By Colleen Sleven
DENVER -- Some letters arriving from Japanese-American internment camps during World War II were very specific, asking for a certain brand of bath powder, cold cream or cough drops – but only the red ones. Others were just desperate for anything from the outside world.
"Please don't send back my check. Send me anything," one letter said from a California camp on April 19, 1943.
The letters, discovered recently during renovations at a former Denver pharmacy owned by Japanese-Americans, provide a glimpse into life in some of the 10 camps where 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, from the West Coast were forced to live during the war.
They were written in English and in Japanese, expressing the kinds of mundane needs and wants of everyday life, such as medicine as well as condoms, cosmetics and candy.
About 250 letters and postcards, along with war-time advertisements and catalogs, came tumbling out of the wall at a historic brick building on the outskirts of downtown. The reason they were in the wall and how they got there are a mystery, particularly because other documents were out in the open.
The letters haven't been reviewed by experts, though the couple that found them has contacted the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to gauge interest in the missives.
It wasn't unusual for internees to order items from mail order catalogs or from the many companies that placed ads in camp newspapers, selling everything from T-shirts to soy sauce, said Alisa Lynch, chief of interpretation at the Manzanar National Historic Site, which was the location of a camp south of Independence, Calif.
They earned up to $19 a month doing jobs at camps and some were able to bring money with them before they were interned, Lynch said.
The building where the documents were discovered had been vacant for seven years when Alissa and Mitch Williams bought it in 2010.
The T.K. Pharmacy was originally owned by Thomas Kobayashi, a native Coloradan of Japanese descent, but during the war it was run by his brother-in-law, Yutaka "Tak" Terasaki, who died in 2004, according to his younger brother, Sam Terasaki of Denver.
Sam Terasaki was in the service then and doesn't remember his brother talking about taking orders from internment camps. He said his brother may have gotten involved because of his longtime participation in the Japanese American Citizens' League, a national group dedicated to protecting Japanese-Americans' civil rights. He said his brother's wife worked as a secretary to Gov. Ralph Carr, who took the politically unpopular stand of welcoming Japanese-Americans to the state.
Some writers noted seeing ads for the pharmacy. One letter from a man who said he arrived at the Poston, Ariz., camp "half dead" addressed his letter directly to "Tak" and asked for chocolate. "I had to wait twenty hours in the middle of the desert at (illegible) Junction, no place to go, just wait," he wrote.
The other camps the letters came from included Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Gila River in Arizona, and others in McGehee, Ark., Topaz, Utah and Granada in southern Colorado.
Japanese-Americans who lived in Colorado and elsewhere in the interior West weren't interned.
The relatively small but stable Japanese-American community that began taking hold in Colorado in the 1880s provided a support network for those forcibly moved from California to the state camp, state historian Bill Convery said.
Internees at that camp were able to leave with permission and could visit Denver as well as a fish market near the camp opened by two men of Japanese ancestry. It was relocated to Denver after the war.
Convery said the pharmacy could have been one of the few Japanese-American owned pharmacies in the West, since business owners on the coast were interned. It could offer products favored by internees – who had one week to pack up two suitcases and sell any assets – and they might have felt more comfortable dealing with a Japanese-American-owned company, given tensions during the war.
Internees couldn't bring much to camp and they didn't know where they were headed or how long they'd be gone. "So as much as anything could soften the blow of that unimaginable situation, those businesses did what they could," Convery said.
Alissa Williams has been poring over the letters and wondering about the stories behind the polite orders, including one for diabetes medicine. Her grandmother, aunt and uncle suffer from the disease and she wondered what they would do without medicine. The mother of a 2-year-old, she also thought about how she would cope in such a camp.
"I can put myself in their place, they're having kids, they're sick and they can't get what they need," she said. "... But no one is complaining."
Misako (Ishii) Shigekawa, 103
January 2, 1909 – October 31, 2012
Misako Shigekawa was recently filmed for the documentary – For the Sake of the Children – featuring Poston’s mothers and descendants. She was born in Los Angeles on January 2, 1909 and was the oldest of 6 children whose parents were Nui and Rinsaburo Ishii. Her parents came to the U.S. from Japan in 1899. She graduated from Citrus High School and the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy in 1930.
While living on Terminal Island before World War II, she owned a drug store and served as the local pharmacist. In the 1930’s, she served as the president of the Terminal Island chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. She married Kiyoshi Shigekawa in June 1941 before they were relocated to the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona.
