Saturday, June 09, 2007

Interview with an immigrant: I

[Tom Matsuoka in 1998.]

-- by Dave

[I'm preparing for my upcoming cross-country trip aboard the Dreams Across America "Dreams Train" -- during which I'll be trying to tell the stories of some of the 100 immigrants who are embarking on a whistlestop tour of the country to share those stories. The posts will be carried here, at the Dreams Across America blog, and at Firedoglake. In order to introduce the kinds of issues and stories we'll be talking about, I thought I would run some interviews of immigrants -- or more properly interviews with the children of immigrants -- who tell both their stories and their parents' I conducted in the 1990s: specifically, the raw interviews of Japanese Americans that provided the basis for Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community.

[What follows is a transcript of an interview I conducted in March 1992 with Tom Takeo Matsuoka, who was 89 at the time. Matsuoka was a "kibei" -- American-born (in 1903) and thus a citizen like most Nisei, but one who returned to Japan at an early age and was educated there, then came back to the United States (in 1919) and remained as a citizen. Matsuoka was a community leader in the rural Bellevue farming community near Seattle through the 1920 and '30s. He was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor by the FBI and detained at by the Justice Department for some six months; upon being reunited with his family at the temporary facility at Pinedale, Calif., he worked to get them out on a work-release program and they relocated to Chinook, Montana. After the war the family bought a farm in Chinook and remained there for another 48 years. When I interviewed him, he was living in Ridgefield, Wash., near his daughter, Rae Takekawa, who assisted with the interviews.

[This was one of my earliest interviews with a Nisei immigrant, and it shows: the conversation is unfocused and skips around a great deal, and a number of salient questions went unasked because I had not developed a good ear yet for what the interviewees were telling me. (Some of the notations, incidentally, are taken from my handwritten notes.) I interviewed Matsuoka twice subsequently (I'll be running the latter of these, which has fewer of the flaws of this interview, shortly as well). Matsuoka's story forms the human core of Strawberry Days, which was finally published in 2005.]


[Tape off at first part of discussion about return to Bellevue in 1945: TM explaining why he didn't return -- because home had burned down while family was in camp, most possessions gone, and no easy way to rebuild, since raw materials like lumber were still being rationed.]

Tom Matsuoka: ...[They were telling me,] You're gonna have a hard time with this house. Because the deal with it was, everything was rationed. So you had to put the application in. And maybe if you come back and put an application in, and maybe in a year's time, it will come. Oh, it makes one mad! So, if you have a place to stay, maybe you can stay over there. So I went back to Montana, and I talked to the wife and the kids, and I said, well they can stay here. So in the meantime Mr. Warner [a sugar-beet farmer in Chinook, Montana] say, he want to sell the farm, you know; say, don't go back to Washington, I sell the farm. And the family, they don't mind to stay. I went to farm [emphasis on it, as verb]. That's why I ended up there 48 years, you know.

Rae Takekawa: The whole community, they knew each other. They knew quite bit about each other.

TM: We cleared the land. Right here [pointing to map] where this business section is, that's just about all what I think Japanese people have cleared. Only one is where people have the house, where the living quarters were. They c;leared that themselves. But they have a sawmill, first it was at Medina, I think. Then they cut all the trees around there. Then they moved the sawmill to Wilburton. They were cutting all the trees, cut all the trees down.

In those days, the first Japanese people moved in there, no car, the only transportation they had to Seattle is a ferry. So after the ferry, they cleared land, you know.

If people now, if they think about it, they'd say that's the craziest thing ... but in an acre, there'd be maybe 20, 30 big stumps, left from when they'd cut the logs.

When first the Japanese people started the farms, they would come by ferry to Bellevue to pick strawberries... Bellevue was where the strawberries came from. And with strawberries, you would never get the crop until the fourth year. You can't produce first year, nothing. Second year was bad. And the fourth and fifth year, you get the crop. And then in the sixth year, they go down again. So when they cleared the cland, they had to make agreement to stay, oh, five, six years, you know. And you had to go to a lot of expense to clear the land.

