Discover Nikkei

Setsuko Moriya — Part 1

“When you think about now, politically, we listen to the news of what’s happening in Washington. In those days, my father was not political. He was just here to make money and to survive.”


Growing up in downtown Sacramento before the war, Setsuko (Shimono) Moriya recalls the tight-knit community of the old Japantown. In the heart of what was once a thriving downtown scene, Setsuko’s parents operated a busy restaurant serving American food.

Her father, Masuichi Shimono, was a determined, resourceful man who migrated to the United States when he was 17. Arriving in America undocumented prompted him to do the incredible, seemingly impossible feat of hopping off the ship and swimming several miles to reach the coast of Washington state to evade the port officials.

While Setsuko recalls him being a strict and intimidating father, by contrast her American-born, Nisei mother, Kimio Otani, was patient, warm, and uncomplaining, who came from a family of successful farmers from Sonoma County. But their personality differences seemingly complimented the raising of their six children.

After their forced eviction from their home and business, the family was sent to Tule Lake and then later moved to Amache to be closer to Setsuko’s ailing grandfather, who would eventually die in camp. Though her memories are sparse, what Setsuko does recall are the poignant memories of a child: Long and uncomfortable train rides with no seats, terrible food, and the dread of going to the bathroom.

Setsuko, now 88, lives in Southern California near her children and grandchildren.

This interview was made possible by Setsuko’s grandson, Mas Moriya, who also assisted in asking questions. Mas is the founder of Strong Asian Lead.

Setsuko and her grandson, Mas Moriya

* * * * *

Could you tell me about your parents? Where were they raised and what do you remember about them?

My dad came from Japan when he was about 17. My mother was born in Sacramento, so she was raised here. And her dad was a manager of a farm. So they had a lot of people working where she lived. They had a lot of friends. He was managing a big farm.

What kind of farm was it? What did they grow?

Well, anything, I suppose. The reason why he got the job was they asked him if he’s able to bring that water from the river to his land. I guess in Hawai‘i, he learned how to do that and he was able to do that so he got that job, a big job. He hired a lot of Japanese men. So he was doing well.

What were your parents’ names?

My mother was Kimio Otani and my father Masuichi Shimono.

Do you know how they met or were introduced?

Oh, by a friend. One of the men that was working on the farm knew my father and my father already had a restaurant, so he says, “He’s a good catch.” So she could’ve chosen the shorter man or the better-looking man, and she chose the better-looking man with the restaurant.

Did your mother mainly speak Japanese or was she bilingual because she was Nisei?

Yeah, bilingual. She would speak Japanese at home to my father but we didn’t.

So they met in Sacramento?


Where did you grow up exactly in Sacramento?

Right in the center of town in the Japanese area. It would be in that Second, Third and Fourth, it was all Japanese between M and L [streets].

Do you remember it being a pretty big Japanese community when you were growing up?

That was all the Japanese area. In the alley they had things going on that were Japanese, like they had a sumo place and there was a theater in that area, Japanese theater and jofu place, you know, Japanese groceries. And so it was all in that L and M. 

So the community was really strong. How many siblings did you have?


Where are you in the lineup of the siblings?

In the middle.

What was a typical day like for you growing up in that area and before the war?

I don’t remember much. My mother and father worked all day, almost. We had an old man, a friend of theirs, being our babysitter. And my sister was already in the sixth grade so she was more in charge. And the old man kind of watched all of us if we went anywhere.

My mother and father, they were always just working away. Even though when you have a restaurant, you work early in the morning and in the afternoon, one of the parents would take a couple hours off, then go back to work and the other one would come home for a couple hours. So they were home in the afternoons, but most of the time they’re working. That’s the trouble. They worked and worked and worked and had very little time for the family. Camp kind of stopped that, you know, and helped [us] get together.

What was the name of the restaurant?

That restaurant was Bay Cafe. 

And what was the kind of food that was served?


Do you know how they decided on the type of food they would serve?

I really don’t know. My father was not a cook in Japan or anything but when he came to America, he was in Washington and he was in a big accident and broke his leg and so was in the hospital. In those days you break something I guess you’re in the hospital for a long time and I think that’s where he kind of learned how to do some of the things that he learned, [like] how to cook.

What was the accident that he was in?

Well, it was a lumber company that he worked in and he happened to fall into those — you know how the lumbers go sliding down that ramp where the water is running? He fell in it and the man that chose my father at the job, they became friends. He saved my father’s life. Got him out.

How old was your father when that happened?

Well, he was very young. I believe he could have been 17.

Do you know when he came to California?

