Interviewee: Ruth Okimoto
Q: Today is October 25th, 6:51, and I’m interviewing....?
RO: Ruth Okimoto.
Q: And where were you born?
RO: Tokyo, Japan.
Q: And what’s your current address?
RO: 1012 14th St. in Berkeley, California.
Q: Do you like it here?
RO: Here in Parker? Oh I love coming here.
Q: How many times have you been here?
RO: Many times, I can’t remember now ever since 1999 I’ve been coming back several times sometimes twice a year.
Q: What part of Japan did your parents come from?
RO: Well my mother was from Fukuoka prefecture, my father was from Yamamashi, I believe it was, another prefecture.
Q: Did they come from farming families?
RO: My mother did, my mother’s family were farmers. My father’s family I think were military.
Q: How many were in your mother’s and father’s family?
RO: My father was the only one of this one marriage. His parents were divorced when he was 6 months old.
Q: Do you remember life [in Tokyo]?
RO: No, I was a baby when my parents came to the U.S., a year later after I was born.
Q: When did your parents come?
Q: At the same time or one at a time?
RO: No we all came together. I have an older brother who is 15 months older than me and so the two of us children and my parents came to the U.S. in 1937 as missionaries, Christian missionaries. Which is rather strange isn’t it? But they were coming to minister to the Japanese speaking community. That’s why they were sponsored by the church.
Q: Where’d they settle?
RO: We first went to San Diego, CA.
Q: How many children were in your family?
RO: Eventually there were 3 boys and I’m the only girl.
Q: What was their names?
RO: My youngest brother was born at the Santa Anita racetrack during WWII when they converted the Sea Biscuit’s Stadium into an assembly center. And then from there when my youngest brother was just two weeks old they put us on the train to Parker.
Q: Where did you go to school?
RO: Well I went to kindergarten in San Diego, elementary school. And then when the military soldiers came and picked us up in 1942, I started my first grade here in Poston. I went from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. Then my family went back to San Diego and I finished 4th grade.
Q: What did you like and dislike about that school?
RO: What did I like about that? Well one thing about being in Poston internment camp is that your friends are readily available. Have you seen those barracks, you know the long barracks? Well there could be as many as four families living in the barracks, so we had many friends all over the place. That was nice as kids because we had a lot of kids to play with. What I didn’t like about it was it was hot, hot here. During the summer I used to get bloody moles a lot, and we lived here for 3 years, and what I didn’t like also about being in Poston were the rattlesnakes and scorpions. There were so many of them in camp. A lot of the Japanese Americans would get the rattlesnakes and skin them, keep the skin for whatever and they would make teriyaki rattlesnake food. They said it was very good, I don’t think I ever ate one. The young people like people who were your age at the time, they told me about how they used to eat a lot of rattlesnake teriyaki.
Q: And what about before you moved to camp? Do you remember what you were doing when Pearl Harbor hit?
RO: Well I was almost 6 and no I don’t remember that specific day, but I do remember the next day or so my father had his suitcase all packed, and it was sitting in the living room. I often wondered if I was just imaging that until I did some research and I found an FBI memo in my father’s War Relocation Authority file, when the FBI was actually gong to arrest my father. But they didn’t because they discovered he was a Christian minister. The Buddhist priests in San Diego were arrested and taken away to the justice camps.
Q: Justice camps?
RO: This was the department of Justice that the FBI went around and arrested community leaders. They suspected them to be spies I guess. Anyway they took them away to specific jails. And then later of course all of us the families, we were all sent off to different camps.
Q: How did you react?
RO: I was scared, but you know I didn’t know what was happening. I just felt the fear of the adults. We knew something was happening. Our family had a different experience in that all the people who were from San Diego they were put on trains. They took a bus from San Diego to LA train station. But we missed that because we went down to the San Diego City Hall to get vaccinated for measles. And then 2 weeks later we thought we came down with the measles, my two brothers and I. So we were quarantined. And so we couldn’t go with the rest of the group from San Diego.
So the military, the soldiers had to come pick us up in their truck. And I was scared because the soldiers, they were young men. But, they had a rifle with bayonets on the end. And they marched us, my two brothers and me—my brother was 7, my other brother was 4 and I was 6—and they marched us to the truck. And my mother was 4-6 months pregnant, and they put us on this truck. Have you seen those army trucks with the canvas and they have this sort round...and there was two benches along the side of the truck. Well we had to get into that and we rode on these benches all the way from San Diego to Santa Anita Racetrack. So that was pretty scary. There were no safety seatbelts in those days. We had to poke along on the bench to see the wood underneath, it was scary.
Q: When you were in the camp, you said it was hot and there was rattlesnakes? Was there anything else about that life, or living there?
