Memories of Japanese American incarceration & its legacies

How did you first learn about Japanese American incarceration? Maybe there was a short paragraph dedicated to “internment” in your high school American history textbook. Perhaps you read Farewell to Manzanar in middle school. Maybe you are a descendant of a survivor and grew up surrounded by stories about “camp.” Perhaps you have a camp story of your own. Maybe you are entirely unfamiliar with these kinds of stories. Wherever you might find yourself on the spectrum of familiarity, the histories of Japanese American incarceration tend to remain just one example of state-perpetrated racialized violence too often glossed over in U.S. history classes and textbooks.  

Heart Mountain Relocation Center at night, c. 1943.
Photo courtesy of Erin Aoyama, from the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation archives, Yoshio Okumoto Collection.
Exhibit title art, above, by Naya Lee Chang ’24.

As the final project for an introductory undergraduate American Studies course called “Japanese American Incarceration: Past & Present Encounters with the Racial State,” students conducted oral history interviews with ten Japanese American elders, most of whom were incarcerated as children during World War II.

The aim of the project was twofold – to dive deeper into learning about the histories and legacies of Japanese American incarceration at the level of the individual and the quotidian, and to preserve more of these stories. While these stories represent pieces of the lives of just ten of the more than 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who experienced forced removal and incarceration during World War II, we hope they serve as a window into the moments of joy, the pain of loss, and the ongoing layers of silence that shape this particular moment of history. 

This exhibit is our way of sharing some of these stories and memories with a broader public, to express a narrative of Japanese American history that is richer and more complex than what you might find in a textbook.

“At the memorial to Japanese American Patriotism during World War II,” November 2000. Courtesy of the Kinoshita Collection, Densho

Finally, we hope this exhibit is also an invitation into oral history as a method for expressing history. At the end of the exhibit, we share some of our class reflections on the practice of oral history as well as the app, called Saga, that we used to record most of our elders’ oral histories. We invite you to think about how you might incorporate oral history in your own life.

What would it mean to tell your own story? To record and preserve some of the stories of your family or community, especially in this time of social isolation and ongoing pandemic? If we think about history as a collection of stories, how might you contribute to the historical record?

Original War Relocation Authority caption: “San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first San Francisco section to be effected by the evacuation.” Photo by Dorothea Lange, April 11, 1942. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A brief note on historical context

Most histories of Japanese American incarceration begin with the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan on December 7, 1941 and end with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an official government apology and payments of $20,000 to living survivors of the incarceration. However, to understand the full scope of Japanese American incarceration history and its place within U.S. history, we must extend the timeline at both ends

Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant to the U.S.) mother with three nisei (second generation, born in the U.S.) sons in Hawai’i, c. 1924.
Courtesy of the Aoyama family

When Japanese immigrants began arriving in the U.S. in larger numbers around the turn of the 20th century, they entered an environment that was already incredibly anti-Asian, as evidenced by rampant racist violence targeting Chinatowns in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Rock Springs, WY and by measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

By the time President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, Japanese immigrants in the United States had, for decades, been limited in where and how they could live and denied access to citizenship, in addition to facing discrimination as individuals and families throughout daily life.

And the afterlives of incarceration extend beyond the closure offered by redress – as evidenced, we hope, by this very exhibit. What does it look like to reckon with the history of Japanese American incarceration not as an exceptional moment of wartime hysteria, but as one example of an American tradition of racialized exclusion and incarceration in the service of white supremacy? We invite you to ponder this question with us as you explore this exhibit.

“Concentration Constellation,” a poem by Lawson Fusao Inada, published in Legends from Camp (1993)

Reading by Lawson Fusao Inada, animation by Yuka Murakami and Evan Kodani for the Opening Ceremony of “Tadaima: A Community Virtual Pilgrimage” (2020). Video courtesy of Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages and Minidoka National Historic Site.
Words to the poem here.

Our Narrators

Click on a narrator’s name to jump to their oral history.

While we have curated clips for this exhibit, please know that several of our narrators touch on varying themes of trauma, isolation, depression, death, and experiences of sexualization in the workplace. We believe that these themes, while difficult, are important to reckon with as part of the historical work we seek to do here, but we encourage you to approach each story with a sense of care for all involved, yourself included.

