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Richard Yamashiro - Part 1

“My dad had to get rid of his business. I think that was really hard for him ‘cause he worked so hard. I didn’t realize this until I was much older but that was the hardest thing for him. And that made him kind of bitter, too.”

— Richard Yamashiro

Getting to speak with Richard Yamashiro is a remarkable experience. At 91 years young, Richard still works a job and has the energy and spunk of someone twenty years his junior. On the other side of his current work badge, he has inserted a small photo of himself from Tule Lake (which happens to look more like a mugshot) so that people will know that “I was in a concentration camp.”

Richard is able to paint an accurate picture of all the critical phases of his life, from his pre-war childhood in Hollywood with two progressive Issei parents, to his family’s uprooting to Manzanar, then Tule Lake and Hiroshima, his formative years into adulthood were profoundly shaped by a war that villainized his parents’ home country. Richard—who had never been to Japan at the time the war broke out—felt staunchly American, resulting in friction with his father who wanted to leave the United States. Giving up his hard-earned business, the family home, and being put into camp was simply too much to withstand. Richard is now able to reconcile with his father’s perspective, realizing the impossible situation he faced. “I didn’t realize this until I was much older but that was the hardest thing for him. That’s why he took me back to Japan. He says, ‘I want to go back to my own country, where this will never happen to me again.

* * * * *

I’m Richard Yamashiro and my birthday is February 13, 1929. I was born in Seattle, Washington.

Can you describe a typical day growing up in Seattle?

Oh, when I was in Seattle, I was just a baby. And I don’t remember anything about Seattle ’cause when I was growing up, they moved down to Los Angeles. And my mom and dad went to Hollywood and so Hollywood is where I grew up, partially.

Can you talk about your parents a little bit? Where did they meet? And where were they from?

Yeah, I looked at that question and I think they met in Seattle. I know, but I don’t know. I think it was probably an arranged wedding, but I’m not sure because they never talked about it.

They were both Issei?

Yeah, they were Issei. But my mom was something else. My mom, you couldn’t believe, she wasn’t a typical Issei because she spoke English, she went to night school, Hollywood High. We bought a car. She drove the car, not my dad. You know, everything that the usual Issei lady doesn’t do, she did. So, she was something else.

She took classes at Hollywood High night school like ceramic drawing, fashion drawing, tailoring. She spoke enough English where she understood everything. When I saw her at grammar school, I knew I was in trouble [laughs].

Were they both from the same prefecture in Japan?

No. Why? My mom was from Hiroshima. She was born in a place called Yano. And my dad was from Okinawa. I think he was a sailor and he got off at Seattle.

So they met there and moved to L.A.

Yeah. They got married. And then I guess, see my grandfather was still alive. And he kind of had the whole family together, including my mom. And so he was growing hops in Seattle, Washington. And he got very restless. So he picks up the family and they move down to L.A. and he grows strawberries, you know he’s a farmer. So that’s why we ended up in L.A.

That was your mom’s dad.

He was something else, too. He took his family all over because he went down to Los Angeles for a while and he was ranching and then he got tired of that so he packed up his family and moved to Japan. And then he was in Japan. And when Japan was invading China and all those places, they didn’t have enough military troops to occupy the country. So Japan was asking for civilian volunteers to go to like, Manchuria and stuff and farm. So he takes his family to Manchuria. And then after the war, well he had to hustle and get back to Japan before the Russians came. Yeah, but he made it back.

Wow and then once again went?

Yeah, well he came back. He’s lucky because he lives in Hiroshima. And the day they dropped the bomb, the day before they dropped the bomb, he lived in a farmland away about 30, 40 miles from Hiroshima City. And he got a big sliver in his toe and he couldn’t walk. So the day that they dropped the bomb, he had apartments in Hiroshima City so he was supposed to go collect the rent, but he couldn’t walk so he stayed home. That’s what kept him alive. He was a hardy old soul. I guess I kind of take after him ’cause he lived to 98. You know he was, he was a hardy guy because he could sit there and drink an issho (1.8 liter) of sake by himself.

I used to see him when he used to come and visit. He would sit there and my mom would run out and get an issho of sake. She’d go to the kitchen, heat it up, bring it in, and he’d be sitting in the living room drinking sake. Pretty soon he goes, “clunk,” and my mom brings a futon, just covers him.

Another thing was, he surprised a lot of the people, the occupation people in Japan, the American occupation, because he spoke English. But he dressed like an old Japanese farmer. He’s just standing there and people are talkin’, he could understand what they’re saying.

So both your grandpa and your mom were very, kind of ahead of their time almost.

Oh yeah. My mom was way ahead of her time. You didn’t see any Issei ladies driving a car! The husband always drove the car.

Right, right. What kind of person was your dad?

He was very quiet. He didn’t talk very much. When he did I’d have to listen. He was a concert violinist. I don’t know how he became a concert violinist but my mom was the piano accompanist. That was in Seattle, he worked at a jewelry store. And he did this violin thing, so I heard. And when we moved to L.A., I guess he opened a fruit and vegetable stand in a store. But he taught violin to people that wanted to learn. And they used to come to the house. And he used to teach violin.

Do you remember hearing that?

I remember that. And the thing was, he tried to teach me. Never try to learn from your dad [laughs].