RO: Well, you know each family, a family of 6, had a room 20 by 24 feet. One room. There was no running water. There’s just one light bulb hanging in the middle of the room, and that was our home for 3 years. And you had to use the latrine that was the center. They had a block latrine one for women and one for men. And I think besides the rattlesnakes and scorpions and the discomfort of living in one room and having that as our home. We had a home in San Diego that had two bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a washroom. We went from that fairly—it wasn’t a big house, but it was a comfortable home—to one room without running water. And that was difficult to live with. Every time you had to get in line for the latrine, you had to get in line for the mess hall because we had to all eat cafeteria style, three times a day. But the other thing I really was scared of were the coyotes. The coyotes used to come down to the camp. In the middle of the night you’ll hear the crashing of the garbage can and the coyotes had come to get their feast of the evening I guess, that was one thing that was scary as a child, I was scared.
Q: Is there any activity, the clubs, religious meetings, or classes that you participated in?
RO: Well I had to go to school, and my father being a minister, he had a congregation and they used to meet in the barrack. And the one activity I pleaded with my parents to let me have piano lessons. And my father wasn’t too keen on the idea but he finally consented and that was one activity I really loved. Our barrack was at the end of Camp 3 right at where Navajo and Mohave Rd. That was the end of Camp 3 and our barrack was right at the end there so we could see across—of course at that time they didn’t call that Mohave Rd. I don’t think. It was just a dirt road with gravel on it. But I would have to walk from the end of the camp all the way to the top of the camp to do my piano lessons, but I loved it. I didn’t mind the hike.
Q: When did you return to California?
RO: 19... September, I think we left the camp...Poston on September 15th, 1945.
Q: Where did you stay?
RO: We returned to our former home in San Diego.
Q: Did you work when you got back?
RO: Well my father—was by that time 9 years old, so I was too young to work—but my father he had to earn a living because the Japanese families who went back to San Diego, they had some families that lost a lot—the businesses and so forth. But my father, the congregation were all trying to get settled. And so my father, I don’t know how he scraped up the money, but he had this old noisy Oldsmobile. And he converted the backseat and the trunk into gardening tools. He put his lawnmower and all that stuff in there and he used to go to Coronado. Do you know what Coronado is? It’s kind of like a peninsula in San Diego. It’s for the rich folks with all the beautiful homes. And so my father—in those days they just used the ferry—so my father used to go to work everyday and do the yard work for the rich folks in Coronado. That’s how we managed. And for food—because he didn’t really earn enough money—he bought some chicks and some bunnies. So he raised rabbits for our protein and the chickens for eggs. And every weekend we would go to San Diego beach where in those days you could actually dig for clam and eat it. Today you wouldn’t dare do that because it’s so contaminated. But in those days we used to go dig for clams.
Q: What kind of attitude did you encounter from your non-Japanese American neighbors when you returned?
RO: Well they weren’t too friendly. And at school—and this happened to a lot of the Japanese children when they went back—they used to chase me and spit on me and throw rocks. And our, my two brothers and I were the only Japanese American students in this school. In this San Diego elementary school we had half Caucasian and half African Americans. And we were the only Asian. So when we came back the hostility was still anti-Japanese so it was not comfortable. But I had an African-American friend,. We had a friend at the corner of the block, Mr. Davis. He was a San Diego policeman. And he was a tall African American man. He used to protect us. Whenever my father was threatened—one time with a rifle—we called Mr. Davis and he came with his gun. Anyway he was—that family really looked after us—and they had two children, a boy that was my older brother’s age, and a girl that was a little younger than me. But she was much taller than me. And so when I would get in trouble at the school she would always come to my aid.
One time, there were two classrooms and then the fence. And so I got chased into and got cornered. And the kids were throwing rocks and saying all kinds of stuff to me. And my friend saw what they were doing and she came running over. And she spread out her big arms and protected me and told the other kids to go away. I’ve never forgotten that, that here was this African American student, my neighbor, my dear friend who protected me.
Q: Do you still have contact with her?
RO: Well I contacted her not too long ago just to find out where she lived. And we tracked her down. Well I was able to get her address and phone number because her brother who was by that time a retired doctor, and my brother had connected. So from him, from Frank, I got my friend Danielle’s phone number and we chatted.
Q: When you grew up, did you have any children?
RO: Yes, I have two boys and a girl.
Q: Where were they born?
RO: My daughter was born in New York City and my two sons were born in Roseville, California. Have you heard of the place? It’s a small little town, it’s northeast of Sacramento which is our capital city. They were born there. We lived in Loomis which I’m sure you’ve never heard of. Probably the only Loomis you’ve ever heard of is those Loomis money trucks. Maybe you don’t have them here in Arizona, but in California we have these people who go to the bank in big money trucks. In California there’s a company called Loomis. Anyway we lived in Loomis.
Q: What are your children’s names?
RO: My daughter is Topaz. And she gave herself that name because she didn’t like the name we gave her, which was Darlene. And I hated that name too after awhile so I was glad she chose her own name. And then I have a son, Timothy, and a son, Barton.
Q: Do you think you raised your children the way you were raised?
