Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Voices from the past: Part Three, The oral histories

ABOVE: Yukiko Furuta standing in front of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and manse, circa 1910.  These structures remain intact at Warner (formerly Wintersburg) Avenue and Nichols Lane. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   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.

   Historic Wintersburg continues with Part 3 of 4 of the interview with Hansen (see Voices from the past Part 1, March 12, 2012 post,, and Voices from the past Part 2, March 19 post,  
Present-day north Huntington Beach includes the former Wintersburg Village area.  The Furuta home and barn, as well as the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, Church and manse--at Warner (formerly Wintersburg) Avenue and Nichols Lane--have been called the "most significant extant Japanese American site in Orange County."  The earliest structures are over 100 years old--and the 1934 Church is over 80 years old.  

In Voices from the past Part 3 of 4, Arthur A. Hansen---delivering the keynote address at the 2008 annual Manzanar Pilgrimage at the Manzanar National Historic Site in Inyo County, California (Photo by Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee)---discusses how the oral histories were conducted.

   The three most pertinent interviews with this connection were those done with Reverend Kenji Kikuchi, Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, and Yukiko Furuta.  All three of these Issei pioneer interviews were arranged by one of the two Nisei chairpersons for the project's initial History Committee, Charles Ishii.  I'd like to talk about how the interviews were conducted, and then discuss their content.

RIGHT: Rev. and Mrs. Kikuchi stayed at the manse of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission from 1926 - 1936, through the Depression and the construction of the new Church at the corner of Wintersburg Avenue and Nichols Lane.  See "The Wintersburg Mission," Feb. 20, 2012 post, © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   The interview with Rev. Kikuchi at his home in Huntington Beach (conducted Aug. 26, 1981), was the first interview conducted by me with an Issei.  However... I had conducted one with Charles Ishii eight days earlier.  Mr. Ishii was a longtime friend of Rev. Kikuchi and gave me excellent background information relative to the early years of the Japanese American community in Orange County and to Rev. Kikuchi himself.  Mr. Ishii also took me on an extensive driving tour of Orange County in which he pointed out and discussed significant historic sites bearing on the County's Nikkei experience.

   I recall that the Kikuchi home was located in a very well kept neighborhood and also that it was tastefully furnished and decorated.  Upon my arrival that particular afternoon, I was greeted not only by Rev. Kikuchi, but also his wife, Yukiko, and a young Sansei (third generation Japanese American), who I believe was the Kikuchi's grandson.

   At the time of the interview, Rev. Kikuchi--born in Japan in 1898--was eighty-three years old.  While mentally alert, he was then experiencing an assortment of health problems.

   It was a great blessing, therefore, that Rev. Kikuchi's Issei wife, Yukiko, sat through the entire interview.  She relayed my English-language questions to her husband in Japanese and often accompanied them with helpful interpretive gestures.  Much of the interview's success, in fact, is attributable to Mrs. Kikuchi, at time an equal partner narrator.

   Notwithstanding Rev. Kikuchi's health challenges, he radiated a warmth and good cheer rarely seen by me in any other people I have met in and out of interviewing settings.  It was both an honor and a pleasure to become acquainted with him and to interview him. 

   Rev. Kikuchi's taped testimony was very enlightening about virtually every phase of the community life of Japanese Americans in Orange County, but most especially for the period from the mid 1920s--when Rev. Kikuchi assumed his ministerial duties for the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission--through the mid-1930s, when he moved from Orange County.

Henry Kiyomi Akiyama and his wife, Masuko.  Masuko was the sister of Yukiko Furuta; the Akiyamas had lived with the Furutas when they first married (Furuta home on Warner Avenue at Nichols Lane).  See "Full of hope for a new life", March 4, 2012 post, © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The three interview sessions with Henry Kiyomi Akiyama at his Westminster home were conducted when Mr. Akiyama was ninety-four years old (conducted June 10, 29, and July 27, 1982) .  He was born in Japan in 1888.

   It was to be my first experience interviewing someone through a foreign-language translator (in this case, Yasko Gama), and I fretted as to whether I would be able to get my questions to Mr. Akiyama posed precisely enough; something important, I feared, was bound to get lost in translation.  The recent death of Judge Stephen Tamura had dramatized for the (Bowers Museum's) Japanese American Council (JAC)  the urgency of interviewing Orange County's Issei survivors as soon as possible.

