From the Archive
Over the last dozen years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is an occasional feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.
Quest for Justice: A Profile of Gordon Hirabayashi
Headline from Minidoka Irrigator (from denshopd-i119-00045)
"I felt that during the war it would be hard to get justice... During the war nothing that the army said was questioned."
Over the years Densho has interviewed hundreds of Japanese Americans and others who offer diverse perspectives of the World War II incarceration. Among the interviewees are individuals who played key roles in the fight to prove that the forced removal and detention were unconstitutional, and that the government's justification of military necessity was false. One of those key players is Gordon Hirabayashi, who as a twenty-four-year-old college student, schooled in his constitutional rights, went to jail rather than obey the "evacuation" orders. His challenge became one of four test cases to reach the Supreme Court.
Hirabayashi came by his moral stamina through his studies, the support of his parents, and his pacifist convictions. He was born in 1918 in Seattle and raised in Thomas, Washington, by Issei parents who were members of a Christian farmers co-op. Before the United States entered World War II, Hirabayashi became a Quaker and registered as a conscientious objector. While adhering to his ideals, he had no illusions about the vulnerable status of Japanese Americans: "Discrimination was a way of life. I was going to school. I'm learning about the First Amendment, Bill of Rights and all that. Really finding that attractive. And I'm adopting it personally and appreciating it as part of our constitutional background, but knowing that this doesn't exist for us."
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hirabayashi was a senior at the University of Washington, where he was active in the YMCA and the pacifist movement. Like his fellow citizens of Japanese descent, he at first unthinkingly complied with the curfew order that required all West Coast Japanese Americans to be home by 8:00 p.m. But one evening in May 1942, when classmates warned him it was time to leave the library, he had an epiphany:
I grabbed my stuff and it takes about five minutes to get home so I was just dashing home, and it hit me. A question that I should've faced earlier, just hit me. How come I'm dashing home and all your time keepers are still there? I didn't -- I just needed the question to be raised. I knew I couldn't answer it. You know, without saying, "I can't do it." I turned around, and went back, to the library. "Hey, what's, what's the matter?" I said, "Well, you guys are here." "Well, we got work to do." I said, "Well, I got work to do too. I decided if you guys are here, I'm gonna, I'm gonna work with you. I'll go back when you guys are ready to go." Nobody turned me in. And I didn't take that until it hit me. And when it hit me I knew, gosh, I can't do it. That's two-faced. The only reason I'm subject to go is because of my -- the way it's stated. I'm a person of Japanese ancestry. In fact, there were, there were Canadians in the group, who weren't even citizens, but they didn't have to go. Well, so I couldn't, I couldn't accept it.
Upon more reflection, he concluded that the orders to leave the designated military zone and place himself under the Army's control were unconstitutional. While other Japanese Americans of Seattle rushed to pack what they could carry to the "assembly center" at the Puyallup fairgrounds, Hirabayashi typed a four-page statement explaining his reasons. In the statement "Why I Refused to Register for Evacuation," he cited "Christian principles" and "a duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives." On May 16, 1942, accompanied by his lawyer Arthur Barnett, Hirabayashi presented his statement of protest to local FBI officers, who gave him the chance to register for the "evacuation." When he refused to do so, he was placed in the King County Jail, where he spent five months before his case was heard.
While he was certain of his position, Hirabayashi was concerned about his parents, who had been taken to Tule Lake incarceration camp in California. He was deeply relieved to receive one letter in particular from his mother:
She said when she arrived was -- and was unpacking at Tule Lake, a knock came. And she opened the door, and there were two ladies, dusty, shoes dusty and so on. They had walked from the other end of camp…. They said, "We heard that the family of the boy that's in jail is arriving today. So we came out to welcome you and to say thank you for your son." And when I read that, I experienced a sudden removement of weight on my shoulders, which I didn't realize I was carrying, ever since the time when my mother pled with me to, she said, "I admire what you've done. I agree with you. But if we get separated now, we may never see each other again. If the government could do this sort of thing, it could keep us apart. So please, come with us. It's important to keep together." And I said, "I'd like to, but I'm in, I'm in the hands of others who are looking after me, and you don't have to worry on that part. I just can't go. I wouldn't be the same person if I went now because I, I took a stand, and I can't give it up." And so even tears couldn't change my views.
On October 21, a guilty verdict came swiftly after the judge instructed the jury that all of Hirabayashi's claims of constitutional rights were "irrelevant." They had only to decide whether he had violated the curfew. Hirabayashi spent another four months in jail.
Inside the camps, people followed Hirabayashi's case along with those of Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu, who also protested the incarceration. While waiting for his case to be appealed, Hirabayashi spoke to school children in the camps, who were being taught the principles of democracy while surrounded by barbed wire.
