This past Monday was Labor Day.
I was always curious why the holiday got its name because labor is defined in the dictionary as “work.”
Yet, on Labor Day, everyone stops working. So, I decided to do a little research and found out how Labor Day came to be known as Labor Day.
Would you believe it came to pass on May 11, 1894? That year, a labor union protesting cuts and firing of union representatives called for a boycott of the rail company which ordered the cuts. Within days, 50,000 rail workers joined the boycott.
Then President Gover Cleveland ordered the dispatch of troops to Chicago to blocked the boycott and much rioting and bloodshed ensued. The government’s action broke the strike. However, the strike brought the worker’s rights to the public eye and Congress declared, in 1894, that the first Monday in September would be a holiday for workers and Labor Day was born.
A while back, I wrote about friend Taro Uchizono, who “escaped” going to camp by “voluntarily” evacuating before the official order was carried out by the government against all persons of Japanese ancestry.
Since then, I’ve received a lot of mail from people who are curious why this aspect of the JA experience has never been given the exposure that other aspects of the evacuation have received over the years.
Well, one reader, who read my tidbit said it inspired him to write about his voluntary evacuation and gave me an outline of his story. The writer is Dr. Tom Maeda. Only thing he requested that he not be referred to as “doctor” since he has long retired from medical practice. So, here is a summary of Tom’s story entitled “One Volunteer Evacuee’s Story”:
“I was born on Sept. 18, 1929 in Hollywood, Calif. and lived in West Los Angeles in December 1941.
“Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, was a clear, sunny and warm day.
“I attended the West Los Angeles Buddhist Church Sunday School as usual. In the afternoon several of us decided to go bicycle riding and we eventually ended up at the Santa Monica Airport. We watched the planes take off and land. We returned home around 4:30 p.m. and were greeted with the news of the inevitable armed conflict between the United States and Japan. The newspapers at the corner newsstand had large headlines, ‘WAR!!’
“We can say inevitable, but still shocking news to a 12-year-old and actually to everyone. We Nisei students went to our school (Nora Sterry Elementary School) with some fear the next day. Even though there were a few who called us ‘Japs,’ the majority of non-Japanese (Caucasian and Mexican) students acted normally.
“Shortly after the war started, many prominent Japanese male members of the community—teachers, Buddhist ministers, organizational presidents, among others—were arrested and taken away to detention centers. Many restrictions were placed on the Japanese: Curfew at 7 p.m., Travel restriction (no more than 30 miles from home), turn in all cameras, short-wave radios, flash lights, large knives, swords, guns/pistols.
“In those days, the Nisei kids stayed and played with fellow Japanese children and our talks invariably ended up in fear and uncertainties of our future. We played together as before but ended up discussing our worries—rumors of the U.S. government sending us all to Japan, sending our parents away leaving only kids, rounding up everyone and putting us far from home.
“Finally the government passed Executive Order 9066 to force-evacuate all Japanese from the West Coast.
“With the announcement of the Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, a little known/little remembered announcement was made. There can be a so-called ‘voluntary’ evacuation to the inland areas, where one does not have to go to ‘camp.’ For the Los Angeles area, this deadline was set at 12 noon, March 28, 1942.
“With this announcement of ‘voluntary’ evacuation, other rumors spread among the Japanese such as on highway 99 (the main northbound highway at that time) north of Los Angeles, that they found Japanese ‘volunteer’ evacuees murdered, with the bodies scattered off the highway shoulders. His kind of rumor was very frightening to me, a 12-year-old boy.
“My parents felt that a crowded camp life would not be a good environment for me, a young boy, and felt that we should try to evacuate voluntarily. Because the Central California area was a ‘free zone’ at the time of the evacuation order, my father, after obtaining a special travel permit, drove 215 miles to the north to Reedley (near Fresno). There my father’s fellow Hiroshima-ken friend Mr. Ishida who was farming in the area, agreed to take us in.
“We sold only a few things for almost nothing, leaving everything else. We were starting a small nursery at the time so we had to abandon all the plants and supplies. We shipped only the refrigerator and our beds by rail car. We put whatever we could onto our 1930 Model-A Ford and left our home in West Los Angeles on March 28, 1942 at 11:30 a.m., half-hour before the evacuation deadline.
