History of Japanese Americans in Texas: The Kondo Family

Minnie Kondo and the Kondo Family

Kondo family
Kishi Colony Residents

The Kondo family was part of the successful Kishi colony. Sataro Kondo had initially come to the colony alone, wary of the uncertainty of the project, and left his wife, Fumi, and their three children in Japan. He finally sent for them four years later, and during their time in Texas, the Kondo family would have six more children. Below is a revised version of a feature of one of the Kondo children – Minnie Kondo – written by Vicky Parfait in 1999. Through Minnie’s account, we see her positive and cheerful attitude even in recounting her family’s hardships during the Great Depression and World War II.

Minnie Kondo is cute as a mouse’s ear, and at 79, a delightful conversationalist. The retired RN lives in Beaumont now, but grew up in Orangefield. She never married. "I had a couple of chances," she chuckled, "But I was stupid in the way I handled it. I kind of regret not having a family, but I’ve had a good life!"

Minnie was born September 15, 1919 to Sataro Kondo and his wife, Fumi Takahashi Kondo, who came here with their three eldest children from Niigata prefecture. There were five girls and four boys: Fuji, 93; Taka, 91; Sakichi, deceased; Shohe, deceased; Shunji, 84, who is the only boy living and resides with Minnie; Mary 82 next month; Minnie; and the twins, Kihe and Kiyo, both deceased. The family was part of the Kishi Colony, and Minnie is quick to point out that her father was one of the best and most successful farmers in the group.

"If it came from the Kondo Farm, people knew it was the best quality!" she said proudly. My father raised vegetables, horses, cows, pigs and chickens. Even through the depression, it got bad, but we didn’t suffer!"

Her parents were garrulous about the "old country" according to Minnie. They told them about their ancestral home, family, and the beauty of the place. "When we were small we were only allowed to speak Japanese in our home," she said. "My father didn’t want us to speak English, or use forks and knives. We used chopsticks. Dad wanted to teach us their ways, but we were just ordinary Americans! When we started school and met other kids and became apart of the group, he was overruled!" Minnie laughed, "There went the chopsticks!"

"I liked baseball and volleyball. I was too slow for basketball," she grinned. "In May there were the Maypole dances and we made our own costumes out of crepe paper. One time I was an orange!" she laughed. “For the Halloween carnival we made lots of popcorn balls and wrapped them in waxed paper and sold them for a nickel apiece.”

They grew up happy, loved, and working, she said. They worked at farming to pay for their higher education, and all got excellent grades. “If we let our grades slip, we wouldn’t be playing with the kids, we would be picking beans and strawberries!” she said, “We had to be good kids!”

The success of the Kishi colony drew to a close as the Great Depression neared. Crops were destroyed by diseases and successive freezes, and Kishi mortgaged his land to borrow money to expand. But the Depression came, and Kishi had no way of repaying his debts, so he lost all of his land to creditors in 1931. This also means that the colonists who had leased their land from Kishi, including the Kondos, lost everything, too.

"I hate to go back there," Minnie said solemnly, "It’s so sad to see that nothing is left there. My family worked so hard. We should not have lost our land, but that is business. The people Mr. Kishi trusted thought about business, not people."

The family moved to Fannett, and it was there that they found out about Pearl Harbor. "The next morning," Minnie related, "The FBI was there, knocking on our door. They made us get out of bed, it was very early in the morning, and turned our mattresses and everything else upside down. They found the guns my brothers and father used for hunting, and took them. They also took knives they had made from cowhorns and pieces of old sawtooth metal. Eventually they returned the guns but we never got the knives back. I suspect they kept them as souvenirs."

"We were lucky," she said, "My Dad was not interned. They took Mr. Kishi for awhile. Most of the people who were kept in the camps were on the West Coast. I believe it was probably for their own good. At first I know it was bad for them, but in the end, I believe if they hadn’t been, a lot of people would have been killed."

There was a lot more prejudice on the West Coast than there was here. There was prejudice in Southeast Texas too, though, she admitted reluctantly. "We just didn’t know it until we found out later!" she laughed. "There were very strong leaders here. We found out that there were a couple of families who intended and planned to harm us, but the leaders of the community stopped them. Nothing was said about it until much later."

The war was especially horrible for the Kondo family. The two eldest daughters were in Yokohama. Firebombs were being dropped and the girls were burned out. For awhile they went to their parent’s hometown, but there was no food. They told tales of going along the seashore, gleaning whatever grasses they could find to cook and eat.

"They couldn’t get clothing, either," Minnie said, "I remember the "Care" packages we sent them, with rice, sugar, flour, and coffee. The staples," she explained, "and clothing for the kids. We worried about them, but we also had strong feelings for our country! Shunji went down to enlist in the American forces, but they said he was an alien. Her brother had to go into town to sell the vegetables and often came back hurt from jibes or disrespectful remarks about his lineage. But for everyone who said something, there were two people who would stand up for him and be nice or help him," Minnie insisted. "There were good people here!"

Minnie’s family needed a place to work, so they moved to Arizona, where a cousin had moved after the war, to grow lettuce and melons, but they eventually came back to Southeast Texas. She and Mary went to Methodist Hospital University of Texas Nursing School and became RN’s. "I worked, I don't remember how many hundred years," she grinned,"at Baptist, Saint Elizabeth and Beaumont MASH hospitals, and then took early retirement."

She lives in Beaumont, now, with her brother for company. She does what she likes and drives where she pleases. She is content with her life and memories. She is proud of her Southeast Texas heritage. "I wouldn’t ever want to live anywhere else. This is my home!"