San Utsunomiya, 85, has had a good life. Which is saying something because the first 14 years were pretty rough.
The longtime Oak Park resident grew up in Santa Maria, California, a small farming community.
“There were about 30 Japanese families in that area,” San recalled, “mostly farmers. My father’s main crop was string beans.”
Life changed dramatically for San and his five siblings (two brothers and three sisters) when their father died in 1935. Their mother followed in 1937.
San’s brother, 19 at the time, became the breadwinner. At the time he had a job making 25 cents an hour, bringing home $15 a week.
“Can you imagine being a 19-year-old and you’re the head of the household?” San asked.
A cousin got his brother a job with one of the wealthier farmers in the area, who had a lucrative business shipping vegetables by boxcar to the East Coast. San’s brother made boxes for the shipments all day long. His two sisters got jobs elsewhere.
The family was just getting on its feet financially when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Two months later, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, calling for the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American born, to 11 camps located throughout the western U.S.
San and his siblings ended up at Gila River in Arizona, south of Phoenix. Gila as in Gila monster.
“That was just one of the things we had to put up with,” San quipped. “It’s the only poisonous lizard.”
The barracks they were assigned to live in housed eight people in an 18-by-20-foot space.
“When you went in,” he recalled, “it was just a bunk and a mattress. That was it.” They had to construct most of their furniture themselves. “My brother built a bunkbed so we could have a little more space.”
With only sheets over rope separating families, there was little privacy.
“In the two-and-a-half years I was in the camp,” San said, “I can’t recall a pregnant woman in my block.”
Hardship, of course, is relative. Compared to being orphaned at the age of 7, he said, “Camp wasn’t as much of a hardship. I never knew what hot running water was. When we lived on the farm, we lived with an outhouse.”
He was only 12 years old in 1942.
“Camp wasn’t that hard on the youngsters,” he noted, “but it was very difficult for the older people. They lost their authority, everything they had worked for.”
When the War Relocation Authority conducted its mass evacuation in September of 1942, “everyone knew you had to leave. So anything you had, if you had a car or a house — imagine at the age of 50 if you had a business. That’s all gone. The ones who were 40 or 50, those were the ones. It really broke them.”
Yet that first generation, known as the Issei, who came from Japan to the U.S., gave a great gift to the Nisei (second generation, born here, like San), and the succeeding generations, the Sansei.
“What really helped us was the conduct of our elders,” San recalled. “The word gaman means you accept the circumstances and live your life with dignity, the best you can. They could have reacted in a very different way. After all the indignities, they could have reacted in a very negative way.”
But they didn’t and, as a result, their children were not burdened by their parents’ bitterness about the experience.
“If I was angry,” San said, “it wouldn’t do me any good. It would be hurtful for me.”
The other gift was a good education. The desire to learn transcended the poor physical facilities. They studied math, English, social science, art, music appreciation. Ironically, they even studied the federal and Arizona state constitutions. San attended seventh and eighth grade in the camp and graduated as valedictorian.
He titled his valedictory speech, “We are not afraid.”
“The theme was: We will soon be going back into society. We’ve been well educated. We’ve gotten good moral values from the pioneering spirit of our parents. So we should do well.
“It was hopeful,” San recalled. “I left the camp a month later.”
His sister had moved to Chicago with her husband. Internees could get out of camp early if they found jobs back East, and San’s brother-in-law was hired to teach Japanese at the University of Chicago to Americans who were going over to serve as administrators in post-war Japan.
His sister and brother-in-law sponsored San, who arrived in Chicago on July 20, 1944. He attended and graduated from Hyde Park High School, which had an excellent reputation for academic rigor, then enlisted in the Navy, which paid for his college education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He served on an aircraft carrier, which took him “around the world two-and-a-half times at 15 knots.”
Initially, he flunked the physical. When the doctor sheepishly informed him, he said, “The only thing wrong with you is your eyes.” After graduating from IIT, however, they accepted him.
When he got out, he moved back to California for a few months but couldn’t find a job. Within a week of returning to Chicago, he was hired by the renowned architectural firm Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill, where he worked from 1958 to 1966. His first assignment was studying numerous sites for UIC’s permanent campus (all of which were rejected by the first Mayor Daley, who chose the site himself).
San said he experienced very little in the way of discrimination in Chicago, probably because “manpower was very scarce.” As for his experience in the camp, he said, “Mostly, I put it in the past. Today, with very few exceptions, I don’t think any Japanese American can use race as an excuse. We have all the opportunities, and it’s because of our parents, our older generation. They made it possible. We were brought up that if you did something bad, you not only brought disgrace on yourself and your family, but like it or not, being of a minority group, you brought disgrace on the group. That was pounded in, and education was another thing that was pounded in.”
In 1966, he was hired to teach architecture at his alma mater, from which he retired in 1994. He’s only been to Japan once, on sabbatical in 1982 (he moved to Oak Park in 1981).
“My generation didn’t want to be Japanese,” he said.
He never learned the language and it wasn’t spoken at home.
“You wanted to be more American than the Americans,” he explained.
Now he regrets not going to language school when he was young (and he really regretted it during his sabbatical, which led to some comically awkward situations).
His generation, however, just wanted to keep their heads down and forget the camp experience. These days, with all the refugee hysteria in the news, he sees things a little differently.
“For a long time, there was a legal provision in the Constitution that allowed for rounding up people and putting them in camps,” he said. “Japanese Americans [including attorney Minoru Yasui, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama on Nov. 24] worked very hard to have that changed, and they were successful in doing so.
“It’s important,” he added, “that we don’t let that happen again.”