—— When did you first develop and interest in Japan or Japanese culture?
Well, one of my earliest recollections was in the 2nd grade. I had an assignment to study a different country and I picked Japan, for some reason. My teacher wasn't terribly excited about that because at the time we were at war with Japan. Before the war and later after the war many Japanese lived in our neighborhood, so I grew up with the Japanese community. We went to school together, played, etc. So in a sense Japanese and Japanese-American culture has always been a part of my life and still is.
—— So when did you start to formally study Japan?
I started my formal Asian studies at San Diego State, long before there was ever really much interest in this field. On my own, I continued to pursue my interest in Japanese-American culture, that experience, by collecting various things and maintaining my childhood friendships. Later, as a member of the Japanese American Citizens League, since I had a background in Japanese history, the JACL asked me to write some articles on Japanese culture for Japanese-Americans, which I contributed to for about 25 years.
—— Before the war, I understand there was a Japanese Community here in SD. When and how did it start to develop?
Records show Japanese people started arriving here in the boom years of the 1880's, but who and when the first came is unknown. The first Japanese owned and operated business appeared in 1887, the "Go Ban" at 1065 5th Ave., owned by Azumagasaki Kikumatsu. Into the early 1900's the population continued to grow, aided by the climate and reasonably priced agricultural land. Then just after 1906, another wave came from northern California, both as a result of the San Francisco earthquake and the anti-Japanese sentiment that existed more so in the north.
—— As more people came, did something develop here in San Diego akin to a "Little Tokyo"?
Yes, there was! It was the old business community, roughly located, east to west, from 4th Ave. to 6th Ave. and, north to south, from Market St. to around J St. It didn't really have a name like Little Tokyo but everyone knew it as "5th and Island". All the old-timers will know what you mean if you say 5th and Island.
—— Was there a sizeable community here?
Definitely. San Diego's population in 1940 was a little over 200,000 and there were roughly 2,300 Japanese ("Issei") and Japanese-Americans living in SD County, or "Nikkei" which refers to all people of Japanese ancestry living in the US.
—— What did the Nikkei do in San Diego?
All sorts of things, but there were three major areas: farming, fishing and commercial business. Business took place downtown in the commercial business zone. Farms were spread all over the county, but mostly concentrated in Chula Vista, Nestor, and Oceanside.
—— Sounds like the Nikkei community was a vibrant, flourishing community.
It was and for the most part it grew and prospered up until the war.
—— What attracted Japanese people to the US back then? Did they come to work on the railroads like the Chinese or was it something else?
They were adventurous folks and at that time there was little opportunity back in Japan. Japan was experiencing severe economic times and these young "dekaseginin" came here seeking their fortune.
—— So as with many people, even today, the US was the land of opportunity for these Japanese people too.
Quite true. Despite the restrictions and prejudices of the time, San Diego and the US provided Issei people opportunities that didn't exist for them at home. They were pioneers in a sense, worked hard and created something very special here.
I remember conducting a series of over 100 interviews in Japanese during the 70's with many "Issei", parents of my friends and others, and 90% of them said they never intended to stay. They came here to work and make money. The phrase I heard time and time again was "icchi-man doru", or $10,000. They were going to save $10,000 and return to Japan to open their restaurant or buy a fishing boat etc., but for most of them that never happened. Still, somewhere in the back of their minds many always thought they would return, even though as time passed they knew in their heart of hearts that that was very unlikely.
—— That must have been a hard reality to face?
For some yes, but for most the reality was that they had built lives here, twice before and after the war, had houses, jobs, families and businesses. So this was their home now. Of course for their children, this was the only home they had ever known. They were Americans
—— With the coming of the war on Dec. 7 all this came to an end. Life not only for this community, but San Diego and the world for that matter changed forever. How did you become "the keeper of the flame", so to speak, of this unique and fascinating era in history?
Well over the years having grown up with this culture, in addition to studying and writing, I began to realize that there were few if any accounts of this time. In 1970, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to begin work on the local Nikkei history of San Diego. This is when I started the Issei interviews and at the same time I began to translate all the Japanese accounts of San Diego history, of which very little was written. I also researched the archives here at the San Diego Historical Society, and I noticed there weren't any photos. So when I went out to interview people I asked them if they had any old photos. People either gave them to us or we made copies. We've now amassed 6 ̃ 8 thousand photos in our collection and we are always looking to add to it. At the time, nobody thought that history was worth preserving, which is often the case. We always have to remind ourselves what is happening right now is history too!
(8-16-2002 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)