Judy Kusakabe screenshot

Video Interview with Judy Kusakabe

In this interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Judy Kusakabe discusses two artists. First she talks about the art of her uncle, Mike Masao Kawaguchi. In the later part of the video, she talks about the art of her step-mother’s father, Eitaro Shiraishi.

This is a picture painted and drawn by my uncle, my father’s younger brother, Mike Masao Kawaguchi. He was on furlough from the army and he came into he camps and drew pictures. This is the mess hall line in Minidoka, and this says Chow Line, that he must of written on the bottom. This is my father, my mother, this is me as a baby, this is my cousin Donny Arai and this is my other cousin Katie Sakai. I was a baby because I was born in camp Harmony.

On the back of this it says property of Kenji Kauhuki, 8-6-F, I think that must be their barracks number I’m not sure.

My uncle gave this to my father and we’ve had it since 1943 when he came and drew this.

Masao was the youngest born of 11 children of Shimakuchi and Kuyomi Arai and when he was a young boy, just a baby, he was taken to Japan because my grandmother was very ill and she wanted go be back with the family. So he left with his father and his sister Hisa and they went back to Japan and he was left there with his grandmother, his mother’s mother, for several years so he became proficient in the Japanese language.

Then he was brought back to America when he was about nine or ten with his sister Sato. He was born in Seattle Washington and he went school in Sunnydale and after he graduated high school he decided to go to art school. And while he was there he was working in a produce warehouse and he needed more money so one of his friends gave him information about going to interview with Walt Disney. So he went to the Disney studios and he was hired out of a thousand applicants. He was very happy

So he worked for Walt Disney for many years and then he entered the army. He entered the 552nd artillery, which was part of the 442nd.

After he was in the 552nd became a part of the military intelligence service because he was proficient in the language. He went to Guam and Iwo Jima and so while he was on furlough is when he came into these camps. His relatives were in both Minidoka and in Heart Mountain so he went to both Heart Mountain and Minidoka and he may have gone to Tule Lake too because I had an uncle there. He smuggled in a camera, otherwise we wouldn’t have a lot of the pictures we have now because no one was allowed to have cameras.

Oh when he got out of the army he went back to Walt Disney, and worked for Walt Disney for a while there. And then he had his own frame shop that he was, he had decided to make a film on Momotaro, Peach Boy. And so in his frame shop all around the walls were pictures that he had drawn, cause he was animating. It never did materialize his dream of making a film so he eventually went to work for Hanna-Barbera.

So he was involved with the animations of Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, etc. And he did storyboarding and background.

We would look at it ever so often because it was really well done, and so I kept it always hidden somewhere in my house.

It was very important but you know nobody ever talked about camp so it was not something that they would bring out and sit there and chat about it was just something that we always had.

I just know that anywhere he went he would draw and paint. That was his hobby, it was his job, that was something he really enjoyed and he was good at it.

Oh I’m sure it was because camp was such a big part of our lives. However because nobody talked about camp we didn’t really start thinking about it until we were a little bit older.

Especially that picture of the mess hall line. My father and mother were very excited when I was born because they had waited a long time to have a child. And to have gone through camp harmony, living in a barracks, and my mother having to go to Puyallup, to Tacoma, to the hospital and wait my father. And here is a picture of me as a baby. We have pictures that my uncle took of me as a baby otherwise we wouldn’t of had any pictures of me as a baby.

My grandchildren, I have five of them, all know how important the knowledge of what happened in camp is because I have spoken to all their schools. They themselves can correct teachers, they can discuss it, and they discuss it with their friends.

So I think it is very important for us to have something of the past because we have very little that is heirloom because most of it was destroyed before we were sent to camp. So anything that we have of our family is very, very important.

Interviewer: So when you show your grandchildren your Uncle Mike’s artwork, especially the Chow Line, what do you tell them?

