It is only now that I am a 94-year-old woman, I realize how brave my father was to come to America from Japan by himself in 1905. I wonder if he still would have made the journey if he known that after living in the United States for almost four decades, he, his wife and four children would be imprisoned behind barbed wire for two-and-a-half years, simply because of our Japanese ancestry.
Knowing my father’s ability to make the best of any situation, he probably would have come anyway.
My father, Yoshigoro Kawaguchi, grew up very poor in the mountains of Wakayama, Japan, where he was a farmer. At the age of 28, he boarded a ship bound for Vancouver, Canada. Upon arriving, he settled in Seattle, Washington.
Dad’s good fortune began almost as soon as he started working in Seattle, when he met the Robeson family, who owned a candy store. The Robesons were relatives of a man named Hiram Johnson, an up-and-coming politician who became California’s governor in 1911.
When the Robesons relocated to Los Angeles to live near Mr. Johnson, they invited Dad to come with them. He got work on the Johnson family’s large farm, where they grew hay and beans. Father’s job was cleaning the barn and horse stalls. It was not a very nice job, and he had to wake at 4:30 each morning to work. But it paid well: $150 per month which was very good in those days.
The Johnsons must have liked my father a lot because they also provided him a place to live, health insurance and food. Over the 15 years he worked for them, they also paid for his trips to Japan three times.
The Johnsons apparently could not pronounce my father’s name, Yoshigoro, so they gave him the name Henry. Dad kept that name until he passed away in 1967.
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Living in a Horse Stall
Over the next few weeks, we began to see governmental notices posted around town announcing that all persons of Japanese ancestry were being “evacuated.” We were required to report on April 13, 1942, to a place the government was calling the “Santa Anita Assembly Center.”
The notices said that each person could bring only one suitcase with them, just whatever we could carry. We were not told how long we would have to stay at this “assembly center” or what it would be like.
We didn’t know what to do with the few things we owned. One of our non-Japanese neighbors agreed to hold our beloved 1930 Ford for us, and also my sewing machine.
It was heartbreaking to watch Japanese men and woman have to walk away from businesses that they had spent years building, with all their belongings left inside their stores. There was no one left to care for the property left behind because the evacuation order affected all Japanese people, about 120,000 of us across the entire nation.
My father said, “Oh my goodness, we didn’t do anything bad.”
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Shortly before we left, camp authorities provided us each with $26. I wondered how in the world we were going to pay rent and buy food until we all found work with only $26 apiece! My father was 67 years old, and though my mother was much younger at 45, neither was excited to start their working lives all over again. But what choice did we have? My parents thought about returning to Japan, but quickly decided against that idea, preferring to stay close to us.
Just as we were preparing to leave the camp, good fortune smiled on us again. A friend we had made in Rohwer when he had lived in the barracks across from us, Mr. Yoshihara, had been freed shortly before we were. He wrote us a letter that he was working on a farm in Almont, Michigan, and invited us to help him. My parents decided to take a chance. My father said he was curious to see what was planted on the farm.
Our family of six packed our few belongings and left Rohwer on the Southern Pacific train. At that time, seating on the train was still segregated: we all sat in the front and there was a large blind pulled behind us to separate the white people from the blacks. We thought that was just terrible. After we, as Japanese Americans, had been removed from society for two-and-a-half years, now we were being allowed to sit in front of other U.S. citizens as if we were better than they were. It was bizarre. Read more about Yoshiko's life in My name is Yoshiko