Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Yosh Nakagawa, Retired President of Osborn & Ulland

Yosh Nakagawa retired from a successful career in business to focus on sharing his story of internment/incarceration as a child during World War II. Through that he works as a civil rights activist.

Photo by Madeline Crowley
What’s important is not only that the story is not lost but that with that knowledge that it happens to no one else. That’s the significance. That’s finding common ground. I have no problem talking to blacks, to the Jewish or the Hispanic communities when we call for the human rights and freedom that belongs to all Americans. 
About Yosh:  

Yosh’s love of sports not only introduced him to towering figures like: Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Billy Jean King and a career but cemented a sense of fair play that drives him to pursue social justice and understanding even today.

Yosh on his life:

I was born in 1932. My name is Yosh Nakagawa. The story I will share with you is the story of the Japanese-American, the Nikkei community and their incarceration in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II (WWII). We were born and raised in America where we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Yet, it is only as good when it is abided by, that paper is worthless when citizens lose their freedoms. In wartime, I lost my freedom because I looked like the enemy.

Yosh as a toddler. Collection Yosh Nakagawa
 That’s the central question in my story. When I look at this in context of today, in the very church building that was boarded up and closed in 1942, because all its congregants were removed physically, against their will, to be interned without due process of law by Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt.

It is ironic that 120,000 Japanese-Americans living west of the Mountain ranges from Alaska to San Diego were physically removed from their homes. When in the (then) territory of Hawai’i 160,000 similar people were never removed [from their homes] despite the fact that they lived where the bombs fell in Pearl Harbor. If I had lived over on the other side of the mountains, I would have been free. How do I know this? When I was in Camp Minidoka, the American Concentration camp, I had a friend who looked like me, who lived in that area (Idaho) could come into the camp to visit me but I could not leave to visit him.
Yosh boxing. Collection Yosh Nakagawa
 If we had lived in Washington D.C. or New York City or anywhere else, our jobs would have been considered key (to the war effort) and never would have been threatened. This isn’t in the history books, so the educated American knows little, by intentionality, of this story. My story of my community is not just a Japanese-American story; it is an American story. It does not simply belong to my people; it belongs to American History. The Eurocentric model must come to include that Columbus did not discover America, nor did this city begin when settlers founded Seattle, in both cases the indigenous people were already there.

My story is part of what I call the awesomeness of America.

Today I have found that if I do not speak about what happened to people, our freedoms as citizens will soon be challenged. 9/11, the bombing at the Boston Marathon are instances where people are subject to looking like the enemy. We must be very careful for it might not be me [this time] who will be incarcerated or interned but it may be my neighbor.

Yosh on a pony. Collection Yosh Nakagawa
Growing up in Seattle I’ve come to realize that education, government, religion must bear the burden of their silence [during internment], we have along ways to go until we break that wall of silence that allows human freedom to be taken.

Seattle gives me great hope that the American future is bright, for we are again at the cutting-edge of human rights and working for freedom for all. I have had the opportunity through religious groups to talk to all faiths, to interfaith groups, to students and faculties of great educational institutions. Through that experience I’ve seen the new political mandate of America.  In the 1940s and 50s, I grew up in a community of people of color, this is a symbolic model for today’s America. 70 years later, all the ethnic groups I grew up with are now willing to share their stories: The First Nations, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Hispanic Migration and new immigration. These are all issues that were there when I grew up. Losing my freedom [when interned] is not a story that ends; it is a new beginning. This is because I am sharing that story.

What would you like to share of your memories in your childhood in the Central Area?

I was born in Seattle, Washington. Like many new immigrant families, my family opened a grocery store in the Central Area.  Today where that store was located is now the campus of Seattle University. During WWII some 30-50 Japanese families were removed from their homes and businesses [to be interned, and that land was taken to become part of the campus]. We had no homes to come back to after being sent from the camps.

Yosh in the Central Area. Collection Yosh Nakagawa
So, the University took those homes and those businesses?

So, I’ll tell you how that happened. My parents were not and could not become citizens legally. If they had come instead from Europe they could become naturalized citizens. So we were called ‘aliens’ just as today we call undocumented workers, ‘illegal immigrants,’ all of which are negative to being an American. It was not until 1952 through the passing of the Walter McCarren Act that my parents could become citizens. Then by these historical means the greatest number who became naturalized citizens were of Japanese descent. 

And at that point how long had your parents been in the country?

Since the early 1900’s.

And they became citizens…

They were finally allowed by law to become citizens in 1952. Whereas any European immigrant could simply have applied for naturalization.

Did you live above the grocery store that your parents owned?