The Supreme Court decided against him on June 21, 1943. Siding with the army, the Court accepted the claim of military necessity for the curfew and exclusion orders. Hirabayashi describes how his faith in the highest court was dashed: "I felt that during the war it would be hard to get justice. And I probably wouldn't get it in the lower courts. But when it got to the Supreme Court, those Justices, their main raison d'etre for existence is to uphold the Constitution. I thought, how in the world can they uphold 'em against me? I didn't see how they could do it. So I thought when it got up to there I'll probably have a hearing. Well, it turned out I didn't…. During the war nothing that the army said was questioned."
After the war, Hirabayashi went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Washington. He taught in Beirut and Cairo, and then settled at the University of Alberta in Canada from 1959 to 1983. Shortly before retiring, he was surprised to receive a call from Peter Irons, a legal scholar who had discovered proof that government lawyers withheld evidence from the Supreme Court in the 1940s cases. Activist lawyers, armed with this evidence, sought to reopen Hirabayashi's and the other Japanese Americans' cases.
In his interview with Densho, Irons explains that before law school he had never even heard about the wartime incarceration.
And I remember very distinctly the day that we talked about the internment cases. And in most law school casebooks they're put together, Korematsu and Hirabayashi, and it generally doesn't take more than one class session or not even that. It's part of the civil rights which focuses mostly on civil rights issues involving African Americans, but -- and also governmental powers. So I remember reading these cases and being struck with what seemed to me to be an obvious injustice and finding it hard to believe that the Supreme Court at that time in the 1940s... we were also trained to, to feel that the members of the Supreme Court back then, people like William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, Frank Murphy, Harlan Stone, Felix Frankfurter, were great civil libertarians and civil rights defenders, and in many cases that was true. And so here you have an example of how they all in the first, in the Hirabayashi case, they all upheld the conviction on the ground of military necessity. And how could such liberal justices have done something like that?
In 1984 Hirabayashi's became the last of the wartime Supreme Court cases to be reopened in federal court. After several years of legal wrangling, his curfew-violation conviction was vacated on September 24, 1987. When federal appeals judge Mary Schroeder declared that "racial bias was the cornerstone of the internment orders," she finally vindicated the position taken forty-five years earlier by a young Japanese American who believed in the Constitution.
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December 7, 1941: Perspectives of Yuri Kochiyama and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga
Mass removal, March 30, 1942, Bainbridge Island, denshopd-i36-00016.
The lives of Japanese Americans would forever be changed following December 7, 1941, the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "will live in infamy." For many Nisei that fateful day left an indelible memory of lives disrupted, changed forever. For two women who grew up in Southern California, this major event in U.S. history undoubtedly altered the course their lives would take.
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"I guess that's a day that none of us will forget," said Yuri Kochiyama, who at the time was 20 years old and living a "perfect" life in San Pedro, attending church regularly and completely unaware of the political climate of the times. She taught a Sunday school class of 13-year-olds the morning she heard about Pearl Harbor being attacked by Japan. "I felt something different. And I felt, too, that my own Sunday school class looked at me differently. All the time before, I think they just saw me as a Sunday school teacher, nothing about my background being Japanese. But that morning, they did look at me." She added, "We never felt this way before."
For Kochiyama, it also struck home because her father Seiichi Nakahara was taken by the FBI that very afternoon. The previous day he had returned from a stay at the hospital after having surgery, he was still recovering but that didn't matter. He was taken to Terminal Island Federal Prison, transferred to San Pedro Hospital, then six weeks later because of his deteriorating health, returned home in January 1942. He passed away 12 hours later.
A month later, with the passage of Executive Order 9066, she and her family went to the Santa Anita Assembly Center then were sent to the Jerome, Arkansas War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp. Ever a teacher, she organized a youth group, the Crusaders, who wrote letters to the Nisei soldiers. She started the group in Santa Anita, and when families were relocated to the WRA camps, the Crusaders continued their writing campaign to the GIs from those camps.
The community organizing Kochiyama did in the camp was the start of what would become her life's mission. She worked in Mississippi before the camps closed, first experiencing the prejudice of the deep south at that time. But it was while living in New York's Harlem neighborhood that she discovered how her own experience and the discrimination of Japanese Americans during WWII were similar to the struggle of others, namely the African American and Puerto Rican communities. She first joined the Harlem Parents Committee, and then became involved with many other "movements" for the oppressed. To her, however, there was really only one "Movement," which was to fight to rid the injustices in the United States.
As she learned more about the mistreatment of others, especially through the teachings of Malcolm X who was probably the most influential person in Kochiyama's activist life, she reflected on her own experience, "Well, there's a difference in what Asians went through, what Blacks went through. But that racism is something that it seemed like all people of color [went through]." Kochiyama added, "And I felt that I must learn more about American history in its reality."
Kochiyama added, "I hope they [people] will see that racism has not been wiped out, and neither have all the things that racism does. But I think that a lot of good things have been happening through the years." Today, at 90 years old, Kochiyama lives with her family in Oakland and on occasion still participates in public events to speak out against prejudice and the inequalities of our nation.
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Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was a high school senior on December 7, 1941. She witnessed friends and neighbors of her Los Angeles community distance themselves. "We knew that there was a connection between what happened and us, simply because we were Japanese, but we had no idea the extent of the damage that would be done to us as a community."
