Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: On Japanese internment, Seattle in the 1950s, and the first Asian-American history class in Washington public schools

  • By Casey McNerthney
  • Posted 6/16/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21249
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Lawrence Matsuda (b. 1945) is an award-winning poet, autho­r, and educator who in 1969 started the first Asian-American history course in Washington public schools. Matsuda was born in the Japanese internment camp Minidoka after his parents were forced to the Idaho site during World War II, and grew up in Seattle, where in 1970 he worked on a Japanese American Citizens' League exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry. Matsuda contributed the name for the exhibit, "Pride and Shame," which helped inspire a national redress movement for Japanese-Americans incarcerated in wartime concentration camps. As a boy growing up on Beacon Hill, Matsuda played football with Jimi Hendrix, and as a University of Washington student he was friendly with Bruce Lee. After serving in the Army Reserves, he earned bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from UW and later created the Multicultural Alumni Partnership, which has raised more than $1 million for UW scholarships. His poetry books include A Cold Wind From Idaho and Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner. In 2017, Matsuda won a regional Emmy for a visual adaptation of his graphic novel Fighting for America: Nesei Soldiers. This People's History, edited by Matsuda, is based on an interview conducted January 1, 2021 by Casey McNerthney, who was a student at Olympic Hills Elementary School in Seattle in the 1980s when Matsuda was the principal.

Born in a Concentration Camp

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I was born in the Minidoka, Idaho War Relocation Center, which was an American concentration camp during World War II. My mother, father, grandfather, uncles, aunts, all were incarcerated in 1942 and we were among 120,000 Japanese, Japanese-Americans forcibly incarcerated because of their race. Some people were able to leave the camps early but my parents were imprisoned for three and a half years. In April 1942, the Japanese on the West Coast were given a week to pack their bags and settle their affairs. My father lost his grocery business and many others lost their businesses, lands, farms, and jobs. It was a traumatic time. People often ask me, "How did that happen?" Years later, President Reagan, President Clinton, and President George H.W. Bush answered that question in their letters of apologies to the Japanese and Japanese-Americans. They stated it was because of racial discrimination, wartime hysteria and failed leadership. When I think about that, I'm reminded of our current situation under President Trump. It troubles me that the three causes of the injustice are still relevant in 2021. As a result, I have spent a great deal of my time speaking about the fact that incarcerating citizens based on race should not happen again.

Casey McNerthney: You mentioned that your family would go to the Goodwill to get socks and underwear [to send to Hiroshima, Japan]? 

LM: Every month we would walk to the Goodwill on Dearborn Street. We lived about six blocks away on Lane Street, which is now part of the I-5 Dearborn exit. My mother would go to Goodwill and buy underwear, T-shirts, and shirts and send them to Hiroshima. They didn't want money because money was too difficult to exchange. You have to go to a bank that does foreign exchange and change it from dollars to yen. Instead of money they wanted goods to trade on the black market for medicine. My mother's cousin survived the bomb blast. She was in the family home 1,000 meters from Ground Zero. She survived the blast and had burn scars, but no one relative would talk about it. When I visited Hiroshima 50 years after the bomb, I met Akiko. She was married and had a son who was a tall, handsome man, about 6 feet tall and his young son. So it seems like the message to me was, life goes on. Out of the ashes and out of the rubble, life goes on.

CM: How did your family get to the Seattle area?

LM: Both of my grandparents were from Hiroshima. On my mother's side, my grandfather was a watch-repair person. Unfortunately, he was a very poor businessman, so he didn't do well in Japan and accumulated some bad debts. So he left, hoping to make money in Seattle and return to Japan. He brought his wife with him. As was the custom, it was an arranged marriage. They came to Seattle and he became a janitor at Our House Saloon in Pioneer Square. They lived on Dearborn Street in the Russell Hotel. It was a three-story wooden hotel that catered to Japanese laborers who worked in Alaska and the Northwest. The seasonal workers would stay and leave in the summer for cannery or forestry work. Most of their clientele were Japanese, from Japan. My grandmother's side operated the hotel and took care of six children. The youngsters – my uncles and mother – helped run the hotel while grandpa went to went to work at Our House.