The store was our home. It’s the same today, you see it in New York City or Seattle, new immigrants own the corner grocery stores.

Did your parents own that property?

No. They could not own property. Again, (at that time) if you weren’t a citizen, you could not own property. Their American-born children were not of age [to be able to own property].

When your family was forcibly relocated what happened to the store and everything in it?

It was abandoned. No one knew what to do. We were only given two weeks to get  all our things in order.

Was your family able to secure any of the investment they’d made in that store?

We did not have much, but all we had was all lost.

Was the store looted?

I don’t know.

Then Seattle University was able to take that land and make it their campus.

They were able to have it because we were no longer there.

I understand they just built a Japanese garden and made a formal apology this year.

That was because I went and told Seattle University the story of what had happened to us. That’s the awesomeness of America. I also spoke with the government about what happened to us, and with American government funds we’re building a camp in Minidoka with so that [episode in our history] is not forgotten. And to help ensure that it does not happen again.  

If I understand what you’re saying, you’re saying the awesomeness of America is the willingness to hear, to acknowledge, to apologize, to then take action and to make sure these stories are not lost.

What’s important is not only that the story is not lost but that with that knowledge that it happens to no one else. That’s the significance. That’s finding common ground. I have no problem talking to blacks, to the Jewish or the Hispanic communities when we call for the human rights and freedom that belongs to all Americans.

How old were you when you were sent to Minidoka?

I was in fourth grade and was there until middle school.

Yosh & family at Minidoka. Collection Yosh Nakagawa
First, we were removed physically against our will. We didn’t know where we would end up. We were moved to the Puyallup Fairgrounds to live in horse stall and barracks. Then, later when government closed the concentration camps, we were told we could not stay [in the camp housing]. They knew full well that we had nowhere to return to. A good portion of the camp then became homeless.

Did you know people when you got to Minidoka?

Basically no, my parents knew some people but we as children we were separated from our friends.

Then, you had to start fresh, new friends, new teachers?

And you didn’t have a home. You lived in one great common community, you dined in the central, you bathed in the central, your unit had no restroom, kitchen, bathing facilities. It was only where you came to sleep.

Yosh & friends at Minidoka. Collection Yosh Nakagawa

For the children, it was like summer time all the time because we were outside to play. There was no other place to go but it was difficult for my parents and the older community because they had no privacy and they had lost everything.

I wonder did they ever speak to you about that?

The culture of the Meiji Issei is a story that soon will be forgotten if people like myself don’t uplift it. And if I can’t uplift my parents America will be far less grateful for my presence.

Who were the Issei? 

The awesomeness of our parents, the Issei, was their loyalty to making America a better place. They gave up their children to die for America.

It’s much easier to hear the story of those born in America. Yet, America was built by the efforts of those new immigrants. They are the greatness of America, not just those born here, but those who came here and contributed.

It is still true today, those who came to labor, our new immigrants. This issue of how we treat immigrants is ongoing. If we do not learn through our history [with this issue] it is our education that has failed, not the people [the immigrants].

You came back to Washington Middle School and then Garfield High School after the camp.

We never knew in those days that Garfield High was called the United Nations School, those words were not meaningful at all to us. I believed that the incredible diversity was normal, only to find much later that at that time it was very unusual in this country.

It’s a unique thing about this community

That’s what I’m saying.

I found a picture of a Japanese couple before Internment and their home had been spray-painted with anti-Japanese slogans. Were you young enough that you weren’t aware of that kind of that…

I was too naïve to understand that at that age.

In a way, that’s a blessing.

It is. Absolutely.

You can’t become bitter over things you don’t perceive. You didn’t feel you were being treated differently at school afterwards?

I only knew that I was not white. Let’s be very clear, in Seattle, prejudice was more difficult because it was so subtle. If you lived in the deep south, you were either Colored or white. When I travel to the southern part of the country, I didn’t know that I had to become white. Because of segregation, you either entered places through the door that said, Colored or white. When I went to the service in Georgia, I was considered white.

This is jumping way ahead in time but it does seem that the definition of ‘white’ has to do with class. In the early part of the 20th century, the Irish and Italians weren’t considered white. They were provisionally European but they weren’t white. This was true of the Jewish people as well. And now it seems the Japanese-Americans third generation are now considered white, because it’s about class not race.

There you go. You see what I’m saying.

Our group, incarcerated concentrated in the camps, our group is probably the largest in outer mobility in marriage, good or bad.

Do you think this desire to gauge people according to class divisions is as insidious as racism?

