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KEEPER OF THE FLAME : Rober Ida’s Life and His People’s Culture Are Centered in 75-Year-Old Japanese School

Times Staff Writer

On this chilly, overcast day, Robert Ida is once again making his morning rounds of a small, aged school building, deep in a bleakly obscure neighborhood of Garden Grove.

Ida surveys the grounds carefully--a solitary figure in baggy jeans, old work shirt and scruffy zoris--making sure each window, doorway and classroom is secure. As usual, he says, he finds no signs of tampering or vandalism.

Such loving attention might seem wasted on such a worn and homely building. But the 80-foot-long, whitewashed, clapboard building is no ordinary school, certainly not to someone like Ida.

To four generations of Japanese-Americans, the five-classroom building, which looks more like an abandoned store than a cultural center, is both monument and haven.

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It explains why Robert Ida, 65, has kept a personal watch, making the ritualistic trek to the school every morning, every year--for 3 decades.

The building is the home of the Garden Grove Japanese Language School, built in 1914, but still providing classes every Saturday morning from 8 to noon (currently, for 40 youngsters) as the longest-running school of its kind in Orange County.

“We all went here as kids--I did, my brothers and sisters did,” says Ida, standing on the school’s side porch, his manner reverent, as if he were about to enter a church.

But once inside, his mood turns to boyish, almost impish delight.

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Gazing at the blackboard filled with basic Japanese phrases, at the battered desktop chairs and at the student drawings pinned on walls, Ida laughs, touched by images from 50 years ago.

“Right here,” he says with a huge grin, “this was our room. And there, near the window, is where I sat.”

For someone like Ida, in a place like this old school, the memories--especially the good ones--are like yesterday.

Naturally ebullient, an engagingly loquacious and gregarious sort, Robert Ida is someone easy to like.

And at 65, Ida, a gardener by profession, seems to have become more whimsical-looking with age. His face is a mass of crinkles when he grins. His once-bristling, thick crew cut is now receded to wayward patches of fuzz.

But this cheerful aura vanishes whenever the matter of bulldozer redevelopment is brought up.

It seems that the language school’s future is in doubt. The school’s original neighborhood--now an outmoded melange of salvage yards, milling operations and ancient dwellings southwest of Garden Grove Boulevard and Euclid Street--is earmarked by the city for massive clearance.

Under the current municipal proposal--which has yet to become final--most of the neighborhood would be replaced with a $20-million, 16-acre showcase development of big stores, restaurants and movie theaters.

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Ida’s connection to all this isn’t just the school. It’s a profoundly familial one.

He has lived nearly his entire life on the lot just behind the school. He was born there. He resided in the four-bedroom house built in the 1920s by his grandfather.

But a year ago, Ida--a bachelor and the last of his family to live in the house--moved off the lot. And 4 months later, the structure was demolished.

The neighborhood has seen better days.

Like all of Garden Grove and most of Orange County after the turn of the century, the area in and around the neighborhood was once overwhelmingly rural.

There were clusters of homes, shops and work camps, but mostly it was vast fields of strawberries, celery, sugar beets and acres of orange groves.

There was also a newcomer phenomenon that brought both tension and curiosity--the large influx of Japanese farmers who called themselves Issei, or first-generation immigrants.

By 1910, the number of Issei was an estimated 600 in Orange County, many of them with families, all of them resourceful, tireless and iron-willed men.

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Kikumatsu Ida--Robert’s grandfather--was one such Issei. He had been a Japanese soldier serving in Manchuria and Korea in the 1890s, then Beijing during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

His immigration to America was typical of other Issei. He labored on farms in Hawaii and railroads in Washington state, spent time in San Francisco (he lived through the titanic 1906 earthquake and fire), and was attracted to Orange County by visions of an agricultural wonderland.

His first venture, a chicken farm in Santa Ana, was wiped out in the county’s great 1916 flood. But when he moved to Garden Grove and to that lot behind the language school, he built a small back-yard factory for making tofu , or Oriental bean curd. This venture, an immediate success, lasted for years.

But this was an era particularly notorious for anti-Asian legislation.

“We couldn’t bury our people in Orange County,” Robert Ida says. “I’m serious--it was forbidden by ordinances. When my two older brothers died (of typhoid after the 1916 flood), it was especially distressing. My family was told they had to take the bodies to L.A.”

There were more sweeping examples of legal sleight-of-hand. Like other Asian aliens, Kikumatsu Ida and Robert’s father, Sei, could lease land but not own it. “One law prevented them from becoming citizens,” says Robert Ida. “Then the other one declared only U.S. citizens could buy land.”

While some Japanese immigrants, embittered by such American sentiments, returned to Japan, most Issei vowed to remain, like grandfather Ida.

“Of course, he wanted us to remember the old heritage, to keep our ethnic identity, so he made sure we went to Japanese school,” Ida says, referring to the Garden Grove school, a three-classroom facility when built by Issei farmers in 1914.

“But grandfather never went back to Japan. He never wanted to. He told us that America was now our country, and that opportunities here were limitless. My father felt the same way.”

As if to underscore that belief--that the Japanese immigrant families were to find their new roots in America--the Idas in the late 1920s built their first permanent dwelling here. This was the one-story redwood house on the lot behind the school, the dwelling that became home to 11 children and that was to stand for 6 decades.

