A Tale of Three White Houses

September 13, 2014 by Admin

By Kazue Nakahara

I grew up in a white house in Lake City, a white middle-class neighborhood in the northeast part of Seattle. Many years later, in one of Mom’s photo albums, I was tickled to find the original real estate ad for the house:


An absolutely beautiful, 10-year old, snow-white, six-on-one rambler

in a setting of unusual charm.  Rolling lawn, with lily pools and hundreds

of dollars worth of shrubs and trees, slopes slightly to YEAR ROUND TROUT

STREAM and the weekend gardener’s BABY FARM and FAMILY ORCHARD

beyond.  The home itself is delightful, with three large bedrooms all on the

main floor.  Full basement, A.C. heat and double detached garage.  First time

advertised. $4,000 to handle.

Dad said they paid about $16,000 for it. 

I loved that house.  My bedroom was the largest, and just outside my window stood a tall monkey tree with spiky branches.  We had a playroom with a dark green tiled floor in the basement, which was a nice cool place in the summertime but too cold to play in the other times of the year.  We only had one small bathroom, but we had always only had one, so that didn’t bother us. There was also an unfinished attic which we never used, but later residents turned it into three cozy bedrooms and a small bathroom.

Dad put koi in the lily ponds, but the neighbor kids threw rocks at them and killed them. We  had a brick chimney-type barbecue down from the garage near the creek.  Dad built a ship-like tree house in the large oak near the barbecue.  There was also an empty chicken-house near the raspberry bushes in the backyard.   Once Dad became excited when he saw a large salmon swimming up the creek, but he was too late to catch it.  He built a sturdy wooden bridge so we could cross the stream and catch pollywogs in the puddles on the other side.

As the eldest of the two children by nearly seven years, and even though I was the girl, I still got one of the most annoying household jobs:  to mow the lawn at least once a month.  It took all afternoon for me to cut and  rake up all the grass while using a manual lawn mower.  The grass grew in three areas:  the front lawn by the driveway near the ponds; the fenced back lawn between the apple tree and the peach tree; and the largest expanse of lawn, which sloped down from our tree house to the creek.

(When we moved to our next house overlooking Lake Washington, my lucky brother only had to mow one small patch of lawn—about 20 feet by 10 feet–in the tiny backyard, which took about ten minutes to cut and rake.  Life isn’t fair!)

We moved to that white house in 1952 just before my brother, Stan, was born, and lived there for nine years before moving to a large new custom-built Asian style house with exposed wooden  beams that we stained ourselves.   Dad hired a Nikkei friend who was an architect to design this new house that was located about two miles further northeast on prime property overlooking Lake Washington.  We moved there just in time for the 1962 World’s Fair.  The best part about this house, besides the fantastic view, was that it contained three bathrooms.

But the first place where we lived, after returning to America from the Occupation of Japan in 1950, was at the Northern Apartments in the Central Area of Seattle near the International District in a neighborhood surrounded by other Japanese Americans, as well as Chinese, Filipinos, and Blacks.  Until just after World War II, we minorities lived in this area of ethnic diversity southeast of downtown Seattle.  Within just a few square miles, we could drive to Sagamiya Japanese Confectionery, Higo’s 10-cent Variety Store, Hong Kong Café, the fortune cookie factory, and just up the hill to the aroma wafting from the Wonder Bread Bakery.

On Main Street the reverberating gong would assail your ears while the priest chanted endless sutras and the incense smoke would tickle your nose as it swirled slowly toward the ceiling in the gilded main worship hall of the large brick Seattle Buddhist Church. In the meantime, up the block on the same side of the street, gales of glorious hallelujahs burst forth, rocking and quaking the little one-room white wooden Baptist church.  I always wondered what it would be like to attend one of their more exciting-sounding services instead of our more solemn, monastic ones.

Dad, Mom, and I lived in our tiny apartment at the back end of the three-story Northern  Apartments building made of dark red brick with beige cement bay windows.  I remember our unit as a rather dark place with few windows, where we could hear people going up the stairs to the second floor.   My friends and I used to play in the small fenced-in garden area outside.  Next to our building was a twin apartment building named the Eleanor Apartments.  (These twin apartments are now joined together into a complex called the El-Nor Apartments.)  Just down the street, on the corner of 18th Avenue South and Yesler Way, was Tokuda Drug Store, where I would go to buy ice cream cones and look at the comic books.  (Mr. Tokuda was the father of Wendy Tokuda, who became a news anchor in San Francisco and Los Angeles.)

