Saka, Stephen (7/27/2017)

Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center


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[NOTE: This transcript has not undergone a final proofreading and may contain errors. It is being provided in draft form to enhance access to the video recording. As soon as possible, it will be replaced with a final, corrected transcript and will be synced to the video to provide clickable timecodes.]

Anna Takada: 00:00 So you were born in L.A. Um, can you explain or describe a little bit about what your experience was like growing up?

Stephen Saka: 00:09 Well, growing up in Los Angeles, I remember I was 10 years old when Pearl Harbor happened. Uh, I remember we have to have all the shades down, you know, curfew. And of course we, uh, we had, uh, a radio. We always around the radio and listen to the news, what's going on in the war. And, uh, things were really tough for my mother because my father and my mother separated. My dad was living at different area in Los Angeles and, uh, my mother had a job, uh, cleaning chicken, you know, menial job in, uh, we're being supported by the Maryknoll Missionary, uh, Catholic Church there. They were giving us, uh, sacks of food and stuff. And the city of Los Angeles, we just go down there for our clothes.

AT: 01:36 You have siblings?

SS: 01:38 And my bro, yes, my brothers. I have four older brothers, three or three older brothers and one younger brother. And my sister, older sister, you know, my mother, there's a six of us. And uh, uh, going to, uh, going to school, we went to Maryknoll at one time, and then my dad couldn't afford it, so we ended up going to public school. And my, uh, uh, uh, we, we had no furniture or anything. You know, we had, uh, actually, uh, uh, uh, mat, one mattress in for all the boys would sleep on one mattress. That's how bad it was, you know. In a way, when we went to, uh, Manzanar, we didn't, we hadn't, we had, hardly anything to take with us. Uh, so, in a way, um, my mother was kind of, glad that once she didn't have to worry about us anymore, you know. We were all, in Manzanar, we all went to school there and, and uh, she had a job in the kitchen. And uh, and uh, my oldest brother was a senior in high school. I was in, at that time I was in the eighth grade. And I, yeah.

AT: 03:30 Can you talk a little bit more about, um, your experience like when, um, or, uh, after Pearl Harbor and once the war started, how did, how did things change for you and your family?

SS: 03:46 Well, only thing I can remember, I remember walking to school with my, a friend every day, you know, and and when that happened, he came out and says that my dad said I can't go with you anymore. You know, things like that. But you're young. It doesn't, didn't bother me, you know. But, uh.

AT: 04:09 And um, in terms of the area you grew up in and the, the school you went to, was it pretty diverse in terms of?

SS: 04:17 Yes. Yes, there was a, the area we went to, it was mostly, uh, it was, uh, uh, uh, 14th and San Pedro is a area of, it's, it's not there anymore. The Santa Ana freeway goes over that, but that area is, eh, is by the, 9th, 12th Market 9th Street Market there. It was, it was an upscale neighborhoods, you know, it's pretty.

AT: 04:55 Were there any other ways that, or anything else that changed?

SS: 05:02 Oh, no, no, it's, it's, it was tough times. I remember, I remember the uh, the guys used to come around with the horse and buggy. They'd come round, with rags and stuff, you know. And uh, my, my brother, I go with him, we'd go to the fish market. He had uh, he had uh, got a job cleaning up there. He got in, come back with some fish, you know. It's, it's, uh, just things like that, I remember, you know what I mean? And I, of course, I remember going down on the train, you know? Yeah, yeah.

AT: 05:57 Going to?

SS: 05:58 To Manzanar. Yeah. We had to pull the shades down and all pile up in the train. I remember that. Uh, but then at that age, I'm just following, you know, my brothers, you know, just going. Yeah. And it's, it's, uh, for, uh, a person like at that age, uh, it just kind of a adventure. You know what I mean? It's, once I got there, I met, I met, uh, uh, uh, had new friends, you know? Yeah. We, we had, we had clubs, our own clubs, group of people. And, uh, it's, you know, um, um, uh, I'm eigth here I am in the eighth grade and, uh, first time, uh, uh, having all these friends, you know what I mean? And it was, it was for, uh, uh, someone my age. It was, uh, it was, it wasn't a tough thing like the parents, a lot of these people that had lost so much, you know? That it was, for me, it was, it was a meeting new friends going to school and that kind of thing. Whereas if people have had lost businesses and homes and whatever you want, you know, so it was a complete different thing for our family, especially because we had nothing to begin with.

AT: 07:46 How do you remember your, your mother through all of that? Could you sense any?