“I don’t remember any big problems, really. Everyone seemed to get along, because all of us--Caucasians and Japanese--were in the same kind of work and had the same aspirations,” recalls Ida of central Orange County in the 1930s.

“Maybe it was because (Japanese-American) families were also so active in community affairs. Maybe it was the sheer numbers here: About one-fourth of the kids in our (public) schools were from our families.”

By the time Ida was 17, mainstream American assimilation seemed to be going well. And he was eyeing his next milestone--graduating the following June as a member of the Garden Grove High class of ’42.

Of course, he never made that ceremony.

Less than a month after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the Ida family, along with hundreds of other Japanese-Americans from Orange County, were interned in a converted military base in Poston, Ariz.

The two oldest Ida sons, Leonard and Roy, like numerous other young internees, decided to take the government’s official alternative--they enlisted in the military (both Idas served with the Army in the Pacific).

But the father, Sei Ida, like many other internees who were born in Japan and were active in Japanese-American organizations, was kept incarcerated under close surveillance in California camps.

“People like him were somehow questionable--maybe because, years ago, he had served as a conscripted youth in the Japanese army,” Ida suggests. “Who really knows why they held our father? They didn’t tell you then--we still don’t know why.”

When the Idas returned in 1945 to Garden Grove, they were able to reclaim their old house and leased lot “without much hassle,” Ida recalls. “We were one of the lucky ones. The people we were dealing with were good people.”

But many returning families, Ida says, found their homes ransacked, while others never could win back their old properties or businesses.

And, the Idas learned, the Garden Grove Japanese Language School had been gutted twice during the war by arson. Ironically, for some time after the war, the rebuilt school served as a shelter for homeless former internees.

Under such circumstances, Ida says, the mood for Japanese-Americans in Orange County, as elsewhere, was one of caution.

“We kept a low profile, believe me,” he explains. “Feeling was still running high, especially those Americans who had lost family or friends in the war. For most people, things eventually got calmer. But some people we knew never spoke to us again.”

And it wasn’t until 1957 that the Japanese-language classes were resumed--quietly--at the old Garden Grove school for the first time since 1941.

But the Japanese school’s neighborhood would never be the same.

Garden Grove in the 1950s had changed, virtually overnight, from quintessential farm community to quintessential bedroom suburb--the population soaring from 3,800 to 84,200 in that decade alone.

And the old neighborhood itself, now ringed by tract homes and new stores, was reduced to a forlorn state--an isolated pocket of farm-era remnants, such as the Ida house and a handful of other aged dwellings.

Inevitably, the city considered the neighborhood ripe for urban renewal, the kind that had already led to massive revamping of the civic center sector and Main Street commercial row just across Garden Grove Boulevard.

But the fate of the Japanese school under the city’s current plan isn’t clear. The Garden Grove Historical Society wants the school to remain operating at the 1914 site. Another option: Move the building to the society’s Heritage Park museum on Euclid Street, and offer the same elementary-level language classes at another site. No decision is expected for some time.

The school is under siege from yet another 1980s trend.

Enrollment in these private, ethnic-language programs is declining alarmingly, according to the Japanese Language School Assn. of America. Overall Japanese-American enrollment in seven such Southern California schools, the association reports, has dropped in recent years from 900 to 600 students, even though the population has increased dramatically.

The Garden Grove school itself hasn’t been spared. In the past decade, its enrollment has dropped from 80 to 40 students, all between the ages of 4 and 16. Tuition is $25 a month and there is a teaching staff of five, all born in Japan.

It’s another morning at the school grounds, another watchman’s visitation for Robert Ida.

But this time, Ida makes a poignant detour: He walks to the back fence and gazes across at the vacant lot that, until a year ago, had been his home for 65 years.

The lot is now completely stripped--only overturned dirt, patches of weeds and, at the far end, a large crater where the house had stood.

Silent for a few moments, staring at the crater, Ida then confides: “I had to get out. It was my decision. There were false alarms about the area going under. But this time, it looks like it’s going to happen, and I don’t want to sit around, waiting for the ax.

“I wasn’t here last July (for the demolition).” He now lives in a small tract house a few blocks away. “I made sure I was working somewhere else that day. You can’t bear to see something like that. . . . Too many memories.”

“Something’s gone, you know.” His tone is even more rueful. “The spirit isn’t really here anymore. It doesn’t feel like a community anymore.”

Gone, too, is the once-overwhelming sense of ethnic identity.

“People don’t seem to care about (ethnic heritage) like they used to. Our families moved out years ago when the newer (tract) homes took over. Everyone’s scattered now. And the younger (Japanese-Americans)--most of them seem disinterested in their heritage, too busy with other things.”

Ida, however, is not the sort to dwell long on the melancholy. He is, like the Issei before him, too much a realist and pragmatist.

“You can’t fight change and you can’t stop it. You take it in stride. You learn to live with it. “

As he walks toward the front gate, he looks back at the school building--still standing after 74 years, still serving at least some of the new generations. “But sometimes, if you’re real lucky, people can delay change--a little.”

The thought is obviously a warmly pleasant one for an old alumnus like Robert Ida. He awards it one of his widest, most crinkled grins.


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