JJ Ueunten (JJU): Today is March 31st, 2021, and this oral history is beingrecorded at the Japanese American Service Committee building at 4427 N. Clark St. in Chicago, Illinois. The interviewer is JJ Ueunten and the interviewee is Lori Ashikawa. This interview is being recorded by the JASC Legacy Center in order to document the experiences of Japanese Americans in the Chicago area. What is your full name?
Lori Ashikawa (LA): Lori Patricia Ashikawa.
JJU: And what is your year of birth?
JJU: And where were you born?
LA: I was born in Oakland, California.
JJU: And when did your family first come to the US?
LA: My grandfather first came and it would have been in the early 1900s. So it00:01:00would have been, yeah I'm not really sure, sometime between 1900 and when the Gentlemen's Agreement started. So he was born in 1880-something I think.
JJU: And where did he settle in the US? Oh, where did he settle?
LA: Oh ,so he moved to the San Francisco Bay area and I think he settled rightaway in the East Bay. So the San Leandro, Hayward area.
JJU: And do you know what motivated him to go to the US? Like come to the US?
LA: I don't really know and actually I was going to, I have a family tree thatI've kind of put together over the years. I was gonna try to dig that up but I forgot. I know he wasn't the oldest in the family, so I'm assuming he came for 00:02:00more opportunity? But that's a really good question, I don't know.
JJU: And do you know what kind of work he did?
LA: So what I think, I think he finished his schooling in Japan, and then cameto the US in his early 20s, and went into the nursery business. So he was part of the early California flower market.
JJU: And then, did you have other family that came from Japan after?
LA: So after my grandfather came, he started up the business in the flowermarket and then his bride came over later. So I'm assuming that she must have 00:03:00come after the Gentlemen's Agreement when they were allowing spouses to come into the country. And so wha-what were you asking? So--
JJU: Oh, i-- just if other people came after?
LA: Oh okay, so there were no other family members from his side of the family,or my grandmother's side of the family, so they were the only people who immigrated.
JJU: And have you had heard like kind of any other stories or things that youwant to share about kind of their pre-WWII life?
LA: Well I've learned a lot about their-- both families just i-in more recentyears so I know, I know a lot more about my grandmother's family than I do about my grandfather's family but I've tracked down all the relatives. I...I don't 00:04:00know a whole lot about, yeah what their lives were like in Japan, those two specifically. But there have been all kinds of stories that have been passed down about the family. I've been to my grandmother's family compound which is in--both my grandparents, grandfather and grandmother, came from Gunma-ken. So they actually...I've been to the family compound of my grandmother's side, which is-- her maiden name was Sakurai. And the person living there I think it was something like the 21st generation? They were able to find a family tree that 00:05:00was written out, and had been hidden somewhere in the house. And it had the line going all the way back to the 1600s I think. Well, the Edo period. So they had a, my grandmother had a very large family. I think there were eight or nine children and a few of them died along the way as children. But all of those branches of family are still there, and they all have offspring going down to you know what would be like my-- if I had grandchildren. But it's really interesting, the family compound that my grandmother's family lived at had, they had their own cemetery area there and they also had a storehouse that was full of treasures. So there are all these stories, and I don't know if any of them 00:06:00are true about them somehow having some kind of connection to the emperor. [laughs] But it's like, family legend.
JJU: Probably later I might ask a little bit more about you visiting
JJU: And like connecting with your family. But I'm gonna have to ask, when andwhere was your family incarcerated?
LA: So my mother's family was incarcerated at Topaz in Utah. And it would havebeen right at the time everyone left the Bay Area.
JJU: And then, is, is that the only part of your family that was...is that theonly part of your family that was incarcerated?
LA: Well my father was born in Hawaii, and my mother was born in Oakland. So00:07:00since my father was born in Hawaii, I don't think his family were incarcerated. But he did enlist in the army, and he was in the...I guess in the...I think he did translation work? He went to Minnesota and did boot camp and all of that in Minnesota. So that it was- I guess the intelligence unit. And he kept the diary which I still have, it's a bunch of photographs. And I didn't, I should have brought it but I didn't bring it. And there are pictures of him and--training in Minnesota which is really interesting because it's just a few Japanese American guys and then lots of Caucasians and nurses that he was friends with. And...and 00:08:00then there's pictures of him goin-- flying over Italy and then later flying over Hiroshima after it had been bombed. So I'm not really sure why he went to Japan at that point, if it was after the war. But he told me that as part of his uh- part of being enlisted like, that they were able to go and take treasures from Japan, and so I have a bayonet with a sword on it, and it's in the closet. (laughs) So it's, it's a very odd kind of relationship. The fact that my father never went to camp and my mother did go to camp.
JJU: I'm now curious about like, did your father's family come from...did your00:09:00father's family come from Japan then to Hawaii originally?
LA: Yes, yeah so my, my grandmother on my father's side had some kind ofplantation? I think she grew tobacco, and then later they, they switched what they were growing there. I think they even--well I'm not really sure, I mean I visited once when I was five, but actually I'm--I'm estranged from my father, so I haven't really had the chance to speak to him for the last 50 years really. So, yeah I don't really know a lot about his side of the family.
