page 7 of 11
May 15, 2007 - Part 1 of 5
Section below transcribed by Joseph Werhan (intern).
Introduction of Interviewers
My name is Rachel, my name is Shaunré, my name is Glynis, my name is Josh, and my name is Charlie. We are here interviewing Ernest llyama on May 15, 2007 in El Cerrito California.
Could you describe your childhood home?
Well I don't remember too much about my early childhood but I don't know if I talked about this part at all. Anyway my whole family left for Japan when I was eight years old and I was here. I was born in Oakland, California—right across the street the YMCA in Oakland. I was born up there and in that area there were no Japanese—so naturally I didn't have contact with Japanese. Then we moved later up further North and it took us further away from Japanese. I had very little contact with other Japanese families during my childhood. It was only until I went to Japan that I really learned to speak Japanese a little bit. Well I had to learn it a lot.
So during my childhood we went to Japanese school once a week on Saturday and the teacher brought her Model T Ford up to our place and picked us up and went back. In those days—it was before 1920—so you could see that it was Model T I think that she was driving. One thing I remember was when we were going to school one day. When she turned the corner—this fellow student of mine who was a friend of mine was sitting on the door—and this was an open car—so the door flew open and he fell out. And of course I laughed at it afterwards but I shouldn't have because his lip swelled because he fell and he looked so funny.Things like that happened—that I remember—but outside of that—I don't remember very much of my childhood.
Why does your family move back to Japan when you were eight years old?
Well when I think of it, see my father and mother both weren't involved politically in anything. But it's doing the talks and things that I guess that influenced me. Like my mother would say Saygymnotome, Seigi means righteousness that you should fight for righteousness, and you should not hurt people who are down. My father was of the same type, he would talk to me and say things like Saygi, Saygi is about the same the right role, or the straight role, that I should follow the straight role. I should do things for other people generally you know. They talked like that although they weren’t political at least the ideas sank into me. I guess that is where the ideas came, I can't think of anything else because they weren't politically involved and it's only these occasional talks and of course the way they treated other people too, that influenced me.
Like we had the, we lived at the hilly part and down below by the sea side was a little village where, what do they call now, these were people who were Japanese but were not looked upon as Japanese. I forgot what they called those know, but anyway. It was like the Ainu, the Ainu were also Japanese, and the original Japanese but they were pushed up. Well these were Japanese but because they were involved with killing cattle and things of that sort. See you’re not supposed to hurt cattle because they were looked upon as, from Buddhist's point of view they were looked upon as sacred animals. But to get meat they used these people, to eat the meat, they use these people to do it. Then they segregate them they say that they are not human beings. Well they started to, they were segregated and they went to segregated schools but sometime before I got back to Japan they started to bring them into regular schools. There were kids in our school that I went to that came from that.
One time I got into a fight with one of the kids. I forgot what the fight was over and he hit me with his guitar. He swung it at me and hit me in the face, it swelled up. I beat him up but he, so when people heard about they said " Oh your gonna get it. The people from down there are going to come up to your place. And they’re going to raise heck with your parents." Nothing happened you know. My father's never said anything about it, but my father never said anything against those people either. He said "You leave them alone and you treat them just like any other people." So that kinda sorta I guess were some of the things that came down to me. At least I didn't discriminate against them and the same thought came when they talked about the Negros here. The same situation.
Section below transcribed Charlie L (‘09), cleaned by Joseph Werhan (intern). Please report errors to: email@example.com.
Why did your family move to Japan?
My father was the oldest son when he came over here. He came over primarily to make money. I found out after I went back to Japan that my family was an old family and had a pretty good background because they were village masters and things of that sort. My father was a teacher before he came to America but they ran out of money. They had land but they didn't have money and they couldn't pay taxes and that's why my father came over to America because he figured he could save enough money to pay taxes. That's the reason he came over. After he stayed here several years his father—my grandfather—asked him to come back because he was getting old and he said he would like to have him back there. That's how my father picked up and took us all back. I was about eight years old then. After that my life was in Japan.
Did you get treated differently by the Japanese kids because you had grown up in America?
Well they only thought of me differently in the sense that I was from America, so more or less they looked upon me as a different person when I went back to Japan—and my brother too. We didn't know any Japanese so my father paid the teachers to stay after school and teach us Japanese—so we stayed after school. We went from the first grade and after we finished each reader we moved up to the next grade. We went through up to the fourth grade and we learned through this teacher—Japanese—and because of that we learned quite a bit because we concentrated on the language and not anything else. Then when we became high school age our father wanted us to go to high school but we didn't have enough education to get into high school. So he said we’ll go to the second school above grammar school—like a junior high here—for two years. We went to that for a little while. In the meantime my father negotiated with a private high school in Hiroshima and we went there at night school. He got us into nightschool and we went there for about three months. After we did that the teachers felt we had enough know-how of the language to get into the regular high school. That's how we got into regular high school. We started three months late but that’s how we started up in highschool. It was funny because by the time I was in the third year of high school I knew more Japanese than the Japanese. I tried to remember each new word and I would mark it in my dictionary and write it on my notebook. And because of that extra effort it stuck with me a lot more then it did with other kids. For that reason I knew the Japanese language a lot more.
