Lily Yuri Tsurumaki

“One day, a classmate saw my name is Lily Oki and she was surprised she says, ‘You know I asked my mother, you disappeared you didn’t come back to class to school.’ And someone remembered me all those years? I thought my gosh, it was touching but she said I guess no one talked about it.”

IMG_5509 (1)
Lily and a young Adina


I would not have met Lily had it not been for the wonders of social media. Her granddaughter, Adina Mori-Holt, who works for the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles on the forthcoming Terasaki Budokan, reached out to me on Instagram with a simple request: “My grandma always brings stories up from camp but it’s usually while I’m driving. I would love to have an oral history from her before she’s gone.” Of course, I knew the feeling all too well.

Thus launched a nearly two and a half hour interview with Adina and 85-year-old Lily Yuri Tsurumaki, who was born and raised in Los Angeles and still living close to the area where she grew up. Her mother was Nisei and her father, Issei. After meeting in Japan, they essentially got engaged there. But after her father came back to California to start working, her young mother decided to board a ship and make the arduous trip across to California to find him, at only 15 or 16 years old. They managed to make a living in Los Angeles as a domestic and as a gardener, but in 1942 the family of four – which now included Lily and her brother younger brother, Kazuto – would be uprooted from their lives and sent to Heart Mountain. Lily herself was forced to grow up quickly, adapting to becoming a wife right after the war. “I got married when I was a teen. Everybody else was going dancing, all having their fun.” It would take years of being in a difficult marriage before she decided to strike out on her own with (and for) her young daughter and start a career. She worked for Japan Airlines for twenty years, landing the job in a way that could only be labeled as fate.

In many ways, Lily’s life story is a beautiful tapestry of both good and bad luck: If she didn’t get the job at Japan Airlines, she may have never crossed paths with the man she would call the “single love of my life,” who she would only get to spend a short time with after years in an unsatisfying marriage. It’s a blend of unexplainable, serendipitous encounters and tragic losses. I suppose the same could be said of any of our lives.

Lily begins her story by telling me that her father had a job taking care of the royal family’s horses on Etajima in Hiroshima Bay.

Your father took care of the royal family’s horses? 

Yeah, whenever the prince came down to Etajima, that little island? That’s where I guess they kept the horses. But he didn’t like their arrogance or something. Well he did something not too nice. He got scolded. 

So he didn’t want to do that work anymore.

Oh, that was the last picture before we went to camp. That was my mother, my brother, he’s two years younger than me, and my father. The war started what, December 7th wasn’t it? We had our Christmas tree and my dad said we would take the last family picture before–he had to turn in all the cameras, swords and everything into the police station. And he was developing his own pictures at home in the bathtub. He would do it in the bathroom, a dark room. 

Lily, her mother, Yayoi Oki, Lily’s brother, Kazuto Oki, and her father, Kazuichi (Jack) Oki

That’s incredible. So you knew. So December 7th had already happened?


This changes a lot, just looking at the photo that way.

So I was in the third grade down at the at the school down below, down the hill. And in third grade, I had to leave for camp, internment camp. And it was interesting. It wasn’t until we came back and we were finished with high school, there was a high school event, you know they used to have a gathering. And one day, she [a classmate] saw my name is Lily Oki and she was surprised she says, ‘You know I asked my mother, you disappeared you didn’t come back to class to school.’ And someone remembered me all those years? I thought my gosh, it was touching but she said I guess no one talked about it.

So you just left and the teachers didn’t explain. 

Just didn’t say anything. She remembered my name is Lily Oki. She came over to me and I thought for someone to remember you, she said she wondered what happened, I just disappeared, I didn’t come to school anymore. I guess no one talked about it. So I thought everybody went to camp somewhere but I found out it’s just the West Coast. 

Yes, and all the way up to Washington.

So I thought everybody on the East Coast went to camp is what I thought. 

But you knew it was just Japanese people?

Yeah at that age I knew it was just the Japanese because of the war. Well, I know when we came back going to school, a lot of people used to say ‘Hey Jap, get back home,’ or ‘We don’t want you here,’ kind of thing, you know? So I used to go home on a hillside, you know finding hiding places to go back on because you were scared. They would throw rocks or do things you know. I mean they were all kids, your classmates so-to-speak or your same school age. So I guess we weren’t wanted right away. We didn’t come back right after the war because we went to Pomona Assembly Center where we all–not everybody, some people went to Santa Anita racetrack. 

Yes, that’s where my family went. They were sent all the way down here to Santa Anita. But you were in Pomona.

Yeah we were sent to Pomona. So my mother and brother, we went down to the place where the bus came down by Alvarado and Sixth Street, isn’t it? Yeah Sixth Street, where the lake is.

Adina: It’s called MacArthur Park now. 

We went by bus and my father drove his truck, his work truck, and they said he could bring it in and he took my mother’s sewing machine because we could only carry what we had on, that was all we could take with us. So my father took my mother’s sewing machine and some of the goods that we might need. The rest of the stuff we had to put under the house basement, what we could keep. 

He was allowed to take his truck into the assembly center?

Yes. He had to sell it. He said he got ten dollars for it. He had to drive it in and then, you can’t keep the car there. So he said he had to sell it for ten dollars. What could we do with a car? I mean, we couldn’t bring it back again. But my mother had her sewing machine so she was able to make curtains for our rooms. Little things like that. And I guess with two kids and my brother. She didn’t do too much sewing for boys things but she made all my clothes. 

She was resourceful bringing in her sewing machine. 

I guess so, I don’t think everyone had those kinds of things. 

No. People were lucky enough to bring a few. I’ve heard of a few people smuggling in a sewing machine but it sounds like that was pretty open for your family, like they were allowed to do that.

We knew Pomona because we used to go to their fairground every year. It was in the parking lot I realized because the Main Street, they had a main street with eucalyptus trees planted. So that’s why I remember, ‘Gee that reminds me of Main Street.’ They must have put fence around it to make it into a temporary camp. So all we had was our little room. They called it an assembly center, I don’t know why. 

