|Yukio & Mitsuko Kawamoto|
One day in April 1942, 16-year-old Yukio Kawamoto (Poston 330-11-A) left his boyhood home for the last time. His family lived in and managed the Anchor Hotel, a downtown San Diego inn, but on this day the Kawamotos didn’t go to work. Instead, they went into exile.
With 1,150 other Japanese and Japanese-American residents of San Diego County, the Kawamotos had been ordered to report to the Santa Fe Depot. After hours of waiting, they boarded two 16-car trains and steamed away from home and toward an uncertain future. Seventy years later, Kawamoto still recalls the crowds and the confusion.
He doesn’t remember any anger. “It’s only afterward, as an adult, you think back what the government did to us as a race,” said Kawamoto, 86, now retired in the College Area. “To think that a president with the stroke of a pen could put away 120,000 people, it’s mind-boggling.”
By signing Executive Order 9066, President Franklin D. Roosevelt uprooted all Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, sending them inland to hastily built “War Relocation Camps.” Today, many historians see this internment as one of American history’s worst constitutional abuses. Congress apologized in 1988 and later paid survivors and their children $1.6 billion in reparations.
For Kawamoto, this was a temporary detour. After the war, he would return to his native city. Here, he would meet and marry another former internee, Chula Vista’s Mitsuko Mamiya. Here, the couple prospered.
Yet the war devastated San Diego’s Japanese community, especially the issei, the first generation immigrants. From the 1920s until 1942, the intersection of Fifth and Island was the heart of a busy Japantown. With internment, all of this district’s Japanese-owned businesses — nearly 60 — vanished. Only a few reappeared.
“In many ways, it broke down the community,” said Susan Hasegawa, a professor of history at San Diego City College. “The community as a core and the issei that held it together were very much scattered and dispersed.”
Yukio’s earliest memories are of Fish Camp, a shantytown built on twin piers jutting into San Diego Bay. His father, Imataro Kawamoto, was a fisherman when his son was born in 1925, but later became a gardener and moved the family ashore.
In the 1930s, the elder Kawamoto and his wife, Sakayo, took over the management of a downtown hotel. The family was living at the Anchor when, days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, police arrested Imataro. Authorities were rounding up leaders of a local Japanese organization; Kawamoto did not belong to the group, yet he remained in custody for weeks.
Early in 1942, word spread that San Diego’s entire Japanese population would be rounded up and dispatched to a cold climate. Sakayo Kawamoto took Yukio and his five siblings shopping for coats and gloves. Wasted money, it turned out — the family’s ultimate destination was the Poston III Relocation Center in the Arizona desert.
In Chula Vista, 7-year-old Mitsuko Mamiya was unsure why her family had to leave their small Chula Vista farm. But she knew they were losing almost everything they valued. “My dad had to leave crops in the ground,” she said. “He had to sell his horse.”
Also abandoned: an old refrigerator box the little girl used as a playhouse. “I hated to leave that.”
Even before the war, local Japanese farmers like Mitsuko’s father faced serious obstacles. California’s “alien land laws” prohibited noncitizens from owning land. Laws also prohibited Japanese from becoming American citizens, so issei could only lease, not own, their businesses.
Even so, by 1940 more than 2,000 Japanese and their American-born children lived in the county. From Bonsall to Chula Vista, they tilled the land. On local waters, you’d find the White Cloud and other Japanese-run boats hauling in tuna and abalone.
But to find this ethnic community’s hub, you had to head downtown.
“Farmers and fisherman came into town, around Fifth and Island, to do their shopping, get a haircut, maybe take a bath,” said Linda Canada, president of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. “This was the center of the community’s social activities, as well as their businesses.”
Japantown spread across Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, between Market and J streets. Here, the Kawasaki family ran a grocery store. Kotono Takahashi presided over Kondo’s Pool Hall. The Ouchi brothers, a produce stand. The Obayashis, the Sun Cafe.
The Anchor Hotel was on this district’s northwest fringe, on Fourth Avenue near Market. Here, the parents had a small apartment and the children slept in hotel rooms — when there were vacancies. When not, they squeezed into the apartment. The family made a point of dining together and the parents kept close watch on their children.
In a single day, all of this would change.
Death of a district
All 1,150 Japanese living south of Del Mar were ordered to leave the county on April 7, 1941. (North County’s Japanese were shipped off a few weeks later.) Officials later commented on the orderly way these residents — many of them citizens, some veterans of the U.S. military — gathered in the Santa Fe Depot, their destination unannounced.
“It is part of our duty as Americans to go,” Sam Fujita, executive secretary of the Japanese-American Citizens League, told a reporter. “If our departure will improve public morale, it is our job to accept it in the best spirit possible.”
The trains left the station, carrying with them an entire business community. Japantown never recovered. According to the historical society’s Canada, only two Japanese families came back from the camps to resume their downtown trades: The Kawasakis reopened their grocery and the Obayashis took back the Sun Cafe. (In 2009, the Sun became a Mexican restaurant, Funky Garcia’s.)
The Kawamotos’ and Mamiyas’ initial destination was the Santa Anita racetrack. After four months living in stables, these families were among the thousands moved to Poston. Mitsuko would be there for the war’s duration, but Yukio left in summer 1944 to attend college in Indiana. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, he returned to San Diego.
After a few years spent helping his father make a living as a gardener, Yukio passed the civil service exam. For the next three decades, he worked for the federal government, becoming a civilian computer analyst for the U.S. Navy. Life was good, especially after he met Mitsuko at a Young Buddhist Association dance in 1955. They married three years later.
Neither Kawamoto has bad memories of camp. But they believe those years took a toll on their parents.
“As far as families were concerned, especially kids my age — we never spent time with our parents,” Yukio said. “I didn’t do anything bad, but I never felt they were strong authorities, like they were before the war. It definitely undermined their authority.”
Their parents, though, never complained — and neither did their adult children. At home, Yukio and Mitsuko rarely mentioned World War II or the internment camps to their three sons.
“And there wasn’t a whole lot of Japanese culture in our home,” said Jon Kawamoto, 51, now a biotech executive in Northern California. “I think they were influenced by the internment camp experience to downplay their Japanese-American culture and experience.”
Slowly, though, that changed. After he retired in 1980, Yukio volunteered at the Buddhist Temple of San Diego and the Japanese American Historical Society. The couple’s living room now includes Japanese artwork, and both husband and wife speak at schools and universities. Students are often baffled by their accounts. Why did Washington force these Americans into exile?
The Kawamotos are puzzled, too.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that says during wartime all civil liberties are suspended,” Yukio said. “Yet that’s what happened to us.”
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