A lot of people were using the dynamite. Nowadays, you know when it goes out, but in those days, you had to be on the lookout, you know. Then you dig the roots out, and cut them with the ax, then you get the horse, and you get the horse to pull. Boy, that's a lot of hard work. When you get back to the big stumps, you put the dynamite in a hole underneath... The stumps would be burned with the fire, and the fire would burn pretty good, you know.

I cleared one piece of land that had so many stumps, that nobody touched it; I said to Tok [Hirotaka, his brother-in-law], "It's a big place. We said we're gonna clear it. I don't know how many acres." Man that was hard work.

DN: Tell me about your early years.

TM: My dad, he likes to farm. He farmed with a vegetable garden in Hawaii too. Close to Honolulu. When he came, mother got sick, so mother and I went back to Japan. And Dad came to the States. Well, he worked a couple years [on railroad crews and at sawmills], and then he started to farm again. He farmed on Vashon Island. They had strawberry farms there, you know.

Now, he was broke; that was when Mr. Polk come in and they made the declaration that you can't sell nothing, and he broke the farm. So he left everything and went to the sawmill. And then he made a little bit of money and he started to farm again. And then Mr. Harding come in, and then he was broke again.

In 1919, oh they were saying that the Japanese people had too many families or too many kids. Everything started from California... So they kept the lease of the land for them.

This country, I think around '21, '22, it was really bad for the Japanese. There was the Immigration Law, and the war came at that time.

You couldn't do anything, you know. It comes out in the paper. Well, we're only ordinary people. But you couldn't do anything.

RT: My mother [Kazue Hirotaka] was such a feisty person. Now, she was born in Bellevue. She must have been one of the first people born among the Japanese. She was born in the United States, and she was an American, and she knew it...

TM: She was headstrong. She gave a speech. Not against anything, you know. Nothing like when you were growing up in Montana.

Yeah, all the time, there's this: Japs, Japs, Japs. You know.

When you [looking at Rae] were growing up, it was nice. But the worst time was around 21, 22, 23. That was when it all started.

When you go to work in the sawmills, they don't give you a good job. You could get work, but good jobs, they never give. You have to take it. You can't argue. You just have to take it.

RT: It seemed to me that you had to fight all the way. When you were selling too, you had to fight to market your stuff. If the market wasn't .... they wouldn't accept your stuff, and that kind of thing.

TM: In the early 1920s, Japanese farmers started to grow strawberries and tomatoes. Before then, they grew carrots, cabbage, you know, vegetables. Biggest crop at one time was peas.

RT: It was land that was not cleared, and so nobody could do anything with it. It was very poor land, in some places, A lot of the farmers were very poor, too. There wasn't much land there, but what else could they do? What else could they do? There were some really tough, tough, families, tough making a living. These were families living on the edge. Of course, at that time, you didn't have the social welfare programs that I don't know if they'd have used anyway. The other thing is, of course, that you have this awful pride, that you don't take any help.

DN: Do you remember being anxious before the war about what might happen?

TM: I would have to say no. Pearl Harbor -- that was a surprise, you know. From about 1939 on, though, it was beginning to smell fishy. We weren't sure. From about 1939 on, everybody was worried. The Japanese Consul come to one of our meetings. He say: "Looks bad!" [Emphasis] In 1940, I took kids, around 10-12 kids, to Japan. That was a big thing, you know. Anyway, in Japan, that year, they had the 2,600th-year annivsersary of the country. People in Japan were very -- they think they can't get away. They think they have to fight England and America. I took those kids, and I travel around, and oh, always the secret service is behind me. And you know, you go on the train, you go somewhere different, and they always ask. They're always concerned with where you're going, what train you're on; it was really terrible.

People were all right, you know. But it was artificial.

