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Tessaku

Bob Kaneko - Part 2

Tule Lake concentration camp in California (Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection, Densho)

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So what happened in the camps? Your family voluntarily went.

Bob Kaneko (BK): Well they voluntarily went to Auburn. And they got rounded up. Actually my mother said that the area they were in called Ophir. In fact my sister’s birth certificate says “rural California.”

Cathy Kaneko (CK): His mom said the doctor didn’t make the birth so their friend’s wife delivered the baby and the doctor got their shortly afterward.


What were your parents doing before, when the war broke out? 

BK: They were working at the North Bay Cleaners on Vine Street. He was working there before they got married, I gathered from reading my mother’s oral history. And then, I think she worked there and did mending and sewing buttons on.


And then after the war, where did they work?

BK: Well after the war, things weren’t set up back here. I think the intention was to come back to Berkeley. I think my mother’s oldest brother was here, he was settled, Frank Matsui. They were getting things set up.

So once we got out, we stayed in Mt. Shasta for about a year. My dad worked on the railroad at least because things were steamy still about Japanese, feelings about Japanese, we stayed at a section house. So they set up a section house, I guess there were other families who were all Japanese. Literally, here was the section house and the train tracks were right there. So when the trains went through, we were asleep we were on bunk beds. My dad and I were on the bottom, my mom and my sisters were on the top, I think. You could feel at night time, felt like the place was tipping over. Strange. It was strange. 

So we stayed in Mt. Shasta and he worked, I think, for Southern Pacific or somebody because he worked the rails. The section house was where the migrant workers generally stayed and they kept tools there I guess or something. But they managed to clean it up, made it work for them.


What did he ultimately end up doing?

BK: He was a gardener. All the men, all my uncles.


Did you ever know of anything he wanted to go into?

BK: No, it was just a job.


Do you remember anything about how they felt in the camps? Or anything that your mom would say? Or did they just have that attitude of...

BK: Shikata ga nai? Yeah, sort of that. It was happening, that was just their attitude, that’s just the way it is, kind of thing. No, they didn’t. I was a probation officer for part of my career but my dad was proud that I was a probation officer, or so my mother said. Because my dad never expressed his feelings but he said he was a probation officer in camp.

His education was limited, he went to junior high and that’s it. Never finished high school. But I think, what I could gather was that he worked as a kind of internal security, he must’ve, I don’t know. But he seemed to be proud of that. He wasn’t particularly pro-Japanese but I don’t know if he was particularly bitter about going to camp. I never got that feeling.


And your mother was the same?

BK: Yep, she had babies. My youngest sister was born in camp. Right before the end, May of ’45.


And you personally, though you were young, did you ever reflect on what had happened?

BK: Well I did, once I started learning a little bit, never spoke to my parents about it. But when I started hearing about “no-no,” my imagination was because we went to Tule Lake, my dad was a “no-no.” Didn’t even think about my sisters being born and all that and the pressures that he had towards family, or to keep the family together. No, not really.


But you’ve collected all of this stuff.

BK: Because I had all these questions and these things were never discussed. From what I gathered talking to other people, that was the case.


Cathy, were you born before or after the war?

CK: I was born after the war. I was raised in Wyoming so I never even heard about internment until actually I moved out here and was getting my credential at Cal. And that’s when I first heard about it. And there was a camp in Wyoming, too. Heart Mountain.

Now one thing, with just little stories about their family, his mom who has always done domestic things, one of the things she took with her when they went up to Auburn and on to camp was her sewing machine. And she said that really saved her.

BK: That was her life.

CK: She took one cardboard suitcase, for her and Bob. She basically didn’t have any clothes for the new baby. But when they got up there, she made new clothes for them. She even brought that same sewing machine back to Berkeley.


That was her lifeline. 

BK: Yep, that’s what she said, that was her life. Those were her own words.


And then your dad was some kind of officer, or keeper of the peace? 

BK: Right. As I recall, he sure had a lot of liberties. I don’t recall at what point but I remember he had access to a military vehicle to drive into town. So I don’t know what the deal was with that and I don’t know at what point either. Things might have cooled in as far as relationships with the community.

CK: [To BK] What about some of your memories as a kid, in camp?

BK: Well that’s what I didn’t share or ask Mikki (the author's father) about, if he experienced the same thing. Because he went to Topaz first right?


Yes.

BK: But I can recall things must have been chaotic. Some of the things I remember, there must’ve been gangs of kids doing stuff that wasn’t kosher. Because they had us little kids stealing. I remember having to steal cigarettes, I don’t know if they threatened me or what, and taking cigarettes to these guys. They weren’t friends or anything but I just did that stuff.


You remember them being older than you?

BK: Yeah they were older. They weren’t men. They were kids still.

And there used to be a boiler room. I didn’t understand that, what that was heating, don’t know if that was heating the mess hall or what. We used to, I remember my cousin and I, sitting in there looking through Montgomery Ward’s and Sears catalogs, sitting there and saying “I want that, I want that,” wish book stuff. Stealing potatoes from the mess hall and baking them basically in the boiler. And then I can remember also being accused, my cousin and I, of burning down the boiler room. The boiler room burned.


Somebody blamed you for it?

BK: Inferred, if not, blamed us. I felt guilty.

CK: Was that the big fire at Tule Lake?

BK: I don’t know what the big fire was about. There was a big fire at Tule Lake too where one of the guys got killed fighting it. That was sad. I don’t know who it was. Somebody my parents knew. Young guy. Having oyatsu 3:00 in the afternoon. Get oatmeal cookie, glass of milk, and an orange, or something like that. That was snack time. I remember that. I always liked my food.

The hard part was going to the bathroom, going to the latrine. You had to leave your one room house, just one room, with a potbelly stove. Having to go to the bathroom, walk through the snow to get to the bathroom and stuff like that. I don’t think we were that far but if you’re used to having a bathroom in your own house and stuff, it’s sort of a drag. But you know, you just did it.

What else did I remember? Just normal stuff. They’d have me doing sumo and I guess I was sort of a disappointment because I was big for my age. I remember my parents commenting, my dad particularly, “He’s big but that’s about all.” Or something like that, that was a common theme I heard from him, as I was growing up.


Meaning? 

BK: Meaning he wasn’t particularly proud, I wasn’t outstanding at sports. I remember doing kendo, sumo, and remember I had to recite a poem. Had to memorize this poem, remember being nervous. But I still remember the poem. I think it was “one bunch of grapes.” My mother cracks up when I tell her that. “You still remember that!” Because I remember my mother was really proud of me. My dad, I don’t know.

CK: And you still like grapes.

BK: I still love grapes. Still good for you. But yeah, my memories are pretty child-like. I remember extremely hot weather, extremely cold weather, winters. Kept warm during the cold, I don’t feel like I suffered any. I had my tonsils pulled, I think in camp. But the treat was that you get ice cream. Ice cream was good.

 

*This article was originally published on Tessaku on September 30, 2016.

 

© 2016 Emiko Tsuchida

Auburn Berkeley no-no boy toajiku tule lake

Sobre esta serie

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.