I’ll tell you something, as far as food, I was as racist as anyone. I can eat hot dogs and apple pie with the majority community but I would never force them to eat my raw fish, sushi. I knew they wouldn’t like it and they’d puke on me. Then one day, I noticed there were more whites at the sushi bar than Asians. It’s not just the Eurocentric model that’s a problem, I have the same hang-ups too.

In the Eurocentric model, I’m not empowered. So I listen to people from the dominant culture. I talk to them but they never come across the bridge to talk to me, their bridge is one way. As long as I go over your bridge and I do what you deem necessary to be successful then you’ll honor me. I’ll be successful. I might even be able to marry into your family.

I worked for a famous Scandinavian company (Yosh was President of Osborn & Ulland) I could even have been President of Nordstrom’s because I grew up with their family. The awesomeness of America is to get over these negatives. In my culture, a woman has far more power but in white America they think Japanese-American women have no power. I tell you, the white woman has it worse than my mother ever did.

Because in Japanese culture the wife controls all the money.

Absolutely. I feel sorry for white women who are over-qualified, they’re the worst treated ethnic group. They can’t be leaders in the church. When I was growing up they couldn’t play sports or they were called tomboys.  And if they wanted to play they had to use men’s equipment and shoes. I said, ‘That’s wrong.” Not just because they were women but because it was bad for business. I can’t take credit [for working that change]. Though in 1972 I was with Gary Gayton and Trish Bostrom to allow her to play with the University of Washington Men’s Tennis team since there was no men’s team. The University honored for us for this, which preceded Title IX. 


I helped with that because that was just logical [that women should be allowed to compete in sports]. That’s what I’m saying.

But if you were primarily using logic then how can you imprison these Japanese-American people in the west, when you’ve got 160,000 living right where the bomb fell?

That’s just a startling realization. Why do you think that was?

In the strategic defense of Hawai’i, they were the most educated and they controlled the security. The General there said if you do that [intern or incarcerate the local Japanese] you will let the Japanese Forces take over the country. The Japanese-Americans in Hawai’i controlled the security.

Because they were the majority of the population in Hawai’i?

If you’re the majority internment can’t happen. Even today, Hawai’I is the only state that the population is not majority white. It was a territory at that time (WWII) not a state.

When I travel to speak to groups and tell them my story, I’ve been amazed back east  [on the east coast] at a lot of the Ivy Leaguers: the Princeton’s, the Yale’s, the Browns, the highest level. Yet, I’d put Stanford above them all. I thought all the nation’s leaders, the Presidents and all came from the Ivies. Yet, what a mess we have had in human rights.

I tell my German-American community [from the Central Area], isn’t it funny, you didn’t speak up for me. Yet, you were the threat in America because you had economic power. We had nothing. I was identifiable, while you were employed in Government and none of you ‘Americans’ were interned. And said to my Italian friends, you were shunned worse than the Germans. You were called WOP and other things you didn’t like. I grew up with you in Garlic Gulch; the Italian-Americans were my friends. It never dawned on me why I had to go, that was my whole drive to understand, I never knew why. 

I just had questions. Why could my friend go out of the camp and I can’t? How come my German friends and my Italian friends, their parents spoke the language of their countries [also our enemies during world war II). My parents spoke Japanese. Yet the German and Italians, they were free. Even my own community will not raise those issues, they say, ‘Yosh, you’re rocking the boat.’ That’s why I have to be careful when I talk to people today because my people are too gracious.

Well, in your ancestral culture rocking the boat is a very dangerous thing.

The nail that sticks out will be pounded down.

Silence in my community means disagreement, in the white world silence means approval. Horrible. They work by the Robert Rules of Order. We work by consensus.

How is it for you now, when you’re not operating in consensus?

It’s horrible. It’s divisive. But, some day we Americans all get amalgamated not by skin color and we are seen as fully American, then maybe the democratic Robert Rules of Order will work. Still, it certainly doesn’t work among the whites. Today, they’re finally realizing that they’re not the majority. Maybe that’s going to be the day when the Robert Rules work.

I want to stay focused on what is good for America. What I’m sharing with you today is good for America.

It sounds like what you’re sharing today is controversial in your own community. If you go into a Japanese community center are there people who will admonish you for what you’re saying?

They would, but there is one beautiful thing in my culture, my hair is grey, I’m old, and the young the children do not talk, they do not talk, they just listen. If you’re old, you’re seen as wise and given respect. When I went to Hiroshima with Brooks [Andrews] and man, I want to live over there. They would bring me a chair, bring me food, I was a sage. I had the wisdom.