“We arrived in Reedley without incident at around 7:30 p.m. The Ichida family (parents and three grown children) welcomed us with open arms, expressing how sorry they felt for us. They housed us in their barn with several horses. They divided the barn, giving us about one third of the space. They put down large prune crates upside down on the ground top of which we laid our double bed (for our parents and me).
“This was our bedroom, with the smell and noise of horses under one roof. The bath was ‘Japanese style.’ We had no running water, but the water supply was ground water which was brought up with an electric motor so that we just had to turn the faucet. The toilet was an outhouse.
“As a kid without financial worries like my parents, I enjoyed Reedley. However, rumors started circulating that Japanese in Fresno area would soon have to evacuate to relocation camps. About this time my parents met Mrs. Shigeko Kaneshige, my mother’s long-lost cousin. They were originally from Guadalupe.
“The Kaneshige’s had a relative, Harry Morikawa, who lived in Payette, Idaho and the Kaneshige’s invited us to move to Idaho to avoid camp so we decided to go.
“We loaded our meager belongs (what we previously brought from West Los Angeles) onto our vehicle and left Reedley around 9 a.m. on May 7, 1942. On the way, we slept on the side of the road. During the trip, or previous Kikkoman Shoyu can broke and we lost most of our shoyu.
“We arrived in Payette on May 9, 1942 around 5 p.m.
“After trying to locate the Morikawa family, we finally located the only Japanese family in Payette, the Shigetas. We were then told that the Morikawas lived in Oregon in an area called Oregon Slopes, separated from Idaho by the Snake River, which separates the two states, but with a Payetee mailing address. That night we slept on the floor of the Morikawa house or in the huge dirt cellar many farms have for storing farm equipment.
“On July 15, 1942, living a little over two months with the Kaneshiges, the Maeda family moved three miles to the Idaho side to a house located about four miles from Payette. Although the house was old, it was nice and clean. The water again was well water with a hand pump and the toilet was an outhouse.
“We had a large, deep metal Japanese style bathtub made at a local sheet metal shop and had it installed in the storage shed located at the back of the house. The kitchen had a large pot-belly stove, with pine slabs and coal.
“We never had a telephone when we loved in West Los Angeles, but we obtained telephone service soon after we moved to Payette. In those days, phones had no dials. When you wanted to make a call, you picked up the receiver and the switchboard operator at the telephone company in town would say, ‘number please.’ You gave the number you wanted to call and she connected you to the other party. The phone was a ‘party-line’ meaning when you wanted to make a call and picked up the receiver, someone else might be talking on the phone.
“The City of Payette had around 3,500 population within the city limits plus hundreds of farms/farmers scattered for miles in all directions. Currently, the population is around 7,500.
“Across the Snake River is the town of Ontario, Ore. Many Japanese voluntary evacuees chose Ontario and surrounding areas after leaving their West Coast hometowns. So there was a large Nikkei community in that area. They had a small Japanese store where we could purchase fresh fish for sashimi as well as other Japanese foods, shipped in from Denver or Salt Lake City.
“Everyone went back and forth between Idaho and Oregon. At the beginning Oregon was on Pacific Time and Idaho on Mountain Time, so each time we crossed the bridge, we had to move our watch hand one hour.
“With the idea of hoping to return to Los Angeles as soon as we were allowed, my parents did not start a farm of their own but became farm laborers for the local Caucasian farmers. They were paid 50 cents an hour. I worked, too on weekends and during summer vacations. My pay was 30 cents an hour.
“With my parents unable to speak English, this 12-year-old boy was the interpreter.
“Because of the harsh winters, with snow and freezing weather, farm work period was mainly from pruning trees in February to general farm work around March and sugar beet harvesting around October.
“In September 1942, I started Westside Elementary School in Payette as a seventh grader. I was the only Japanese (others were all Caucasians) so it was a bit intimidating with the war going and having a ‘Japanese face.’ Although they may have never seen a live, talking Japanese before, the Caucasian classmates accepted me and I felt comfortable.
“In Idaho, one almost didn’t realize there was a war going on. True, there was rationing (my father who loved steaks, befriended the local Safeway manager who sold him all the meat he wanted) and there had been war casualties buy generally everything was OK. There was a bar with a ‘No Japs’ sign, but was no concern. Caucasian barbers gave us haircuts with no problems and the townspeople were generally friendly.