I tell them the story of the camp, I tell them the whole story of the camp. From the time of our family coming to the Seattle area, and then when we get to the part about camp I start with Harmony and tell them that we were incarcerated in a camp that was surrounded by barbed wire. That some people at Harmony had to live in pig stalls and horse stables and whenever it was a meal time, everyone had to line up whether it was raining or snowing or very hot they had to line up for their food and their food was not real good until they got Japanese cooks.

But in Minidoka the weather was very extreme as compared to Puyallup so standing in the lines and to see this little elderly lady standing in line, and somebody supporting her. A lot of times I think sometimes they had to bring the food to the elderly people that were sick but it was a really tough thing to do.

And when they got into the mess halls then the family unit disappeared because the younger people would go and sit with their friends and so the family unit suffered.

And then I heard of the horrible food that was presented and I know for a fact that the fish was really bad and so my cousin Jerry doesn’t eat fish to this day because he remembers how bad the fish was and so even in Japan he couldn’t eat fish and that limited his menu.

There’s a picture that I will be bringing back, it’s a watercolor painting and it is his impression of what the entrance as he approached the camp looked like, the desolation. And the next picture is the muddy, muddy, mud in the camp, Minidoka and the barracks. And the next there are two here of the washing, of the washroom, so this lady doing her laundry and then there’s another one of a lady heading to do her laundry. Oops that’s not it. This is a man at the potbellied stove that were in the barracks. And this is someone walking through the sandstorms and this is the lady walking to do her laundry. This is a girl with her boots on going through the mud in Minidoka

Interviewer: And that’s all by Kawaguchi?

Yes

Interviewer: is there anything other than that that kind of speaks to you especially?

Oh the potbellied stove. So I had gone to ski and we went through the area that the camp was and my sister in law who is a little older that I am, told me she remembers how bad the weather was. That the cold was very cold and the hot was very hot. So I would imagine if that’s the only source of heat that you had, was this potbellied stove, then that’s not adequate to keep you warm.

There were a lot of hardships, that’s kind of an example of the hardships that everyone went through.

Interviewer: What about the man who’s kind of leaning against the storm?

So then we hear about the sandstorms, and that the sandstorms were so bad that one time when they first arrived at Minidoka my father went out to fill the cloth sack with the hay for our mattresses and he came back in and he couldn’t find my mother or myself. He looked all over and then in this little closet my mother is huddled with a blanket over her head. She was trying to protect us, protect me, from the sand. Everywhere around the barracks it was covered with the sand. So yes that shows one aspect of camp life that was really bad. Everybody remembers the sand storms.

And then the mud like in the picture with the barracks, how difficult it was to walk. When you walked sometimes you walked right out of your shoes.

Oh the scrub people. What I talk about in the schools is that in those days they used those scrub boards and I still remember a scrub board in my house when I was growing up. I can still picture it. But another thing that that shows is that you have to go outside of your living facility to go to the bathroom, to do your laundry, to take a shower, to eat. Nothing was in the barracks; the barracks themselves only had that potbellied stove and the metal cots and the mattresses that you had there for the furniture. You didn’t have a table or chairs or cabinets to put things in that was all made later when they went into the scrap lumber and made their own furniture.

So everything had to be difficult, and then to think about my mother having an infant. So we’re talking diapers and laundry and she would have to travel to another building in order to do the laundry.

So everything brings backs thoughts. So it’s very hard for Sanseis to think about camp because we can only feel the emotion, we didn’t live it we were only babies. But we have thought about it so much

My father married Mitsuya Shiraishi after my mother passed away, and this is done by her father Eitaro Shiraishi. He came to the United States through Hawaii and San Francisco and then did some farming in the Seattle area but then he eventually ended up in the Bellevue area near Factoria, Newport. He was an Issei that was here for many years but of course according to the laws he was not allowed to own land so they worked the farms of other people. Then when they were incarcerated, they were sent to Pinedale, and then to Tule Lake. Eventually they were sent to Minidoka. So I believe this picture is etched when he was at Tule Lake.

Eitaro and his wife had two children that they left in Japan, two daughters, and then they moved to the United States.