Pearl Harbor Aftermath: A Memoir by Miye Ota
One Santa Barbara County–Born Japanese American’s Story About Life in an Arizona Internment Camp
By Miye Ota | December 10, 2020
The last time I met with Miye Ota, she interrupted our interview to get up and dance. I think it was the cha-cha. At the time, her back was not treating her kindly. You would never know. She even flirted with me. “Hey, you’ve got blue eyes,” she exclaimed, in mid-sentence. Ota had just turned 100, and she was in the midst of a community celebration held at the Ota family’s dojo/dance studio in Old Towne Goleta.
To say Miye Ota is a force of nature is to miss the point. It might be more accurate to say nature is a force of Miye. Born in Guadalupe, she would move to Goleta in 1948 and become a founding member of the Goleta Chamber of Commerce. Naturally, she was the only woman on its board. She ran a beauty salon at the time.
In 1964, she and her husband — the acclaimed aikido master Ken Ota — built a martial arts dojo next door out of cinder blocks. There they instilled their students with discipline and respect, as well as teaching martial arts and ballroom dancing skills to generations of children and adults. Theirs may have been the only martial arts studio in the country with two chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Five years ago, Ota’s husband died at age 92. Earlier this year, she lost her son, Steve — age 72 — to cancer. Miye, however is still alive and kicking, now working on her memoirs. The following is an edited excerpt.
Not long after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, resident Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast found themselves rounded up and incarcerated in internment camps across the country. They were presumed guilty; no trials were necessary. Many were forced to sell their homes and farms for deeply devalued prices, while others found their property taken when they were finally released. Santa Barbara was no exception. In one such camp, Miye and Ken Ota first met.
But this is Miye Ota’s story. It’s better for her to tell it in her own words. —Nick Welsh
The First Evacuation: Alien Land Laws
For historical context: The Alien Land Law was passed in 1913, barring Asian immigrants from owning land. In 1920 and 1923, California took it further and disallowed leasing of land and land ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrants.
The first time I was evacuated, it must have been 1923. I was about 5 years old when a law was passed that all Japanese people, and others of Asian descent, were no longer allowed to lease or own land in California. The entire Japanese farming community of Oso Flaco were chased off the lands they had been leasing. Oso Flaco, near Guadalupe, is where my parents had settled shortly before I was born and where my father raised sugar beets.
When my parents arrived, it was bare nothing. Just a lake and land with natural vegetation and sagebrush. My father worked with his friends to clear the land and make it tillable. They worked together to build our main home just a few steps from Oso Flaco Lake.
My father, who comes from nobility, was raised with servants. He was brave to leave home and come to a strange country. He did not even know the language. My father broke away from the tradition of teaching daughters to stay at home. He encouraged me, his daughter, to be free and fearless. That’s how I became strong.
When my father’s friends would come visit, my mother served refreshments and I would argue with them. Arguing with men like that. Hahahaha. My dad did his own thing. He was remarkable. My husband, Ken, reminded me of my dad a little bit, but I think I encouraged him a little bit to be like that. To put women first. My father wanted his daughter to be independent. He believed in me and let me be really strong. Be me.
My father became quite prosperous and successful with his farming endeavors. He bought a big Caterpillar tractor to haul the beets to the train station. I remember how farmers would catch wild horses to work on the farm. One time a horse walked into the lake and got sucked in the quicksand, and a man tied a rope around the horse’s belly and pulled him out with that tractor.
But in 1923, ultimately, we were all chased off and forced to leave the land. Everybody left.
The United States government did not pay them to leave. The Japanese left paying their own way, not knowing where to go. The people left to anywhere.
The Second Evacuation: After Pearl Harbor
The bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I was 23 years old. We lived in an old farmhouse near Santa Maria. At the time, I had graduated high school, finished beauty school, and was working as a hairdresser in Guadalupe.
I was the oldest of seven children. The others were still in school. We heard about the bombings on the radio. The kids did not pay much attention to it. They thought it was just another radio program. They were running around going Bang Bang Bang, pretending it was like a cowboy and Indian movie.
We had no idea what it was all about. We didn’t even know enough to be afraid. Then someone shot a gun at our old farmhouse and left a bullet in the door jam. A few days later, some police and authorities came with a young Japanese boy who was pointing out where all the Japanese families lived, and we were told about the terrible things that were happening.
Then some men came and took my father and the other farmers away to be interned. Not just the farmers, but business owners, and all Japanese adult men in the area, except for the very old. The bewildered men were rounded up and taken on trains to Bismarck, North Dakota.