On my father's side, his parents were candymakers in Japan. They came to Hawaii first and worked in the pineapple fields, and then they moved to Washington. They worked at a logging camp in Gold Bar. They cooked Japanese food because most of the loggers were Japanese laborers. As a result, my father was born in Gold Bar, Washington, of all places.

CM: Was your grandfather Koemon Matsuda?

LM: Koemon, yes. After the logging camps, Koemon and my grandmother, Sumi, came back to Seattle and operated a little sweet shop in Japantown. They sold the shop and moved into the grocery business. They had several mom-and-pop grocery stores. They would buy grocery stores and build up the business and then sell them. But they always kept two stores and my father ran one of them and they ran the other. Japanese groceries were very successful because they formed a cooperative and bought in bulk. They had 100 members and could compete with Safeway in terms of prices. So the other non-Japanese mom-and-pop grocery stores were jealous of the Japanese.

CM: Do you remember the name of your grandparents' shop?

LM: The most successful was called High School Market. It was near Seattle Central Community College or Broadway High School at that time. So they named it High School Market, and that was a their most successful store. And another store was on about 9th and Seneca and that was called Elk Grocery. My Dad bragged that one time Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy from the movies came and bought an apple. They were really thrilled to have served such a famous person.

Small grocery stores then were not self-service. The customer would go up to the counter and tell the clerk what they wanted and the clerk would go and get it. Because of the World War II-forced evacuation, all the Japanese stores had to close. And when they returned years later, Safeway had captured the market. The old-style grocery service just became outdated in comparison to self-service shopping.

When my parents returned to Seattle, they couldn't get their businesses running again. The co-op didn't exist and the Japanese couldn't compete against Safeway. Since my father had no business to return to and few marketable skills, he became a hotel handyman. So that was something that he didn't care about. It really bothered him, because before the war he had some job prestige and dignity. After the war he did not.

CM: Where did he work as a handyman?

LM: He worked at the Earl Hotel on 7th and Seneca in downtown Seattle. He had a small workshop in the hotel basement and if any plumbing or minor repairs or maintenance were needed, he would fix it. Also, he was a bellhop when things got busy. Later the hotel changed hands and it was named Heart of Seattle Hotel and it's still standing today. He worked there for a number of years but always had health issues after the war. He had an ulcer and was hospitalized when I was in second grade. When I was 16 he fell down on the job and they fired him. He couldn't work and had to take a health leave. He recovered and became a part-time janitor at Seattle University and swept the gym floors.

CM: Was your dad Kiyoshi Matsuda?

LM: Yes. Kiyoshi Ernest. There was another Kiyoshi Matsuda in Seattle. So he went by Ernest Kiyoshi.

CM: Did your parents talk to you much about getting the notice that they had to go to Idaho?

LM: Yes, it would come up often. They wouldn't sit down and talk to you about these things. That's not how the Japanese behave because of shame which is a cultural thing. There is a term, "shikataganai," in Japanese which means "it can't be helped." In Japan if your house fell down, nobody would want to hear you complain because everyone was in the same boat. It was shikataganai, or it couldn't be helped.

My parents spoke about the forced incarceration but it came up in a roundabout way. For example, my mother would say, "You know we used to have a piano. It was a beautiful Baldwin piano." That started the story. They lost the Baldwin during the war, along with other items like their beautiful silver set that they got for their wedding. My family stored what they couldn't sell at the Buddhist church gym. My uncle left goods in the storage company on 12th and Madison, which is now part of Seattle University. It was called Hunt Storage, which is really strange because Minidoka was near Hunt, Idaho, and the locals called it the Hunt Camp.

