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On May 8, 1940, 19-year-old U.S. citizen George Akira Makishima arrived at the Port of San Francisco on the S.S. Tatuta Maru. He was returning from Japan where he had lived with his paternal grandparents for nearly a decade.
Born in Elk Grove, California, on Nov. 25, 1921, Akira’s life was filled with life changing events at an early age. His parents, 19-year-old Chiyeno Takemoto and 25-year-old Kiyoshi Makishima, divorced before he was one-year-old, each going their separate ways and leaving Makishima with his paternal grandparents as Japanese custom dictated.
His mother moved to Sacramento where she ran the Star Rooming House at 510 J Street. She remarried and had two more children. Although she was nearby, Akira wouldn’t see her until he was 19 years old. It would be even longer before he met his father, who had disappeared from sight and never remarried.
Baby Akira moved in with his grandparents, Tsunosuke and Mitsuo Makishima, who lived in Perkins where they had a small strawberry farm. He helped on the farm, went to Japanese language school and attended Washington Elementary School. He was just two months into the sixth grade when his grandparents decided to return to Japan. The strawberry season had been good and they had made some money.
On Oct. 19, 1934 Akira boarded the S.S. President Lincoln with his grandparents, an aunt and an uncle. Their final destination was Yamaguchi prefecture where they planned to live out their lives.
It was big adjustment for young Akira. “First of all, you got to learn how to speak the language right? But somehow I was able to because my grandfather spoke nothing but Japanese…and I went to Japanese school,” said Akira.
But as he neared his twentieth birthday, a serious decision was thrust upon Akira. “A lot of people asked me why I’d left Japan and came back to the United States. Well, in those days, Japan and China were at war. Naturally, if I stayed there I would be drafted.”
According to Akira, Japanese army training began in high school. By graduation participants had reached second lieutenant ranking. As a foreigner Akira would have been pressured to sign paperwork relinquishing U.S. citizenship. He very probably would have been drafted into the war. “I didn’t want to go to war. I wanted to go back to America,” said Akira
His grandfather told him he was old enough to make his own decision and urged him to find his mother. “He didn’t want to go through why the divorce happened but said there was a lot of reasons for it and said ‘So don’t blame your mother. Just go and visit her. I’m sure she’ll be happy.’” The last time Akira saw his grandparents was at the port in Kobe.
Upon arrival in San Francisco on May 8, 1940, Akira was taken to the Angel Island Immigration Station. He was on his way to live with his uncle in Penryn. But his plans were delayed and he spent nearly three months at Angel Island when he could not produce any documentation of his US birth.
“I was staying in a huge room with a window way up in the high ceiling. You couldn’t see the view. Nothing.” Denied access to the exercise yard and recreation room life and with his future up in the air Akira even considered returning to Japan “I’m not used to that kind of life. It was just like a prison.”
“To go to a bathroom, I had to go through the next room. And when I went through there, there were all these German people. But I can’t figure out until this day why German people were in Angel Island and San Francisco. If it was in New York or some place I could understand that. You know. Coming from Europe. But there was whole bunch of them there.”
All the while his uncle Shunichi was trying to get Akira released without much luck. “He knew where I was born but he didn’t know what year, what month. It didn’t jive in other words. So, (my application) got rejected.”
Even the Japanese translator became frustrated with the situation. “She shook her head and she looked at me and said ‘You know, I can’t understand you people. If your mother came to see you at the boat when you landed at San Francisco pier you could just walk out and be completely a new American citizen right there. Why is it that you have to go through your uncle and make it complicated?’”
“I told them the reason for it that. You know, once they divorced the Makishima family had nothing to do with my mother. Total stranger. Of course, my uncle had pride so he didn’t want to go to my mother… He was stubborn.”
When the INS began to consider sending him back to Japan, his uncle had no choice but to contact Akira’s mother. His mother agreed to help and traveled by train to San Francisco.
On May 22, 1940, INS Inspector A. S. Hemstreet, with the assistance of an interpreter, interviewed Akira, his uncle and his mother, who provided proof of his US birth.