RT: I'm sure you will hear this again: The Japanese who were citizens assumed that the ones who were gonna have to go away were the Japanese who were not citizens, and of course they couldn't be citizens. They never really dreamed, at the beginning, that it would happen to them too. But the only Issei that I really knew was my grandmother. I must say, that as far as she was concerned, she had a really hard life and it was a matter of all the years that she was trying to make a go of it, and that was the prime concern: making a living. That was the most important thing. She didn't care about the emperor. I really think that she finally, right before the war, finally was getting so that it was a little better for her, finally getting out of debt, getting to eat, drink, and a little bit of stability, ease of mind, that kind of thing.

TM: You know, before the war, things were always broke. You had no chance for the good jobs, that's for sure. Like when the growers came back to Washington. You never had a job. You were never hired.

We were the first Nisei married on the Eastside [in 1926]. Wasn't a big wedding. But the reception...

They had the reception. I'll tell you kids one thing. This was dry, you know. Dry. But my Dad, had to have a drink if it's a wedding party. So he made a home brew. I don't know how many gallons he made. But you have to smuggle it into the restaurant, you know. So he puts it in the suitcase, then takes it in. It was in a Chinese restaurant, where we had the reception. Oh, everyone had a hell of a good time. [Laughter]

RT: I remember Pearl Harbor. I told him. You were outside working on the Udo.

TM: Yeah, the kids came out. Heard it on the radio. "It's a war started!" "What!" "Yeah! The Japanese planes have bombed Pearl Harbor!" Oh, God. [He kept working.]

DN: When did the FBI come and arrest you?

TM: They came knocking on the door about 3 a.m. We were sleeping. There were three guys, three FBI guys. And I think it was the local police or something. They have two cars without license plates.

RT: So they came in, and of course, I was in a bedroom that was on the main floor too. My mother, I told you she was really feisty. [Tom: "She mad."] She was really yelling at those FBI guys. Now that I think about it, she was screaming at them about her rights. She knew. She said, "You have no right! I have my rights! I'm a citizen!" This incensed her. She didn't care. She was just yelling at them.

TM: They wanted to go up to see the boys. But they couldn't go. Ma said no. So they went through letters, diaries.

Then I asked them, what you gonna do with me? "Well, we'd like to have you questioned in Seattle." "Well, do I need a change of clothes?" "Yeah, maybe. You have to take your shaving kit, your toothbrush." Oh boy, that's when I know I'm not gonna come home right away.

No handcuffs or anything. They took me into Seattle, and took me up to the Immigration building. Took me up to the holding tank, and there whole bunch of them: "Oh, you come too!"

If I had had a birth certificate, I didn't have to go to Missoula. But I didn't have a birth certificate at that time. [It had been lost in a courthouse fire in Hawaii.]

DN: Did they ask you any questions?

TM: No. Nothing. Ten days we were at the immigration office. Later, there was a rumor going around. "They're gonna move us someplace." "Yeah? Where are they gonna move us?" "No, nobody knows." Eventually, they moved us to Missoula, Montana. Right about after Christmas. And all this time, nothing. No questions. Then came the evacuation law.

There were hearings in Missoula. After the relocation was over, it came through. By that time, the family was moved to the relocation camp. That takes a long time, you know.

RT: The family got to visit him. In Seattle, we came up once, saw him from outside. We came because it was before Christmas, and we knew you were gonna get moved. She took us up there to see you.

TM: But you don't get to see. They don't let children in. And we are on the second floor. [Rae: I remember the bars.] Mother and Rulee [their youngest daughter] came to Missoula -- took the train out to see me.

RT: My mother ran the farm. I remember it was rhubarb time. We had a lot of rhubarb. And you had to get that rhubarb. And I think that Tok [Hirotaka], and Jim [Matsuoka, Tom's half-brother], they came and helped. But you were just never sure what was going to happen, if, Dad, after they took him, if he was going to get to come back.

DN: I guess that was all answered when FDR signed EO9066 and they announced the evacuation zones.

RT: That's when we knew what was gonna happen.