JJU: Do you know how old your mother was when the incarceration happened?00:10:00
LA: She had...she was somewhere in the middle of her college years so she was astudent at UC Berkeley, and she was getting a degree in social welfare. And I'm not exactly sure if she completed--if she completed the degree after, or if she was in that group of students who were allowed to graduate early. Because I think that if you had just a year left they were able to s-speed you up and somehow get-- get your degree to you. So she-- she got a bachelor's degree but I don't think she had actually formally finished. So yeah, so that would have meant that she would have been 20, 21 something like that. 00:11:00
JJU: Did your mom or anyone in your family share about their experiences, or anystories or reflections about the incarceration?
LA: No, not until after reparations so-- and I've heard that that's prettycommon. So, the first time that I heard anything about the camps was when I was maybe in 3rd or 4th grade and there was a neighbor up the street, Mr. Watson, he was British. And he and his wife were very nice and they gave--they gave full sized candy bars at Halloween. So I think I must have been trying to schmooze up to them because I think I stopped there on my way home from-- from elementary school which was just up the street so I could walk to school. And I remember going into their backyard, and Mr. Watson saying to me "Oh it's really too bad 00:12:00what- what happened to your family during the war." And I didn't know- well for one thing I didn't know that there had been a war or I wasn't--I was really vaguely aware of World War II. And so I asked him "Well what do you- what are you talking about or what do you mean?" and he said "Oh yeah well the US government put your family into camps during World War II to protect them." And so I ran home to my mom and I was like "What's this about?" and s-she didn't really give me a satisfactory answer so I was really under the impression that my family had done something wrong and just been in jail. And then I didn't hear anything more--I think there-- in high school, maybe one of the US history 00:13:00textbooks had a little blurb about the camps but it really was-- I can even remember what it looked like here's the textbook, here's the regular text, and then up in the corner was a little tiny box that was like one of those sidebar things and it was a picture of the barracks and it just said you know "In 1941 Japanese Americans were interned at camps across the US" or something and that was it. So that gave me a little bit more knowledge about it, but it wasn't really until reparations that my mother told any personal stories. I mean I think I...I gleaned bits of knowledge from stuff that I read but nothing personal.
JJU: Do you wanna maybe talk a little bit about reparations and then your, your00:14:00mother sharing a little bit after that and how that happened?
LA: Yeah, so I remember I-I guess she started like, there was kind of a buzz inthe Japanese American community and people started talking about what was happening. And since I was just involved- wrapped up in my own life I didn't really pay attention, but my mom started cutting articles out of the newspaper, and so I kind of peripherally knew about it. And then when the actual reparations was passed and Reagan signed it, I remember like my mom being really excited. And we went, we used to go visit the relatives up in the San Francisco 00:15:00Bay area at all the holidays. So we would go at Easter and at Christmas usually. Then I remember going up and one of my relatives who usually never really talked about anything personal I mean he was like really good at making jokes and stuff. I remember sitting in, in the living room and hearing him talk about- about reparations and all the adults getting really, really serious and really emotional that they could finally talk about something that they had just kind of squirreled away and you know, swept under the rug. So that was the first time that people really started t-to talk.
JJU: Do you remember like some of the things that were shared? Either in thatkind of, in that room or after? 00:16:00
LA: Well my mom, then she started telling stories about what happened in thosedays. So she talked about how their family went to Tanforan to the horses stalls, and she talked about how bad it smelled because the horses stalls had just been whitewashed over, and how she could still see the hay there. And then she talked about when they finally went out to Topaz and were getting situated in those barracks and how dusty it was, and dirty. And she mostly talked about how angry she was all the time, and how she just really felt it was so unjust 00:17:00what was happening, and since she was in college, I think she was already pretty involved in the world outside of family life. So she said to get away from the family, she would go to the furthest part of the camp, I guess there was one, lone, tree and she would sit under that tree just to be alone and be away from everyone. But she was living in-- so she had three older brothers and her mom, and they all lived together. Her dad had passed away when she was about 13 years-old so basically it was just her mom being in charge of everything, and then her older brothers also since she was the baby of the family. And then a 00:18:00lot of other stories kinda came out later after I went to a reunion, a camp reunion with her in the 90s. And I think seeing, seeing a lot of people that she had known in the camp, kind of brought back a lot, a lot more memories for her. But right after the whole stuff about the reparations came out I think that was pretty much what she talked about.
JJU: I'm curious like, how was it for you to kind of finally hear your family oryour mom talk about these things, after like having, not even heard about it, and how did that change or affect you?