“But, we must remember, this was in the 1940s, when the Japanese were not accepted in regular society where we felt like second class citizens (just like, but not as bad as the blacks). Thus, I always felt inferior to my school classmates and sometimes I wished I was Caucasian, too. Growing up in a ‘Japanese society’ in West Los Angeles, it was difficult to adjust to an all-Caucasian society, far from ‘home.’
“Even though I was accepted by classmates, I always felt inferior for being the ‘enemy’ race. I was a very quiet person/student. I never developed a close buddy relationship with the Caucasian. Although I gradually blended in, I was largely a bashful, quiet loner.
“In the classroom, even though I knew the answers, I seldom volunteered an answer in class. This may be the “Japanese trait” of our generation. In non-school time, I usually stayed home, studied or listened to the small radio which we had taken from Los Angeles.
“In the fall of 1943. I started to drive my father’s Model A Ford and got my driver’s license on March 17, 1944, at age 14 1/2 years. I was asked ‘How long have you been driving?’ and I answered ‘About six months.’ That was it. No examination. I paid my two-dollar fee and got my license.
“When we moved to Payette, we started subscribing to the local weekly newspaper, The Independent Enterprise, in July 1942, I continued to subscribe even after returning to Los Angeles and they said since I had been a subscriber for over 50 years, they would no longer charge me.
“Around February 1945, when the government realized that the Japanese Americans were no longer a threat to America, it was decided to allow the Japanese to return to the West Coast. In February 1945, my father, alone, drove from Payette back to Los Angeles to check into the possible return and resume his pre-war occupation of gardening. After he came back to Payette, and after a long discussion, we decided to stay in Payette until I finished high school—I especially did not want to leave Payette and go back to Los Angeles.
“There were no Japanese students in high school at that time. Payette High School was an enjoyable experience, with many excellent teachers. Since we lived four miles form town, I went to school on a school bus, thus I was unable to take part in most of the sports activities. Later, however, I went out for track and after practice had to walk home along the highway. Without thumbing, a stranger would stop and offer me a ride home.
“There were well-known people living or originating in Payette. There was retired Army Colonel Moss, who was a West Point classmate of General Eichelberger, the Commanding Officer of the Eighth Army, who occupied Tokyo after the war.
“My two older sisters were stranded in Japan during the war and the older sister lost her life in the bombing of Hiroshima, along with 20 other relatives. But my sister living away from the city survived. Though the efforts of Colonel Moss and General Eichelberger, my sister Mary was able to return to the U.S. in April 1947—one year before other Kibeis were allowed to returned. My parents went to San Francisco and brought her back to Idaho.
“On March 17, 1948, it was announced that I had the highest grade and was thus named class valedictorian. In May 1948, the Freedom Train was passing through the U.S.A. stopping at various cities and the mayor of Boise invited one student from all the high schools to participate in the Mayor’s tour of the train. The Payette student body unanimously chose me to represent the school and I was able to view the famous documents and other artifacts first hand.
“I graduated from high school on May 19, 1948, one of 68 students.
“Even though of the voluntary evacuation to Idaho, I loved Payette and returned there in 2008, only 17 were able to attend, but it was quite enjoyable. On Aug. 28, we had another reunion.
“These reunions are short periods of back-to-the-Caucasian-society.”
Thanks a million for your story, Tom. I’m sure all the Japanese Americans who went to camp will find the life of those who escaped interesting reading.
Especially when the individuals, such as yourself, were the only JAs in the city they settled in as in Payette.
According to one source, which I will touch on in another column, about 6,000 Japanese Americans did evacuate voluntarily prior to the rest of us being tossed into camp.
So, while we are talking about camp, here’s a short note from Takashi Hoshizaki in which he wrote: “This is Tak Hoshizaki, board member of the Heart mountain Wyoming Foundation. Thanks for your coverage of reunion in Vegas in your column. Appreciated it much. By this time, you may have received some flack on the spelling of Shirley Higuchi’s name. Oh well, so many people, too many events and you have to keep al this in line. Knowing the feeling of meeting people and for me especially, of having a hell of a time remembering names and faces.”
I’m not sure how I spelled Ms. Higuchi’s name. I guess I’ll have to re-read my column again. However, Tak, you’re the first to point out my goof.
That’s it for today…
George Yoshinaga writes from Gardena and may be reached via e-mail at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.