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Santo Market Owners: Helen Santo

The Santo Market in 2019

Read an interview with Earl Santo >>

Helen, could you introduce yourself with your full name, your birthday, and where you were born?

Helen Hiroko Kodama, now Santo. I was born October 26th, 1935. So I must have been seven when the war broke out. And I always thought I was born in Los Angeles but someone stole our box with all our birth certificates. And all the local ones you could get one in San Jose. But I was born down south, and I always thought it was Los Angeles and I found out that it was Norwalk. I knew my parents lived in different places but I always considered myself from Los Angeles.

And that actually was a pretty big Japanese American community, right? Norwalk had a lot of Japanese?

I really have no idea. I was so young back then.

So what were your parents doing?

They were farmers. Routine farmers.

And were they Issei?

My mother was born Hawai’i, and my dad was born in Japan, Hiroshima.

So your parents were farming in Norwalk.

In Norwalk and Compton and my most vivid memory is Long Beach. So I always thought I was born in the area of Long Beach but apparently it was way before then. Going back, I don’t know when it was, a number of years ago, we had some remodeling done in the house. We didn’t realize this box that was in the bathroom in a closet, it had all the birth certificates in there. And we didn’t realize it was gone. And so we decided to look for it, the kids were all married and gone. And so they were all able to get their birth certificates locally, all San Jose. But mine had to come from down south, took a little bit longer and I just got it not too long ago. We lived in Norwalk. You learn things as you go along.

That’s true. And did you have siblings?

Mmhm. And he [Earl] comes from a family of boys, I come from a family of girls. There were four of us.

Four girls. What were your sisters’ names?

Masako is the oldest one, she still lives on 18th Street. Chiyako is the second one. She lived on the east side but she passed away. And then I was the third one and then my youngest sister was born in Tule Lake. And she lives on Second Street near Japantown.

So the family still is around here, which is really great. So you were very young when Pearl Harbor happened. But you were in elementary school, right? Or did you start school already?

I don’t recall.

Do you remember anything about that day or at that moment?

No. Nothing at all. There may be some memories from back there, but nothing pertaining to the war, the incarceration. For some reason, I really don’t know why, but my parents moved south, evacuated to my mother’s cousin’s place in Selma. We used to visit there during summer time. For whatever reason we moved over there. There must be a reason, but my parents are gone so there is no one to ask anymore. Anyway, so we moved over there and from there we went to camp.

So we ended up in Fresno assembly center. And then from there we went to Jerome, Arkansas. And then to Rohwer. I don’t know why we went to Rohwer. And I guess that’s when my dad was a no/no. The infamous no/no. And so we went to Tule Lake. And that’s the end of it. That’s enough [laughs].

Well there’s a lot there. So starting with Fresno, do you remember anything about living there?

I used to have two Betsy Wetsy dolls. And no one else did. And I was the envy of everybody. Of the little kids that knew me. So you know, who else had two of them, let alone one! But that’s about the only thing I really remember.

So two Betsy Wetsy dolls. Can you describe what that is?

It’s a little rubber doll, and I guess that you put water and squeeze it out of the bottom. They probably don’t make that anymore.

How funny! So Fresno going all the way to Arkansas. Do you remember that trip, at all? Getting on the train?

I remember the Mississippi River. And that’s about all I remember. I don’t remember the train ride or anything, just the going over the river. Jerome. Let’s see, I guess I don’t really remember Jerome. I remember a little bit of Rohwer. Nothing academic! [laughs]

That’s okay. So by this point you’re probably about seven or eight, at Rohwer?

I guess so.

So you were in school. What was a typical day for you? Was it was fun? Were you playing with a lot of kids?

I had a lot of fun because I didn’t know what was going on otherwise. And I really don’t remember school. I keep saying I remember we had a garden in front of the house. And we had Morning Glory, the flower? It’s just kind of dumb. We’d get the flower and then you put it in your mouth, and blew into it and then it’d pop in your face. [laughs]

Oh really? It does that?

That’s about the only thing I remember!

So at some point then, the questionnaire came out and it was your father that answered no/no.

He didn’t want to go into service and leave my mom with three kids. By then it was just three girls. And so I think, my impression was that was one of the reasons he didn’t want to go to, but there were probably some other reasons. That was a nicer reason.

So Tule Lake then, that’s so drastic from Rohwer. What do you remember about living there?

Well for me it wasn’t drastic because it was another camp, another place to move to. Why, we didn’t know. At that age, I had no idea why we did it. Now I know. But for me it was still fun and games. Because one thing, I took odori lessons, it was way out in another block. And the ironic thing is Lynn has Natori with the same teacher.

Oh wow! The same teacher?

The same teacher.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, it is! The only thing I remember about odori is you put the kimono on this way, you hold it this way, and you sit down. And so if anyone is dressed the wrong way at obon, is “Oh, she doesn’t know how to dress herself!” Because I know it’s supposed to be this way. [laughs] I don’t know how old I was then, but that is the only thing that I remember.