LA: Well growing up I was-- I pretty much grew up in a really white neighborhood00:19:00in Pasadena, CA. So in my elementary school, I think there were only a few Asian kids like maybe two Japanese American kids in my grade, and there was like one African American kid and everyone else was white. Oh, and maybe one little Hispanic girl and that was it! So it was yeah, very white community, and growing up I didn't really have any Japanese American friends except I did have one best friend in first grade, Naomi Uchida. And I didn't, I don't even think I knew she was Japanese American but she was small like me and I really liked her, and we hung out together and did everything together but then my teacher said, pulled 00:20:00us aside and said "You can't be friends anymore, because you have to integrate." So I wasn't friends with her anymore after that, and I mostly hung out with white kids then all the way up through high school. And I didn't have any real Japanese American self-identity. We belonged to a Japanese American church that was... kind of far it was maybe like 8, 8 or 9 miles away so the kids who went to that church went to different schools. So I didn't really have any friends at church, and I thought the kids were all snobby, especially the Japanese American girls. They were really clique-ish, and I didn't have anything in common with them I thought. So the kids I hung out with in high school were all, all white as I said and all really politically active. 'Cause our school, because of Brown 00:21:00versus Board of Education we had this whole busing thing going in Pasadena and we were all really involved in what was happening with the school board, and you know we were trying to boycott standardized tests because they were racist. And we're doing all this stuff and at the same time, oh and the Vietnam War was going on, but I had no Japanese American identity or self knowledge! And I didn't really think how any of that would be connected with what had happened with the camps. I mean I think I was like really peripherally aware of what had happened during World War II, and I remember in high school I had these great teachers but no one really talked about the Japanese Americans-- so I, 00:22:00consequently I always thought that I was white. And one day this teacher who was not my teacher, Rich Miyagawa, he pulled me aside and he tried to politicize me. He gave me a book to read about Japanese American identity, and I can't remember what the book was called. But-- Oh it was something about an American or...yeah I don't remember, anyway. So I remember reading the book, and thinking "Well you know he has some interesting points" but I still just didn't see how they really applied to me. So I just tucked that information away and, it all came flooding back later of course. (laughs) But yeah, it's just interesting to be so disengaged from your community even though it's not like I wasn't politically aware. 00:23:00
JJU: I'm curious about how that kind of, chang-how, how that changed and how youbecame aware, more aware of your Japanese American identity.
LA: Well my mom--okay I didn't have any Japanese American friends, but I didhave my cousins in the San Francisco Bay Area. But they didn't--okay, so (laughs) I had, what happened after the war is my mother's three brothers, of them the oldest, Willie, he inherited the family's nursery business. So he, as I've heard like a lot of issei transferred ownership to the-their kids so they 00:24:00could maintain ownership of their companies. And so my, my grandmother's and grandfather's nursery was part of the California flower market as I said before, and there was a tight knit group in San Lorenzo, which is one of the communities up there. It was like this San Lorenzo nursery...I have a whole book on the history of the California flower market. But anyway, so because of the way the isseis transferred their businesses to the nisei, my mom's oldest brother took over the nursery and was running it with, with his younger brother Shigeru, and with my grandmother. So they kept the business going...and what was your question? Where was I going with that? Well about their community. Okay, so they 00:25:00were really involved, th-the branch of the family that went into the nursery business was really involved in the Japanese, Japanese American community in the East Bay. So they went to a Japanese American church, and they knew a lot of community people in that area. And one of the brothers though, went to Med school, and so I think that was a really big deal for the family to be able to come up with the money to send him to med school. And because of that, he didn't have to go to the camps because he was already off on the East Coast going to school. And when, after the war ended that branch of the family went back to the Bay Area to live, they ended up settling in Marin County which was a pretty 00:26:00wealthy neighborhood across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. And as a kid, I always referred to that branch of the family as the city mice and the ones who lived in the East Bay as the country mice because they were so completely different to me as a kid. The city mice were basically white in my mind. Even though I think my aunt was really interested in Japan, and they had gone back a few times, they had sent money there, they, they were the ones who kept up the connections with Japan. And the family in the East Bay pretty much ran the nursery and we're really, really JA and never went to Japan and never went anywhere besides the Bay Area. They never even went to Southern California for a long time. So it was a weird like a, kind of- almost like a rift between 00:27:00these two different kinds of Japanese American identity. The one that was really white and then the one that was really involved in community. And they even talk different like going and visiting, I realized that you know the East Bay community didn't talk like anyone else I knew, they had their own sort of slang and when I started learning Japanese about 10 years ago, I realized like a lot of the things that they would say like they would say like my one of my cousin's name is Chuckie or Charles. They'd say "Okay we're gonna go to the store with Chuckie guys" and I realized or "We're gonna go with-" you know their Aunt, "Auntie guys." I realized that was like the same as saying minna-san in 00:28:00Japanese. And there were all these like really clever things that they would say that were related actually to the Japanese language just because of living in the community. And I would never hear that from the city mice. So I, yeah so then back in Pasadena where I was living, tha--the kids who went to my church then they were like a whole 'nother group of Japanese American culture that I didn't really understand or have connection to.
JJU: I'm sorry if you already said this, but like how did your family end up inPasadena versus like the East Bay area, Marin county?
LA: So after the war, I know a lot of Japanese people weren't allowed to go back00:29:00to their communities right away. But the way my mom told the story was that she didn't want to go back. She was, she just wanted to sort of go out and see the world, so she ended up going to Detroit. And she met my dad who was at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He was studying to- he ended up getting his PhD in, in Biophysics. So she met him there and she was living in a YWCA. In fact, I have a picture. So one of my grandparents' neighbors was Toshio Mori. And they-he was a good family friend and so... Actually, one of the stories in here is the "All American Girl" and my mom swears that that's about her. Because 00:30:00Toshio Mori and his brother I guess would walk past her house everyday and she'd be sitting on the steps, and that's what this story "The American Girl" is about. And then here's the inscription from Toshio Mori, that says, "To Mrs. K Nieda, My close friend and neighbor, who, next to my mother, gave me encouragement since childhood days." and it's signed March 5th, 1949, San Leandro. But anyway there's a picture here and I don't know what this-this is what my mom would do. She would have newspaper clippings and then she would just like fold 'em all which way, and oh wait this is the wrong clipping! (laughs) Okay, this is just the family of Toshio Mori looking at the book. I thought that this was going to be the picture of my mom in the YWCA in Detroit. So that must 00:31:00be folded up in another book somewhere. So ba-backtracking, my--
JJU: Did you want to talk a little bit about, you know, her experience at theYWCA, or Detroit?