That damage included being denied the opportunity to graduate with her Los Angeles High School class. Yoshinaga explained that a classmate told her, "we're not going to get our diplomas, 'cause our people bombed Pearl Harbor.'" For a period she was angry with Japan for putting her in this situation, she thought "I didn't choose to be born Japanese, but here I am now because of what you did, Japan. Look what's happening to us." She added, "Of course, now that I know more about the causes and effects of Pearl Harbor, I fault this country more." (Yoshinaga received her diploma in 2004 from the California Nisei High School Diploma Project.)
Yoshinaga would spend the war years first in the Manzanar WRA camp with her then husband and baby daughter, who was born in the camp. She and her baby transferred to Jerome after she got word that her father was very ill. After arriving, Yoshinaga's father died 10 days later, on Christmas Eve 1943.
After the war she first settled on the west coast before rejoining her family in New York. Happenstance led her to join the group, Asian Americans for Action, or "Triple A" as they were known in New York in the late 1960s. It was a group founded by two women, according to Yoshinaga, "they were senior citizens, which was rather unusual because so many Nisei, and especially women who were already senior citizens, didn't tend to involve themselves in social issues that was really running throughout the country during that period."
This is where Yoshinaga and Kochiyama would cross paths. "One of the leaders, of course, was Mary Yuri Kochiyama, and she, of course, had so many connections," said Yoshinaga. "They were very, very influential in my life, turned my head around, made me start to think about minorities, about injustice, about inequality and it was an eye-opening experience for me to find out more about -- and to think about the camp experience and what it meant to me personally, what it meant to our families, what it meant to our community."
Her activism would drive her curiosity, and after moving to Washington, D.C., this curiosity lead her to the National Archives to do research, first on her family and the camps, then on finding documentation that would have an effect on the Japanese American community as a whole.
In 1980 Yoshinaga's research unearthed a copy of a document by General DeWitt, who was greatly responsible for the exclusion of Japanese Americans during WWII, the Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. "This is one of the first versions. And this is the one that they could not locate," said Yoshinaga referring to the original report the government redacted because of racist and inflammatory language.
This document helped to vacate the convictions of those who challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s: Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui. She also did research for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered an official government apology; redress payments of $20,000 to each survivor; and a public education fund to help ensure what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II would not happen again.
In her opinion, Yoshinaga concluded, "Yes, we got an apology, a letter of apology from Bush and Clinton, and $20,000 per survivor. But Congress, even the new members of Congress [today] don't know anything about it. We didn't make a dent; we didn't affect how this country was looking at Arab Americans after 9/11. So I'm thinking what do we have to do to make Americans aware? The only thing I see, the plus in our experience, is that now some of the stories of the 442 Regimental Combat Team, our exclusion, incarceration, will be in the history books. Maybe that's a start."
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Frontier Colonies or Concentration Camps? Euphemisms for the Incarceration
"Evacuation" sale, May 1942, Seattle, denshopd-i36-00012.
Anyone who speaks about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II faces a linguistic predicament. Do you use the benign terminology adopted by the U.S. government at the time? Were over 110,000 individuals of Japanese descent "evacuated" from their homes and businesses, as would be said of people saved from a natural disaster? Is "assembly center" an apt term for the compounds of barracks ringed by barbed wire and guard towers that held these displaced people for months? Were the permanent camps built further inland, also secured by barbed wire and sentries, accurately called "relocation centers"? Or do you choose blunter language that might court confusion and controversy?
To complicate a writer's task, scholars point out that the commonly used word "internment" is incorrect when speaking of the mass detention. By law, only enemy aliens can be interned.1 Japanese, German, and Italian nationals arrested and held by the War and Justice Departments during World War II could accurately be called internees. It should be noted that unlike European immigrants, Asians were prevented by discriminatory laws from becoming naturalized citizens. With the declaration of war against Japan, the entire Issei generation became legally subject to internment. The second-generation Nisei, U.S. citizens by birth, were not technically interned. They were -- what? -- detained, imprisoned, incarcerated?
Because the issue of terminology is so central to any examination of Japanese American history, Densho points website visitors to our policy on the webpage "A Note on Terminology." While avoiding the government's euphemisms of the time, Densho recognizes the lack of consensus and respects the choices others make, especially those who were themselves detained in the camps.
During their confinement, Japanese Americans followed the phrasing of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the civilian agency in charge of the camps. In their interviews with Densho, most Nisei recall being "evacuated" to "assembly centers" and "relocation centers." At the Portland, Oregon, temporary camp, residents dubbed their newspaper The Evacuazette. That other camp newspapers adopted WRA terminology is not surprising. No Densho interviewee, however, calls themself a "non-alien," the government's designation for them in the exclusion orders and other documents. The fact that federal authorities strained to avoid the word "citizen" for the approximately 70,000 Nisei they had rounded up reveals their sensitivity to the power of language -- and perhaps the precariousness of their legal standing.
