Monday, March 12, 2012

Voices from the past: The oral histories of Orange County's and Wintersburg's Japanese Americans

Arthur A. Hansen at the Manzanar National Historic Site with park ranger historian Kristen Luetkemeier following his Feb.19, 2012, Day of Remembrance address regarding the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.  (Photo by Patricia Biggs, Manzanar National Historic Site)

   Arthur August Hansen is Emeritus Professor of History and Asian American Studies at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF).  He is the immediate past director of the CSUF Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) and the founding director of COPH’s Japanese American Oral History Project.  He currently serves as a historical consultant at the Japanese American National Museum, holding the position of senior historian between 2001 and 2005. 

   Over thirty years ago, Orange County's Bowers Museum recognized important local history would be lost without the creation of a Japanese American Council and a concerted effort to record the memories of the Japanese American community that played an integral part in the County's and State's development.

   Historic Wintersburg introduces an exclusive multi-part interview with Hansen, who conducted many of the oral histories that paint a picture of Wintersburg's past, including those with Yukiko Furuta (Furuta home at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane), Rev. Kenji Kikuchi (pastor at Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and Church) and goldfish farmer Henry Kiyomi Akiyama (a congregant at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church).

Could you please provide some background as to the origins and early development of the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project?

    In 1981, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the county seat for Orange County, launched a series of community councils, one of which was the Japanese American Council (JAC).  That council was co-chaired by two second-generation (Nisei) members of pioneering Japanese American families in Orange County, Justice Stephen K. Tamura and Henry Kanegae. Under their leadership, the JAC formed a committee to oversee the Council’s stated commitment to “promoting an understanding and appreciation of Japanese American culture and heritage and the contribution of Japanese Americans to the history and development of Orange County.”  This History Committee was initially chaired by two other Nisei from pioneer Japanese American (Nikkei) families in the county, Charles Ishii and Paul Nagamatsu.

   In addition to spearheading a special event at the Bowers Museum on the evening of May 3, 1981, attended by 320 people and featuring an exhibition of photographs, documents, and artifacts acquired from the local Japanese American community, the History Committee laid the groundwork for an ambitious oral history project covering the community’s history.   

   The committee first invited representatives from the Oral History Program (renamed in 2003 as the Center for Oral and Public History) at CSUF—who in 1972 had begun a Japanese American Oral History Project anchored by an assortment of interviews with Orange County Nisei about their World War II West Coast exclusion and Interior West incarceration, including one with Fountain Valley’s Jim Kanno, the country’s first mainland mayor of Japanese ancestry—to conduct a couple of workshops explaining the procedures and value of oral historical methods in the reconstruction of a community’s past.  Next, the committee compiled an extensive list of Issei (immigrant-generation) and older Nisei (first U.S. citizen-generation) in the county to become project interviewees (or narrators).

   By November 1982, the JAC History Committee, now co-chaired by Villa Park’s Carol Kawanami (the U.S. mainland’s first female mayor of Japanese descent) and I, began meeting on a monthly basis and drew up ambitious plans for a wide variety of historical undertakings, one of which was transacting a series of oral histories with longtime residents of Orange County’s Japanese American community, most especially those Issei and Nisei men and women that the founding History Committee co-chairs had identified as prospective narrators.  It was further decided that the oral histories be collectively designated as the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project to honor Justice Tamura, who had passed away on April 22, 1982.  This decision was made in recognition of his rise from roots in the local Japanese American community to appointment in 1966 by California Gov. Pat Brown as the first Japanese American appellate judge in the continental United States.

   A further boost for the fortunes of the oral history project came about during the spring and fall of 1983 when, under the resourceful and indefatigable leadership of two members of the History Committee, Dorothy Wing and Shi Nomura, the committee sponsored two photo days at the Bowers Museum.  These occasions turned up more than 500 photographs (which were copied and annotated and made the basis for a JAC photo-archive) and galvanized the historical energies of the entire JAC membership.  Moreover, many who showed up at the photo days with historical photographs documenting the historical experience of their family and geographical community agreed to serve as resource people to identify prospective interviewees for the oral history project and/or to themselves act as interviewees.

How many interviews were ultimately conducted as part of the project?
    Altogether, between 1981 and 1984, the Project amassed fifteen interviews: seven of them were bilingual (Japanese/English) interviews with Issei Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, Yukiko Furuta, Kyotaro Kaneko, Mine Yabuki Kaneko, Shizu Kamei, Maki Kanno, and Reverend Kenji Kikuchi; eight of them were monolingual (English) interviews with George Jiro Abe, Aiko Tanimachi Endo, George Fujii, Charles Ishii, Yoneko Dobashi Iwatsuru, Betty Oba Masukawa, Clarence Iwao Nishizu, and Yoshiki Yoshida. 

 Of these fifteen interviews, how many were ones in which you served as the interviewer?

    Five interviews, three of them with Issei (Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, Yukiko Furuta, and Reverend Kenji Kikuchi) and two of them with Nisei (Charles Ishii and Clarence Iwao Nishizu).

