Vicki Asakura screenshot

Video interview with Vicki Kuniyuki Asakura

In this video interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Vicki Kuniyuki Asakura talks about her grandmother, Seki Nishimura Kuniyuki, and the dolls made in Minidoka.

My name is Vicki Asakura. The two dolls that I brought are dolls that were made by my paternal grandmother Seki Nishimura Kuniyuki while she was at Minidoka. My understanding is probably my grandmother at the time would have been in her fifties while she was incarcerated. Having worked hard during her time as an immigrant in this country I am told that probably while at camp unfortunately was the first time that she actually had free time to partake in more leisurely activities and cultural activities such as doll making.

It is my understanding that she learned to make dolls from Mrs. Kokita, who is well known for her doll making skills in this area. The hair of the doll appears to be made from embroidery thread and the hands look like they’re pieces of paper rolled together to form fingers. So it’s interesting how people were very creative when they lacked the traditional materials of making dolls.

This particular doll is wearing a kimono and I don’t know where the fabric came from but I imagine that people did have fabric and used them to make kimonos.

And then the second doll is a, represents a girl and you can tell by the hairstyle and she also was dressed in a kimono and her obi is that one that reflects that of a younger person.

My grandma Seki came to the United States prior to 1900 and came from Yamaguchi-ken, Oshima-gun. Oshima is an island on the inland sea off the mainland of Japan and in a small town called Hikuma. Her family had an orchard of mikans and her rural background also influenced her interests when she was here you know doing things like fishing and matsutake-tori as well as taking on some of the more cultural aspects like doll making.

And she had five children, two other sons, one of which was my father who was the eldest who was raised here. Her husband was Kojiu Kuniyuki. Koju was also from Yamaguchi-ken, Oshima-gun but a place called Ogenosho.

She came as a picture bride my understanding, the story is that when the women came on the boat my grandfather was eyeing another woman who was much prettier but ended up with Seki. But apparently she was a good cook, and I think that was a bonus for him.

I don’t know if there was any particular training. I don’t believe that she had any specific training in that because when she came after coming here they spent a lot of time raising children or working. They’ve had a number of businesses a barber shop, a hotel. They had the Wiltshire Hotel on 7th and Virginia which they owned just immediately before incarceration so in the hotel business her job was probably to clean the rooms and do other kinds of tasks to support the family business. By the time I was old enough to understand she was probably in her 60s and 70s and her English was limited so her words probably were a mix of Japanese and English and when I was younger we didn’t necessarily have an interest in things of this sort and people didn’t really talk that much about their experience of being incarcerated at Minidoka and it wasn’t until after the redress movement that you began to hear more stories. Well, we had an apartment that we grew up in after world war II and so they lived in the unit across from us so we saw them frequently. The dolls were at their house they had a glass cabinet where the dolls were and it is a vivid memory still of seeing them in that cabinet.

Actually I learned if from a classmate of mine whose family had also been incarcerated. My parents did not go to camp. My father was drafted into the 442nd despite his age, he was probably a lot older than the typical draftee at the time. And my mother and her family went to Detroit because there was an opportunity to leave the area after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They had the Wiltshire Hotel on 7th and Virgina, and my mother was working for a lawyer, a Caucasian lawyer who lived in the university district, and this Mr Hutchinson, I believe was his name, helped them sell the hotel at fair market value when other people were getting pennies on the dollar so that’s the only story that I know. And I think many of their belongings were stored with the family because we have a lot of items that were pre-WWII that are still in the family. They came back to Seattle after the war my family lived at first with my dad’s cousin where they lived on Spruce St and then we bought an Apt on 13th and Washington where we eventually lived and they also had a restaurant called Tads Café.

You know I think she might of helped out but I know my grandpa used to go there and sit in the back booth I’m not sure what he did. But I think at that point after the war they were pretty much retired. My grandma I remember would always be crocheting though I never saw her doing any doll making the only other thing I remember was going to bon odori with her and going to Japanese movies with her.

The only other thing that I heard more recently was that she was one of several Nisei ladies that brewed sake in their homes and I was told that her sake was one of the better sakes that was made.

Well I think they continued to make it while I was growing up, but we didn’t know what it was. It was only about ten years ago that somebody mentioned that and my sister and brother and I found out.

I guess I have an interest in Japanese items my degree is in Japanese history for one and I also collected a lot Japanese things. I guess it’s important that one that people while people were there pretty idle in the barren desert that the Japanese were very innovative and creative in seeing all of the things that were made while they were in camp but also how the culture lived on despite the attempts of the American government to try to squash the continuation of any cultural things because it was identified as being connected to the “enemy” at the time. It represents a dark period of our history but at the same time it is amazing all the wonderful items that were created.

One was the feeling of awe and amazement at all of the creativity and how people were able to make things out of pretty much nothing. I’m told that some of these pieces of furniture were made from fruit and produce crates and how people were able to take driftwood and polish them and make them items of art as well as just seeing, I think a tray that has a lot inlay wood designs.

Also some of the art that was done in camp portraying daily life. And of course it just saddens me and angers me to see how the U.S. government and the mainstream profited from you know the land and the businesses that were owned by Japanese American during that time, and how they survived and rebuilt the community.

I’m not sure I can’t really speak for my grandmother because we’ve never had conversation really about this type of thing. However I think it was an expression of her culture and her still feeling Japanese, and because you can’t really take that away, but it’s always nice to have a memory can be passed down of something that was made, even though she is no longer with us.

I think, how do you let people know of the suffering that occurred about the 120,000 Japanese that lost their homes, lost their businesses and lost thousands of dollars of resources and even though there were reparations made it was how many years later?

More than half of the people who suffered were no longer with us. I think it has to do with the injustices that still continue and the oppression that continues to occur against people of color whether it is the Muslim community or others whenever there is a fear of a certain ethnic group becoming too strong or a fear of losing ones place or position within the current power structure of this country. And even with our current president a lot of attacks are being made on him and people still seeing him as African American and not as the President.

So maybe somehow in having the exhibit, in Asian culture there is always the Ying and the Yang. So the one side is the positive, the cultural art that emerged, but also there needs to be something with some data around the loss wealth, the loss of property. I know I read somewhere that at the time of incarceration in California Japanese Americans had almost 50% of the produce market, and after the war what happened to that? I mean it takes years to regain that kind of thing and a lot of times people don’t go back to where they were before, because, its ten years later.

And so how do you show that to the other side so there is an understanding of what happened?

What I’ve started to do is to put together some poster things of some of the pictures. I did together a family tree so that people start seeing that. I think that our Seattle relatives are very progressive and aware. I sense that relatives living in other areas may not be as progressive in understanding the oppression and the experiences that people have had over 40 some years ago.

It’s really a shame though because most Issei did not have the opportunity to communicate with their grandchildren because of language, and also because of our age when they were living and by the time we were adults they were all gone.