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The Harada House of Riverside, California: A Milestone in Japanese American Resistance to Racist Oppression - Part 3 of 6

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My next meeting with Embrey took place on June 5, 1973, in conjunction with her lecture at the UC Irvine series about the symbolic meaning of the wartime concentration camp experience for Asian Americans.

Following her lecture she, along with another Nisei woman from the Manzanar Committee, Amy Uno Ishii, joined me and my Nisei colleague and friend from the Cal State Fullerton History Department, Kinji Yada, for food, drinks, and conversation at a nearby campus pub. (For the record, Amy Uno Ishii was the older sister of Edison Uno, the so-called father of Japanese American Redress and a member of the extended Harada family.)

All three Nisei with me that evening had been born in the 1920s, grown up in the Los Angeles Nikkei community, and shared many acquaintances and memories. Although Embrey and Yada had not met previously, they had lived in adjacent blocks at Manzanar during the war and each knew of the other’s family.

Because of their enmeshed pasts, it took only minutes for us to fall into enraptured talk about the prewar and wartime Nisei world. When, several months later, I reflected upon that evening’s conversation through the screen of Lyman’s scholarship, it dawned on me just how large a quotient of our talk had been expended upon trivia like sports, movies, music, and sheer nostalgia.

However, I could not, in truth, recall that my Nisei conversationalists, particularly the two women, had employed the circumlocutions, euphemisms, confabulations, silences, or any other mechanisms of emotional management mentioned by Lyman. If anything, my recollection of their conversation ran in the opposite direction, toward openness, intimacy, frankness, expressiveness, and subjectivity.

Because of my two face-to-face encounters with Embrey, I approached our oral history interview together from the angle that her personality contradicted Lyman’s ideal type Nisei. I deduced from Lyman’s construct that it had been based almost exclusively upon his conversations with Nisei men. At one point, he even stated explicitly that “the primary concern of a Nisei male is the economical management and control of his emotions.” Furthermore, I took seriously the caveat Lyman had entered and then reiterated about ideal types—that because they were mental constructions designed to represent rather than describe reality, which was both messier and more complicated, they did not apply in every aspect to any individual. “No particular Nisei,” explained Lyman, “incorporates all the traits described and the typology may also be less applicable to the Nisei who grew up outside the Japanese communities or who associated primarily with non-Nisei peer groups.”

I learned from our post-lecture conversation that Embrey had grown up within the Nikkei community, but I knew also, as her surname of Embrey clearly denoted, that she had married exogamously (i.e., outside of her race). Moreover, her “performance” at the Manzanar Pilgrimage made me realize that, although her past associations might have been chiefly intra-generational (i.e., among second-generation Nisei), her Manzanar Committee involvement meant that her primary interactions of late were inter-generational ones with activist college-age third-generation Sansei. Indeed, several of these Sansei had urged me to include her in my lecture series so as to voice their generational perspective on the World War II concentration camp experience of Japanese Americans.

Sue at Lincoln High School. 1939. Courtesy of Embrey family

Once our interview got underway, Embrey’s behavior afforded proof that my approach to our tape-recorded conversation was appropriate, for her generational “deviance” was registered both by the content and the style of her discourse. Instead of being reticent to explore her roots as the sixth of eight children of Issei parents from the same hamlet in Okayama Prefecture, she eagerly related her family’s history. Similarly, she responded with alacrity and detail to my probing questions about her childhood in the Little Tokyo district (Nihonmachi) of Los Angeles and the inner workings of the prewar Nikkei community there.

Embrey’s plain speaking persisted throughout the interview. When, for instance, the conversation turned to the various political factions at Manzanar, notably the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) “para-administrators,” and the leftist “progressives” who dominated the editorial staff of the camp newspaper (Manzanar Free Press) on which Embrey had been employed, her message and manner of speaking again demonstrated her generational marginality.

AAH: What’s the name of the woman who was the first editor of the Manzanar Free Press?

SKE: Chiye Mori. She was quite active in the Democratic Club [Nisei Young Democrats] before the war, I think. I don’t know whether she was active in JACL or not.

AAH: About how old was she at the time of the evacuation? Was she a contemporary of yours?

SKE: No, I would say she was older than I. I used to watch her, because to me she was a very unusual Nisei. I never had come across anyone who could talk about politics and who damned the leaders of our country like she did; I had never heard such talk before! And she had some very liberal ideas which I had never come across, and I used to listen to her a lot.

AAH: [Aside from Chiye Mori] can you think of specific individuals in the left-of-center group [at Manzanar]?

SKE: Yes. There was Koji Ariyoshi, who lives in Honolulu now, and Karl Yoneda. And let’s see, who were some of the others?

AAH: Would they be part of the group you would have described as “Red” prior to the war?

SKE: I guess the people considered them that way. I don’t know how active they were. I know that both Karl and Koji were very active in labor unions before the war, trying to get labor unions opened up to minority groups. And I think their ideology was based on the thought that they had to fight Fascism first, and they went along with the evacuation as just one of the minor things that had to happen during a war.

AAH: Would you say they were equally detested by the Japanese [American] community at Manzanar as the JACL faction?

SKE: I think so. Yes, because I think some of them were also victims of beatings as well as those who were connected with JACL. But I think that they were not doing anything that was out of line with what they’d been doing before the war.

It was not until my second taping session with Embrey, four months later, that I was exposed to the extent and variety of her variance from the conventional behavior of her generation and made privy to the reasons precipitating her postwar transformation from a relatively quiet Nisei to a clamorous advocate for civil rights, social justice, and human dignity.

Part 4 >>


* This was a presentation at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, in Riverside, California, on October 20, 2012, for a program to celebrate publication of Mark Howland Rawitsch’s 2012 book, The House on Lemon Street: Japanese Pioneers and the American Dream, published by the University Press of Colorado in the Lane Hirabayashi-edited NIKKEI IN THE AMERICAS series.

© 2012 Arthur A. Hansen

Art Hansen asian american studies camps Harada jacl japanese americans manzanar manzanar pilgrimage nisei redress resistance sue embrey World War II