Esther Takei Nishio


Name Esther Takei Nishio
Born February 15 1925
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier

Nisei

The first Japanese American not in a special category allowed to return to the West Coast from the concentration camps. Esther Takei's arrival in Pasadena, California, to attend college in September 1944 initially created a furor, but her ultimately successful resettlement helped pave the way for the mass return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast starting in January 1945.

Early Life and Mass Incarceration

Esther Kazue Takei was born in 1925 to Issei parents Harry Shigehisa and Ninoye Takei, both immigrants from Yamanashi prefecture. She grew up in the seaside resort community of Venice, California, west of Los Angeles, where her parents had a business running carnival games and a ride at the Venice Pier. Literally growing up at the pier as a young child, she later attended Florence Nightingale Elementary and Venice Jr. and Senior High Schools, while working in game booths on the weekends. Her parents were both Christian and spoke English well.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, her father was arrested and interned, and Esther and her mother moved with a cousin to El Sereno, east of downtown Los Angeles. In preparation for their forced removal, they left the carnival and ride equipment with trusted employees. Hugh Anderson, a young accountant whom they had met through another employee, stored furniture and personal belongings for them. Two pet dogs were among the possessions she was forced to leave behind. A high school senior, she was also forced to quit school a few weeks shy of graduating.

Esther and her mother were sent first to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, living in a barracks apartment in the parking lot area of the former racetrack. She worked as waitress in the yellow mess hall. While at Santa Anita, her father rejoined them, just prior to their moving on the Amache, Colorado concentration camp. At Amache, she worked as a dental assistant for a friend of parents'; her father served as a block manager and her mother worked in the mess hall. They lived in the same block with noted artist Tokio Ueyama, who taught painting classes that her mother took.

In 1943, she left camp for Boulder, Colorado, with the intention of enrolling at the University of Colorado, where another former employee now taught. She worked as a schoolgirl with a wealthy local family while trying to establish residency, but was unhappy with the work. Her father eventually came to escort her back to Amache. Back at Amache, she worked for the camp newspaper, the Granada Pioneer, as a reporter and columnist and drew a comic titled "Ama-chan." She and a friend also served as advisors for a young teenage girls' club.

Pioneering Resettler

In the summer of 1944, she was approached by Hugh Anderson on behalf of a new organization he and a Pasadena, California, real estate agent named William Carr had started called Friends of the American Way. Deeply troubled by the forced removal of Japanese Americans, Anderson had stored the belongings of as many of them as he could and had even taken his family to the Poston, Arizona, desert where he worked as an adviser to the accounting department for several months. Anderson had been in contact with new Western Defense Command head General Charles Bonesteel, who had indicated a willingness to allow a Nisei student to return to the West Coast as a test case. A handful of other Japanese Americans—mostly wives of military servicemen—had quietly been allowed to return. "My parents and I talked it over, and they agreed that it would be something good, you know something that we should try," she remembered in a later oral history. "So we told Mr. Anderson that we were willing to go along with his idea."[1]

She arrived by train in Pasadena to attend Pasadena Junior College on September 12, 1944. She was warmly welcomed at the train station by Anderson, the editor of the school paper, and members of the Student Christian Association. Anderson and school officials had primed the student body who proved to be uniformly supportive of the new Nisei student. While attending school, she would live with Anderson's family, which included four young children.

The intent was "for me to attend school quietly, and see how I integrated with the student body and with the community," she recalled. "If all went well, then they would let the news leak out that a Japanese American had returned to California and that there were no problems, therefore, that all the others who had been chased out could return to their homes."[2] But mainstream Los Angeles newspapers picked up the story from the school paper, and it spread widely. A "Ban the Japs Committee" formed, led by a local activist named George L. Kelley, which protested to the Pasadena Board of Education. A protest march was planned and 200 people attended a "Ban the Japs" meeting on September 28 at the Pasadena Public Library including members of old-time anti-Japanese ground such as the Native Sons and Daughter of Golden West and the American Legion. Anderson's address was published in a newspaper article, and cars began to drive by day and night to harass the family. Anderson moved his family in with out-of-town relatives, and Takei moved in with another family until things cooled down.[3]

Barely a week after the big anti-Japanese meeting, Kelley had a change of heart, announcing that he was resigning from his own committee and applying to become a member of the Pasadena Chapter of the Committee for American Principles and Fair Play, crediting a speech by War Relocation Authority head Dillon Myer with convincing him to switch sides.[4]

In the meantime, outside feedback to the college concerning Takei was overwhelmingly positive. She also received many letters from outraged servicemen, both white and Japanese American, who offered to return to "protect" her. Though there were still some who disapproved, the furor gradually died down. Takei focused on her studies, though she also became a sought after speaker at other colleges in the community. Later, in the summer of 1945, she was one of several college students sponsored by the YM/YWCA to return to camp to serve "counselors" to high school graduates to encourage them to leave camp for college; she spent a month at Gila River in this capacity.

Postwar Life

In the meantime, her parents left camp, joining her to live in an apartment arranged for them by Carr. Finding no trace of their former business in Venice, they were forced to start over, with her father becoming a gardener and her mother cleaning houses. Seeing her parents work so hard, Esther quit school to attend a secretarial school, eventually landing clerical positions in an import/export firm and a war surplus store. Her father later started a frozen food business with other Issei and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Her parents eventually decided to move back to Japan to retire in 1958.

Esther was one of many young Nisei girls and women who started social/service clubs. The Pasonas included other Pasadena Junior College students and sponsored dances and other activities. She also was also sought out by a young resettler named Shigeto Nishio whom she had first met at Santa Anita. They began dating in the summer of 1946 and married in June of 1947. They had a son a year later.

Shig worked initially as a gardener, than later as a real estate broker and insurance broker. Once her son entered middle school, Esther went back to work, first as a secretary for noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, then for an air freight company. She and her family remained in Pasadena throughout.

Aside from reluctantly testifying before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981, she remained silent about her wartime experiences, turning down many interview requests. But she finally agreed to do an oral history as part of the REgenerations project of the Japanese American National Museum in 1999 and has spoken frequently about her experiences subsequently. She received an honorary degree from Pasadena City College in 2009.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Girdner, Audrie, and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Hansen, Joseph William. "Miss Takei and Pasadena." Common Sense 13 (Nov. 1944): 398–400.

Matsumoto, Valerie J. City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Nishio, Esther Takei. Interview by Darcie Iki and Sojin Kim, June 21, 1999. In REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era. Los Angeles Region: Volume II. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000. 295–360. http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft358003z1;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e13767&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e13767&brand=calisphere

———. Interview by Sharon Yamato, Sept. 21, 2011. Densho Visual History Collection. http://archive.densho.org/Core/SegmentsByInterview.aspx?id=699.

Footnotes

  1. Esther Takei Nishio, interview by Darcie Iki and Sojin Kim, June 21, 1999, in REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era. Los Angeels Region: Volume II (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000), 325, accessed on July 18, 2014 at http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft358003z1;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e13767&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e13767&brand=calispher.
  2. Esther Takei Nishio interview, REgenerations, 326.
  3. Pacific Citizen, Sept. 16, 23, and 30, 1944, accessed on July 18, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19440916_003.jpg, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19440923_002.jpg, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19440930_004.jpg; Joseph William Hansen, "Miss Takei and Pasadena," Common Sense, Nov. 1944, 398–99; Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II (London: Macmillan, 1969), 380; Valerie J. Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 175–79.
  4. Pacific Citizen, Oct. 7, 1944, p. 3, accessed on July 18, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19441007_003.jpg.