Adeline Manzo, incarcerated at Tule Lake at age 7
Alice Hikido, incarcerated at Minidoka at age 9
Amy Niwa, incarcerated at Rohwer as a child
Bacon Sakatani, incarcerated at Heart Mountain at age 13
Fujiko Tamura Gardner, incarcerated at Minidoka at age 10
Hideko Graves, living in Nebraska when the U.S. entered WWII
Mary & Joe Abo
Mary was incarcerated at Minidoka at age 2, Joe was incarcerated at Tule Lake at age 2
Naomi Oshita, incarcerated at Heart Mountain as a child
Reiko Nakano, incarcerated at Heart Mountain as a child
Sam Mihara, incarcerated at Heart Mountain at age 9

Adeline Manzo

Photo courtesy of Adeline Manzo

Adeline Manzo, born March 23rd, 1935, currently resides in Monterey Park, California with her husband. She was one of four children, born to Japanese parents in East Los Angeles. At the age of 7, Adeline and her family, including her newborn baby brother, were removed from their home and interned at the Tule Lake Concentration Camp until the facility closed in 1946. In this interview, Adeline recounts stories of her childhood at camp, both joyful and sobering, while addressing themes of family, memory, and sharing of knowledge.

By Amelia Chalfant ’23

Adeline: We didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the thing. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why we were being pulled out of school. And why we were packing up. Nothing was explained to us. My parents didn’t talk a lot to us. They didn’t explain anything. We thought it was a game.

Amelia: Wow, yeah. And when would you say you like started to kind of figure out like, when do you feel like you got the context for what had happened? Like was that while you were at camp, or was that not till afterwards?

Adeline: It was while I was at camp, probably like when I was eight years old. And I began to realize, that you know, the soldiers marching around us, and the guard tower and the rifles. And they were aiming the rifles at us. It was not being aimed outside of the camp, it was inside the camp. And they were not friendly to us. They hated us. As a matter of fact.
Adeline: And then we found shells. Because there was a lake up there. And we gathered enough they came to our knees. That’s how much shells there were. And they were all beautiful. They were perfectly white. They’re white from the sun. And we brought them back to our barracks. And we used nail polish to polish them with red, or pink. And we used to make lapel pins like flowers. And we left them all behind whatever we made; we could not bring them back with us because we had so much stuff going home.
Collected shells.
Photo courtesy of Adeline Manzo
Adeline: There were seven buses lined up along the sidewalk on the street. And I just got on to one of the buses. I don’t know which bus it was. But I found an empty seat and I asked Mary if I could sit here, she said yes. So, I sat there. We didn’t know each other. And she began telling me about her family and her father had died in camp and I swear my heart jumped up to my mouth when I heard that because I was thinking, maybe that was the man that I saw. And anyway, it was a miracle that we met on this weekend because I heard about the story from my brother-in-law. And he said, there’s a woman here who, who wants to know more about her father’s death. How he died, how he was up there on the barrack, what had happened was, it was not actually a barrack. It was a corridor. And I didn’t know it was a corridor at the time. Even as I was writing this story, I thought it was a barrack, but it was a corridor. And they had made corridors for us, for us to go from one building to another because it was freezing cold outside. But it was that corridor that caught on fire. And I didn’t know at the time that the corridor caught on fire and doused it down and this man had, had come from nowhere. And he climbed up onto this corridor. And it just collapsed. The whole building fell down. And I could still see it, how it felt, and it fell on top of him. And I could see his green pants and black shoes. And we tried to keep looking out the window, but the teacher came by and pulled the shades down so we couldn’t see. As she went back to the classroom, and she just started her lessons like nothing happened. Couldn’t believe that that lady would do that? 

Amelia: Did you end up keeping in touch with Mary after that weekend?

Adeline: Yes. And then I, she’s from Sacramento, and she asked her to come down to meet her family. And so, I went to Sacramento and I met her family, her children, I didn’t meet her husband. I think he was he was busy doing something. Anyway. They all welcomed me like I was their long lost relative. But Mary must have told him about how we met and in our story. And we connected through this story about her father.
Original WRA caption: Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California. Recess in grade school.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Adeline: But my sister when she was 12 years old, she wrote a letter to the government telling them that we are moving out of Tule Lake.  We have no income, our father’s sick. Could you help us? I don’t know how she wrote this letter. But she, she wrote in her 12-year-old English. And they responded saying that they will send us a check. Every month.
Amelia: More broadly, is there anything else you remember feeling about returning to Tule Lake?

