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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

A Different Kind of Approach – A Profile of Yoshiko Uragami

Yoshiko Uragami is a remarkable woman—though she will deny that there’s anything very special about her, her Nisei modesty can’t hide a powerful spirit and irresistible sense of humor, and her scrap books and photo albums reveal a rich history.

Born in a midwife’s house on Crocker Street in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in 1918, “when the dinosaurs were still walking around,” Uragami grew up in Southern California. It’s hard for her visitors to believe she’s nearing her 80th birthday, and she is finding it a little hard to believe herself. “You don’t mind 60, or 70,” she says, “but 80! It’s an improbable age.”

Her father, Kyosuke Arimatsu, began life in America as a farmer on leased land in what is now Palos Verde Estates. He was “a dreamer, an artist, he should have led that kind of life.” Her mother, Kinu, came from Japan in 1917. “My mother was very brave, a very intrepid woman… All the Issei women were unusual,” she reflects. “If someone said ‘Hey I know someone in Australia, do you want to marry him sight unseen,’ would you?”

Uragami’s mother went to sewing and design school, then began her own school, Arimatsu Sewing School. Yoshiko has no siblings. “I want to tell you…an only child is not spoiled!” she maintains, remembering bearing the burden of all of her parents’ expectations. Her father farmed, then gardened, until he took his family to Japan in the late 1920s, the years Uragami was ten to twelve years old. The language training she received during those years, “a very impressionable time…things just soaked in,” stayed with her and became the basis for her later career teaching Japanese in American universities.

When the family returned, they started a small dry-goods store, and lived behind the store, a source of some embarrassment to the teenage daughter, who couldn’t bring friends home to visit because the living quarters were so small. Nevertheless, her community involvement began early, including the founding of a Japanese club at Manual Arts High School, where as president of the club, she oversaw the building of an award-winning parade float.

Young Yoshiko Arimatsu was quite a star in the pre-war Los Angeles American community, as her scrapbooks of clippings and photos quickly reveal. She studied music for some years, and her trained soprano voice and her fresh beauty brought her many engagements, from the lead in a large community operetta production, to making a recording with the famed Japanese composer Masao Koga. She performed at any number of weddings—they usually gave her five dollars and a gardenia corsage, she remembers. She needed the money to finance her used car ($20.50 a month) but her allergic reaction to the inevitable gardenia made it hard to sing.

When the war broke out, she and her family were taken to the detention center at Santa Anita, then to the concentration camp at Amache, Colorado. She was soon released to teach Japanese at an elite Naval Intelligence School as the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the students were “hand-picked Ph.D.s or Phi Beta Kapas,” she recalls. The altitude eventually made her sick, and she returned to camp. “I couldn’t stand it,” she says of life in camp, and she quickly found a job teaching Japanese to GI’s at the University of Minnesota. “Those people had no notion of racial prejudice like we had suffered in California,” she remembers of life in Minneapolis. “They were not negative about receiving us there.”

In 1943 while she was teaching in Minnesota she married her longtime beau, Thomas Uragami. Before the war, Tom was an architecture student at the University of Southern California. In the late 1930s, she remembers, “we were so very poor…we were going together and we didn’t even go to a movie for ten months, we couldn’t afford it. We’d go to the park, walk around in the museum. Then he wanted a car, so he took a year off and worked for the Army Corps of Engineers and he was a draftsman; he was drafting barracks.” Uragami remembers that in Santa Anita Tom got a letter from a friend in the Engineers who told him that his name was listed as the designer of the barracks that he was assigned to—“So he had designed his own living quarters. Isn’t that something!” Uragami exclaims. “It’s ironic.”

She uncovers another pile of papers, and some painful memories. Uragami recalls that as soon as the war broke out, Tom, with his new pilot’s license in hand, tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was rejected because of his race. He applied to a number of colleges and universities in order to finish his architecture training, but was rejected by all. “Under present conditions is not accepting Japanese students…” she reads from a letter. Eventually, he heard that he had been accepted at Yale, but he had already moved to Chicago and taken a job there.