I often wondered, Why did Mom and Dad want to move so far away from our friends, the Buddhist Church and Uwajimaya, the Japanese grocery store?  I know our one-bedroom unit in the Northern Apartments was too small for our growing family.  But we moved about 10 miles away from the Central Area and the International District into a world where we were obviously different from the rest of our neighbors.   At Ingraham High School my graduating class of 1963 had only three Sansei out of the 600; that’s only 0.5%–a half percent of the total number of seniors.  Steve was the Student Body president, Patsy was a cheerleader, and I was the nerd.  I only remember one African American at Ingraham, blue-eyed Mary.  I wonder how she felt.

Actually going to school and living in the north end of Seattle, I didn’t feel any different from my friends and neighbors except for five things:  1) Nobody asked me out on dates, including to go to the prom (maybe it was my thick nerdy glasses);  2) Mom and Dad wanted me to find “a nice Japanese boy,” but Steve was the only one I knew around, and he had other ideas;  3) The school counselor thought that I was too Japanese to host a visiting Kobe choir student who wanted to experience American home life;  4) I enjoyed the Japanese folk dancing in the street in front of the temple at the Obon festival every July;  5)  I served as the sous chef to Mom as over three intensive cooking days she prepared the annual Japanese New Year’s feast including ozoni (rice cake soup), kuromame (black beans), makizushi (rolled sushi), chicken teriyaki, sambaizu (carrot and daikon salad), and yokan (a block of sweet bean paste).

In 1970, two years after our wedding, my husband Hidetaka and I moved to San Francisco, California, where he had found a job.  Whenever I returned home to Seattle on our biannual visits during the summer and for the end of the year holidays, I enjoyed my talks with Mom and Dad about our family history.  Once, Mom told me how they had looked for suitable housing after World War II.  I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I imagine it went something like this:

“You know, we had to find a larger place than our apartment since I was expecting Stan.  So we called around and found a house for a reasonable price.  We went to check it out.  We were told on the phone that it was still available, but once we showed up, they told us it had just been sold.”  She shook her head sadly as I frowned suspiciously.  “This happened a number of times,” Mom sighed, “so we knew that even though we spoke English like any other American, that we still weren’t accepted so soon after the war.”

“But,” I protested, “this was almost seven years after the war ended!”

“Still too soon,” Mom reflected sadly. “We still had Japanese faces and people remembered Pearl Harbor.”

“Damn it!” My temper flared, then my face flushed red with embarrassment.  “Sorry, Mom—but that’s just not fair!  Especially after Dad and other Nisei served America during the War.”

She just shrugged her shoulders in a Shikata-ga-nai (It can’t be helped) way , indicating that there was nothing more to say.

“So what did you do?”  I picked up the story so she could move on.

“When we found the house in north Seattle, I went around to all the neighbors and asked them if it was okay with them if we Orientals moved to this block.  And they all said it would be fine with them.  That was a nice neighborhood, and we made some wonderful friends.”

I pictured my Mom enduring this humiliation, as she walked from door to door, seeking approval of our white neighbors, who were probably startled by this strange request from an Asian American woman.  Envisioning this, at first I seethed with resentment that she would even have to feel the need to do this.  But as I looked at Mom’s smiling face, beaming with pride at how she had won over our neighbors, I calmed down.

I also remembered how welcoming the neighbors were.  They invited us into their homes; their children played with us; we attended each other’s birthday parties and walked together five blocks up the hill to Maple Leaf Elementary School.  Being the oldest kid on the block, I was often asked to babysit– sometimes for 35 cents an hour to feed, diaper, and watch five children at once!  I also planned some neighborhood activities such as a treasure hunt or catching the pollywogs.  We gathered on the Fourth of July to watch the fireworks display that the adults put on at the top of the hill at the end of the block overlooking the creek.  Years later, we–the children–are attending  the funeral services of each other’s parents.

Now I wonder, If the neighbors had protested our moving to their block, would we have stayed in the Central Area and would I have met Hidetaka at Garfield High?  Would I have liked him then?  Probably not; he said he was a punk then, and I didn’t care for that type.  Maybe I would have married someone else.  Would I have been as happy as I am now, after 44 years of marriage to Hidetaka? 

I am very fortunate and grateful that we moved to Seattle’s north end; that I graduated from Ingraham High;  and that I met Hidetaka at the University of Washington.  As a second-time grandma with a grandson from each of our children, I am very satisfied and content with my life now.  I can’t imagine it any other way.

While writing this story, I recently called Dad to ask about why we moved to that particular white house in Lake City, and he replied, “We looked all over—even in Bellevue, but that was the only house we could buy in 1952.  ”

“The only house?!”  This seemed unbelievable to me.

