In 1966, my family moved from the far Northwest Side of Chicago to the DePaul University area. While attending Oscar Mayer Elementary School for sixth grade, I was almost immediately “adopted” by a tight-knit circle of friends, and Ted Ishiwari was among them. Our childhood stomping grounds were rougher around the edges back then and a far cry from the affluent neighborhood it is today. But even though there was a sprinkling of derelict houses and street gangs to dodge, in most ways our lives were full of independence. During bone-chilling winters, we’d play basketball at the DePaul Settlement House gym or ice skate on one of Lincoln Park’s frozen lagoons. In the humid heat of summers, we’d play twelve-inch softball on McCormick Seminary’s athletic field, and then ride our bikes to the Fullerton Avenue beach for a cool dip in the lake. The bicycle path that stretches for miles along the lakefront of the city was almost strictly the domain of kids as the adult bicycle craze still hadn’t gotten underway. CTA commuter trains gave us quick access to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game, to downtown, or to Comiskey Park all the way on the city’s South Side, if we felt daring enough to check up on the White Sox. Whether from actual events or from the rose-tinted lens of memory, I am inclined to say that much during that stage of my life was good.
Throughout the decades, I have remained in on-and-off-again contact with Ted and thought of him when I began to write a series of personal histories on “Race in America.” This is the result of multiple interviews conducted over a span of three years, in phone conversations, email and text messages. (Shawn Shiflett)
Home is Chicago and the house where I’ve lived for the last sixty-three years on Sheffield Avenue. I have two sisters, Chiye and Tomi, who are ten and eleven years older than me. Mom was your typical be-careful-of-everything mom, but my father, who was forty-four when I was born, is where I got most of my family history.
My grandfather was a tailor. He came from Japan to Seattle, Washington in 1903. By 1905 he was living in Brooklyn, New York to learn how to design and make clothing in the westernized fashion. He returned to the West Coast and married my grandmother, another Japanese national, in 1908, in Alameda, California. And then beginning in 1909, my father, his two brothers and the first of two sisters were born. Once my grandfather learned western tailoring, they all picked up and went back to Japan in 1919, just after World War I. My father was seven years old. If you put the timeline together, Japan wanted to become like the rest of the world, and my grandfather thought he could make some money dressing Japanese citizens in the new style. That was the whole idea.
My father didn’t like it in Japan. It was too structured, too rigid, and he thought, “I’m out of here.” As a fifteen-year-old teenager, he hopped on a freighter, went back to the United States, and ended up living in the San Francisco/Oakland area. This was in the 1920s and well before World War II. So, growing up, I was hearing all these family stories from before I was born, and it’s fascinating to me how my father went back and forth between countries.
Many of these facts and dates concerning Ishiwari family history are verified by “stacks of random notes” that Ted’s father, Hiroshi Ishiwari, wrote in Japanese and kept in his desk drawer. Hiroshi went by the name “Roy,” possibly an Americanized shortening of his given name. Years after Roy’s death in 1986, Ted gave the notes to Reiko Tokiyama, the wife of his nephew, Brian Tokiyama. Reiko, a Japanese national, translated the writing into English.
In 1921, my mom was born in Ventura, California, which is outside of Los Angeles. I’m not sure how she met my dad, because one was up in northern California, and one was in southern California. They courted and got married right before World War II. What‘s interesting is that my mom and her parents went to Japan to meet my father’s family and get their okay for the marriage. This was one year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Iva Toguri* was also in Japan at that time, and my mom and Iva were acquaintances. I heard stories that there were people following my mom and her parents in Japan. Caucasian people. (According to Roy Ishiwari’s notes, his wife, Aiko Ishiwari, was followed by U.S. military police in Japan.) Then my mom came back to the United States, war broke out, and Iva Toguri was not allowed to leave Japan. She was a UCLA graduate, very learned, could speak eloquently, and the Japanese government used her. Meanwhile, my mother and father got put in an internment camp in Arizona for Japanese Americans. They didn’t talk a whole lot about what it was like for them there, but that’s where my sisters were born.