My parents just didn't talk about the camps directly, but fragments would come through mixed in with other stories. When I pieced it together it was, "We had one week to get our things settled. Then we stood on the street corner and the army took us to the Puyallup Fairgrounds. It was surrounded by barbed wire and some of the people had to live in the animal stalls, but we lived in the exhibition center. Later they sent us to Minidoka, Idaho."

At the Puyallup Fairgrounds, renamed "Camp Harmony," my young female cousin got the measles. The doctors quarantined her and others in the animal stalls. Instead of using the bathroom she had to use a bucket. The boy in the next stall yelled over, "I can hear what you're doing! I can hear what you're doing!" She was embarrassed and felt shame. There was no privacy and that experience really scarred her.

While they were in the Minidoka camp, several Japanese-Americans worked to form a Japanese battalion to fight in the war for the U.S. And so about 900 people from Minidoka volunteered to fight for America out of the camps. That was really, really ironic. Because the 442 Regimental combat team and the 100th Battalion from Hawaii were so successful, the government actually drafted people out of the concentration camps to fight in the Army. The 442 did so well and became heroes and became the most decorated unit for their size in American history. The reason why they became heroes was because they were given the worst and most dangerous assignments. Even though they had little rest they were assigned to rescue what was known as the Texas Lost Battalion. They were surrounded and cut off by Germans for weeks. The 442 took more casualties than people saved. My father-in-law was in that campaign. He had two Bronze Stars, one Silver Star. And I would ask him about it, and he would never talk about it.

CM: What was your father-in-law's name?

LM: Harry. Private Harry Sakohira. He joined the 442 to take his brother's place who died ... Todd Sakohira. Harry was a hero because you don't get a Silver Star and Bronze Star for nothing.

CM: What was it like for you to go back to Idaho for the first time and see where you were born? And to go back and see the Puyallup Fairgrounds where your family lived?

LM: I didn't go to the Puyallup Fair until I was 33 years old. I purposely avoided it because my family lived there during the war. In the late 1970s I took a group of Vietnamese refugee school kids, because I was working in the bilingual program in the Seattle Public Schools. We took them to the Puyallup Fair and they really enjoyed it. And that was the first time I'd ever been to the Fair. I looked around and it was just a fairgrounds. There was no evidence at all that the Japanese lived there. But now there is one monument in one corner near some of these exhibition halls. I've seen it, and it's a Tsutakawa sculpture, a tall bronze sculpture. The last time I looked there were benches by it and people would put their cigarette butts on the ground nearby.

In terms of Minidoka, I went to Minidoka about six times. The first time, I expected it to be harsh desert land. I didn't know what to think because it was all green fields. It's like the Skagit Valley. I was speechless, it was like someone played a trick on me. I thought, "Wow, time changes everything."

CM: What was it like when you saw where you were born?

LM: Well, I did look for Block 26. It was just rolling hills and fields. Most of the land has been reclaimed as farms. Some of it now is a national historic site. So, there is a barrack that was re-built or refurbished on site. They have one original mess hall standing and the root storage building is falling down. Recently a group put up a guard tower and a baseball field because they used to play baseball there. Looking at one barrack is not like looking at 44 blocks of barracks in terms of scale. There were almost 8,000 or 9,000 people at Minidoka during its height. It was the second- or third-largest town or city in Idaho at the time. But because it was in a ravine, you could drive past it on Hunt Road, but you couldn't see it from the road. Nine thousand people there and you wouldn't even know it.

I did have one recollection when I went to Minidoka. When I went into the barrack, I was struck by the fact that it looked like an Army barrack that I had lived in at Fort Polk, Louisiana. If you've ever been in the Army and gone into a barrack, that's exactly what it looks like because they were built using the Army camp design. The only difference is the latrine was not in the barrack like in the army, but was possibly a block away.

Growing Up in Seattle

CM: What are your memories of when your family returned to Seattle?

LM: We came back and we lived in the basement of a friend's house. After the war there was a housing shortage. The house was on Weller Street, but it was torn down. Today the property is under the Dearborn Street exit off I-5. Later we moved to 921 Lane Street just a block down. And, again, that too is under the freeway exit. The neighborhood was a mixed housing and semi-industrial area. There was a metal shop nearby, low office buildings, a tire warehouse. It was kind of a weird place.

