Painful WWII internment camp memories
By Mary McCarty, Staff Writer
February 19, 2012
Mary Yamano rarely talked about her experiences in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, but her youngest daughter, Marcie, wrote about the painful chapter in the family’s history for a college paper in the 1980s.
The essay came back with a red "F" and a stinging rebuke from the professor: “You made this all up. This didn’t happen.”
It’s one small measure of the resounding silence — and widespread ignorance — that surrounds one of the most shameful chapters in American history: the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese- Americans during World War II.
Seventy years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war or military commanders to establish “military areas” and excluding “there from any and all persons.”
As a result, all residents of Japanese descent along the Pacific Coast were forcibly removed to what were euphemistically referred to as “War Relocation Camps.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunged the United States into war and escalated already-existing hostilities and discriminatory practices against the Japanese. About two-thirds of those interned were American citizens; that figure would have been higher, except that under existing law, Japanese immigrants couldn’t become naturalized citizens.
Yoshino said, “The attitude at the highest levels of the military was that a Jap is a Jap, and racial strains are undiluted. The clear implication is that if you are Japanese, you are the enemy. Those on the West Coast were regarded as potential disloyals could engage in sabotage.”
Jeff Underwood, historian for the local National Museum of the United States Air Force, noted, “It seems so strange to us that it happened. It says a lot about how scared people were at the time and how racist they were. People saw on the newsreels Japanese success after Japanese success. They were terrified the Japanese army was going to march through California.”
Tosh Konya of Troy was only 5 months old when his family was sent to the internment camp in Gila River, Arizona. “Some tried to justify the incarceration by saying the Japanese-Americans were moved away for their own protection,” Konya said. “It was hardly a believable statement when the barbed wire kept people in and all the guards had their weapons facing inward.”
Jane Katsuyama of Kettering is another Miami Valley resident who spent part of her growing-up years in the camps and later relocated to the Midwest, which had no internment camps.
As the war progressed, some were allowed to leave the camps if they found individual or corporate sponsors in the Midwest or the East.
“If you look at the Ohio census in 1940, there would be only a handful of Japanese,” observed Bill Yoshino, Midwest director of the Japanese-American Citizens League. “By the 1950 census, all of a sudden there was more than a handful.”
Katsuyama’s family was celebrating her first birthday in rural California when news came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Days later, the community’s Buddhist church was burned to the ground. Katsuyama and her mother and her infant sister — carried in a laundry basket — were forced to move to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Her father, a first-generation Issei Japanese, initially was sent to prison before joining them at the camp. The family didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him.
Yoshino said that only the Quakers offered any organized protest to this blatant violation of constitutional rights.
“This was totally the opposite of American ideals,” Katsuyama said. “Yet the propaganda newsreels showed people getting off these buses like they were going to summer camp.”
It was far from summer camp.
Katsuyama’s husband, Ron, described the Poston camp as “the WPA’s makeshift city of crudely and hastily built barracks in the heart of the Arizona desert.”
Some local residents lost family members during the course of the internment. All of them lost property and livelihoods, and some never recovered their former prosperity or sense of well-being.
Ron Katsuyama, who was born in the Minidoka, Idaho, camp, noted that families were given only days to vacate their homes and abandon their businesses for unknown destinations. “My father, who had been a building contractor, could not complete work on a remodeling job and, consequently, lost his business and property put up as collateral for a loan to buy supplies,” he said. “This was a secret he kept for over 60 years. I was shocked to discover the truth, revealed in old court documents stored in his garage. Given their experiences, I have tremendous admiration for my parents’ resilience.”
Jane Katsuyama still marvels at her parents’ attitude. “My parents didn’t show bitterness. They brought us up to really care for each other. There was a sense of trust and caring even though my childhood was spent in what even FDR called a concentration camp.”
Yamano’s father died from a cerebral hemorrhage a month after the evacuation orders. She was 10 years old, and the youngest of four children. “I remember my father hand-sewing a seed bag for our belongings,” she said. “Back then, you didn’t question, because the war was with Japan. I just kept quiet. You didn’t want to be part of a race that attacked the U.S. So you just went.”
Yamano’s oldest brother, who was ailing, was left behind in a sanitarium and later died of pneumonia. The family never saw him again.