* Iva Toguri was one of the so-called ‘Tokyo Roses” who served as English-speaking radio voices for the Japanese government during World War II. A U.S. citizen, she was convicted of treason after the war and served six years and two months in prison. President Gerald Ford pardoned Toguri in 1977 after it was discovered that witnesses testifying against her had committed perjury. In 2005, she was awarded the Edward J. Herlihy Citizenship Award by the World War II Veterans Committee.
Roy Ishiwari wrote about being bused from the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona to Idaho with other male Japanese American prisoners. There, they picked potatoes and other crops. For one day’s work on a sugar beet farm, he earned $4.50. When harvesting ended, the internees were bused back to the internment camp in Arizona.
After the war, Iva was released from Japan, my family was released from Arizona, and they all immigrated to Chicago. This is what I was told: that Chicago was considered an open city to Japanese Americans. There was a lot of industry here, and the industries weren’t too discriminatory. The jobs were in Chicago. My dad said, “We just couldn’t go back to California. The memories were too bad.”
From Roy Ishiwari’s notes: “For our marriage, we rented a house [in Los Angeles]. We repainted, put in a new door, brought new furniture for the bedroom and living room and brought new appliances for the kitchen. I had a new wife, but in April, we were informed that the Japanese would be expelled from the state of California. The photograph in the Los Angeles Times showed that Pearl Harbor was seriously damaged… Soon after that, the FBI came and searched our house. Most Japanese were kicked out of their workplace. Our bank account was frozen, but we could receive 100 dollars… I thought our family would also be placed in a camp somewhere, so we packed our stuff. White people who were allegedly our friends said they would buy our new furniture at one-third of the original price. People who wanted our newly fixed house came and said they had got an agreement from the landlord to move into the house as soon as we moved out. They came to our house once or twice a day as if it was their own house and asked us again and again when we were going to move out. My wife yelled, ‘Get out, get out!’ and cried. We got a notice from the FBI and went to the City Hall. They took our fingerprints. There we received our number[s] for the first time. After that I was called by my number, not by my name.”
Ted continues: So, Chicago was a destination city, a place to relocate to for a lot of the Japanese Americans from all of the ten internment camps in the west. My family originally settled on Chicago’s South Side around 43rd Street. They stayed there from 1945 until 1954 and were part of the white flight from the neighborhood. They felt racial prejudice, and they actually had racial prejudice against the African Americans moving into the area. I guess my sisters experienced some name-calling or rock throwing? Something bad coming home from school. I was born in 1954, and then I think we moved in 1955 or 1956 to Chicago’s Near North Side.
In the 1960s, as a little boy, I was attracted to all the westerns and war movies on TV. They used the word “Jap,” and the Japanese were always the bad guys. I wanted to be on the good guys’ side [laughs]. I think the way I processed this was I had a division where I may have been Japanese, but I was also an American, and what the Japanese did, they were bad.
One day during lunchtime, I was walking across the playground of our grade school, Oscar Mayer. Somebody hit a softball, and it was coming right at me. I stopped and thought, Better catch this. No, I can’t catch this because I’m not playing. Then I started moving again, and the ball dropped. I just heard, “Get that Jap off the field!” The guy was angry that I was in the way. It was the first time I heard what was directed toward the evil people on TV being directed at me. I was like, Whoa! That confused me. I placed myself in one demographic and not in the other, and now I’m finding out… maybe I’m… I don’t know.
One conversation I do remember having was my family talking at the dinner table about being an American. “Yes,” my father said, “you’re a Japanese American, and an American first, and Japan and Japanese are really different. But…” (Ted, sitting across from me, taps his finger firmly on my dining room table for added emphasis.) “You will always be different here. You deserve to have all of the American rewards or goals that all Americans have, but they’ll always look at you differently because you look different.” I’m sure I’m paraphrasing. I just remember him saying, “You will always be different.” That, fifty years later, is something that has stuck with me.
As I’ve already said, Chiye and Tomi, which translate to “wisdom” and “wealth” in Japanese, were born in the Gila River internment camp in 1942 and 1944. I was born ten years later. I remember my dad saying, “We wanted you to have an American name.” I think it was from Ted Williams, the famous major league baseball player. Not Theodore. Ted, a nickname. My parents would not speak to me in lengthy Japanese conversations. It was always in English. I remember my dad saying, “I have this accent. I don’t speak very good English.” I believe he felt self-conscious when speaking to his American supervisors where he was a steel-rule die maker, or to his friends, and he wanted to make sure that his children could speak English well. I guess my parents’ rationale was, If we teach them two languages, they’re going to get mixed up and then speak like us. That was their fear.
