In 1926, a 20-year-old man named Goso Yoneda arrived at the Angel Island Immigration Station after a 16-day journey in the steerage compartment of the Shinyo Maru, a Japanese cargo steamer. Steerage conditions were harsh, but they were all Yoneda could afford; his mother had borrowed money in order to buy his steamship ticket. In his autobiography, Yoneda describes the ship’s dirty blankets, lack of privacy, and “foul sweaty air” that smelled of pickled radish. “Look at the roped-off spacious deck areas where first- and second-class passengers can play games and stroll around,” he remembers grumbling alongside his fellow steerage travelers, “We have room just to stand.”1

Yoneda holding the book Memoirs of a Revolutionary at age 17 (1923) in Hiroshima.

Yoneda holding the book Memoirs of a Revolutionary at

age 17 (1923) in Hiroshima. Photo by Peter Kropotokin.
Scan by Vincent Chin from Ganbatte: Sixty-Year
Struggle of a Kibei Worker.
Courtesy of UCLA
Asian American Studies Center.

Unfortunately, Yoneda’s trip across the Pacific was not his final experience with cramped conditions. Yoneda would be unjustly detained twice in his lifetime— both times for far longer than his 16-day ship journey, and both times due to the discriminatory policies of his own country. Yoneda was a kibei, which meant he was a Japanese American who was born in America but educated in Japan. After spending ages 7 through 21 in Hiroshima, he returned to the United States in order to avoid being conscripted into the Imperial Army. Despite being an American-born citizen in possession of his own birth certificate, Yoneda was detained in the barracks at Angel Island for two months to await verification of his identity by relatives in the U.S.

Living quarters at Angel Island were segregated according to gender and ethnicity. Yoneda stayed in a room with nine other Japanese men, all of whom were in very different situations than him.  Yoneda was the only American citizen. The others were waiting to be deported to Japan and, as Yoneda notes in his autobiography, “their conversation dealt entirely with questions of how to get back into the U.S. and how to avoid the clutches of the Immigration Service the next time.” He also remembers that other Japanese people on the Island were despondent on Christmas day because that was the day they learned of Emperor Taisho’s death. “The Japanese people were indoctrinated to worship the emperor,” Yoneda writes, before telling anecdotes about his childhood irreverence for the emperor. Yoneda’s writing often underscores the fact that—politically and culturally— he was incredibly different from his Japanese bunkmates, and even other Japanese Americans.

Yoneda’s difference from the other Japanese people on Angel Island, however, did not mean that he was attempting to entirely flee his Japanese heritage. Yoneda spent much of his time at Angel Island reading the Nichibei, a Japanese American daily newspaper in San Francisco. While detained he also wrote many waka, thirty-one syllable Japanese poems (excerpted above). The poems highlight the despair and loneliness he felt during his long stay in the barracks. In one poem he notes how Angel Island has a “beautiful name / But there are no angels here / Only nameless immigrant prisoners.” After he was released from the Island, some of his waka poems were published in the Nichibei under the pseudonym Kiyohi Hama, which means “Clean Day Beach” in Japanese, and which Yoneda took on to signify the fresh start that he hoped to have after he was finally landed.  

Compared to other Japanese detainees, Yoneda was detained at Angel Island for more than a few days. His two-month stay was especially surprising because he was a citizen of the United States. At first, officials said he was detained because his cousin, a farmer in Los Angeles, was too busy with spring planting to come and testify on his behalf. But even when his cousin arrived and provided straightforward, correct answers to all the questions asked of him (such as, “What is [Goso’s] mother’s name?” “How many children were born to Mr. Yoneda and wife?”), Angel Island officials refused to release Yoneda. They conducted another investigation in which they questioned Yoneda’s sister Emi, who lived in Los Angeles. When they found her answers satisfactory, they finally decided to release Yoneda.

After his release from Angel Island, Yoneda moved to Los Angeles and worked as a dish and window washer, all the while working tirelessly for labor unions, human rights struggles and the Communist Party. He even changed his first name to “Karl” in honor of Karl Marx. Yoneda had been active in similar political struggles when he was a young man in Hiroshima, and he continued similar work in America, only now with the added experience of marginalization as a racial minority. He was often beaten, jailed, and arrested due to his political activism. He fell in love with a white woman and fellow labor organizer named Elaine Black, but they could not get married in California due to the state’s laws that prohibited interracial marriage. The couple had to go to Seattle in order to get married, and they had a son named Tom.

Yoneda remained critical of Japanese militarism, which, in the lead-up to World War II, was becoming even more expansive and imperialistic. When Japan invaded China, Yoneda even traveled back across the Pacific to protest, but he narrowly escaped being killed and returned to the United States.

Then, in 1942, Yoneda experienced his second major incarceration as a result of American racism and xenophobic policies. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt issued Excecutive Order 9066, which removed all Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps in desolate areas of the country, Yoneda and his family were imprisoned in the Manzanar internment camp, where they not only endured “dust storms, extreme temperatures, and shabby living conditions,” but they also suffered “physical and mental harassment” from other Japanese Americans who were pro-Japanese militarism, and who vehemently opposed their anti-imperialist, anti-militarist views.2

Despite his internment, Yoneda volunteered for the U.S. Military Intelligence Service [link MIS to http://njahs.org/640/the-mis-story/] in his determination to combat Japanese imperialism.  He served with distinction in the China-India-Burma campaign, often assisting forces with translation and intelligence work. His decision to serve in the military forces of a country that had systematically wronged him multiple times demonstrates his valor and grit in the face of injustice. The end of the war was especially difficult for Yoneda, as he saw America drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the place he had called home for thirteen years. His mother, who was in Hiroshima when the bomb hit, survived.

After the war, Yoneda continued his work in labor organizing, human rights, anti-imperialism and anti-war efforts. He was also a tireless advocate for the Asian American community, even joining the Committee to Save the Angel Island Immigration Detention Center when parks officials were attempting to demolish it  and build a picnic site. Yoneda wrote an article in 1976 in the Hokubei Mainichi newspaper which urged Japanese Americans to get involved in the campaign to save the Immigration Station from destruction. His memories of Angel Island have proven vital to historians. As Lee and Yung note in their seminal book Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, the chapter in his autobiography about his detention remains “the only extant detailed account by a Japanese detainee.”

Yoneda

Yoneda's autobiography

At the end of the Angel Island chapter in his autobiography, he writes: “If I learned any lesson from my two-month detention, it was that I had to ganbaru and gaman, I had to keep at it and persevere.” If there are two words that encapsulate Yoneda’s life, it is those words. Despite the tremendous discrimination Yoneda faced on all sides, particularly by American government policies, he still kept fighting for liberation—not simply for himself but for oppressed peoples everywhere.

 

 

[1] Yoneda, Karl G. Ganbatte: Sixty-Year Struggle of a Kibei Worker.  Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1983, p. __.

[2] Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. Angel island: Immigrant Gateway to America.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 140.

 

Yale student Aria Thaker wrote this story as an extern at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation in 2015.

Virtual Tour of Angel Island Immigration Station