What Grandpa Taught
Memories of internment during WWII
Mar 24, 2010
Lily Hatanaka still remembers the taunt her classmates chanted as she walked to San Diego High School the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:
“You dirty yellow Japs. You dirty yellow Japs,” Hatanaka says, her voice dropping to a low, robotic drone. “All the way to the campus.” The next day, her principal, Dr. Aseltine, held a special assembly.
“He reminded everyone that we have about 60 Japanese Americans, and they are Americans and they are to be respected and treated like Americans,” she says.
She also remembers a moment she shared with her grandfather during their incarceration at Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.
“He had planted sweet peas and they had just started to grow,” says Hatanaka, 85, as she stirs a cup of coffee in her Kamoku Street apartment. “He looked at me and smiled and I thought, never in my life have I seen such a beautiful smile. It was so peaceful and so calm and he was so glad that he could share that moment with me.”
Hatanaka’s story is one of six recorded for the University of Hawaii Center for Oral History’s ongoing project, Captive on the U.S. Mainland: Oral Histories of Hawaii-born Nisei. The project seeks to disrupt the misconception that World War II confinement was limited to only prominent, established Hawaii Japanese and their families. Instead, the interviews illuminate the life stories of transplanted Hawaii Japanese, most of them students attending colleges in California, who were also incarcerated.
In September of 1941, Hatanaka, a Maui native, moved to San Diego at the age of 16 to start her senior year of high school, with hopes of establishing residency and attending the University of California Berkeley to study nursing. None of those hopes came true. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, a day Hatanaka spent tossing a football to her cousins outside of the San Diego Zoo, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
In May, Hatanaka, along with her aunt, uncle and grandfather, with whom she lived, were incarcerated at Poston, the largest of the 10 relocation centers. The way Hatanaka describes it, her 10-month stay at Poston was like summer camp.
“I was so excited,” she says. “I said, ‘This is living history. I can’t miss anything’… I think most people must have thought it was like the Holocaust. And it wasn’t.”
Instead, her days were spent singing in a ‘ukulele trio with friends, fishing at a nearby river where a man once tried to escape on an elaborately constructed raft (“He was maybe 10 minutes down the river before the FBI got him”) and cheering on her camp’s baseball team. Little moments, like the choir’s Christmas concert in which she sang, stay preserved in Hatanaka’s mind.
“That Hallelujah choir against that Arizona sky, those stars so bright you could almost pluck them out of the sky. Oh it was just wonderful,” she says. “We ended with a sevenfold Amen. And when that last Amen faded you just felt like you touched God. It was just so beautiful.”
Hatanaka is quick to point out that her experience as a transplanted college student was markedly different from the experiences of mainland Japanese who lost their property, jobs and livelihoods.
“Those Californians, I admire them so much. For all their losses, they just put it behind them and just dug in and started all over again. Everyone was busy doing something. Nobody sulked,” says Hatanaka, who retired from Kaiser High School as a social studies teacher in 1976. “My family was safe on Maui and that was the main thing. Once I realized they were safe the adventure became real to me. I didn’t have to worry.”
For Hatanaka, sharing her story felt liberating. “It was something I think I needed,” she says. “My family never asked me questions because I think they felt very guilty. They just couldn’t ask. I always felt like I was a part of a living history. And we cannot bury it. We have to tell it and everyone in America should know about it.”
When asked how she’s able to remember the tiniest details of her past so vividly, Hatanaka smiles. “That’s what grandpa taught me,” she says.