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April 6, 2006 - Part 1 of 6
Section below transcribed by Joseph Werhan (intern).
Introduction of Interviewers
My name is Michael, my name is Anna, my name is Aaron, and we are interviewing Earnest in El Cerrito California.
While growing up in Oakland, did you interact with different ethnic groups?
No. I lived away from the Japanese community. The Japanese community was around where China Town is now, around 6th Street. We were up around 20th. That was in a Caucasian area and my father had a grocery store there. I went to a Caucasian grammar school with Caucasian kids. In fact, I was the only one in my class that was Japanese.
Did your parents have any judgement on who your friends were at the time?
My parents had connections with the Buddhist church—in Japan town—and on the weekends they tried to go down there. I went to Japanese school for a while and that was our connection to the Japanese community. I got to know some Japanese-American kids there, too.
What language was primarily spoken in your household?
In the household there was an English and Japanese mix. We did not know Japanese well enough to speak all Japanese. My parents usually mixed Japanese with English, mostly using English words so we hardly spoke Japanese.
What was your family like in your early childhood?
I was the third son born in the family. My oldest brother died when he was an infant so there were only two of us left. We played with each other because we did not have many friends around there. We very seldom ate together as a family because my parents were busy with the store. My mother would fix up something for us to eat and put it on the table. When we came back from playing we could eat. It was not too cohesive of a family life.
Did you feel more like an American or a Japanese?
I did not have any feeling then. The way we were living seemed natural to me, and to us. We did not feel one way or another. We did not feel that we were Japanese or Americans at the time. We weren't discriminated against very much. In fact, I don’t remember as a child being even called names at the time.
Did you feel any pressure from your parents to be more Japanese?
No. The way we were living just seemed natural to us. We just thought that's the way it was.
What was the first time you can remember when you did face discrimination?
The first time I realized discrimination was when I came back to California from Japan. I started to go to the University of California. I got acquainted with some young democrats there. That was the first time that I learned about discrimination against black people—that they couldn’t vote in the South and things of that sort. That was the first time I started to learn about civil rights. It was my "wakening call" so to speak.
How was your schooling in Japan, and how was it different from your schooling in America?
In Japan—we studied harder it seems like—so we learned a lot. When I came back to California, I was supposed to go to high school to learn English, math and science. But when I went to high school the math and science they were teaching me were things I had learned already. Those two courses were easy while I was going through school. The only thing was English and I learned later that my grammar was okay but the way I wrote was not like a real English-speaking person.
How old were you when you went to Japan?
I was about eight years old when I went to Japan and when I returned—after graduating high school—I was eighteen. So I was in Japan about ten years.
When you left Japan, did you feel more American or Japanese?
I didn't have any feelings at that time. I felt I had to learn Japanese and that was all. I didn't feel one way or another that I was American or Japanese.
Was there a noticeable difference between the Japanese culture and the American culture?
Oh yes. After I went to Japan—I played with Japanese kids a lot—so I played with people my age. I had a lot more kids to play with. Whereas in America the number of people I played with was limited because there were only a few of the kids around my neighborhood. We used to go to Mosswood Park which is about a block away from where I lived. We had baseball, basketball and the playgrounds there.
Did you hang out more with Japanese kids when you came back from Japan?
I was the so enmeshed in learning English and things of that sort that I did not feel anything about being discriminated against or anything of that sort.
Can you describe your feelings during the first time you experienced discrimination?
The first time was what I learned about the treatment of the blacks. That was the first time I learned about discrimination against blacks and of course eventually I found out about myself, too. There were laws passed against us and things of that sort. That was how I got involved with civil rights. This affected the rest of my life because that was what I got involved in—and amongst Japanese-Americans. Eventually, I learned in the JACL that they also discriminated against the blacks. Because of that their stance on the civil rights was different from my stance. A few of us got together and discussed forming a separate organization. That was how we organized Nisei Young Democrats which we eventually developed later.
What was the problem you had with the JACL ?
The JACL was very conservative. They didn't want to touch anything that they thought they had to put up a fight on. Because of that they didn't stand up for the civil rights of the blacks. They didn't fight against the blacks being refused to have voting rights in the South. Because of that some of us felt that we should fight and we got into the Nisei Young Democrats. We had quite a few students from the University of California come and join our group too because there were more progressive Nisei up there at Cal. They wanted to get involved in something that was meaningful. Because of that they came down to the Nisei Young Democrats and participated in our organization.
Even though you were a Nisei group, did you allow blacks to join the Nisei Young Democrats?