They were still building all the camps. They were still building them and they didn’t have room yet. And so all those terms sounded very benign. 

You know I had a florist friend down below, close to where I live, and she said they went directly to Manzanar. And they helped build the camp. 

So if you were going to start at the beginning with this picture almost, can you describe what your parents were doing at the time and what was your life like before the war broke out, and what did your parents do?

Well my mom, she was just a housewife but then she was doing some kind of domestic housecleaning on the hillside over there where we are now. Mrs. Long I know she was an artist, and she worked for her, and she helped her a lot. And my dad was a gardener. So he came around here because he used to always say Larchmont and I don’t know where it was as a kid you know. But he would say a certain thing, something Larchmont, Larchmont. So he was working down on those fancy homes with front lawns because he’s talking about cutting grass on the front lawn. We don’t have our area too many houses with lawns in the front. So I couldn’t figure it out but then after coming out this way more often because of Adina I realized, ‘Oh this is Larchmont.’ There’s a main street, there’s a little shopping area. So that’s why I thought, ‘Oh this is where he was coming out to do his work because he was talking about cutting front lawn and when I thought, ‘Gee we don’t have laws in our areas front.’

Yes, this is where he was working.

He was working more out this way I guess. He was a gardener and Mother was just a domestic. She worked at a doctor’s home, but otherwise she was home. 

And were they were they themselves Issei? Or were they Kibei? Or what generation were your parents?

My father be Issei but my mother be Nisei. She was born in Long Beach. But I guess  when she was about three or four, her father was a restaurant cook. When the children was raised to start school, he realized if he doesn’t let them go to a Japanese school or a decent school in Japan you will never be able to marry right or go into the right family, kind of thing. So he took all the family home when she was about three, four. Somewhere very young. So my mother’s side, she had a brother, Setsuo, was he younger or older? He used to live with us all the time so I used to always look at him as Superman. He used to do judo. So he was husky, and he looked tall and big and handsome. 

That’s kind of nice. 

You know after the war, I guess he went home on the last ship. I guess they said his mother was ill, come home immediately. They must have known that the war was going to begin. And he took the last ship home. 

So he was over there during the war but before he was living with you. 

He was here. I don’t know how long he was here but I remember making mochi, things like that down on Sunset. But he did judo, so he was a strong man, so I always looked up to him as a superhuman. And then when I went back to Japan to meet him the first time with the family after the war, I worked for Japan Airlines. That was my first job, not my first job I guess I was painting ties when I was in high school. But it was a real job that, you know. Oh what happened?

Adina brings out more photos.

After I had gotten married, I know that man [in a photo], Clarence. He left home, so I thought if I didn’t get a job I can’t feed my child, she was only two years old. So I found a nursery school nearby and this was in Highland Park where we were living.

Lily’s daughter, Darice

And I went downtown dressed in a suit on a bus. And the store I used to go to was always Broadway because it’s so close to the subway — it used to be subway terminal across the street. So I just went down to the store there and just applied for some kind of job. And they said they liked the way I was dressed, I guess I just had my suit on and they gave me fashion work right away, so I started working. And then I was working in the window. You know the department stores used to have display windows, corner windows? And they had to do something special on a corner window because Broadway was down on Fourth Street and Seventh Street was Broadway. And 8th Street was May Company in those days and they all sort of competed, which I didn’t know but once I got in there I found out.

So you helped design window display?

I had to actually display them and I don’t know why but I wanted to do kimono. That fall, Christmas, I guess, I couldn’t get any kimonos. I called the dance teacher. I thought they would have all the kimonos and found out they were so expensive and they said the light on it would fade it and all kinds of things. And I thought my gosh I don’t have any kimono. 

And then I thought I’ve heard of Japan Airlines down the block. I guess it was Fifth Street. And so I just called them to ask if they have advertisements of hostesses or stewardesses in kimono. So I asked if I could borrow a kimono and I don’t know why, he said he liked my telephone voice. And there was a Clark Hotel right next door to my Broadway department store downstairs at that time, he’d said he’ll meet me there and I’ve never been in a bar in my whole life and I thought, ‘What kind of man is he?’ No, I shouldn’t do this [laughs].

Who’s trying to meet me at a bar by hearing me on the phone? Wow. 

It was funny how he said he’d like to meet me and it’s funny how one thing led to another and he wanted to offer me–have me come to Japan Airlines and me take care of their PBX, they had their switchboard. And I was doing that in my senior years.

It’s so funny, my father worked for Japan Airlines. But in the Bay Area. So in San Francisco. 

We were off station because our flights didn’t come into L.A. So we had to send everybody up to San Francisco. 

Oh wow what a beautiful picture. So this is like the office?


That was our Japan Airlines office and I was taking care of the PBX board at the time. And as a senior in high school, they called us a certain name for those who were in the top category and we had to do service, and I had to do the switchboards early in the morning before the regular operator came in so that’s why I learned how to use a switch board at John Marshall high school.

Are you fluent in Japanese? Do you speak Japanese? 

I do speak it but I can’t read or write it. 

So how many years did you work with Japan Airlines?

I retired with them, I guess it was about almost 20 years, I think. They had an early retirement, so I took the early retirement. 

Okay, so that was it for you. You got that job and you enjoyed what you were doing.

Well one thing I did was travel, huh Adina? I took Darice, Adina when she was still small. We went to New Zealand. We were going to leave her with Grandma and you cried so much so Grandma says, ‘You gotta take her with you.’

Adina and Yuri

Adina: I was a very spoiled child. I was like six. Yeah anytime I was away from my mom, I just cried uncontrollably, I was that child. 

You were attached. 

