Donald (Don) Hayashi is the president of the Dayton chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. He was born in Portland, Oregon to Japanese parents, who, alongside Donald’s older brothers, lived through World War II internment camps in the U.S. Donald now resides in Dayton, Ohio.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Donald, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Samuel Chang (president at Midstory) on February 23, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): Don, where were you born?
Donald Hayashi (DH): I was born in Portland, Oregon.
RC: And what year was that?
RC: When you were born, how did your parents come to name you?
DH: I’m not exactly sure. Neither Donald or Lyle were part of my family experience. But I would ask my parents, particularly why they chose the name, Lyle. And they would always change the subject. They would never talk about that. But the only thing I can conclude is, I was born right after World War II and Japanese Americans were trying to be 100% — if not 150% — American. So, by giving me a middle name that started with an L, because L was not a sound that is common to the Japanese language, I think they named me Lyle as a way of saying that I was American, as opposed to Japanese.
RC: I think it’s really interesting that it spoke to that climate at that time.
DH: Yes. And as I was raised, we were told to be a good American citizen. Be proud of your Japanese ancestry, but do your very best, study hard, work hard, get a good job, support your family. Don’t do anything that would disgrace your family or your community. So, I knew that that was important that I not just behaved, but that I contribute in some positive way.
RC: And your parents, what did they do? Who were they?
DH: My father was a Methodist minister — an active pastor for over 40 years. When he retired about a year later, they had a need for a Japanese language pastor in the church that my dad had previously pastored. So he went back and worked for another three or four years. He worked well into his 70s. My mother was a homemaker. She had a college education. She majored in home economics. She wanted to teach, but when she graduated college, Japanese Americans were not allowed to be hired as educators. So, my mother worked as a secretary for a member of her church and a couple of years later, my dad was appointed pastor there. I’m the youngest of three sons that they had.
RC: You mentioned that he pastored in both languages.
DH: Yes. Basically, he served Japanese American congregations. He preached both in Japanese and in English. That was possible because my dad was actually born in Japan. And when he was five, his parents immigrated to the United States and came to San Francisco. My dad and his older brother were left in Japan to be raised by their grandparents. Ironically, his grandfather was a Buddhist priest. So my dad and his older brother grew up on Buddhist temple grounds. And my father, then when he finished secondary school in Japan, his parents were afraid that he would be conscripted into the Japanese Navy, so they called him to the United States. So he came. He was 17 years old and he had to learn English, so they put him into third grade. He was the tallest third grader — he was 17, as opposed to eight. He spent a year learning English there, and then went through high school in San Francisco, went through college at Stanford, which then was a private boys’ school, and majored in electrical engineering. But again, Japanese immigrants were not allowed to be licensed as professionals. So, there were really no jobs for him when he graduated.
But while he was learning English in the Japanese American community in San Francisco, the Japanese Christian Church taught English in the evening. I don’t know exactly what they studied, but it sounds as though they told them a lot of Bible stories. My dad became fascinated with these Bible stories. And so he asked his parents, could he be baptized? And his parents said, “Well, you better get permission from grandpa before you do that.” So he said, the most difficult letter he ever wrote was to his grandfather. His grandfather wrote back to him and said, what’s important is having a good spiritual soul. Go, be a good Christian. So my dad was baptized and when he finished college, his parents set him up in a small business repairing American electrical appliances, but there were very few appliances owned by Japanese families. And his ministers said, “Well, you know, you are fluent in both Japanese and English. The leaders of my congregation are Japanese speaking, and the young people are all English-speaking because they go to American schools. So would you be willing to be the youth director?”
So, my dad did that and after doing it for several months, he said, “You know, if I’m going to do this, I might also get properly trained.” And his pastor said to him, “Well, you need to go to seminary. So go to Dayton, Ohio.” There was a central Theological Seminary here in Dayton, Ohio. So, he went all the way across country to Ohio, to go to school, was here for three years, and he graduated. When he married my mother, he promised her that he would bring her to see his school. While the school closed a few years after my dad graduated, it merged with another seminary in Missouri. So, there was never any reason to come to Ohio.
