Monday, March 19, 2012

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

   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 2 of the interview with Hansen (see Voices from the past Part 1, March 12, 2012 post), who conducted many of the oral histories for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project 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). 

 Arthur A. Hansen, Emeritus Professor of History and Asian American Studies at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF).

The oral history interviews were conducted with Orange County's pioneering Issei and their older Nisei children.  What other considerations went into the interviewing process?

   One main consideration was geography.  An attempt was made to have project interviews with Nikkei drawn from the different geographical regions of Orange County.  

   For example, Yoneko Dobashi Iwatsuru was chosen in part because her birth family, the Dobashis, farmed in the north Orange County community of Yorba Linda (where, incidentally, she was President Richard Nixon's elementary school classmate).  On the other hand, Betty Oba Masukawa was partially selected as an interview because she came from the well-known Oba family of Fullerton, near Yorba Linda.  In the case of four interviewees--Kyotaro and Mine Yabuki Kaneko, George Jiro Abe, and Aiko Tanimachi Kaneko--they were selected because all made their pre-World War II (WWII) home within a residential enclave on the Hellman Ranch near Seal Beach (northwest Orange County, south of Long Beach, Los Angeles County).  

   As for Yoshiki Yoshida, the president of the Orange County chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League at the outbreak of WWII, it was driven to a certain extent by his family being part of the large contingent of prewar Nikkei family who lived and farmed on Irvine Ranch property (central Orange County).  Maki Kanno's* interview provided the project with a representative from Greenville, in unincorporated area west of Santa Ana.

Jim Kanno*, son of interviewee Maki Kanno,* was interviewed by CSU Fullerton in 1971.  He was the first mayor of the City of Fountain Valley and the first Japanese American mayor in the mainland United States.  The Kanno family were congregants of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and Church.

   Three Issei (Henry Kiyomi Akiyama*, Yukiko Furuta* and Reverend Kenji Kikuchi*) and one Nisei (Charles Ishii) claimed the area of northwest Orange County now encompassing the cities of Westminster, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley--the veritable cradle of the County's Japanese American community prior to WWII.

   The northern Orange County community of Garden Grove supplied two of the Project narrators, Issei Shizu Kamei and Nisei Clarence Iwao Nishizu.* Clarence Nishizu's family also farmed in north Orange County (Anaheim and Buena Park) during the prewar period.

Clarence Iwao Nishizu, one of the oral history interviewees, also a congregant of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church.  Nishizu was instrumental in the creation of the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum at the Fullerton Arboretum and the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Was there a lack of representation in south Orange County?

   That was not by design so much as lack of time.  The intention was always to interview a Nikkei from Laguna Beach in south Orange County.  Finally, in 1992, I had a graduate student in American Studies connected with the CSUF Oral History Program, Alan Koch, who interviewed a representative from that area, Dr. Don Miyada, recently retired as a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine.  That brought the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project to a total of sixteen interviews.

   Another consideration in the development of the Project was to achieve a reasonable degree of gender balance among those interviewed.  Among the Issei, there are three men and four women; as for the Nisei, there are six men and three women.  The Project objective was fairly well met.

   A final consideration for the Project was that the interviewees all came from pre-WWII farm families.  This was, after all, Orange County's agricultural era for non-Japanese Americans as well as Japanese Americans, but especially so for the latter.

   Over 90 percent of Japanese Americans were involved in farming.  We wanted to showcase those families farming Orange County's four major cash crops (celery, sugar beets, chili peppers and strawberries), plus families associated with another less customary agricultural activity, goldfish farming, that was particularly identified with the County's Nikkei community.

Partial view of Furuta family barn in Wintersburg, off Wintersburg (Warner) Avenue.  Over 90 percent of Orange County's Japanese Americans were involved in farming. (Photo, March 2012)

What was the general reaction of the interviewees when they learned you wanted to talk with them?

   I think it is fair to generalize to an extent in respect to how Issei interviewees reacted to the prospect of being interviewed on tape for the sake of posterity as compared to older Nisei interviewees.  Whereas the Issei tended to experience anxiety about being interviewed, it was due in large measure to the nature of those who would be interviewing them for the Project's bilingual interviews.  On the one hand, there were American college professors and students, who would be indirectly posing the questions in English for them to answer through translators; on the other hand, there were comparatively young graduates of Japanese universities who would be interviewing them in Japanese (translating the English questions posed and rendering in English their responses).

   What made the Issei interviewees anxious in relation to their English-speaking interviewers was their apprehension that the interviewers might find it strange that immigrants who had been in the United States for approximately half a century would still not be proficient in the English language.

   The anxiety that the Issei interviewees felt in relation to their Japanese translators, however, derived from a quite different circumstance.  Put simply, they felt that the "traditional" Japanese they had acquired in the Meiji-era (1868-1912) and Taisho-era (1912-1926) Japan prior to emigrating was "obsolete" and that this situation would hamper communication with their translators, who had been schooled in a "modern" variant of the Japanese language.

Nisei Kazuo "Kaz" Masuda* attended Huntington Beach High School and, along with his family, attended the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church.  The Masuda family's experience during WWII was recognized by President Ronald Reagan during his national address regarding the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.  (Photo,

   As for the older Nisei interviewees, their source of anxiety was not tied to language, since their monolingual interviews were exclusively in English.  As a consequence, their degree of proficiency in Japanese did not constitute a concern.  What worried these interviewees was that they would be expected by their academic interviewers to provide detailed information about their parents' background in Japan, as well as their migration experiences both from Japan to Hawaii and/or the continental United States, before their eventual settlement in Orange County.

