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1-Introductions and Early Life
Hi my name is David, my name is Anna, my name is Frank, and we are interviewing Hiroshi Kashiwagi on Thursday April 27th, 2006, in San Francisco, California.
Please give us a one-minute overview of your life.
I'm Hiroshi Kashiwagi. I was born in Sacramento on November 8, 1922, in a house that's no longer there. Actually, it belonged to the midwife. I looked it up, the address, and I'm going to use it when I do the reading in Sacramento next week. The address is 1410 Fourth Street. But in 1942, we were sent to the camp, and I ended up in Tule Lake Segregation Camp. And I came out in March of 1946, and eventually I went to Los Angeles and went to LACC [Los Angeles Community College] and then transferred to UCLA where I graduated in 1952. I worked for the Buddhist headquarters for about six years, then I went back to UC Berkeley and I got my library degree, and I spent my professional life as a librarian for twenty years. I retired in 1987.
What have you been doing the last 20 years?
The last 20 years I've been doing some acting whenever I could and also writing, and I finished a book, which was published. It's called Swimming in the American. And then I have another book ready to go which is a collection of my plays, and it's called The Betrayed and Other Shoebox Plays. That'll be my next book. But I'm thinking hard about writing another book, which is probably more current, and I hope to do that in the times remaining.
Did your parents have any plans for employment coming to America?
My father came first. I don't know what kind of plans he had. His brother, he had two brothers already here, I think his father was here too: my grandfather. So he came, but I don't know if he had any plans. I don't know what the brothers were doing. They were probably working on a farm or something, but when he first came, he went to work on the railroad. So he was up in somewhere in Oregon or Washington and he also came through Seattle, so that's probably why he worked on the railroad.
Why did he leave Japan?
He was married and it was a kind of a forced marriage and he didn't like the marriage so he wanted to leave from that. Then I think Japan had been involved in the Russo-Japanese War—or would have been involved, that was in 1903—and it had something to do with military service. I don't think that he wanted to be part of that, so maybe it was to escape that, that he might have left Japan. Also the fact that his brothers and father were already here in America, so he being one of the younger—I think he was the younger son—so that's why I think he came.
Do you have any stories about the racism or segregation that went on in the schools and community?
As I look back now I think we were tracked, which means that we were kept together and then promoted each year as a group. We had the same classmates from about third grade on up through the eighth grade, and it was one of those schools were we had eight grades. Our class was composed of Japanese American students, who were for the most part were tenant—their parents were tenant farmers. So they didn't own the ranches. Then the others—there were two divisions, two classes—the other group made up white students who were owners of the ranches, so economically they were higher than the other group.
It was the wealthy whites over here, and then everyone else over there?
Yes, poor whites used to come to school barefoot, because it was during the Depression. We had the poor whites as classmates. We had a few Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and the rest of us Japanese.
So did the minorities stick together, or did Japanese students stay together?
We were in the same group, so that we were always together, year after year, and we also happened to have the same teacher who was promoted along with us. We had the same teacher for about three or four years, and I don't know why that happened, but either she liked us, she felt she knew us better. I don't know what it was, but we had her and she was a good teacher.
Was she Japanese?
No, she was white. That was the kind of discrimination that we faced during our elementary school years. That were placed in a certain category, we were laborers, and non-owners, and the kids from the other group were kids of the owners of the ranches.
Did you know of any acts of racism against the Japanese farmers?
Not that I can remember. There was limitations, but no overt acts.
Did the kids at your school ever ask the teachers why there were two groups?
No, we didn't question it, I guess we were kind of happy to be promoted each year, because some kids were held back, and that was not cool. But no, we didn't, and it is only recently that I learned about this tracking thing that went on in many of our schools. It happened in our school. I don't know why, because otherwise our school was pretty good, but that was the practice.
Have you ever had the problem of befriending a wealthy white kid and then his parents didn't want you to be around him?
Not that I know of, but when we moved to town—the Japanese were all farmers so they didn't live in town—we were about the only Japanese family living in town, and we would walk to school, being in town, it was only about a five-minute walk. I would walk with the kids in town, who were all white kids, and got to be friends with them, at least while we're walking to school. When we got to school we were in different groups. But I remember having some friends at that time. They came to our store because they liked to buy candy, and stuff, but I was never invited to their homes. I didn't even think to approach their homes, because it wasn't done. And so I don't know what the parents felt about our friendship. I never met their parents, though on occasion the father of one of the boys would stop for me on a rainy day and pick me up and we would go together. We had some of that, but there was nothing unpleasant that happened that I can remember.
Would you think of yourself as a child as more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I was not exactly an extrovert. We had the store and so I would walk home for lunch every day and have hot lunch at home, and the when I go back I would get some candy—cheap candy, suckers and stuff, penny candies—and my pocket would be full. When I got to school, kids knew that I had candy with me, so they would all come and flock around me. I was very popular. Other than that, I don't think I made many overtures to become friends.