LA: Yeah so okay, that was supposed to be the YWCA. So she lived in the YWCA,and she met my dad in Detroit and actually the city mice, my aunt from that wing of the family, also went to that area. I guess she had been planning to go to school in New York, she wanted to go into fashion design. And they wouldn't let her go to New York because of the-some kind of quota, so she had--she ended up going somewhere in Michigan I think also. And then my mom after meeting my dad there, then they moved back eventually to the Bay Area and they got married and 00:32:00they settled in- I guess they were living in Albany, which is right next to Berkeley. And that's when I was born so I lived in Albany. And then my dad got a job at USC, USC what was it called, I think it was like the County Medical Center that was connected to University of Southern California. And so that's why they moved to Pasadena.
JJU: Just, just 'cause like we're in the Midwest I'm curious if there's anythingelse you want to share about like, your mom or your parents' time like in Detroit?
LA: You know, I don't know a whole lot about that except that, lots of ourfamily friends in Pasadena had some kind of connection to the Midwest. So it 00:33:00must have been because they went there after the war. So I think my parents were introduced by someone who went to Ann Arbor and ended up in Pasadena, and they kind of became sort of my mom's close family friends and I called them auntie and uncle even though they weren't related. But they were, they were kind of like the only connection I had to the Japanese American community besides my relatives. So their families I kind of knew them, but not- I didn't play with them as a-well I did I guess. When my parents would visit, or my mom would visit, then I would play with the kids. Yeah, and that, but that's about all--I keep meeting people actually from the Midwest which is interesting. So there 00:34:00must have been a large number of Japanese Americans who ended up in the Great Lakes region.
JJU: Yeah, my understanding is that you couldn't go back to the coast if youwanted to leave before the war was over or something like that?
LA: If you--?
JJU: Oh I just...I I think like people couldn't go back to the coast if theywanted to leave-
LA: OH Right. (nods)
JJU: Before the war was over. Maybe there was like jobs or stuff here.
LA: Yeah because actually another friend of my mom's in LA, she had also beennear, kind of near Ann Arbor. And I think she ended up staying there but she would come and visit in the Los Angeles area because she had some other relatives there.
JJU: And so your mom went directly from Topaz to Michigan?00:35:00
LA: I think so. Yeah I don't know, an-and I'm not really clear on what happenedto their property and what it was like when they went back. I mean I know that they had neighbors who took care of their nursery so they, they didn't lose everything. They were able to, to get back on their feet and I think the American friends helped also. But I'm not sure if my grandmother went right back to the Bay Area and the kids dispersed? 'Cause I never really heard of the, the two brothers who were running the nursery, I never heard stories of them being anywhere else. So I'm not sure if they were allowed to go back.
JJU: I know you talked a little bit about your family opening up a little bit00:36:00more about talking about their wartime experiences during...But after reparations, I guess I'm wondering if you see kind of like a different kind of willingness to talk about it like in different generations of the family?
LA: No, not really, which is kind of interesting. I know how-- I almost feellike the nisei wanted to talk more about it than the sansei did but maybe that's 00:37:00my family. I know that the-- none of my relatives, none of my cousins, so my, my age group seemed really very interested in Japan except for me. And I didn't really become interested in Japan, and I know you're talking about the whole incarceration thing. But I think it's connected, to know about family history. I-I just didn't--it didn't really seem like people were that interested. It's like they wanted to just be part of American life. And after reparations, our parents really wanted to talk about it. And so when I went to one of the reunions, the camp reunion, I was the only kid who went which is, that's really weird! Because all my-my aunt, city mouse aunt, she went and, but none of her 00:38:00kids went, she had three daughters who were my cousins. And then on the country mice side, my mom went, but her brother didn't go, her older brother had died when he was fairly young. And then none of their kids went! But they were more involved in actual real Japanese American life than I was, but I went to the reunion. So that is really interesting that--and I think it's, it's probably different now like I think after the sansei, I think the yonsei are much more connected with history.
JJU: Like your cousins' children?
LA: Well my friends' children. I don't know, my cousins' children aren't00:39:00particularly interested either so maybe it's just a family trait! (laughs)
JJU: Yeah, I'm curious about you connecting to your family history in Japan andhow that kind of came about and you became interested in that after kind of growing up without a strong sense of Japanese identity.
LA: Well, so I'm an only child so when I moved to Chicago in 1990 my--I left mymom alone in Pasadena, and there were no other relatives down there they were all still up in the Bay Area. So there was always this question of should she go up to the Bay Area where she has relatives? But they were just mostly nieces and nephews, and then, and one brother who was still alive. Or should she come out 00:40:00to Chicago? So we decided that she should come to Chicago even though the weather was completely different and she didn't know anyone out here except for me. But she moved out in 2000? Or was it 2001? Somewhere right around that and she ended up living just a short like, three blocks away from us and so...but right before she came, I had been out here about 10 years already and I thought she's going to need to have friends. So I saw a group of Japanese-looking people walking by the lake and I like, like went and talked to one of them, and found out they had a walking group, and that's how I found out about the JASC. So I thought, "Wow, she can make friends at the JASC", so that's how I started 00:41:00getting interested actually in Japanese Americans. 'Cause when I found out what kinds of programs they had here, yeah it was just--it was to find a community for her and by doing that I kind of found a community for myself. Which is really weird when you think I'd been here for 10 years and I didn't even know that there were Japanese Americans living in Chicago. I mean I thought that there were just hardly any Asians at all. And most of my friends that I met when I came here, didn't know anything about Japanese Americans and I had to always explain where I'd grown up, and it was just so different than being in California. So that's how I got interested, just by being a surrogate for her. 00:42:00
JJU: And what brought you up to Chicago originally?