The manipulation of language, and distortion of reality, could reach painfully absurd levels. A 1942 WRA document entitled "Minidoka: Preliminary Report in a New Frontier Community," declares that the dust-choked Idaho camp "will be a modern American city -- frontier style." Remarks by WRA administrators strike a defensive, almost Orwellian tone:
Project administrators Stafford and Schafer are determined that concentration camp conditions shall not exist at Minidoka.
We spent several hours with the project administrators. Our impression of their attitude can be boiled down to this:
The people of Minidoka were evacuated from their homes because of wartime exigency. They will be relocated under conditions as normal as wartime conditions will permit. Most of the people will be confined in the relocation area for the duration but in no other aspect will Minidoka resemble a concentration camp.
The administrators refer to the people as "colonists" not as "internees." The mess halls are called "dining halls." The canteen is described as the "community store." There are other efforts to establish a community spirit.
The article goes on to say: "Minidoka today is an experiment. It is a twentieth century repetition of the frontier struggle of pioneers against the land and the elements...Minidoka is not a concentration camp. But we remember the words of one young colonist as we left the relocation center: 'I'm a free-born American, accused of no crime. Why must I remain here?'"
An uneasy debate continues as to whether the Japanese American detention facilities should be called concentration camps. They fit the dictionary definition, but deference to memories of the Holocaust deter many from using the term. During the war years, U.S. officials, including Attorney General Francis Biddle, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and several Supreme Court justices, employed the term. At a press conference in November 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt stated, "There are about roughly…a hundred thousand Japanese-origin citizens in this country. And it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can't be kept locked up in concentration camps."2 In a 1962 interview, President Harry S. Truman said of the Japanese American facilities, "They were concentration camps. They called it relocation but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do."3
Some outside the Japanese American community clearly reject the euphemisms for the mass incarceration. Charles Z. Smith, a retired Washington State Supreme Court justice, heard what his Japanese American friends went through when he became involved in the redress movement in the 1980s:
I attended and participated in the first Days of Remembrance at Puyallup. And so these things began to churn inside, intellectually and emotionally, to the point at which you began to look into it and see what actually happened and how a government could do such terrible things to a part of its population, and the idea of literally imprisoning. And whatever euphemism they may use, "internment camps," I call them "concentration camps," and they were imprisoned and the staging grounds, stables, fairgrounds and stables, things like that, throughout the area, and how they applied the law simply by a person's appearance, by the name that they had, and with nothing, nothing more than that.
Many Japanese Americans still use the government euphemisms for their forced removal and confinement--perhaps out of habit, expediency, or reluctance to label themselves prisoners. But others, especially activists who pursued justice through redress, do not shy away from ugly words that tell the ugly truth. Grayce Uyehara explained the reasoning behind her choice of language to allies in the Jewish community:
And then we did get into bringing an understanding of why we call our camp experience a concentration camp experience. We said we understand the Jews went to death camps, and we really should not use that terminology, because we were not in death camps. But I said, "What they suffered was done by a despot and the government was fascist and ours here in the United States has a Constitution as the background of how we are to operate. And so for a nation to set aside its fundamental laws, and lock us up without due process of law, by golly, it is a concentration camp when you see it in the context of a democracy."
1. For an explanation of terms and euphemisms for the World War II treatment of Japanese Americans, see Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. 8-9.
2. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (1982-83; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 233.
3. Interview with Merle Miller, 1961. From James Hirabayashi, "'Concentration Camp' or '"Relocation Center': What's in a Name?" [ link ]
December 2010 - War Hysteria: Pearl Harbor and the Media
From U.S. Navy propaganda poster, denshopd-i35-00499
This article was originally published by Densho in December 2006.
December 7, 2006 marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For many Japanese Americans, it is a painful reminder of the ease with which constitutional rights gave way to racism and fear. The attack unleashed an unprecedented level of anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the country. Newspapers rushed to print sensational headlines of spying and subversion, while journalists and public officials often made no distinction between Japanese Americans and Imperial Japanese soldiers. This hysteria had very real consequences, not only for the Japanese American community, but for U.S. society as a whole.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 killed or wounded over 3,500 Americans. The attack, then unparalleled in U.S. history, left people frightened and angry. "It is difficult forty years later to recreate the fear and uncertainty about the country's safety which was generally felt after Pearl Harbor; it is equally impossible to convey…the virulence and breadth of anti-Japanese feeling which erupted on the West Coast," stated the 1982 report of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians (CWRIC).1 This anti-Japanese feeling overwhelmed reasonable thinking.
The media perpetuated and in many ways generated this hysteria and fear. Attention-grabbing headlines and the competition to sell papers compromised the media's role of providing objective information. Instead of presenting evidence and well-informed commentary, many news sources supported and, at times, led a public opinion campaign against Japanese Americans. Some journalists claimed there were no differences between U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and the Japanese citizens who attacked Pearl Harbor. Retractions and corrections were rarely printed, so the public believed what they read.