Well, in Nisei Young Democrats we didn't discriminate against anyone. Anybody could join. We had a couple Caucasian kids who felt the same way join our group. We didn't have any blacks come in because we weren't in a black neighborhood. As I said, a couple of white people came in and joined our group.
Did you help start the Nisei Young Democrats? Were you a founder?
Yeah I got together with a couple of others and we decided on it. We contacted some of the leaders in the Young Democrats. We talked to them and they said they would help us and we organized the Nisei Young Democrats. In the meantime, we also found a Nisei—who was at University of California—who came from Los Angeles. He said he had organized it down there too. We got together with them and talked to them. We organized one club ourselves and we called our club the Nisei Young Democrats of the East Bay. Not just Oakland and Berkeley but the whole East Bay because we were such a small group. Then we found some people interested in the Nisei Young Democrats in San Francisco. One of the leaders there contacted us too—we got together. In those days it wasn't very easy to travel. Even San Francisco was pretty far for us—going across on the ferry. Los Angeles was like a foreign country. We never got down to Los Angeles. I got down there once while I was in the Nisei Young Democrats to get together with the people down there.
When did all of this happen?
It was around 1944, 1945 [actual dates are 1934, 1935]. In 1944 [actual date is 1934], I helped organize the Oakland chapter of the Japanese American Citizens' League. They hadn't had a chapter before. Then they organized one and they asked me to help because I was what they call a kibei—a person who was educated in Japan. We had to talk to the parents because the Nisei were still very young. We had to convince the parents that it was a good thing for their children to join the JACL. That is why they asked me to come in—because I speak Japanese. I talked with the parents and convinced them to organize a chapter and that was how I got them to organize the Oakland chapter of the JACL. As I said their policy was democratic so some of us felt the organization was inadequate. That was how we organized the Nisei Young Democrats.
Were there any memorable events that you recall where you were in the JACL ?
When I was organizing the JACL I bore out the importance that we had to have an organization. We had to fight discrimination against the Japanese-Americans. That was the main point that we bore out to the parents. That’s convinced them that we should have an organization. That is why they supported the idea of having an organization in Oakland. As a result of that—when the chapter was organized—they also branched out and organized one in Berkeley too. Eventually there was also one out towards Hayward, so the JACL grew that way.
What was the Nisei Young Democrats' philosophy or mission statement?
Its main purpose was to educate ourselves because we didn't know very much about discrimination and how to fight it. We had discussions at every meeting and I became the education chairman. I would get the speakers to come in. I would look around for progressive speakers who would bring out progressive stands on various discriminatory practices. Because of that we grew and we had about forty or fifty members in our organization.
Who were some of the most memorable speakers you had?
I can't remember the names. I started with the leaders in the Young Democrats of California and they were of course very progressive. At that time the Young Democrats of California was a very progressive group. In fact later on they were the ones that were the spearhead to organize the elections. We finally elected a democratic governor for the first time in California. I think it was mainly because of the Young Democrats of California.
What did you find to be the most effective way of fighting discrimination?
There were various things. Being a young organization—the CIO was a youth group too—we participated in that. I went and picketed at the plant that is on East 12th Street in Oakland—they used to have an assembly center there.
This is in 1936 or 1937 [1946 or 1947]. Of course at that time it was kind of scary when you went on a picket line. The cops weren't with you. They were in fact on the other side. When I was picketing down there the police came around so we took off. Because of that we learned a lot about how to fight for your own rights.
What inspired you to get so involved in the civil rights movement?
As I learned about civil rights I believed in the principle that everyone should have the same rights. I got involved in various civil rights activities. The CIO was apart of it and we also participated in a youth congress. I went as a delegate to Washington, D.C. This was an experience too.
What year was this?
This was in 1938 —I think it was—the American Youth Congress had a meeting in Washington, D.C. There were four of us that went. One of the young people was from Stanford—he was a professor's son. He borrowed his father's auto and he took us all back. This was the first time I had firsthand experience and learned about the way negroes were discriminated against. When I went through Hoover Dam—this was a federal dam being built– they had separate restrooms for whites and blacks. The kids would tease me and say, "Hey which one are you going to go into?" They thought I should go in the white part but that was one of the things I learned—the discrimination. When we went in to eat we didn't have any black students with us so we didn't feel it. But there were some groups that couldn't eat at certain restaurants because they had blacks in them. That had to go to a restaurant where they would be accepted by all. So that was a firsthand experience for me.