page 8 of 11
May 15, 2007 - Part 2 of 5
Section below transcribed by Joseph Werhan (intern).
Bring him back to that period of time when he is discovering his democratic roots. I want to know more about that as well as making sure we get some stories about the JACL and the bickering. Was there a certain event that created your interest in the civil rights movement, or was it just through the Nisei Young Democrats? How did you get interested in civil rights?
At that period a lot of the Nisei Young Democrats became leaders in the movement because they already had the fundamentals of it and they knew what they were doing. Whereas in the JACL they had to develop these people because the young people were coming up. They developed very fast because the lawyers that came up were very smart and these lawyers even today are good lawyers in the issues they take up. Of course the lawyers started by supporting the Nisei who came back from the camps. They didn't have money and that's why they organized this group to support these people. That was the local [movement] that developed and this is the law group that became the center for the fight that got the rights back for the Japanese Americans and they took up these three people’s fights.
Earlier you were talking about job discrimination, did you ever face that at all before internment?
Well, no we couldn't take that up because there wasn't any support any place else. Discrimination was against us but if for example you go to a carpenter's union they won't accept a Japanese into the carpenter’s union so you can't get their support. They don't want Japanese in there and because of that when we went to school at University like when I was going they didn't tell me that there wasn't any jobs in electrical engineering for me. They didn't tell me—I don't know why. When my wife Chiz went to school they told her you won't get a teachers job here that's why she went into social science—but she was told that. I guess the teacher was more open and wasn’t hiding anything so he told her that she wouldn’t get a job if she took that [route]. I learned later—after working for two years and got out of school to get some money—I learned that Japanese didn't get jobs. The Japanese were working over on Grand Avenue—that's Chinatown—in those little stores. They were working for forty dollars a month. And I said, “My God—what is the use of going through school and then coming out and not getting a decent job? I might as well get something else.” That’s when I started looking around and it looked like civil service was the best bet. I thought the easiest one to get right away would be the county job so I went down there and took their exam. I passed it and I got a county clerk job—in the County clerk’s office—and I had been there five months when the evacuation happened. You had to work six months to become a permanent worker so I wasn’t a permanent worker. When I was leaving—the county clerk was a decent guy— he gave me a letter saying that if it weren't for the evacuation that I would be kept on because I was a very good worker and that he was sorry that I was going. When I came back it came in handy because when we got into the Korematsu case that lawyer heard about me being in the Young Democrats so he asked me to come over. He learned that I was in the county clerk’s office so he said, “Would you like to try to get money from the county clerk's office—[from] all the county clerk workers?” I said, “Okay.” That's how I really got involved from there and then I got into the Korematsu case.
You weren’t in college the entire four years—you were only there for two years—at Cal. Why did you leave early out of college?
I ran out of money. I left and I decided not to go back because there was no use in doing it. When I got into camp that was what a lot of the others were saying too. That was partly the motive for a lot of the Nisei to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement because we wanted to get the right to get jobs after we get out of high school. If we have the skill and the knowledge we should be able to get jobs like anybody else. That is what happened after the war. That was another motive for the Japanese-Americans to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. There were very different aspects—economic and otherwise—some were political. Many got involved in the civil rights movement because of that. That’s why the Civil Rights Movement among Japanese-Americans was very rapid. Just during the war they learned that and got involved in this whole Civil Rights Movement. During the period that we were struggling the Civil Rights Movement started with the African-Americans because Martin Luther King Jr started his movement then. That was another impetus and we learned from them too while we were struggling. That helped us move faster along the lines of civil rights—and become stronger on it too.
Are there still the Nisei Young Democrats today?
Nisei Young Democrats never reorganized after the war because the JACL took better positions so most of the people got into the JACL— starting with the civil rights movement to get the rights back for the three people who refused to be evacuated and were put into jail. The struggle continued and we got rid of all the laws like the Japanese couldn't buy land, they couldn't intermarry, they couldn't own land, all these things. They couldn't get jobs—there were laws against this so that became part of the whole Civil Rights Movement—to get rid of all this. In 1952 we got the right to have our parents become citizens. In 1952 it was the first time and we had a massive movement of first generation people who became citizens—several hundred that we got to become citizens all at once. It was ‘52 if I remember correctly—it took that long. We had to develop ourselves so that we know what we can do. It took a while for us to get there—of course we couldn’t own homes.
When I was in Chicago—that was another interesting thing. When I got to Chicago I got into assembly work—I didn’t have a degree. When I was working there this African-American Union worker came in—he talked to me—and he learned about my background. He said, “You can get a better job than this. I’ll get you something else.” He got me another job so that I could learn to become a machinist—an apprentice I guess. I started to learn how to make tools.
When was this?
I don't know remember the exact year. I came back here in ‘55. It must have been around 1949 or ‘50—around there. I worked at this place but in the meantime I got involved in union work. I got elected to be a steward. I think this was a first for a Nisei to become a steward in a labor union. After I worked a year or more I became the chief steward of the plant—and this was 450-500 workers.
Explain to them what you mean by a steward.
A steward usually is elected to a department to represent the workers in a department. If they have any grievances they go to a steward and the steward takes it up. The chief stewards takes care of all the stewards. He gathers all of the stewards and discusses what to do. It is an interesting job because being a Japanese-American—you are not used to going in and fighting. So when I went in to negotiate I would talk to the guy and come out and maybe sometimes I wasn't forceful enough. The former steward said that I am chicken because I don't get up and shout at the owners—but the negro from the Union says, “No, no—he is not chicken he just has a different way of doing things—that’s all.” So I learned from that that you have to change the way you do things. You can’t just be gentle—sometimes you have to be forceful. I learned a lot there too from that.
Do you guys have questions about what he was doing in the unions? Stay on that a little bit. Were you ever criticized by any of the other workers when you moving on to the chief steward position?
When I was a steward I had a black fellow who was doing cleanup work. He used to clean the metals—they would clean the metals off—take off all the rust—so that they would be able to work on them. He was doing that and it was dirty work. They got a new guy on the manager's side and he wanted to take this guy off and put somebody else on. He took him off and put him on another job and sent another guy over to this [the metal cleaning] job. This black fellow came over to me and said “I don’t like this other job. I don’t think he should have put me over there” So I talked to the man who had put him over and he said, “Well I can put him anywhere I want, I am the manager, not him.” So I said, “Okay I'll have to take it up further then.” I went and talked to the top management. After I talked to them they said, “Okay we will put him back.” Under the union that we had you can't change a person's job unless he is not doing the job. You can't just push him around because you don’t want him on there. That was the reason that we got him back on—they put him back on there. That was one of the reasons why I became chief steward—because I did something. We had this paint section which was all blacks. When we did anything—this group was solid. When we did anything they really went out—the whole thing. They really pulled the rest of the plant up with them in union activities. I learned a lot from being a union steward and I think that helped me in the Civil Rights Movement too.
Prior to War
We need to reel back to pre-internment times. Can you describe the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed? What were you doing? Could you describe what you were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
Not before I was interned. No communication there.
After Pearl Harbor but before you were interned you weren't able to?
Not after Pearl Harbor no. Not until the war was over.
So they didn't know that you were being interned?
I don't know if they knew or not. They probably heard about Japanese being put into camps. They probably knew that I was in a camp, but they don't know where.