RO: Well I try not to because, well, I regretted it later. Because I was raised by parents who were born in the Meiji period, which is the early 1900s. They were very strict and my father abided by his notion of where the girl fits in the world and in the family. And I always felt like I was the maid. I would go around the house cleaning everything, cooking dinner, making my brothers’ bed. I felt a little used and when the feminist movement came I was very glad.
Q: Do your children speak Japanese?
RO: No, unfortunately. I wish they...well one son did take Japanese. He understands and he was very interested in Japanese culture. He went to Japan with his father.
Q: Is your relationship with your children different from your relationship with your parents?
RO: Well I think one big difference is the language barrier I had with my parents. They spoke nothing but Japanese. My father learned a few words in English, so I would talk to my parents in Japanese and amongst the siblings we would talk in English. I’m sure the Mexican Americans must experience that with their parents.
Q: What kinds of school and extracurricular activities did they participate in?
RO: My kids, well at the time they were growing up, judo was one thing. My older son took lessons in judo. One time he actually flipped me. He was about my height by that time and he wanted something. And I said, “No Tim, that’s not a good idea.” Next thing I knew, I was on the ground. He...it was this judo thing...he went [slah!]. Anyway, he took judo. My other—both my sons are interested in sports—and my other son was interested in gymnastics.
Q: Do you guys celebrate any kinds of holidays together?
RO: Hmm...the traditional western American holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and their birthdays. You know, in the Japanese culture they don’t celebrate birthdays. At least they didn’t. It was new for my parents. My parents never gave us a birthday party. I had to throw my own cause the concept of individuality or individual birthdays wasn’t anything that was familiar to them.
Q: What are your children doing now?
RO: Well, my youngest son is in high tech and he works for Google. He is in charge of one of the platforms and he does research and development for Google. My other son is a chemist. He’s the technician in a chemistry department in a local junior high. My daughter has had some mental issues and disabilities but she’s in school. And my brother’s wife’s daughter—this is their second marriage—and anyhow she, my new sister-in-law, has a daughter who’s deaf, so my daughter is learning sign language so the two of them can communicate.
Q: So, um, who’s married?
RO: My youngest son. And he has two children, so I have two grandchildren. One’s ten and the other’s four. And, as all grandmothers, they’re just the most precious right? The best grandchildren in the world. Bring a grandmother is the best thing in the world. It’s really fun. You can always turn them over to the parents when they get a little too rowdy.
Q: Did your son marry another Japanese American?
RO: No. He actually married a Chinese from South Africa. And her parents’ grandfather arrived in South Africa at the turn of the century at the time when the Chinese were moving all around the world because of the industrial revolution that was going on in America. So he went from China to South Africa. And then of course from there he married, had a daughter, and then she had another daughter and that was Sharon. And she came to the U.S. Through I’m not sure, but anyway her sister, the three sisters are now all in the U.S. And the son, Roger, is still in South Africa with their mother. And their other had a business in Swaziland. And what had happened apparently when Sharon was ten years old, her father suddenly died of stroke. And so her mother had to take over his business and that business was in Swaziland.
Q: What are your views on interracial marriage?
RO: You know I think if two people love each other. And I know that they’ll have cultural conflicts. And it’ll be difficult, and if there’s a language barrier that will make it super difficult. But I think its fine. I mean people have been intermarrying for, how long? Forever?
Q: What kinds of activities have you been engaged in since your children have grown up?
RO: Well, I went back to school myself. And after I graduated college, I went off to work in a corporation. And before that, I was in a private arts school as an administrator. And I worked for Wells Fargo Bank, actually. Twelve and a half years. And I took early retirement in 1991, went back to graduate school, finished in 1998, and ever since then I have been involved in research and helping my husband in his business. He is an artist. He’s a sculptor and he works with glass. And I’ve been working on this Poston restoration project.
Q: That’s all you’ve been interested in is the restoration project?
RO: Well I’m interested in lots of other things. My grandkids take up—any chance I can get to baby sit, I take it. And of course I’m involved with other activities, but Poston restoration project absorbs most of my time. And thinking about it...
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
RO: Oh, one thing I’d like to just say, that after the war experience in Poston, I thought I would never want to come back to this place—the heat, remembrance of the soldiers, that whole experience which wasn’t very pleasant. But after I started to do my research and recognition began to understand the links between the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Japanese Americans, and how they were both two disenfranchised groups of people who were manipulated by the government, and the way Poston was designated to be a concentration camp here...that made me feel, I don’t know, somehow the anger melted away. And I love coming here now. Poston’s not the beige desert that I remember. I can’t believe how beautiful it is here—the green, the alfalfa, and cotton. It’s just beautiful. And it’s reassuring to hear from the tribe elders who say that if it hadn’t been for Poston, the tribe wouldn’t be where they are in terms of their prosperity. They’ve done very well as a reason. So that makes it so much better.
Q: Okay, well anything else? Thank you.
RO: Thank you.