SS: 07:54 Well, she was, my mother was a, she would, she had a hard time because my, first of all, my dad was tough on her, you know, and uh, this uh, when she got, we went to Manzanar she was, she had worked in the mess hall and she didn't have to worry about anyone because we were, we went to school and we did our thing, you know, and before she had a hard time trying to figure out how to take care of us, you know, so cause the oldest was a senior in high school, you know, 41', so six kids it's a tough time. Anyway in our case, our family, I think the Interment camp helped, saved us in a way. I really think so know. I have one brother that of course, he's passed away since, but he, he never felt that way. He always felt that he shouldn't have been in there, you know, and uh [inaudible]. From camp, I remember he, he took off from a camp. He went on these trips out outside of camp for for, picking potatoes and sugar cane and that kind of stuff, you know, and it came back. But, uh, uh, in, uh, my oldest brother, he enlisted in the army, you know, from, from a, from there. So, uh.

AT: 09:48 And what, what were or are your siblings' names? What are your siblings' names?

SS: 09:57 My oldest brother's name is Aki and my, uh, next little one, uh, Mark is, uh, he's the one that, uh, uh, used to take off and go, you know, outside of camp work and, uh, uh, the mix mix, three of us were all, had Japanese name that were, we were baptized in the Catholic Church over there in Manzanar. And we all changed to have uh, our English um, English names and my brother above me, his name was Tim, Timothy. And my, I had my baptism named Stephen. And my younger brother, uh, had his name change to a Phil. So once we got to, uh, uh, after we left camp, you know, we went to uh, my sister who found some housing for us in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Uh, once we got there as she insisted that we use our English name over there. So that's, I've been using that name ever since, you know.

AT: 11:18 What was a , what was an average day, like in Camp. You went to school and uh?

SS: 11:24 We, we had, uh, we had clubs, you know, certain groups, you know, guys that meet, meet and uh, uh, oh we do a lot of things. We played the ball, basket, baseball, football, all the sports. And uh, and uh, they had uh, they had dances. Girls, the first time I got a chance to meet a woman, girl, you know what I mean? And uh, uh, yeah, had uh, had a lot of fun actually, you know. Used to run around, and I had fun and I had the friends that I, I had for a long time and we used to have, uh, these reunions in Las Vegas and uh, I used to go there and a meet. But uh, most of them, passed away now, so I haven't been going the last few years because there's hardly anybody I know there.

AT: 12:32 Were, they, they were friends that you grew up with in L.A.?

SS: 12:35 No, these are, from

AT: 12:37 From camp?

SS: 12:37 Yeah, yeah.

AT: 12:37 Did you know, anyone in camp that you knew from L.A.?

SS: 12:43 From a camp yeah, I know a couple of people from the camp that I met, we used to see each other at the reunion, you know? Yeah. But no, I actually, I have a couple of close friends that, uh, actually, but I met them here in Chicago, you know that I physically California, but they're all gone now. All my friends aren't really, except a couple are still alive.

Interviewer 2: 13:13 Have you been back to Manzanar?

SS: 13:16 I've never been back to Manzanar. My one brother has been there. He says this, this, there is nothing there really. Just a monument or something. Yeah. Yeah. But they, I understand they still have pilgrimages that go there and they have a museum there or something like that. Uh, I remember this guy, one of my, uh, I can do, he said. I said, "Where'd you go?" Neighbor of mine. He said he went to California hiking. I said, "Where did you go?" He says, he went to Mount Williamson to hike. I says, "Oh, I did that when I was in camp." You know? Yeah. They used to at the end of are and by the third year before he did, they let us out the gates and one of the older guys took four or five of us. We went up in the mountains there. We hiked around there and yeah, the first time we went swimming and went there, they have these reservoirs, I guess big reservoirs up there for water for L.A. You know, I jumped in there. It was cold. I jumped in there swimming first time. But uh, yeah, I hiked in the mountains and there's a, I remember. And every time I see that mountain right away I know it's Manzanar, you know.

INT 2: 14:40 What do you tell your customers about camp over the years?