Adeline: No, it felt like a dream that I was going back to that area. Of course, all the barracks were down. Nothing was left for for people like us to see, and nothing but sagebrush. And things that roll around in the, in the dust. We did have a grave, a cemetery. But we had to take a bus to go see it. It was outside of the camp. And there was the number of people that died in camp and they, their bodies still remain there. They were never entered. And babies too.
View of Tule Lake Monument, August 2017.
Photo courtesy of Erin Aoyama
Adeline: Well, Trump is something else. Poor people. I don’t know what’s happening to the children. But I think they’re still caged up in cages, as I understand, and they’re not going to be let out because they can’t find the parents. But I don’t think the United States is doing that much to help them because they’re kids. They don’t care about kids. As a matter of fact, they don’t care about anybody else. Poor people I really feel for them and know what they’re going through.

Return to Narrators

Alice Hikido

Alice Hikido from The Empty Chair (2014)

Alice Tanaka Hikido was born and raised in the tight-knit town of Juneau, Alaska. Although the Tanaka family was one of few Japanese American families in Juneau, they were well-respected within the community. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Alice was nine years old, the FBI arrested her father. He would eventually be taken to a Justice Department camp in Santa Fe where he remained separated from the family.

A few months later, Alice and the rest of her family were forced to leave Juneau to be incarcerated in Minidoka, which became Alice’s home for years, as she attended school and played with other girls in her free time. These were some of the first interactions Alice had with other Japanese American children, finding comfort in this shared situation. Alice’s father was reunited with the family in Minidoka in 1944, which Alice notes as the highlight of her camp experience. In October 1945, the Tanaka family was finally able to leave camp. Back home in Juneau, Alice faced difficulty in adapting socially because she returned at the beginning of her teenage years, an uncertain stage in life when she felt lonely and unsure of her identity. She was eventually able to establish friendships, now reflecting on that readjustment as an experience that made her more resilient. Alice currently resides in Campbell, California where she is involved with the San Jose Nikkei Resisters, an activist organization that mobilizes Japanese Americans to take action for contemporary social justice issues. 

By Grace Xiao ’24

Alice: I remember one teacher, especially; I don’t remember the other—I must’ve had three different teachers, but I only remember one teacher, Ms. Erickson. I remember her name yet in fact. And I remember her as being a, you know, a conscientious teacher. And I thought of her as being— oh yeah, there was another teacher, my little thing is opening up in my mind, a Ms. Smith, yeah. But Ms. Erickson, I thought she had a care and concern for us, and I think she was an adequate teacher. I think for the most part—you know, they were—the education was adequate because when I came back, I didn’t feel as though I was too far behind my class when I came back in the 8th grade. I felt as though I was deficient in math when I came back, but my reading skills and such, I didn’t feel as though I was struggling when I came back. And so I feel as though they must’ve been adequate. And Ms. Erickson, I remember her fondly because she read to us, and that’s one thing we looked forward to each day, I remember was—our treat was, you know, she would read a chapter from—I remember the book—the book that really stands out in my mind is the book Lassie Come Home—the book Lassie Come Home—and she would read to us chapter by chapter. I think she read other books too because later on, a few, maybe about 15 years ago, I met someone here at our local church who just by coincidence was in my same class. I didn’t remember him, but as we were conversing when he joined our church— he came from back East, but he was originally from Seattle, and we were just chatting, and I said, “Oh Joe, you must’ve been in Minidoka.”
And he said, “Yeah I was in Minidoka.”
And I said, “Oh how old are you?,” because I thought, gee, he looked like he was about my age, and he said how old he was, and he was exactly my age, so I said, “Well what block did you live in?” 
And he says, “Oh I lived in block four,” which was the next block because they went by on this one side there would be the even numbered block and the other side would be the odd, so I said, “Oh you were in the next block, so you must’ve been—we must’ve been in the same classroom,” because he was so near my block.
And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “Well, who was your teacher?”
And he said, “Ms. Erickson.”
“Yeah, well, so was my teacher, Ms. Erickson.” I said, “Do you remember her reading Lassie Come Home?” 
And he said he did, and then he said to me, “Do you remember her reading The Hardy Boys—the adventures of The Hardy Boys?”
Well I didn’t remember The Hardy Boys, but I could imagine that she probably did read them, and he said that he corresponded with Ms. Erickson after he left camp which I thought was—on his part and on her part—he said he corresponded with her for a number of years and into his adulthood, he said. And that just goes to show you the quality of some of these people that did come into the camp to take jobs inside the internment camp. I’m sure there were others, maybe, that were not as memorable as Ms. Erickson, but I like to lift up that story because I think she did have heart for all the students.
An elementary school class at Minidoka
Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 210-CMB-V1-1721
Grace: Did your parents ever really talk about incarceration with you after the experience?

