Times Past

‘Aunty Mame’ made her life’s work telling stories of the internment of Japanese in SLO County

Lillian Nishijima Sakurai in the Japanese Garden at the Poston War Relocation Camp, Yuma County (now La Paz County), Arizona, in 1944.
Lillian Nishijima Sakurai in the Japanese Garden at the Poston War Relocation Camp, Yuma County (now La Paz County), Arizona, in 1944.

If you are lucky, you know an “Aunty Mame,” a spark plug who brings people together. Lillian Nishijima Sakurai was “Aunty Mame” to the senior swimmers who liked to use the old Crandall indoor pool at Cal Poly.

The 1930-era pool was heated to a therapeutic level and was ideal for aquakinetics. By 1990, the university wanted to close the pool down. Sakurai was determined to at least slow down the time of the closure. She literally “camped out” at the office of the recently deceased Jim Landreth, who was retiring as Vice President for Business Affairs, securing enough time for her friends to transfer to classes at Sinsheimer and Cuesta College pools.

Sakurai was also the maven of the Nikkei-Japanese American community from Lompoc to Cambria. Her passing marks the end of an era. Sakurai was buried in her family plot at the historic Guadalupe cemetery. Her life and passion were preserving the memory of the Issei and Nisei community. Executive Order 9066 tore her family from their farm at Cave Landing (Pirate’s Cove), moving east of Highway 99 in Delano.

When Sakurai was 15, in the spring of 1942, the Nishijima family were sent to a camp at Poston, Arizona, where the high desert temperatures and humidity of the Colorado River created unbearable conditions in the summer. They were only allowed to take what they could carry aboard the train. Sakurai recalled how “we had to leave Rex, our German Shepherd, a really good pet and watchdog with our landlord.”

The train was guarded, and the window shades pulled down. After many hours of travel, they arrived at the Colorado River Indian Reservation where the camp was being built. The barracks were partitioned into units with bed space for six people. The Nishijimas occupied two adjoining units. Sakurai’s younger sister, Julia Nishijima Kuromi, joked that their parents and 10 children slept in shifts! Evaporative air coolers didn’t arrive for about a year.

It got up to 118 degrees during the summer of 1942 at Poston. Sakurai had to stuff a mattress bag with straw for her bed. There were scorpions. Sakurai’s friend noticed a red streak running up her leg. She hurried Sakurai to the infirmary. Sakurai was taken by ambulance to the hospital. For 20 days, her leg was packed in hot towels as the insect bite was slowly drained of poison.

The heat and tedium of the Poston Camp was alleviated by the early evening baseball games organized by Sakurai’s uncle, Masao “Lefty” Nishijima, who had been a star player (he pitched against Jackie Robinson in 1937) in Japanese-American baseball during the 1930s.

Life after Poston wasn’t easy. Sakurai recalled: “After we left the camp, we came back to Arroyo Grande. My brother Lloyd brought out large crowds for the Eagles High School basketball team in 1946. But there were no jobs in the area. So ‘Pop’ moved the family to a strawberry share cropping camp in Madrone, south of San Jose.”

Sakurai soon joined her family, helping on the farm for five years. During the winter months, Sakurai cleaned homes, including that of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Sakurai moved to Hollywood, where one of her clients was the actress Verna Felton. Then she worked at the Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank for over 11 years.

Sakurai met her husband, Kiyoshi Sakurai, whose family had gone to Japan in search of work before the war, in a swimming class. That was a break from the seven days a week he worked at his family’s vegetable stand in a grocery store in Los Angeles after his family was finally able to return.

When the young couple moved to Arroyo Grande, Sakurai was the only member of her family able to return to the Central Coast. Sakurai was mindful of the fact in early 1942, approximately 1,000 Japanese Americans along the Central Coast were forced eastward. Only about one in 10 was able to return. For some 25 years, Sakurai spearheaded annual reunions of this diaspora. More than 100 Nikkei gathered all day at McClintock’s in Shell Beach.

Families that hadn’t seen one another since 1942 shared stories. The Ikeda family brought their vegetable bounty to line the center of the tables. Lillian used these opportunities to work with historians to gather the history of each family. These frequently heroic stories, like Sakurai’s own, are a tribute to what became her life’s work.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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