Racist treatment of Japanese Americans in the media began long before Pearl Harbor. The wave of anti-Japanese reporting that arose after Pearl Harbor was based on a history of public fear over Asian immigration and settlement in the U.S. Many of the images and phrases depicted in World War II posters and newspaper editorials had been used for decades, often to justify racist policies against Asian immigrants.
A few lone voices in the media spoke out, urging the public not to punish their Japanese American friends and neighbors for the actions of Japan. The Bainbridge Island Review and its editor, Walt Woodward, published articles throughout the war denouncing the incarceration. The Northwest Enterprise, an African American newspaper in Seattle, also produced a series of editorials in support of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. These perspectives, however, were few and far between. Most mainstream newspapers continued to print articles that were not based on fact and reason.
This racial fear and hysteria, along with desire for economic gain, political opportunism, and a sincere concern for national safety, resulted in a complex mixture of motives that impelled the U.S. government to forcibly remove from the West Coast more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Sixty-five years later, as the country finds itself again grappling with issues of civil liberties and national security, these lessons of the past have never been so relevant. Hopefully, this time, we are paying attention.
1. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. (1982. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), page 67. [ link ]
September 2010 - Real Friends: Standing by the Japanese Americans
Quaker supporter of Japanese Americans, 1944.
"Everywhere there is community feeling to be mended, vicious legislation to be defeated, many urgent jobs calling for attention from real friends of the real America."
Whether through principle or personal attachment, true friends of Japanese Americans did not abandon them after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when in public perception they were suddenly equated with the enemy. Interviews and documents preserved in the Densho digital archive give poignant testimony to the consolation that Japanese Americans felt when schoolmates, neighbors, and customers stood by them in spring 1942 and during their years of incarceration. Less cheering are the stories of long-time acquaintances turning their backs on Japanese American families when they most needed moral and financial support. While there is ample documentation of opportunistic Caucasians taking advantage of a population forced to "evacuate" at a week's notice, Nisei interviewees also remember incidents of selflessness that help offset stories of self-interest.
Because most Nisei were in their teens or early twenties in 1942, many of the recollections Densho captures are told from the perspective of students. Seattle accepted refugees from Europe before war broke out, and at one of the city's junior high schools, Henry Miyatake befriended a boy who had the "most interesting story" of the entire class, shared in an essay read aloud:
Yes, he was asked to read it. And he was telling about the persecution of the Jewish people by the Germans. It was kind of unbelievable at that time because in the newspapers they would cover the stuff in a general form and they weren't talking about the uncivil behavior of the Germans towards the Jews at that time, not in the sense that we know it today. But he stated it very candidly and he told about his own family and how they were able to escape from the system and get to the United States...
He made this paper presentation, I think, October 1941, and this was before the war started. But you know, the war clouds were getting darker. And this thing about the last boat to Japan, it was in the newspaper, it was about that same point of time. He was concerned about whether or not there was going to be war with the United States, with Europe and also in Asia. He felt very comfortable being in the United States. But come the Pearl Harbor Day and the day after when we went to school, he told me all kinds of things are going to happen.
The boy was from a wealthy, educated family that had escaped through a network in England and New York. He tutored Henry in math, and in return Henry helped the boy in shop class. Teachers told the students not to talk about Japanese Americans being taken away, but somehow Henry's friend knew. When the teacher announced, "Tomorrow will be the last day for some of the students here," Henry's friend spoke up:
In the homeroom class, he was emotionally distraught. He stood up and said, "I didn't come to the United States to see this kind of thing happen. I don't know what's happening here, but this is not what I came for." And he made a very impassioned speech. He was very disturbed. But that's the way things were going at that time. He was more perceptive than I was.
When Henry returned to Seattle after leaving camp, he tried to find his friend but was told the family had gone back to New York. Henry remembers their last exchange: "The last day I was there, he did have an envelope for me. He put it into my pocket and said, 'Well, maybe you could use this one of these days.'" What was in the envelope? Henry replies, "Money."
In San Jose, California, Jimi Yamichi's family operated a truck farm. Their best customer for years was the "very, very big" Consolidated Produce company. From 1933 the buyer, Ted Myer, a diminutive man like Jimi's father, purchased the best produce local Nisei farmers could provide. Jimi recalls how Myer and his father would drink and relax together after work was finished, enjoying each other's company despite the language barrier.
December 7th the war broke out, and late in the afternoon Ted Myers came by the house and told us -- he always called my father Yamaichi: "Hey, Yamaichi, I have to go to Los Angeles. My boss is calling me." He never liked to take a train so he drove down there. And Wednesday he came back. He didn't go home. He came directly to our house. We were surprised to see him back, "Back so fast?" He says, "Yamaichi," he leaned on my dad shoulder -- he's about the same height -- he cried. He says, "Yamaichi, they'll put all of you away. The big boss told me to look at all the farmland. 'Get the best farmland you can, and all the equipment, and see what you can buy. We'll buy everything. All these Japanese farmers'll be all gone, so prepare yourself and take inventory of the farms that's available that you think we should buy.'" And after that, Ted Myers was very, very disappointed. He just said he told his boss, "I can't do it." These people were good to him, all these years we were faithful to him.