We were left alone, the women and children, without the men in our lives. But not for long because we were soon told to pack up. Just one suitcase per person, just what we could carry. Other authorities came and arranged for us all to go somewhere. We did not know where we were going.
First we were taken to Santa Anita race track, where each family was housed in a horse stall in the stables. I chose not to remember the discomfort and the smell. We stayed calm because Japanese people were taught to just accept things as they come, to be stoic. Then we were carted away to trains to be taken into the middle of the desert in Gila, Arizona.
I can’t remember the ride to Gila River, Arizona. When we got to our desert camp, it was still under construction. It was to be a training camp for soldiers. There were barracks but no electricity and no plumbing. Deep ditches were dug to hold large pipelines for a sewer, I am guessing. If people were not mindful of where they were stepping, they disappeared into the deep ditches. Every once in a while, you would see someone fall in there.
Barbed wire fences surrounded the entire camp to make sure no one escaped out to the barren, hot desert — as if we were going to run away in the desert? And for extra precaution, there was a watchtower overlooking these quiet, law-abiding, loyal Japanese, known to be honest and hardworking.
Each family was housed in a room or two rooms for larger families like mine. Dad was still in Bismarck, but we were seven kids and my mother. There were about 50 barracks. Each had a mess hall where everyone in that section went to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was a laundry room where people could wash their clothes and a ladies shower with the shower heads lined up against the walls, no privacy, like barracks for soldiers. The walls were just thin boards, so we could hear the neighbors, and they could hear us too.
The toilets were in a big room and also lined up, as I recall. No partitions, no anything. Some enterprising ladies put up sheets in between some of the toilets. But I completely blacked out about using the lavatory.
My mom and I were not what you would call close, because, well, how close can you get when you have seven kids and I was away at beauty school? My mom’s name is Hatsuki, and she was born into a family that didn’t prepare her for hardship. She went to a “finishing” school that her aunt owned, where she learned how to be a lady. She was taught fancy cooking and embroidery and things like that. I still have the Picture Bride photo she sent my father. She wore a traditional bridal hairdo and a beautiful kimono.
My mother had a nervous breakdown at the camp. She started talking to herself day and night. She was all right otherwise. She knew what was going on. She knew and recognized each of us kids. She was just disappointed with life. My sweet mother was so upset at the world, but she loved us, and we loved her.
My mom wasn’t able to take care of the family, so I had to step up. A blessing in disguise. It made me stand on my own two feet. I had to take on the role of a parent. But also to keep my head up and enjoy life. It didn’t beat me down. What life deals, you just have to deal with it. Amazing what we can think of to survive. Put on our thinking cap. Then act on a good idea. Or a good deed.
I did all kinds of things for people. Cut their hair. I started a girl scout group and taught them how to make little notebooks to write in like a diary, to make them think and be happy. I taught ballroom dance classes from what I had learned in high school, which was kind of sketchy. The waltz and the jitterbug swing was about it. I had not yet studied professionally. Later on the government gave those of us who were doing things like teaching $16 a month. I don’t remember getting the money.
In the daytime, I let my mother go ahead and talk to herself nonstop. She would talk about how disappointing it was to be in that situation. But at night, I didn’t sleep much. I would try to tell her: “Mom, be quiet. We don’t want to disturb the neighbors.” I have no way of truly knowing how she felt. We never talked about it later. Because we were so busy and she was in her own world.
At the mess hall, they served food we were not used to like hominy and Vienna sausages out of cans. No fresh meat or vegetables. We saw that meat was coming to the camp, but the delivery people would steal it.
Eventually, we started to get some decent food because the older Japanese farmers were permitted to go outside the fence into the desert and raise some vegetables. I don’t know how they got the water, but they did it. After a while, we began to adjust to life at the camp, and a community started to develop.
It was then that I met Kenji Ota. Even though the electricity had not yet been installed, the young people were able to hold a dance using battery-powered radios. Afterward, when I was walking back home in the pitch dark, I stepped into one of the ditches. But I didn’t even hit bottom because Ken caught me with both hands under my arms and swooped me up. He was a weightlifter and a bodybuilder. He took me back to my barrack room, where my family stayed.
We were at the camp for a couple of years, and Kenji kept showing up at my front door. My sister, Hama, would say, “Kenji is here.” I’d answer, “Him again?!” Hahahaha. He was five years younger than me, and I would tell him, “Go away. You are too young for me.” I was 24 and he was 19 years old. He wasn’t old enough to get married without his parents’ consent. But he was persistent. Poor guy. “Never give up,” you know, was the motto he taught everybody.