So here we took her with us to New Zealand. I went to Australia myself. That’s right. On each vacation, I wanted to go to one place, someplace you know. At first it was to see more of Japan. So I started with the northern island Hokkaido. See what little I can see. Pretty much got to know the bears and your mommy [to Adina] named one of the bears there. They let her name a bear but I don’t know what it was. 

Adina: It was like Jennifer or like some American name.

 So in Hokkaido, was it like a preserve? 

Yeah preserve. I don’t know if it was natural there or not but they had a place up in the mountain near Sapporo, which is the capital and up there they had the bear and the cubs. And Darice was still quite small but they asked her to name a little new cub. I forgot what she named it now. 

Adina: It was like an American name. 

Jennifer the baby bear. And so you were able to travel all over Japan with your job?

Well I tried to take the opportunity to learn about Japan and see Japan so I just started with Hokkaido first and then work my on down from the northern part down, and you were already near Tokyo. So you landed in Haneda which was Tokyo so can stay there a few days and then you came home and stopped in Hawaii. Oh the flights all went through Hawaii. And in fact we had to stay overnight many times to make connections. Sometimes I think sometimes our flight even went through Wake Island.

And was that to refuel or was it just because the connection had to stop?

They had to stop to refuel I think is what it was, and one time I had to stay overnight there but they tried to fly over that to Hawaii directly from Haneda to Honolulu. It was a big thing then. Planes weren’t jets they were propeller, at first. And then when it became jets it just changed everything, you know, you’re bypassing Wake but you’re even bypassing Honolulu now it’s going through Anchorage and going around the other way. So I guess I got to know Japan Airlines from when it’s in its infancy.

Yes. You were with it from the beginning.

Yeah, right.  

What prefecture were your parents from?

My father’s from Etajima. But my mother’s Hiroshima, the city of Hiroshima and Hiroshima-ken. That’s where they dropped the atomic bomb but they were on the other side of the hill. 

So they were they were okay?

Yeah, like my cousin I know, he was a midget. I don’t know what was the reason but anyway, we went to Japan to visit family and found that, gee. That was my mother’s brother’s son. So where the Kodanis lived there was an old house from long ago but there was a little mountain and on the other side was Hiroshima city and this side was a little bit country. And that’s where they lived on this side, maybe that’s why they were protected from the atomic blast or energy. But the little boy, he was only so big, you know. But found out that his mother had gone through that atomic blast. She was living on the side of Hiroshima city. So we don’t know exactly what but he was born as a small boy. We went back to Japan after the war and visited two or three times, I guess. I took mom and pop. They didn’t want to go back but I told them they could go back on my pass. I was able to take them home. A lot of people, I think that’s one thing they did was even the employee would still stay at home but they’ll send the parents, you could use your points. But they never wanted to go back to Japan.

Why was that?

I don’t know, I don’t know why. But they didn’t necessarily want to or need to. I think his brother used to come and visit. I remember him, he was a big tall man for the Japanese but he used to visit or lived here in L.A. with my dad. In a little apartment or little places. And I guess my dad as well, I guess they all worked up north toward Modesto or some place? I guess there was a lot of farming.

Yes. Central Valley up there.

So they were working up there. And then my father became ill, something with a stomach thing and he couldn’t go to the hospital here. So he finally came home and since then he’s been never strong with his stomach, he’ll get sick easy.  


And when he came home he was there in Japan for a while, and that’s where I guess he met my mother. 

Okay, so they met in Japan.

They met in Japan. She was born here in Long Beach. But the father took them all back home before school started. 

To have them just learn and be educated in Japan?

You couldn’t marry right or something if you didn’t have the right qualifications.

Okay so they met. Was that arranged at all?

No it wasn’t. As far as I know they were introduced by a friend, another family friend, Morioko-san. And I guess Pop liked her I guess. I don’t know, he wanted to come back to America. And he came back and left mom of course there, she was still going to school. 

Adina: There was a big age difference. There was like a 15 year age difference. She was a teenager still when they met. She was very young when they met. I think my great-grandmother was 16 or 17 when my grandma was born. 

IMG_5534 (1)

Yes, she was young. The age difference was quite a bit. 

So your father came back. Or did they come back together to California? 

No, my father came back after he got this bad illness in his stomach, he wanted to come back so he did come back. But he was introduced to my mother in Japan. And she said it was embarrassing when she was betrothed to someone but he didn’t care to come back, she didn’t think that he would ever earn enough money to come back after her. So one day she just told her father she’s going to America and she got on the boat herself, somehow. And she came to America to look for him. And they got married actually at the place where I was born, there were so many hills around our place.

So that’s where Mrs. Marshall – I can still remember her. They lived upstairs and downstairs was vacant. So that’s where my mom and pop got married because he said they had to get a minister, he was in his gardener’s clothes that he was working in and they just got married there. So my mother used to feel so sad about when you’d see all the new weddings that we were doing and the children were having. And they had a minister come and marry them so they could live together.

And Mrs. Marshall, I guess she was awfully good to my parents because every Christmas we always went to her house, and to remember her. And I still remember the stairs though, it was funny. It was on the hillside and you had to climb up stairs to their house level. But she had a wooden stairway all the way up to her house. And we lived down the stair. And my mother was saying that Mrs. Marshall taught her how to play the piano and cook, taught her English, and did a lot of things for them. So every Christmas we would go visit her, take some Christmas gifts and visit them. I always remember the stairs. My mother used to say I used to climb up the stairs but I never could come down. I was scared to come down, so I would be sitting up there crying. So she said she had to go and get me every time, she said she was with her second child, my brother. So she said it was it was getting to be awful. But anyway she couldn’t go up those stairs, but we moved down to Virgil. That’s when we moved down there.

She said that she used to lock the door but I’ll be gone again. I used to go and love to pick flowers, she said. I don’t remember that but I go down the driveway and go up the street on Virgil and go up to people’s backyards. And I guess I was just picking them, I was breaking all the stems, bending the flower stems and the neighbors were getting so upset but she said she couldn’t watch me. So she put a hook on the door but she said somehow I found a way to open it, so she kept putting the hook up higher and higher to the top of the door. 

