Herbert Isonaga
VVV

Early Adulthood

Herbert decides to visit relatives in Sherwood, Oregon. There, he helps on his uncle’s strawberry farm. Comparing his cousins’ lives to his own, differences in lifestyle and associations become apparent to him.

For two years, Herbert attends the University of Oregon. Anticipating the draft, he returns to Hawaii in 1941.

While a student at the University of Hawaii, he works part-time, typing bills to advertisers for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Aspirations

[When I graduated in 1938] I had hoped to go to school but not that enthusiastic about continuing on with higher education. I must say that at that point in my life, I had no real great aspiration for my future. Things were dangling, that’s why I left for Oregon because I wasn’t too sure what to make out of myself.

Move to Oregon

I left to go to the university and then I came to town and I was housed at the Nuuanu YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association]. During that interim, I thought, “Chee, I think I’ll go and visit my uncle in Oregon.”

I was surprised that in order to get passage to the Mainland, I had to get a citizenship card to buy a ticket. So I was fortunate I found two old-time Koloa residents and they were kind enough to go down to the immigration service. Where it was, I really can’t recall, but the place where they issued the citizenship card for me to get to buy a ticket to go to the Mainland. And, you know, in time I got the card and was able to get a passage to the Mainland.

There was a big drive locally to expatriate — I guess that’s the term they use — but my mother said, “No, you don’t have to because we never registered you with the consulate” when I was born. So I assumed I wasn’t a dual citizen.

I got my citizenship card and got a ticket and I think I got on a ship. It wasn’t an American ship, it was a Canadian ship. I don’t remember the name of the ship. But anyway, it went to — between Honolulu and Canada. Because I was told that an American citizen is not allowed to take a foreign ship between two American ports. Consequently, that ship, being Canadian, couldn’t go to Los Angeles or San Francisco. I mean, I couldn’t be a passenger on that ship. I had to go to Vancouver. I guess, British Columbia.

Herbert Isonaga, Vancouver
Herbert Isonaga, Vancouver

Then when I got to British Columbia, I took the bus and went down — oh, I visited my friend in Seattle, Rev. [Walter C.] Moore. He was our congregational minister in Koloa. But by that time, he had retired and gone back to Seattle, his home. I visited him. After a short visit, I went down to Oregon and got in touch with my uncle in Sherwood, Oregon.

Strawberry Farm

My uncle had just negotiated a lease for a farm in Sherwood. This farm had a nice big house and I would say about thirty or forty acres of land, which he wanted to develop for strawberry. That was his specialty, growing strawberries.

Since he had only recently negotiated a lease to this property, the land was not ready for berry farming so there was a lot of work to be done. I got involved in that to a certain extent. I got there in the fall. Then, of course, winter came by, very soon. In the cold winter — my uncle had, at that time, two sons and four daughters all living with him. Out of that, the youngest son and the youngest daughter were still going to school.

The others have already finished school. So three girls and the son, oldest son, were available for farm work. They all had finished high school and that was it. High school and you go work on the farm.

The thing that I recall is that my uncle could not stand idle hands no matter how cold and snowy the winter was. He had the girls and my cousin, the male, go out and work on the farm. To me, it seemed like useless work but he just wanted to see people working.

I was involved in the trimming — there was a stream running through this farm and he had us cut the brushes, trees, along the stream. So, I had this big saw and started sawing and cutting this limb off. You know, when you cut a tree with a saw and then when it gets down to — the thing will split up and then the tree came crashing down on the saw and I got a big scar (chuckles). Anyway, that’s how I learned how to cut — saw a tree down. That you had to give it a nick on one side and then cut the other side so that it’ll fall down in the direction that you give the nicks in the trunks, the tree.

My uncle’s from Hiroshima. You know, my uncle was the eldest in the family. My mother’s family was a pretty substantial family. They were in the sake business and they made dyes. That blue, popular blue dye, [aizome]. But my uncle squandered the family’s fortune. So, I guess in disgrace, he had to leave Japan. That’s how he went to the Mainland.

I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer. Because my uncle was not successful as a farmer. He had big ideas but just didn’t have the knack of hitting it right. And of course, farming is, to a large extent, luck. For example, you have to lease the right kind of land for berry growing, strawberry growing. The climate, the general situation, got to be right for you to harvest a profitable crop.

In my uncle’s case, it happened once, when he struck it big. He was all set to go back to Japan with this bundle of money that he made. What he did was, on the way to Japan, he went into town and gambled his money away, so he never ended up in Japan. But that’s the kind of person he was.

Differences

The biggest difference I noticed [between me and my Mainland cousins] was that their lifestyle and association was more Japanese than we in Hawaii. Because their circle of friends and acquaintances and associates were purely Japanese. Their only contact with the other races was either through business or going to the store or where they got their milk. I know I had to go and get the milk from the neighboring farm, where they had cows. So I noticed they spoke Japanese better than we in Hawaii did. Their general feeling was more geared toward being Japanese, rather than American.

It really didn’t bother me. I thought it was the environment that they were in, it was natural that their thinking and their attitudes would be more oriented towards the Japanese.