While in camp, she gave birth to her
children, Gerald Shigekawa and Marlene Shigekawa. After the war, she returned to Anaheim where
she worked as a pharmacist for several years before retiring from Santa Ana
Community Hospital in the mid 60’s.
|Misako with Marlene and Gerald at Poston, Arizona|
She is survived by: her brother, William Ishii; three children, Gerald, Marlene and Linda; her grandchild, Quincy Misako Shigekawa Godin; and many nieces and nephews.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Poston Community Alliance, 956 Hawthorne Dr., Lafayette, CA 94549.
By Diana Alba Soular
LAS CRUCES — A former El Paso TV reporter hopes to illuminate a little-known shadow in New Mexico's past through a documentary film that debuted Saturday night.
The film examines two internment camps — one in Lordsburg and the other in Santa Fe — that held captive about 4,500 men of Japanese heritage during World War II.
They were part an estimated 120,000 Japanese-American men, women and children who were rounded up from their homes and imprisoned in remote encampments across several states, as public mistrust burgeoned because of the war. Most were never accused of any crime.
Though not featured in the film, two of those Japanese-American detainees were the grandfather and father of Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima.
Former reporter Neil Simon, native of Portland, Ore., learned about the existence of the New Mexico internment camps when living in Albuquerque. The topic caught his interest. Later on, he moved to Washington, D.C., and checked the national archives to find records about the camps. He was surprised at how little there was.
Simon, 34, said he felt moved to try to document the stories of survivors from the New Mexico camps before they died.
"I put my journalism hat on and started tracking down as many of them as I could," he said.
That launched in 2005 a years-long project for Simon, who worked on the documentary in his spare time. He tracked survivors of the New Mexico camps and their family members for interviews through multiple states. The result is the 91-minute film, "Prisoners and Patriots: The Untold Story of Japanese Internment in Santa Fe," which aired Saturday and Sunday on KRWG-TV in Las Cruces.
"For me, it's important to preserve the story, but it's also important for the stories of the past to raise awareness today about how minorities are treated, especially in wartime," Simon said.
What differentiated the New Mexico camps from the others was that they were used to hold male inmates who were considered by the federal government to be the highest risk for stirring unrest, according to Simon. The names of Japanese-American men who were perceived as leaders in a slate of categories were on a watch list compiled by the federal government, even prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he said.
"It was all men," he said. "The government really targeted these people as leaders and as teachers, newspapermen, community organizers, farmers ... ."
The Santa Fe camp opened in February 1942, but its detainees were soon moved to Lordsburg — a rural, southwest New Mexico border town known for its Wild West history. The Lordsburg camp would hold Japanese-American detainees until the spring of 1943, when they when they were moved back to Santa Fe.
The Lordsburg camp, located near the railroad tracks that run through town, featured some incidents of violence, what Simon characterized as a "blemish on what's already a sad story."
Two elderly men were shot in the back by a guard as they walked near the camp. Simon said they may have left the trail to use the bathroom, but it's unlikely they were trying to escape, as was claimed.
"The prisoners had been trying to rally for better conditions," he said. "It had a chilling effect."
Simon said he was surprised, when carrying out research for the film, to discover the breadth of life that happened in camps, ranging from art to golfing to writing. And he was surprised by the attitudes of the survivors and family members he interviewed. There was little in the way of grudges, he said.
"I went into it thinking everybody would be bitter and angry for what the U.S. government did," he said.
After the departure of the Japanese-Americans, the Lordsburg camp was then converted to a prisoner of war camp for Germans and Italians, Simon said.
Barracks, concrete and foundations of the Lordsburg camp have survived.
"It's unique in that so much of the camp, until recently, was still visible," he said.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said his father, Mike Kazuji Miyagishima, 82, and his family were detained from their home near San Pedro, Calif., in 1942.
"We told me one day he was walking home from school, and he wondered why all the police were there," said Ken Miyagishima. "Within 48 hours, they had to sell everything they owned."
Ken Miyagishima said his father might have been held at the Lordsburg camp briefly. That was before being transferred to another internment camp in Poston, Arizona.
Also, Ken Miyagishima's grandfather, Rikizo Miyagishima, was interned at the age of 42. Prior to that, he'd run a shipping business. He died shortly after being released from the internment camp.
