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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

There Wasn’t Anything to Be Afraid of In Those Days – Profile of Aiko Owashi

Aiko Owashi, like so many Nisei women, begins an interview with the claim that her life is not interesting; nothing much ever happened to her. She acknowledges that her family is “deeply rooted” in San Diego, and soon is telling stories that illuminate a remarkable history.

Owashi’s father, Toraichi Ozaki, came from Wakayama to San Diego at about the turn of the last century. He was, Owashi notes proudly, a charter member of the Ocean View United Church of Christ (founded in 1907). “He tried out fishing,” she remembers, “but that wasn’t his thing.” He later worked at the Del Coronado Hotel, then as a cook and gardener in homes in La Jolla. After he married in 1912, Ozaki began produce farming in National City. The Ozakis had four children, three girls and a boy.

“I was more or less the oldest child, because my sister was sent to Japan when she was small,” Owashi recalls. She remembers a happy country life as a child. “We used to roam the hills—there wasn’t anything to be afraid of in those days. In the spring we used to go looking for wildflowers, frogs, things like that. I knew later there was anti-Japanese sentiment, but I didn’t feel it,” she says. “I grew up mainly in a White environment. I was the only Japanese in our whole school in grammar school. All my neighborhood friends were Caucasians.”

Her family purchased twenty acres of land in National City. Because Japanese immigrants were prohibited from owning land by California’s Alien Land Laws, the property was in the young girl’s name. “I owned the land,” she says, smiling at the memory. “It was all perfectly legal,” she hurries to assure her guests. “I had a guardian, a Caucasian lawyer. We had to report to him annually.” She remembers visiting the lawyer each year with her father, who carried stalks of celery as a gift.

When the war broke out, Owashi was in nursing school in San Diego. “I went home on weekends to help my father,” she says. “I had to make out all the reports and paperwork…I never did like secretarial work or bookkeeping because of that, I guess. I always wanted to take up nursing, but my mother didn’t quite approve of that. So after I graduated from high school, I went to Woodbury College in Los Angeles, in fashion design and sewing. Later on, I still wanted to take up nursing, so I went to San Diego State and got my credentials to enter the school of nursing. But then the war broke out and I had to leave.”

Owashi remembers that she was at home on the Sunday that the war started. “I went back to the dorm. At ten o’clock there was a blackout and we had to study under the blankets.” There is a pause as she smilingly remembers college life. “But I had to quit. Business got so bad and my father was taken in by the FBI. He wasn’t in the first group; he was taken with the second, or maybe the third group of men. We were expecting him to be arrested, because all the other men had been taken. At first we didn’t know where he was and then we found out that he was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Then I had to go home and take care of things. We had crops in and I had to negotiate with these tough men. That was rough. We had some young lemon trees and I made arrangements with a man to take care of them. We had green onions and I had to negotiate with the market people to buy that crop.”

“We had to do what the government told us to do,” she remembers. “We sold our truck for $50. That was really giving it away.” Reflecting on the responsibility thrust on her as a young woman, she smiles ruefully. “I wished I had a big brother then.”

The family was sent first to Santa Anita. Remembering the horse stalls where they were first housed, Owashi recalls that because of her hospital job they were able to get a unit closer to the hospital. In 1943, after the family was transferred to the concentration camp at Poston, Owashi married her husband Leo. They had known each other “back home” where he too was a farmer, but they hadn’t dated until they found themselves at the assembly center and in camp together. Getting married in camp presented unique problems. Owashi remembers the difficulty of providing special food and how hard it was to find suitable clothes. She remembers mail ordering a pink suit from San Diego’s leading department store to be married in.

In Poston, Owashi used her nursing skills and training in a variety of other ways, becoming a school nurse and a first aid teacher. Eventually she taught health education to all the girls from seventh grade through high school. “In those years, you know, the word ‘sex’ was hardly spoken,” Owashi says. She remembers that after consultation with the principal, who was “very outgoing and up to date,” she was able to teach the girls about the “personal parts of a woman and things pertaining to personal health and hygiene. Owashi remembers that she was paid $19 a month, “more than my husband, who was paid $16. We used to laugh about that,” she says.

The Owashis left camp for Chicago in 1944. Leo got a job in a vacuum repair company, and Mrs. Owashi got a job winding armatures. The young couple came back to San Diego after the war, where Leo joined his brother and his brother-in-law who had already acquired land and were in produce farming. In 1948 with the help of his brother-in-law, Leo built a home in San Diego where their three children grew up and graduated from Morse High School and each went on to college. In 1970 the Owashis built their home in Bonita where Mrs. Owashi continues to live.

The Owashis have two daughters, Virginia and Joyce, and a son, Leslie. Since Leo’s death, Mrs. Owashi keeps busy with visits to her children and her six grandchildren, volunteer wor,k and her particular enthusiasms—lapidary, gem stone faceting, silver work, and ikebana (flower arranging). She also enjoys travel, recalling that a 1963 family trip to New York, Ohio, and Chicago began a series of travel adventures that she still enjoys. After their children were grown, she and Leo journeyed to Europe, Russia, and the Far East and she continues to travel, taking an ikebana course in Japan and traveling through Greece with a friend. While she considers that she may be getting too old for such long journeys, she enthusiastically describes a planned trip with a niece to a jewelry dealers trade show and, later on, a group tour to Arizona.

Owashi appears to be surprised when she realizes how much she has been able to recall. “I don’t know how you’re going to condense all that,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve told these stories even to my children.”


*This article was originally published in the Japanese American National Museum Quarterly, Spring 1997.


© 2014 Japanese American National Museum

Aiko Owashi alien land law california chicago concentration camp nisei Nursing Poston prewar San Diego santa anita World War II

About this series

These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.