That didn’t work so well?

He tried for two years and I still don’t know how to play the violin. But you know, he’s really stern. I had to practice. And if I made a mistake, you know the Japanese [scowls].

It’s worse for your own child. You’re stricter, right? And then your mother, too, was a pianist — she played as well?

Yeah I guess she played. I wasn’t aware then because I was too young. When we were living in Hollywood, she was working [as a] domestic. But like I said, she spoke English so you know, she could go anywhere.

And did you have siblings?

I had one sister. Yeah. She passed away, so.

Was this your older or younger sister?


And so what kind of community were you growing up in in Hollywood?

Well it was a pretty nice community, it was mostly Caucasians. You know, and there were about five or six Japanese families there. And we even had a Chinese movie star. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Anna May Wong? She lived on our street. And we had this family, became famous. John Aiso. He was the judge for O.J. Simpson. He lived a couple of doors up. It was a nice neighborhood, you know. And I never felt discriminated against, it was nice, you could just go play with the Caucasian kids, we played football, kick the can.

You were friends with all of these other kids in the neighborhood.

Yeah. But, you know, there weren’t too many kids my age. So it was kind of hard. There was one kid that was my age, we kind of grew up together, and his parents sent him to Japan.

So everyone was mostly older than you?

Yeah. And my sister was no fun because I don’t want to play girl’s games all the time. But I did; hopscotch, Jacks, and jump rope. But usually, I fend for myself and I would pack a lunch and I’d go hiking up the Hollywood Hills. And I used to hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory. That was my favorite place to go. And once or twice I hiked up to the Hollywoodland sign. And I used to hike up there by myself because there’s nothing else to do.

So you just kind of enjoyed being on your own.

Yeah, I guess I’m pretty easy to accommodate ’cause I just do my own thing.

So at the time of, say 1941, your mom was working as a domestic and your dad had the fruit and vegetable stand. Did you feel like it was a pretty comfortable life?

I felt comfortable. I guess my mom felt comfortable, my dad had to work pretty hard. But as far as I could remember, they seemed to be pretty happy, We weren’t rich or anything, but we made out and never starved and always had clothes. So, yeah, it was a good life, I thought.

So what do you remember about the day Pearl Harbor happened?

Oh, that was terrible. I had these Caucasian friends that we would go fly model airplanes. And they took me down to Gardena. And we’re flying model airplanes and all of a sudden I hear somebody say, “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” I go, where the heck is Pearl Harbor? I didn’t know what Pearl Harbor was. And everybody kept saying this and I felt kind of bad because I’m Japanese, you know. And so my friends felt it, too. So they packed up and we left. But it was kind of weird.

So then you went home and your parents —

Well, my dad, he kind of blamed Roosevelt, because he said they’re the kind of hard on Japan with all the embargoes and all this stuff. And so, that’s just what he told me one time. I was too young. It’s just that, one day I’m an American next day I’m a “pJap.” And that was a weird feeling for me because Monday after when I went to school, it was horrible. You know, all the kids are saying “Jap this, Jap that.” You know I just felt like, you know, ’cause I am one. But I survived.

Michael Sera: Did the kids at school treat you any differently?

Not really I didn’t feel it.

MS: Because even though you’re Japanese — your friends didn’t treat you like the enemy, if you will.

Well, some of the kids looked at me kind of funny, you know. I was just starting to go to junior high school.

And you were one of the only Japanese American kids in the class?

Yeah. There weren’t too many in there.

And so did your mom and dad have a conversation, either with you and your sister, or do you remember?

I don’t remember them saying anything except they talked about Japan, and it wasn’t their fault. They had to do it. You know, that Japanese propaganda, so. Other than that it was a terrible experience for me. All of a sudden, I’m the enemy. And the thing of it is like, I didn’t feel any discrimination at all while I growing up in Hollywood. Except one time when I was in grammar school, this kid used to tease me about slanty eyes and all this stuff and I told him to quit and stop it but he kept going, so I punched him out [laughs]. And he goes running home, brings back his mom and dad. He has a black eye. And in the meantime they call my mom, and I knew I was in trouble. But I told ’em I told that guy, “Leave me alone, to just be quiet.” So he got in trouble, not me.

Oh, that’s good.

Other than that I had no problems with it. I used to sit around with my Italian friends and when we were supposed to go to camp he says, “Well, I guess we’re going to be next.” It never happened, right? [laughs]. I don’t know why they didn’t do it to the Germans or Italians. That’s what I kept thinking, you know. But it’s just that we’re different. We’re talking and we didn’t know why we had to go to camp.

Something I always think is interesting is you know, December 7th. The holidays were coming up right after, and it’s Christmas. Do you remember anything about that time?

No, I don’t really remember. We just had Christmas, I guess, as usual. My uncle was there, too. You asked [what are] some of the fond memories? My uncle had this Ford, rumble seat, and I used to love to ride the rumble seat and we’d go to the beach, you know, I’m sitting in the back. I used to love to sit in that rumble seat, catch the air, you know?

Part 2 >>


* This article was originally published on Tessaku on February 26, 2020.


© 2020 Emiko Tsuchida

hollywood manzanar no no boys tule lake WWII

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.