The most, the immediate eye-opening thing was the fact that my cousins had to work so hard on the farm. That farm life was dawn to dusk with very little return to show for all your effort. When you have a domineering parent like my uncle, you become just like a slave. But the thing I admire about my cousins is that they accepted this way of life. I wouldn’t have. (Chuckles)

Plantation life, I don’t know, people talk about harsh plantation life. But I worked on the plantation, I went to work at four o’clock in the morning and got through at two o’clock or three o’clock and earned thirty-three and one third cents a day. I’m sure that hardly paid for the lunch that I took, but for me, it was an experience.

Now, the people who lived on the plantation in the camps, I don’t recall, at least in my time, that the feeling among the workers was that the plantation was harsh and cruel. So that sentiment, I think, about plantation life being harsh and cruel, was probably when the immigrants came early on. When they didn’t have — the facilities were very poor.

Whereas in my time, people who worked on the plantation had houses, they had bathroom, they had running water and all electricity. Well, earlier in my time, it was kerosene lamp and kerosene stove. But they had some comforts of life. So I think that that feeling that we have, that the plantation life was cruel and hard, was limited to that early years, I think. But as in my time, anyway, when they were getting dollar a day as the going rate, it wasn’t that bad, I don’t think.

The farm that my uncle leased, the house had running water, electricity, it had a heating system — although it was a wood stove that you had to go down in the basement and put wood in the stove and then the heat would come up to the living room and kitchen area. But it wasn’t primitive.

You had to work hard. And no pay. You know, you work on the plantation you got paid at the end of the month. My cousins worked, end of month, no pay.

Internment

You know, in their case — I hate to say this — but the best thing that happened to them was internment. When they were interned, they were relieved, I guess, of their obligation for the farm and equipment that they leased. And they went to camp and they didn’t lose anything. Not like many others who had built up an estate of sizable value. In their case, they had nothing.

So, I think I said this before but my cousin said the best time of her life was in internment camp. Because the rest of their life was total struggle and very little chance to interact with other people. Because those farms that they leased to develop were isolated. And the only time you got together with your friends were on very special occasions, like New Year’s, where you go and visit families, make your calls.

But aside from that, they had very little interaction with their kind. With niseis. So the camp was a godsend. You know, there were thousands (chuckles) of people to interact with. And they had dances and what have you, in time. So they had a ball. And then from there, after camp, they went out and developed, got married and got jobs and they did fairly well.

Japanese Americans at camp dance, Nyssa, Oregon

My view on internment at that time was that I always felt and still feel today, that if I were in that camp, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered for the 442nd. That I really felt, at that time, that it was totally uncalled for and not justified in terms of the people. Because I knew them. I mean, I lived among them and I knew they were not capable of perpetrating any type of subversive activities. That they were not inclined and their mentality was not geared, towards any subversive action.

Although, I must admit that while I was there, there was little talk among — well, at least among my uncle’s associates — about the fear of any problem with Japan. It wasn’t discussed. And the only inkling I got — and I’m jumping ahead — about the possibility of war in Japan, came when I was on my way back on the ship to Hawaii. And I met a person who was a resident of Los Angeles and I asked him, “Gee, how come you’re going to Hawaii?” He said, “Oh, I’m going to Hawaii because the war is going to start with Japan.” And this was in the summer of [19]41. So there were people who were anticipating.

University of Oregon

I attended — I went to Oregon and still I was lost. I thought about journalism as a career. I thought about business as a career. But those two years I spent at University of Oregon was completely unfocused. But I had a good time, you know. Made a lot of friends. I mean, my wonderful experience I had in school was finding that among students, the relationship is pretty open and unhampered by any feelings of prejudice, etcetera. I associated with a Chinese student, Japanese student, some students from Hawaii, Greek student, Jewish, Polish, and I found all of them to be quite open and sociable, and I didn’t feel any sense that they had any animosity or any prejudice toward us as Orientals. The atmosphere at school was very open and pleasant.

Herbert Isonaga, Oregon
Herbert Isonaga, Oregon

My parents sent me [to Oregon]. My parents were able to help me with my education because my sister had returned from Japan and was employed various jobs on Kauai and her income was able to help subsidize my education. But, of course, after the war, the GI Bill took care of that problem.

Return to Hawaii

Of course, I went back in [19]41 because I was ready to be drafted and I felt that I want to be drafted in Hawaii, rather than being drafted on the Mainland. That’s why I went back in [19]41.

I wanted to be drafted with people that I knew, rather than strangers on the Mainland.

University of Hawaii

[I enrolled at the University of Hawaii.] Still lost. I just attended classes.

I stayed at the Atherton YMCA. And I was fortunate to get a room there because I had friends who were staying there and they arranged for me to get a housing at the YMCA.

Very little [association with Hung Wai Ching]. Very little. Other than I used to see him around the Y[MCA] and the campus because he was the YMCA director, University YMCA director, at that time. But I wasn’t a member of the YMCA, now. But I used to see him around.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

I started working about November of [19]41 because a friend of mine had this part-time job at the Bulletin and he asked me, “Herbie, you want to take my place?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” So he arranged for me to take his place because he was leaving the job.

And my job at the Bulletin was to type out the bills to the advertisers. Simple job. So I just typed out all the bills to the various advertisers. Much of it went to advertising agencies because the advertisements came through agencies. So I typed that out and sent it out. I used to go in the evenings, afternoon. Took me about two, three hours to finish the work.

I stayed at the Bulletin until I joined the VVV [Varsity Victory Volunteers].

Herbert Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Herbert Isonaga and Library of Congress.

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