There were six houses in the neighborhood and three or four of them were occupied by Japanese. At the time you couldn't go and live anywhere because the real estate people, through some informal agreement among themselves, would not sell to Japanese outside of a certain area. They call it redlining. Even if you had the money, you couldn't go live on the other side of the canal. No one would sell or rent you anything. And so the Japanese were segregated. The Japanese were congregated in the Central Area, Japantown/Chinatown, and some on Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley. They couldn't live near Northgate unless they had farms there before the war. This practice went on for years. As a result, we lived in that neighborhood with other Japanese at Lane Street. In our minds as teenagers, going to the other side of Madison Street was like the North End. We never went there. Mostly we hung around Main Street, the Buddhist church, Central Area, Beacon Hill, and Rainier Valley.

CM: I read that you used to play football with Jimi Hendrix?

LM: I played for the Nisei Veterans little league football team called the "Fighting Irish" and we practiced at Colman Field near the Buddhist church, among other places. Jimi Hendrix played on that team. He wasn't much of a football player and was a little guy, very slight. I think he was on the line and I was in the backfield so we had little reason to talk to each other.

But, just in terms of famous people, I did know Bruce Lee.

CM: Oh, really? What was Bruce like?

LM: I met Bruce Lee at the University of Washington. He was doing Gung Fu demonstrations on campus and had a studio up on The Ave [University Way] with kickboxing and speed bags. He would throw parties there. It was kind of weird to have a dance party with these bags hanging down. I thought, it was strange. ... I didn't know him that well. But I did rope him into a pinochle game once at the U. We needed a fourth, so I said, "Hey, Bruce, come here we need a fourth." And he hated it. He was into loftier things like Gung Fu. But he hung out in the cafeteria in the UW HUB [Husky Union Building] with the other Asian kids. We played cards, ate, and socialized.

We thought Bruce was humorless and pretty one-dimensional since he would only talk about Gung Fu. In the cafeteria he'll do demonstrations with you. He'd sit next to you and say, "Hey man, come here and try to hit me in slow motion," and then he would block and counter move. I only knew that side of him. I'm sure there was another side, but I didn't see it. I guess that's how you become famous, just be obsessed with one thing.

CM: When you were growing up on Beacon Hill, what was the neighborhood like?

LM: We lived across the street from the Beacon Hill Playfield at 1916 14th Avenue South. So, we went to the playfield every day we could. The neighborhood was mixed. There were a lot of Asians, a few Blacks, and few white kids. We all played baseball and football when the weather was good. It was a nice location because we lived in a small house and I spent a lot of time in the park. They had a park baseball team, and so we were on the park softball team. Also I ran track during the annual city meets representing Beacon Hill Park.  

In the fifth and sixth grade [mid 1950s] we used to go to farms and work as berry pickers. The Japanese kids would go to a designated corner and get picked up and dropped off from the Nishimura Farm truck. We would pick berries during the summer – strawberries, raspberries – and beans. It was not only a work thing, but also a social thing. You'd meet all your friends and play hoops at lunch and talk with the girls after. For a flat of strawberries – that's 12 cups – you earned 50 cents. The strawberries were the worst because there's no shade. Beans and raspberries, there's some shade. But strawberries, you're just out there, cooking away on your knees. So you're pushing this little carrier down the row in the hot sun. If I picked two flats or three flats, it was a good day. That was $1.50 for the day. In terms of value, Van Husen dress shirts were five dollars, so it took about four days of work to earn enough for a shirt.  

A Teaching Career

CM: How did you become an educator?