When his immigration application was approved Akira moved to Penryn where his uncle had a fruit orchard. Akira worked there until the season ended then went to Lodi to pick grapes. From there he moved to a potato farm outside of Stockton. “I worked by the hour and lived on the farm. Well, it wasn’t too bad. Later I got to drive a tractor.”
He wrote regularly and sent money to his grandparents. He also began to take a vacation every year to visit his mother and his half-siblings. “Oh, she was really happy to have me. Of course she didn’t have a husband. He passed away you know.”
WWII had raged for two years when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On February 19, 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving local military commanders the power to designate “exclusion zones” from which all people were to be removed. However, only people of Japanese ancestry were targeted and relocated to internment camps throughout the southwest.
Finding himself in an exclusion zones, Akira went back to his uncle’s house in Penryn until that area was also zoned and they were ordered to report to the Marysville Civilian Assembly Center.
Akira’s uncle was taken to Tule Lake and then to a special camp in New Mexico where leaders, often deemed potential troublemakers, were sent. “He was sort of a, what do you call it, a big shot amongst Japanese people in Placer County.”
Akira stayed at the Marysville Center for several months until he volunteered to work on a sugar beet farm in southern Idaho. He was moved to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Twin Falls.
After the sugar beet season ended Akira got a job driving a truck. “So I got a chance to go out. To pick up food and supplies at the railroad station and drive back to the camp. So at least I got that much of a freedom.”
While at Minidoka, Akira used a skill he had learned in Japan. “In Japan I took Judo. I was a second grade black belt. So in the Minidoka camp I taught that to the younger bunch.” He also got to participate in Judo competitions with black belt holders from Seattle.
“I still didn’t like staying in the camp you know. I wanted freedom. So I went to look for a job.” He found one at a mining camp in Utah where they mined gilsonite, a natural asphalt found only in the Uintah Basin. The mining crew was made up entirely of Japanese and American Indians.
“The (shaft) is maybe this wide and would go so many thousand feet down. And this thing is packed with gilsonite. So, we chipped it with a pick on both sides and it cracks and we go down to the next place. The shaft just kept going down. They dig it out and go deeper. Once you chip the thing, that thing just falls into the center. And from the center, you bring it up.”
Next Akira got a seasonal job in Wyoming, cutting timber for railroad ties and where the car crews were all Japanese. Through this job Akira got a reprieve from the army.
After the war, Akira moved to Denver where much of his family had settled, including his mother who had bought a small hotel. Akira met his future wife in Denver when he answered an ad in a local newspaper placed by the Sugimoto family who needed a farm helper.
The young couple moved to California in the mid ‘40s and Akira finally met the father who had disappeared so early in his life. “Before I got married, I met my father in Sacramento. He looked at me and said ‘Hey, you grow up now. You live your own life and I’ll live mine.’ He was very blunt you know. Don’t tell me how to live. I won’t tell you how to live. I just said okay.”
Akira married Kazuko Sugimoto and they had four children. The second son passed away at birth. While Akira and his wife Kazuko lived in the Bay Area he worked in the dry cleaning business (as an employee and owner). Akira was a very hard worker; five days at the dry cleaners, Saturdays gardening, and Sundays on his side business sharpening lawn mowers.
Akira eventually bought his own cleaning plant in Sunnyvale.
The last time Akira saw his father was in the late ‘60s when a Los Angeles hotel worker called with news that his father was very ill. “So I went to the hotel, the free joint, you know in J-town. This lady was nice. She said ‘Hey, your father is not going to last long and I can’t take care of him.’”
Akira moved his father to a convalescent home where he died a few years later. Akira flew the body to Northern California and arranged for a service at a Mountain View Buddhist Temple. “I was the only son you know. So somebody’s got to take care of him, which I did.”
Until recently, he continued to participate in a local “shigin” group affiliated with the temple. (Shigin is a traditional form of Japanese folk singing.) His other favorite pastimes included fishing, gambling in Reno and Las Vegas and playing/studying horse racing.
In 1979, Akira lost his first wife, Kazuko, to cancer. He later remarried (Yoshiko) in 1980. In addition to his children, Akira has eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
He is currently enjoying retirement while watching his Japanese DVD movies and listening to old Japanese songs.
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