Why did you come back to the United States?
I don't know. I guess we are kind of idealistic when we are young so I thought rather than stick around and have my father and mother support me to go to school I would try to go it on my own. Of course I didn't know what I was getting into so I said I would like to go to America and study at the University here. But my father tried to get me to stay home and go to a Japanese University but I said no I'll go over. For that reason I came over by myself—but it didn't work out the way I thought it would.
Were you supporting yourself in college, financially?
Well I had to finance myself so it was difficult. I worked for one year. Of course a friend of mine—who was about my age and we knew each other when I was a child—we played together over here in America. He said that he could use me in his store. I went to his store and helped in there. He paid me for working as a clerk there. Of course I learned the language in the meantime and I also learned the different labels of the canned goods and things of that sort. I did that for one year and in the meantime I went up the University of California, in Berkeley, and tried to get in there. They said I had to go back to high school and take English, Math and Science for one year so I went to Oakland Tech for one year. Science and Math in Japan was way ahead so it was easy for me. In fact the teacher always asked me to come up and put it on the board for her. Every time they gave us homework they said, “Ernie, come up and put it on the board.” It was easy for me but English was different. So I when I came up to Cal I had to take Subject A—they had Subject A for those who were not proficient in English to enter the University. I took that for about three months and then the leader for the English class said, "Your English is good, your grammar is good, but your writing is a little bit different but I think you could learn that as you go along." He took me off and said he would get a refund for me for the rest of the semester and so I got off of Subject A and I became a regular student.
I want to just go back for a second—go back to Japan. I’m wondering if you guys have any questions at all before he gets on the boat to come back. Do you have any questions about that whole process? Not the process of the boat, but it seems to be a pretty big decision to leave home. How did your brother feel about it?
Yeah it is kind of hard. When I think of it I don't know why I made the decision even. Because after I came over it was hard. There were times when I cried because it was so hard for me. At that time that was what I wanted to do. I didn't think that it was going to be difficult or anything.
Is there anything more you can say about what compelled you to make that decision that decision—of what compelled you to come back to the United States?
I didn't want to burden my parents anymore. That was the idea that was in me. They wanted me to stay and go to the university in Japan. They said they would have paid my way in there. So it would have been easier for me but when you are young you are idealistic so you think you can do a lot of things that you can’t do. So I said I want to go over and try it and that was the reason I came over here.
Nisei Young Democrats
When you went back to college, is that how you got involved in the Nisei Young Democrats?
Well that came, after I got into college. After I got into the University I got in contact with some young fellows who were in the Young Democrats of California. I talked with them and they asked me if I would like to join the club so I went and listened to the meetings and things. And I said, “Oh well that sounds interesting.” Then they introduced me to a Japanese-American from Los Angeles who had come up. He talked to me and asked me, "How about organizing a Nisei Young Democrats?" So I said I could try it. I talked to a few people and we got together and decided to organize the Nisei Young Democrats. Of course one of the reasons that we wanted to do this was because the Japanese American Citizens League leadership was very conservative and we couldn't get anything through that had anything to do with the discrimination of the Negroes in the South and they couldn't vote and things. We wanted to discuss that and they wouldn’t take it up and job discrimination—they didn't want to take it up. That was the main reason that we decided to organize the Nisei Young Democrats. We organized it and we got about fifteen people together and began to have meetings and we had discussions at each meeting. We met once a month we discussed something and mainly we discussed civil rights issues because that was what most of us were interested in at that time.
We got people from the Young Democrats to talk to us about that. Interestingly I learned that one of the Young Democrat leaders was a woman who came and spoke—her name was Brandenstein. I learned that she was the daughter of the Brandenstein in MJB—the coffee maker. The “B” in MJB is Brandenstein and she was the daughter of one of those. That was kind of interesting that a person with all that money and stuff would join the group, and she came and spoke to us too. That was the main reason that the Young Democrats were organized and because of that the JACL leadership didn't like us, naturally. So we were treated like enemies all the way through until the war was over. Then when we got involved in the Civil Rights movement after the war we took up the issue of the three Nisei who refused to be evacuated and were sentenced finally went through all of the courts all the way up to the Supreme Court. They were charged with refusing to go to the camp. We took up that and we took up Fred Korematsu's case because he was living here. There was one other person—who was a lawyer in Idaho—he was an older Nisei and knew what he was doing. He took it up because he knew it was a civil rights issue. The others took it up because they didn't want to leave and they felt that they had a right to stay. But this lawyer was the mainstay of the case. We took up Fred Korematsu’s case and it was during this period that we began talking about it. This was when even the civil rights became an issue with the JACL because they had to take this up. The leadership changed because of that—the JACL became civil rights fighters because the young people came in. After that the JACL became the main civil rights fighters among us and the leadership developed into very strong civil rights men and we become more or less looked upon as supporters. We—the Nisei Young Democrats—were civil rights supporters before the war so they looked upon us with more honor than they did before. They used to call us names but after that they looked upon us as leaders.