March 19, 2019

There’s a tendency during women’s history month to focus our celebrations on the women who accomplished great things as activists, artists, and thinkers. And indeed these women should be celebrated! But there’s also something to looking back at the lives of everyday women and the unique challenges they faced as they navigated racism, misogyny, and other social barriers just to simply be. Peggie Nishimura Bain’s life was interrupted by WWII incarceration, but it was also profoundly shaped by toxic masculinity and structural racism before and after the war. Here we draw from photos and oral histories in our digital archives to give you a look into that life.

Born on Vashon Island, Washington in 1909, Fusako Nishimura was one of six children born to Japanese immigrants. She started working in the island’s strawberry fields when she was just three years old. “We learned to pick berries as soon as we could walk,” she told Densho in a 2004 interview.

Her family eventually relocated and settled in the agricultural region of Des Moines, Washington. Fusako became Margaret, and then Peggie, for short. The family managed to skirt restrictive alien lands laws established in 1913 by purchasing a home and 16 acres of land in the name of Peggie’s eldest sister who, unlike her parents, was an American citizen. They cultivated cherries and tomatoes and would sell them at Pike Place Market.

Though her neighbors were predominantly white, Peggie reports that her childhood was a peaceful one and that she felt comfortable at school and in the community. Even so, she said that her family refrained from reporting the frequent, minor cases of robbery on their farm because they didn’t trust that the police would come to their defense, “We felt we were the minority and wouldn’t have a chance.”

Peggie (far left) at age 16 with her sister Nellie and members of the Nakatsu family in Seattle, August 1925. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.

Shortly after Peggie graduated as the Salutatorian of her class, the Nishimura family bought a restaurant in the basement of Seattle’s Bush Hotel and sent Peggie and her older sister Nellie to work at it. Peggie recalls at first being daunted by city life but gradually adjusting and falling in with a group of well-to-do Japanese Americans.

Nellie got engaged to one of the boys she met and made plans to move to Idaho to be with him. She implored Peggie to travel with her and, out of respect for her older sister, Peggie eventually relented. Little did she know this act would send her down a strange and unhappy path for the next several years of her life.

Peggie and Nellie caught a ride to Idaho with a young man, but had car trouble and ended up stuck in rural Idaho while they waited for the part to arrive. She has no memory of where they stayed or of anything else that happened during that trip but she was gone long enough that her parents reported her missing. When Peggie and the young man finally made it back to Washington after droppin Nellie off, they found themselves in trouble with the law.

“Whether he was jailed or what they did with him, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t remember anything. But I know that I was put in a detention home, and I think I was there overnight, but minister [Reverend Murphy] said I didn’t belong in there, and he wanted me out of there, so he took me in, took me to his home.”

After rescuing her from detention, the Reverend, who was a respected leader in the community at the time, told Peggie she had to marry the boy in order to save him from going to jail. She was held against her will at the Reverend’s home until she relented, though both her parents and the boys’ were adamantly opposed to the marriage.

“I was just absolutely lost. I didn’t know what to do, I was, I had no idea about getting married. I didn’t want to get married, I wanted to go to school yet. And here I had, my schooling was terminated, and I was supposed to get married, and my parents were against it, and everything was such a turmoil that my mind at that time, I think it just totally blanked out,” she said. “I had no idea what really went on.”

She ended up marrying the boy in a simple church service. Her mother refused to attend the wedding and banned her from returning home or communicating with any of her siblings. Because of discriminatory laws in place at the time, her new husband’s status as a resident alien meant that Peggie had to forfeit her American citizenship when they married. She was 17 years old at the time.

“I kept trying to go home after that. I didn’t want to be married; I wanted to go home. But nobody would help me, I didn’t know anybody in town. Here I was a total stranger in town, I was just like a lost teenager that didn’t know what to do, and nobody there to help me…I remember one rainy night, I went down to the restaurant and tried to get them to help me, take me home, but they wouldn’t do it. ‘You’re married now, so we can’t do anything.’”

As Peggie continued to struggle with life in Seattle, her new husband worked in sawmills north of the city, then in Alaska during summer months. When he wasn’t working he passed most of his time in pool halls. During one of their rare visits together Peggie got pregnant, and she later gave birth to her first son in July of 1927.

In her husband’s absence, Peggie endured abuse from her mother-in-law. When Peggie was still on bed rest the day after giving birth, her mother accused her of being lazy and forced her to get up and iron. Peggie left the unhappy home with her newborn and joined her husband in Eatonville, which at the time, was “just a place by the roadside” with a sawmill and little else.