The last dozen detainees departed the Santa Fe camp in May of 1946.
Decades after the internment camps closed, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged the injustice done to Japanese Americans during the war, and victims were awarded reparations, according to PBS.org. However, many have continued to experience mental and physical problems because of their internment, according to the website.
"I hope it's something we never do again," said Simon.
Simon held reporting jobs at TV stations in El Paso, Albuquerque and Washington, D.C. He now lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his wife and works as director of communications for the 56-country Organization for Security and Co-operation in the Europe Parliamentary Assembly.
Aug. 18, 1941 - U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan suggests incarcerating 10,000 Hawaiian Japanese-Americans, as incentive to promote "good behavior" by Japan.
Nov. 12, 1941 - Fifteen Japanese-American businessmen and leaders in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo are rounded up in an FBI raid.
Dec. 7, 1941 - Japan attacks Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. Local authorities and the FBI begin rounding up leaders from Japanese-American communities. Within two days, 1,291 people are in custody. They're held without formal charges. Family are forbidden to see them. Most wound up in internment camps.
Feb. 19, 1942 - President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, which lays groundwork for the imprisoning of Japanese-Americans.
Feb. 14, 1942 - The first wave of Japanese-Americans arrives at Santa Fe internment camp.
May 13, 1942 - Los Angeles gardener Ichiro Shimoda, 45, is shot to death by guards while trying to escape from Fort Sill, Okla., internment camp. Shimoda had suffered mental illness and had attempted suicide twice since his detention on Dec. 7, 1941.
July, 27 1942 - Private Clarence Burleson, a guard, shoots and kills two 60-year-old internees while they are walking to Lordsburg Camp and stopped to urinate outside. A court martial clears Burleson of any wrongdoing.
September 1942 - The Santa Fe camp closes, and 523 detainees are transferred out.
March 23, 1943 - The Santa Fe internment camp reopens. Japanese-American detainees are transferred from Lordsburg to Santa Fe, which makes room for German POWs in Lordsburg.
May 7, 1945 - German surrender ends the war in Europe.
Aug. 6, 1945 - An atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Shortly after, the second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.
April 1946 - The Santa Fe internment camp closes and reverts to being a state penitentiary.
May 1946 - The last 12 detainees depart the Santa Fe camp.
From Depression to Recession: APA Survivor Stories Have New SignificanceBy Lynda Lin, Assistant Editor
Published June 5, 2009
Lately, the world outside Aya Medrud's windows seem to be unfolding like an old memory. At 84, the Boulder, Colorado resident has seen many trends from her youth regain new life including now, growing joblessness, high foreclosure rates, and the inevitable human despair that goes along with a global economic recession.
Aya, who went from a toddler to a teenager in the Great Depression, knows this plight all too well. Growing up in Seattle, Aya and her family survived the decade-long period of epic hardship by living off of what they could catch and grow. All the while, people would come to their door begging for scraps of food.
"We're not doing that badly now as of yet," said Aya, a retired schoolteacher and Mile-Hi JACL member. But grim economic indicators in 2009 continue drawing comparisons to 1929 making Aya a witness, in one lifetime, to two of the worst economic crises in U.S. history.
"It's incredible that it's all happening again."
For Asian Pacific American survivors of the Great Depression, memories of hope amidst despair and lessons from those trying times have gained new significance in the depths of the current recession.
"They were the original recyclers," said Marlene Shigekawa (Poston 21-11-D), 54, about the older generation that included her mother, Misako Shigekawa (Poston 21-11-D)
They knew how to stretch every dollar and reuse everyday household goods year after year. They were the so-called "frugalists" and "recessionistas" before how-to articles and lifestyle magazines popularized the monikers. And while Americans today are scouring these resources for new ideas to save money, Misako has been dishing out free advice for years.
"Money doesn't grow on trees," she would tell her children. "Save everything."
In January, the Santa Ana, Calif. resident turned 100, and impressions of the Great Depression remain deeply set.
"It was a disaster for everyone," said Misako, an Orange County JACL member. From this single life experience, she learned things she would remember for the rest of her life. She still insists on saving wrapping paper from opened birthday presents and shakes her head disapprovingly when her grandchildren waste even a drop of soda.
These are good lessons that have taken on new meaning in today's consumer-oriented society, said Marlene, a Bay Area writer.
"But watching our 401k diminish is motivation enough to follow mom's advice."