When I got a job here in Ohio. I announced that to my mother, and I thought she was just going to be unhappy that I was leaving because they were living in California at the time, but she said, “Well, maybe I’ll finally get to Dayton. Dad promised me he would take me and he never did.” My dad had passed by that time. So, when my mother came to visit us, I had found an address of where he had lived when he was going to seminary in one of the books that he left my brother who helped move some of the family furniture out. We went to go see where he lived. We found out that there were now apartment buildings apparently where he had lived.
But my brother said, “I want to go take a picture.” So, he went up to the corner, and as they looked up, the side street was named Seminary. My brother says, “I want you to see this.” And so we walked up this side street, and as soon as we got up about half a block, I said, “That’s the building that dad went to seminary at.” And my brother says, “How do you know that?” I said, well, on his diploma from the seminary, there was a sepia-tone image of the school. And sure enough, we walked up to the building. It was now an apartment building, but the cornerstone said Central Theological Seminary.
So my father came to Ohio and went there, and years later, after I moved here, there was an elderly woman in our congregation, and she had asked our pastor whether or not I was in any way related to this man that she had known when she was younger. And he said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” When I had an occasion to meet her, she asked me, “Do you know, Francis Minoru Hayashi?” I said, “Well, that’s my father.” It turned out that while my dad was in seminary, he worked here one summer, and I guess they had a Vacation Bible School or something, but she was probably about 10 at the time, and she remembered him from that summer experience. And that was 60 years later. She still remembered his name, which to me was remarkable.
RC: What was the household like during childhood with your parents?
DH: Well, my dad was a Methodist minister. He was at the Japanese Methodist Church in Portland, which later became known as Epworth Methodist Church, now Epworth, United Methodist. I was born into that congregation in 1946, and my family was held very dear to the community. It was right after World War II, and at the start of World War II, my father was the pastor of the church. There were four Buddhist churches in town and just one Christian. But all the Buddhist priests had been rounded up by the government shortly after December 7th. So, my father became a spokesperson for the Japanese American community with the government officials that were incarcerating the Japanese.
Actually, the night of Pearl Harbor, there was a Japanese American community event that was a shared experience between Japanese Americans, men from Seattle, who had come to do a vaudevillian thing at the Japanese meeting hall. But in the course of the evening, they rounded up 27 men, and incarcerated them, including the Buddhist priests and others who were community leaders. The next morning, my father received a phone call from a couple of his parishioners saying that their husbands had been incarcerated and taken to prison, would my dad be willing to go visit them and bring them clothes, because all they had was the clothes that they were in? So, they brought suitcases to my father who went to visit these men in the jail. And shortly after he returned home, he got a phone call from some women who were members of the Buddhist church. Knowing that my father could go and visit, they asked if he would take clothing for their husbands, as well.
So overnight, my dad became kind of a spokesperson in the Japanese American community. They had only lived there for about a year and a half when all this happened. So, my father was elevated into this leadership role. In my growing up after the war, my family was known not just as members of his church, but across the entire Japanese American community, because of the incarceration during the war. It brought the whole community together, and both my parents were revered as being leaders of the community.
My mother — when the war started, she was a young mother of a six-year-old, and actually, my next older brother was just about a year, almost two years old. And the week before they were to be incarcerated, the leaders of the YWCA of Portland demanded that they be able to see where the Japanese Americans were going to be imprisoned, and the government had obtained use of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Center in Portland, and they were planning to house the families basically in animal stalls. So, these women took my mother and a couple of others with them to go visit. And they were simply appalled at the conditions. And they said [to] the government officials, the least you can do is put wood flooring, and whitewash the railings, because they had barely even swept out the stalls, and for those incarcerated, they said that even after they did that improvement, it still felt very demeaning to be incarcerated that way. They lived there for the next six months until the government said a permanent facility was ready for them. But during that time, being a Christian minister and a Christian minister’s family, my parents kind of de facto became the leaders in the community. So, people would look to them for direction. A Quaker family who owned a wholesale floral business every Saturday would bring whatever flowers had not been sold to be used on the worship altar for Sunday morning. My parents had the benefit of having friends outside the Japanese American community.
