In this video interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Shizue Watanabe discusses her experience living in Montana as Japanese American outside of internment.
My name is Shizue Watanabe I have a horse pin that was bought at Heart Mountain by one of the Nisei soldiers that took me over there to the dance at Heart Mountain. We were talking and I told him I go horseback riding every weekend and I don’t have time to go places with you guys. But they said there was a dance at Heart Mountain and they were invited, so he says you have to come along as my date, so I said OK. Three guys and one girl but when I went in there everybody start looking, they accept the guys cause they were soldiers, but they kept looking at me wondering, “now what is she doing here, she doesn’t live here so what is she doing here?” So I tell the guys I don’t feel comfortable let’s go back. So they said OK so we came back. But in the meantime one of the soldiers went inside to see his friends and he bought this for me because he knows I like horses and I went horseback riding. But I never wore this, I just kept it.
This is the horse, it was actually carved from Heart Mountain wood and one of the Nisei soldiers bought it for me because he knew that I loved to ride horses, that I liked horses. So he thought this was the perfect gift for me, which it was. But I never wore it I kept it in a box to keep it. So I don’t even know the guys name, there was two of them, he started writing letters to me but I never answered them. I was not interested in boys at that time, I was only seventeen.
Interviewer: Why was this Nisei soldier there in camp?
Oh the train. He was on a military train and they stopped off at Glendale for 24 hours and they heard there was a Japanese family living there so they came to visit us and then they stayed. My mother said, “no don’t go to a hotel, we have room, so stay at the house,” so the three guys stayed there and they knew about the dance at Heart Mountain so they said you can be my date and we’ll go over there.
Oh I thought I might as well go and see what Heart Mountain is like, but I never really got to see Heart Mountain because I didn’t feel comfortable because everyone kept staring at me. They were wondering what is she doing, where does she come from, because I’m Japanese and they’re Japanese. So I told them I don’t feel comfortable so let’s go home.
I just know that they stopped over for 24 hours. They had to stay so they had to go to a hotel or some place and everybody knew about us, the one Japanese family there, so they said go visit them. We only lived three blocks from the railroad station. So they came down, so naturally my mother thought, oh you’re Japanese guys so they could stay and have Japanese food.
Well from Glendale it was quite a drive because Glendale is in Montana and Heart Mountain is in Wyoming. So it’s quite a drive, but I don’t really recall how long it was. But they rented a car and we went there, that’s all I remember. There were three guys. I guess he figured we went all the way to Heart Mountain so he gotta find something but then he gave it me so actually he didn’t unless he got something else so I don’t know. Because I didn’t really get to see the inside, I just went inside the gate. And I didn’t feel right so I said lets go home.
I don’t really remember because I was kind of embarrassed to be there. When all the people, the Japanese were in there so I didn’t feel right either. But they said lets go so that’s why I went but I didn’t feel comfortable.
I mean I didn’t talk much, I was shy talking among Nihonjins, I was more comfortable talking to hakujin. But it was nice knowing there were a lot of Nisei soldiers.
And then I have the chest that was made in Minidoka. A friend of mine gave it to me because he knows I sew a lot. So its got six little drawers, I know it’s all handmade. so I put my sewing stuff in there, my needles and threads, I made use of that. I had a lot of good memories cause see I graduated when I was seventeen so the following year in 1943 is when I received it, I was still in Glendale Montana then.
I was working as a nurse’s aide at the hospital at that time. He brought it over, he came, this person was my ex, and he brought it over and he bought an engagement ring and he drove all the way from Seattle. That’s a long drive, that’s a two day, two or three day drive I think. But I think I wasn’t interested in guys really so I told him I like you but I’m not gonna marry you. I like you as a friend but that’s it.
Yeah he was in Minidoka. He was a soldier at that time so that’s when he drove, on his leave he drove from Seattle over there. I kinda felt sorry for him, but I said no I’m not gonna marry him, he’s not for me, he wasn’t the one. But he brought the engagement ring and that box with the drawers. My mother wanted me to marry him but the more I thought about it, I just thought I’m not ready to get married yet.
Yeah I kept it because I was using it, you know I had good memories of him, but he wasn’t my ideal husband. They say never marry your first love anyway.
I have a pin made of shells that came from Tule Lake, because one of my girlfriends was there. And she made it. It’s like a flower, shells made out of flowers. It came from Tule Lake, and I can tell you her name, her name it’s Kawaguchi. She was my foster mothers, they were friends with each other. She lived in Sunnydale before the war, she was in Sunnydale and they had to go down to California.
She gave it to me as soon as she made it so it must have been in 1943. When she came over, she used to come and visit us. To leave camp, I think they left camp, because I think if you had a place to stay and a job you could move out. So that’s how, I got her a job because I was working as a nurse’s aide at the hospital so I got her a job at the hospital and they could stay at our house so they were able to come out. That’s when she gave it to me. She came to visit, and then she got the job, they told her she was going to be hired so then she came back. But she was real thankful to get out and to have a job.
They were all looking for little shells and they were all making jewelry or different things and so she gave me a pin. I don’t know I guess they all got together, I guess a group of them all got together and they were all making it she said, so she thought that I might like it being that it came from the camp they were in. So I said sure. I wore that quite a bit, I wore it to church on Sundays, I remember. I told everybody there, it’s one of a kind, you can’t but this. And don’t touch it!