Those are the years we don’t — he never talked about it. Like my brother went to Japan, [so he] heard stories about my father writing to them when he got here. But my father didn’t have any papers to come with, so I don’t know. It doesn’t seem too common because he was kind of ashamed about not having papers. Him and another man in Sacramento didn’t have papers. They were kind of friends because, “We don’t have papers.”

Do you know how old your mother and father were when they met?

Well, my father was 13 years older than my mother. My mother was 18.

Would you say that you had a pretty good relationship with your siblings?

All of us? Yes. We all got along very nicely. And the man that watched us was like 75, 80 years old [laughs].

Do you remember when Pearl Harbor happened and what that day was like?

No, I really don’t. The only thing I knew when that happened [was] there was a curfew time and we thought it was kind of different. The neighbor, one night we were together after the curfew and [they] put down the shade and it was kind of like, fun thing. But that’s all I remember, that was a different thing.

All the kids, my brother, my sister, and the two neighbor boy and the girl, they came over. You see, this is an area where there’s a hotel and ours was a hotel but ours was a smaller hotel that we made into our home. And so, in-between the home, you could go to the next hotel if you wanted to from downstairs. We didn’t have to go outside of it.

So you were kind of connected. What was the name of the hotel that you were living in?

Well, by the time we lived in it, it wasn’t a hotel. It had about seven rooms.

How old were you at the time of Pearl Harbor?

Well, at that time I would’ve been eight.

Do you remember what happened at school? Was there anything that changed for you?

No. Only thing I remember about the second grade [was] the teacher. She was a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Coulter, but she always washed in alcohol. We thought it was pretty unusual. Maybe it was because of the Japanese there around. I don’t know. But she always washed her hands in alcohol. She was like a very thin, sickly lady but very nice, very nice.

When Executive Order 9066 was signed and your family had to start getting ready to leave, do you remember anything about that time and what changed with your family?

No, I don’t remember anything about that. When you think about now, politically, we listen to the news of what’s happening in Washington. In those days, my father was not political. He was just here to make money and to survive. So we weren’t political people. We didn’t know what was happening, or they never talked about it at all.

Did you ever get a sense of how he felt?

He never really talked to us but like I said, his friend lived next door in the hotel. So if ever he wanted to talk about anything political he’d talk to his friend. So he didn’t talk too much about [it] to his wife. But his friend was next door, so he talked to him a lot. He visited him a lot.

When did your memories start becoming clearer? What’s the earliest thing you remember about the “assembly center” or leaving your home?

The only thing I can remember is a bus that went to that first camp. But other than that, I don’t remember a thing.

Like the neighbors, his friend? They had a son in Japan that was there for many years so they had a lot of contact with Japan. They had many things from Japan. Everything they did was Japanese, his wife was more Japanese. And the things that they owned were many that were Japanese.

Our house, we didn’t have a lot of those things, yet. My mother was not into collecting yet so we didn’t have a lot of things, or [we had] more American things.

For your mother, the fact that this was happening must have been much more of a shock to her, since she grew up in the United States. Did you ever get a sense of how your mother was feeling?

Well, she had five brothers and they were living in Sacramento but they were living in Petaluma. So she had a lot of support. My father didn’t have any. So she never seemed to have worried about anything.

Did you grow up with your grandparents?

No, once she got married, she lived in Sacramento and the rest of the family were all in Petaluma. She had a brother that was not well, so he’d come to stay at our place for about six months. That’s the only time I remember that her family was there. But it wasn’t like we never saw them, it seemed like they were there all the time.

Did they have a farm? What did they do in Petaluma?

Well, they had the farm in Sacramento, but when the potato got to be about a nickel a sack my grandfather said, “That was enough.” So he sold or did whatever he had to and bought land in Petaluma for a chicken farm. They had about maybe five, six or seven, or maybe even more — all the sons built these huge chicken houses. And they were really well built. In fact, after the war in about 1960, my uncle was still there [and] they sold it to the hippies who made it into apartments. 

Read Part 2 >>


*This article was originally published in Tessaku on December 13, 2022.


© 2022 Emiko Tsuchida

Amache concentration camp California Colorado concentration camps Sacramento Setsuko Moriya Tule Lake concentration camp United States World War II camps
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.

Learn More
About the Author

Emiko Tsuchida is freelance writer and digital marketer living in San Francisco. She has written on the representations of mixed race Asian American women and conducted interviews with some of the top Asian American women chefs. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, the Center for Asian American Media, and the forthcoming Beiging of America series. She is the creator of Tessaku, a project that collects stories from Japanese Americans who experienced the concentration camps.

Updated December 2016

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Yoko Murakawa
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!