Konya’s mother died at 26, when he was only 18 months old. “There’s no doubt in my mind my mother would have lived if she hadn’t been in the camp,” he said. “I fully realize that many thousands of lives were lost in WWII, so the death of one person may seen minor by comparison, but they were loyal citizens unjustly incarcerated in our very own country on racial grounds. That puts her passing in a different light.”
The camps offered very little in the way of privacy. The camp residents often put up curtains or makeshift wooden stalls over the open latrines or created partitions in their single-room units in a barracks.
“It was very demoralizing, being forced to live so close together for so long,” Konya said. “The camp wasn’t a place for old people, sick people, or very young kids. The food was mostly starch, with very few vegetables, and the camp administrator pilfered sugar for the black market.”
The children yearned for candy, cakes and toys, but in general “it was harder on the older generation,” said Yamano, whose father ran a jewelry store in Seattle. “We kids went out to play and made friends. The adults were the ones who lost their belongings and their savings and their livelihoods.”
Katsuyama added, “It was especially hard for the high school students. A lot of them are struggling to find out who they are and the meaning of life.”
Yamano is a widow who met her husband, Richard, after the war though they lived in the same camp in Minidoka, Idaho. She has preserved the camp yearbook, published shortly before the Minidoka War Relocation Center was closed. The yearbook reveals what Yamano describes as “the semblance of normal life”: chapters of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, athletic activities.
“We didn’t choose to be there, but we made the most of it,” she said. “We started our lives over again.”
Although not yet a teenager, Yamano couldn’t help asking herself, “Why did they send us here? We are all Americans.”
Many young Japanese men fought valiantly in the 442nd Regiment, even though their parents were incarcerated and the soldiers were shipped right back to the camps if they were wounded.
On April 29, 1945, the regiment freed prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.
After the war, almost nobody talked about the camps. “Two of the prevailing feelings of Japanese-Americans were: Shikata ga nai — there’s no recourse, you can’t change it; and gaman — you endure with patience,” explained Jane Katsuyama.
The reasons probably went beyond the reticence of the World War II generation or the stoicism of the Japanese character. “It was shame,” Yamano said. “The U.S. government deserved the shame, but we felt the shame. We had been incarcerated.”
Katsuyama’s story is all too common: “It’s very sad, but we never sat our parents down to talk about this.”
Yoshino believes that too much of the history has been lost, and not enough is being passed on. The Japanese-American Citizens League is lobbying for American students to be taught more about the internment camps. “We have done some cursory research on state learning standards and we found that not a lot of states have within their standards the teaching of the internment,” Yoshino said.
This sad chapter needs to be taught, Konya believes, because “every American needs to be taught it is possible for the U.s. to stray so far from the Constitution. Don’t assume your rights are guaranteed.”
Pete Hironaka (Poston 229-5-D)of Kettering spent his high school years in the Poston, Ariz., internment camp. The well-known local cartoonist documented that history through his writings and cartoons in the national publication, Pacific Citizen.
“Many of Pete’s cartoons illustrate Japanese-Americans engaged in activities that are representative of American culture,” said his friend, Ron Katsuyama. “Then, by calling attention to America’s democratic ideals, he is able to communicate the irony and injustice of the WWII incarceration of Japanese-Americans.”
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 — passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan — provided for a presidential apology and $1.25 billion in reparations, or $20,000 to each individual who had been in the camps. “It wasn’t compensating for actual losses,” Yoshino said, “but it was a symbolic amount. People lost personal effects; they lost their farms and homes. It’s probably incalculable what that entire loss was.”
Konya said his father lost his wife and his prosperous garage business in Los Angeles. “He never talked about it, but there was clearly a bitterness, and who could blame him?” he said. “The legacy of the camps have left good and bad sides to my personality. I am certainly more introspective.”
Yamano is pleased that her own three children and seven grandchildren have embraced that history and tried to learn more about it. Two of her grandchildren have written high school papers about the internment camps. “Kids today are more outspoken,” she said admiringly.
Yamano’s personality is more reserved — a trait that stems not only from her years in the internment camps, but also from the derision that she suffered when she returned to high school in Seattle. “People would look at me and would say, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ ” she recalled.
After that, she conceded, “I can’t say I really got over it. I’ve always been introverted. My kids grew up not being that way. But I always had the feeling that I didn’t quite belong.”