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Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Mr. Kobashigawa moved to Japan with his family when he was six years old. When he became 16 years old, his father sent him back to the U.S. to work and support the family. He spent three weeks at the Angel Island Immigration Station in 1931. His account of life in the Detention Barracks provides a detailed description of the isolation and anxiety immigrants experienced.
“The food was terrible…the soup was smelly, made from old meat. The rice was steamed but hard. I couldn’t eat.” That’s how Dick Jiro Kobashigawa described one of his first memories of Angel Island, when he arrived from Okinawa in 1931 when he was sixteen.“It was kind of dark by the time I got to Angel Island and they took me to this holding place. They put me with the…illegal immigrants who were waiting for deportation. There were bunk beds, three high…after lunch, we were all outside in the fenced in area behind the building. We were in the sun. That time I met Japanese who were waiting to be deported. I didn’t know anyone there. I couldn’t speak to anyone.”
Kobashigawa stayed at Angel Island for about three weeks in 1931. An American citizen born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1914, Kobashigawa went with his family to Okinawa when he was six because his mother was homesick and his father had made enough money farming strawberries to return. On Okinawa, he did well in a school far enough from home that he had to stay in a boarding house, but when he was sixteen, his father had financial problems, took him out of school, and sent him to the U.S. to work to support the family.
Kobashigawa was planning to return to Arizona where his half-brother still lived, and sail to Los Angeles. His father had heard that it would cost the same to sail to Los Angeles as San Francisco, but on the way to the U.S., he found that it would cost ten dollars more, so he spent almost all the rest of his money to pay this amount.
When he arrived in San Francisco, Kobashigawa found that the officials had made a mistake and he had to disembark in San Francisco. He was awakened in his bunk, given his $10 back, and had to hurry and get his suitcase and run up to the deck. “Everybody had to get on a small boat and go to Angel Island. I didn’t know anything about Angel Island,” he said. “They separated people who could get off the ship and go to San Francisco. My brother didn’t come to pick me up from Arizona because he didn’t have enough money. That’s why I had to go to Angel Island.”
On Angel Island, Kobashigawa saw illegal immigrants waiting for deportation. “Most of them were Chinese, some Hindus, less than fifteen Japanese. I only remember mealtime, they called ‘Chow, chow.’ About 200 people dashed into the mess hall, sat down at the table and bench – all Chinese and Hindus. I didn’t see any Japanese until later.”
Kobashigawa said that he was the youngest person in the dormitory and “I was worried that my brother would not come.” It was noisy at mealtime, but “I had no problem sleeping.” He benefited from the support of the Japanese deportees he met; they petitioned the immigration officials to let them know that they were holding him by mistake because he was clearly an American citizen. “I was immediately moved to another room. There, I got to eat good food with the officers. I never saw those men again, the ones who helped me, but I am still grateful to them.”
He was interviewed twice, with a Caucasian woman serving as translator. The Japanese Salvation Army in San Francisco then came to help him out, and finally, three weeks after he was first sent to Angel Island, Kobashigawa set foot in San Francisco. The Salvation Army fed him dinner at their house, gave him a train ticket for Phoenix, and sent him on his way. “When I finally arrived in Phoenix, some thirty or forty Okinawans were there to greet me.”
There, because his brother’s farm was bankrupt, Kobashigawa went to work on their cousin Genkichi’s farm, which he did for a year before he followed his brother to Los Angeles. In the 1930s, he worked picking grapes in Delano, strawberries in Pomona, celery in Santa Ana, and worked in fruit stands and a grocery store. In 1937 he started working as a gardener in West Los Angeles.
When World War II broke out, Kobashigawa was sent to the Santa Anita racetrack assembly center, where within a month, he volunteered to leave the center and pick sugar beets in Aberdeen, Idaho. He and five others – three teenagers and two older Issei men – were on one crew, but after a short time, all except Kobashigawa returned to the Assembly Center because of the back-breaking work. They worked half bent over with short-handled hoes (since outlawed due to the work of the United Farm Workers) and “the pain in our backs became almost unbearable in a few minutes.” Kobashigawa stuck with his work, and later moved to another farm where the work was less harsh. When the winter snows and temperatures below-zero came, he shepherded sheep for the same farmer. His work leave was extended and he was fortunate to not have to move to the internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, where the rest of the Santa Anita detainees were moved.
In 1943, the Kogiso family obtained work release from the Minidoka internment camp and moved to nearby Aberdeen. Kobashigawa and his friends came calling and even though oldest daughter Sumie thought Dick “bashful” and “countrified,” they were married within two months. They celebrated 54 anniversaries, until Sumie passed away in 1998.
After the war, the now growing family (Dick and Sumie had three children) moved to Oregon with Sumie’s family, then moved to Los Angeles in 1949, where Kobashigawa resumed his gardening business. He continued this work until 1996, when he and Sumie moved to San Francisco to join son Ben, an Asian American Studies professor at San Francisco State, and his wife Barbara.
Special thanks to Dick Jiro Kobashigawa for sharing his experiences with Professor Judy Yung, researcher Grant Din, and through his book, “Hitome-Bore” (Love at First Sight), and to his son Ben.
Update: Dick Jiro Kobashigawa passed away peacefully at age 97 at home in San Francisco on Aug. 29, 2012.
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