LM: I was no good at math, so I had to go into the liberal arts. I made it to the University of Washington off a waiting list since I was nowhere near the top of my graduating class. At that time, the university tried to "wash out" freshmen, so GPAs were important. Consequently, I avoided every math course and enrolled in education since it did not have a math requirement. In my senior year, I was a student teacher at Rainier Beach High School in language arts and literature. Later I became a Seattle Schools substitute teacher since I graduated midyear in 1967-1968. Instead of a June graduation, I had to wait six months because I was on active duty in the Army Reserves. Graduating later was fine since by joining the reserves I avoided the Vietnam War.

CM: Did you get drafted?

LM: No, no. In order to avoid the draft, I joined the Army Reserves and became an Army medic. I was trained at Fort Polk, Louisiana; that's where I saw barracks that looked like Minidoka. For advance training I went to Fort Sam Houston, Texas for training as an army medic. After the activity duty, I came back and then I finished my degree in December. From December through June, I substituted. ... At Meany Middle School I met Tom Sheehan, who was the vice principal there. ... He became the principal of Sharples Junior High School [now named Aki Kurose Middle School] the next year. I was available and talked with Tom and got a job at Sharples as a language arts/literature teacher. It was there that I met people in the community and started the first Asian-American history class [K-12] in Washington state.

I taught for three years and then a counselor opportunity came up at the University of Washington. So, I applied and I became a counselor in the Office of Minority Affairs. In a few months I was promoted to a low-level administrator position as an assistant to the assistant vice president. Three years later I left and went to work as an administrator in Olympia at the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction's office and commuted to Olympia. My wife also worked in Olympia at the airport area and we would commute together. I think we woke up about 5 a.m. and got home about 7 p.m. We did that for four years. In my Olympia job I dealt with desegregation and bilingual education. I got tired of commuting, so I came back to Seattle as a coordinator of the Seattle Public Schools bilingual programs. We had 70-something different languages and dialects in Seattle at the time. When I first took over bilingual programs, there were 900 kids in the program. In three years it tripled to 2,700 because of the Indochinese refugee influx. And that's why I took Indochinese refugee kids to the Puyallup Fair. So it all loops around because they had just come out of the refugee camps in Asia and I was born in an American concentration camp.

CM: When you were talking about the first Asian-American history class, what kinds of things did you teach, and what brought that class about?

LM: What I was involved in was the Asian Coalition for Equality, or ACE. It was a civil rights organization that just started. I met Reverend [Mineo] Katigiri, who was the spokesperson. It was his idea that it would be a loose group that coalesced with other groups around significant issues. One thing that ACE started was my friend Tony Ogilvie, who was a teacher at Blanchet High School. He wanted to get his brother into the University of Washington, but time was getting short because summer was on us. Since we both were teachers, we attended summer school to earn credits toward our standard teaching certificates. By chance we met at the University of Washington cafeteria. He told me about his brother and that the Special Education Program [SEP, later renamed the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP] admitted Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, whites from a poverty background, but not Asians. The university's position was that Asians were over-represented on campus and therefore did not qualify for the program. The more Tony talked, the madder we both became. I said, "Let's go over there and see what we can do."

We marched over to the program office to talk to the director, Dr. Charles Evans. We set up a meeting. Because it was the Civil Rights Era, we notified everybody that we were going to have a confrontation with the SEP. When the day arrived we went into his office and there were so many people that Evans had to find another office space. These were standard confrontational tactics at the time. People from ACE showed up and we all looked really grim, really hardcore. Other non-ACE members attended, including Larry Gossett, who represented the Black Students, and Roberto Maestas representing Mexican-Americans.

At this confrontation we demanded that Asians be included in the SEP program, along with other demands. We thought he was going to say "no." But he said "yes" to everything and they would immediately accept Asians from poverty backgrounds. He said we need recruiters and Tony and I looked at each other. Both of us were teachers and had to get back to work in a month. Since we couldn't think of any recruiters, we volunteered. The first person we got in was Tony's brother. Overall we recruited 14 people during the summer. Later on, that small SEP Asian group became the Asian division of the Educational Opportunity Program, EOP. Since then, thousands of Asian students have come through the EOP. We lost track of the original 14 recruits, but Tony's brother graduated with a BA.