Alice: I don’t remember them really bringing it up, you know? I mean, you know, I don’t think. We were—my parents’ first language was naturally Japanese, and my first language is English, and so, you know, I spoke a little—I could speak a little bit of broken Japanese, and they could speak a little bit of broken English, so our communication skills were not really great to be able to express maybe real feelings or, you know, how do you say—well, limited communication anyway, you know. And so I don’t remember having conversations with my mother about how I might’ve felt as a child or how fearful I was or, you know, even how did it feel like to be Japanese during that particular time of history. But I do remember once when I came home from college, and I would come home for the summers, and the evening, my father was almost partially retired by that time I think, but I remember once saying to—and he was more conversant of a person, and his English skills were stronger too—and I remember saying to him, “How did you feel about—,” because he—when he came back after the war, he had to start all over again. 
He had invested a lot of his savings in a Japanese bank, and naturally the yen—the value of the yen just had gone to be worthless almost. Anyways, so when we came back it was like he was 65 years old, and he had to start all over again. Still had a young family because he married late in life, you know. But I said to him, “Papa, how did you feel about losing all your savings and everything and having to start all over again?,” and I might’ve mention this—Karleen might’ve even mentioned this conversation in her book. 
But I remember my father saying, you know, “We’re so fortunate,” he said because many families on both sides of the war lost people—you know, lost people and their homes and the war, and we came back. 
John, my brother John, was not injured or was not a casualty, and nobody in our family lost our lives, and we were able to come back home. He said he felt very fortunate about that, and then as far as the fortunes, you know, his savings, and everything, we were talking in the kitchen, and our kitchen window faced the west, and then at just about that time the sun was setting, and it was just this pretty beautiful sunset, and then he turned, and he said, “Now what rich man can see a sunset like that?”
And I always—that’s a memory I have of my father because that—I think that shows his perspective on life and how he tried to see positive in a situation that, you know, could really pull a person down, and he never—and he worked so hard after we came back too. And, yeah, so anyways, yeah, he was never bitter about the war, about being in camp—I mean he never expressed it. But, you know, I think he always felt though, before the war—I think he always felt that Japan was his homeland. I think if you’re an immigrant sometimes you might have this kind of feeling because after all this is where you were born, this is where your childhood was, and this is where, maybe, your parents still are, your parents are still buried, you know. I think after the war and the option of Japan and the fact that he had a son that was in the service for this country—I think, you know, psychologically he moved from that sense of homeland of Japan, and I think he acknowledged that really America was his country. And before the war, the Japanese could never be granted citizenship. There was a law that prevented it, but then that was overturned after the war and so he applied for citizenship, and he became a citizen before he passed away. So, yeah, I don’t, you know, I think he just—I think he was just so thankful that we just came out of the experience, you know, together—that nobody was lost—that he still had a way to make a livelihood. He worked really hard, but he made a livelihood after the war. It was a short period before he came—he passed away ten years later. But in those ten years he was able to establish his business again, and his old customers came back, which really gratified him.
The Minidoka library during leave hearings
Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 210-CMA-R-1a
Grace: Can you tell me a little bit about, maybe, like your readjustment back to school, maybe?