Dad went on to tell me how he and other returning Nisei veterans faced a similar kind of discrimination that extended beyond housing.  “After the war, my friends and I wanted to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).  We had served honorably in the 442nd or the Military Intelligence Service, and yet the VFW wouldn’t take us because we were Japanese!”  He gave a nervous laugh and became silent.  Even over the phone I could see his face darken with those bitter memories.

“You are American, Dad,” I reminded him, “Japanese American—a citizen of the United States.”

“Well, it didn’t matter to them,” he said, and I could see him with his wry smile that looked more like an upturned frown, “so we decided to form our own organization, the Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC).”  Then with a triumphant laugh he announced, “And in recent years we have even accepted Caucasians in the NVC!”

Both Mom and Dad endured and overcame postwar racism, hoping that we–their children—wouldn’t have to experience the same humiliation and rejection.

So, in 1975, when my husband, Hidetaka, and I went looking for our first house to buy after moving down from Seattle to San Francisco because of his job, we had no problem at all.  In fact, Hidetaka, a shin-issei (a recent immigrant), with a heavy Japanese accent came back from his first look over and proudly announced he had just bought a small white house in El Cerrito for $32,000.  I was glad that we could now move out of our one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco to a three-bedroom, one-bath house with a large yard in a nice middle class neighborhood that included a few Asians among the Caucasians.  The only thing I didn’t like was that I didn’t even get to see the house before Hidetaka bought it!  And I know my naturalized, very American but also still very Japanese husband wouldn’t care if the neighbors objected to us.

In fact, our neighbors have been very friendly.   People on both sides of us are good about watching our house when we are out of town as well as taking in the newspapers and mail.  We helped the elderly woman across the street collect recyclables and went to visit her in the nursing home after she injured herself at the Recycling Center.   Other neighbors have come to our aid good-naturedly whenever requested to help in the yard or take the time to discuss the homes for sale in the neighborhood.  We have attended PTA meetings together and seen each other at music and scouting functions.  On nice days, we hold conversations while watering the lawn or weeding the garden.

One time, the woman across the street objected to us speaking Japanese loudly (which we don’t), and we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.  But she hasn’t had a problem with us since then and usually greets us with a friendly wave of the hand as she sits in her yard or walks her dog.

Both of our children grew up in this El Cerrito house.  They enjoyed having their own bedrooms.    We had a nice large yard with a vegetable garden and a red-brick chimney barbecue that reminded me of the one at my childhood home in Seattle.  My son watered our pear tree on his own because he loved the fresh pears that fell down from it.  In our large backyard, our children played croquet, ran through the sprinklers, and spent hours in the large turtle sandbox or turned it into a small sitting pool in the hot summers.  We hosted family picnics, small birthday parties and pitched our 7-man tent for backyard camping.   The only drawback was that we were back to one bathroom again and with two young children it would get crowded sometimes.

Our children could walk two blocks to Castro Elementary School, four blocks to Portola Junior High and one mile to El Cerrito High School.  When our son, Hidekazu, became the junior and later senior class president at El Cerrito High, his underclassman sister, Miye, who is three years younger, would answer the phone, “This is the White House.  The President is not in.  May I take a message?”  Miye smiled with a laugh as she told me how when she used to answer the phone like that, the girls calling would hang up abruptly.

We enjoy this block so much that when we wanted a much larger home, we actually moved next door and changed our address by only one digit:  from 1078 to 1070.  We also enjoyed the luxury of keeping the same phone number.  This new home (for us) is a two-story pastel green house with a cobblestone wall below the front windows–a wall that matches the fireplace in the living room. It was built in 1947, the same year as our 1078 house, and before this 1070 house was extensively remodeled, it was a mirror image of 1078.  It’s a strange, almost Alice-through-the-looking-glass experience, living in this new home.  The nicest part, besides the large kitchen, is that we now have two bathrooms: the one upstairs with the deluxe Japanese toilet for Hidetaka and the no frills Western one downstairs for me.

(It has to do with proportion of time spent there.)

Times are changing for all of us.  Growing up, I lived in a white house in Seattle, Washington, several years after World War II ended, and we raised our children in a white house in El Cerrito, California, during the Vietnam War years.  The journey from discrimination to acceptance has been gradual for our family, other Japanese Americans, and the rest of the minorities in the USA.  Even though I realize we have a long, long way to go to achieve a true democracy with all inclusive freedoms,

I am pleased that America is becoming more socially aware and tolerant of our differences and our diversity; more vigilant and advocating of equal justice for us all as promised by the Constitution.   I am very proud that we have a second-term president named Barack Obama.  And in order to complete the circle for this story, “The Tale of Three White Houses,” I look forward to seeing an Asian American president in the third white house; the biggest White House in America located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the other Washington:  Washington, DC.

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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