She was trying to keep you in.

Yeah to keep me in from always going out, running out again, or whatever work she’s doing around the house. And I guess, she’ll find a broom on the floor. I guess I found a way to knock it open. I used to sneak out again and she said she had to go look for me she’ll find one sock here, somewhere down the sidewalk she’ll follow the shoes. And she’ll find another sock somewhere else. And she said she always followed my path only because I didn’t like to wear shoes and socks for some reason. 

It’s like a game between you two. 

I drove my mother nuts. She said I really was too rambunctious I guess. 

You kept her on her toes.

I still remember I found a broomstick to push the key way up there. I’d run, disappear again.

Your mother, she must have been tired. 

Yeah it was too much for her and I guess she had a big stomach so it made it harder. 

And how was the relationship between your parents? Did they have a good marriage?

I think so but my father was much older than she, but they were introduced by a family friend in Japan but because he never came after her she said it was embarrassing. They were sort of like betrothed. That’s why she says she’s going to go to America herself. So she came on the boat by herself.

Yes. Were they still corresponding though? 

I think so. I can’t figure it out how she would have known where to go. But she said she was stuck at Terminal Island, after you get off the boat for so many days, I don’t know for inspection or whatever. But she said she was terrified but Pop didn’t come after her for three days or something and she was very upset.

I wonder–you’re not sure what happened, like if he didn’t have access? He must have known.

I don’t know how that part works I never asked him. I never thought of asking him at the time. But that was our last Christmas, December before we had to go to camp so my father used to take–his hobby was camera, taking pictures. So he took that and then he was also developing it in the bathroom himself. So that’s one of the last pictures we had all dressed up.

And what did your parents say? Did they explain to you and your brother what was happening or do you remember what happened with Pearl Harbor? You were very young but did kind of know there was something wrong?

No, except that my uncle used to live with us and his mother said she’s ill, so please come home. We didn’t know though, we heard something about maybe a war starting. But he did take the last ship home and that’s the last we heard. We had no further contact because you couldn’t write or anything. 

No correspondence. 

No, you couldn’t correspond or anything. I guess he said he was taken into the Japanese army immediately and because he spoke and read English, it was an advantage to them. He became something there, I forgot, but he was sent to Burma and that’s where he got malaria, that’s where he was. He looked scrawny. I always thought of him as big, husky.

You remember him as healthy and strong. 

I remember him coming after me sometimes at the Micheltorena school, if it rained or something you know, he’ll come after me because they can’t work. He was doing gardening too. So if it rained, he’ll come down and pick me up. So after he was gone, we didn’t know what happened until after the war then we learned about his–but when I met him at Osaka airport the first time. I was with Japan Airlines and after the first trip over to Japan, I better go meet my grandmother and meet my uncle. And they were all hanging onto the fence looking at the plane because they know that I should be on that particular plane to Hiroshima. But I thought being I was a JAL employee I should let all the okyakusan [customers] go first you know, I don’t know, Japanese mentality I guess. But I didn’t get off and they were hanging on to the fence watching. And they thought, no one came off. And finally I gathered my stuff and I was wearing my three-inch heels because you know in those days we used to wear big heels. And I was so tall, it was embarrassing because my grandmother was some place down here. She was trying to talk to me and she insisted on carrying my handbag or just travel bag that was heavy. But she was way down here somewhere. Oh gosh that was an experience I thought, ‘I should’ve worn my regular shoes.’ And Japan, my first trip I didn’t know that they had all that kind of wood floor. You can’t wear shoes inside, you take your shoes off. 

So my grandmother, my uncle, remember? And he had all this curly hair. And I thought it didn’t look like my uncle at all. But I guess after his malaria illness, his whole body got small and changed. But he had a son that I told you, that he looked like a little midget? 

Oh, right. 

Yeah, Masaki. So amazingly he just jumped in a car, and my uncle had a car made that everything be done by hand, by hand shift so that he could drive a car though his leg is, he was only so big. And he played the piano for us, and his piano pedal had this short thing, some gadget on there.

They made it work for him. Did your uncle ever tell you stories about what happened to him during the war?

Yeah, in a sense that because he spoke English and understood English, he was put into a different category, of listening to different news things, that’s about what he said. But he was, I think captured down–no he was hiding in the jungle, that’s what it was I’m sorry. Yeah and he didn’t even know the war was over until he said they were so hungry for certain food. I guess they were stealing food during the nights, going out of their hiding to the village somewhere and finding some food and bringing it back. It wasn’t only he, it was probably a couple of others but they used to, that’s all they ate. When you hear this story it’s really sad until one time he came out and found out that the war was over. Finally was able to come home.

So he didn’t know. 

And I don’t think he was the only one, there was probably somebody else. They escaped from the Japanese army somehow in hiding, you know. 

Oh my gosh.

I mean they should be in the army fighting, but they were down there. I don’t know they said they were in hiding. 

Adina: That’s how he got sick, right? 

Yeah because they were in the jungle.

Right. That was common everywhere in the Pacific I think, getting malaria. 

I guess you never get over malaria, I think. 

Adina: I think he had it for so long that by the time he got care for it, it already was a chronic issue. 

How sad.

Yeah. But it was nice to just meet the family. I remember the first time we were in Nara, actually we landed in Osaka but we went to Nara. And the Miyako Hotel, it was a pretty place. And to see the screen opening up and you see all of this forestry-like, and there’s hot spring water coming out. There’s a river down below us. But it’s a hot spring water so people are bathing in different little spots. It’s too strange that I couldn’t do that right away but after a while you got more braver, you have to try.

Yes, you have to take advantage of that.

Trying new things, you know. Yeah that night, what surprised me is my grandmother, she was a tiny little woman but when we got to the inn, she stretched out like a lady of leisure and the next thing you know they have these little arm rests or something, and next thing I know she’s pulling out a cigarette and she’s smoking away. It shocked me I thought, ‘Grandma’s smoking?’ 

