Ed Iwamoto was just a boy, but old enough to absorb the tragic times that engulfed him and his family.
It was 1941 and the thriving general store owned by Iwamoto’s grandfather at 222 W. Ocean Ave. had been the center of Lompoc’s vibrant Japanese-American community for 30 years.
The boy’s father, Robert S. Iwamoto, who was taking over the operation of H.S. Iwamoto General Merchandise, built the Westside Food Center next door and it flourished as well.
“He did a booming business,” said Ed Iwamoto, 77, a retired Methodist minister who lives near Seattle. “I can remember we couldn’t put up canned goods fast enough on the shelves. We just took cardboard boxes out and left them there. We bought three more cash registers because the lines were so long.
“A couple months later — Pearl Harbor. After that, nobody would come to our store, of course.”
Soon, Japanese-Americans were being rounded up and sent to War Relocation Camps.
“My grandfather was taken by the FBI right away. He was one of the leaders of the community, and he and other leaders were arrested and shipped off to North Dakota in the dead of winter,” Iwamoto recalled.
“He said people on the train froze, and everybody suffered. Just before he left, grandmother gave him a blanket off the couch. He said, ‘That’s what saved me.’”
Iwamoto said the Japanese-Americans in North Dakota told of being forced to dig their own graves in the frozen earth.
After his grandfather was taken away, Iwamoto’s father relocated his family and several others to 200 acres of farmland 33 miles south of Salt Lake City and later to Spanish Fork, south of Provo, Utah, then to Oklahoma.
“It was a right decision for my dad. He said, ‘We’re not going to trust the government, we’re going to go off on our own.’”
The Utah winter was harsh, like nothing the families had ever seen, Iwamoto said. When the snow melted, they discovered that there was no farmland, only virgin field and sagebrush. Only 20 acres could be cultivated.
“We grew lettuce. We were Californians. We didn’t know anything about the weather,” he said. “The day before they harvested, the temperature dropped suddenly. The lettuce burst and we lost our crop. My mother said each family received about
$11.75 out of that crop.”
Ed Iwamoto was 9 when he left Lompoc in March 1942. He returned for a brief visit soon after the war and again later for a Memorial Day celebration with family members.
Now, nearly 70 years after leaving Lompoc, Iwamoto, who retired in 2002 after 43 years in the ministry, has accepted an
invitation to preach a sermon for the first time in his hometown.
He will deliver the regular 10 a.m. sermon Sunday at Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ, 3346 Constellation Road, Vandenberg Village.
Pastor Chuck Arnold said the invitation evolved through the work of a member of the Church of Christ congregation, Lompoc writer John McReynolds, who uncovered the story of the Iwamoto family while researching the history of Lompoc’s Japanese-American community.
“Here’s a man who overcame a lot of difficulties. I feel like he has been neglected by the community he (was born in),” Arnold said. “Here we have an opportunity to have him come and preside at a service in his hometown.”
McReynolds added, “It’s the least we can do for the Iwamoto family and the prewar Japanese-American community.”
Robert Iwamoto tried to preserve his family’s investments before he left Lompoc. He leased the two stores to a partnership and even gave the group a free month’s rent to help it succeed. But the Iwamoto stores were doomed.
“Within three months, they liquidated everything and disappeared. I don’t think my dad got one penny out of that lease,” Iwamoto said. “It just crushed my grandfather and my father.”
Iwamoto said he, too, was crushed, but his full understanding of what had happened and how it affected his life came only years later.
“In retrospect, I had it rough. This war experience really scarred me,” he said. “In the relocation centers, at least, they were with other Japanese-Americans. I was all alone and got into a lot of trouble with racial prejudice. It really scarred me.”
The worst of it, for young Iwamoto, began after his father gained a university job teaching the Japanese language and the family moved to Stillwater, Okla. The boy, in the eighth grade, suddenly was immersed in a community that had never seen an Asian.
“I was pretty much a freak. That kind of experience started my anger,” he said. “I didn’t internalize the anger until later. For me, it was a matter of survival. I was trying to survive in this white community as a Japanese-American.”
To make matters worse, Iwamoto was naturally dark-skinned, and light skin was favored by the Japanese culture, a preference that was ingrained in him from childhood and from which he suffered into adulthood.
After the war, Iwamoto graduated from college and was serving in the Army in 1957, handling military records with civilian workers in Jackson, Miss. The overt racism that he had faced, as well as the cultural preferences of his community, had manifested in Iwamoto a steeping anger and rejection of his own heritage.
“Basically, what I said to myself was, ‘I wish I weren’t a Japanese-American,’” Iwamoto said. “For a long time, I couldn’t accept myself as a Japanese-American. It was, amazingly deep within me.”
In the office one day, a friendly co-worker, a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde, approached him and put her bare arm next to his. “Oh, I’ve got a little bit more to go,’’ she said.
“She was trying to get as dark as I was,” said Iwamoto, who recalled thinking, “At least there is one person in this world who loves me because of my color.”
The realization was an epiphany for the young man with the tortured spirit.
“I wasn’t attractive because I was dark and I wasn’t attractive because I was Japanese-American,” Iwamoto said. “When she did that, it was a catharsis. I was able to accept myself because she accepted me. She accepted my color, she accepted my ethnicity.”
“This is my religious experience. This is my conversion experience,” said Iwamoto, who was raised a Buddhist. “I was able to accept myself for my personal worth.”
His newfound sense of self-worth and spiritual direction satisfied another lifelong need, he said. As a child, Iwamoto had suffered from infantile paralysis, an acute viral disease that can lead to full or partial paralysis. Years later, people still remembered him as the “sick boy.’’
“I grew up with the feeling that I had to do something to thank all the people who told me later they had come to the hospital and prayed for me.”
The ministry was his way to do that.
Nearly 10 years later, while honeymooning in his wife Betty’s home state of Hawaii, Iwamoto found he still was on a path of self-discovery.
“When I went to Hawaii for the first time and saw all those Japanese-Americans ... I could go into a restaurant and be served potatoes or rice, and all those smiling Asian girls waiting on me at the store, it just blew my mind.
“It was an election year and I read the papers and I saw all these Asians running for office and I thought I was feeling like a second-class citizen all my life,” he said.
Now, Iwamoto said, he thinks of Lompoc in those days before Pearl Harbor, about the Japanese-American community and how his grandfather’s leadership and deeds deeply influenced his own life.
“We went to Japanese-language school after public school every day. At the end of the year, the top student was given an award, presented by my grandfather,” he said. “It was a time of pride for me to go up to grandfather and bow to him and receive this recognition.”
Iwamoto said he will share those days in his sermon Sunday.
He said he will thank John McReynolds for his research that brought to light the leadership and sacrifice of H.S. Iwamoto, and will honor the memories of his father and grandfather and of the Japanese-American community that existed in Lompoc before Pearl Harbor.
The growing guest list for Pastor Ed Iwamoto’s sermon at 10 a.m. Sunday at Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ, 3346 Constellation Road, and the reception afterward, includes about a dozen members of the Iwamoto family, as well as Yeiki Tashiro, the first and only president of the Lompoc Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, and his sister, Sumi Tashiro Tsuji, the star of the Lompoc girls basketball team in the late 1930s. Also attending will be Bill Honda, who coached that girls basketball team, which won the Oxnard Tournament two years running. The public is invited.