   Only the previous summer, Mr. Akiyama had been briefly interviewed for the JAC by my CSUF  Nisei History Department colleague, Dr. Kinji Yada.  I was concerned that this might well make Mr. Akiyama feel that his answers to my questions were somewhat redundant and therefore scale down his responses to them.

   To prepare, I talked both with Kinji Yada and Charles Ishii (present at Dr. Yada's interview with Mr. Akiyama) to secure background information useful for developing appropriate interview questions.  My preparation also involved reading the 1981 volume Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman by Dr. Akemi Kikumura, a younger Nisei anthropologist specializing in the life histories of Issei men and women.  This book was focused on her mother's life course.  (In 1991, a companion study by Dr. Kikumura centered on her father's life, Promises Kept: The Life of an Issei Man.)

   For the interview, I would ask a question, Mrs. Gamo would then translate.  Mr. Akiyama would answer in Japanese, and Mrs. Gamo would translate his answer into English.  I explained to Mrs. Gamo that my strength was in Japanese American history and that I knew very little about the history, culture, society and geography of Japan--and virtually nothing about the Japanese language.

RIGHT: Henry Akiyama, post WWII (circa 1945), at the Pacific Goldfish Farm.  (Photo, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   ...We were met by Sumi Akiyama, a Nisei who lived on the same property, in a separate house, with her husband--Henry Akiyama's Nisei son, Joe Akiyama.  The size of the property appeared to be about one to one and one-half acres.  In addition to the two houses, there was the Pacific Goldfish Farm, which the family (first Henry, then Joe) had been operating for sixty years.  (Editor's note: Akiyama's first goldfish farm was in Wintersburg, see "Goldfish on Wintersburg Avenue," Feb. 11, 2012 post,

   Sumie Akiyama, who had coordinated all the arrangements for the interview with her father-in-law, led Mrs. Gamo and me...into the expansive living room, which was tastefully appointed and contained a large fireplace and open-beam ceiling.  Looking out into the patio, I could see a lawn and, behind it, an expansive vegetable garden.

   Mr. Akiyama, balding and wearing spectacles, was dressed in a grey checked shirt, charcoal alpaca sweater, and grey slacks.  Throughout the interview session, which lasted three hours, he was totally alert.

   During the interview (Sumie Akiyama) had apparently been harvesting vegetables in the garden for Mrs. Gamo and me, because she proceeded to give us each a sizable bag filled with luscious vegetables.  Whereas my bag contained mostly familiar American vegetables--green beans, squash, tomatoes and celery--Mrs. Gamo's appeared to be full of Asian vegetables such as daikon (giant white radishes), kabu (turnips), satsumaimo (sweet potatoes), and ninjin (carrots).

LEFT: Masuko Akiyama  at the Pacific Goldfish Farm in 1945.  (Photo, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   Sumie and Henry Akiyama toured me around the outside grounds, as well as the large greenhouse on their shared property.  I soon discovered that Mr. Akiyama, in spite of his advanced age, still nurtured an enormous variety of bonsai trees and raised numerous vegetables for the family's consumption (including a mountain variety of yam, nagaimo, indigenous to his native Nagano prefecture in Japan).

   We held two subsequent interview sessions with Mr. Akiyama (in 1982).  I prepared for these by reading W. Manchester Boddy's Japanese in America (1921); Robert A. Wilson's and Bill Hosokawa's, East to America: A History of the Japanese in the United States (1980); and Donald Keene's Living Japan: The Land, the People, and Their Changing World (1958).

RIGHT: Joe Akiyama at the Pacific Goldfish Farm, circa 1961.  Henry Akiyama purchased land under his son's name, due to the Alien Land Act of 1913.  (Photo, Los Angeles Examiner)

   Mr. Akiyama's son, Joe, supplied me with background information about his father's business career and the Akiyama family history.  We were impressed by Mr. Akiyama's prodigious memory and his penetrating insight, particularly in relationship to the goldfish farming business and the Nikkei community organizations in which he had participated before the outbreak of WWII.

   When the transcript of Mr. Akiyama's interview was returned to him in 1986 (for proofing and corrections), we learned his health had slipped a great deal.  Most of the changes on the transcript were made by other members of the Akiyama family.

LEFT: Mrs. Yukiko Furuta, wife of Charles M. Furuta, circa 1950s-1960s.  Yukiko moved to America to marry C.M. Furuta when she was 17.  She would take the "red car" (Pacific Electric Railroad) into Los Angeles for shopping and later became an avid Los Angeles Dodgers fan.  See "At home in Wintersburg," Feb. 22, 2012 post, © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   The interview with Yukiko Furuta, the Issei widow of Charles M. Furuta, was conducted by me, along with translator Yasko Gamo, in two sessions (June 17 and July 6, 1982).  I looked forward to this interview with the sister-in-law of the prominent Orange County Issei, Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, whom we had finished interviewing only one week earlier.  I wanted to counterbalance the two male Issei interviews with an interview from the perspective of an Issei woman.