Sometimes we went to my mess hall, and sometimes we went to his mess hall. And one time at the mess hall, he went over to the next table to help cut an older lady’s food because he could see her struggling with it. His thoughtfulness and kindness won me over, and I accepted him as my boyfriend. He was observant, and he noticed if somebody needed help.
Some men wanted to date me, but they were told, “She is taken.” That was Kenji. He was persistent. Maybe it was because of his experience as a quarterback on his football team at Lompoc High School. He was always calling the plays. He also played basketball, baseball, and shotput, and he was outstanding in all of them. It taught him to focus and go for his goals relentlessly.
He worked hard lifting weights and developed an impressive physique. All the guys wanted to look like him. So he started teaching weight lifting. And all this after the doctor had told him in his youth that he wouldn’t be able to exercise anymore after his bout with rheumatic fever. It left him with a heart murmur.
At the desert camp, it was hot in the day and cold at night. Some barracks, like ours, faced toward the middle of the camp where the farmers had planted a lawn and some trees and shrubs.
But the last barrack had doors that opened toward the street, so it was very private. The family there dug a really deep ditch under their room to keep cool. It was big enough so they could sit under there and escape the unbearable heat.
My father was finally brought to us from Bismarck. He was very weak. He became ill and died in the camp hospital soon after he arrived. So after he was separated from us, we did not have quality time with him ever again. It was so sad. I dreamed of him talking to me. Even after marrying Ken and having our son, Steve, I still dreamt of my father. I saw him encouraging me to be independent and be myself.
We can’t hide the fact that in the Arizona desert, spores carried a deadly virus called coccidioidomycosis: valley fever. Many Japanese internees died of valley fever. My dad got that, too. But even the young athletes succumbed to this reaper of death. Why would anyone voluntarily want to live in this desert?
In the summertime, when the sun came up, the skies were blue and gorgeous, but it got COLD at night. And there were sandstorms. You could not see where you were going. We had to fight our way to the mess hall, and there was sand in the food.
Japanese like to keep busy. Young people started organizing classes. And classes started for the children. We organized baseball games for the guys, and for entertainment, people with talent would sing and dance. They built a stage down at the foot of a hill. We’d sit on the side of the hill among the rocks and things and watch the performances and movies in this outdoor theater. The little lizards they called Gila monsters ran around us.
A woman who later became a famous dancer and performed in New York, Yuriko Amemiya, started teaching dance, and I joined the classes. She taught modern dance, like Martha Graham. One time I was practicing flying leaps, but the floorboard didn’t hold and my foot went through the floor. Ken was there, so he dug me out.
Kenji learned to dance at Lompoc High School, and I learned during gym period at Santa Maria High. They had dances at both schools. Kenji found out that football players were a bunch of wallflowers at dances, so he went to a school teacher and asked him to teach the football players how to dance.
In camp we were all Japanese, but high school was mixed with many different ethnic groups — Latinos, Portuguese, everybody. Sensei used to go to Portuguese BBQs. At my school,there was not such a large mix of people. Mostly white people, one black girl, and me. We got along real well. We used to wear uniforms in high school.
There was a big Japanese community in Lompoc. The people got money together for a Buddhist church. They had weight lifting and all kinds of things for their children, but they welcomed everyone.
Japanese kept their kids busy and safe, teaching them to be law-abiding, honest, and polite. A Japanese school there taught some of the customs. From when they were little, children learned not to do anything to disgrace your family. If you do something bad, it reflects on the whole family. That is a heavy load to put on a kid.
At first I did not spend a lot of time with Sensei, but eventually we started going to dances together. I did kiss him in the camp. He was holding my hand. I said, “Give me a kiss.” He said, “I don’t know how.” I said, “I don’t know either.” We were both virgins, kind of rare these days. Hahahaha.
Japanese people, we learn how to be calm and take whatever happens beyond our control. When they had that tsunami flood and earthquake in Japan — it was such a huge thing — one TV commentator said if something so unfortunate had to happen to anyone, it was a good thing it was the Japanese. They don’t get hysterical and run all over. They are calm. They learn how to use their chi.
I forgot to mention the Fourth of July parade that happened at the camp. The internees marched with American flags to patriotic music. And the wonderful Caucasian teachers and employees were there with tears in their eyes. They could see how the Japanese internees were loyal Americans. The internees felt love for their country despite being prisoners, which is why the Caucasians had tears in their eyes. No demonstration, just quiet, loyal, respect. We were born and raised here. Many young men volunteered to fight for America to prove their love for the only country they knew.