"Pride and Shame"

In the winter of 1970 when I was teaching at Sharples, Tomio Moriguchi of Uwajimaya, who was also a member of the Japanese American Citizen's League [JACL], was working on an exhibit for the University of Washington that was shown at the Museum of History and Industry. They invited me to be on the committee and I had my students put together a miniature barracks for the exhibit.

I suggested the name for the exhibit, "Pride and Shame." The Pride was the Japanese 442, the hardworking first and second generations, and those who farmed and brought the land to life. The shame was being incarcerated. It was America's shame as well as a shame Japanese felt. The title contained the juxtaposition of both values. The direction that Tomio and the JACL wanted to take was to explore the incarceration. But the woman at the museum thought it would be Japanese fans and kimonos and stereotypic things from Japan. Fortunately, she left town and went on a trip. During the meantime the committee met and we created the Pride and Shame exhibit. When she returned, the exhibit was on display and she was upset.

After the initial showing, the display evolved into a traveling exhibit with panels. Included were family photographs, the evacuation notice that was posted on telephone poles in Seattle, and pictures of Minidoka. It was one of the first time that the Japanese in Seattle shared their incarceration stories publicly. Years later, after the redress payments were sent, Bob Shimabukuro in his book about reparations, entitled Made in Seattle, discussed the presidential letters of apology and the $20,000 check for being incarcerated. He recounted the fact that the movement started in Seattle by the Japanese American Citizens League, which in turn was inspired by the Pride and Shame exhibit.

CM: You mentioned you worked at Shiga's Imports on The Ave? Was this while you were at the UW?

LM: I started there when I was 14 and lived on Beacon Hill. My mother used to work for Andy Shiga's father before the war at their knit shop making sweaters. In the late 1950s Andy Shiga started a custom knit shop on The Avenue near where the barbershop is now. I think the barbershop is still there. Making custom sweaters was slow, so Andy moved into the import business. He started bringing Japanese items in the shop and then moved the imports up the street near the UW bookstore. I worked with him when I was a seventh or eighth grader. I washed the windows, swept the front, and did some sales as well. He taught me how to be a salesperson.

CM: Were you saying that Andy had to get financing for the shop over in Bremerton?

LM: No, it was my parents. When they tried to buy their house, no one in Seattle would give them a loan. So, they finally found someone in Bremerton who gave them a loan. Andy, for his new shop near the bookstore, initially couldn't get financing. Finally, he got it through United Savings and Loan, which was owned by Robert Chin, a Chinese-American who would give loans to Asians. I think part of that loan situation was anti-Japanese discrimination. Andy later went on to buy apartment houses in the U District, again funded by United Savings and Loan, which years later was sold to Washington Federal Savings Bank.

CM: How did those experiences influence your work with Seattle Public Schools with desegregation efforts?

LM: I read the autobiography of Malcolm X in 1968. In it he speaks about the Black experience in America. Essentially, he points out that there are at least two different Americas. One has less justice and he lived in that one because of his race. That's true even today as evidenced by Black Lives Matter and 2021 Anti-Asian hate crimes. After reading Malcolm X, I understood the discrimination I faced as a Japanese in America. I, too, lived in the other America like Malcolm to a lesser degree. Liberty and justice for all was not guaranteed for the other Americans. Sometimes maybe, but it depended on the situation. In terms of racial discrimination, I have experienced most of the usual name calling and anti-Japanese situations over the years. But recently I encountered a new one. I was at a big-box hardware store checking out and I told the clerk that I get a 10 percent military discount. The clerk looked at me and asked, "What military?" I thought, "This will not end well if I take the bait." I just ignored the remark and told him to check the computer, which he did.

After reading Malcolm X, I sought out careers that could make America a better place and more equitable. In the Seattle Public Schools, I worked as the bilingual program administrator. Bilingual programs served children from 70 different languages and dialects. But because the Vietnam war ended, the major influx consisted of Indochinese refugees who spoke no English. Often they had little or no past schooling, unlike the students from Korea, Japan, Philippines, and China. The Indochinese children were put into, of all things, concentration camps, or refugee camps like me and my family. Because of our shared experiences, I worked hard to create programs so they could survive and find a place in this country.