LA: Okay so I'm a musician, I'm a violinist. And I lived in a house full ofmusician friends in Venice, CA. And one of the musicians who moved in eventually became my husband, but at that time he was my boyfriend, so he, he auditioned and he was able to get a job with the Chicago Symphony. So I moved out to follow him and then we got married after I moved out like a year later. So yeah I didn't really know anything about the Midwest, and I didn't really you know I didn't even know that Chicago was near where my dad and mom had met 'cause I just didn't have a concept geographically of the Midwest.
JJU: And was it after kind of finding some Japanese American community here that00:43:00you started looking into like your own family history in Japan more?
LA: So my mom, my mom had gone to Japan when she was really young like three orsomething. She didn't really remember anything about it. And then, but my grandmother did go back periodically. So I think my mother, well so it was the city mice who actually were maintaining connection with all the Japanese relatives. And so my aunt in Tiburon would invite relatives to come over from Japan and then they would always go to--they would do Northern California, San Francisco, and then as far part of their sightseeing family visit thing they would go to Southern California and then they would stay with us and they would 00:44:00do Los Angeles and that whole part of it. And so because of those connections my mom knew a lot of the relatives in Japan. And from her, mostly from her mother's side 'cause that was a bigger family anyway. And so my mom went to Japan for the first time in 1986 with my aunt and they traveled and they went to all the different relatives that had come to California and they made those connections so I think my mom, she was getting more and more interested in it. And actually, one of my mother's uncles had come to the United States and studied horticulture with my grandfather and then sort of taken what he learned from my grandfather 00:45:00back to Japan and used that knowledge there. So there was always this kind of like feeling like oh we've gotten so much from you Californians and then the Californians were getting a lot from the, the relatives in Japan so there was kind of like a mutual respect there. And so my mom kind of, she knew about these connections, and then I think after-- so after she went to Japan for the first time in '86 she started kind of reaching out to those relatives more and writing letters then she wanted to take me so I went for the first time in 1996--or 1995. Then I met, I met some of the relatives that I had met as a child growing up. And then, then it's interesting then after, after my mom got involved with 00:46:00the JASC, I came to a judo performance over there, and the reason I came to the performance was--even though I didn't know anything about judo or any of the Japanese martial arts, a friend of mine who's a musician, a Caucasian guy, his son was doing judo over there. And so he invited me to come and watch his kid do judo. So I went and they had this whole thing set up and I think they probably still do it where they had kind of a little ceremonial thing at the beginning and they had the tape recorder there and they put the tape in and they pressed the button and then this Japanese music came on and then then they turned it off like right in the middle of a phrase. And I was so mad I was thinking "This is so stupid why, why are you using recorded music you should use live music, 00:47:00aren't there any live Japanese musicians in town?" And then right after that Tatsu, I just happened to see that he advertised a workshop for shamisen so I started studying shamisen, and then I got interested, I thought well if I'm gonna study shamisen I should learn Japanese language, and JASC was offering Japanese language classes. So I started a beginning class, and then, and then I started getting more interested in the actual culture. It's a little, it's a little weird 'cause it is about your life it's not just about the subject matter it's all connected.
JJU: I think going a little bit back to maybe some of the kind of possibleintergenerational effects of wartime experiences-- Are there any like behavioral 00:48:00patterns that you see in yourself or other people in your family that you think could be connected to like, their wartime experiences?
LA: I was thinking about this question, and it's kind of hard for me to dividewhat is sort of a cultural Japanese American trait or a trait that's been passed down culturally. You know they always say that the Japanese Americans in Los Angeles are basically a time capsule of the Meiji era because time froze when they went to Los Angeles with their traditions. And so ther--there's like certain things that I think are really ingrained behavior-wise that come from Japan. And then layer on that the camp experience and it's, it's hard for me to 00:49:00separate it out. Except that I did have a revelation a number of years ago. When I when I first moved to Chicago, I was playing in a string quartet with some musicians and one of them had survived, he was like an older gentleman, he had survived the Holocaust. He'd been in a camp as a child. And then it turned out that the pianist, who was our guest pianist playing with our quartet. He, he was like a blonde hair blue eyed guy but it turned out he was half Filipino. So I don't know where the blonde hair came from. But he had also survived trauma, his family had survived trauma. We were comparing notes, and I realized that there were a lot of personality traits that were similar and they were this thing of 00:50:00you know just thinking that catastrophe was just around the corner. Like everything that you did moving through life you did so carefully because you thought that something that you would do could trigger something bad happening and that was the first time I had ever thought about sort of generational trauma. 'Cause the pianist, I think it was his parents who had been in the Philippines and had... And it was probably, it was probably incurred through Japanese imperialism or something, their experience. But anyway, yeah so that is something maybe that came from camp that I could sort of see. And then the other thing, there's sort of a rebelliousness that I see in my family like my mom was 00:51:00really rebellious but I'm not sure if that, if she was just that way to start with and it was enhanced by her camp experience? But she never wanted to do things the way everyone else did them, and she also was she was pretty much a feminist I think. And she kind of raised me that way. And then in my cousins I could see, what I've seen with a lot of sansei actually where they're, they like go out of their way to be louder than everyone else it seems like. And I don't know if that is either, part of trying to be as white as possible or if it's because they were told by their parents to blend in after the camp and so 00:52:00they're rebelling against that? 'Cause I know that there was a lot of pressure to conform and I think that's, that's partially why I never learned any Japanese arts or did language, even though other kids when I was growing up did do Japanese dance, and kendo and, and stuff but I never did. So I think my mom was really trying hard to raise me as white as possible and she did a really good job! (laughs)
JJU: I guess besides being kind of like separated from Japanese culture-- Arethere, are there things that you see in yourself that are kind of, you think might be related to either like camp experiences or, or like maybe, maybe even wartime experiences from your dad? 00:53:00
JJU: Oh, from your dad?
