A lifetime later, Frank Kikuchi returns to visit the Manzanar site. (Courtesy Discover Nikkei)
By AMY UYEMATSU
On April 12, I interviewed Frank Kikuchi, a local Nisei who currently lives at Hollenbeck-Palms Retirement Community. Frank, now 93 years young, was a disc jockey at Manzanar, where he was confined from 1942 through 1945. Frank and Archie Miyatake were good friends and became a DJ team. These are excerpts from a longer interview. (Initials A for Amy and F for Frank will be used.)
A: How old were you when you went to camp?
F: I was 17.
A: When did you begin doing your DJ work at Manzanar?
F: About a year after I got into camp, and I got to be friends with Archie Miyatake.
A: What kind of music did you play?
F: Well, everything that was popular nationally. We had a pretty good collection — Tommy Dorsey, Harry James — the genre was big band music and good — we had everything.
A: What were the dances like? What did the Nisei wear?
F: Well, we wore whatever clothes we had. Whatever better grades we had – clean and pressed. The music would be all the ones that I mentioned. There was a difference between the camps in what we wanted as the last dance, romantic music. Manzanar had music that a lot of people don’t even know about now. The title was “Light a Candle in the Chapel” sung by Frank Sinatra.
A: Was it a nice song?
F: It’s a real quiet, nice song. It was very popular because the young men were going away – to wars. And then Heart Mountain’s last dance was sung by a quartet, the Mills Brothers — “Till Then.” In Minidoka it was more traditional – Glenn Miller, “Moonlight Serenade.” There was a difference in likes and dislikes of camp songs … Funny, we were all Japanese, but we had a difference of opinion of what we considered the best.
A: What style of dancing?
F: Slow dancing, and there were a few people (especially the girls) – they were pretty good in dancing, and in fact, they practiced dancing in school and everything else. But Manzanar was just an excuse to be next to a girl and you’d hold her in your arms and go slow.
A Nisei dance in camp, probably held in a mess hall, ca. 1942-1945. Gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata, Japanese American National Museum (via Discover Nikkei)
A: My dad did jitterbug. Did they do that too?
F: They did that too. But a lot of the guys wouldn’t take the trouble to learn. They wanted to hold their girlfriend in their arms and rock to the music – slow dancing.
A: Who was your personal favorite singer and band?
F: I liked Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. It’s pretty much what the white world liked…Sinatra. I liked Dick Haymes too. And I really liked those two as compared to Ray Eberle. Ray Eberle was a decent singer with Glenn Miller, but he wasn’t the greatest singer. He went off key a lot of times. I can’t believe a singer like him would be off key so often. Even his brother wasn’t that good – Bob Eberly, who sang for Jimmy Dorsey.
A: Did any Nisei ever sing live at the dances?
F: This one girl – she still sings – the “Songbird of Manzanar.” She was good. [The “Songbird of Manzanar” was Mary Kageyama Nomura.]
A: Do you still have your record collection?
F: I had hundreds and hundreds of records, but now I have two boxes left. There were even some transcription records where I had to copy Archie’s records because they were in better shape than mine.
A: When you and Archie would DJ, would you announce the songs?
F: No, I didn’t do that – I didn’t have the forwardness to do that. Sometimes Archie did, because he knew the girls better than I did – you know, his dad was a photographer, a pretty well-known person, and Archie had one year of school at Manzanar…where I already had my finals at school, and Cathedral High never did send me a diploma but I’d finished. Therefore, I didn’t go to school at Manzanar because they didn’t have any classes for me.
A: Did you have any other kind of work when you were at Manzanar?
F: I tried different kinds of work — outside carpenter, craftwork, and I drove a truck for the farm. I also did camouflage net work. I did that just to see what it was like. I found it sort of fun. All they wanted was a quota – so many nets from a crew – we were able to finagle it and make that quota in half a day. This one person stayed behind and signed us all in.
A: Did the camp supply the record player you used?
F: No, Archie was a craftsman. He was good working with his hands on wood and he knew enough about electronics where he got what he needed and made a player, combined it with an amplifier that a friend made for him. Between the two, we had a pretty decent sound. We had a microphone and everything.
A: How big was the space where you had the dances?
F: We could have a whole barrack for a dance. We also had the use of the mess hall. You know the linoleum floor? We put what we call spangles on it. Spangles is a powdered wax. You brush it on there and gives it a slick surface. We put speakers on the corners. There was a real nice sound.
A: At the more crowded dances, how many people were there?
F: Maybe a couple of hundred. That’s the equivalent of two recreation halls.
A: Were there decorations at the dance?
F: Yes, there always were.
A: And what about food?
F: Punch would be Kool-Aid – maybe some fruit stuck in there – served in paper cups. And some kind of cookies they could bake in the ovens … The cooks would always provide eggs, so they’d have egg salad for sandwiches. You know, little tiny sandwiches. They’d always have eggs. I think one reason is that Manzanar had a chicken farm. It was run by the Japanese — right on camp. They had a hog farm, even. The only thing they tried that didn’t work out was raising beef because beef involves raising grain to feed them … just didn’t have the facilities. You need a lot of water. They tried, though.
A: At Sansei dances in the ’60s, there was a lot of drinking. Was there alcohol at the dances?
F: The only alcohol I know is my friend, George Kanemoto, who was studying to be a pharmacist. He had a job at the Japanese hospital to make cherry cough syrup. And they used denatured alcohol for that. Sometimes he’d passed a little bottle of denatured alcohol to his friends. About 2 or 3 ounces – can’t get drunk on that.
A: The Issei were drinking sake before camp. Did you hear of Issei making sake in camp?
F: Yeah, they were the older people, though … There was a friend of mine – believe it or not, he became a priest – you had to pass his room to go to the mess hall. Man, every time you got near his place you could smell the fumes. He was making white lightning. You throw anything in, let it ferment, get alcohol. White lightning, we called it.
A: And the camp authorities, they let it…
F: Well, they can’t stop it – somebody will start it up. Every so often you’d see them red-nosed and red-eyed.
A: At Sansei dances in Los Angeles, there were sometimes fights afterward. I’m curious, were there fights after the dances at Manzanar?
F: No, I guess they hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
A: Were there cliques or gangs of people?
F: There were groups – like the Terminal Island people, they were the rough ones there. Associated with them was the San Pedro people. Then there were these clubs from Glendale, downtown, and all that. But they weren’t what you call gangs … In fact, I have a T-shirt called the Manzanites. They were a young men’s group. Many of them belonged to the Evergreen Knights (Boyle Heights) before the war.
Amy Uyematsu is the author of several poetry collections, including “Stone Bow Prayer “(2005), “Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain” (1997), and “30 Miles from J-Town” (1992), which won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize.