Oral History Interview: The Importance of Integrating Primary Sources from Diverse Perspectives in your [History] Classroom

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Photo of Yoko Faircloth sitting in her kitchen. Photo Credit: Marina Ballesteros.

We are sitting in Yoko Faircloth’s cozy living room on March 11, 2017 in Alhambra, California. There is an old television with dial knobs and dozens of pairs of shoes scattered by the front door. With full bellies, the eleven people have made themselves comfortable on the two couches, beige carpet, and round four-person kitchen table. We have all just returned from dinner at an authentic Japanese restaurant in nearby Monterey Park where we ate Udon, tempura, sushi, and sashimi. Yoko, called Nana by her grandchildren, was born in Japan and immigrated to the United States later in life. I chose to interview Yoko because she is my boyfriend’s Grandmother and he has told me several stories about her past. All that I knew was that she was born in Okinawa, Japan and immigrated to the United States. Okinawa is a small island of Japan where their people are known for their longevity. Dieticians are currently analyzing their diets as a factor in their long lifespan. During WWII, The Battle of Okinawa many civilians hid in caves to avoid being killed and dodged bullets and sea and air bombardments. Without food, water or shelter, survival was almost impossible. 110,000 Japanese and over 49,000 Americans lost their lives on Okinawa during the war.  I also knew that Yoko has lived in the greater Los Angeles area for many years. As of U.S. Census data from 2015, the population of Asian/Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County is approximately 15.4%.

Going into this interview I expected my boyfriend, his brother and sister, and her boyfriend to be in attendance. However, when we arrived my boyfriend’s Aunt, Uncle, and three younger cousins were there, too. Initially, I was nervous that I would not be able to conduct my interview. But after going on an unexpected dinner trip with nine members of their family, I saw the great potential for the interview to become something greater than intended. “Uncle J” and his wife sat at the table with my boyfriend, Yoko, and I. Uncle J was looking at his ipad. Rebecca, my boyfriend’s sister and her boyfriend sat on the loveseat. Andrew was sitting furthest away on the couch also looking at his ipad. The youngest cousin had Beats headphones on, and the other two laid on the floor looking at their phones. For eleven people present in the room, the room fell silent as I asked the first question.

When and where you were born in Japan?

I was born in Okinawa, Japan March 27, 1933. Okinawa is one of the islands of Japan.

What was your hometown like?

Okinawa is a small island surrounded by ocean. We were by the water and the ocean so we would go play in the water. The water was so blue and clear that we would play with octopus in the water and other sea animals in high and low tide. You could see the all of the fish in the ocean. I was a very good swimmer.

What was your family like?

My mother and father were schoolteachers. I had three brothers then, and there were three girls.

Can you describe what a typical day looked like during your childhood/ adolescence?

Oh, that was so many years ago. We would play just like kids play here, too. Same thing.

What are some of the best values and customs you have that you attribute to gaining/learning while you lived in Japan?

Japanese customs are very strict. You have to bow to everyone you know. In the time of the war at that time I was 12 years old. Wartime, I mean everybody…I still don’t like war, because I experienced so bad at 12 years old. At this time I lived in the capital of Okinawa next to the army headquarters. We lived with my Grandfather. He was very different for his time. He sent all of his sons to medical school and even sent my mother to school. But my mother, she went to Mission school and became Christian. At that time there were very few Christians.

So was it unique that your mother went to school as a female during that time?

Yes, that is right.

So how old were you when the war was going on in Okinawa?

Twelve years old. There were mountains and caves so we got all of the nice clothes, water, food, and everything with my Grandfather and hid in the caves. But we were only there two days before a Japanese soldier came and told us to hurry up and get out. So in the middle of the night, my mother was almost due to give birth to my little brother, so we went inside a tomb. But we didn’t have anything so me, my Grandfather, my second brother, and my father went to get water in the middle of the night. We went out and my Grandfather was holding my hand but machine guns (makes shooting noise) came out and shot as us. My Grandfather was shot in the back and I was shot in the stomach but the bullet did not come out, it just stayed there. My Grandfather touched my stomach and said “Yoko, Yoko” and said, (says something in Japanese). That means, “don’t die for nothing, don’t die for nothing”. Then from the ships they were shooting bombs and one went by my head (makes whizzing noise and gestures that it went right past her ear). We were lying there for twenty minutes. Then my father crawled with me on his back because if we stood up the machine guns would have hit us again.