Did you feel like you were different from us [Caucasian and Latinx friends]?
No! I felt like everybody else.
How about with girls?
The only time I would feel different that way is when I got our class pictures, and my parents would look at J___ or M___, or… I can almost still name all the Japanese girls. My parents would ask, “What’s their last names?” because they were trying to see who was in the neighborhood and if they remembered family names from California, church or other community organizations that my parents belonged to in Chicago. So that would be the only recognition that I was Japanese, too, as opposed to being with you and the rest of our group of friends, thinking I was just another one of the guys. But the Chicago JA’s were a pretty close group, and for the most part my parents’ generation all banded together.
I can remember that you were good at deflecting. In math class, you had a compass, and it broke, and you said, “It’s cheap. It’s Jap,” and we [a few friends present] all cracked up just hearing that from you. It was a very quick thing. I was impressed.** I also remember, a year later in seventh grade, you were the first person to tell me that there were internment camps. You just said, “Most of us [Japanese Americans] were in camps.” And I somehow got the point, but then the conversation moved on.
**My sixty-six-year-old self is disturbed that I laughed and was impressed by Ted’s use of the word “Jap,” but as I recollect, my sixth-grade self thought that Ted was making the point that he was his own man just like the rest of us.
Your first anecdote, about the compass…as soon as you said it, I thought of my cousin, Don. (Don was a Kawamoto, Ted’s mother’s side of the family. According to Ted, his mom and Don could be “…very vocal, sometimes volatile, and were known to show their feelings on their shirt sleeves.”) He went to Lakeview High in Chicago. Those types of feelings with him were tripled, especially with the war movies. He would say, “That’s a Jap!” or if we reversed roles while playing war, he would say, “I’m the dirty sneaky Jap.” He referred to products using that vernacular: “This is a cheap Jap product.” He didn’t hold back how he felt about those types of things, so I think I got that from Don, who got it from how American society viewed Japanese products at that time. (This was right before Toyota, Sony and other Japanese companies earned American consumers’ confidence by consistently producing superior quality products.)
I also remember being at the dinner table and getting scolded for using “Jap.” My Dad said, “Don’t use that word, and anybody who uses it toward you, he or she’s not your friend.” I think that’s still very apparent today, something you don’t refer to yourself as, and something you don’t refer to your friends as.
Were your parents angry about getting sent to the camp?
It’s not like they had a lot of material wealth. But just mentally, you could easily still say that even if you have nothing, you lost everything…a sense of being or independence. Yeah, I could see them…anybody saying something like that. But as far as showing anger… In general, the Japanese are very honorific to whoever’s ruling over them. Japan wasn’t that far removed from the feudal system. It just turned over in the late 1800s from the Shogun and lords and whatnot. But that’s not to say there weren’t also Japanese Americans who protested what was happening to them during World War II and even got incarcerated for that.
Did you feel an inner community with the other kids who were Japanese American? Did you talk, have your own jokes, a system of support?
I didn’t have that kind of a Japanese American network. I didn’t go to the Japanese church as much as I should have. The church I went to was called Christ Congregational Church. It was on Buckingham and Halsted. Then there was the Buddhist temple, which was right in Old Town, and another Buddhist temple in Uptown. Every summer the JA community would have the Resettlers’ Picnic. Maybe that wasn’t the official name, just what my parents called it. It was huge and held at different places depending on the size of the JA community at the time. I remember it being in Wheeling, Illinois, and at Caldwell Woods [a Chicago-area forest preserve]. But for me… I had you guys, friends from school. You guys were my base, my foundation for… Am I doing things okay? I looked at you guys as my barometer.
* * *
During the Reagan years, $20,000 reparations went to everybody who had been interned in the camps during World War II. My mom had already died in 1974, and my dad had died in 1986, but my sisters each got paid as did one of my brother-in-laws. I remember conversations with my brother-in-laws at a family gathering where they were sarcastic about the reparations settlement. “Great, $20,000. Now I can go buy a car.” It was that tone because it was 1988 and internment happened in 1942. A lot of internees had died, and many family descendants who had survived them were out of luck.