Adina: My great-grandmother was very conservative, they didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke. 

So this was shocking for you to see. 

Actually, Grandma’s sitting there with that arm rest of kind of thing, and pulled out a cigarette started smoking [laughs]. I couldn’t believe it. Like you see the in movies sometimes, you know?

Yes exactly. Well then maybe considering everything she’d gone through. 

I guess she was a lady of leisure, or I don’t know. 

So that’s good you reconnected with that part of your family in Japan. And then your parents were here and your uncle had left. And then your parents were still here. And I bet they didn’t know either what would happen to them?

A young Adina and her great-grandparents, Jack and Yayoi

They were finally able to send something called SOS, a care package to Japan. Food, sugar. It’s always sugar, I guess we were rationed sugar here, too during the time of the war. So Mom would always save a ration to send to Japan, some sugar and different canned foods you know, meat cans. And they would send it by sea. They didn’t have airplanes that cheaply so everything was done by sea so it took a couple of months or something to get there, you know. Nothing that would that would spoil. Finally, I guess working for Japan Airlines I was able to travel my first trip, it changed things for me. That’s all I remember of the trip. 

When you were in elementary school here in L.A. before you left, were there other Japanese students?

No, I was the only one in my class. So the teacher probably didn’t say anything and probably my parents never went down to tell them either.

You just left. 

Yeah, I was just gone. I just went one day to the last day of school, only it’s my school day, and then I just didn’t go back to school.

Sad. So that’s why she was wondering, where you went?

The parents probably never talked about it, you know? Because of the war. She didn’t know, why would she ask me? After I came back though, after the war ended and I was now ready for junior high school not grammar school no more. And they’ll call you Jap, you know, and that didn’t – you’re trying to find a way to come home so that hillside, I found all kinds of hideaway kind of you know, bushy places. I’ll have to show Adina that one stairway that went up the hill. There was a stairway. It’s also almost half covered with trees and bushes that you could hardly tell, and I used to go sneaking up those stairs to go home. Yeah, all the students walking to school say, ‘Hey Jap you don’t belong here,’ that’s all I remember though. Or they’ll throw rocks at you. 

And were you still the only Japanese when you came back or were there other Japanese students?

No, not in my particular school area. Maybe if I was in Boyle Heights or something it’d be different maybe. But where I was was all Caucasian. 

You were picked on. 

Yeah, because I was the only Japanese. So what’s sad was down below on Sunset Boulevard, there was A&P Market and there was also a food market or something like, anyway two grocery stores and either one you can go to for meat or vegetable, it’s just a food house. Oh, Food House.

But this time I don’t have to cross the street, so Mother would give me a dollar or some money to buy some hamburger meat or something. And you stand there waiting for help but no one pays attention to you. And then some other Caucasian lady would come by and ring the bell because no one is out there. And they’d come out and take care of them and service them then they go back in. And you stand there for the longest time and I used to go home crying because I couldn’t buy the meat, the hamburger meat or something that mother asked me to pick up. There was discrimination, you don’t know how to deal with it.

I didn’t have that while I was in Utah because from Pomona assembly was a short time there. Then we were put on a train. We didn’t know where we were going. We ended up in Heart Mountain, Wyoming and there the barracks were big and far. I remember, you saw this mountain that looks like an ‘r’, and we were close to that other end. And I remember that first winter coming I got sick, it used to get so cold at night and your room didn’t have a warmer. I think there was a pot belly stove but you can’t warm your room. It was a big long barrack with A, B, C the two larger rooms and then D at the end. So two small room for couples, singles and then two middle ones were for families. But we could never could get our room warm enough and I remember I got pneumonia and they couldn’t take me to a doctor because the doctor’s way at the other end of the camp. It was cold, couldn’t get an ambulance, so ever since then I’ve been weak and getting sick.

 And so was that the first winter in camp?

Yeah first winter in Heart Mountain. 

So you were about eight or nine?

Yeah let’s see, we were in Pomona only a few months, so I was still the same age then because it was going into winter over there. Yeah same age, so I would’ve been in the third grade.

Wow. So got pneumonia.

But they couldn’t get me to the doctor. I guess my mom nursed me, somehow, but since then I’ve been always getting, every winter get sick. And I was always a toughy one, I never got sick, you know? And my father I know, in camp in Pomona, too, he never–you know as a man, I guess they have pride? They never clean toilets or bathrooms. But he got a job cleaning toilets. So he said it was degrading but he did it.

And did your mother work in camp?

You know, she was doing embroidery here before they went to camp. Oh, this is when we’re leaving Heart Mountain. There was a Mr. Kinushita. Being it’s a desert area there’s a lot of Jasper rocks and dinosaur bones sometimes. And Mr. Kinushita started a rock group so they can go outside the campground and look around the desert area for rocks.

The Heart Mountain rock group, signed by the members

Adina: Oh, is that how they got started in all that?

Yeah. So Mr. Kinushita made arrangements and Grandpa was right away into this thing. But I think it was just one season we were there, we left camp early. We were one of the early ones to leave because we had a minister friend here that was at the church, our minister, he went to Utah and that was before the war. And I guess my father was in contact and they said there’s work out here and you could live out here. So I guess after I got sick and all the things happening with my brother, I remember Mom had to go look for my brother all the time, he gets beaten up by big boys. 

In Utah? 

No, in the camp, in Heart Mountain. So when he didn’t come home from school she had to go down into a different block. I was the next block, my school. But for my brother it was further down somewhere and she found him in a ditch, you know he was much smaller, but he was like a weakling, kind of a little boy, not the way he is now but when he was little. 

So he was getting picked on.

