Essay by
  • Glenna Gray
in response to
Essay by Fusaye Kazaoka, Sept. 22, 1994

Coming to Seabrook as a child, Fusaye Kazaoka's experience varied from that of her parents, but the "gray shacks" and grueling work hours created memories shared between generations. The dormitory-style housing arrangements were a formative part of the family's early experience at Seabrook Farms, allowing Kazaoka to maintain close bonds with her brothers and sisters, but also depriving her of any solitude; "I remember having no privacy," she writes. Although her family's move to Seabrook "was not a day to celebrate," Kazaoka's story demonstrates the determined mindset of Japanese Americans: "We were poor but we never knew it!" She adds that her sister became known for not missing a single day of school, despite a cramped and chaotic home life. "We had to stuff hay into canvas sacks to use as our mattress," she notes.

Kazaoka's later work at the Bell Telephone company illustrates her dedicated work ethic amid racial prejudice, which pervaded the white American psyche during this era. As the first non-white worker to be employed by Bell in southern New Jersey, her time there was heavily laced with both racial and gender discrimination. Kazaoka was forced to confront her ethnicity and distinguish herself as an "American of Japanese ancestry," when she was slurred as a "Jap bitch" by a member of the telephone workers' union. However, racial prejudices in her workplace did not deter Kazaoka from asserting her authority, not only as a Japanese American, but as the first woman to occupy a managerial position with the company: "If he was man enough he would say it to my face," she declared to the union delegate, adding, "at which time I will fire him!"

The issues Kazaoka encountered at Bell also illustrate the strict social control executed by Seabrook Farms over its workers. The letter she received from Seabrook threatening to evict her family due to her job "outside the company" underscores the often indirect, yet ever-present and looming power of the Seabrook agribusiness. Thanks to some well-positioned connections, Kazaoka sarcastically notes how she was eventually "allowed" to continue to work at Bell. However, her family's reliance on Seabrook housing was common to many other migrant families, and was capitalized upon by C.F. Seabrook in order to maintain a cheap, dependent workforce.