We went to Oscar Mayer through sixth grade. And then we were all transferred to Arnold Upper Grade Center, which people would more commonly think of as a junior high—seventh and eighth grades. What was Arnold like for you, right across the street from Waller High School?
So, instead of going to Mayer, this small neighborhood school that was a few blocks away from where I lived, I was maybe three-quarters of a mile away from Arnold. There was a much more diverse student body at Arnold than there had been at Mayer. I don’t think there were any Black kids at Mayer. I know there were Hispanics, whereas Arnold was…
Yeah, I don’t know what Waller was at the time, as far as its racial makeup, but it was totally different from Mayer, too. (I mentioned to Ted that Waller was about fifty-percent Black at the time he and I were attending Arnold. When I became a freshman at Waller, the white student population had plummeted to thirteen percent.)
Our first year at Arnold, we heard of a shooting at Waller. A white student with a rifle shot indiscriminately at students in the auditorium. That caused some concern amongst my family. When my sisters went to Waller, it was a pretty good school, and they did really well, but since then the student body had changed. During eighth grade at Arnold, there were race riots at Waller. We started hearing some commotion outside of the second-floor windows of our classroom, and everyone went to see what was happening. Down below, Arnold’s parking lot was filled shoulder-to-shoulder with Black students who were pushing, shoving and yelling. They must have noticed us staring at them. Then I remember glass breaking, bricks or rocks flying through the windows. At that point, those who had enough sense ran for the door across the room. I ducked under a desk and then basically crawled to the door. We stood there in the hallway waiting, scared, and then the principal ordered us to go to the gymnasium.
* * *
I’m not sure if this was after MLK was shot or after the riot that I just described during eighth grade at Arnold, but in my homeroom, we were all talking about what to do after school was let out. The directions from our teacher were, “Do not stop anywhere, just go straight home.” I don’t know how my name got brought up in the conversation, but in front of the whole class, this one Black girl looked at me, and said, “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’ve got some dark in you.” She was being funny. But to hear that says something about how people react or are able to talk about something that for one group of people could be the scariest thing on earth, and for the other group, it’s not even frightening.
My parents started to feel pressured, worried again. I can remember them saying to each other, “Do we have to move?” There was that definite racial fear. They just said, “You’re not going to Waller.” It was very, very impressed upon me that I had to go to Lane. “You have to do well on the entrance exam.” My mom was making sure I traveled the straight and narrow. She’d say, “You’re not going out with those kids until you finish studying,” and, “Oh, my gosh, you didn’t do well on that test? Your graaaaaades!” (In 1968, Lane Technical was an all-boys vocational high school, and you had to pass an entrance exam in order to attend there. Many boys went to Lane to avoid Chicago’s newly instituted desegregation plan, a plan that stipulated students must go to high school in the same district as where they live. For Ted and me, that school was Waller.)
* * *
Lane was huge, five-thousand kids. Maybe in that freshman class there are four- or five-hundred people you were seeing for the first time. Lane took students from all across the North Side of the city. We had every different type of kid or social demographic coming to that school.
Where it was supposed to be safer for you than at Waller?
Yes, absolutely. Lane was the school where my parents thought I wouldn’t be discriminated against, picked on or have my life threatened. But the Vietnam War was starting to escalate, and the country was very anti-communist, anti-red. Anything like that was bad, and because American soldiers were being killed by the Vietnamese, Asian stereotypes were easy to make. There were kids at Lane who felt emboldened to express their hostilities. This guy, Phil, constantly bullied me. We were in the same homeroom and shared the same locker. The abuse didn’t start off immediately, but after a couple of weeks, it was “You fucking gook. You slant.” I would say, “I’m not a gook. I’m not even Vietnamese.” “Then you’re a fucking Jap,” he’d say. “You’re a chink.”
Phil was a white kid?