LA: Oh, well I think there's like probably two different kinds of... kinds ofreactions to life that you inherit. I mean some of it is when you know about what happened. So watching my mom's response to the emotions coming out after reparations so there's that, but then there's also the kind of undercurrent you know whether it's stifling the way you act or kind of changing the way you act or-- So wait, can you repeat the question again?
JJU: Yeah, I'm just wondering... You talked about some of the patterns that yousee in your family about what might be-- Might be kind of like a legacy from 00:54:00wartime experiences, and I was just wondering how you saw that in relation to yourself?
LA: Hmm-- Yeah I can't, it's so hard to divide what's... What came about after Ilearned about things and what, what was already there. Although I, I mean I guess you know anytime there's like dysfunction in a family, the tendency is to want to ascribe that, the reason for that to some past hurt or trauma. So yeah there's like a lot of secrecy there's a lot of kind of weird shame there's a lot 00:55:00of acting out in strange ways, but I don't know if that would have been even without having the camp experience. I mean I think the biggest thing that I noticed was the whole repression thing of not acknowledging what had happened for so long and trying so hard to blend into society, that you as a group of people lose your identity. And yeah I can really see that like-- Just trying to ignore that whole aspect of your life and wanting to move on, and so that kind of affects how you move through life like you pick and choose and you sweep things under the rug if you don't think it's gonna further your, your career or 00:56:00be in your best interest. So yeah, definitely like white-washing your past I think is the biggest thing that I've noticed.
JJU: Thanks for sharing that. I wanted to just briefly ask, like you've talkedabout going on like reunions, to like a camp reunion? Yeah, is there anything more that you'd like to kind of share about that experience?
LA: Well that's the first time that I had actually heard that... I don't know ifyou've heard this, but I went to one of the panel discussions and they were 00:57:00talking about how there was actually a movement to have Japanese American women sterilized and that it almost passed according to the person who was speaking. And so that was really shocking 'cause I realized I wouldn't have been born if they had actually done that. But I--I didn't even really think about it and I mean when I think about it now, that it's just like so similar to what happens you know when you wanna just... Well it's genocide basically, you know when you want to wipe out a whole group of people because of some perceived defect. It's more than just saying oh they're a threat because they might be informers or something it's wanting to wipe them out as a race! That's really shocking. And then the other thing is I didn't know about the 442nd so we went-- my mom and I 00:58:00went to a film that was about that and I remember my mom crying through the whole thing and I had never seen her cry in my whole life. Even though all these horrible things that happened to her while I was growing up, I mean my dad walked out when I was like 5 or something. We had adopted a little boy, so I had a... Well actually my, yeah I had a sister but she died of crib death seven years before I was born. And then when I was about 5, my parents adopted a brother, and they had him for like about a year and then they gave him back because they got divorced. So it's like I had this little brother who I loved and took care of and then they took him away. And my mom never cried during 00:59:00that, then my dad left and never came back and never paid child support, my mom never cried. But when the 442nd movie was showing, that's when she cried. And she said th--I mean she was so angry that these boys had gone off to fight and nothing came of it. They all--I mean so many of them died and the family was still stuck in the camp and they didn't have any kind of dispensation from that.
JJU: You know, I think-- Just hearing that, makes me feel like your mom had likea strong sense of when things are unjust. And I know you talked about like being kind of politically active even in high school. I wanted to know if you want to 01:00:00share a little bit about kind of your activism now, and how it is or is not related to your Japanese American identity.
