By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Yoshiko Kubota Takemoto at 98 had the honor of being the oldest to attend the Imperial Valley reunion, held in September at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello.
“I outlived myself for about 20 years,” joked Takemoto. “God willing, in another year and a half, I’ll be 100.”
Takemoto was born in 1916, the oldest of six siblings. She was delivered by a sanba-san in the area of what is now considered Pasadena but was a part of Los Angeles at the time.
Her father worked as a gardener in the Los Angeles area, while at the same time operating a trucking business out of El Centro in Imperial Valley.
“He hired people to drive the country people’s farm goods to Los Angeles,” said Takemoto. “My father was doing well but he had six children to feed.”
In 1929, the family moved to El Centro, and Takemoto graduated from El Centro High School.
“After I graduated, I registered for the Woodbury Business College but instead, I went to Tokyo to study my mother tongue,” she said. “That became very valuable later.”
Upon her return to the United States, she married an Issei doctor and the couple moved to Arizona.
“We moved to Arizona because in those days, California had not yet accepted Japanese Americans as doctors,” explained Takemoto. “That was the reason he established himself in Glendale, Ariz., which was 15 miles north of Phoenix.”
Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, her husband was picked up by the FBI and taken away, and she was left by herself to look after two young children.
When the U.S. government issued orders for Japanese Americans on the West Coast to report to concentration camps, Takemoto, technically, did not have to comply since Glendale had been split in half, and Japanese Americans living north of the military zone were not required to go to camp.
“There was one street that was the dividing line,” she recalled. “We lived north of there, and I could have stayed in Arizona, but the children’s father was taken away and put into a prison for no reason except for the fact that he was a doctor and Japanese. And I had no profession, no preparation to earn money to raise my two young children.”
Takemoto made the decision to enter camp. She was sent to Poston (Colorado River), where she was reunited with her parents and others from Imperial Valley.
Towards the end of the war, one of her girlfriends was given leave clearance to teach the Japanese language in Boulder, Colo., and then in Chicago. The friend invited Takemoto to join her in Chicago.
Takemoto left her two children with her parents at Poston and ventured out to Chicago, where she also found a job teaching Japanese. In July 1946, she was offered a job to Japanese to naval officers in Stillwater, Okla.
By that time, her parents were released from Poston. The parents brought Takemoto’s two children to her in Oklahoma, and the parents resettled in San Diego, where they had friends.
When the Navy discontinued the language program after one year, Takemoto and her two children joined her parents in San Diego. At the same time, she decided to divorce her husband, based on personal issues, rather than on anything connected to the loyalty questionnaire.
Takemoto supported herself and her children by teaching Japanese in San Diego.
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Mitsuyo Harry “Hank” Sasaki, 96, a prewar high school football celebrity, was the oldest male at the Imperial Valley Reunion.
In describing Sasaki, Tim Asamen, chair of the Japanese American Gallery of the Pioneers Museum in Imperial Valley, said, “I’ve said it many times that in November and December in Imperial Valley, there is only one thing that is as important, maybe even more important than the price of lettuce and that’s high school football. And the most highly achieved high school football player during the prewar era is sitting right there, Mitsuyo Henry Sasaki.”
Asamen, who graduated from Brawley High like Sasaki, said the football rivalry between the Brawley Wildcats and El Centro High Spartans is legendary.
According to Asamen, Sasaki was nicknamed “the Triple Threat because of the skill with which he could run, pass and punt.”
Asamen said Sasaki was so feared at El Centro that whenever the Brawley Wildcats were scheduled to go up against the El Centro Spartans, placards went up all over El Centro.
”These were not homemade signs,” said Asamen. “These were made at a print shop, and the signs that were posted all over El Centro read, ‘Stop Sasaki.’”
When Sasaki came down with the flu during the 1935 football season, Asamen said the local mainstream newspaper kept tabs on Sasaki’s health. As game day approached, Asamen said the newspaper led with the headline, “Sasaki to Play.”
“This wasn’t at the back of the sports page,” said Asamen. “This was the front page of the whole newspaper. And Brawley went on to win the Imperial Valley League Championships that year.”
After graduating from Brawley High, Sasaki earned a football scholarship to USC.
“I’ve always touted Hank as the Trojan’s first Nisei quarterback, but in actuality, he was the first Japanese American to play football at USC in any position,” said Asamen.
Asamen also acknowledged other Nisei football greats to come out of Imperial Valley such as George Kita, Shig Imamura and John Masutani.
“That so many Imperial Valley Nisei excelled in football is a local phenomenon,” said Asamen. “In football, we had the closest thing to a meritocracy that existed in Imperial Valley. A very important by-product of the Nisei football players’ outstanding merit was that it helped, in Hank’s words, ‘quiet down the racism’ because football was so big.”
For his part, Sasaki played down his celebrity status. He shared that his father had first been a barber but later bought and operated a grocery business in Brawley.
Since his mother was related to the Fukui Mortuary family, he spent the withering Imperial Valley summer months with the Fukuis in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
Sasaki received his USC football scholarship and moved to Los Angeles. He laughed as he recalled being the chauffeur for his Grandfather Fukui.
“I used to take him around when I was at USC, driving,” said Sasaki. “He used to like to go around Orange County and talk to some of these rich farmers for kifu (donations) to the bukkyou (Buddhist) church. And here I was a Methodist all my life and I’m taking my grandfather to collect donations for Nishi Hongwangi.”
Sasaki showed some of his competitive fire when Oakland was mentioned. “I hate Oakland,” he said. “We played against Oakland, and they were the only team that beat the Brawley team. I still remember their names. Domoto and Hanamura, I think. Later on, I found out the East Bay, they recruited players from Oakland, Berkeley and even Frisco to make their team.”
Once World War II broke out, Sasaki and his family, like other Japanese Americans in Imperial Valley, were incarcerated at Poston.