Yes, white. He would kick or punch me in the back because he sat directly behind me. And then he would trash my stuff in the locker, just mess things up. The worst, though, was he would spit into the sleeves of my coat before I got to the locker. I could feel the wetness when I slipped into my coat. He just kept doing it, or he would say, “I didn’t do it,” or he wouldn’t deny doing it. It was very difficult. I’d be ready to go home at the end of the school day, and I’d tentatively stick my arms into my coat. Nothing today. All right, I’m cool. You watch some of these bully movies on TV. I know what they’re going through.
How did it end?
I went right up to my homeroom teacher, Miss B____, sitting at her desk at the front of the room. I diplomatically said, “There’s stuff happening in my locker, and I don’t know who’s doing it, but can I get moved to a different locker?” Her eyes went straight to Phil. When I got back to my desk, he immediately asked, “What did you say? What were you talking about?” I just kept saying I wanted a different locker.
So, the locker stuff stopped because I got reassigned to another locker, but not the constant verbal stuff, the punching, or Phil would knock me with his elbow or shoulder. He was a big guy, and the prejudice he had was not isolated to only him at Lane—again, probably because of the war. Other kids would say, you’re a “gook,” a “Jap,” a “commie chink.” Every day, one kid called me “Ming the Merciless,” the villain with Asian facial features from the 1930s Flash Gordon series played by a white actor.
Interestingly, when I attended Lane’s thirty-year class reunion, I was at a table with some guys, and Phil showed up. He sat down next to me and introduced himself even though we all had nametags on. I totally panicked, waiting for something from the past to come up, but there wasn’t any recollection by him of those past deeds I described. He didn’t remember me at all.
Lane was a predominantly white school?
Yes, lots of Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans. Lane was also maybe four- or five-percent Asian. What Lane didn’t have was a lot of African Americans. I’m sure that Blacks played it downlow in that environment, based on what I experienced. (A month or so after Ted’s initial interview, he remembered that there had been a Black/white racial incident in Lane’s lunchroom during his senior year, 1971-72. In a text message, he wrote, “I wasn’t in the lunchroom when this occurred, but I did hear of chairs being thrown.”)
Even the teachers… I remember coach P_____. There was a roll call at the beginning of the year, and he said, “No polacks in my class this year.” I guess being Polish, he could easily say that, but doing that enables that type of behavior.
After graduating from Lane, I went to the U of I [University of Illinois] in Champaign, and the white kids had the same attitudes as when they were in high school, right? Now they were of draft age and maybe internalized their racism more, but it was still there. I remember December 7, your birthday. I was coming home from class, and I got bombarded by snowballs, students yelling, “It’s Pearl Harbor Day, get the Jap!” (Ted attended several of my birthday parties when we were kids, and he’d remembered, decades later, that I was indeed born on December 7. For readers who appreciate irony, it should also be mentioned that Iva Toguri, the Japanese American scapegoated as the infamous “Tokyo Rose,” was born on July 4.)
Another story: During my sophomore year, there were some racial issues, tension on campus between whites and Blacks at U of I. It went on for a few weeks, and there were a lot of notifications from the university about what to do and what not to do. Fistfights were breaking out or whatever. One evening, it was dark. A friend of mine, Danny, who’s also Japanese American, and I were at a snack shop, which was in the middle of a whole series of dormitories. As we left the snack shop, there were maybe a dozen or so Black students who were thirty or forty feet away. As soon as we opened the door and walked out, they all looked at us, like, Are these guys a threat? And as far as Danny and I were concerned, we were looking at them, thinking, Are we going to run or are we going to do something? This didn’t look good. Coincidently, one of the Black students lived in our dorm, recognized Danny and me, and spoke up immediately to his friends. He said, “It’s okay. You don’t want to mess with those guys because they know karate.” And then Danny and I just kept walking, like, Yeah, we know karate [laughs]. Neither of us knew anything like that. There was David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” [TV show] or Bruce Lee. Those days have passed, but I think there was this perception or stereotype that all Asians know martial arts.
So, the fact that you had a personal contact there outside of the snack shop… He was making sure you guys were okay?
That’s my thought. He may have defused the situation. I don’t remember his name, but I know his dorm room was right next to mine.
* * *
Again, our generation… We grew up with a lot of stuff, right? Baby boom, World War II is over, but then there was the red communist threat, the Vietnam War, and just a lot of anti-Asian sentiment. I would say that even throughout my working career, every once in a while, a manager or somebody will let out a racial pejorative against Asians. I’ll think… It’s there. It’s in them. They just let it loose without looking at their audience. I tell them, “You can’t say that. Maybe when I’m not here, but when I’m here, you can’t say stuff like that.”