Yeah, the big boys would pick on him. The one thing in Heart Mountain though, between the two mess halls we were divided A and B, and A was the lower one and B was up here. But in between the space, they used to put water in there in the winter in that spot and we used to ice skate. And Grandpa, too. We had the Montgomery Ward order book. They all ordered clothing and ice skates. So that’s where Grandpa learned to ice skate there. 

And so they went to Utah and what kind of work was it?

Oh it was farming. But the minister friend that had left here could be our sponsor. You had to have someone sponsor or you couldn’t leave. So we went to Utah by bus, I remember, up through Idaho. From Wyoming up to Cody, and Idaho and then down to Utah somehow.

That’s our log cabin. They said they found a house for us so we go out to Utah, and we find it’s a log cabin. The log cabin was one building from there they had another attachment which was the bedroom. It was too cold so we always had to stay in the log cabin with the big iron stove. 

Who drew this?

Oh that’s my father.

The Oki family’s log cabin in Utah, drawn by Kazuichi Oki

There was a big barn, and we had chickens. It was so cold that we had to have the chicks all stay in our log cabin.

You could not escape the cold, and growing up in L.A., that must have been awful for you. 

It was cold, it was near Idaho. And we had no running water so we had to go to the well to get our water out. We had a bucket of water in the kitchen, it would freeze during the night and you had to break the ice to do the wash. And then the kerosene stove because no gas or anything. We had electricity. I know my brother used to help me too, we used to get the washtub, put the water in and put it on top of the kerosene stove, go out to the well to wash on a washboard. Then dump the water some place around there then get the well water to rinse.  

It was a lot of work.

It was.

But there were more Japanese, you were around the Japanese community though in Utah?

No not really, but there were Japanese living here and there in spots. They didn’t own anything but they were working as farmers. So when it came to picking fruit that was great, we went to pick cherries and Mom and Pop took us, so we were climbing inside the tree to pick the cherries, eating half of it. And my father and mother, they would go outside and pick it on a ladder. My dad would pick the tall ones because it was a big tree. That kind of time is springtime, around May. So the harvest is hard, they even let the school out. I used to go to this Elwood School, and it was only four rooms. And we had everything from kindergarten up to eighth grade. Two grades in each classroom so they had the older ones help, too. 

To go help with the picking. If you were to think about your parents, I don’t know if they ever talked about what was happening. Do you get a sense that they felt a certain way?

Adina’s brother, Kaz, his wife, Midori and their children

I know my father said that he didn’t believe that camp life was good for the children. That I remember. So we went out to Utah because we had this minister friend there, said there’s a house out there that’s vacant. So I guess we were one of the early ones to leave camp past that first winter, and went out. 

So that was his theory, that being in camp wasn’t good for his children. 

He said that it wasn’t good. That’s where I got all that sickness and couldn’t get help and I guess they thought I was going to pass on because I remember having these strange, weird nightmares, I had such a high fever they couldn’t get the fever down. So they said that they were afraid they were going to lose me but somehow I made it through, Mom nursed me through. But I still had awful dreams of all those things.

But coming to Utah it was more moderate, it’s not the desert life, you know in Heart Mountain? I remember, you’re trying to walk to your barrack but the wind would be just so powerful it would just push you back more. Then all of a sudden these big tumbleweeds would come right at you, rolling all over the place. And sure enough one of them would come and hit you, and they’re as big as you are. So you had a hard time trying to even get home. Or if you went to a class you know, there was an art class. And Grandpa and I used to do things more together, maybe that’s why I’m closer to Grandpa. He used to take me, you know? So we were doing drawings. These tumbleweeds, I thought oh my gosh. 

Yes. So harsh and that wind is awful.

That desert, really was–it was hard, I don’t know how people survived it. 

We take a break, and then pick up the conversation with Lily’s wedding album from 1952.

So she said you had a story about your wedding dress? 

Oh. I got married when I was a teen, yet. Everybody else was going dancing, all having their fun but I don’t know I got married–

Adina: Right after you graduated right?

Yeah, right after we got back from camp. Oh, that dress?


It was actually my school prom, we always had a prom in your senior year? So at John Marshall over there, I had Mother make me my icy blue, satin gown, strapless. I never had things like that. So she made all that for me. And I used that as my undergarment and then had her help make the top, organza one. She made all that.

How did you and Clarence meet? You were very young.

I was too young to know anything, I had never been out for a date. But he was a member of the church in the early days. So he was about twelve years older than me. He was a much older man but he went to WWII and was in Germany. And I was still in only high school.

Lily and Clarence on their wedding day in 1952

How did you get introduced?

He came to the church one day and I used to be the organist. Because I used to play the piano when I was a little girl. He was already in his thirties, and I was only–

You were 18?

Something like that.

But you must have gotten along?

You know, it’s funny. He gave me the ring,  I never told grandma. But he gave me the ring he told me to wear it. The engagement ring or whatever it was. But I asked him to talk to, or show it to Grandma and Grandpa, he wouldn’t do it. So I should’ve known then that he’s a stubborn, hard man to deal with. If I know now–but at that time, I didn’t know what to do.

So when Grandma and Grandpa had a rock club, still continuing from Heart Mountain? People were gathering at our house. Oh, it wasn’t the rock club, it was a church prayer meeting. And I had the ring hidden because he gave it to me to wear it, and I said it’s not for me to wear it like without making arrangements with my parents. So I wouldn’t wear it, so I had it hidden in a drawer in my bedroom. But then one day he said his friend from Chicago was coming to visit him there [at Lily’s parents’ house]. And he told him about the engagement kind of thing. But I said, you got to talk to my parents. I didn’t know what to do I was caught in-between. But, I got the ring and put it on myself that night because the church people were all there. And they met every week, or every other week, and on that particular night, it was at my mother’s house. And I put the ring on, just to please him because he told his friend that he got engaged. So put it on, and the unfortunate thing was, Mrs. Kagiwara one of the church members noticed the ring on my hand but my parents didn’t know anything about it. It was an embarrassing thing.