LA: Well going back to that teacher, who wasn't my teacher in high school whopoliticized me about Japanese American things. I think I always, so I always knew that this kind of injust thing had happened to Japanese Americans, but at the same time I think it was really hard, you know how we always called it relocation camps? It was really hard to bring myself to say concentration camp because I knew what happened to the Jewish people in the Nazi camps, and I didn't ever want it to sound like we had gone through anything like that kind of 01:01:00genocide. So ther--and then looking at what happened to black Americans with slavery, and you know and how they were still fighting oppression even now. It's always been really hard for me to think that I should stand up for Japanese Americans especially 'cause Japanese Americans seemed so privileged economically, and they seem to have been allowed to kind of climb the ladder and achieve like middle class and upper middle class lifestyles. So yeah I'm still kind of... I'm still kind of grappling with the sort of hidden parts of what 01:02:00happened because of the camps. And especially after these attacks in Georgia last week, I mean I think I'm starting to finally understand you know, where I fit into this whole thing of oppression in the world. And I think it is, I mean I guess that is sort of a byproduct of the camps that our families didn't talk about, the issues. And were just so busy trying to climb the ladder and get economic stability. And my aunt so the city mice aunt. They, when they moved into Tiburon as a doctor and his wife they weren't allowed to join the, the 01:03:00yachting club because that was only allowed for white people. And they faced a lot of discrimination but they kind of just dug in their heels and said we're going to stay here in this society and we're going to make it. And they did that by having like economic stability but also by kind of blending in. Even though my aunt was really always interested in Japanese things, I think they still somehow were able to blend in or that's what it looked like to me. And so, what I grew up with, thinking I was white, was seeing all these other sanseis-- sansei kids who didn't seem really connected or aware politically of what was 01:04:00going on in the world and almost went, almost went too far to the right and became sort of republican. Didn't speak out for other oppressed groups, didn't seem to be interested in politics, and allowed things to happen in our country that hurt other, other minority groups. So I spent a lot of my adult life being angry at Japanese Americans 'cause it seemed like the only ones I met were the really uninvolved, or just kind of privileged, ignorant I guess. I don't know 01:05:00how to describe it. So when I--you know, I kind of feel like now the next generation I can relate to that group more because they remind me more of the white activist kids that I grew up with when I was in high school. And they seem more aware of the connections and patterns that are happening in the world and they don't seem so involved with the material things and I-- I'm sure that I'm just completely blind to like a whole other group of, of kids who are my own age but I just like lumped all Japanese Americans together. In fact, one of my--she didn't go to my high school she went to the next high school but she was in Pasadena, and Pasadena's not that big of a city. But she is that filmmaker, Renee Tajima. And I actually--they were family friends of ours, and I had no 01:06:00idea that she was an activist, I mean she made that film about Vincent Chin and I didn't learn about that 'till way later and I remember thinking wow she could have been my friend and yet I'd like was so snobby because I just had this stereotype of Japanese American kids. Boy--both boys and girls.
JJU: Do you wanna talk a little bit about like your activism now or anythinglike that?
LA: Well it's really nice to be able to, to relate to a group of people that youhave historical background. And I guess I never, I never realized that that 01:07:00could be so comforting in a way. And I sort of understand, I remember people like right after George Floyd was murdered, I remember people saying oh you know be really careful with your black friends don't burden them with questions about, what it's--you know how you survived this oppression your whole life and all this stuff. And after those murders in Georgia, I became like hyper-aware that of who was not acknowledging that it had happened or who was acknowledging that it had happened and sort of the responsibility that I felt like a weariness of "Oh I'm going to have to explain why this is bad and where I fit into the picture." And so it's kind of nice if, if you're in with a group of Japanese 01:08:00Americans you kind of already sort of know what that history is and you don't have to like go back and explain it and so it's kind of like this realization, "Oh that's what they meant" about how you know they were just, people were so tired of thinking about George Floyd thinking about Black Lives Matter marches, and their own personal lives being a black person. I can finally, I think I finally can empathize with that and know what it means. It's not about, it's not necessarily even about being angry about what you've been angry about your whole life, but it's about, yeah just having to sort of carry that weight and move through the world with that. And so yeah that's kind of what I'm thinking. And 01:09:00then the other thing is that this whole narrative that I've had my whole life about how I'm basically white, I can really see why people were so mad at me, some of my Japanese American friends when I would say that. Like I've had friends just look at me like they can't even believe that these words came out of my mouth, and I know that it's because of my upbringing and and then I was brought up in those particular circles and my neighborhood. But it's also-- I can see now that maybe it's, it's kind of a betrayal. That it's like almost like the epitome of white privilege that I am exhibiting as a Japanese American and maybe that's what I'm so mad about when I've seen other sansei who kind of seem to--to me, seem to be ignoring issues maybe that's like just a mirror to what I am myself ignoring. Like my own history, or thinking that I'm better than it 01:10:00somehow. So it's really interesting, but it changes every day.
JJU: For some reason when you were sharing that, like I kind of came back towhen you shared about being told you can't be friends with that other Japanese person.
JJU: And I didn't ask at the time when you first shared that, but like, do youremember how that experience was for you?
LA: Oh, well it was terrible. It was like being told--but you know I was solike, into following the rules. Unless it, unless it was with my mom then I was into rebelling. (Laughs) But if it was an authority figure like, like a white teacher but they were-- all the teachers were white so that doesn't... that's 01:11:00not really a good argument. But anyway with an authority figure yeah I think I just said "Oh yeah she's right I should, I should be integrating. I shouldn't hang out with someone who looks like me." But it's weird to think about that as like a second grader or first grader like how are you... 'Cause kids don't even notice I mean I really was not aware of race at all until she put a big sticker on it. (laughs) And maybe that's why I never had any Japanese friends after that, because it was kind of like "No, you should be integrating." And you know, and I just like recently I can really understand why some black groups don't want to let white people in, or Asian people in, or-- because they need to 01:12:00preserve that kind of safe zone. I never knew about safe zones before, like and how important and how important that is to have.