Is there anything you want to say that you haven’t said? (Ted glances at his notes.)
I remember one guy at Lane asked me, “Do Asian girls have pussies that go sideways?” What am I supposed to tell him?
* * *
Since the start of these interviews with Ted, the world has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic. There has been the proliferation of Black Lives Matter protests, including the nationwide social unrest that came after the videotaped murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There has also been a significant uptick in hate crimes against Muslims, minority groups of color, Jews and Asians, such as the mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021 by a lone white gunman that left eight Asian women dead. Almost exactly two months after those shootings, I met with Ted again, this time at his house, the same one where he had lived when we were kids. As we sat at his kitchen table with my recorder between us, I noticed, through a window overlooking his small backyard, a full-grown coniferous tree that hadn’t been so much as a sprout during our childhoods. I was struck with a comforting sense that his parents, long since passed away, were in the house, too, his father probably working at his steel-rule die bench in the basement and his mother over by the stove, quietly whipping up a meal. Whenever Ted’s mother had wanted her son’s attention, she would call out in a voice laced with loving demand, “Ted-deeeee!” He’d immediately break from one of our ultra-competitive miniature hockey games played on the dining room table, and hurry off to go and see what his mother wanted from him. Once, when I was thirteen and already edging above Ted’s father, Mr. Ishiwari, in height, I tried to impress him with my knowledge of, and opposition to, the Vietnam War. “Oh!” he said. “You’re talking like a man now!” And he turned away, making it clear by means of a compliment that he did not want to engage with me in a conversation about the war or politics. Fifty-three years later, I asked Ted,
In your opinion, what is causing the current wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans?***
The past administration and the former President’s rhetoric concerning the pandemic has just legitimized anti-Asian feelings and encouraged actions against Asians with words and violence. When our leaders say things like COVID-19 is the “China virus” or the “kung-flu,” it just makes it easier for people to target all Asians. People are dying because of COVID-19, suffering, and in very dire situations. I am hopeful that the current administration can defuse some of this situation or at least point us in a better direction.
***“A survey found that one in three Asian Americans worried about becoming victims of hate crimes.”— New York Times
* * *
Trudy and I had a conversation with Sophie over Easter. (Trudy is Ted’s wife. Sophie is their full-grown daughter who is half Asian American and half white.) I think that the killings in Atlanta may have only been two or three weeks old. Sophie said that she’s not impacted by anti-Asian American sentiment much because her community, the people in her circle of friends, don’t associate her as being Asian or part of the group bringing COVID-19 into the country. I get it, this process Sophie has gone through, and would call it “white passing.” But do I believe it? I think that it’s important as she gets older, wherever her life takes her, that she’ll understand part of her is a part of the dialogue we’re having here.
It sounds to me, Ted—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—that you don’t quite trust that Sophie will be completely accepted into the white world. That you feel she’s got to, like your dad told you, remember who she is?
That’s almost a trick question, because you don’t necessarily want to be accepted into the white world. You want…” (And here Ted pauses, struggling to find the right words, his open hands and splayed fingers repeating the same emphatic gesture, one of shaping and defining an invisible sphere) “…to be accepted in a bigger world, one that’s inclusive of all of us. I think to be accepted into the white world is what the Asian American community tried to do throughout the twentieth century. No, we’ll never be accepted in the white world, so it’s not something we want to strive for. We want to be in a world where it’s not labeled as the white world. It goes back to that one story where all of a sudden, I’m on the playground at Oscar Mayer, and I find out that one guy hitting a softball thinks I’m a “Jap.” Just say, “Hey, get off the field,” or “Get the fuck off the field,” or “Are you playing or are you not?” Treat me like everybody else.
Ted Ishiwari lives with his wife, Trudy. With formal training in Electrical Engineering and Business Administration, he is a practicing Information Technology (IT) Project Manager. Ted’s daughter, Sophie, is a student living in Pennsylvania. His sisters, Chiye Higashide and Tomi Tokiyama, live in Hawaii and Florida, respectively.