50 years later, memories of internment remain painful

By Jeannie Wong

Sacramento Bee Staff Writer




Their diaries are brittle and stained now, their memories misty and fleeting. But for many Japanese-Americans, it is all they have left of a time that was snatched away from them.

The nightmare began Feb. 19, 1942.

As World War II engulfed and enraged this nation, that was the date 50 years ago this week that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated the uprooting and internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast – U.S. citizens and their immigrant parents alike.

The act was to send a collective shudder through subsequent generations. Homes, livelihoods and pride were irretrievably lost. So great was the cost that half a century later, families still mark their lives as the time before camp, and the time after it.

“I think it touched all Japanese-Americans, whether they know it or not,” said Carol Hisatomi, who was only 2 years old when she and her parents were interned at Tule Lake, in northeastern California.

“It even affected me,” said Hisatomi, now 52 and an attorney in Sacramento. “I lost my dolls, special cultural dolls that were given to me by my grandparents. The objects were irreplaceable.

“Years later, when I thought I would never see them again, my daughter sent me two dolls like the ones I had lost. I wasn’t expecting to feel the way I felt. I just wept.”

Such experiences are not uncommon, especially with the approach of the community’s “Day of Remembrance” – on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the signing of 9066.

Unresolved are feelings of sadness, anger and bitterness by internees who would like to put the past behind them, but who also want to ensure that such scapegoating never happens again.

This year, emotions are compounded by fears of backlash as the national economy sags and trade tensions increase between the United States and Japan.

And frightening echoes of the hysteria that gripped the nation at the start of World War II are beginning to surface in Japanese-American communities.

In one such case in Los Angeles, the office of a Japanese-American civil rights organization received a bomb threat and warning a few weeks ago from an unidentified woman: “I’ll show you a year of remembrance, you dirty Japs,” she stormed. “What we remember is Pearl Harbor.”

Recent remarks by a Japanese politician, who called American workers lazy, only served to heighten the anxiety.

In such a climate, a new age of Japanese-Americans – committed to righting the wrong of internment – is calling for understanding and healing.

Throughout the country, old journals are being unearthed, educational exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution to Sacramento ‘s own History Museum are being displayed, and elders are being asked to share the tales of their darkest point in history.

“In one way, the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans, most of whom were born before the war) are right to want to put it behind them. There is so much to move on to, so many challenges to civil rights ahead,” said Wayne Maeda, guest curator of the museum exhibit in Sacramento.

“But there is also so much that we must remember,” said Maeda, 44, a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University, Sacramento. “We can learn a lesson from what happened. We must never forget.”

Yet the past hasn’t always been easy to uncover, Maeda acknowledged.

“They didn’t want to talk,” he said of the internees. “There was always this sense of shame with the Nisei, as if somehow they were to blame.”

That slowly has changed.

Executive Order 9066 was rescinded in 1976 by President Ford.

Roosevelt ‘s decision to disrupt 120,000 lives had been made on the basis of conflicting advice. An FBI assessment showed that Japanese-Americans and their immigrant parents posed no military threat, but California leaders and the U.S. Army claimed that a furtive campaign to help Japan strike the West Coast imperiled national safety.

In 1982, based on testimony from more than 750 witnesses, the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued “Personal Justice Denied.” That report concluded that there was no military justification for the internment. Instead, the commission found that the mass evacuation and internment was the result of “wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership.”

Also during the mid-1980s, federal courts tossed out the wartime convictions of three Nisei – Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui – who resisted evacuation and related curfew provisions.

The Supreme Court in the 1940s had upheld the convictions of the men, validating Executive Order 9066. But more recent courts erased the convictions after reviewing evidence that wartime officials suppressed documents refuting the government’s justification of military necessity.

In Congress, Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento, who as an infant was interned with his parents at Tule Lake, fought along with others for redress. Finally, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized to those who were interned.

In addition to the apology, an estimated 60,000 surviving Japanese-American internees would receive $20,000 redress in order of their ages. Payments are expected to be completed by 1993.

“The most important aspect was the fact that our country’s government acknowledged a grievous injustice,” Matsui said. “Everybody during war has to sacrifice. But the one thing that is not required is to be denied your rights as a citizen because of your race or background.”

Maeda acknowledged a shift among the internees. “I think many finally began to feel that it wasn’t their fault,” he said. “They were not wrong. They didn’t have to be ashamed.”

It was not the disgrace, however, that kept Fred Ouye silent so many years.