The couple settled in Chicago, and Uragami got a job teaching Japanese at Northwestern University to army officers. In 1946, Tom returned to USC to finish his architecture degree, and later studied engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1954 they bought “Five acres of land—it was a peony farm, it had 5 or 6 thousand peony bushes on it,” she remembers. “We didn’t know what we were getting into. We had to harvest and sell those peonies on top of which Tom had to work at his engineering job and I had a child”—their son John, a toddler at the time. After nine years they sold the land and bought a house in suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, where Yoshiko still lives.

“Our idea was, we’ll go out where there are Nihonjin (Japanese people)—this is a different kind of an approach maybe, and we’ll show them that we’re just like anybody else, we’re Americans. And we got active…” She goes on to describe a busy community life. Tom became a Mason. She “got myself busy in church work, the Republican Women’s Club (I’m a Democrat now), and then I went into the PTA and went up to the state board. I was the first Director of this whole Northwest area.” She displays clippings from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, in which her many activities were featured—speaking about life in Japan, singing, doing makeup for a community theater group, chairing a dinner event for the PTA which 300 leaders and educators attended.

“We became regular members of the community, to the point where people didn’t see color anymore, and I think that’s a feather in our caps don’t you?” she asks. She regrets that they lost touch with the Japanese American community, she says, except for a few close friends. “We were so far from Chicago in those days, we didn’t have toll roads,” she says. Now she and her boyfriend (“At my age to have a boyfriend, isn’t that interesting?” she asks mischievously) “we go to all these Last Hurrahs…and I do meet a lot of old friends that way.”

The conversation takes a turn as she remembers the war years. “Our children are so privileged—they’ll never know what we went through,” she says. “I started with one paper suitcase when the war came. The Nisei said, ‘OK we’ll show you, we can do it. We’re proud to be Japanese and we’ll do it.’” She looks around her comfortable home. “From a suitcase to this is a long way.”

“We couldn’t talk about those war years, it’s very common now, but at the time there was nothing except what we remember. That’s why I thank you for the Museum, otherwise all this would become ashes. I’m glad that I lived long enough to see this. My accolades to the Issei and to the Nisei,” she says, with a voice full of emotion.

“The Isseis didn’t talk much, but they gave us important values,” she says. “They didn’t hug and say ‘I love you’ but we knew they cared. With limited opportunities, supporting a family during the Great Depression was a struggle and the Nisei shared the hardships. They (Issei) gave us important values. So when the Nisei had a chance to prove themselves, they had inner strength and courage. And I think our children will have it too, no matter how mixed their blood.” She is reminded of her own grandchildren and proudly displays pictures of eleven year old Kristine and seven year old Matthew, while she recounts their accomplishments. “They both go to magnet schools,” she points out.

Tom Uragami was lost at sea in 1981. “He was a great fisherman, and fished in the Indian Ocean and twice in Africa,” she remembers. He and a friend were at a fishing camp in Costa Rica and “apparently left the bay and went out into the ocean and they were never seen again,” she says with a quaver in her voice. “Tom was a good man,” she says quietly.

Yoshiko Uragami lives with her scrapbooks and her memories—of a full and fruitful life. She cared for both of her parents who each lived to be 92, “until they took their last breaths.” She says that she is proud that she was able to do that, and that she has no regrets in life. And then she giggles, “I’m so busy, getting my groceries, taking care of things. It’s fun to take a little trip back in time.” It is certainly fun for her visitors, who leave many hours later than they had planned, full of good food and even more delicious conversation.


*This article was originally published in the Japanese American National Museum Quarterly, Winter 1998-99.


© 1998-1999 Japanese American National Museum

Arimatsu chicago community family kibei Los Angeles nisei postwar prewar resettlement Yoshiko Uragami

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These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.