Things got even harder for her there. Because of her inability to pump enough breast milk and lack of medical care in her new home, Peggie developed a severe infection and had to have surgery to remove her milk ducts. She recovered but had to feed her son with powdered milk after that. She also had to start a wood fire in order to heat water for bathing the baby and for cooking. “It was really, really hard,” she recalled.

Workers and residents of Fujin Home, a sanctuary for single mothers, orphans, and the handicapped run by Seattle’s Japanese Baptist Church, September 1929. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.

When she got pregnant with her second child, her husband refused to recognize the baby as his own. Pregnant and with a toddler in tow, Peggie took up residence at the Fujin Home, a sanctuary for single mothers, orphans, and the handicapped run by Seattle’s Japanese Baptist Church.

She made friends there and recalls eating a lot of tomato soup. She studied so that she could go to court and appeal to have her citizenship restored. She won her appeal and shortly thereafter gave birth to her daughter.

Peggie struggled to raise her two infant children, Patsy and Jimmie, as a (mostly) single mother in Seattle. Aside from her friends at the church home, she had little support. Her husband intermittently acknowledged that he had a family. He took up work at a local print shop and was occasionally home to father his children, before abandoning the family for an opportunity in California.

“Well, the children were sick, and he said he was going out to get medicine. But he was taking a suit of clothes with him; he was taking his good suit with him as he went out the door, and I said, ‘Why are you taking your suit?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m getting these cleaned.’ But he went out and he didn’t come back. And he didn’t come back the next day or the next day, and I waited and waited and he didn’t come back.”

Peggie eventually initiated divorce proceedings. With no way to make ends meet and with food in short supply, Peggie’s family finally came to rescue her and brought her home. By then, the family had increased its land holdings and had farms in Kent and Evergreen, in addition to the 16 acres in Des Moines.

Peggie’s children, Jimmie (with his birthday cake) and Patsy, on their family farm, July 1931. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.
Peggie (center in the long skirt) with family and friends on the Nishimura family farm, 1936.
Left to right: Kumataro Nishimura, Kadju Nishimura, Emily Herold holding Mary Nakashige, Peggie Yorita (Yorita was her married name), Patsy Yorita, Tom Nishimura, Jiro Matsumura, Harry Oki (behind Matsumura), Hanni Nishimura, and Alex Ando. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.

For the next decade, Peggie and her children lived a peaceful life surrounded by family and friends that loved them dearly. She chose not to remarry because she was, understandably, over men at that point. She also worried that her children might not be treated well by a stepfather:

“I always heard that stepchildren are treated so poorly, whether it was a stepmother or stepfather, so I just didn’t want them to go through that. I thought it was better, better not to have a father than to have a mean stepfather.”

She was working at her family’s farm in Kent on the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. In the months that followed, her family scrambled to figure out how to manage their crops and property in an increasingly hostile atmosphere and with incarceration pending. Instead of sticking around to help, Peggy’s eldest brother got married and deserted the family for a free zone so he wouldn’t have to go to camp.

In her interview with Densho, Peggie recalled that “horrible, horrible time”:

After the signing of EO 9066, all the local stores sold out of duffel bags so the family had to sew their own, then make difficult decisions about what to fill them with. They traveled by train to the Pinedale detention facility, just outside of Fresno, where Peggie and her two children cohabitated with other families without fathers, many of whom had been sent to federal detention facilities immediately after the war.

Peggie was miserable at Pinedale:

It was “hot, hot, hot, terribly hot” and “we had Vienna sausage day after day…and they didn’t give us much, just a few little sausages, just barely enough to keep us going. People would regularly faint from the heat and malnutrition. Every day, it was the same story. They’d get out there and more and more people would faint.”

Before long, Peggie and her family were transferred to Tule Lake. Circumstances were still difficult, but she eventually fell into a routine at the camp: working, making new friends, watching her children’s orchestra practices, and even enjoying a few flings. She and other inmates took up the hobby of making art and jewelry out shells, mined from thick veins of shells from the former lake bed the camp was situated on. “I was just making new things all the time. And to me, it just, it was an outlet for me, a wonderful outlet.”

Jimmie Yorita (right) digs for shells used by people in camp to make jewelry. His sister, Patsy (left), and Neal Frost, son of one of the camp’s teachers, sift the dirt, Tule Lake concentration camp, 1943. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.
Peggie making shell jewelry in her barrack at Tule Lake, 1943. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.

Like many incarcerees, Peggie faced complications with her health in camp. She ultimately had to have two major surgeries at Tule Lake—one for a retroverted uterus and another for an impacted wisdom tooth. Because she was not sedated during the tooth removal surgery, she remembered the pain and the rudimentary procedure vividly:

“I remember going in and, of course, they give me novocaine or whatever, and he would hit it with a hammer, and every time he’d do that, it just felt like the top of my head was coming off. But anyhow, he did get the tooth out, and he gave it to me as a souvenir.”