They took us by train from [Kirkland]. Right there. No trains came or nothing. They loaded us up in old cars. It was these real ancient passenger cars.

We didn't try to sell things. We tried to store things. We moved a lot of things around, because we got renters, didn't we?

TM: Two guys from Texas, I think.

RT: So we decided that we would store everything, everything got packed up and stuck upstairs.

TM: We also took our things to Jenkins, she was our neighbor. We stored things at his place. And his place caught fire too.

And our place was burned too. And most of all, of all the things I feel so bad about, I lost a 1913 Ford. What a beauty! It was a beauty. I stored it in the garage.

RT: It was behind the garage, but a lot of that was burned, supposedly, too.

We never could understand how it happened. It was kind of funny. Because we got some things back from some friends, didn't we? When we were in Montana. The piano thing, this old chair [points to orange naugahyde monstrosity], just really strange things that you can't figure why they saved.

TM: You know, Johnny De Los Angeles, he stayed in a labor house, see. And they were on the way to my house. Johnny said he went to get his wife in Redmond, and they were coming back, and saw smoke. "Gee, it looks like," our place, you know. And he really hurried. He came up there, and where it was burning was in the kitchen; that's where it started. Somebody must have helped Johnny. They dragged out the piano. That's when they got the old chair. And some pictures.

I asked Johnny how it started. He didn't know.

DN: OK, now, you were reunited at Pinedale, at the assembly center. What was it like there?

RT: I was 14, 15 that summer. When we went down there, we got into trouble, hanging out with a bunch of kids -- course, I guess you'd call them gangs now -- and of course, he wasn't there. I guess you could just about imagine. And my brother found friends. Mom -- there were always calls for volunteers and she was always busy with that.

And then he came back. He came back to Pinedale.

TM: With the clothes I took to camp. I was picked up Dec. 8 and I had all winter clothes, you know. Then it was summer when I joined my family in Pinedale. Oh, the temperature was up around a hundred degrees. Oh! It was really hot.

RT: We went to Tule Lake [the more permanent "relocation center" where they were assigned] the end of July.

TM: I worked for a farm in Tule Lake. In the morning we'd go out, and the guard, he had to count us. With one of those counting machines. My God, it was never right! Always too many or not enough. So they'd have to count them again. Every single day. So we're standing in the bus, and the Japanese, they watch you, you know. In those days, the American boys were having a hard time on the war front, you know. And some of them say, "No wonder they having a hard time; they can't even count the numbers!"

RT: Gottlieb Blatter, a farmer from Montana, came down in 1942, and recruited the family. Just in time for the beet harvest. This was Sept. 25.

TM: Camp was no place to have your family.

RT: You know, we got off that train [in Montana], and it was snowing. I thought I would die! September, and it was snowing!

TM: On that train, they treated us like prisoners. We had guards. Ah -- you know. Some of them were goofy kids. They'd watch the toilet. And behind the door, they're talkin' to each other: "I wish someone would run and try to get away... So I could shoot 'em!" [Laughter]

RT: I know that when we went out there, and we went up where the farm was, and he took us to where we were going to live, and I've thought about it, not at that time, but later, I wonder what my mother, she must have thought. There were two rooms and seven of us. One room was the bedroom. We had three little beds and a little crib-like thing. We got no heat with that room. And the other room was where Ma did the cooking. And she would try to mop that floor, because she was so fussy, she would try to mop that floor and it would freeze.

TM: And so after the harvesting is all over, we have to decide to stay rather than go back to camp. So I get a job feeding the sheep. Seventy dollars a month. Oh, he really cried. "Oh, I never paid so much!" [Laughter]

We stayed on that farm in '42 and '43. We moved to Gus Lundeen's farm on the other side of town in 1944.

When we first moved to Montana, school board didn't want our kids to go to school. That's how it was at first.

Eventually, the Matsuokas became admired members of the community. Tom was named Montana Farmer of the Year in 1963. Kazue passed away in 1986, after which Tom moved to Ridgefield.

More in the next interview.

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