We made it back to the tomb and my Grandfather was already dead. Then we were there for two days and I needed water and was so thirsty. I told my dad “I need the water, I need the water”. He got me sugar cane to chew on. Then one morning we hear the soldier say (says phrase in Japanese) “Come out, Come out!”. We were trying to be quiet but then my 3 year old brother cried and they knew there were civilians there and they kicked down the door. They told us all to get up but I couldn’t. This was the first time I saw and American soldier and I thought they were ugly! (Laughs at herself). But they probably thought we were monkeys! They took me to the POW camp infirmary. They gave out food rations. They gave out cheese. My Grandmother’s sister had never seen it before and thought it was soap and washed herself with it. (Everyone laughs). But me, right away they took me to the infirmary because they had to take my bullet out. At that time all of the buildings were very open without many walls or doors so you could see the sun so bright. The infirmary was put in one of these buildings.

So it was the American soldiers that came in and got you, correct?

Yes, it was the American soldiers that took me. They brought everyone to the camp. But before they brought us in, they sprayed us with a spray and all of the bugs and lice went flying out of our hair. When I was in the infirmary I could see them bringing in the people on the stretchers and they would be dead and have no identification. They would throw all of the bodies into a pile. It would smell so bad in there.

So while all of this was happening, or before the events you just discussed, were you in school?

Yoko: Yea, but at that time when I was in school, the Emperor was God. So in the morning stand at attention and bow to him. My oldest brother was brainwashed, he was only 16 years old. You know because we did not have any diesel big ships so they used the young boy Kamikaze to sink the American ships. Everyone my brothers age wanted to go after this and become a Kamikaze because it was an honorable thing to do but they were brainwashed. They wanted to protect their families. My older brother wanted to go to the Kamikaze but my Grandfather said, “no you are not going to the Kamikaze, you are going to become a doctor,” but he went with a friend and did it anyway. But there were so many people that went they don’t know where or how he died. There is a memorial over there… some kids committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs.

Uncle J: So mom would it be fair to say that the Japanese government told everyone that it was more honorable to commit suicide than to surrender? You know brainwashed?

Yoko: Yes. Everybody gave their life. You cannot choose where you were born when you are going to die. I think that is up to God. I think that now.

Uncle: When the war was over you were still in the camp right?

Yoko: Right. That time no food or anything. We would eat anything we could. Some people would use the American ship oil to cook tempura. (Everyone laughs) But it was beautiful. So the people of my time, we can do anything you know. The people of my time say “don’t waste anything”.

So during this time when the war was going on would the rhetoric about the Americans or the United States be negative?

Oh yes, of course! Everyone, United States too would too. Everyone wasn’t wise then and they would kill each other.

 

When did you move to the United States?

29 years old…wait maybe 27 years old.

Why did you come to the United States?

Yoko: I was married and I had Cathy. I did not want to come here and wanted to stay in Okinawa, but [my husband] said no. I was not willing to come here because the language and you know the culture is different.

Uncle J: Family too right? You had to leave your family.

Yoko: Yes. My family, everybody was in Okinawa.

Can you describe your experience when you first moved to the United States? What were some great things you experienced? Were there any challenges you faced?

Yoko: Well when we came over here we had to come over on a ship because I had a child. We stopped in Hawaii and then arrived in San Diego. My husband and I came to the United States and my husband and I were looked down upon at the time [in Japan]  because we were married. I had to turn my ring around to hide it. That was everywhere during that time, though. But I didn’t like anything when I came here! The water was so brown and I was used to the clear blue water. After we arrived to San Diego, we moved to Chicago and then North Carolina. We stayed there for two years but there were no Japanese, no Mexican people, nothing…only White and Black people. But I wouldn’t see the black people that much because of segregation. One time, in a restaurant I was eating in a restaurant, I noticed people looking at me because they had never seen a Japanese person before. I was the only Japanese around for almost two years.