When the exclusion orders came, the Yamaichis thought about sacrificing the farm and voluntarily moving east, but another family friend, of French descent, offered to oversee their farm while they were gone. Of his own accord, Charles Buron collected rent from tenants, paid the taxes, and reported each month on how much money was in the bank. When the family finally escaped tumultuous years at the Tule Lake, California, incarceration camp, they had the farm to return to.
Densho interviewees report mixed behavior among people they had considered friends before the war. In Fowler, California, Yoshimi Matsuura recalls some who started to use the word "Jap," and were happy to buy the family's tractor at half of its worth after the exclusion orders were posted. In contrast, while Yosh was detained at Gila River, Arizona, he learned that "Ma and Pa Kellogg," his civics and American history teachers, had been driven off of their farm for being too outspokenly supportive of their former Japanese American students.
Another demonstration of principled friendship at a personal cost took place at Bainbridge Island, Washington, where the Army removed the first Japanese American families under the authority of Executive Order 9066 in March 1942. Earl Hanson, who took time off from work to say goodbye to his many Nisei high school friends, remembers how Walt Woodward, editor of The Bainbridge Review, braved islanders' anger when he printed sympathetic reports about their missing Japanese American neighbors. (Woodward served as the model for the protagonist of David Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars.) Hanson says, "Walt Woodward, you've got to pat him on the back because, boy, he stuck up for the people through thick and thin. And a lot of people quit buying the paper, they quit advertising, but he bulldozed his way through." In a letter to the editor, Ichiro Nagatani, on his way to captivity at Manzanar, California, told Woodward, "I really want to try and put across to you how much your friendship has meant to us…You were one person who had faith in us." His letter of thanks is followed by a reader's cancellation notice.
Some Nisei remember friends visiting them behind barbed wire and sending requested items to them in camp. Authorities didn't make it easy for outside communication; strict restrictions applied especially in the early days, and packages were inspected and sometimes confiscated. Paul Bannai, who had overcome discrimination to obtain a job at a bank in Los Angeles, recalls his friends' frustrated attempts to visit him at the Manzanar, California, incarceration camp.
I remember that even though I was in camp, I had a lot of people that were friends outside. When I left the bank and went up there, one of the accounts was a company that had a lot of audio and visual equipment, and because they heard that I couldn't take a radio, they sent me a radio by mail. Well, unfortunately the camp director said he'd have to turn it down. But I had friends like that that would try to help in every way possible to make my life in camp a lot easier because they didn't know what the situation was. They were never allowed to come to Manzanar. They couldn't visit. They couldn't come in. In fact I remember one time that the gate at Manzanar -- they were very strict, nobody was allowed in. And any time that the so-called non-Japanese came to visit, they were not ever allowed into the camp.
While the memories of young adult Nisei resonate with viewers of the oral histories, perhaps even more poignant are artifacts in the Densho collection that preserve the feelings of children caught up in events beyond their understanding. Letters from Nisei students removed from Seattle's Washington Junior High School capture their efforts to remain cheerful, even as their words reveal starkly changed circumstances. A boy named Tokunari, held at the Puyallup Assembly Center on the Washington State Fairgrounds, writes to his teacher and past classmates: "We have one room shared among 7 pupils and the walls are full of holes and cracks in which cold and chill air struck us in a funny way that I could not sleep at all last night. We had so little to eat that after reaching our room I ate a sandwitch and some crackers. Our beds are on loose by the U.S. Army and our mattress is a cloth bag strawed by hay." He signs the letter, "your Seattle evacuee."
A girl named Mary, also at Puyallup, adds a postscript in a letter to her former teacher, "P.S. Please write to me, and the class also because it is lonely here." In answer to her classmates' questions she says, "We wait in long lines for our meals" and concludes, "The lights must go off at ten o'clock so I must stop." Mary doesn't add that when the barracks lights go off, sweeping searchlights go on. She finishes another letter, "When I'm not doing anything I think about Washington School and the children in it. Thank you for the letter and jokes. They gave me a good big laugh." She signs the letter "(who was) Your classmate, Mary."
As a young boy, Emery Brooks Andrews visited his Japanese American friends at the Minidoka, Idaho, incarceration camp. His father, Reverend Emery Andrews of the Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle, moved his family to nearby Hunt, Idaho, and braved insults and threats of the locals for his decision to minister to his displaced congregation. Japanese Americans fondly remember how Reverend Andrews drove back and forth from Seattle to see to their affairs and bring them belongings left behind. Brooks remembers seeing his friends' new surroundings during what was "a fracturing time" for everyone: "I have vivid memories of driving up the road to the guardhouse, to the gate there and seeing the barbed wire fence stretching, it seemed like for miles around the camp. And the guard towers, soldiers in the guard towers with guns, always pointing in toward the camp, never out."