Adina: It was quite scandalous, huh?

Yeah, I just felt I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t want to upset him. But he said, ‘It’s none of their business’, kind of thing. I should have known then, if he said it’s none of their business, but his friend is coming to see him there. I learned from that then, that you can’t–you know, I’m too naive. And it was too late. Church member goes and congratulates my parents.

They didn’t know. 

They didn’t know anything about it. He didn’t even talk to him either.

That’s strange.

He told his friend but he doesn’t even talk to my parents. So I didn’t wear the ring, he gave it to me to wear. So it’s only convenience whenever, kind of thing. So he put me in a spot always, but he was about twelve, thirteen years older than me, so he just did anything what he pleased. I didn’t think I’d have that kind of trouble. He made it hard for me, in many ways.

And you think that was because of the age? 

Yes, he was in WWII, he was in Germany. So he was much more arrogant. But why he was so set on me, that I don’t understand either. I never went out with anyone before. And I thought he was a decent man. But I should’ve learned from the way he was talking to me and treating me, you know. You don’t do things like that. I don’t know why he was convinced that he was going to marry me, that’s all.

Lily and Clarence in 1960

Adina: One of my mom’s cousins said that my grandmother, she was the prettiest woman he ever saw. So I think he was just attracted, definitely.

It’s funny, he knew he would have to meet your parents and talk to them. But he made no effort. 

He was just in his own way–

Adina: Well my great-grandmother was a very scary opponent, so I could see how he would want to just try to scoop her up and elope, type of thing.


I should’ve known better then but not going out for dates and we didn’t know the etiquettes. And I was more scared of him.

Adina: Yeah so my mom had grown up in a situation where it was really challenging. Because here she’s hearing all these stories of her father stole my grandmother’s youth, her best years, that type of thing. And then with my grandfather, he had remarried, so there was never the relationship she was looking for from him.

Right, it was with his new family. And did he have children? 

I don’t think they had children. I think my mom was his only children. There was just no real relationship between them. I remember her trying to connect with him and everybody categorized Clarence as like a big talker, that’s what everybody would say about him.

Like charismatic?  

Adina: Yes, exactly. But when I was cleaning out the house when I first moved back to L.A. after college, I had found a bunch of my grandma’s love letters, or correspondence back and forth to him. But there was a stack of letters that my grandma and Clarence were writing back and forth to each other. Probably when he was serving, right? You guys were writing back and forth a lot?

Lily: Well that’s when, I think because I didn’t hear from him, after I left home to live with him, he’d do things, and then he’d get upset and he’d leave house. And I don’t know if he’s ever going to come home. And one time I was in Darice’s crib, crying and sleeping. And I thought I have got to go find a job I don’t if he’s going to come home, how I’m going to pay the rent. I walked over to the nursery school, I don’t know how I found out there was a nursery school by going over the bridge and walking over to the other side. But that’s where I left her and got on the Figueroa bus and Broadway department store is  a place where I always used to go shopping so I just asked for a shop of anything, then they said they liked me, I was dressed in my suit. They gave me the window job right away.

Things are so different now, aren’t they? So did he leave that time?

He came back after a while, I don’t know how many months later after I already got my new job and taking the bus and doing things. Because he took all the bank book, the car keys, things he said all belonged to him which is true, I wasn’t working. And it was his but I had nothing. So that night I called Grandma and she brought me a bag of rice but that’s not enough to feed Darice and me, she was just a baby. And I took her to school and she hung onto my legs saying, ‘Mommy, mommy,’ and I cried, too. And he’d come back and stay for a while, and then take off.

And you wouldn’t know where he’d go? 

No. He takes all the money and everything.

Adina: So we grew up hearing these stories.

Did he come home with post-traumatic stress disorder from the war?

I have no idea. Personality, I think.

Adina: A little bit of both, I think.

And then after he came back the last time said he wanted to go to Alaska to do this job, they were making a radar station from one end to the other of the United States. They called it a certain name, they were afraid of Germany or Russia attacking or something. So they were building that station and he said he would make good money, maybe we could build a house but that didn’t happen.

And then you had another marriage. How did that happen?

Oh, with Ted. He was born and raised in Japan but my office Japan Airlines was in downtown L.A., on Sixth street. I needed brochures to put into the rack for the people to pick up to entice them on tours. So I went to Japan Travel Bureau one day, I said I’ll pick it up during my lunch hour. So I went to the office. And here was this man, you know, I’ve always talked to him by telephone. And he had the hardest accent, it’s always ‘Japan Tu-ra-vo-ru Bu-ro,’ something like that, and I used to always make fun of it to him. And finally meeting him one day, he’s quite–it just surprised me the stance of him. After I took the brochure, I guess he impressed me ever since then.

IMG_6829 2
Ted (far left), Lily and her father at her parents’ house

Wow. So he was from Japan? 

Uh huh. And he was just here for assignment. They were saying people from Japan work here for a year, two years for the experience. And he was working at the Imperial Hotel where the tourists come. He was working there and I guess, I didn’t know him then. I’d stay always at the Imperial Hotel and I always went down to the tourist office to get material information so I can study Japan. But I never met him there, didn’t know he was working there. Isn’t it funny how probably your paths crossed earlier but you didn’t know?

And you liked him, and you already talked to him a lot so you just clicked? 

No, it wasn’t until–oh yeah, after dropping in to pick up the material, I was impressed. But we were talking about skiing, that’s what it was. I said, ‘Our Japan Airline Group is going skiing on a certain weekend, did you want to join us?’ We’re just staying over the weekend. Maybe two days to ski. And I guess he was new to the city, too, just coming from Japan. But I had no idea he lived down close to where I was living, it’s on the other side of the hill. Same hill but on the other side. So he said yes, he’d like to join the Japan Airline Group. I was surprised, I barely made it down the hill with my skis. I couldn’t ski but I wanted to learn. But he was the one who was swishing down and I found out that as a little boy, he lived in the snow country on Japan’s seaside. So they would go skiing all the time.