In the fall of 1943, Peggie and her son relocated to Minidoka. Her daughter, Pat, had scored highest on an IQ test administered by some of the camp teachers and so they’d taken her (with Peggie’s consent) to be educated and brought up in Oklahoma.

She struggled with the cold Idaho winters and even had to burn her own furniture to stay warm during coal shortages and strikes.

“It was cold; it was terribly cold. We’re not used to cold like in Idaho and Tule Lake, in the wintertime it was very, very cold. And we had to keep warm some way, so we were burning anything we could get a hold of. And people were cutting sagebrush and if they found scrap lumber anyplace, and they were picking up scrap coal everyplace, digging for coal and trying to get as much as they can. I just happened to burn up my table legs so I couldn’t have a table. So all I had was the bed and the potbelly stove.”

While at Minidoka, Peggie started working for the Reports Office, meaning she attended many camp events and saw different aspects of life there. She learned how to take and develop photos, as well as specialized tinting techniques that would lead to opportunities after camp. She was also granted temporary leave to work alongside Mexican and Jamaican immigrants at a nearby farm labor camp.

Her views of camp life were relatively pollyannaish, partly because she left Tule Lake before tensions over the Loyalty Questionnaire escalated there, her son was too young for military service, and she and her daughter gained educational opportunities they likely wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. [1]

Life at Minidoka grew comfortable in its familiarity, while the thought of starting anew in a foreign city seemed daunting and dangerous. As the WRA urged some camp residents to resettle elsewhere, Peggie was reluctant to leave camp even though both her children had moved on—Pat was going to school in Twin Falls and Jim had left to work as a “houseboy” for a Quaker family back east. She eventually caved to pressure and left camp, reuniting with Pat in June 1945. The family had lost its beloved farm property in Des Moines, Washington and with few other options available to her, the pair relocated to Chicago, along with Peggie’s sister and some 20,000 other Japanese Americans. Because of widespread housing discrimination, they had trouble finding a place to live.

Peggly recalled, “My daughter and I walked and walked and walked, and we walked all day long. And everywhere we went, there would be a “for rent” sign. We’d get there, they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s rented already, rented already.’”

The WRA relocation office furnished her with addresses of rentals but no support in actually securing a place to live. They were, however, eager to take her photograph to help advertise Chicago to other Japanese Americans looking to relocate. After receiving a request to be photographed just after yet another discriminatory eviction, Peggie saltily retorted:

“I’m being thrown out of the apartment, so come and take a picture of that. They never bothered me after that.”

Between housing struggles and a general distaste for urban places, Peggie was depressed and struggled to adjust to life after camp. She initially worked alongside Black and Mexican women in a factory for fifty cents an hour but eventually secured a management position. In her new position of relative authority, she carried out orders to not hire Black women, a reflection of the way Chicago’s racial hierarchies and systemic anti-Blackness too often came to inform the daily actions of other oppressed people. [2]

Peggie eventually gained employment at a photography studio and built upon her work at Minidoka, training herself to become an expert photo colorist. She had finally secured a successful career and found her footing in Chicago. She was able to travel to Washington state to visit her parents, but continued to juggle medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and family drama, including having to help raise three grandchildren after her daughter’s divorce.

Peggie visiting her parents’ housing project home in Seattle, Washington, late 1940s. Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection.

After decades of making it on her own, Peggie remarried and moved back to Seattle where she helped nurse her parents until their deaths. She found a quiet home with blackberry bushes, lovingly tended a garden, and became a stalwart Mariners fan.

But she never forgot that idyllic farm in Des Moines:

“I keep dreaming about that place all the time, because I figure that was our home,” she said in her 2004 interview. “And I always felt that we should have been able to come back to it.”

Peggie Nishimura Bain self-published a memoir, Walk With Me Through My Life, in 2007 and passed away two years later at the age of 99.

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications and Public Engagement Director

1.Though Peggie recalls camp life in a relatively positive light, her views should not in any way diminish the harm that was done by WWII incarceration. The physical, psychological, and material tolls of incarceration were very real but were often far more challenging to talk about than the relatively positive aspects of camp life.

2. For more on interracial relations in post-War Chicago see “In the Twilight Zone between Black and White: Japanese American Resettlement and Community in Chicago, 1942-1945” by Charlotte Brooks in The Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Mar. 2000), pp. 1655-1687.

[Header photo: Peggie Nishimura Bain nee Yorita works a garden at her family farm in Kent. For more images of Peggie’s life, see Densho’s Bain Family Collection.]