Alice: Well, let me see, I think a lot of it, you know—I think the fact that, you know, you come back—I came back when I was in middle—I was in middle school. I was preteens; I was thirteen. I think that’s a difficult period in a person’s life anyway. I mean my thinking of it is that way. I may be wrong about that, but you know you’re really adjusting from being a kid to moving on to a different stage of your life, and children at that age are maturing at different levels, so it’s kind of like a little bit of a—how do you say—it’s kind of an unsettling stage I think, and so that was where I was kind of came back into that period. I think if I came back as maybe as a young adult, or as maybe even a younger child, it would be completely different. But I really felt that coming back at that stage where you’re not really sure of yourself as a person either—I mean I think of myself in that period of being preteen and teenage, I was, you know, not really—I was uncertain of myself and probably felt in some ways a little bit inferior, you know, and so I think to myself—I think it was a difficult, difficult period. And I didn’t have too much support from my parents because they had so much to deal with, and I think they probably thought of me as a person old enough to kind of deal with it anyway by myself, so there was no way that I could really look for comfort I think to my mother. I don’t think she would have any kind of energy at that time to think about that, and she probably thought I was capable enough to deal with it, you know, and so I don’t mean to prolong these things, but I look back on that time as being a kind of like really lonely time for myself. But, you know, there’s a certain resiliency in the human spirit, I guess, because I was able to get over it, and then I went into high school the following year, and of course in high school, you’re kind of in the low end of the totem pole anyway. You’re a freshman, right, but everybody else is in that same kind of situation with you, and so it seemed like it was a little bit easier, and then each year I got—then I established friendships—secure friendships—along the way, and then, you know, I think just the matter of maturation, you know, so yeah. But I think that coming back when I was in 8th grade though, it was a painful year for me. I don’t think I was ever as lonely as I was in that particular year. And so I kind of like identify with some of these adolescent people who sometimes struggle with their identity and things like that because I can have memories of that. But then, you know, your life goes on, and for the most part, you’re fortunate if life gets better. [laughing]
Grace: After you had children, how did they—how did your sons learn about incarceration? Was it something you told them about, or did they learn it in school?

Alice: You know, I don’t think we talked about it very much. In fact that’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think many of the internees talked about the incarceration. I don’t think I ever brought it up with the boys, but then when the boys were about—they weren’t in grade school yet I think—anyways, there was an exhibit that came to San Francisco by one of the photographers that—she’s a well-known photographer, but I can’t think of her name right now, but she was also hired by the government to take—to photograph and to document the internment. And they had an exhibit that came to San Francisco, and I told my husband, Kats, I said, “Let’s go.”
I was curious to see it anyway, and I said, “Let’s take the boys with us because this is our experience too, and they should know about our experience.” 
And so I remember we took them. I don’t know how much—they were pretty young, and I don’t know how much they, you know, can really take in. If they were a little bit older, I think they would’ve maybe been able to understand the impact of it all, but I do remember my own feeling that this was kind of like my first exposure to the camp experience up close because I don’t think we even talked much about it even among ourselves to be honest. And I could remember looking at these pictures and feeling as though, oh, I just need to get out of this building. I could feel this strange emotion kind of welling up inside of me, and it was such a strange feeling, but that made me realize that there was a certain trauma that I probably had pushed down and buried about the experience. And then as far as the kids, I mean, since that time into their adulthood there has been a lot more publicity about civil rights and social injustice that they are, you know, they are quite interested, and, you know, there’s been a lot of—how do you say—push in the Japanese community here locally and in a lot of Japanese American communities on the West Coast about history not repeating itself, and so I think there’s a lot more—how do you say—social justice consciousness among Japanese Americans right now, which is good because I think for a long time we were considered like the silent, you know, the silent minority.
“A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution,” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Photo courtesy of the Kinoshita Collection
Grace: Erin mentioned to me that you’re involved with an activist organization called the San Jose Nikkei Resisters. Can you tell me a little bit more about that organization and your experiences with the organization?

Alice: Well, you know, I—San Jose Resisters was started by two of the people, Susan Hayase and Tom Izu, who were part of that group. They are now about maybe in their mid-60s I think, so they were younger at the time, right, and they were part of the core group that pushed for reparations for the Japanese Americans. Anyway, they formed San Jose Resisters because they saw a need for civil rights and the way things were going, you know, in our country. And it just so happened that Susan came to speak at our church a couple years ago maybe—maybe it’s a little bit more than that—and she was calling for an activism within the Japanese American community. And at that time, it wasn’t so much about Black Lives Matter, but more about the situation at the southern border. And so, anyway, after I listened to her talk, I thought, well, you know, yeah, I really wanted to give support to them and felt as though they had—that our generation could step forward also. And so since that time, yeah, I’ve been I guess you could say active, but the real energy is really coming from the younger people in this organization, which I’m really pleased about.
Members of the San Jose Nikkei Resisters standing with posters saying “Nikkei for Black Lives” in 2020
Photo courtesy of San Jose Nikkei Resisters
Alice: I went to two pilgrimages. The last one was maybe about six years ago; I kind of lost track of time. And that is the National Parks Association—National Parks—is it called Association? But anyway, they have jurisdiction over it, you know. It’s become a site to educate, and that is all made possible because of the reparation act, and some of the money for the reparation—the redress and reparation—was for forming these sites so that the history would not be lost, so yeah. When I went back, it was a bit of an emotional thing for me. I mean, it’s like you’re kind of—it’s kind of like memories coming out that you have kind of pushed down a little bit, and you’re not sure if you want these memories to come back or not, you know? But at the same time, it was a bit of a healing thing for me, I think especially more so for people who are a little bit older than I; I was still a child really.
Minidoka Pilgrimage 2019. A tour group is seen huddling around the Minidoka Relocation Center Honor Roll, a list of names commemorating those who served in the military.
Photo by Kayla Isomura.