One group of friends in name as well as deed figures prominently in the story of the Japanese American incarceration. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, adhered to their pacifist and humanitarian beliefs as they firmly opposed the forced removal and detention. Densho interviewees remember receiving Christmas presents donated by Quakers, learning about their constitutional rights from Quaker teachers in the camps, and staying in Quaker-run hostels after leaving confinement. Friends committees sponsored Nisei out of the camps and into colleges, and they helped former detainees find scarce jobs after allaying the fears of hostile communities.
Floyd Schmoe, a Quaker from Seattle (pictured in photograph at head of article), was an ardent advocate for Japanese Americans before, during, and after the war. He traveled to Hiroshima to help build housing for the atomic bomb victims, and assisted the redress campaign in the 1980s. Upon obtaining files compiled by the FBI, Schmoe learned that the government had contemplated filing charges against him but declined. Someone with a blacked-out name had called him "a yellowbellied Jap lover, " apparently deemed insufficient evidence for arrest.
The Quakers launched letter-writing campaigns to push for the release and resettlement of incarcerated Japanese Americans. A report from one Quaker committee, the Friends of the American Way, reveals that these were friends not just of individuals unfairly imprisoned, but also of the democratic principles that should have protected them:
Everywhere there is community feeling to be mended, vicious legislation to be defeated, many urgent jobs calling for attention from real friends of the real America. What is your community doing?
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August 2010 - Pioneer Generation: Remembering the Issei
Issei couple, Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho, 1943.
"They were early pioneers. And especially on farms it was very difficult for them."
The stories Nisei interviewees tell about their parents form a pattern: Fathers left the villages and rice farms of Japan at the turn of the last century to earn money in Hawaii and mainland United States. Some still in their teens, they took grueling jobs at farms, lumber mills, railroad camps, and fishing canneries; others worked as houseboys. Once they earned enough money, the men returned to Japan to find a bride or sent for a picture bride. Babies arrived, and the Issei built churches and Japanese language schools to educate the next generation. They formed business associations to support each other in an inhospitable country. They turned undesirable land into flourishing farms by working dawn to dusk, and even into the night. While many decided to make America their permanent home, others expected to return to Japan. As Ike Ikeda says, "I had a feeling that, like many immigrants, they were ready to make their mint. They thought they would really get rich in a hurry and go back. But that never happened." What happened to the Issei instead in the 1940s no one could have anticipated.
Because Densho began collecting oral histories after most of the Issei generation had passed on, the stories we have of them come secondhand through Nisei memories. Fortunately, the family stories shared by many Nisei are vivid--fond and respectful as well. Interviewees speak of how hard their parents worked, and how they instilled in their children the values of integrity, tradition, and family honor.
Kara Kondo describes life in Yakima Valley in Washington:
A lot of the Issei lives were the same in that we were a self-contained community. We were able to maintain our Japanese foods and customs, and on New Year's Day they had mochitsuki and the same kind of customs that they were used to. But it was a very difficult life, and I have a lot of memories about living out in the country and having wild horses come into our land and having to chase them out and having the sheep coming in to graze on the last bits of alfalfa in the fall. These are memories that you have. And very often we could hear the coyotes at night and often see them around the haystack...
Of course, and we realized that life was hard for all the Issei, or anybody, regardless of whether they were Caucasian, because they were pioneers in the Yakima valley. They were early pioneers. And especially on farms it was very difficult for them.
Among the obstacles and discrimination the Issei faced, alien land laws prevented Asian immigrants from owning land. Kara's parents and thousands of other Issei farmers had to combine diligence and resourcefulness to turn a profit. In her case, the family leased reservation land from the Yakama Indian Nation. Along with other Issei pioneer famers, they cleared the land and planted new types of crops in the valley.
It was very difficult just to clear a land out of sagebrush with just horses and manpower. That's one of the reasons why they had small parcels of land, which led them to farming, crops that would produce more income from small acreages. That's when they introduced such products as the row crops of tomatoes and corn, and peppers and cantaloupes and the melons. They introduced these small crops that grew very well in the climate and the soil conditions on the reservation…At that time they did not go into orchards or trees because that required some permanence, and the Japanese farmers depended on leases. They would move from one parcel of land to another depending on, I imagine, the lease agreements and the kind of soil that they were seeking. So, in many ways, they pioneered different crops for the lower valley.
While farming supported a majority of Japanese Americans, many Issei owned small businesses that served the Japantowns of the West Coast. Densho interviewees describe living upstairs from a small grocery store, barbershop, photo studio, or five-and-dime store. Katsumi Okamoto says his family ate well because they ran a grocery store (also leased), and he remembers delivering groceries to a dentist in return for dental care. His father did well even during the Depression but lost the business when World War II started: "He seemed to have done very well, but his problem was he let people charge, and I wonder, I heard that he never collected on a lot of the bills. And once the war started, that was it. He lost a lot of money, but he was a very gentle-hearted person that helped people out."
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The years devoted to building up successful farms and businesses went up in smoke after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Within hours of the attack, FBI agents swooped down on Japanese American communities and arrested thousands of Issei men whose names had been compiled years earlier as potentially "dangerous" aliens. Fathers who happened to be business leaders, Buddhist priests, Japanese language teachers, or influential in some other way were separated from their wives and children. Suddenly they were treated like criminals. Many were held for years in Department of Justice internment camps while their families were confined in War Relocation Authority camps. Once-proud Issei men eventually rejoined their families, but robbed of their authority and self-respect.