   These older Nisei also nursed some trepidation that their scholarly questioners would assume that they could present a fairly polished and comprehensive account of the Japanese American historical experience.

   The Issei and older Nisei interviewees did share an acute unease about being interviewed for an oral history project that was rooted in their common WWII mass involuntary eviction from their West Coast homes and incarceration in American-style concentration camps located in the U.S. interior West.  

   Viewed as security risks, whether as aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship, or as American-born U.S. citizens, Nikkei had been relentlessly barraged with questionnaires or interviews throughout the wartime interval, most of which revolved around whether or not they were "loyal" or "disloyal" to the United States.  These veritable interrogations freighted with possibly dire consequences naturally had the effect of making Americans of Japanese ancestry apprehensive toward all species of interviews.  This situation colored their outlook to being interviewed for even so benign an enterprise as the Oral History Project.

Southern California Japanese Americans in the process of evacuation via Pacific Electric Railway, circa 1941.

What allayed their apprehension and ultimately persuaded them to actively participate in the interviewing process?

   Most of the Issei and older Nisei interviewees were honored to be asked to share their life stories in relationship to the creation and development of the Japanese American community of Orange County.  Although typically self-effacing, they sensed the importance of communicating their experiences, not only for younger and/or newer members of the County's Nikkei community, but also for the edification and enjoyment of the County's non-Nikkei population.  

   Their racial-ethnic past--owing in great part to their unjust wartime exile and imprisonment--had largely been buried, even to their own children.

   The time seemed right in the early 1980s, during the rising tide of the movement among Japanese Americans for redress and reparations of their WWII mistreatment, for those interviewed to speak up for democracy, social justice and dignity.  It also was a time, at the peak moment of the so-called "Japanese miracle" in Japan, for Nikkei to give voice, though not ostentatiously so, to their pride in both their Japanese ancestry and heritage and their history and identity as patriotic Americans of Japanese descent.  

   So if the Project interviewees harbored reservations about telling their stories on tape, their incentives to do so fortunately overwhelmed their misgivings to the contrary.

What would you say were the common themes or stories you heard in the Project interviews? 

   Because of the generational differences between the Issei and the older Nisei, the stories and themes communicated reflected this bifurcation.  

   The Issei, quite naturally, focused their attention on their coming of age in Meiji and/or Taisho Japan, and the reasons governing their migration.  They also devoted much of their recollections to their transoceanic migration experience, including their preparation for it, the nature of the ship upon which they sailed, their personal accommodations, how they were received and treated at their respective port of disembarkation (usually Seattle or San Francisco), and their reaction to and interactions with their new American surroundings and population.  

   They also talked at considerable length about their early American employment, which characteristically was as workers in labor gangs for railroads, lumber mills, agricultural concerns, fishing endeavors, or as domestic servants on large rural estates or urban mansions.

   Many Issei told stories about their marriages, their family and institution-building activities, how they coped with or circumvented prejudicial laws and extralegal measures aimed at them as Japanese or Asian immigrants, and when they decided, and why, to forego returning to Japan and make America (most especially Orange County) their permanent home.

 Japanese American chili pepper farmers. (Photo, California State University, Fullerton)
   The older Nisei interviewees took a different tack in their Project interviews.  The difference had a great deal to do with their being American citizens as opposed to Japanese aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship.  Most of the older Nisei interviewees--because they were among the first born of their generation in the U.S. and Orange County, emphasized stories and themes consistent with being bridges between their Issei parents' generational experiences and the experiences of their younger, co-generational Nisei siblings.  

   They related stories of having to enter American public schools without benefit of English-language facility and the concomitant need to acquire this competency, sometimes in segregated classrooms, and then pass it on not only to their younger siblings, but also to their mainly Japanese-speaking parents.  

   The older Nisei also discussed their obligation to carry a larger burden in respect to family labor, whether in the agricultural fields or in the family home.  They reflected upon their need to defer participation in school-related activities, such as team sports, music and dramatic productions, in order to buttress the family economy.  They commonly expressed their reaction to having to curtail their education after high school or junior college to assume a larger share of responsibility for managing their family farm and helping to subsidize the cost of higher education for their younger siblings.

Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation, about 12 miles south of Parker, Arizona.  Most, if not all, of Orange County's Japanese Americans were evacuated to Poston.  (Photo,

   Much more than the Issei, the older Nisei took up the theme of their family's eviction from their homes and communities, and subsequent incarceration in detention centers during WWII.  Most expressed their surprise and indignation that, as U.S. citizens, their civil and human rights could be so disregarded by the American government. 

   On the other hand--still being young adults at the time of the war--their camp experiences assumed a great prominence in their life stories.  These included wartime resettlement out of camp into so-called "free zone" areas throughout the country and their postwar return to Orange County.  Those who served in the U.S. military during the war also covered their experiences in considerable detail.

   Since in the postwar era many of the older Nisei carved out successful careers in a variety of different venues and raised children (third generation Sansei)--who often excelled in school and established themselves as business leaders and professionals--these experiences were frequently (and proudly) covered in their interviews.

*Congregants of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and Church.

Next in Part 3:  Arthur A. Hansen talks about the Wintersburg interviews.    

Shuji Kanno, a charter member, elder, and clerk of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission (Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane).  Father of Jim Kanno, the first mayor of Fountain Valley and the first Japanese American mayor in the mainland U.S.

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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.