My Memories

June 13, 2012 by Admin

By Joan Matsuoka


Before the war, in San Francisco, where I lived with my mother and father, I have memories of air raid sirens and blackouts in the evening. I was in kindergarten at Raphael Weill School during 1941-42, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was the only child at that time and my mother always read me bedtime stories–Mother Goose rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson poems and such—and then the siren resounded. Lights had to be turned out, and my mother and I just sat there in the dark while the sirens blared through San Francisco. It was a strange, eerie feeling as we waited, unable to do anything else until we were allowed to turn the lights back on. There was total blackness, with only my mother’s arm around me, and I was aware of almost nothing else but my own heart beating.


I remember little about being rounded up. Being the only child, I have memories of holding onto my mother’s hand most of the time. I had no idea what all the fuss was about and just obeyed, on whatever she wanted me to do—I must have helped her gather personal items to pack in suitcases and things of that nature.


At the assembly center—Tanforan—I still envision the stall compartments we were assigned to, the hard cot-like beds, and being surrounded by hay. When I was allowed to join the other children, we played in the haystacks. I sneezed once and was told by one of the older boys, “You have hay fever!” I guess that could have been partly true since I may have had an allergy due to so much hay in such a dirty place.


The winters had snow, which I had never seen before, having only lived in San Francisco. I was in awe when I saw my first icicles hanging from the rooftops. I have a picture of myself, wearing mittens, holding one of the longest icicles. Snowstorms would sweep down on us, and living about 2 blocks (blocks had 12 barracks each) away from the school, I had to buck against the windy snow to get there. Practically every step took effort; I kept going against the wind as it tried to blow off anything I was wearing.

When snowstorms receded, dust storms took their place– tumbleweeds rolled about, some even getting airborne. And the dust was powder-fine; on my return trip to Topaz in 2002, I remembered the smell of that dust. During camp, my mother and aunts would say “The fine dust can never be cleaned up completely,” and we continually cleaned up the mess of this powder from the windows, floors, and doorways.


When I turned 6 or 7, I received a pair of roller skates. Each time my friends and I wanted to skate, we would go to the washroom/laundry room, where a long stretch of concrete pavement stretched from one end of the barrack to the other, the perfect place for us to practice our skating, allowing us to get fancy enough to skate on one foot. My friends and I were able to cruise on one leg while lifting the other behind our backs with outstretched arms.

Along with skating, shopping was available to us by catching a bus to go to the little town of Delta. My mother enjoyed sewing. By ordering items through the Sears Roebuck catalog or going to Delta, she managed to provide herself and me with quite a wardrobe, including numerous mother-daughter dresses, all beautifully sewn. One favorite dress had lace around the collar, on the ends of sleeves, and down the length of the dress. I had a tendency to be pokey-slow and I remember her once exclaiming “Oh, Shucks!” (the angriest I ever recall her being) when we saw the bus leaving the bus stop as we arrived.

Canteens sprung up here and there among the blocks of barracks, and one of my memories is of buying a package of chewing gum called Honolulu Fruit Gum. With a fruity taste to it, I liked it a lot. Much later, in a social studies class, I learned that there was a city on Oahu, Hawaii, named Honolulu and I thought, Oh, the same name as the chewing gum. (I had recently learned that Honolulu Fruit Gum was a lucrative company owned by Lawrence Welk, and his band carried that name for awhile.)

Meals in the mess halls were very distracting to me as a young child— I got caught up in all the activity as compared to the quiet of simple dinners “at home” with my mother and father. I don’t remember how tasty or bland the food was, but my mother complained, “You are so slow eating your meals and we are always the last ones to leave the mess hall”. Indeed, staff people started to clear up/clean up the tables while I was still eating. What patience my mother had for me at every mealtime!


I had my tonsils taken out at Topaz Hospital, memories of which are not pleasant. Because the nurse did not give me clear instructions about breathing chloroform through my nose only, when the cup was placed over my face, I inhaled the vapors through an open mouth (it stings, you know), and I fought for my life until the sedation took effect—I believe two adults needed to restrain me.

Memories of my recovery are not that clear except that I found that eating food–soft as it was—flared up my sore throat as I swallowed each mouthful. But I do remember being given ice cream, which was a big treat, and maybe this special dessert after the operation made up for the horrible time I experienced.

I also had Chicken Pox at Topaz and a Quarantine sign was posted on the front door. My father happened to come back from some temporary job, and he acted surprised upon seeing the sign, asking “Oh, what’s this?” and wondered if he had come to the wrong door. I laughed as I told him I had Chicken Pox, enjoying his teasing reaction to the sign.


About this time, I started disliking the fact that I was an only child, so I began to pester my mother about wanting a baby sister or brother of my own. I kept telling her, “All my friends have sisters or brothers and I’d like one, too—can’t I have one?” Maybe my pestering worked, because I suddenly learned that I would be having a sister or brother pretty soon, and that pronouncement made me happy as I looked forward to this new family addition in the months to come.

Also around this time, in August of 1943, before the school’s fall term began, I accompanied my father to Tent City, in Provo. He had been assigned another temporary job outside camp and thought I might like some diversion. My mother, being pregnant and not feeling well enough, was unable to join us. This was my very first time being separated from her, and practically the whole time I was there in Tent City, I missed her terribly, crying myself to sleep every night, “homesick” for life in Topaz.