More fortunate Issei men arrested after Pearl Harbor escaped the separate confinement. Sisters Ayako and Masako Murakami, who ran the Higo Variety Store in Seattle, explain that their father always said, "America is my father, and Japan is my mother. They had to be on good terms." When he was taken to the immigration station for questioning, their father answered cleverly:
He was stuck at immigration for a while, but they released him. They questioned him, and Papa was telling us the kind of questions they asked. They came right out and said, "Who do you want to win the war, Japan or America?" And most of the Japanese gentlemen said America, but my dad says, "Neither." I said, oh you said that? He said, "Neither." He says couples fight like husband and wife, and says, "I don't want either one to win, or lose." And so they released him. I said, "Papa, you're really smart." I never thought of it that way, you know.
Some Nisei interviewees report that their parents believed Japan would win the war, and even at the very end believed that Japan would never surrender. Yet they encouraged their Nisei children to be loyal to their country of birth and citizenship. Other Issei had become more attached to America as the years went by, even though they were not permitted to become U.S. citizens. Paul Bannai recalls, "I remember when the war started, they emphasized the fact that they had been here for many years. I was born and raised here. I should think in terms of being a good American and serving this country, because there's no other country that I owe any allegiance to. "
In addition to depriving the Issei of their farms and businesses, the forced removal and incarceration permanently damaged their status as heads of households and communities. Camp administrators favored the English-speaking Nisei, placed them in positions of authority, and forbade the Issei from voting or holding office in what passed for self-government in the camps. Overnight, generational roles changed.
May Sasaki remembers the idle old men at Minidoka, Idaho, incarceration camp:
They were the heads of families, and then they found themselves not the heads of families anymore. I think that was very difficult for them to accept. So there were times when there was tension and they were fighting--all the things that occur when the leadership is being challenged in one's family. That's too bad because the self-confidence, the feeling of pride in being the head of a family, when that is taken away from you, we found some Isseis that weren't ever able to get back that same feeling of what it is to be the head of one's family. I felt sorry about that. You'd see some of the older gentlemen kind of sitting there. They would pick up and do things like play go or hana or whittle or make things...
I know people like to joke and say, "Well, I had more free time on my hands so I like that," and everything. But I really think if they were to be given a choice as to whether to go to camp and get that forced retirement or stay out of camp and have their freedom and have their leadership and their sense of pride and self-confidence, I'm sure they would never have said that. But I think it's a matter of... what is it? It's a denial which then lets you survive a situation and just laugh it off and say, hmmm. It's like when you get hit doing something foolish, you say, "Oh, it didn't hurt me anyway." Well, it did hurt, and you could see it in some of the ways they were not able to ever regain a sense of who they were. And that was kind of a sad situation.
The Issei women also lost their hopes for prosperity and self-determination. Sue Embrey, incarcerated at Manzanar, California, recalls her widowed mother's time at the camp. After a lifetime of endless work, some Issei could enjoy the enforced leisure, but Sue's mother had her sorrows too:
I think she got arthritis, because her whole left side, she was unable to move her arms, and we ordered dresses from the catalogs, Montgomery Ward and Sears, that had buttons all the way down the front so we could get her dressed. But she used to walk a lot around camp, and she took part in what they called utae, which is a capella singing, telling a story. She loved to sing, so she got involved with that. And later on she went to Red Cross classes where they rolled bandages for the army. I think for her it was probably a good time, but she never talked about the fact that we lost our grocery store that she had bought after my father died. She always said it was better to be in business for yourself. And so here she was, left a widow with eight kids, and so she cashed in her insurance policy, and bought this little grocery store outside of Little Tokyo, and she really enjoyed being a businesswoman. Then when we lost that, it was a little over a year, year and a half maybe, after she bought it that she lost it, she never mentioned it. But I think it really kind of killed her dream of becoming an independent woman. And we sold it to a young Mexican American couple, and they took care of it for a while. But she never really was able to get back into doing anything like that. I think that she probably was very disappointed about that, but she never, like I said, never mentioned it.
A frequent refrain of the Nisei is to lament that the Issei generation had been the most harmed by the incarceration, and yet so few lived to see redress arrive. So many had died before they could receive the much-deserved presidential apology for their wrongful imprisonment. After money was appropriated to fulfill the promised $20,000 to each survivor of the incarceration camps, the checks went to the oldest first. Photos from 1990 of checks being handed to Issei elders drive home how much time had passed since the camps closed before the injustice was acknowledged.
The Nisei take consolation in knowing that their parents' Japanese culture helped them cope with the indignities of racism and the losses of incarceration. It may be hard for younger generations raised in the post-Civil Rights era to understand, but the common memory is of Issei parents saying shikata ga nai, "it can't be helped, it must be endured"--a passive expression, but spoken by a generation that was anything but weak.
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