Coot Cat | In Conversation with My Grandfather

It's been 75 years since President Roosevelt enacted the executive order which allowed the U.S. military to exclude any and all persons from an area after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Although no single racial or ethnic group was mentioned in the order, hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes and moved into camps.

I recently interviewed my grandfather about what life was like as a Japanese-American post World War II.  I hoped to gain insight into a part of my heritage which I’ll never experience first hand but am saddened by.  It's impossible not to see parallels being drawn between the recent travel ban and past U.S. anti-Asian policies.  I can't help but feel anxiety for how the current administration seems to be playing to the fears of a bigoted populism and what can be done to counter it.

My grandfather is 96 years old.  His parents immigrated from Japan to Hawaii where he was born.  My great grandfather was a barber and worked on a plantation for a living until his arthritis became so severe that he could no longer work.  My great grandmother had a difficult time finding employment because of her immigration status, so she grew and sold vegetables for two cents apiece.  

Their living conditions were at poverty level so out of necessity, my grandfather did what he could to help support my great grandparents with various jobs.  At eleven and twelve, he worked on sugarcane and pineapple fields in the summer for a mere 25 cents a day.  At fifteen, he found work on a pig farm doing pickups and deliveries seven days a week.  On Saturdays, he split his day between making deliveries and working at a lumber yard.  He fought to earn his high school education and acknowledges he was fortunate to have an employer who encouraged him to be persistent.   He thereafter found work unloading ships at a dock in Honolulu which he did for almost 42 years.  He was active in the labor union and became the union's steward, advocating and negotiating for the rights and benefits of his colleagues.  My grandfather likes to remind me, "Treat each other well!", the importance of education, and that he loves to dance.  

After talking to my grandfather I was struck by his patriotism and his sense of duty.  I was also shocked to learn that my dad was born in an internment camp.  In recounting his life experiences, at one point he paused thoughtfully and said, “It was a tough life.”  In that moment I was reminded of how much he sacrificed for the life that I have.  As someone who is proud of my Japanese heritage, I presumed he would have spoken more critically of the injustices he experienced and witnessed- and this is where I must acknowledge my privilege.  It was eye-opening to hear his story of economic hardship and how he overcame those challenges whilst navigating the oppressive regulations instituted by an administration that didn’t protect his human and civil rights.  To be clear, my grandfather is proud of his heritage, and he holds no resentment for what happened in the past.  I’m inspired by his spirit and strength to overcome.  

1. What was life like before World War II and how did it change after it?

Before the war Japanese-Americans were able to work at Pearl Harbor, Barber's Point, Ford Island and Hickam.  Once the war broke out we were restricted from working at military facilities.  Japanese without U.S. citizenship were called "aliens" and dismissed from their positions.  Short wave radios and pictures of Japan's emperor were removed from homes and all windows were covered with black felt.  Lights weren't allowed after dark and restaurants were forced to close at 6:00 pm.  I was renting a small room that didn't have a kitchen, just enough space for a bed and bath.  Some days I had to eat canned sausage because I couldn't make it to the restaurant before it closed.  Everyone carried gas masks wherever they went.  Limits were placed on how much rice and food you could buy as well as how much money you could withdraw from the bank.

2. Can you tell me about the treatment of Japanese post WWII and a personal encounter you had with racism?

At work we had to wear badges that clearly indicated we were "restricted".  We couldn't even use the bathroom on our own and had to be accompanied by military police.  Officials and teachers at Japanese language schools were hauled off to internment camps.  If you were well educated, you were seen as a threat.

On one occasion, I was flying back to Oahu after visiting my family on Kauai.  I'd already boarded the plane which was ready to take off when I was pulled off to accommodate another traveler who was white.  I asked why this was happening and was told, "Don't ask any questions!"  I had no choice but to give up my seat and spend an extra night at a hotel, but there were no taxis, so to get there I had to walk and hitchhike my way.

3. What were you doing at the time for work?

I was a laborer for Castle and Cooke Terminals Ltd. where I worked on the docks unloading the ships.  During the war, we were considered "essential workers" because we handled deliveries for food and supplies. Dock workers who had a high absentee record were reported to the selective service by the company so that they could be offered up for the draft.

4. Did you do anything to counter the unfair treatment you experienced and witnessed?

No, I had to work around it.  I was working 10-hour shifts at the docks and since no one was allowed out after 6:00 pm, I volunteered to be a district warden and patrolled my neighborhood area till 10:00 pm.  I would knock on doors and remind neighbors who had lights on after dark to turn them off.  I had a friend that I could only see on my patrol walks because of the curfew.

5. Did you ever feel ashamed to be Japanese?

No, I never did because I was a Japanese-American born in Hawaii.  It was much more severe on the mainland.  Your grandparents on your father’s side were relocated to an internment camp in Wyoming where he was born.  After the camps were broken down, many Japanese returned to nothing.  Your grandfather started a landscaping business because it was the only work available at the time.  (This is the first I’ve heard of my dad being born in an internment camp and I wish that he was still alive to tell me about it.  My mom says that they (my grandparents) had been having a difficult time conceiving, yet he was a true gift because he was born on Thanksgiving.)  

6. Did you vote?

I didn't vote this year because according to voter registration records I'm "deceased".  I guess I'm too old for the system!

- Thanks for sharing grandpa.  I love you!