SS: 14:44 Well, for, for uh, for me it, our family, I think the whole family it was, yeah, it was great. My brother, first thing he did was when we went in that barracks, you know, they give you, allow you so many feet for each person. So, uh, first thing my brother did, they right away and he got some wood together to make chairs. They made a couple of, with chairs and a table, you know, and then somehow we got, uh, uh, uh, set of barbells, you know, the weights and we used to have that upfront. And all the guys, used they just come to our house, our barracks, they used to come and we have always a lot of people there. And then next thing you know, he set up, he set up a punching bag, you know there. And that's the thing. Some guys come out, they always to come to our place to, you know, goof around, you know. So a lot of, a couples over there, they, they, they would build ponds, you know, or, or, or some guys would sit out there and the carvings and different things, you know. But um, I remember, I remember, and they we set up a horizontal bar, you know, front there too. They used to come around there, hang around.

INT 2: 16:13 Did people have paid jobs? Did anybody have a paying job in the camps?

SS: 16:18 Yeah. Oh, yeah, they say, in fact, I, I've worked, uh, putting tar on, on, on a roof, you know, and they paid like $3 or something like that, you know, $3 a day. And then my brother worked in the camouflage, make camouflage knits, you know, for the, for the army. He did that for awhile. And um, people who worked and my brother, one of my brother, he worked on the farm, you know, they grew their own vegetables and stuff. He worked out there for awhile and they get paid like $3 or something like that.

INT 2: 17:00 So the camp gave your family a second chance?

SS: 17:04 Uh, yeah. Well, gave us, gave us a, oh yeah. Because uh, no question. Yeah, yeah. Our case, uh, uh, I don't know what would happen if a stayed like we were before because there's still 40 months, you know, still was a Depression. The, you know, still it's saying it's tough. It's tough times then.

INT 2: 17:38 But is it hard? You had a personal good experience, but I, I, it sounds like you under, you know, you feel like, like your brother says that it wasn't a good, you know, is it hard to reconcile those two things?

SS: 17:51 Oh well. Yeah. I dunno why he, he felt my poor brother felt like he never should've been put in there, that kind of thing, you know? I didn't feel that way, you know. I didn't feel that way. I felt once I was in there. I just live my life the way, you know, like any 12, 13 year old person would, you know.

AT: 18:25 Did your family talk about it with one another? Like I um, either in camp or afterward because it sounds like, you know how your brother felt.

SS: 18:37 Well, my other brother, they, my younger brother, he, he doesn't remember much as I do, you know, because he was young. But even the one above me says, uh, you know, we got lucky in a way, you know, we got lucky in a way, because we didn't have anything to begin with and we lived there. We, you know, you got an education and made friends. Yeah. It was a good experience.

Other Interview: 19:08 How about the barb wire and guns?

SS: 19:11 Well, you can see that, you know, in fact that one photo out there are three boys with the barb wire, the center, Isa Shisa, he was my classmate, so I know him, but uh, uh, I never went close to the barb wire and stuff, you know, that only was there and the centuries, you know, we're only there for a short, short time, you know, they weren't there after awhile, you know.

INT 2: 19:46 How'd your mom do, how did your mom and dad do after the war?

SS: 19:51 Well, uh, uh, my mom, uh, we would, Ann Arbor there. She got a job in a hospital. My dad, he went into a different, internment camp, you know, he because he was at a different entrance and uh, it just so happened that my mom passed away. My brother and we all got together in Ann Arbor in May. My, uh, oldest brother said, I wonder where dad is, you know? And I, yeah, and my other brother says he came to Chicago one time and he seen my dad and he says, he looked up his phone name and a phonebook and saw him and went to visit him and he says, "Oh yeah, he says, they never say anything because my dad says, don't tell anybody," you know. He didn't want anything to do with the family anymore because he felt he never, he didn't raise the family know. So, uh, my oldest brother says that since I live here in Chicago, I should, try to look him, look him up, which I did. I went to all the different, uh, organization places and uh, told them about my story about my dad. And, um, finally I went to the social security place and they said, yes, he's alive, but he won't give me his address because of invasion of privacy. And so I said, "Oh, good." You know. So anyway, I worked at this, I did some volunteer work at a senior home, Hayworth Terrace. And um, uh, I went there because the head of the one of the girl woman who worked there was one of my first client as and she asked me to come and help. So I went there and I helped open up the place when that first place, when it first opened up that place. And uh, one day, uh, this guy from they call, Mutual Aid Society, Japanese Mutual Aid Society. He came there and he told us morning at, uh, this is the kind of work I got to do. He said, I got to use a copy machine borrow your copy machine. And I got a write to this, girl, because uh, this his uncle passed away. Yeah. You know? And, and I find all of these letters of this woman in Japan. And so I'm going to write to her, I'm writing to her to try it out. What to do with his ashes. Yes. Cause he's been cremated and this woman up there, says that letter, that might be Steve's father, you know. So it just so happened that she asked them about that letter and he said, uh, well, uh, contact, contact me and find out if, uh, if, uh, it is. And sure enough, I met him, uh, the next day and he brought all these papers and my dad's stuff and had all the names, my brother's name, my brother's name and everything in there. So they had, uh, I've had him cremated already. So we had a service for him. Uh, I had to notify everyone and we had, so that was it.