Well I'm, kind of one of the things I've been thinking about is the connectionbetween the people that my mom knew in the Bay Area pre-war. So I was just saying to JJ off camera that the Korematsu's were really, really close friends of my mom's family. So, during that whole thing when, when he didn't go to camp and was able to, you know protest in whatever way, why they were singling out 01:13:00people to go to camp, that must have made a big impression on her. And also when she was at UC Berkeley her--one of the people she worked with as, as a student was Andreas Papandreou who became Prime Minister of Greece and he was like the first socialist to be in the Greek government. And my mom also had a connection to the lawyer, Stephen Bingham, with--who is a lawyer for the Black Panthers so and--and also the other really close family friend of theirs was Yuri Kochiyama's family and Yuri Kochiyama's twin brother was a good friend of my mom. So she had all these connections with these really revolutionary things that were going on! And yet after the camp, I just don't understand like why, 01:14:00she didn't have like a Japanese identity. Like I mean she never cooked Japanese food, she cooked sashimi if you can cook sashimi, occasionally. But you know she was just really super like white an-and even like when she--so after my dad left, she got a job. She had just been a housewife after, after camp and after she got married. But she got a job, like a secretarial job and she hung out with sort of the outcasts at her workplace. Which were--so you know the hierarchy you have like the doctors, and then underneath that were the gay doctors, so those were her best friends because they were outcast. So the gay doctors, and then 01:15:00the the lab techs, and then the nurses, and then the secretarial staff which is what my mom was. So they used to party together all the time, but she didn't, it was like that side of her and then there was the Japanese American families that seemed really conservative in Pasadena, and also my mom was an outcast 'cause she was a divorcee and so she didn't really fit in. And it wasn't till she got older that she started like reconnecting with her Japanese American-ness even though I mean she always had friends, but I guess she just never, she always felt like an outcast. So I wonder if that's 'cause of that whole sort of conformity that a lot of JAs subscribe to after camp.
JJU: Any, any other kind of things that you want to share?01:16:00
LA: Well yeah I guess the, the other thing is the whole model minority myth, andthat I just feel like there are so many secrets in, in nisei families that they didn't talk about because they were trying so hard to conform. And I mean they were just, you know like when there were suicides and things and no one would tell you it was a suicide they would just tell you oh someone just all of a sudden died, and never talk about it! I mean I still don't know to this day, but I just had cousins who would suddenly disappear and I wouldn't know why. I mean, I don't know if it's because the family felt so much shame and--so is it a 01:17:00Japanese thing, or is that because of conforming after you come out of camp? And then, yeah my father was in jail after, after camp just for a stupid business deals that he did I mean... but no one ever talked about that and you know he was, he lived on Skid Row he was bankrupt, even though he was highly educated. It's just, this whole thing of shame. So is that a Japanese thing, or because you're trying to conform and put this image on your family after camp? I mean it's probably a combination of both but--
I don't hear any of those stories. I mean people just like my gen, I don't knowmaybe it's different in the next generations. But my generation, they either say they don't remember, or they never heard from their parents or they just don't 01:18:00talk about stuff.
JJU: Are you kind of like more willing to talk about stuff you think?
LA: Than other people?
LA: Yeah maybe, but that's 'cause I'm so white! (laughs) I don't know.
JJU: Well thank you, I know you brought some documents and stuff, is thereanything else that you wanted to share or include in the interview?
LA: Well let's see, yeah there's a lot of interesting history about the familyin Japan, but I guess that's not really that pertinent necessarily. My grandmother did... She went to get her-- she got citizenship in the 60s I think. 01:19:00Or maybe it was even later? And she wrote a poem about becoming a citizen, which I think, I could never understand how she could be so... Sort of feel patriotic after going through the whole war experience. Let me see if I can find it. Oh okay, so she belonged to a, a club so lots of niseis--or I mean--lots of isseis belong to sort of poetry clubs. And I have a bunch of her poetry, but I can't read it, it's all in kanji and, anyway, so here's a translation of one of hers. So it's:
Going steadily to study English01:20:00
Even through the rain at night
I thus attained late in life, American citizenship
Kiyoko Nieda San Leandro, California
Yeah, so she was really proud of, of getting her citizenship. Why? I don'tunderstand. I guess she was happy to be a Californian.
JJU: Yeah, I don't, I don't have any other kind of questions right now. So ifyou don't have anything else that you wanted to share...
LA: Yeah I ca--I mean I don't know if there's anything... I think we pretty much--
JJU: Thank you for how much you've shared.
LA: Oh, (laughs) I hope I didn't share too much.01:21:00
JJU: Not on our end. (laughs)
LA: Yeah it's kind of, I'm sure like, I should--I wish I could find that teacherfrom high school and find out what happened to him, because I wonder if he was just doing that all the time, reaching out to kids he thought needed to be politicized. (laughs) Or you know, or maybe I just looked so clueless that I just, you know and he just felt like if, if no one told me I was Japanese I would never know. I would go through my whole life without knowing. I don't know, he really I mean really felt like it was his mission to enlighten me that way.
JJU: Well you figured it out eventually! (laughs)
LA: I eventually figured it out! (laughs) Well I mean--they say it takes like,you know a lot of people don't become interested in their history or their 01:22:00lineage until they're in their 50s 'cause you're so busy with your life up to then...