There was just something in her voice that moved me to want to meet her. We were talking on the phone about another story I was working on when I asked if we could talk further in person. I wanted to write about her as well.
Right away she responded with classic Japanese enryo, that reserved and modest manner which she later told me is natural for many people of Japanese heritage. “There’s really nothing special about me,” she said. I begged to differ, and here we are.
I’d like to tell you about Kazuye “Kaz” Yamamoto, a person who describes herself as coming from a group of people who are “the quiet Americans.”
She is one of three daughters born in Wapato, Washington, to Kenichi and Nami Nabata, who came to America in the early 1920s from their native Sado Island, Japan. They farmed vegetables on leased land and raised their daughters Yae, Kaz and Masae (“Pat”). They raised them in Wapato, that is, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when their own personal world turned upside down.
The parents did not speak English, so their daughters listened to radio accounts and tried to explain what happened. When the government rounded up persons of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast to be held in detention camps, the dividing line in Washington between who was interned and who remained free was the Columbia River, she said. Wapato was on the wrong side of the river, so the Nabata family was given a short amount of time to gather their possessions – one suitcase per person – and was transported by train to the Portland Assembly Center, a horse stable converted into evacuee “holding housing,” Kaz remembers. Most of their other possessions were simply left behind.
From there they were shipped to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, for the duration of WWII, the five of them living in one 20-by-20-foot room. Food was served in a mess hall; bathroom facilities were in another barracks. Kaz’s father worked as a carpenter, making $16 to $18 a month, and she earned her high school diploma there.
In recounting the story, there is no bitterness. Did her parents ever talk about their feelings in that regard? Kaz looked at me as if I was asking something impossible. No, she said; if they had private feelings, they kept them private. Enryo again, that ability to avoid conflict through self-restraint, to accept the way things are, even though they never really understood why they were sent to Heart Mountain. “We just did what we were told,” she said. “We just adjusted.”
Three years later, at the end of the war, the family came to Spokane. “There was nothing left for us in Wapato, and my father knew someone here,” Kaz explained. They lived with many others of Japanese heritage in a hotel on what she described as skid row in downtown Spokane, where the elegant Davenport Grand Hotel now stands. Her father opened a pool hall at Bernard Street and Trent Avenue. Kaz’s older sister Yae was hired by the U.S. Army to work at a base in Japan, where she worked and married and raised a family. She returned to the U.S. in 2008, though Kaz visited her sister every other year for the 60-plus years Yae lived in Japan. Their younger sister Pat went on to the University of Washington and became a teacher; she is now retired and living in California.
Kaz at first was a maid for a South Hill family, because the job provided room and board, but she eventually went to beauty school and became a cosmetologist. She operated a beauty salon in the home she and her husband built in 1952 at Eighth Avenue and Chandler Street; they lived there for 60 years.
“All of the issei (immigrants from Japan) women in Spokane came to me to have their hair done,” she said. “Before the war, everyone wore their hair simply, tied in a bun at the neck. But now they wanted to be modern and have perms. I can’t tell you how many perms I gave over the years.”
Kaz and her husband, Richard Yamamoto, an electrical inspector for the city of Spokane, raised two sons and two daughters and sent all of them to college. Dale is an actuary in Chicago, Karen a veterinarian in Liberty Lake, Clyde owns a manufacturing plant in Seattle and DeAnn is a social worker in Seattle.
She moved to a smaller home a few blocks from her big house after her husband died in 2013. From that tidily-kept house, the 4-foot, 11-inch Kaz Yamamoto sweeps snow off the driveway so she can drive to church, shopping and – her very favorite thing – to the casino every Tuesday.
She was a charter member of the Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) Women’s Club, founded 37 years ago. “It began as a social club for women,” she said, but they went on to hold fundraisers and provide all kinds of assistance for Hifumi En, a senior housing group for people of Japanese descent. The group also participated in many Spokane city events. She has been active in the Fujihana Kai Japanese dance group, done flower arranging, attended judo events, worked at a booth at the Spokane Interstate Fair and remained active at Highland Park Methodist Church – which she drives to every Sunday, though she said she should probably just walk the short distance there. “Well, that’s why I have a treadmill,” she said. And she has been active with the Spokane Japanese Cemetery Association.
She spent the month of November with nine members of her family on a cruise to China and various Southeast Asian countries. “I can’t believe I did it,” Kaz told me. “It was tiring. We walked a lot, but it was wonderful. Do you know that every city we visited has a Starbucks?”
The family alternates between Spokane and Seattle for its annual traditional Japanese New Year’s Eve dinner. This year it will be at her house, where she will be the hostess for 20-plus people. And, of course, she’ll make her famous sushi.
In a few weeks Kaz Yamamoto will celebrate her 90th birthday. “Really, I don’t know why you want to write about me,” she said. “My life is pretty uneventful.”
Again, I beg to differ. This is a woman worth knowing, a woman with a deep history worth celebrating.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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