INT 2: 23:53 When was the last time you saw your dad?

SS: 24:00 Well, uh, before the war. So, uh, uh.

OI: 24:17 Do you want some water?

SS: 24:17 No, I'm fine.

INT 2: 24:20 Steve, what camp, what camp did he go to?

SS: 24:22 Yeah, my dad went to a Poston, Poston. He came here, I read everything, all his things he had together, I read it all and he came here and 19, 1913, uh, he, uh, he, I ended up in Boston, Massachusetts on a U.S. Coast Guard ship. He wrote a letter to the government saying, please send my discharge papers to be hours in the coast guard from 1913 to 1914, something like that. Yeah. So he must've got some hot, got letter, came here on a coast. Gosh, I don't know how he got on, but he ended up in Boston and sure enough, they, they send them discharge paper. And yet he was never a citizen, uh, in Japan.

AT: 25:24 Where were your parents from?

SS: 25:26 My dad was from a town called Kushimoto. It's in the southern tip of just from Osaka, straight down in a small town. And, uh, the woman at the Haywood Terrace, you know, where I work, she said that since you found the ashes, they have the ashes and he wanted to go back to Japan, you should take the ashes back there, you know. So, and she says, my daughter has a place in the Tokyo and if you're ever wanting to come there. So I said, okay. So I made a reservation to go there. And, uh, I wrote to my, uh, cousin and told him, I sent a picture of myself and I told her I'm coming in and I never got a return until my, it was time for me to leave. And I couldn't leave with the ashes because, uh, his, his name was misspelled on there. His name was Kumizo and the i was missing, it was just Kumzo. And they, the, the Consulate General here, wouldn't let me take the ashes back because you know, everything has to be so. And I, unless I had it corrected, but I was time for me to leave. So when I started to, my daughter was taking me to the airport, we looked at the mail and here it was a letter from my cousin and I opened it up is, it's all in Japanese, you know, so I couldn't read it. So when I got to Japan, uh, uh, people, uh, read the letter and said, please don't come because you know, you can't speak Japanese, I can't speak English, we're going to have a hard time. And so we call this friend of the people, they called her and they speak Japanese and she was very happy that somebody could speak Japanese, you know. So it we made arrangements and as we went there and I visited my cousin and we sat there and the second cousin and my interpreter there, the person that went with me and introduced me to a 95 year old man at that time that knew my grandfather and knew my dad real well. Yeah. Said they, uh, my grandfather used to own all this land up here and he lost most of it because people won't pay back the money, you know, whatever. But he said he remembered, he remembered my dad going to America, he says that was like, at that time he says like the new world, you know. And then I told him that he came back five years after that. He says, Oh yeah, he says, I remember he came back, he says he, then the second time he came back via Seattle and he worked his way down to Sacramento and he met my mother in Sacramento, he had a seven children involved there, you know, during the Depression and everything. And my, uh, uh, uh, cousin would write down, like they would write down all my dad's brothers and he had one sister and where they are now in any way up in a family tree. You know, what kind of, uh, where I, where I fit in my, my mother and my, where I fit in and, and my brother and my brother, one brother in Detroit, he, he married, he married a girl from, he married a girl from Detroit there. And, and their, their son first son doesn't even look, married, he married a German girl. Because when he went there from Ann Arbor, well, we came to Ann Arbor, not many Asians there, you know, so my brother ended up marrying a German girl, German French I guess. But anyway, the first son, uh, married, uh ended up marrying a girl from Kentucky or someplace and they have two daughters, one blonde hair, kind of green eyes and with a Japanese last name, you know, and, and the mother, when I brought this bag, you know, the header all written down, all the family and she was looked at, she said at least they know where they came from now. You know what I mean? So there was a good trip for me.

AT: 30:41 Was that your first time in Japan?

SS: 30:45 Uh, yes. It was the first time in Japan.

AT: 30:50 And what year was that?

SS: 30:50 I think that was in 88', 1988.

INT 2: 30:54 That seems amazing to me that you, your dad who had never really seen for so long, you just, he felt there was a responsibility of taking him back, tell us why.

