Video Interview with Barbara Berthiaume

Video Interview with Barbara Berthiaume

In this video interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Barbara Yoshida Berthiaume talks about her the chests and bird pins made by her grandfather Gohachi Yoshida.

My name is Barbara Yoshida Berthiaume. My Grandfather, Gohachi Yoshida, made four chests: one for my mother, and one for his three daughters. So my mother was his daughter-in-law, and the three others were his daughters in the camps. So I grew up with that chest, so my brother now has that, that’s in Idaho, and we always knew that it was made in camps. And my cousin Marilyn has her mother’s chest, and she is a daughter. And I inherited this from my auntie Mio, Mio Uchiyama. She used to be Mio Yoshida in Fife. So that piece is original.

The wood was a little distressed from the age, so a woodworker friend of mine told me not to do anything with it. “Don’t try to make it pretty.” But it could probably use a little bit of oil, I think it was tung oil and I’m not sure if he put it on it and just lightly polished it just to keep the wood in good shape, so that’s all that’s been done to it. And it was kind of stacked with just a bunch of other stuff, but my parents, while we were growing up, the little chest was in our hallway. And it had always had things in it. It was always a piece of furniture that was, that we could see, it was part of our everyday life. So my brother has it, and he has it in his living room now. I don’t know what’s inside of it, but on top of it he has a Japanese doll. And uh, where we have ours now, it’s in our downstairs, and then we have our Yoshida family crest and the Sogabe family crest. My aunt gave those to all of us at a family reunion. So we have those two in the chest, and then we have a little lacquered bowl, apparently there were twelve of them that my father’s side of the family gave to my mother’s side when they were married, so I have one of those still. They were married in 1934. So it kind of has some old objects and just family things that the chest fits very nicely with.

The bird? The birds, I remember them, they were in my bedroom, and my mom had some chiffon curtains and a little sash. And the little birds were, she pinned them on the sash, so I just thought they were birds. It was kind of cute, so growing up we always had them. And she gave them to me and I put them in a little box. I really didn’t think that much of them, I mean they were just kind of nice. And she told me that they were, um my grandfather made them in the camps, but it really didn’t register. So those poor little birds were in a box, and we lived overseas. And we must have moved…10…12 times in three different countries. I don’t know where those birds were, where they got shoved all through that time.

But one day, recently, I had a book club group at my house, and one of my friends said, “You know Barbara, you might be interested in National Parks Magazine has an article on artwork in the camps.” And so I knew nothing about this, so she brought the magazine. When I saw the front and saw the birds, I realized I had some. And so for some incredible reason, I was able to find them right away. Usually I put things and they get lost and I never see them again for years. So I saw them and our book group was just incredulous. And so then I got the book The Art of Gaman and did a little bit of research and realized how precious these were.

I thought I had quite a bit of information and knowledge about the camps because I used to give talks about the experience of our family. But I had no knowledge that they had the arts and crafts classes in the camps, nor that my grandfather did more than just make these little objects. So there is so much more meaning to it, and I think it’s a wonderful thing that there is this kind of exhibition, and the word gaman is very inspiring. I think it’s something that my two children, it’s a legacy that they can carry on. I think it’s something that could have very easily been lost. My mother said that grandpa made this is in camp. And that’s all I knew. We knew nothing about camp. In fact, I thought that my parents went to summer camp. And I remember thinking how could they go to summer camp because they are so poor. And so it comes in my mind, as many of the Sansei did, that camp was a fun experience. And they talk about going home back to the coast but we stayed in Idaho. And so my parents would talk about back home, before camp. But they were just words to us, and they never ever would talk about camp experience when we were growing up.

I found out, I think I was about a junior or senior in high school. It was so incredulous I couldn’t put my head around it. And in college I wrote a paper for some class, but there was little information, it was a short paper. So it wasn’t until quite a bit later, in fact, we were living in Europe and I was giving talks to the international schools. And when I first gave the talk there was just like a couple sentences in the history books. And then over the years, it got to be a full paragraph, and then when I left, it got be be a page and half with a couple of pictures. So, it did become more known. But still I find a lot of people just have no knowledge of this at all. So I think The Art of Gaman is a wonderful way to bring the message of what happened, in a very inspiring way.

Yes, and got very little in response. I think it is just so painful. They wanted to blot it out. In fact my sister was born in 1940, her name is Anne Rieko, And I was born in 1945, my name is Barbara Gail. And my two younger brothers are David Lee, and my youngest brother is Bruce Michael. And we speak no Japanese. So I can say “Nihongo Wakarimasen” (I cannot understand Japanese), “Nihongo Hanashimasen” (I cannot speak Japanese). But Japanese was not spoken in our house. But we had New Year’s Day, all the Japanese food, and my mother cooked quite a bit of Japanese food. So we have those traditions. Hopefully they carry on to my children. They did, my mother got them, but nobody talked about them. So we just, actually it is a kind of miraculous that the three of them are still intact and still in good condition. But there is no talk about history, other then just being in camp.