In America, young people think the old are stupid. They don’t give me any respect, yet there’s everything I have to share with them about America in my story. We have to enlighten America on what is good. We have to dwell on the goodness. We have to get all the people working together, the best of each cultures combined. What we’ve tried is only the dominant culture, white culture. So, everything the dominant culture believed from God, to government, to human relationships, however they interpreted it was deemed the only right way.

I thought what you said about the one-way bridge. If you’re from the dominant culture, it’s hard to see that that bridge exists.  It’s expected that people have to come to terms with crossing that bridge but there’s not necessarily reciprocity in that.

I always went to their offices. Then, one day people came to my office and they wouldn’t leave. You know why? I have a tatami room. They took their shoes off they took their ties off, they wouldn’t leave. They couldn’t believe how comfortable it was.

It’s good for everybody. Not that it has to be the one way, if you don’t like sashimi or sushi, tell me, I can find a common ground. You don’t sacrifice friendship over types of food but maybe you’ll learn something. I never thought my white friends would say, let’s go to the sushi bar. One day my friend Arthur Ashe, who lived in New York, came to Seattle to visit. I said, Let’s go get some soul food around Garfield High but he wanted sushi. He had high cholesterol so he had a sushi chef in New York and he would eat fatty tuna. I was as racist as I could be in that idea that he’d want soul food. You see, what I’m saying we use to much of our intellectual mind. If it feels right by your guts and your soul, it’s going to be ok for your mind. We say, ‘thank you,’ but we don’t mean it. You see what I’m saying, so much of what is said is empty… like, ‘how are you?’ But we don’t want to really know. 

I found out they really didn’t care how I felt. I wish they had told me that because I wanted to be like them, I wanted to do what they expected so I learned all the strangeness [of white culture], I learned to hug.

How was that?

It was awful.

Today, though, I love hugging. I went to Japan and I hugged the wife of a colleague, I knew I did a wrong thing, but they were gracious. They understand I was American. I couldn’t speak the language. We make errors but we make the errors from our heads. It’s better not to make decisions with the head. Sometimes when you’re trying to do the right thing it is actually the wrong thing. The heart may make a mistake but it says, ‘I love you. Thank you.’ It goes a lot better from the heart then when it comes from the head.

I did interviews all my life for the sports world because I wasn’t white I would say funny things from that perspective. I knew Jackie Robinson, because he would come into the sporting equipment shows. I was awed at how he’d been treated and how he’d succeeded. Also, I was in the golden era when we broke the barriers in sports. Sports conquered more barriers in 40 years than did our government.  I worked with Billy Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg - only in America.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson was my hero but I know he didn’t do this so that Ichiro could play in the States. He just did the right thing. It wasn’t a white issue but the whites took the credit for the blacks playing in the League. No, it was that players who had the empowerment.  The abuse Jackie Robinson took, it’s horrible. But today, his story is on every young kids mind, “ I know who 42 was! That’s Jackie Robinson. And they’re just young kids but they’re learning good history and to be positive. You don’t dwell on the spit and the fact that couldn’t eat with your teammates or stay in the same hotel. From all that, though, he died an early death. It’s our tendency to dwell on the negative. He didn’t do all that to call attention to  the negatives. What I’m doing today, I’m not doing it focus on being upset, I’m doing it to sketch out the story of being an American. I’m more Norwegian than I am Japanese, why? I worked for them for 45 years. I know their sagas and I know their stories and they love me. That’s my bottom line of what I’m doing. Being American means having all these different stories, these different ways of sharing, that makes us find our common ground so we can work together.

Getting to equality means acknowledging the stories and the wrongs.

Admitting when we’re wrong cures everyone not just the whites, because all people have the same hang-ups. Sometimes I’d ask people from my past, did you know I didn’t like you? Did you know that when I saw two white kids on the sidewalk I’d go to the opposite side of the street because I didn’t want to get beat-up. Not that they were really going to beat me up, but I had that fear. You [white friends] didn’t want to go Chinatown because you don’t want to get killed or end up in an opium den or whatever. My friends from the suburbs were scared to come to Chinatown. They would go only during the day, as soon as the day was over, they’d head back to Bellevue.

Was this in the 1960s?

Much later, when what we called Suburban Flight happened.

If you look at the Central Area, the amazing part of it, is that in 1940 the largest percentage of the neighborhood was Japanese. There were 7,000 of us here. We were all removed physically from the neighborhood. Think about that! The black and Jewish communities didn’t come until after the war. After the Holocaust about 20,000 came from Europe. So I am speaking from a very strong position.  Still, I have to go further back because there were a greater number of First Nations people here before us but no one wants to talk about that.

