Internment & Family: Interview with Jim Matsuoka

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Jim Matsuoka

(This article ends abruptly as in the original National Coalition for Redress & Reparations 1980 pamphlet)

Jim Matsuoka is a longtime activist in the Los Angeles Japanese American community. He is the assistant director of the special education program at California State University Long Beach.

UNITY: What was your experience with the camps?

Jim: I was put into the camps when I was six cars old, and I really didn't know what was going on too much. In some ways, for a small child there was a sense of liberation because you're away from the constraints that you would normally have. But one of the things we were struck with was the harshness of the area we were put in, Manzanar. It's a desert. The weather can be capricious and change quite radically and quickly. It might be a nice day, and the next minute have a raging sandstorm coming at you. It would become very, very cold and very, very hot. The camps were quite primitive - straw mattresses, tar paper and board - that was about it. It was a jarring experience, much more for the older people.

UNITY: How did it affect your folks?

Jim: My father had been saving for years to return to Japan in comfort. That was a classic dream? of a lot of the immigrants, work hard in another country and maybe go back. He was hitting his 50's. There was really nothing he could do when he got out of the camps. He tried to get a series of odd jobs and any type of labor that would come up. All of our savings were frozen, and to this day, we hardly got a penny on it. It was in Sumitomo, and the government seized that as enemy alien assets, and they wiped it off the books. We still have the receipts, and they're not any good. It's quite ironic when you see Sumitomo Bank in business now -they didn't hurt too much. You wonder what the hell happened. Those were his life savings. The furniture we had stored away was stolen, and we never saw it again. So when we came out, it was just as bad as being in. We lived in a trailer camp for 2 to 3 years in Long Beach. Nothing but Japanese. These aren't the fancy trailers you think about. These were dingy, little, grey trailers. They didn't even have a john. You had to use a communal john. Really small and cramped. When we would go to school, and the teacher would say, why don't you draw your house, all the kids from the trailer camps would draw these pitiful little trailers. All the white kids would be drawing these nice houses. It was a rugged time right after the war.

UNITY: What did your dad do before the camps?

Jim: He worked in a drugstore as a handy-man. He never did have a really good job. But if he was not employed too well before the war, he was downright unemployable after the war. He never caught on how to speak English. All he had was his labor, and as he got older, that became very expendable, of little use. I used to run into him in J?Town quite a bit at one of these hiring hails, see him sitting there all day. I thought he just went there to hang out, but he was really looking for a job. And there was really nothing for him to go home to ? he lived in Hiroshima, which got blown apart. Believe it or not, as poor as we were, we were sending food packages to Japan. Things were really rough.

Everyone has their own horror story, and a lot of times they don't come out until you really begin to know people. What's worse than sitting one evening with a bunch of Nisei and getting bummed out, so we don't even talk about it. Sit around and talk about bowling and everything else. But right now, the reason we want to bring it out, is we think we can do something about this thing. Don't let them get away with it.

On a relative scale, 1 didn't see myself as being any worse off than a lot of other people. It was quite common that we lost all our money and our furniture, and came out