Did you conduct the Issei interviews with the assistance of a Japanese-speaking interpreter?

    Yes.  One of the JAC members, Yasko Gamo, was a Japanese citizen whose residence in the United States extended over a quarter of a century.  She also was then employed as a Japanese-language instructor at several Orange County community colleges.  She agreed to assist me as a translator during the multiple interviewing sessions with Mr. Akiyama and Mrs. Furuta.

What about the interview with Reverend Kikuchi?

    I did that interview in English, although Rev. Kikuchi’s wife, Yukiko Kikuchi, was in attendance at the interview and periodically translated my questions into Japanese for her husband.  Some years later, the transcript of the interview was translated into Japanese by a cadre of wives of Orange County-based businessmen from Japan.  These women, supervised by two of them who were especially fluent in English, Masako Hanada and Yukiko Sato, had been recruited to the project by Yasko Gama, a graduate from the University of California, Irvine (where her husband was a professor) with extensive family contacts in the county’s overseas Japanese business community.   

   In addition to acting as translators for the remaining four Issei interviews with Shizu Kamei, Maki Kanno, Hyotaro Kaneko, and Mine Yabuki Kaneko, Mrs. Hanada and Mrs. Sato oversaw the transcription, editing, proofreading, indexing, and typesetting work by their team of Japanese business spouses for all the project’s bilingual interviews and even some of the monolingual interviews.  Without the inspired and dedicated talents of these two remarkable women leaders—the first (Masako Hanada) a Japanese university graduate in the field of English literature and a published translator, the second (Yukiko Sato) a graduate from a Japanese university in econometrics with a master’s degree in linguistics from CSUF—the project would probably never have progressed beyond the preliminary stages of its development. 

Aside from these overseas Japanese women and the Japanese American men who first lead the JAC and its History Committee, were there others who contributed to the success of the Project?

    Yes indeed.  One of the goals of the project aside from collecting the oral history interviews was to bring together three Orange County groups who, historically, had not worked particularly closely with one another on community activities.  The first of these groups was the pre-World War II Japanese residents of Orange County; the second group consisted of Orange Countians of Japanese ancestry who made the county their home in the period after World War II; and the third group was comprised of members of the overseas Japanese community living and working in Orange County.   

   Prominent within the project from the first group were Hiroshi Kamei, Jim Kanno, Clarence Nishizu, and Grace Muruyama, while stalwarts in the second group were Myrtle Asahino, Gale Itagaki, Carol Kawanami, Shi Nomura, Michiko Seki, Iku Watanabe, Dorothy Wing, and Rae Yasumura.  

   In addition, the project was greatly aided by graduate students at CSUF (notably Marsha Bode, Toni Rimel, Russell Nowell, Diane Tappey, Alice Maxwell, Phil Brigandi, and Jeanie Corral) and staff members of the CSUF Oral History Program (Shirley Stephenson, Kathy Frazee, Dr. Gary Shumway, Dr. Michael Onorato, Dr. Debra Gold Hansen, and Garnette Long).  Finally, Linda Lau and Virginia Donahue both played a vital role in the project’s progress after the JAC in 1985 changed its institutional affiliation from the Bowers Museum to the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County.

Was the Project featured in any public events?

   There were two such affairs held that were exceptionally noteworthy.  First, on March 31, 1984, the JAC sponsored a major event: A Tribute to the Issei Pioneers of Orange County.  Held at the South County Plaza Hotel in Costa Mesa, 660 people turned out to honor the historical contribution of Orange County’s pioneer Japanese Americans, thirty-eight of whom were in attendance. With the notable southern California television newscaster Tricia Toyota and the distinguished third-generation Japanese American (Sansei) Orange County dentist Ernest Nagamatsu as co-emcees, this event succeeded both in focusing attention upon the heritage and achievements of the county’s Japanese American population and in raising more than $25,000 to support the costs of its historical endeavors, most especially the oral history project.

   Two years later, on Nov. 22, 1986, another JAC event of considerable magnitude called the Nikkei or Japanese American Legacy of Orange County was held at the Emerald Hotel in Anaheim. As with the previous event in Costa Mesa, this one was also emceed by Tricia Toyota.  

   This event witnessed the presentation of three community-developed projects.  First and foremost was the presentation of the fifteen oral history volumes done with Issei and older Nisei members of the Orange County Japanese American community.  Second was the release of a published novel, The Harvest of Hate, an epic story of the World War II exclusion and detention experience of Japanese Americans written by a Caucasian woman from Orange County, Georgia Day Robertson.  As a mathematics teacher, Mrs. Robertson had accompanied nearly 2,000 Japanese Americans from Orange County to the Poston Relocation Center in southwestern Arizona.  

   Finally, this event saw the published results of a “Historic Building Survey,” prepared by Orange County historian Phil Brigandi, covering pre-1940 Japanese American-related private and public building sites throughout Orange County.   

Next:  Arthur A. Hansen talks about what was learned from the  Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project.

The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission (above) and Church buildings were listed as number one on the Bowers Museum JAC's Historic Building Survey for Orange County, released in 1986.       

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.