Now, I think you had mentioned that your father wanted to go back to Japan. What do you remember about that conversation or, when did you find out that he wanted to return?

Well, I just found out the other day that apparently he must have been sending most of his earnings back to Japan. Because he had a home built there. And I just found out that his brother with his children had gone to Japan, and they were there at the time but they were supposed to come back on the last ship. So they couldn’t. And we were supposed to come on that same ship and go [back] to Japan. But then all that, kaput. So I just found that out, talked to my sister the other night, in preparation for this. Because of the questionnaire, there is so much that I don’t know. And so I thought I’d pick her brain. And she let me know about all of those things, which is very interesting. I didn’t know we were supposed to go. Imagine though they couldn’t come back because the war started then. So then they couldn’t come back and we couldn’t go. So, here we are.

So what do you remember when he found out or discovered that they attacked Hiroshima and they dropped the bomb? Did you have family there?

Oh yeah. I lost a cousin. And a friend that was supposed to come back. They had a daughter that died in the -- I guess she was at school. And I guess my mom’s house in Hiroshima was on the other side of the mountain or something, and so they didn’t get affected.

So after that, do you know if your mother or father talked about how Hiroshima was just devastated and did that change the way they saw their life in the United States?

I never even thought of it.

It was just their circumstance. So you were in Tule Lake and then the war ended. And so what do you remember about coming back, out of camp? Where did you end up?

We had no place to go. So my dad had signed up to go work on the railroads. And apparently my mother’s sister, who lives in San Lorenzo, must’ve invited us to live with them. And so instead of going to build railroads, which I don’t know where it was supposed to be, we ended up in San Lorenzo. That was where we went right after the war.

And what do you remember about living there?

That was just fun and games. I remember reading, I guess I just liked to read. And I read about a “Tilly” in a book. And my sister’s name was always Takako, my younger sister, and I wanted to name her Tilly. And my dad said, “Go ahead.” And good thing it was chosen by somebody [else]. And so she is Karen instead of Tilly. But if I’d had it my way, she would have been Tilly because I read about Tilly in a book. [laughs]

Was this your baby sister that was born in camp?

Yes, so she just went by Takako until then. And she got named Karen Ann. I don’t know where that was but it was in San Lorenzo or thereafter.

And you had to go back to school? So you were in middle school?

I don’t know grade, about second, third grade maybe?

And was that was still fun?

There was no problem. And I had hakujin friends and all that, no Japanese friends. We could visit their homes and all of that. And you know, it was no problem at all.

How did your parents get back on their feet after coming back and living in San Lorenzo?

I guess my aunt and uncle had a nursery there, carnations, at that time. And the way I heard it, they read in some paper about the sharecropping in Santa Clara Valley. And so we came to Madrone and we sharecropped with Driscoll for four years. And after that we went to Coyote, for another four years, with the same Driscoll and sharecropping. So and that’s when in Madrone I was in grammar school and I remember in high school I was in Coyote.

So they went right back into farming?

Got into strawberries.

So where did you grow up from when you were in high school, where were you living?

Where my nephew lives now. That’s the home that we built, my dad built. And interesting thing is, his [Earl’s] brother was an architect. And I didn’t even know him then. And his other brother Johnny, he was the architect. He lived right across the street from us. And then, a block behind him was Herman who was into basketball. He was a farmer and all of that but he was into basketball.

So you knew Earl’s brothers just before you met Earl?

Yeah. Well, I didn’t really know them, you know, but I knew he was the architect. And I knew that his brother lived behind him. And I met him [Earl].

So you were in San Jose, and did you go to college? Did you go to school?

Ok. That’s very interesting. I went to Heald’s in San Francisco, business school. My sister, I guess she was there too, I can’t remember, but she was living in San Francisco, also. And I, what do you call that, when you live in a house with a hakujin, with a family? There is a phrase for that, I can’t remember what it was.

Kind of like a live-in domestic?

Yeah. Anyway, so I lived with this family. And then they were a few blocks from Heald’s. So I went to Heald’s for two months. Became a comptometer, instead of an adding machine. Stupid, why am I doing this? So, without telling my parents, I got a job at Fort Mason. So I worked up in San Francisco for a few years.

And the problem was, which I didn’t know, but I thought it was a government job. But we were in the ship’s stores on the MSTS boat, which is not the SS boat, ship. So I was in civil service because I was paid out of the profits from our store. To me it was a military position, because it was transporting military people. But they had a civilian crew. And for whatever reason, I wasn’t paid by the U.S. government, I was paid by their profits. So when I came back here, I had no civil service backing. If I had had that, I would have had a few years of civil service and all that kind of stuff. And by then I just got a regular job.

I see. What did you end up doing?

I worked for an electrical company on Commercial Street.

And did your parents just stay in San Jose for the rest of their lives?

