|A. Hiro Nishikawa, PhD|
It will be 70 years this July since A. Hiro Nishikawa, PhD, (Poston 18-2-A) and his family were put on a train and sent from the San Francisco area, where he was born, to a makeshift barracks city in the southwestern Arizona desert.
The years since then have dimmed memories. Fewer Americans today recall or are aware that places that could be described as concentration camps once existed on their country’s soil – especially among the generation of the Villanova University students who heard the Main Line resident speak last week.
For Nishikawa, whose early childhood years were spent at Poston War Relocation Center, though, those memories are as sharp as the sting of the sandstorms that occasionally roared across that barren “no man’s land.”
A nearly 30-year resident of the Haverford Township section of Haverford, Nishikawa is retired after a career as a biochemist in the pharmaceutical industry. He is also a member of the Japanese-American Citizens League in Philadelphia, who has been active in recent years on civil rights issues.
Nishikawa was 4 when he, two brothers, and his mother and father were sent to Poston 18-2-A in the summer after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. His youngest brother would be born there, and Nishikawa would finish first grade at the camp school before the facility was closed in late 1945, when he was 7.
Poston, which housed 17,000 at its peak, was second largest of 10 internment camps that were set up, mostly in western states, to hold some 110,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Nearly 70% of them were American citizens.
It consisted of blocks of tarpapered wooden barracks, without running water, arranged around men’s and women’s latrines, a mess hall, a laundry building, and a recreation building. When it was hastily raised in a landscape that had been nothing but “sagebrush, tumbleweed and lots of sand and dust,” it instantly became Arizona’s third largest municipality, after Phoenix and Tucson, Nishikawa noted.
In the summer, temperatures reached 116 degrees. One of his vivid memories is of playing under the raised barracks, one of the few places to find shade. The problem was, “nature’s creatures” – gila monsters, rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas – also quickly found refuge there. “As a 4- to 5- year-old, you had to learn to make sure you didn’t run into these animals,” Nishikawa said.
At the camp, his father, who had worked as a professional chef in San Francisco, found work as one of the camp cooks for $19 a month. Like other families, they lived in one room of one of the barracks.
While there was school for the children with teachers who “came in from outside” and other activities – one photograph shows boys playing baseball on a field “like any sandlot in America, the only difference being the barracks in the background” – there is no question, Nishikawa said: The camp was a prison. The barbed wire around the perimeter, the watchtowers, and the armed sentries patrolling inside told the residents that.
Inside the camp, he said one “unanticipated consequence” of the new social order was that “family and parental authority began to fall apart,” the traditional “respect and interaction with parents” upset.
There was despair, also. He recalled, at age 5, hearing a new word: suicide. The rate was high among single men, middle-aged and older. “They had been ripped from their professions. In the case of non-citizens, their assets had been taken. They didn’t know what they would have [after the war]. They didn’t want to be a burden on their families.”
There was resistance to internment by some. Made to fill out “loyalty” questionnaires, some resented or felt insulted by items questioning their patriotism. Some even chose to renounce their American citizenship to be repatriated to a Japan at war, where they faced deprivation and were looked on as “foreigners.”
A Supreme Court decision in late 1944 finally set the stage for the closing of the camps, some months before the war ended. The result was “this diaspora after the camps,” Nishikawa said. Many of the internees moved east, to New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania. Some, aided by Quaker groups, came to Philadelphia.
Nishikawa’s family was given “some money and train fare” to San Jose, Calif., where his father eventually bought a Chinese restaurant in nearby Gilroy. He worked as head cook, Nishikawa’s mother was head waitress, and Nishikawa himself, when he was old enough, cleared tables and washed dishes.
That is “what happened” during and immediately after the war years. But Nishikawa also wanted to explain “how and why” internment happened. A hundred and fifty years of laws and policies that tightly restricted immigration and naturalization, especially of persons of color, including people from Asia, helped set the stage, he explained.
“Given these conditions of law that prevailed, the environment on the eve of Dec. 7, 1941, made it very easy for the government to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and nobody objected.”
Finally, Nishikawa talked about the connections he sees between the history he lived through and events since Sept. 11, 2001.
There has been gradual recognition of “the degree of injustice” to Japanese-American citizens in the years since World War II, he said. And it was notable, he added, that after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush made a point of attending a Muslim service and imploring other Americans “not to react arbitrarily against individuals seen to be the enemy.”
When there were hundreds of incidents of violence and hate in the following months, Nishikawa said, the Japanese-American Citizens League, with other organizations like the Jewish Defense League, “got involved in trying to connect with the public and point out what was wrong with this kind of thinking.”
But there are indications, such as a clause in a military funding bill last year that would allow the military to indefinitely hold prisoners regardless of citizenship without charge that tell him, “We’re not home free.”
And, Nishikawa said he understands why some Americans today find it hard to listen to and accept this chapter in the country’s history.
A question one student asked him illustrated the difficulty. When she told an acquaintance about the talk, the response was, “Those were not concentration camps;” Japanese-Americans “had their families there. They were not being killed.” How would he respond to that view?
There is a historical definition of the term that applies, Nishikawa said, but added, “I understand the sensitivity.”
“There are euphemisms all over the place. . . . We don’t want to talk about things that are ugly,” he reflected. The irony, he said, is that in his mind, “concentration camp,” in the context of the Holocaust, is itself a euphemism.
Those, he said, “were death camps.”