SS: 31:05 Uh, he would, he had, uh, he was very tough on our family. You know, I remember one time when he, uh, uh, Yew years when we had the, he'd bring over, he, uh, uh, mochi, Japanese, you know, for New Year's time, he put it on the table and we had like a dining room table with two benches like that and table, it's like a plywood and put it up there. And all of a sudden, for some reason or another, this one brother of mine, he got to arguing with him and he couldn't, he couldn't, he couldn't get them. So they run around the table like this. And my dad, I'll never forget, he got on the table, he stepped on that mochi. He didn't care. He stepped on the mochi, he jumped and grabbed my broth, my brother, and he punched him real bad. [inaudible] And, uh, ever since then he'd always said if I ever seen him, I'd kill him. You know, that's the way he talked about. And, uh, uh, anyway, at this service we had when he passed away, all my friends from this as a what and in, uh, they had a Buddhist ceremony there and Reverend Kubose, at the time, says to me, he asked me different things about my dad. I told him the story about him coming in and everything. So anyway, at the eulogy, he spoke in Japanese for a long time and then he spoke in English. He says, how my dad grew up in the Depression time, seven children, one dies and in the back, all born from the 20s and the oldest one born in the youngest one, born in 1933. And here it is where all the hardships and the prejudice and the hard time he had to go through and on and on. And, and my brother next to me, he's the only one that showed up. The one that got beat up. He, he was, he was, the tears are coming out of his eyes, you know, and, and, uh,.

INT 2: 33:29 What do you think your father's problem was.

SS: 33:30 Yeah

INT 2: 33:30 Was it just the Depression? I mean, did he have other problems or was it just a very hard life?

SS: 33:35 Yes. That's why they had had a tough time too, you know, he tried to help out, help out. Yeah. Frustrating time. He had just, he was never around, you know. But anyway, after we was, it was over at my brother, he moved to me to sees this, he's glad that he came, you know, he felt better about everything. And um, that, uh, going to an at and his ashes were never taken to a Japan. And so I ended up, uh, one time going to a botanical gardens one, one evening, a buddy and I took it there and I, uh, I guess you're not supposed to go there at all, but they have what they call Spirit Island. And I roll up my pant leg and I walked across, there's no bridge there, you know, you go there to walk into that walk all the way on top of the tree up there, you know, and then just put the ashes there, cause I didn't know where to take them. So every time I go to botanical garden, I see him there.

INT 2: 34:52 Do you feel very Japanese?

SS: 34:54 Uh, no I don't, but, uh, uh, uh, I feel Japanese, but not real Japanese [inaudible] you know. I'm not, I know a friend of mine, he's a, he's in Alphawood, uh, when he was younger, he went to, he went to Japan and, uh, he, uh, uh, was educated there when the war, broke out there, you know, and he, he could remember the bombs and everything, but he came back to the States he was, he was born here. He came back here and he was, he, he was in the service there and everything. And we played golf together and everything. But he's, he's real Japanese, you know, he's, uh, everything is Japanese.

INT 2: 35:48 And you feel real American?

SS: 35:51 I do. Oh yeah, no question. I mean, I felt at one time, uh, uh, I remember going with my friends to a baseball game and, and uh, uh, Michigan went to, we snuck into a baseball game and they chased me and I remember the guy saying, get that Jap, you know, and I says, I thought I was Irish, you know, hey, you know, all my friends are I'm just, I'm just, the only Japanese there. But, uh, uh, that's the way I felt. I felt growing up all Irish and German guys, you know what I mean?

AT: 36:43 So Steve, uh, I just want to keep track of time before we wrap up. Is there anything that you'd like to, to add? Is there's something that we might've missed?

SS: 36:58 No, I don't think my, my story's a different or anything, you know, it just that when you say different, it's that, yeah, uh, uh, we did have a hard time, like most people and most people take, they see all these, what's happening in camp. These poor people, you know what you're really saying. But, uh, yeah, our case, I have to say my case anyway, you know, we had friends there. I got an education there. Yeah. Worked out for us.

INT 2: 37:38 When you see, when you read the book and you now come into the exhibit and you see all this interests now that people have, is that changing your thoughts about those years at all?

SS: 37:50 Uh, no. Not really. There's a great photographs. Dorothea Lange stuff more so than Ansel Adams, you know. Dorothea Lange is more, there's more human stuff in there. She's terrific.

AT: 38:14 Well, thank you so much for, for taking the time to record with us.