RC: How long was the family…
DH: Well, they were sent in May to the exposition center in September that year, they boarded a train, and were told to pull the shades down, and then they went. They ended up in south central Idaho, at what was known as Minidoka. It’s next to a small rural community called Hunt, Idaho. That’s where they were to live. In the case of my immediate family, I had an uncle who was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Knowing the difficulty of being incarcerated, he sought employment for my father and found that there was a job teaching Japanese to American soldiers. Because the war had totally decimated the student population at the University of Minnesota. So, my dad got that and there was another part-time job. Because they could support the family, they were allowed to leave Idaho, and move to Minnesota.
When I asked my brothers what it was like to live in Minnesota during the war, the thing they said was, on Sundays, it meant three pounds of chocolate. Well, where did that all come from? Well, during World War II, there were rations — rationed meat, rationed oil or gasoline, and sugar. So, there were ration coupons that were given to all Americans. By the time they had moved to Minnesota, shortly after that, the U.S. military set up a military intelligence school, where they recruited Japanese Americans who were fluent in Japanese to be trained by the government, to be part of the intelligence service. So they use their gas coupons to buy the fuel for the motor pool car that can bring them into Minneapolis, and they’d use the sugar ration coupons to buy three pounds of chocolates. So, on Sunday, my brothers knew that there would be three pounds of chocolate — these soldiers would bring a big box of candy.
RC: Were they the only Japanese American family there? Were there lots of others?
DH: Well, because Camp Savage was there, many of the families moved to the Minneapolis area, and today in the Midwest, Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, are the two areas that have fairly decent sized Japanese American communities. Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton are much smaller. And we have JACL chapters now. The Chicago Chapter is the largest in the Midwest. The Twin Cities would be the second largest.
RC: And this is all part of this historical being moved into the Midwest.
DH: They came to the Midwest basically, to continue their education. Because a year or two after the incarceration, the military folks said, you know, these young people want to continue their education, let’s allow them to leave. They go to school and they’d set up an advisory console that had to determine who were trustworthy, who were law-abiding, and who would not create problems. And based on that, they then got released to come to schools. Many of the private schools, particularly in the Midwest, became very open to that. So, they came to places like Antioch College, Wittenberg University and Miami University. Also here in Dayton, a number came because there was a lot of employment available.
I think for most Japanese Americans, particularly in the midst of World War II, they found the Midwest to be more accepting, more hospitable. There wasn’t that anti-Japanese feeling. If anything, people simply didn’t know who Japanese Americans were. And so, the JACL chapter here in Dayton was formed in 1949, because by that time, there was a decent-sized community, and this was their social outlet other than working hard and so forth.
Samuel Chang (SC): As these stories get further and further away from the next generation, including yourself — you didn’t experience the camps and you mentioned that — is there a concern there that the experience is changing? Or is that just kind of a natural fabric of being built into American culture?
DH: Well, on one hand, yes, we become a little more distant from our ancestors. And at the same time, I think those stories are important still, and it’s why I’m willing to go to schools, to libraries, to community groups, so that they have a better and richer understanding of who we are and who we could become. I think that’s an important part of the equation. It’s why I’m a member of the Japanese American Citizens League. It’s why I joined with other Asian groups to form the Asian American Council, because I think our stories are part of what makes this a much richer and more vibrant community.
RC: Your dad’s story — how did that impact you as you were growing up as a child? Did it form your worldview at all?
DH: Oh, definitely. I was born right after the war, unlike my older brothers who had to go through the internment experience and so forth. I did not. I was fortunate in that because we would have visitors come to our home quite regularly. Many of the non-Japanese would ask about what was it like during the war being incarcerated. My parents would tell the stories over and over again. So, I knew as a youngster, what that experience was like. Most of my classmates had no idea. All they were told is when we were your age, we went to camp. That was about all that they knew — they thought of scout camp, church camp, kind of a fun thing.
RC: What is Nisei?
DH: Nisei is American born, they were the American-born generation. The Issei, or the immigrant generation, they were born in Japan, came to the U.S.
RC: So, you are a Nisei.