Return to Narrators

Amy Niwa

Amy, on left, with her sister, Jean. Photo courtesy of Amy Niwa

Amy Niwa, now a retired high school science teacher, talks about her life and her family through incarceration and beyond. Being in camp as a young child colored her view of what incarceration meant. To her, camp was a relatively happy place with stories of her dad’s creativity and her own search for entertainment.

One of her stories, about searching for Arkansas diamonds in camp at Rohwer, is a reminder of how daily life both continued and changed for people who were incarcerated. Amy goes through her childhood and adolescence with a fondness and thoughtfulness about her experiences moving from Los Angeles to Chicago. She recalls small moments that could have been lost in the shuffle of remembering. Notably, Amy talks a lot about her parents and siblings through her own stories, highlighting their family dynamic, and helping to create a whole image of her life. From explaining the extraordinary story of her father’s immigration to America to her mother’s relationship to both the United States and Japan, Amy reveals a lot about how her own identity came to be formed. Her kindness is palpable as she talks about difficult experiences she and her family have had. Her story is a remarkable account of generosity and persistence.

By Julianne Schwerdtfeger ’24

Amy: When we were in camp, my father, my father worked in the mess hall. And he also looked after the dogs, these dogs running around. And, and he, you know, he used to sneak out of the camp, go down to the river. And he would bring back a turtle and make turtle soup. It’s something that, you know, was not on the menu. But he made it Japanese. And I don’t know how, you know, I guess he learned something like that in Japan, I have no idea. But I remember he used to do things like that. 

When we first went to camp, we were on this train, right. And I remember seeing pictures of the black people in the field picking cotton. I saw a picture of that, when I was a kid someplace. I don’t know if it was a library, whatever. And that’s what we saw when we first got there on the train. We saw these people in the field, picking cotton. It was really something. I thought, Wow, it’s just like a picture. 

Anyway, so when we’re in camp, and you know, the parents are getting everything settled. And the kids are just, you know, here and there. And my father is telling me you see the roads that are all made just for the camps, they dug up all these areas, and they have roads, and he says, You grew up there and you sit by the road, and you look for the Arkansas diamonds. And I said oh, and he said, You know they’re gonna look like, like glass, but maybe glass that’s worn down. And, and I would sit by the road and I pick up these rocks that I thought were pretty – I don’t think they were Arkansas diamonds, but they were probably rock crystals. And then there was a guy in, in our block, who did lapidary. So when I, when I got these rocks that I thought were pretty nice. My father had this guy polish them. And that was really good because when we, when we moved from the north and the south, we moved from where we were on Elm Street to Larrabee street up north. Then the people who lived in the basement where we eventually settled. That was, that was something that my father decided to give them. Not all of them, but you know, some of them because they were, they’re very nice, they’re cabochons, that that they could, you know, sit in a ring or whatever. And so I thought I found them. Why are you giving them away? Yeah, it was okay. Because it was something that he said, You know, they were nice enough to let us have that apartment or the basement apartment. And so that was that was okay. 

But, but my father, I don’t know how he did it. But he made these Japanese instruments called the biwa. It’s it’s not like a guitar. But it it anyway, it’s, you could probably look it up and you’ll see what it looks like. The area where we were, there were a lot of cypress trees. And so I don’t know if he used the cypress tree or some other tree. But he made two of these biwas with the bone that he got from the mess hall. He was able to carve different designs to inset, you know, to put the design into these instruments. I don’t know how he did it, but 

Julianne: Quite resourceful!

