Longtime Nisei activist Frank Yamasaki, an outspoken critic of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, passed away peacefully in his Lake Forest Park home on February 28 at the age of 92.
Yamasaki was one of the key Japanese American elders who helped break decades of uneasy silence by participating in the development of the critically-acclaimed exhibition “Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After,” a 1992 display that propelled The Wing Luke Museum to national prominence. In 1997, Yamasaki also shared his story with Densho, an oral history project focused on preserving and sharing the experience of camp survivors.
Yamasaki, who spent his pre-War childhood in the South Park and Belltown areas of Seattle, was incarcerated at Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington, and Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho. Yamasaki refused to participate in the draft and was imprisoned at McNeil Island Penitentiary, Washington before resettling in Seattle.
He is survived by his wife, Sadie; daughter Sally Yamasaki, husband Dan Benson, and their daughters Lina and Lara Benson; daughter Sara Yamasaki, husband Tom Ikeda and their children Tani and Casey Ikeda.
The family requests that memorial donations be made to International Community Health Services, Densho, or the International Examiner. A celebration of life will announced at a later date.
The following is an excerpt from the interview with Frank Yamasaki featured in Seattle Works for Rights, a collection of oral histories published by the students of Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003:
I was born in Seattle, Washington, near Charles and Dearborn Streets. My father and mother came from an island off the shore of Hiroshima, Japan. It’s called Nomijima.
My Japanese name is Hideo Yamasaki. All through grammar school, in those days we used to be seated alphabetically. My last name started with the letter Y and was among the last to be called. The teachers would call the majority of the names rapidly until they came to mine. There was always a hesitation. I’ve been called everything from Head-eo to Hide-ee-ho. I felt embarrassed. By the time I got to junior high school, I decided, “Heck, I’ll change my name to Frank.” From then on, there wasn’t any problem.
I grew up in South Park. It was mainly a truck farm area. Most of the small farms were owned by Italians, who grew vegetables to take to the market. The government of the United States had a law so that the Japanese were not allowed to purchase land. So a few Japanese worked for Joe, the wealthy Italian farmer.
I went to Cleveland High School until we moved. Then I went to Queen Anne. The school is a condominium now, but it used to be a high school. We lived on the bottom of the hill. There were the hill-toppers, but the poor people lived below the hill.
I had two older brothers. The oldest was working in California, and my other brother was attending the University of Washington. I also had a younger brother, who was only two or three years old. My father was working as a foreman in a burlap factory. We also had a hotel business. My mother took care of my youngest brother, along with the chores of cooking, washing clothes and helping maintain our hotel business. Since my eldest brother was in California, and my other brother was attending the UW and was very busy with his school studies, and my parents could not speak English, I more or less took care of the business. I was a teenager. I had to take care of all the bookkeeping, renting to the tenants, collecting rents and things like that. My dad and mother had to work hard all their lives just to make a reasonable living, so it was not difficult for us children to also work hard. Whenever my brother had free time from his studies, he would also help with the hotel maintenance.
When I wasn’t working, I enjoyed sports. I turned out for football at Queen Anne High School. I started on the third team, and then I moved up to the second team, and then I was on the first team. I wasn’t big, but I was shifty and pretty fast.
When I was growing up, it didn’t take long to realize there was racial discrimination. I heard stories about how minorities would be forced off the sidewalk. My father told me about the time he went into a white restaurant to order a meal. He sat at a counter waiting a long time to place his order. When the waiter finally waited on him, my father ordered his meal. The waiter went back into the kitchen, brought back a dirty plate with garbage on it, and spit on the plate, saying, “We don’t serve “Japs.”” Experiences like this are why many of the minority ghettos developed, like “Japantown,” “Chinatown,” etc. We felt secure among our own race.