DH: I’m actually technically I’m Nisei-han, which is two and a half. But I’m really almost more third-generation. Because my father came as a teenager and was totally fluent in English, even though he was born in Japan.
RC: Was your mother also?
DH: My mother was born in Los Angeles. She’s the child of immigrants. And so she is American born.
RC: Was yours a very Japanese upbringing, even though they were Japanese American for the most part?
DH: I would say our upbringing was more American than it was Japanese. I mean, we would always have rice with dinner and my mother would cook, but it was a wide variety of different things. I speak very little — I can speak and I can understand some Japanese, but not all that much. My dad would get phone calls. And as a child, we’d pick it up and say hello. And when they started speaking Japanese, I learned two phrases: Chotto matte kudasai, which means “Just a moment, please,” and Nihongo ga wakarimasen, “I do not understand Japanese.”
RC: Because there was this…
DH: They wanted us to be 100% American. And though my father, in my view, spoke perfect English, he always felt he had an accent. And so, he wanted us to speak English perfectly. And the irony of this, when my family moved here to Ohio to join me, my daughter was in fourth grade, and a couple of her friends said, “So what TV station does your dad work for?” And my daughter would say, “My dad doesn’t work for a TV station. He works for the United Methodist Church. He’s a program administrator.” “Well, he talks like those people on TV.” Well, it’s because I did not speak English with an accent. And if anything, I’m more Western, rather than some of the colloquialisms that are used in the Midwest. And so, they understood that because I spoke that way, I must be like a newscaster or a broadcaster, which was kind of the irony of all of that.
RC: So then you move to Dayton and you raise your family here.
DH: Well, I came here for employment. I was asked to join a national staff here in Dayton, Ohio.
RC: What was it like, at the time, moving from the west coast into the Midwest?
DH: My friends would say, “You’re moving where? And why are you doing this?” And I said, “Well, frankly, it’s an employment opportunity.”
RC: And there was already a Japanese American community?
DH: Well, there was a Japanese American community. [Donald discusses how he came to be on the chapter board of the Japanese American Citizens League in Dayton in 1991, when he moved to the city.
RC: The Japanese community — were they here because of jobs?
DH: Well, originally they came here because education was a possibility and jobs are available and then most of those raise families. But it’s interesting — once they go to college, many of them don’t return to the Dayton area. They either stay in Columbus or move to other places where jobs are more available.
RC: Has it changed at all, this region?
DH: Well, with Honda and some of the other Japanese manufacturers coming in, there’s a fair number of Japanese nationals who have come here for short periods of time. There actually is a Saturday Japanese language school or a Japanese school. They teach not only language arts, but also other things. Because many of the parents are employed by Japanese companies, they’re here for maybe three to five years, and then they will go back to Japan.
RC: What does it mean to be basically a representative voice now of Japanese Americans in Dayton?
DH: Well, it’s still helping people to understand who we are. Most people, if you’re white or Black, they kind of know who you are. But when you’re Asian, you’re really seen as “other.” And in most cases, you’re still seen as being foreign-born. And when I tell them that I was born in the United States, the next comment usually is, “My, you speak English good.” And that’s the only language I was taught. So, I have to tell them that my life experiences are not all that different from others. But, I also have a great pride in my cultural heritage. And so I want to hold on to that. I want my children to know of that, as well. And that’s something that we strive for.
RC: Just speaking of the next generation, you raised a child here. What was that like? Are there any aspirations that you had for your children learning your culture?
DH: Well, my wife is Euro-American and I’m Asian American. So, we have felt it important for her to understand both her white American ancestry as well as her Asian ancestry.
RC: Now that the pandemic has happened, 2020, lots of things regarding anti-Asian hate, do you have any reflections about the future of Asian Americans and especially in the Midwest area?
DH: Well, I think, Asian Americans — we have to be seen for who we are, that we are a part of the fabric that is American society, and that America is a very diverse country. We need to be proud of that, not try to downplay it. We need to accentuate that and be proud of the diversity. I think being a diverse community, we have a greater understanding of people other than ourselves.
RC: I think that makes the fabric of America what it is.
DH: We are more diverse, and I think as a consequence, we’re richer because of that.