‘After we left the relocation camp, we came back to Arroyo Grande. My brother Lloyd brought out large crowds for the Eagles basketball team in 1946. But there were no jobs in the area. So ‘Pop’ moved the family to a strawberry sharecropping camp in Madrone, south of San Jose.”
Lillian (Nishijima) soon joined her family, helping on the farm for five years.
During the winter months, Lillian cleaned homes, including that of violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
In Saratoga, Lillian worked for the Haensli family, who owned the San Jose Ford dealership. Mr. Haensli once brought Lillian a yellow convertible to drive home, because her father needed a car.
She moved to Hollywood, where one of her clients was the actress Verna Felton. Lillian worked at the Los Angeles branch of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank for more than 111⁄2 years.
Once, Lillian, with two weeks vacation from the bank, joined the Haensli family at their large home in Lake Tahoe.
Lillian met her husband, Kiyoshi Sakurai, in a swimming class he was taking during a break from work at his family’s vegetable stand in a grocery store.
Kiyoshi’s family had been hard-pressed by the Depression in Los Angeles. In February 1941, his father moved the family to Japan. This was a big mistake!
When his father was drafted into the Japanese army, he said he wished he would break a leg so that he couldn’t serve.
The family’s Japanese neighbors were unfriendly, especially after the outbreak of war. Kiyoshi can’t forget their “Yankee, Go Home!” expressions of disdain.
Kiyoshi, his father and a brother finally got back to Los Angeles in 1949. The boys were allowed to borrow $500 each from the U.S. government because they were U.S. citizens.
But his father, who was born in Japan, had to borrow money from a cousin in Colorado for his fare.
Kiyoshi’s mother, sister and two brothers were able to come home after 1952.
Lillian moved back to Arroyo Grande in 1979. She was the only one of the 12 Nishijima children, most of them born here, able to return to San Luis Obispo County.
Five of Lillian’s brothers served in the U.S. military. One day her brother Lloyd, who fought in Korea, went to Japan for R and R. The next day, his lookout unit in Korea was ambushed and a couple of men were killed.
Lillian and Dolores Ralph Dana organized Arroyo Grande High School reunions for the class of 1945. Now the reunions include all classes.
In early 1942, approximately 100,000 Japanese-Americans along the Central Coast were forced eastward. Only about one in 10 returned.
For some 25 years, Lillian has spearheaded reunions of this diaspora. In September, more than 100 Nikkei gathered at McClintock’s in Shell Beach. Every year, the Ikeda family has shared their vegetable bounty.
Lucy Tanaka, a student of the smiling Helen Keller at Emerson School in San Luis Obispo, donates some of her beautiful handmade quilts. We are humbled by Lucy’s gift of a red, white and blue starry quilt, which hangs in our living room. Kiyoshi is active in Altrusa, teaching origami to many classes and helping set up fabulous exhibits.
He volunteered with the Sakurai’s elderly neighbor, Kodo Matsubara, a leading architect of Japanese gardens and Jim Braebeck and the San Luis Obispo Rotary Club in creating Eto Park on Brook Street just off South Street and Highway 101.
This rare jewel is a testimony to both the Eto family and all the families like the Nishijimas, who suddenly had their American homeland stripped from them in 1942.
Liz Krieger co-authored this week’s column.