South County Beat: Fascinating lives of ex-internee, wife

Hitoshi and Kathy Yamada have lived remarkable lives, from the internment camps and anti-Japanese hysteria of World War II to the jungles of Brazil, and more recently to the beautiful foothills of Arroyo Grande.

They moved here earlier this year from the Central Valley city of Clovis to live near their daughter.

Hitoshi and Kathy are Nisei --born in the United States of parents born in Japan. Hitoshi was born in Southern California and was 7 years old on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His mother burned all her Japanese books and records, and Hitoshi's job was to take the charred remains out to a ditch on the edge of the farm where they lived.

The family was told to go to Baldwin Park, near Los Angeles. They had to sell their truck for almost nothing and put everything else in boxes to be carried by Hitoshi's parents. They were given a number for their goods that he remembers to this day: No. 5562.

They were sent on buses and trucks to the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona with 5,000 other Japanese-Americans and assigned one room per family in barracks. Hitoshi's family included five children. Some families were put in horse stalls.

They spent three months there and then were sent by train to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp near Cody, Wyo., with 10,000 other people. Hitoshi's father became a camp cook.

They lived there for three years until the end of the war. Hitoshi went to the camp school, but was a year behind at the end of the war. However, he made up the work and graduated from Cal Poly in 1956.

Kathy was born in Florida, where her parents had a gift shop. Her father also had a lettuce farm in Georgia. Kathy was 9 years old on Dec. 7, 1941, when the police came with handcuffs for her father and put him in jail for the night because he was an immigrant born in Japan, frightening the little girl.

It was hard to sell vegetables after the war started -- there was hysteria and Japanese were not trusted. As a child, Kathy heard comments such as "dirty yellow Jap" and was asked whose side she was on. Fortunately, her teacher spoke to the other children about being kind to Kathy. For a long time, she fervently wished a fairy godmother would wave a magic wand and turn her into a blue-eyed blonde. She was ashamed of her almond eyes. Theirs was the only Japanese family in the area.

New life abroad

The Yamadas were Christian missionaries in Brazil for 32 years, where they brought up their two daughters.

They served with the mission CrossWorld, establishing new churches, teaching English and holding youth camps for Japanese people living in the Amazon basin. They speak English, Japanese and Portuguese.

While in Brazil, they met the indigenous people. Both groups were struck by their similarity in features, which fostered a good relationship between the two cultures. The native people asked permission to use the names Kathy and Hitoshi for their children.

The Yamadas have many stories about their experiences in Brazil -- about the marching parasol ants that would eat Hitoshi's crops, the hammocks that people slept on instead of beds, and traveling on deeply rutted dirt roads great distances to see their constituents. They speak lovingly of their years there.

To Arroyo Grande

Kathy and Hitoshi are very happy to be in Arroyo Grande, where they live on property owned by their daughter and son-in-law. Hitoshi is able to grow flowers and vegetables, a skill he learned from his father and developed in Brazil. He also does carpentry and makes ceramics using his kiln.

Kathy loves to write and is writing her memoirs for their grandchildren. They continue in semi-retirement to volunteer for short-term missions in Mexico, China, Japan and Guatemala. "We feel like we're in the frosting of our lives," Kathy says of their life now.

The South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.