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Introductions and Childhood
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Hi, I'm Sophia. I'm Julianna. I'm Jeff. And I'm Ashlyn and we're interviewing Marvin Uratsu on May 9th, 2007 in Richmond, California.
My name is Marvin Uratsu. I was born in Sacramento on February 7th, 1925. I Went to grammar school, at the Loomis Union Grammar School and then went to Placer Union High School for a couple years. Then came the War, and so I went to high school in Tule Lake for one year and then the senior year I went to Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. Before I even got my graduation degree or diploma the army wanted me, so I joined the army and served a couple years, came out, went to the University of California here in Berkeley, California under the GI bill, and that was a great thing. That was one of the best things that happened for us that served in the army and then I got a job with the American President Lines and I worked with them for 15 years. After that I got into the investment business and I still got my license going. Although I'm semi-retired, I do a little bit of that financial work. We've been living here, at this address, since 1951, so that makes about 56 years. So here I am now being interviewed!
What was your first childhood memory?
I was brought to Japan when I was an infant and then we came back—I think it was about 1931. I attended Loomis union grammar school for the next 8 years. We had a lot of fun in grammar school.
Any particular memories you have of elementary school?
I remember a Mrs. Molten and a Mrs. Brace very, very kindly teachers that got me started. I had just come back from Japan so my English was zip and they helped me through the difficult years and here I am. I think I speak passable English now. But anyway they got me started in the right direction. I liked to play sports. I got involved with basketball for the grammar school team and also the baseball team. We had fun. Recess time was fun time. I got passable grades—nothing outstanding. It was a great time in grammar school. The Principle there, Mr. Gates, was a very kindly principle. He was very good to us Japanese American kids that went to school there.
Could you tell us why you were sent over to Japan?
It was a real difficult time for my family. As I look back, my mother came to the United State, I think about 1916, that's my calculated guess. She had four of us kids starting in 1917, and my father was just a farm a laborer and they were having a hard time keeping the family going and work so my mother wanted to take all the kids back to Japan to live with our grandparents while she worked. I think also it was a time when there was a lot of discrimination, that is, against the Japanese People. They couldn't buy land and the future didn't look so good, so I guess my mother thought the best thing to do was bring us back to Japan and at least get to know the language and study there for a while. That's what happened.
You said that there was a lot of discrimination against Japanese people, can you remember any specific times you were discriminated against?
Number one: there was this alien land law that made it impossible for my father to buy land. There was a period before the alien land law that some Japanese American Families were able to buy land before the law came into effect. And that was like my wife's family. They were able to buy land before the law went into effect. But in our case, in the Uratsu family's case, the law was passed and they couldn't buy land. That was one of the biggest things. It made it kind of hard for us. We couldn't get citizenship. People from Europe would come over and after so many years they were able to get their US citizenship, but that wasn't the case for the Japanese so there were two or three other things that made it difficult to live here and have to work as a day laborer on the farms. You know you couldn't make too much money and you had four kids! It took a lot of money to raise four kids. So that what my mother thought was the best for us.
What was the difference between being raised in Japan vs. The United States?
In my case, I was just an infant. I was born in 1925 and that's when mom took us back. My time growing up, I spent just one year in grammar school and that was the extent of my experience. And then we came back to the States.
Do you have any specific memories of being raised in Japan?
My uncle was a schoolteacher there. So I remember him. You start remembering things after your about five or six. In my case maybe I was a slow learner but I remember that. I remember the school where we went to study.
What did the school look like?
It was a big building—classrooms.
Was it many classrooms or was it just one room?
No it was a number of classes. I think it had grades from first through sixth grades or something in that order. First through six I guess. But I don't know. Now my brother now, he was older so he got educated for six, seven years and he learned a lot. In my case I was too young. I wasn't in school that long. The interesting thing is I remember that and when I was a soldier in the US Army, and I was in Tokyo and I was about to be discharged, so I going to go home to the States. But I wanted to go see my uncle before I left. So, I went there, not knowing where they live, but I knew that he was a schoolteacher at this Japanese school there. I headed right for the school and I was in uniform. This maybe is diverting a little bit away from the story. I'm in uniform—US uniform. They thought I was going to the school to investigate and to see if they were following the edict of General MacArthur. See, General MacArthur wanted to get rid of a lot of the nationalistic books that were being used to teach the Japanese. They thought, the school people thought I was going there to see if that was done. In short, I scared the Dickens out of them. When I told them, I told whoever I saw first that I came to see my uncle that kind of relieved everybody. My uncle was not the principle at that time but I remember the principle said "hey your nephew is here, so you take the rest of the day off and take him home!" That's what I came for, so he took me home and I met the rest of the family and so on. That's what happened then.
Returning to America
Tell us about your experience traveling from Japan to the U.S. as a child.
In about 1931, my grandpa died. My grandpa died and so, it was too much for grandma, alone, to take care of us. We were told to come home, come back to America. That was about 1931 and that's when we came back to, at that time, Loomis. Loomis, California, small town off of I-80 today. They were on a farm and that's where we came back to—the farm.
