May 20, 2013
It didn’t matter that they were Americans. Or that many of them had never even been to Japan.
In 1942, Japanese-Americans were rounded up into internment camps. By the end of the war, more than 110,000 had been relocated. But although they were given back their freedom, the shame and loss of time could not be recouped.
“We were classified as aliens,” said Jim Suzuki, commander of the Monterey Nisei Memorial Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Sunday in Reno at the 63rd annual reunion of Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) veterans. “They classified us as aliens when we were still American citizens.”
Suzuki considers himself lucky.
He grew up in Hawaii, where Japanese-Americans were spared many of the policies that led to internment camps.
But even though he was spared the humiliation and turmoil of being rounded up like an enemy, he still fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars several years later. That, he said, is partially because there was still a great pressure on Japanese-Americans to prove their patriotism, although it became much easier as the years went on.
“Segregation was very heavy even after the war ended in 1945,” Suzuki said. “But we that followed, in Korea and Vietnam, we didn’t have to work quite as hard to prove ourselves.”
But discrimination still weighed heavily in everyday life. The Japanese American National Museum estimates that the Evacuations Claim Act of 1948 returned less than 10 cents for every dollar lost by Japanese-Americans from the evacuations.
Executive Order No. 9066, which began the camps, was not rescinded until 1976 under President Gerald Ford.
Ford said in a proclamation: “I call upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise — that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.”
Reparations came slowly, and some of those affected did not receive checks until the late 1990s.
Initially, Suzuki said, the Nisei were forced to start their own VFW chapters rather than join existing ones.
But within 35 years of World War II’s end, Nisei-VFW member Hisao Masuyama became the commander-in-chief of the California VFW, which began a chain reaction of Nisei taking leadership posts in the organization.
“It was proud moment for us,” Suzuki said, “when one of us finally took over as the head.”
But even with reparations made, the memory of the camps is still important as a cautionary tale.
Kiyo Sato (Poston 229-11-A) , who leads the education committee at the Sacramento Nisei post, began sharing her story 27 years ago by placing photos of the internment camps on walls in public schools to spark questions.
Sato recently published a memoir entitled “Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream”, which is about being forced at age 19 into an internment camp called Poston in the Arizona desert about 140 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Along with her came seven of her brothers and sisters and her parents — one brother was exempted for serving in the Army.
“We had a 20-acre farm that my father had grown and tended since the (Great) Depression,” Sato said. “We lost everything on it. Everything was burglarized. We had no place to come back to.”
Although Sato was released from the camp after six months when she finally was accepted into Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland after being rejected from Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins.
But even in those six months, Sato felt the sting of not being trusted by her own country — sometimes in ways that she would not know about for years to come.
“I didn’t realize until two years ago when I was speaking at the Smithsonian that they still had my letters,” Sato said. “I had written to Mrs. Coy, who was my elementary school teacher, and the military intelligence officer confiscated them. He confiscated 60 of my letters.”
Sato still admires the cunning of her father in helping them to survive the conditions.
She said he smuggled in forbidden objects — saws, buckets, a tarp that he hung from their tar-walled barracks and poured water over to cool them from the 127-degree heat — and planted seeds for food.
“Based on the experiences of these 110,000 Japanese-Americans,” said Loren Ishii, Post Commander of the Sacramento Nisei VFW post, “We work along with the Japanese-American Citizens League to ensure that no ethnic group is ever unjustly treated (in the United States) again.”
Despite still citing some shortfalls, members said that treatment has improved significantly for American citizens originating from countries at war with the United States — a trend that they say must be preserved through continued education.
But the group has not seen growth for several years now. Fifty-seven members passed away this year, and now only two of the team of speakers who educate students about the camps in schools remain.
Members said that keeping the story alive for younger generations is pivotal to ensuring that lessons are learned from it.
“We still have to prove to them that we are a part of American history,” Suzuki said.