Once I was home for a girls’ meeting and I was intending to take the train back to San Francisco on Monday morning. They wouldn’t allow me to get on the train, they wouldn’t sell me a ticket. I think I can still picture him. I said, “Why not?” He said, “Your country started a war against us.”
-- Nancy Yamamoto
A longtime member of the Oakland Buddhist Church’s Momijikai, a young Nancy Yamamoto had aspirations to become a fashion designer and learn from the best in Chicago or New York. Her love of style is obvious by the meticulous way she’s put together, accessorized with dramatic earrings and rings. She makes all of her clothes and only wears skirts or dresses, as too many memories of farming as a child left her feeling bitter about wearing pants. Nancy never did attend fashion school in those faraway cities: Her family was rounded up into Tule Lake just as she was graduating.
The reality of camp was severe. The water in Tule Lake was so hard that it shrunk her wool sweaters. The food they ate left much to be desired. “It was just stews, potatoes, onions, radish and that’s about it. I heard from someone that the meat came in these wooden barrels and when they opened it up, they couldn’t see the meat. There were worms. They would just scrape it up, throw it out and divide it to the different camps. It’s a wonder we didn’t all have worms in our stomachs.”
Nancy started our talk by telling me about a Japanese American who recently asked her an alarming question: Aren’t you embarrassed to have been in Tule Lake?
And other people have heard someone saying that. And it’s strange but I guess I must’ve been in shock that people would ask questions like that. It’s not like I got my suitcase and said, “Let me in.” So it was a question that you would never expect to hear. And I recall saying, “The government put me there.” Because that’s what it was.
I was in Tule Lake all that time and you know the no/no people got shipped there? That’s why it got such a bad name. But to me it was a false–because it was like no sooner we got to camp that they passed this paper around, “Do you pledge allegiance to the U.S or to Japan?” Now to ask people like us, Niseis, who had never been to Japan, well there were younger people who’d been there but that was a moot question, actually. I mean that was, pardon me but a dumb question. But they passed out this questionnaire and I didn’t even bother to look at it. I had two younger brothers and my mother wanted me to answer “no” that I pledge my allegiance to Japan. I think a lot of people didn’t know they had dual citizenship, since when we were born our parents put our name in the Japan registry.
How old were you when you went into camp?
I think I was around 19. There were five of us and I didn’t have any money by myself. And we heard from several years back that there was a war brewing. You know those things don’t happen today. I was planning on going to UC. Because I lived up in Placer County [above Sacramento].
Yes. Those days, most of us didn’t go back east. That was a four year college. I didn’t have that kind of money and my mother didn’t either. My dad was gone. My dad died when I was 10 or 11.
I’m sorry. How did he pass?
He had a heart attack. And so I had an older sister that was born in Japan and Grandma decided to keep her because the parents were coming to a strange country. They didn’t know what the country was like, they didn’t know the language. I have to give them credit for coming to a foreign country without even knowing the language. I don’t even know if they knew the word “yes” or “no.”
So it was five of us here, and I was the second oldest here. My older sister was very business minded. So I guess she went to Healds College and she always got a top-notch job because she was a very intelligent, smart gal. I just decided well, because in those days, you didn’t have a choice if you were Japanese American.
You mean a job?
In jobs. It’s not like today where you say I’m going to be this, I’m going to be that. And you go for it. When we were growing up it was becoming a nurse. My mother was a nurse, she wanted one of us to be a nurse. Or get a teaching job but even that was very hard. It was hard, hard, hard. Prejudice was just so rampant, you know. We never mingled [with white people] or went to lunch, nothing like it is now.
And where exactly did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Loomis. And went to high school in Auburn, the bus transported us. Then I started junior college there but I wasn’t interested. So I thought I’d go to a specialty school, I liked fashion design. A lot of the Japanese girls went to San Francisco to this designing school and they stayed in Caucasian homes. $15 a month plus room and board. We all did that. If one gal finished school and she was going to move elsewhere, if she had a friend that wanted to come, she would introduce them to the family. Some families were very nice, others didn’t care for us.
Why would they let the Japanese stay in their homes, if some of them weren’t friendly to you?
Well we were at school all day, we’re never home. Except we’d come home in the evening. My first place, there was a little girl and a little boy. I washed his diapers in the morning, but the washing machine did that. In those days we didn’t have dryers so I ‘d go out in the backyard, hang it up on the line and then I’d eat breakfast and go to school. Then when we came home, everybody’s job was a little different, mine was really easy. So then I’d take down the laundry that I hung up, fold it, and help the lady of the house set the table or something like that. Then wash up. It was very easy.
Was that family nice to you?
Well this was a doctor’s family and they were very nice people. I often wonder what happened to them. Their name was Marcus and maybe the parents are gone.
And then the war broke out, so being a doctor he was transferred to Washington state. So that left me with a family that came in renting the place. A Navy family. And they were really, really anti-Japanese. You know, Navy. Japan bombed the U.S Navy in Pearl Harbor. It was an elderly couple and they had a young boy. Sassy, sassy boy.
*This article was originally published on Tessaku on December 13, 2016.