Did you experience tension about becoming friends with a German kid?
No, he happened to be of German descent, and he had Germanic features, but he was a good kid, nice, his parents—his father was also very liberal and friendly. I don't remember, just that he was interested in flying, so in fact he joined the British air force, RAF, and flew that way during the war. He was shot down and killed early in the war, even before US entered the war. But, the interesting thing is, you were friends as kids, when you were about seven or eight, but as you grew older—and as I said, we were in separate groups—so we were not in the same classroom. We were not as close as we grew older. By the time we were in high school we were definitely hardly friends.
Were you a Japanese citizen while you were growing up?
No—well, I had Japanese citizenship, dual citizenship, but when the war started, I think I gave up my Japanese citizenship. So, I had very little connection with Japan, except that I was going to a Japanese language school, so I was learning the language. And we spoke it at home, because our parents didn't speak English all that well. But other than that, no. Although I did take up fencing—kendo—as a child. I still remember the moves from that.
Was it hard to give up your Japanese citizenship?
No, it wasn't. Other than the language and the kendo and the food and the picnics that we went to, we were just Japanese Americans, and probably more American than Japanese.
Were you ever sad that you couldn't really participate in social activities with upper class kids?
Not really, it was kind of an accepted thing, and so, no, I didn't. It was more or less natural, there were certain things that you were not allowed to do, and some stores we didn't even go to because they didn't want us to be there.
Yes, restaurants, but of course we didn't go to restaurants. Barber shops, they would not cut our hair. So my father cut our hair, he was our barber.
You said you wouldn't go to restaurants. What time period were you talking about?
I mean when we were kids. We couldn't even afford to go.
Was the issue economic?
It was probably economic. It was not a habit of ours. But sometimes we would go to Sacramento and go to a Chinese restaurant as a special occasion. Not for having pancakes at a restaurant or something in the morning. We would make our own.
Can you tell us what it would like to have your hair cut by your father? Can you paint that picture for us?
Yes, it's in the book. That's pretty much how it was. Every couple weeks he would look at us and say, "Oh, I've got to give you a haircut." It was not a happy thought because manual haircut was not a great experience. I mean you have to sit very still, and you feel the hair, itchy, around your neck and so forth. Especially in the summer, when you perspired a bit. But I was the oldest, so my father would start with me. He would still be fresh, and not so tired of cutting hair. I was fortunate. I usually got good haircuts, because he was, as I say, fresh. Then I was pretty disciplined, I didn't move around, and I understood that if I did move, then he would hit me or bop me or something. So I usually got a good haircut. Maybe it was the shape of my head. Anyway my brother, who was of course younger, he was playing and he would play till the last minute until his turn came, so that he would be perspiring. And when you're perspiring, the hair sticks and it's very hard to cut. I think his experience was not so pleasant. He would get bopped pretty often. I don't know about his haircut, but there were just the two of us, so the old man didn't get all that that tired, but by the time he finished with me, he didn't care about my brother, especially when he was moving around, and restless and impatient, and so forth. You had to be a very good subject to get a good haircut.
You said last year, in the last interview, that you later found out that one of your teachers was in the anti-Japanese association. Can you tell us more about that?
Ah, yes, she was a high school teacher. She was one of my favorite teachers. I took public speaking as a sophomore. It was a required course, a one semester course. I did very well, you get up on a platform, and once I got on the platform I could say anything. I didn't even have to be prepared. I was a very good student in the class, and she thought I was very good and very encouraging and so forth. She also taught drama, and she directed the class plays. She was a drama teacher. Although I was sort of interested in that, I didn't dare take that, as a sophomore anyway.
Why didn't you take that class?
Oh because one just didn't do that. I mean... It was mainly for white kids. There weren't many non-white in those classes or in the plays. I didn't have her in high school, but I do remember that I was one of her favorite students. When I was in camp--by that time I had taken a course in theatre at a high school in Los Angeles. So my interest in acting was very active at that time, and as something to do in camp- there were all these people and all these things to do - I wanted to organize a theatre. In order to do that I thought well, I'll write to my old teacher and see if she could help me, send me some ideas and materials even. I wrote to her and there was no response. So I gave that up, and then, soon after that, I learned that she was one of the leaders of the anti-Japanese group. It was hard to believe that, because I had thought highly of her, and I thought she was a very good teacher. Actually, she was a good teacher.
What was running through your head when you found out someone you were very close to, was essentially anti-you?
It was very disappointing, it probably affected how I felt about myself as an American, being put in camp and then people I thought were friends turning against us. I'm sure it affected my decision, when it came time to prove that I was loyal or that I was willing to serve in the service.