The best thing that I can remember about my childhood was that my family was very close. We used to do a lot of things together. There were seven children in our family. Five of us were girls and the last two were the boys. I was the fifth girl, and my sisters taught me how to read before I went to school. They taught me school behaviors, so when I went to school I was very ready for the kind of activities and things that they had. But I remember just my childhood being really fun.
Were other families as close as you were with your family?
We had a lot of close friends. Because the Japanese in Chinatown were not that many—because most of the Japanese we knew were in Japantown—we got together quite often. On Saturdays, their families would come together with ours or we would go visit or things like that. So, it was a very close Japanese community. I think that was very helpful to us because there was a lot of discrimination, which we were not aware of when we're children, but our families really protected us.
Since there were a lot of Japanese in Japantown, why didn't you live there?
Because my father had a business. My father leased a hotel. It was a very low income hotel. I think most of the people were on welfare, because I remember when the welfare checks came in there was a big group out there trying to find their names. We had a lot of black people in our hotel and had wonderful experiences with them. They were so, really so sensitive to us. I had a black doll when I was a little girl, and nobody else did. I wish I had been able to keep that little doll because it would really be so important historically. But, I think I just loved it to death. We have a little cedar chest that somebody brought back for all five of the girls. They were very helpful, so we always felt that we had good experiences. We didn't live in Japantown, because my father leased this hotel in Chinatown. Right now, we found that the Chinese Historical Society has this nice YWCA—it used to be a YWCA—in San Francisco right across the street from our house. So, when we go there, we go looking, we can't believe that we lived in that funny little hotel, but we did. My father leased it. He could not buy it, because there were laws at that time against Asians owning property.
What was a normal day for you during your childhood?
One of the things that I think was interesting was that we went to preschool when there were no preschools because the Japanese women in the community decided I think that there were just too many of us. They wanted us to be somewhere else. There were so many children. My father had a large piece of property, a room next door to our hotel. So, they leased that and made it into a kindergarten or a preschool. So, at a time when there were no preschools for children, we were there. The only thing that I remember about preschool is that we had a choice of our snacks. And that was either bread with butter and sugar or it was bread with jam, and we always picked bread with butter and sugar. That's all I remember of that preschool, but it was a good experience I'm sure.
On the weekends when you didn't have school, what was something that you did?
When I think of it, my father with all the children that there were—and he has the hotel—we're living in the hotel—we're on there all the time. Right next to us was that alley which separated the YWCA from our house. We used to play baseball, and we would break the windows. My father would come running out really angry and we would be so embarrassed, because our friends would get heated arguments from their father. But now when I think of it, we were so poor and he had to replace those windows. But, I guess school was to us the big thing.
We went to Japanese school. Unfortunately, I didn't learn that much Japanese you know. Unfortunately, I didn't study. We had American school. We went to Jean Parker School, and again as I said the teachers were so good to us. We loved it, but we studied hard. We really studied hard. One of the things that I enjoyed about school was that they would have school performances and we would have little dramatic skits and all. I was always part of that. I think it's because I'm a chatterbox, so they put me into these things where I was able to speak up and I used to sing. My father says that the memories that he has of me is when I was a little girl and I used to get up there. I would lead a little band and I would sing songs. He was always so proud of me at that time
Do you remember a song you used to sing?
Do I know any songs? Do I remember? Yes, I remember some of the songs that I used to sing.
Can you sing one?
Well, not with a cracked voice I have now. We used to go to—there was a Japanese station in Oakland. We would go—our Japanese school teacher—I know why I didn't learn very much Japanese. It was because she was always so busy with productions. She would have productions. We would have this big thing at the end of the school year, and all of us would have all kinds of, I guess, different parts of the acts and all. She would then have us present it over the radio. Now this, for a little kid, this was something big on the radio and all. We would go over on the ferry boats in San Francisco. I said to my husband, "I don't know how that teacher did it because it was all of us children going there, and we were playing hide and go seek." I could remember the fog seeping through, and one of us could have slipped over and nobody would have known it because we were still hiding. Fortunately, we were careful. But, I do remember a lot of incidents of my youth.
What languages did you speak when you were a child?
When I was a child I spoke a lot of Japanese. It was really broken Japanese—Japanese and English. It was a funny Japanese because when I go to Japan now—they call it Meiji Japanese—when I go to Japan now my relatives in Japan just kind of sit and smile when I speak because I speak in these Meiji Japanese, which is a very polite, polite, polite form. Very polite. Today's Japanese is much more direct and to the point and, so, I did learn some Japanese. The school had a Book of Knowledge. I always loved to read. They had a Book of Knowledge—the whole set. I think I read every single one of them. We used to go to the library all the time and when I was little I thought I would like to be a librarian because it looked like so much fun. She would sit there and with the little files, go through it and go through the books and all. I think I read almost every book in that children's library too.
What did you do for entertainment when you were a child?
We had a lot that was next to where the Y is today or where the historical society is today. But it was an open lot at that time, and we used to bake potatoes out there. We also had these picnics. We used to have community picnics. The Japanese community was very close. They would have about two community picnics a year. I could remember that we knew when it was coming when my father got his white suit out. He wore white pants and a white top and he had a white cap that he wore. He was always one of the people in charge of it. And my mother used to be a part of that also. But it's interesting because the Issei woman—the people like my mother—they always used to dress up to go to the picnics. So, they would have hose and they would have hats and they would have gloves to go to the picnic that we went outside. Now I think of today, we all go so casually. But, it was a big, big event in our Japanese community. They were fun and I could remember running races and things of that kind.