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The Founders II: Yosh Sogioka - Part 1

I can’t remember having been formally introduced to him; but shortly after we met, we were talking as if we had been long time buddies. Yoshimaro Sogioka, “Yosh” was the friendliest and most generous person I’ve ever met.

Yosh Sogioka

Yosh was one of the original founders of the San Gabriel Valley Japanese American Association, later the ESGVJCC. According to his autobiography, he was born in 1916, in Baldwin Park, the chonan- first male child of Sekimatsu and Shiye Sogioka, who immigrated to the United States in 1912. How the Sogioka beat the proscriptions of the infamous Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908 (Nichibei Shinshi Kyōyaku,1) is beyond my knowledge. By the time he was born, Yosh had good company, his elder sister Kazue. Brother Mits (Beans), and sister Fumiye, soon followed; and finally little brother Harue came. But he died as an infant.

Born chonan (the first-born son) into a farm family means one has to work hard to live up to tradition. Yosh had to work very hard both at home and at school. In 1934, right in the middle of the Big Depression he made it to Covina Union High. From the start of his life he had to confront the opprobrious discrimination against Japanese, typical of those years.

What p---ed me most, he used to say, was the daily bus trip to High School. From where the bus stopped you couldn’t avoid seeing a sign at the West Covina City pool reading “City Plunge – White Race Only.” That went on for four years. Who could ever forget that?

The Yoshioka were much better economically than most of their contemporaries, so the children enjoyed many advantages that others lacked. But in those days, well-being, was always associated with on- duty; so, Yosh and his siblings “had to” round their education by attending Japanese school on Saturdays. In his autobiography, Yosh remembered:

If we stayed home, it was (always) work; so being chonan, I took the easier way out with our musubi bento, and tried to learn our Japanese.2

He must have liked Gakuen (Japanese school) a lot because his command of the language was excellent.

The opportunity for him to join the Boys Scouts and to learn Judo soon arose, but his father “told” him to choose one or the other. Wisely, he selected Judo, which he began learning in 1931at the old dojo, at the El Monte YMCA. By 1942, when the infamous order came to move to a concentration camp, he had already attained the san dan, 3rd degree Black Belt. More than just technique, Yosh also learnt the Judo basic philosophy: self-respect; respect for opponents; and strict adherence to ethics. His experiences helped him become an excellent instructor. According to his close friend Kim Hatakeyama, it was thanks to Yosh that the first Judo group was formed at the San Gabriel Valley Association, after returning from camp. But that’s jumping ahead of the story.

When the “Evacuation Order” was implemented, the Sogioka were first held at the Pomona Assembly Center, and later sequestered in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, “Relocation” Center, “an experience that no citizen should be forced to endure.”3

I’d lived through the depression of the 30’s, so I was prepared for any hardship they’d put upon us, Yosh stated in his memoirs. And, “they” managed to put plenty hardship on the Japanese and their descendants.

From 1942 to 1944 Yosh managed to rescue himself from camp, by doing seasonal work in Fromsberg, Montana; the Green Giant Cannery at Dayton, Wyoming, and the Taggart-Smith Construction Company in Thermopolis, Wyoming; he was treated with great respect. He also managed to help organize the Heart Mountain Judo Dojo, with the cooperation of Kikuchi Sensei, of Hollywood and Inouye Sensei from Seattle. The unit became, “a formidable (judo) group.”4

In 1944, he became engaged to his long-time friend Kay Kiyan. They married in Chicago on May 6, 1945. The couple remained there until after V-J Day, when Yosh decided to return to California. He was joined later by Kay, who brought with her Yosh’s mother, still at Heart Mountain. They stayed with Kay’s family for a while, but soon thereafter, Yosh managed to recover his 5 acres of Baldwin Park land. The property had been in trust for the duration of the confinement period. He also recovered his old car, which after 3 years in storage was unkempt, dusty and messy. That was simply another challenge to Yosh’s wits. With lots of water and typical Japanese creativity, the car was soon again resplendent.

Now Yosh and Kay had land and car, but no home to stay. Building materials were scarce and very expensive. So, as an alternative, Yosh purchased a house from a San Gabriel mover, had it moved to his land, and turned it into a livable place. By Thanksgiving the house was a true home. He brought his parents and his sister to live with them. Then after brother Beans left the military service, the Sogioka clan invited him to join them, “so, we had a big family under one roof.”5

How does a large family feed itself, right after the devastating turmoil they had experienced? They chose to raise crops that would take no longer than 80 to 90 days to mature, and could be easily cashed. Hard backs and strong hands were good substitutes for their lack of farming equipment. The whole clan “worked like hell” (Yosh’s words) and succeeded like heaven. Soon they purchased additional acreage, and brother Beans moved to his own house in the enlarged property.

As their economics improved, Yosh joined Kim Hatakeyama and Frank Kono in an effort to revive the pre-war East San Gabriel Valley Japanese American Association. In the spring of 1950, Nobuo Sera and Chiye Hashimoto Taneguchi deeded a huge chunk of land at Sunset and Service Avenue as the domicile for the revived organization.

Kim remembers that the first activity in the new Center, besides Gakuen was classes in Judo, in which both Yosh, and Bacon Sakatani’s father, were deeply involved.6 Because of limited space, the class could only serve young pupils. Under the pressures of those days still rampant with discrimination, the benefits of Judo for personal growth…and self-defense were considered a top priority. The Buddhist Church; the Gabrites, and other service groups also became part of the center’s activities.

Kay and Yosh had their first baby, Norman in 1946; second son Bruce was born two years later, in 1948, and daughter Kathy came in 1951. That year, too, the Association changed to its current name, the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center (ESGVJCC), and Yosh was elected its second President.

In 1956, the Baldwin Park School district condemned the Sogioka’s Baldwin Park property for the site of Sierra Vista High School. With the money obtained from the sale, the Sogioka acquired land, first in Chino, and later in West Covina, too. Now, with two properties to attend, the farming chores became more demanding. Fortunately, the City of West Covina ballooned, developers kept coming with offers the Sogioka couldn’t refuse, and Yosh sold the land. They moved to Chino, where Yosh continued farming his “backyard farm” with specialty crops.

Under the sponsorship of the ESGVJCC, the West Covina Judo Dojo was formed in 1958; the teachers were Ed Kitamura, Masaru Hirada; Renso Shibata, Keigi Horiuchi, and of course Yosh Sogioka.7

Yosh’s mother died in 1960.

Part 2 >>

Notes:

1. In his relations with the US, Japan was forced to swallow the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which included denial of passports to laborers, as a way to control their immigration to America. Excluded from those provisions were Japanese immigrants already residing in America, their parents, wives and children. The pact intended to stop the humiliating, discriminatory provisions in the State of California’s laws. In that respect, the Agreement was a total failure.
2. Yosh Sogioka’s autobiographical notes, provided by his own chonan , Dr. Norman Sogioka, MD
3. As above.
4. As above.
5. As above.
6. The Founders I- ESGVJCC’s “Newsette” September 2007.
7. The Rafu Shimpo. June 23, 2007.

*This article was first appeared in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in September 2008.

© 2008 Edward Moreno

ESGVJCC San Gabriel the center yosh sogioka