Children of the Great Depression
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Misako was attending the University of Southern California to become a pharmacist. News of the economic turmoil soon made its way on campus through newspaper headlines that announced the stark end to the "Roaring Twenties," an era of excess that led up to the Great Depression.
Misako got a job working in a drugstore after school in order to make ends meet. "Everyone was in the same situation, so it didn't feel too bad."
But the effects of the era can perhaps be best measured by what's missing. There aren't many photos of Aya's family from the Depression days.
"Not surprisingly people did not have cameras or money for luxuries like photos," she said.
One of the few images captured during this time is a 1930 black and white photo of five-year-old Aya with her younger sister Hope and cousin Tamotsu each clutching a toy of some sort. Their expressions tell the entire story: a far-off gaze, a young face crumpled. These were the children of the Great Depression.
In those days, the definition of "luxury" extended from milk and eggs to doctor's visits.
"We never went to the doctor for preventive reasons," said Aya. "The money wasn't there."
Her father Joseph Kozo Uenishi and grandfather Itaro Uenishi had helped build the Great Northern Railroad across the northern tier states, but the stock market crash forced the family, in 1930, to move to Seattle in search of more oppor-tunities.
There, Aya, her parents and two younger siblings lived under one roof with her grandparents. Joseph took odd jobs to try to make ends meet, including selling encyclopedia sets.
"If you could imagine getting a job trying to sell encyclopedias during the Great Depression," Aya said wryly.
With unemployment at an all time high, desperation hung heavily in the air.
Across the nation, suicide rates spiked and APAs - who, historians say, were blamed for taking away jobs - increasingly became victims of violence. In the summer of 1930, a mob of 400 attacked members of the Northern Monterey Filipino Club, killing two, according to the anthology, "Asian American Studies: A Reader."
In Aya's family, the effects of economic hardship seeped into everyday life.
Her grandmother, Tamae, suffered from constant migraine headaches and tended to the vegetable garden outside of their Seattle house, a pre-war "victory garden" with daikon and lettuce. And like other trends that have come around again, in March, first lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the White House's very own organic victory garden.
What was once old is becoming new again.
There are some definite parallels between the Great Depression and today, said Marlene. "People are starting to feel helpless."
In April, Michigan reported the highest jobless rate, 12.9 percent, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joanna Takahashi, 26, is a part of that statistic. The single mother from Detroit was looking forward to a new beginning after her divorce was finalized in December. But two months later, she found out she was getting laid off from the automotive supply company where she had worked for a year.
"It was a big slap in the face."
To get by, she's pulled her three-year-old out of daycare and collects unemployment benefits.
"It's very stressful. Why me? I haven't done anything to deserve this."
In April, the national unemployment rate for APAs was 6.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This doesn't include involuntarily part-time workers and those on the verge of unemployment like 38-year-old Tim Chang.
Tim, who has a Master's degree from Columbia University in higher education administration, has worked for the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology for 13 years, most recently as the senior director of institute housing.
On Jan. 26, he became another victim of the bad economy. It was "the day," a Monday that was long rumored to be the day of layoffs. What can you do? said Chang, who is fourth generation Chinese American. "You go to work and wait to see if you get called."
Then the phone rings.
"Ah, there you go. Dead man walking."
For the father of two, the path to his next career started at fear and panic, followed by anger and finally acceptance and motivation.
"I take each day as it comes."
He's applied to 40 jobs so far and has heard back from 10. They're the same responses: they've closed their search because of a lack of funding or they've decided to hire from within.
"It's tough. There is a glut of people out there. At the same time the pool of jobs is shrinking," he said. "A lot of people have Master's degrees. A lot of people have 13 years of experience."
Tim's last day at Cal Tech is July 31. It's a day he and his wife have spent years preparing for - building a safety net like his parents and grandparents have always told him to do.
It's sound advice now and always. Even as President Barack Obama has said that the economy has "stepped back from the brink" of calamity and the Labor Department has reported that mass layoffs were down in April compared to the previous month, evidence that some economists say point to an economy that's still grim, but at least not free falling at a rate that it was just a few months ago.
"It doesn't compare at all," said Aya about the current recession compared to the Great Depression of her childhood. "It was much worse then. But if this continues for a few more years, who knows?"
The other day, a department store representative called to offer her a 50 percent discount.
"I don't need anymore clothing. We don't buy a lot of things," she told the dejected representative.