As the head of bilingual programs in the Seattle schools, I started the Bilingual Orientation Center (BOC). It was for students who didn't speak English and who had little or no past schooling. These newcomers went to the BOC school first and they learned English, basic skills, cultural aspects. Then they were transferred over to the regular schools. That program has gone on for 20-something years. So, thousands of newcomer kids have benefited.

In my volunteer work I focused on equity and racial equality. As the president elect of the University of Washington Alumni Association in 1994, I founded the Multicultural Alumni Partnership, which raised money for mostly minority students and some white students with high needs. The program has operated for 26 years. We've given over 90 scholarships and have an endowment of over $1 million. As a result, future scholarships awards are derived from the interest which means that the scholarship endowment generates dollars in perpetuity.

"I've Always Written Things"

CM: How did you get into poetry?

LM: I've always written things. Not always well. I remember when I was about seven years old and we lived on Lane Street. On Saturdays we walked up to Safeway in the International District. Today the building is the House of Hong restaurant. One day my mother took us to Safeway and they had a contest about creating a jingle for Skylark Bread in 25 words or less. I tore off one of the little entry blanks and wrote a poem. It was: "Skylark is the bread for me because it gives me energy. Other breads they say are fine, but they aren't worth a dime." The next week I dropped my entry. I was hoping and thought, "I'm gonna win." Well, time went by. No one called, nothing happened. And finally the display came down and that was the end of it. That was my first poem and my first writing contest rejection.

After I got my PhD, I took a poetry class for fun. It was Nelson Bentley's poetry workshop. He was a great teacher and a great poet. I started writing and he encouraged me. I wrote a lot about the forced incarceration, because that's what I knew. After having my first poem published in the New Orleans Review and other journals, I decided to make a book of poetry. I worked on the manuscript for two years. After I finished what I thought was my final draft, my friend Alfredo Arreguin, who's an artist, said to me, "Oh, I've got my poet friend Tess Gallagher is coming to visit. She is a internationally famous. Her late husband was the famous short story writer, Raymond Carver. His work was featured in Birdman, the Academy Award-winning movie. Alfredo said to Tess, "Can you have a look at this?" and handed her my manuscript. To his amazement she read it cover to cover and liked it. But she said it needs work and she would help. I thought I was finished but took her up on her offer. For about a year we went back and forth on the Internet, and she helped me revise the manuscript and I became a better poet. I sent the manuscript out to numerous contests, and finally Black Lawrence Press in New York gave me an honorable mention and published the book in 2010.

Now I'm working on a project in Bellevue where I'm writing poems to go on a bridge trail in Bellevue very close to the light rail. They're creating murals to honor the Japanese who once farmed the land that is now downtown Bellevue. One set of murals is near where the Japanese farm association building used to be. So the project is in memory of Japanese strawberry farmers who helped start the strawberry festival in Bellevue and others who grew vegetables and sold them nationally. The Japanese helped cleared the stump lands and created farms. Now what used to be Japanese farmlands is now Bellevue Square, hotels, office skyscrapers, and parts of Clyde Hill. There were 50-some farmers, farm families there that either owned or leased the land. 

Recently I wrote a novel based on my mother's life. The title is My Name is Not Viola, Endicott and Hugh Publishing (2020). My mother was born in Seattle, sent to Hiroshima for an education, returned to Seattle and was married. Nine months later they were incarcerated in camps where my brother and I were born. Later she was institutionalized for depression. She recovered and managed to live a dignified life under undignified circumstances at times. After finishing the novel, there are still some things I want to do and things that need to be done. But that is just part of my personality, to continue to be busy and work for racial equality. Given our current racial situation and Anti-Asian agitation and attacks, there is much work that still needs to be done.

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