“I just didn’t talk about it because it was a dark part of our lives,” he said somberly, looking down at his hands. “I didn’t want to be reminded of it.”

Life hadn’t always been hard for the college graduate and his wife. Ouye, who is attorney Hisatomi’s father, was running his own drugstore in Lodi when the war started.

“Of course, we didn’t have much because we had just gotten married,” said Ouye’s wife, Mary. “But we were happy.”

Then the executive order was signed, casting their lives into turmoil.

“I knew we had to go to camp,” said Ouye, now 80. “So I started selling all my merchandise at below cost. We came to Sacramento to join family, and we prepared to leave. I was disappointed at the way things turned out, naturally. But what could I do?”

In May 1942, the family bundled up what possessions they could and left for the Walerga assembly center in north Sacramento County – Ouye holding his young daughter with one arm and his wife’s portable sewing machine under the other.

“That was all he could carry,” said Mary Ouye, 75. “As for me, I just stuffed what I could into duffel bags.”

The family eventually was relocated to the camp at Tule Lake , where thousands of Sacramento ‘s ethnic Japanese were interned.

“That train trip was probably the part that hurt me the most,” Mary Ouye recalled. “They had all the shades down, and I couldn’t see out. It was frightening for me. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us.

As it turned out, the family stayed only about a year in Tule Lake. Many internees were allowed to eventually leave the camps to join the Army, attend college or find employment outside the West Coast. The Ouyes left the desolate conditions for Kansas City, Mo.

But they went to a situation far from ideal.

“I lost so much weight. I was crying all the time,” Mary Ouye said. “We couldn’t find a place to live – they didn’t want to rent to us because we were Asian. It was very hard for us at first.

“As bad as the camp was, I found myself wanting to go back.”

That was never something Masao Umeda wanted.

A farmer in the Florin area before the war, Umeda said he was “gosh-darned mad at the way they treated us.”

“Why did they evacuate us?” Umeda asked recently, waving his arm, his voice rising in agitation. “Why did the Supreme Court do nothing? Why did (then-California Attorney General Earl) Warren do nothing?”

After being interned in a camp at Jerome, Ark. , Umeda returned to the Sacramento area on Jan. 6, 1945 – one of the first Japanese-Americans to come back.

“I could tell right away that things were very different,” said Umeda, 79. “Right after I came back, someone burned down a Japanese hall. And then, a week later, about 2 in the morning, a Japanese home was burned down across the street from where I was staying.”

Undeterred, Umeda and his friends took turns staying awake, watching for thugs. “I wasn’t going to let them scare me off. I had a right to be there,” Umeda declared.

It was with this same fervor that he testified many years later before the commission hearings on internment.

“I wanted to tell them what was wrong with it,” Umeda said. “A lot of people were scared, but not me. It’s important that people know what happened. We can’t let it go.”

Molly Kimura, who was interned in Tule Lake at 18, agrees. Yet she also believes that sometimes it is better to look forward, not back.

“I was upset, but what good does it do?” she asked. “Better to accept it, to bear it.”

While Kimura, 67, said she does not hold a grudge, she admits to at least one disappointment: missing her high school graduation at Marysville Union High School in the spring of ’42.

“Just like all the other students, I remember looking forward to getting my cap and gown; I had already gotten my school ring,” said Kimura, who now lives in south Sacramento.

But although families in her area were not interned until July, students were restricted by a curfew from attending the ceremony, she said.

“One of my friends, a top student, was even going to be the valedictorian, but she couldn’t go. We all had to get our diplomas in the mail.”

It is experiences such as these that Kenji Taguma, 22, a third-generation Japanese-American, never wants to see repeated.

Although he was born a quarter-century after the camps were closed, Taguma is shrouded with bitterness. His father, old now and slight of frame, was imprisoned when he was a young man because he took an unpopular stand against the internment.

As a 20-year-old farm boy, Noboru Taguma was interned in a dusty camp at Amache, Colo., when he resisted the draft. In a terse statement to the government, the native of Broderick refused to report for his physical examination and pre-induction evaluation, saying the forced detention violated his constitutional rights.

Fifty years later, his son stands by him.

“It was wrong what the government was trying to do to him. It hurts me to think about it,” said Kenji Taguma, who is majoring in ethnic studies at CSUS. “It makes me rebellious, less trusting of government. But knowing what my father endured, what all of them endured, has given me some added strength.

“It has given me a better sense of my culture. It has brought out my pride.”

Staff writers Ken Chavez and Judy Tachibana contributed to this report.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s