My sister was born when I was 7 ½ years old. I enjoyed watching my mother care for a newborn infant—feeding her, changing diapers, clothing her, and I learned these tasks to help take care of my baby sister and watch over her; moreover, I supported my parents in raising three more children within the next few years. However, I’m sure it must have been difficult having an infant child in the camps, yet many babies were born there. I would guess that the nighttime crying was the worst—with the closeness of the living quarters–but these mothers all managed somehow. The positive situation was that these mothers had the time to devote to their young ones’ needs, sub-par as the situation was. And my mother has said “I was always so glad to have your help. “


I only remember two flowers in Topaz—the sunflowers and the purple irises. They were pretty, and I still like those two flowers to this day. My maternal grandmother, whom I called Oba-chan, must have had quite a few more types of plants at her quarters, but this didn’t make any impression on my young mind at the time. Later, her other plants did.

I collected pretty rocks and arrowheads. My friends and I usually would dig into the soil to find them; they were pretty and fun to collect. We also used to get peach pits, and I believe we rubbed them against concrete to make a hole on each side, creating whistles. In this desert, we engaged in quite a few activities, thereby learning new things.

Guess what I had for “pets”? My friends and I caught grasshoppers and crickets and placed them in jars.   I learned to approach a grasshopper at rest and grasp the two elevated leg joints with my thumb and index finger, and then place it in a jar, giving it plant leaves for food. Over and over, we caught crickets by quickly placing our hands over them and holding them between our fingers. I was too young to be squeamish because I certainly can’t do that now.


In late May of 1945, my maternal grandfather, Oji-chan, was able to leave camp to find housing for everyone in Berkeley. My dad followed in early June, and they found a property with two-family living quarters. In late July, my mother, my baby sister, and I left camp. This feeling of venturing out and beginning a new chapter in our lives—living in a real house, preparing, cooking, and eating our own food together, going to public school– was exciting after living behind barbed wire for three years. However, the train ride was not very pleasant, and for the first time in my life, I experienced motion sickness, and needed to go to the last train, or caboose, for fresh air. While there, I conversed with the conductor, which seemed to make me forget my nausea. I could not help my mother very much while she was busy looking after a 1 ½ year-old toddler during this long train ride. We crossed the Great Salt Lake and I was impressed by the expanse of white “sand.”

After we reached our destination at the Berkeley Train Station, my father was there to greet us, and all of us reunited with him, exchanging hugs and kisses.


In Berkeley, Oji-chan and Oba-chan occupied the front house and my dad, mother, sister and I occupied the back house. Here, Oba-chan’s homemaking skills–mainly cooking–flourished and provided wonderful memories for the ever-increasing clan that we grew into (over the years, the number of Sanseis grew to 23 children, a big increase from the original 7 children Oji-chan and Oba-chan gave birth to and raised). We respected her cooking skills—she would taste any new dish and be able to copy it—and many of us wished to recreate these amazing foods. To this day, we Sanseis remember her cooking and marvel at all the dishes she used to make.

I also went to shop with my mother at Capwell’s in Oakland—mid-August 1945–actually not even one month after leaving Topaz), and suddenly heard a city-wide siren. My mother told me “Isn’t it wonderful—the war is over!” Those in the store applauded, shouted with happiness, and began closing down the store, preparing to leave and celebrate. But I was conditioned to the anxiety-producing sound of any siren that, even now, returns me to the days of the blackout practices when I was 5 years old.

Back at home Oba-chan grew all kinds of plants – vegetables, flowers, cacti. These plants all flourished with her eggshells-and-coffee grinds care. She gave me some and showed me how to care for them myself—I enjoy all kinds of cacti and succulents to this day, among many other plants.

I also learned how to knit and crochet from her. She had been clever and resourceful all her life, so she either knew many of these things before the camps or learned these crafts to add to her skills. Much later, she enjoyed American soap operas on television—even as an Issei, completely understanding the plot– and while we both watched them, she taught me how to make an afghan and yarn dog like the ladies in Topaz did. Living in a back house behind her house from ages 8 through 14 years old, I visited with her almost on a daily basis—giving her shoulder and back massages, listening to stories in half-Japanese and half-English, playing Rummy, Checkers, and Mah Jong with both grandparents, with any other available player, in addition to learning needlework. I remain the only grandchild with such connections to my grandmother. These relaxed moments that we shared provided me this precious opportunity to bond with her, and I feel that I experienced something unique that few other Sanseis were able to do. I treasure these memories.


I noted the woman-and-child picture on the cover of the book Making Home From War, and I did not recognize the woman until someone told me her name. It turns out that she was my piano teacher. Here was this petite woman with amazing strength in her hands and fingers, and she ably taught me and numerous friends the basics of classical piano. She was rather strict—she would insist on expression, tempo, and loudness by yelling at us–and my fellow students and I would experience such nervousness during our yearly recitals. Our palms sweated and we paced around; we dreaded anyone forgetting passages in their performances. Yet I was fortunate to have such a skilled woman and musician as my teacher, and the enjoyment of playing piano has provided me with lifelong pleasure: playing pieces by ear or improvising melodies has become therapeutic for me and a way to relax. Today, I am the organist/pianist at my church on a rotation basis.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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