CELEBRATING CULTURE & COMMUNITY HISTORY PROJECT: George Yoshida
Celebrating Culture & Community is putting together interviews of 25 El
Cerrito residents, a project aimed at showing the diverse communities that have
contributed to the city's history.
The interviews have been made possible largely through support from the
California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment
for the Humanities.
For more information about Celebrating Culture & Community , contact Eve
Ma at 236-3255 or email@example.com
Following is one of the interviews:
Interview with George Yoshida, 11/16/99
Interviewer: Eve A. Ma (Dr. L. Eve Armentrout Ma)
He is a relative newcomer to El Cerrito, having moved to the city in 1950.
He was born in Seattle, Washington in 1922. Both his parents are from Japan,
and came to the United States around the turn of the century. In 1936, his family
moved to Los Angeles from Seattle because of the Depression. He graduated
from Roosevelt High School in LA in 1940. Life looked rather bleak for Japanese
Americans at that time. They didn’t have role models; job opportunities were
not good for them. When he graduated from high school (east LA), there was
a relatively large Japanese American contingent in the graduating class. In
his high school, there were Mexican Americans, children of Jewish immigrants,
and Russian immigrants—very few African-Americans at that time.
There was a sizable Japanese American community there. There were a few Japanese
American doctors, but most people operated grocery stores, dry-cleaning shops,
etc.. The future for him looked bleak. In the supermarkets then, each section
was a concession owned by a different person. He worked in a supermarket concession
selling fruit and vegetables. When George Yoshida told a co-worker that he
planned to go to City College, the co-worker said, “Why? You’re going to end
up here anyway.”
A few of the Japanese Americans high school graduates went to UCLA. Many went
to work, and some went to City College, etc.
His family was Christian. His mother went to a Christian school in Japan,
and his father went to a school in Japan that was then more like a high school
but is now a university; and he learned to read and write English there, among
George Yoshida’s parents never pushed education on him. Japanese American
college grads who, for example, got degrees in engineering still ended up back
working in the supermarkets. Some tried to get appropriate jobs by moving to
Japan to look for jobs that would use their higher education, but people in
Japan looked on them with suspicion, and these Nisei from the United States
had a hard time.
He and his family were sent into the internment camps during World War II,
as a result of the hysteria that made people fear that Japanese Americans would
be involved in acts of sabotage against the United States. The general population
felt that Japanese Americans did not belong, and there was much anti-Japanese
He and his family were sent to a camp in Arizona. While he was there, he worked
in a hospital. That was a real revelation—the pharmacist, the nurses, the doctors,
etc., were Japanese or Japanese American. Only the administration was white;
everything else in the camps was run by the Japanese Americans, including newspapers,
postmen, the whole range of jobs. For a lot of young people, this gave them
an opportunity to write, to work in hospitals, to work as a teacher, in a recreation
department. The flip side, of course, was that they were forcibly incarcerated
with the concurrent loss of their civil rights.
“We had a recreation department which put on programs; in our camp we organized
a dance band. This was in the swing era with Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and
musicians like that. That was my greatest pleasure, playing and listening to
swing and jazz.
“Camp housing was like barracks. We made make-shift cabinets to store our
things in. It was very hot in the summer. Winter time was cold. I worked
in the hospital as an orderly.
“After a year in camp, we were allowed to leave to go to places other than
the west coast. A lot of us went to Chicago, Detroit, places where we could
get jobs. [Some of us got jobs doing administrative work. The American Red
Cross gave us jobs]. I went to Chicago and worked at different jobs. About
that time, the federal government formed an all-Japanese American fighting unit—the
42nd Regimental Combat Team, which eventually became the most decorated
unit in World War II.
“I was drafted in 1945 and did my basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After
basic training, I was transferred to the Military Intelligence Language School
in Minneapolis to improve my Japanese language capabilities for the purpose
of serving as a military translator/interpreter.
“After discharge from the army, I attended U.C. Berkeley and completed my elementary
teacher training courses and was employed in 1952 as one of the first Asian
American teachers to be hired by the Berkeley schools. I taught for 35 years
and continue to teach part-time at the Berkeley Adult School program for older
Q:” So when did you actually move to El Cerrito?
“This was in 1952.
“We decided to look for a lot. We went to Oakland, down to Palo Alto, Berkeley.
Driving around the hills in El Cerrito, we saw a for sale sign on Shevlin Drive.
At that time there were restrictive covenants saying only whites could buy,
and that was in the deed to this property. But the owners, the Addiegos, said
not to worry about the covenant; they would be happy to sell it to us. We decided
on this piece of property, which was about $2,000.
“After we bought the property, we located an architect to design the house.
Then we started to build the house. I did a lot of work on the house. It took
several years to complete. We adopted four children and they went to Del Mar
School, Portola Junior High School and El Cerrito High School. In the meantime,
I was teaching, and Helen stayed home to take care of the kids. I think the
kids enjoyed the schools here.
“On this street between Stockton and Terrace on Shevlin, there were no houses
here except for the one I mentioned earlier. San Pablo Avenue had a few shops.
Where the Plaza is, there was a drive-in movie. I understand that before that,
there was greyhound racing.
“I was not a part of the El Cerrito community life. It was a place to live,
and with a good view.
“The Methodist church we went to in Oakland was an all Japanese Congregation.
Our social life was pretty much with this church.
“Here in El Cerrito, the Sycamore Church provided opportunities for youngsters
to play baseball and basketball in league play.
“I didn’t know the Japanese nursery families here personally. The Adachi Nursery
used to be where the present Home Depot is.”
Memorable people/events—no stories.
“Looking at some of the photographs of early Japanese American history, I learned
that there were picnics in this area. That was in the pre-war period.
“I still go to the Japanese church in Oakland. The social life we have here
are with people we met through schools or pre-schools, or the Unitarian Church
pre-school. We’d go to events and meet other parents through these events.
So we had some social life in El Cerrito in that way, but we don’t know all
of our neighbors. People move a lot.
“When we first bought the property, there was only one house but since we didn’t
build right away, there were 3-4 houses by the time our house was built. When
we built the house, there was a family that circulated a petition to say we
shouldn’t be allowed to live here but that was a long time ago. Now, this is
truly a racially diverse neighborhood.”
El Cerrito’s Japanese church.---Sycamore Congregational Church
“This church was originally in Oakland but because of the change of the neighborhood
in Oakland, it relocated here in El Cerrito.
“There’s not really a Japanese community here in El Cerrito. It’s just that
people live here. Before the war, there was a Japanese community in San Francisco
and elsewhere, but I don’t consider there to be one here. Berkeley’s not a
community either, although we do have several Japanese churches there. Community
means people hanging out together, doing things together. There is an organization
called the Japanese American Citizens League, with a branch in Berkeley, but
we don’t have many meetings. It’s more of a network and whenever there’s a need.
Also to note the National Japanese American Historical Society, because of the
wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, does a lot of research and archiving
CELEBRATING CUTURE & COMMUNITY
1900 International MarketPlace, San
Pablo, CA., 94806
(510) 236-3255; fax (510) 236-3068
Run dates: 2000-06-24 - 2000-07-14