Did you have to take a boat back?
Yes, we were on a ship. A Japanese ship called "Taiomaru" and I understand it was an old German ship that the Japanese government took over at the end of World War One. But anyway, they had re-named it Taiomaru and it took, I think, fourteen days or more to come into San Francisco. At that time, people were getting off the ship and then going their way. IN our case, we were sent to Angel Island, the immigration station, because my father wasn't there to pick us up at that time. We spent two or three days there, at the Angel Island Immigration Station, and in due course my dad came and picked us up. I didn't know what he looked like because when we left for Japan, I was just an infant, so I really didn't know what my father looked like, let alone what my mother looked like. I was curious, "what does my mother look like?" We were off the boat now and we were going to my uncle's place, who lived in Berkeley and there I met the uncle's wife. I thought, "Wow! This must be my mother!"—that wasn't to be. Eventually, they get out to Loomis and my mother was there and I got reacquainted with her. I don't know if you call it reacquainted I think it's getting acquainted the first time around. When she left me I was an infant, so I didn't know what she looked like. Finally, I caught up with my mother.
After that I went to grammar school at Loomis Union Grammar School. We were on the farm. The bus used to pick us up, the school bus used to pick us up—always a yellow bus. We would ride the bus from the house to the school and do our studying, the Pledge of Allegiance to begin, we learned that. The first book I remember reading, with the help of Mrs. Molten and Mrs. Brace, was "Terry Says Bow-ow." That's what we started with. That's the way it all began. I finished grammar school there and went on to high school—Placer Union High School.
Can you go into more detail about your Angel Island Experience?
They had, at Angel Island, these barrack like places. They're still there! If you go visiting there, you can see some of the writings on the wall, generally by the Chinese people that were kept there. What it was is large barracks with a whole bunch of double-decked beds and they had all the males in one of the barracks and the women in another barrack. While we were waiting, I was looking out and I see some people over there—White Caucasian people—a Caucasian lady having a smoke—smoking a cigarette. That really floored me, "gee wiz, the women are smoking!” Other than that, I didn't experience anything that frightened me. The doctor one day inspected us. He was kind, but we had to take all our clothes off and that was kind of embarrassing. Other than that, I don't remember much about Angel Island and the living conditions. I know it wasn't very pleasant but, at my age, I didn't really know the difference.
So you basically experienced discrimination when you first arrived in America.
I didn't know any better. I thought everyone went through what we did. What you don't know, doesn't hurt. When I think about it now, "Gee they didn't treat us or they didn't treat the Chinese, especially, well. And if you came from Europe, let's say, to Ellis Island I don't know if they went through that kind of scrutiny. You know, the Chinese, as I understand, got interviewed quite extensively and unfairly in many instances.
Can you remember the way the Chinese were interviewed?
No, I was a kid of six or seven years old and I really didn't observe. When I went back for a visit, I knew that they had these writings on the wall that lamented ill treatment and being held there a long time—longer than necessary—and the kind of questions they were asking, I understand, just out of the world. That's something that I learned later on.
Who did you hang out with at Angel Island?
It was my brother. Just the two of us. There weren't other kids around, as far as I remember, but I was with my brother—my older brother.
Was it just you and your older brother coming from Japan to America?
My family had a friend that was traveling and they acted as a guardian during the trip, on the boat. They were very kindly ladies, couple of ladies that watched over us.
Were they sent to Angel Island too?
No. It was just a few of us, a handful of us, that were sent to Angel Island. As opposed to what the Chinese went through. I understand what most of them had to go through.
Was it easier for you to get out because you were Japanese?
Yes, I think so. I think so. I think we were given a little bit better treatment. As bad as it was, still better treatment than what the, lets say, the Chinese went through.
What was your high school experience like?
I spent two years there. My freshman year I played basketball for the peewees. They had several different grades, classifications that is, of basketball leagues and I played for the freshman, peewee league and I think I did the same thing in my sophomore year. I also played baseball and I was a little bit better baseball player than a basketball player, I guess. I made the team—varsity. The sad part of it was, of the spring of 1942, after Pearl Harbor, see. Things were getting kind of uneasy, let's say, so they had to cut the season short but fortunately we won the championship in the shortened season. Now, if you win a championship you get some kind of award, generally the school gives you some kind of award. Unfortunately, we got put into camp, the internment camp. I got put into the internment camp, before I could get my award. I always wanted one, but I never got it. That was my story.But I heard that, for example, there was a fellow that when he graduated high school he was put into camp before graduation. This teacher at Placer Union High School took the time to take the diploma that belonged to this fellow and delivered it to him in one of the camps—Tule Lake to be exact. I thought that was a tremendous story, I really liked that. But in my case I never got the award, what do you call block P, for Placer Union High School and a little baseball replica. I never got one. I wish I had. That's neither here nor there because in my days in the army and so on, and moving around, I probably would have lost it anyway.