Yes, that is kept it, preserved it, and passed it on to the next generation. So after I put the connection of the the word gaman and art, and the camps, I look at the chest and birds in a whole new perspective. So its been fun to explore this and dig a little deeper into our histories, because it puts so much more depth, because have we read a lot, seen a lot about what happened during the war years and a lot of stories and books. But the Art of Gaman just captures a lot deeper feeling about it all. So I really appreciate that we could able to discover this, and I am really, really happy that my grandpa, Gohachi, his work will be displayed.

And it was two international schools who knew nothing about this. So international students, American students knew very little or nothing. So when I lived overseas and just spoke at a lot of different schools. But that was before I knew anything about the Art of Gaman. I just found out about that when the National Parks Magazine came out. Many people were shocked and they wanted to know why they didn’t know about this, and they couldn’t believe this. And some people who know a little bit about and thought was, you know, shameful or horrible. But I think that what is so important now is the legacy of the excluding a group of people for what they looked like, or their beliefs. That is why it is important to make sure that this does not go away and we forget about it.

My birth certificate says I was born in Helena Montana. So people ask, how were you born in Helena. It was right on June 16, so we were only there for a while, then my parents moved back out to Idaho, and they just stayed there. So others, in the war years, you could elect to, under the Department of Agriculture and Labor that they can elect to go work on the farms. so I had neighbors, they were under house arrest. So they could go work the farms, but they always had to notify the authorities of where they were. So they moved a number of times. My mother did talk about that a little bit, some experiences were positive, where they were treated well, others not so much. So my parents preferred to do that rather than stay incarcerated in the camps.

We lived on a farm, we were the only Japanese within about. 20 miles, and only a few other Japanese in the Boise Valley, so there weren’t that many. There was another family at our school. But my mother always instilled in us that we had get really good grades, we could not do anything wrong because we would be fingered. And so that was drummed into us. So I remember, I was in a high school, and there was a letter from the school board. and so I thought oh my gosh, I wonder what this is, and so I was just dying, and I was thinking of hiding it, I was thinking of steaming it open, and I was just waiting something awful happen. And I just remember that my mother was at the ironing board, and she got the letter. And she opened it. Well, I got into the honor society. But I was the second child, So I can get away with more things, which I did. So my parents were always worried because they just didn’t want us to be noticed at all.

I would like to, one day, my cousin did this, took a trip through Montana just retraced the number of places where our parents and relatives stayed. And apparently there are some people that still remember our family, and then we have some relatives that actually stayed there and settled. So I think it would be a nice journey to go back to a piece of history, and it will be nice to experience, It was four years of their lives that they stayed there. So they remember some things like Chinook, and some of the places that they talked about, Whitefish and places like that, but they would not go to the detail.

Growing up and dating, if somebody wanted to ask me out, that was fine. But my brother may have had a different experience. They asked somebody out, and the girl said no, they never know if its because their parents would not allow it, or because they just did not like them. So I think there was a little bit of difference.

Our identity growing up in a completely Caucasian environment was different. When I first moved to Seattle, I was shocked there were so many Japanese. That was the time when the Japanese were the predominant minority, Asian group. And I was shocked and a kind of got used to that. And I had a scholarship to study in Japan one summer. So there was a stewardess for Japan Airlines who spoke to me in Japanese. And I thought, “Why is she speaking to me in Japanese?” because my identity was not Japanese. So then I got to Japan, and there were just waves and waves of Japanese. And I was there for two month, and so that is why I can just say “Nihongo Wakarimasen”, “Nihongo Hanashimasen.” because that is all I can say. But I say that, and people would say, “why can’t, she…? She is speaking Japanese. What is wrong with her?”. So then I had to explain that my grandparents, Oba-chan, Oji-chan, came from Japan; they are Issei, my parents are Nisei, and I am a Sansei from Hiroshima. And they go “oh”, then they understand, but I have to go through the whole lengthy family history. So when I came back after that experience, the hyphen from Japanese American, become really, stood out a lot more. Having that experience, seeing, experiencing Japanese in Japan, Japanese in a huge urban area like Seattle, and being brought up Japanese in very rural, took a while to coalesce that identity.

At that time, this was in the 70s, so a lot of people thought that I was young and being smart, which is a huge insult, so I have to go through and explain. But I think that any time, any background that you have, whether you’re Italian, Greek, Japanese, you go in to your country and go back to your heritage, it really helps you with your identity. And we lived in Singapore. And because I look Japanese, I had some interesting experiences there because of the war. So you just have to say, you know, all over the world, a lot of people cannot be judged by looks, and then you have to take that to next step, and work that out.