At the farm, yeah. And my dad, I don’t know how he met this person. But he got a job at a country club, as a gardener there. And it was real close to where we lived, so it was real nice. And that’s where he was employed.

I see. And then what about your mom? What did she do?

She worked at Mayfair packing shed. In camp, this interesting, she took ikebana, and learned how to sew. She was talented. Very capable. We never got to her level, I mean we tried [laughs].

She was maybe artistic or she was creative?

Yeah. She just had everything. She was just smarter.

Now when the redress came, what were your feelings about receiving redress?

A side story is, we had this mailman, and he knew we had the [Santo Market] store. And when the redress came, they said they’d put it in our mailbox. And he brought it to our store, which I think is a “no no.” But that’s besides the point.

In terms of your feelings about receiving it, what did you feel?

I had no feelings because I had no bad feelings while I was in camp. So it was like a gift.

Did you find a sense of closure with it or the apology?

No, I just said thank you. My mom bought a car.

Good for her. Is there anything else about your memories of camp that you want to share?

Well, if you know Tule Lake, Castle Rock? I climbed that. That’s my main recollection there.

Have you attended a pilgrimage?

We went back once. And so I told Earl,“I climbed that!”

So, Helen you mentioned that you lived very close to his family, right? So how did you both meet?

Helen: I just remember in a bowling alley. Chiyako introduced us, my sister introduced us. Did I know you until then?

Earl: Probably not. No. I don’t remember.

Helen: That’s all I remember, we were in a bowling alley.

So how old were you at the time?

Helen: Early 20s.

Earl: I think so, yeah.

Was it like a group or community outing, or were you just out?

No. We were just walking by and he was walking by and she introduced us.

I see.

And that was it. Nothing romantic or anything [laughs].

It was all really by chance.

Really, really.

Was part of the reason you came back to San Jose is because you got married? Did you know you wanted to come back here?

It was because of him.

Right. And Earl, by this time you had been really helping with the store.

Earl: Yes.

So you’ve inherited the legacy of the store, I guess. And it is now in your hands or in the hands of your family. Did you ever feel like this is such an important family thing that we have to hold on to?

Earl: Well, let’s see. I recall that, as my kids were growing up, I think I tried to make it a point that they all go to college and take whatever they like and then as far as the store, whoever might want to come back, welcome them. But I didn’t want to force anybody, to come back to that.

How many children do you have?

Four. Two girls and two boys. Lynn’s the oldest. And then the two boys and Leslie is the youngest.

And what are your son’s names?

Mark and Scott. Mark is back at the store.

And you have grandchildren?

Earl: Yes, nine.

So, what do you want them to know about your life experience? Is there something you want them to know about what you went through?

Helen: I don’t know. We don’t really talk about anything.

Earl: I’m trying to think of something. Well, I guess, like I mentioned, it was up to the kids to work out for a while and see how they like that and then we welcome them back. The only thing is, we’ve got everybody working hard [laughs]. It’s not just Mark, but they spend a lot of time at the store. And Les has been taking over the accounting with the computer and stuff. And would you know that I had no background in bookkeeping? So, I remember going to night school at San Jose High, I don’t know how long, because my uncle’s bookkeeping system was a tablet of names and how much he spent. That’s about it, you know. So, anyway, I sort of changed the accounting a little and of course it has changed again with the computer.

And just a question about San Jose Japantown. What are your hopes for the community here?

Earl: I think we’ve got to help the community wherever or however we can. And it is to our benefit, too that people come in for different activities. The two churches are right there in town too, so. That makes a lot of difference for us, too. It brings in customers and possibly some of the new people that move into town, they come into the different activities and then it pays off for everyone.

That’s good, yes.

Helen: Lynn has the Lotus Preschool and all of their families consider us family too. So, part of her family, I guess. And so some of her children, who are preschool children, even come to the Buddhist Church, even though, you know, they are not even Japanese. And so, uh, and then they greet us personally, which is real nice. So we’re the grandparents but they’re still our kids too, the little ones. So that’s kind of special too.

Very. Well, people really love the market. And it’s just so iconic and you’re a big part of Japantown.

Earl: Yeah, I think we’ve seen a lot of changes in the business. And if you don’t change with the times, you fall out of it. I think right now it’s the deli type of thing that’s really good. We could sell rice and shōyu, I think, but those are all available in any supermarket nowadays.

Very different from when you said your uncle was struggling to find rice and shōyu. Is there anything else either of you want to share about anything?

Helen: Talking about education, neither of us graduated from college. We made sure all of our kids had a full college education and they’re self-sustaining. And I don’t know about him, but I am proud of that. I’m proud of my kids that they’re accomplishing things. Anyway I’m happy with what they’ve all accomplished. And they’re all following through with this. I am proud of them. All of them.


*This article was originally published on Tessaku on September 1, 2019.


© 2019 Emiko Tsuchida

atomic bomb california camps farming hiroshima JAMsj japantown market Norwalk san jose santo santo market World War II

About this series

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.