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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

Community Activism A Family Tradition - Profile of Umeko Kawamoto

Umeko Kawamoto is a bright-eyed woman with a radiant smile who enjoys reminiscing about San Diego’s thriving Japanese American community in the years before World War II. She recalls the prewar Japantown, in what is now downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, as a bustling neighborhood that included grocery stores, restaurants, pool halls, dry goods stores, and hotels. The neighborhood, like Japanese districts all up and down the west coast, was emptied of its residents during World War II and never regained its prewar character.

Umeko Kawamoto (Photo by Nancy K. Araki)

Kawamoto’s father, Yoshigoro Mamiya, was a Japanese immigrant from Nagasaki, who was a cook in the U.S. Navy. Later, he married Tami Nagasawa and opened a barbershop and bathhouse in Japantown. Kawamoto thinks her parents first came to San Diego in 1914 or ’15. Her mother and father both worked in the barbershop. “The shop was across the street from the wholesale produce market,” Kawamoto remembers. “The farmers who would come to the market to bring their produce at night would come in for baths and get their hair cut.” The barbershop was a community hub and her father was prominent in the community, active in sports and civic organizations. Kawamoto and her two older brothers grew up “knowing everybody.”

“We used to roller skate on the sidewalk,” she remembers, “and play jacks and jump rope. There were lots of friends our own age. We could walk to school. We had our Christian Church and our Buddhist Church; we went to Japanese school at the Buddhist Church. Japanese kids in the high school had our own clubs; we had roller skating parties, things like that. We had fun. The kids now, like my grandkids,” she says with a smile, “they’ve got so much, but I don’t think they have as much fun as we did.”

On December 7, 1941, she recalls, “We were all sitting in the barbershop talking. We didn’t know what to do. Finally, everybody decided that we should all go home. When we got home—I was with my brothers; my folks were still out—no sooner had we gotten inside the house, than the FBI came right in. They must have been waiting for us. They went through the house and let somebody in through the back door. They looked around and they took my brother Buddy. They mistook him for my father—Buddy’s name was Yoshio and my father’s name was Yoshigoro. They kept asking Buddy questions about whether or not he was Yoshio Mamiya who was married to Tami and a leader of the nihonjin-kai (Japanese association) and questions like that and Buddy just said ‘no.’ Buddy was in his twenties and my father must have been in his sixties by then because he married so late, but they arrested Buddy anyway and took him away.”

“My parents didn’t come home until after the FBI had gone. We told them that they had taken Buddy but there was nothing we could do; so, we just sat tight. We went to visit Buddy at the jail and he knew he was there by mistake but I guess they couldn’t admit it. He went as far as Tujunga (to the Justice Department internment camp) before they finally released him. Eventually, he came home and they took my father.”

Kawamoto’s father, along with other community leaders, was interned at Justice Department camps in Bismarck, North Dakota, and then at Santa Fe, New Mexico while the rest of the family was sent to Santa Anita and then to Poston, Arizona. Buddy soon left camp and, with a friend, bought a small hotel in Denver. Kawamoto and her mother ran the hotel after Buddy was drafted into the 100th Battalion, and lived in Denver until the war was over. Because they still had their home in San Diego, the Mamiyas decided to return when the war was over. “We were one of the fortunate ones who had made the last payment on the house when we were evacuated and the next door lady made sure it was rented,” Kawamoto remembers.

Kawamoto met her husband Harry—who had been a copper miner in Nevada before his family moved to San Diego—at the barbershop before the war. Their courtship continued when he joined the army (in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team) and she went to camp. “He came to see me in Denver before he went overseas and my Dad said we couldn’t get married until he came back. My father was a fair man, but right was right and wrong was wrong with him. So, we waited. We got married in Denver after he got out of the army.” The Kawamotos returned to San Diego in 1946.

It was very different in San Diego for Japanese Americans after the war, Kawamoto remembers. “Everybody who came back settled away from the area and we never did have a Japanese town again. Everybody had to start over. My folks were among the few who were able to keep their home. They had sold the barbershop for dirt-cheap. My father was too old to work, but my mother went to work at the fish cannery. She was very good with her hands and learned things quickly. Lots of folks had just bought their house and naturally they couldn’t keep up payments.” The Kawamotos lived in government housing until they bought their home, where Mrs. Kawamoto still lives, and where they raised their two boys, David and Gary.

Harry became a commercial fisherman, and later worked at General Dynamics. He ended his career as a gardener, “and that was better for him because he was so active in other things, it was better to be his own boss.” Kawamoto remembers working the morning shift from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. at a Japanese restaurant while her husband worked the second shift at the aircraft company so that one of them was always with the children. When their sons were in high school, she found work with regular hours, eventually working as a teller for Sumitomo bank. She retired in 1990, and proudly displays the gold chiming clock that the bank gave her for her service.

Harry died in 1991 and Kawamoto’s pride, as she describes his achievements and volunteer activities, is evident. She now devotes much of her time to volunteer work in the Japanese American community and recalls that community involvement is a family tradition.

“I remember Sundays when my mother used to work in the barbershop, my father would pick all the kids up in the neighborhood, take us to the beach, things like that. He was active in organizing the judo club and the kendo club. He would take the kids to tournaments in Los Angeles. They would love to go with him because he would treat them to steaks,” she laughingly remembers. “When he passed away we were surprised by all the people that had been touched by him. Harry was like that too. He organized the Boy Scout troop in our grade school, took the kids camping. When he passed away I was surprised by all the letters I got.” Harry was also active in the Japanese American Citizens League and in the redress movement. Their son David and his wife Carol are also long time JACL leaders, continuing the family tradition.

“Your life isn’t just small,” Kawamoto says, searching for words to describe her family’s commitment to service. “It should include more than yourself.”


*This article was originally published in the Japanese American National Museum Quarterly, Spring 1997.


© 2014 Japanese American National Museum

california community FBI Gaslamp Quarter Harry Kawamoto issei japantown Kawamoto nisei postwar prewar San Diego tradition Umeko World War II Yoshigoro Mamiya

About this series

These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.