That’s got to be part of the story of this area because the city is named after their Chief Seattle.

My heart is with them, the 550 First Nations that are splintered. I’m going to Oklahoma to speak with them. They honored me but I didn’t understand the robe they were putting on me. I didn’t know what it meant. That’s why I have to use my heart more than my head. I said, ‘Don’t honor me,’ which was a mistake. I should have been using my heart. My point is I can relate to them, that’s not in the history books either.

The Japanese were here from just 1880 – 1952. While the First Nations were here from the beginning probably for 10,000 years.

Isn’t that scary, we have educated Americans who have no appreciation of that fact. Instead, the common dialogue is about how they goof up our salmon. Yet, all we did is take everything away from them. They’ve never been reciprocated

You spoke about how the Central Area is a special place…

Growing up in Seattle, you learn the culture of Seattle with all its ethnic, religious and monetary differences. When I went to the east coast, I also learned to appreciate the differences, things weren’t as mixed. It brought home that we were ahead in many ways in what is today called a multicultural society.

Can you explain how that differs from how you grew up?

When I grew up we were tribal because our parents spoke their home language so therefore I knew who was Chinese or Filipino or whatever, because our parents spoke different languages. All us who were born in America, the Nisei, our children, no longer knew the ethnicities of their friends. Because we all spoke English, no matter what our ancestry was, so the tribalness was not only a part of culture, it’s a part of America.

If I understand you correctly, in Central Area schools there were Japanese, Filipino, Black, Jewish, Danish, Swedish and Chinese all together, so among the children the tribal loyalties dissolved.


You had a multicultural society then in the 1940s when the rest of the nation…

Stayed in their boroughs or stayed in their communities. We broke down the walls; our Chinatown became the International District. We, not by our intelligence, by our very nature broke down barriers - not really knowing that we had broken barriers. It was never intentional; every tribal group wanted their children to stay in that tribal group. My point is that coming together of the children is the awesomeness of America.

There was a very vibrant jazz community at that time. Did that bear any resemblance to your experience?

In those days it was very interesting musical performers were black, our community never thought that was unique. We heard jazz music where we lived in our neighborhood; it was a part of our make-up. We didn’t drive in from the suburbs to hear it at night, we lived surrounded by it: jazz, gospel music from the storefront churches, from the taverns. You could hear it on the sidewalk, the tambourines and all. It was what we grew up with, and we also grew up with the Bon Odori Dance. We all participated as a community, whites, blacks and everybody dancing which we thought was normal.

Seattle Bon Odori

It was coming from the heart not the head; I loved Chinese food more than Japanese food, ok? I never realized I was breaking culture. We cannot take for granted what America is all about.

You have to remember here we lived, it was called the ghetto, but I never thought it was the ghetto. The wealth was over there at Broadmoor, I didn’t think they were rich, they had money but there wasn’t that tension.

When you choose what you can eat, do you choose Chinese?

To be bluntly honest, I’m going to eat Chinese food tonight. These people who own a good Chinese restaurant called me today to say they have razor clams. They do clams really well. They’re like my family, they call me up, because they know when clams are not on the menu I’m disappointed. That friendship, it’s something instantaneous, it’s you’ve got to walk the talk.

If I’m going to help you and have one time with you, if you don’t see my friends or people who relate to the community then you don’t have a story. The story is only as good as the people affirm their differences and finding common ground.

If you share your story… if it’s shared from the heart, it gets heard.

I’ll end with the last statement, I lived in the white world, they used a word that frightened me, and they’re out to bring conversion, to convert you to their understanding.

Was the word used ‘assimilation?’

And education. And religion. They had all the right answers and they graded me on their understanding.

I think that’s still kind of true.

I don’t blame them, it’s because I never led. It’s my fault. First, I was a token, then I was symbolic, next I could contribute. I let them get away with one thing; they never thought I could lead them. I could only lead them if I did it the way they understood. That’s not a negative, that’s my problem; I didn’t have the ego strength to know I could lead you. Only in sharing a story, not to convert you, to share a story.

They wanted me to make sure I understood I was to do it their way never the way I thought would be right for the people. That’s a very subtle line…

The Eurocentric model uses the word ‘initiative.’ At school, as a young person, I was told by my parents never to raise my hand, I was to wait for the teacher to call on me. I failed; I got a poor grade because I didn’t have initiative to participate. Most of my friends (who didn’t look like me) didn’t have the right answer. I had the right answer. I learned really quickly to speak up. I’m an oddball.

(Yosh came to this project through

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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