So was there anything else in the United States that you really, really liked when you were here for some time?

Yoko: No I was homesick. But when I came to Los Angeles where there were more Japanese language and food, so I felt more at home here. One time we went to the beach and there was a Black guy and a White girl kissing on the beach and my friend said, “Yoko, did you see that? Did you see that?” After being here for some time it wasn’t strange to me.

You have your two children and many many grandchildren living in the United States. Did you do anything in particular to teach them anything from what you learned in Japan like the language, or customs or anything.

Yoko: Oh yes, I sent both of my children to Japanese school. It was important for Cathy especially because she noticed how few other Japanese kids there were in grade school.

Uncle J: I only went to Japanese school for six years. Every Saturday when I went they would beat me up because I was a half-breed. I would tell my mom and my dad and they told me to stick it out. Cathy went all twelve years. But we’ve always had Japanese food, she spoke Japanese to all of her friends in front of us, and then Japanese school for the both of us. For all of the holidays we eat Japanese food and our children have grown up the same way, we eat Japanese food to keep the culture of alive and they all have Japanese middle names because I wanted to keep that culture alive or else it will go away.

As someone who came to the United States like you did, is there anything you wish Americans better about immigrants? 

Yoko:  I have a friend that from Okinawa that also came here and she explains it [being an immigrant] like wearing someone else’s clothes when coming here to the United States. You just feel out of place. But now I go to Japanese church that is also English speaking, too but part of the Japanese community.

Uncle J: I think the war perception had everything to do with that, though. You see that right now with ISIS or any country aside from our own and we look at them and go, “you must be bad”. We know to accept them here because we live in L.A. They are labeled and I think that is what happened to mom. “The war just finished and you are over here in our country.” I’m guessing, I don’t know it is just a thought [Helping Yoko explain].

How do you define diversity in your own words?

Yoko: To me now home is here. My family is here, to me any place can be home to me.

Uncle J: Do you feel in this moment in your life that people are more accepting of White, Mexican, Chinese, Korean? Do you still see the Okinawa and the United States as being so different? Like you said Akana comes here and grabs a White guy’s hand, how do you feel about that now?

Yoko: You know all the time the culture changes and I am okay with it.

 

Well, I think that was all of the questions I had. Thank you very much for telling your story, I loved hearing about it and I hope everyone else did too. My great grandmother is still alive and several years ago I went back to her hometown Omaha, Nebraska with her. She took me around to see where she grew up and married my great-grandfather during the same time of your story. It was great to hear my family history, so I hope it was interesting for them to hear some of their family history, too. So thank you!

Yoko: Oh you are welcome!

Uncle J: I heard some parts of stories that I had never heard before. It’s neat.

 

At first, this interview began as a project for my English 302 “Writing Diverse Cultures” class at Chapman University. However, as soon as I walked into Yoko’s home filled with her family, it developed into a tool for them to hear her historic, courageous, and  heart-wrenching past. Initially, I was concerned that having so many people present would take away from the interview, but it turned into one of the greatest things that could have happened. Uncle J, his wife, and all five grandchildren get hear her story they might not have asked her about before. They were also a great help to me when communication of ideas became challenging, since Yoko has a thick accent and broken English at times.

To conclude, I am a future classroom educator in a Social Studies Methods course where we are learning about Ethnic Studies and multicultural literature. New Social Studies curriculum in California is going to be implemented in the next several years to include more perepectives from historical events.  As The California Task Force On K-12 Civic Learning stated, 

Civic learning is also vital for our increasingly diverse California society. In 2012­-2013, our 6.2 million K-12 students were 53 percent Latino, 26 percent white,
9 percent Asian and 6 percent African American, with the remaining 6 percent comprised of other ethnicities.

The importance of having this type of literature is that students will better be able to relate to the material and improve comprehension. However, current history textbooks only show one perspective of historical events, mostly the perspective of a While male.

Our current history-social science standards are 15 years old, provide inadequate attention to civics and are out of step with what we know our children need to learn.

Therefore, the rhetorical context of this interview is providing a voice and story of a perspective that has historically been marginalized in American history books. This interview could be used a primary source for WWII events in Japan or telling immigrant experiences in the United States.

 

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