   A second cause for my excitement was my deep-seated longing to look around Mrs. Furuta's home on Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach, formerly Wintersburg, which her late husband Charles had built for her in anticipation of her arrival from Japan in 1912 as his seventeen-year-old bride.  I also wanted to get a close look at the historic Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church and adjacent manse structures, which I had been informed were still standing on the five-acre Furuta property.

   To prepare, I telephoned Mrs. Furuta's daughter-in-law, Martha Furuta, the wife of Mrs. Furuta's son, Ray.  She provided me with an excellent background of the Furuta family and of the interviewee in particular.

   Although she was eighty-seven years old, Mrs. Furuta appeared to be in excellent health and possessed of a clear and vibrant mind.  Like most Issei women, she seemed short by Caucasian standards.  She wore eyeglasses, which heightened her dignity...she was attired in a pink dress, over which she wore a purple sweater.  On several occasions during the interview, she "hopped" up from her fetch Japanese tea (ocha) and Japanese rice crackers (senbei) for Mrs. Gamo and me.  The only indication that she was in any way hampered by age came from her remark that up until the current year she regularly traveled to Los Angeles--some forty miles away--to cheer on her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team at Dodger Stadium.

   Mrs. Furuta soon evidenced she could both understand and speak English quite well; in fact, she sometimes launched into her response to my English-language questions without waiting for Mrs. Gamo's Japanese translation.  The Furuta home stands quite near to Warner Avenue, now a very busy thoroughfare; the interview with Mrs. Furuta was conducted under less than idea sound conditions.

RIGHT: Charles M. Furuta--a charter member and first trustee of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission--he donated the land for the Mission and Church at the corner of Wintersburg (now Warner) Avenue and Nichols Lane. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   We were delighted with our interview session with Mrs. Furuta.  She spoke movingly and in depth about... the immigrant Japanese experience in Orange County.  She had so much to say in this regard, that it was necessary to schedule a follow-up interview session with her.

   During the second interview, we remained at the Furuta home (all day), sharing several snacks as well as lunch with not only Mrs. Furuta, but also Martha Furuta and her then twenty-nine-year-old Sansei son, Norman Furuta (a graduate of the Stanford School of Law and then an attorney in San Mateo County).  He had made a special visit to Orange County so he could sit in on the interview with his Issei grandmother.  (Editor's note: Norman Furuta attended Huntington Beach High School).

   Norman Furuta, who was vitally interested in the whole process of oral history, led me on a tour of the Furuta property, which then still contained remnants of the pre WWII goldfish farm maintained by his Issei grandfather (C.M. Furuta).  During the tour, Norman related fascinating tales of his boyhood playing around the nearby (Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian) church and manse.   Once the tour was over, Norman, with his grandmother, reviewed for me albums of family photographs, including some of a very historical nature.

   When the transcript of Mrs. Furuta's interview was returned to her for proofing in 1986, her health had deteriorated quite markedly.  Norman and his aunt, Kay Furuta Sakaguchi, reviewed the the transcripts.  They made many valuable additions and clarifications, and even enhanced the interview's value by providing a Furuta family genealogy.

Next in Part 4 of 4 Voices from the past: Arthur A. Hansen discusses his interviews with Rev. and Mrs. Kikuchi, Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, Yukiko Furuta and Clarence Nishizu.

ABOVE: Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church congregation, circa 1926, the year Princeton-educated Rev. Kenji Kikuchi came to Wintersburg. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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  1. I and my brothers went to school at Ocean View elementary with Norman from kindergarten to fifth grade, and have fond memories of playing in the dirt at the goldfish ponds. His father would give him roses to take to my mom and sweet peas for me. I found some sweet pea seeds at Lowe's and planted them, can't wait for them to bloom. The scent takes me back to some of the most wonderful memories of my childhood.

    1. Hi, Myra! I also fondly remember those days at Ocean View with you and Larry and Jerry. Who would have thought our little neighborhood would end up with this wonderful blog dedicated to it! Thanks for sharing your recollections--I'll be sure to pass them along to our mom.

  2. What a beautiful comment, Myra! I passed this along to the Furuta family. Thank you for sharing this memory with us.


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