I don’t know, [he studied] nature and Indians, the Native people of here, the country. And I said we knew some friends in New Mexico and we’ll be going to visit. And I asked him if we would like to go see some of the country in that area and he said he would love to. So we invited him to join us and that’s how we got to know each other a little better. But we were down in Canyon Mesa Verde I think it was, down this steep slope down below, and there’s this big cave-like place there’s a lot of homes built, where the earlier Indians live in. But you had to walk down this steep walkway down to the bottom. And I don’t know, just like Clarence, my husband then, he just walks on ahead and don’t care, or he’s way up here and I’m way back here, can’t make it quite up. You can climb these big stones, boulders to get up.

But Ted, we took him down there to see the place but he stayed behind to make sure that I made it up on the route up. And if it wasn’t for this one huge boulder, you couldn’t get up, you were looking around and you saw a hand coming down saying, ‘Come on. I’ll help you up.’ I was so touched that someone would cared enough to help you, pull you up. So that reaching hand, always, I never forgot it. And then of course we finished that trip all around to see the Indian homes and some of the exhibits. And Clarence, my first husband, he was getting more nastier and just ignoring and I don’t know. So I guess that’s where Ted became concerned about my well-being and welfare and he ends up taking care of me.

It’s funny how, I don’t know. Clarence used to always come and take money, your checks and everything, saying it was his property. So you were always left with nothing. I remember Mom and Pop, I said, ‘Clarence left again.’ They brought me a bag of rice but I decided it was time, I just cried in bed with Darice in her crib and I remember that’s when I went downtown, became self-sufficient somehow. But that changed my life since then when I finally made up my mind to take care of ourselves. I still remember Darice hanging onto my leg saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy, don’t go.’ She just cried. It was so sad. But I took the bus and went downtown, and they gave me the job right away.

And then when did you finally separate from Clarence? You were still married but you knew Ted. 

Once I was at Japan Airlines, I just needed the brochures, I picked it up so since then, I talked to Ted afterwards. But it was always just casual, just friends. And they would always say, “Japan Tu-ra-vo-ru Bu-ro.” I used to tease. ‘What kind of trouble do you sell today?’ Crazy things. And how that kind of friendship could after a while grow but I had no idea he lived down on the other side of my same hill.

Adina: Yeah so getting a divorce was a big deal.

I could see at that time. 

Oh yeah. It was shame.

But how many years were you married to Clarence? 

Oh, umpteen years.

Adina: But she married Ted in, what ’79? It was around ’79. And then I was born ’80. So I don’t have any recollection of Ted at all but the two of them actually named me. So my Mom didn’t even get to name me [laughs].

So you and Ted gave Adina her name? 

Yeah. In fact, he, he was the one that had to have the right name for her. And Kazumi, means way down in the depth of the ocean, far in the middle of the ocean somewhere, he said there was a very calm, quiet, serene environment. He said that’s what you want. [To Adina] So your Japanese character [kanji], it might be pronounced like many Kazu-something, it’s a very popular word. But her Japanese character is that deep ocean calm, beauty. It’s a special name and he named her.

How beautiful.

He liked mountains like I did, too and we went camping. Yeah, did a lot of things together. I was just so sorry he had to get sick like that, huh?

Adina: She doesn’t know, Grandma, you didn’t tell her that part yet.

Oh, he had stomach cancer, it seemed like he had it in Japan, it was very common. His sister, they were both living together somewhere a little north of Tokyo. Apparently the air was bad, factories around there, that’s where they lived. But she died with that stomach cancer and when I had broken my leg or something, and I was going to acupuncture, he was doing the needle thing on my ankles and my back because I messed up my back and my ankle got twisted and broken.

And he said one day, ‘You take Ted right away,’ you know, that weekend to a doctor. He said he has to get it taken care of right away. And I don’t know how he could know but he did know and we went to the family doctor and he referred us to another doctor and found out that it was already cancer. But unfortunately, we found out later it had already gotten into his stomach lining. He was healthy and strong so you would never known it.

So I was going to work everyday, I would stop by in the morning to see him. Going to work and then after work because my work demanded so much of me and I was senior. I had to clean up a lot of the messes. Days’ checks to ticket stocks, to just everything they didn’t want anyone just to handle it. So those are things I was doing at Japan Airlines after. So I had to stay late often. And after, I sometimes used to eat a lot over there at that corner, what was that dining–

Adina: Pacific Dining Car.

Yeah right across the hospital is a little eatery, dining room. So I used to go and have their vegetables. I used to like their vegetables. They give you a whole chunk of broccoli, it’s just a whole thing and that was all you could eat.

So they did take him into surgery and they took his stomach out so he could only eat spoonfuls of food. After a while, it’s taking its toll, you know? But in the meantime, when we could, we did travel. Went up to Canada or did things what we could do on trips because he loved the mountains, and I liked the mountains. Camping. I used to camp as a little girl. We used to go to Mammoth a lot, that direction. Learning all these new places.

Ted (Shogo Tsurumaki) and Lily

Adina: So Ted passed away, it was ’81, something like that. So I grew up going with Grandma over to the cemetery to visit his gravesite and they always had these swans at the fountain area. So that’s one of my childhood memories was always going to visit his gravesite.

So you weren’t married very long at all then before they saw he had cancer. Wow, I’m sorry. 

He was a special man, you know.

Adina: Yeah so Ted was the love of her life, that was short-lived.

Single love of my life, yeah.

A warm thank you to Adina Mori-Holt for coordinating this interview.

If you enjoyed this story, please consider making a donation on Patreon – it takes a lot of community support to keep these stories alive! Thank you. 

1 thought on “Lily Yuri Tsurumaki

  1. Laura Allenby May 14, 2018 — 1:28 pm

    So glad you were able to get Lily’s story.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close