Amy: Yeah, really. And, and then my mother took a drafting class. So when, when we left the camps and we were in Chicago, she was able to get some jobs. There were some shops at the Palmer house since my father was working there. Some people there that had these really fancy dresses for children, for the rich people. Anyway, she was able to get a job there. And so she used to sell these dresses. And, and then when we were there in Chicago, she, she was able to make, like, coats for me and for my brothers and it was really something else, we were, we were really lucky.
Caption on reverse: “Rohwer, Arkansas / Coal & old wood for cooking in mess hall.”
Courtesy of the Takasugi Family Collection
Original caption: Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. Lawns and flowers have been planted by some of the evacuees at their barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
I never got what you ended up being after …

I ended up being a goofy old lady. No, I finished at the U of I in biology teacher training.

Oh, you did.

Uh-huh (affirmative). I went to the U of I, and that’s what I majored in. When I finished, since my family was out here, I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just go back to Los Angeles.

There was a recruiter from LAUSD interviewing people for teaching jobs in Los Angeles. That was interesting. I went, and it was at the Steven’s Hotel. I interviewed with him, and he said, “I think I’ll take a chance on you because my secretary is Japanese.” I said, “Oh, thanks a lot.”

Then I had a job and then I had to choose which areas I wanted to work in. I chose the area where my father was working at Gelson’s. He was working in the Valley, so I thought, “I’ll put the Valley down.” But I didn’t realize how far it was to Tujunga where the school was. I thought when he drove me there to find a place to live, I thought we were going out of the country because they lived in West LA and we had to go over, at that time, the pass over from West LA over to the Valley.

I worked at Mount Gleason Junior High for many years. I thought I would die there but a friend of mine wanted me to go to Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights because they had a program in folklórico. She wanted me to take over that. I said, “Are you kidding? I don’t know anything about that.” I did go to Mexico to study Spanish one summer but that was just a couple of months. I took one class of folklórico, just one. One time I went there. One day. That’s it.

Anyway, because I used to put on programs at the junior high for our kids because we were getting kids bused in from Chinatown and East LA, they were bused into our school in the Valley. I wanted them to learn about each other. I used to have this international night. We would have the kids perform. I think because of that, she thought I could do the folkorico, which was not … I enjoyed it though. I learned a lot about folklórico.

Two of the boys, Joel and Julio, are the ones that were seniors, and they actually taught the dancing. I had the roll book. Then they were such a great group that they were asked to perform here and there and everywhere, so then I’m the chauffeur. Then every Cinco de Mayo, we had a huge program. It was really impressive, I must say.

The parents of the students were really very supportive, and I liked the kids. They were great. They were fun. I did that, and I taught … because I had taught English as a second language at the junior high school, then I also taught that at Roosevelt while I also had the folklórico program.

Then I think I retired in ’94, someplace around there, because I was getting super tired. Then my endocrinologist told me that I had a tumor on my thyroid. Am I giving you too much information?

No. There’s so many good stories.

Oh, okay.

You’re doing very well.

When I transferred from the junior high to the senior high, at that time, my endocrinologist’s PA, this physician’s assistant, she was really sharp because she’s the one that said, “There’s a little lump on the thyroid.” The doctor said, “I don’t feel it.” Then I guess he figured it was there. He said, “We could take care of it with medication or we could get rid of it right now.”

I had just changed to the high school. They’re depending on me to do this program, so I just stayed there. When I retired in ’94, then that’s the time that they said that the tumor on the thyroid was malignant and so I had to go through this whole thing where they had to get rid of the tumor. Then they gave me radiation, so that was fine.

Anyway, while I was in the hospital with that radiation, my husband went out and bought himself a boat.

A boat.

Yeah, that’s what I thought because I’m ready to leave the hospital and I can’t get hold of him. He’s not home. Then when I finally get hold of him, he says, “Guess what I did today.” I thought, “Oh God.” Anyway …

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Bacon Sakatani

Harumi “Bacon” Sakatani was born on August 23rd, 1929, in El Monte, California. Growing up, Bacon didn’t think of himself as Japanese American, but his identity came to the fore as the United States entered World War II. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Bacon’s father, a farmer, was arrested by the FBI.  Bacon’s thirteenth birthday occurred while en route to a US concentration camp.

Bacon and his siblings and parents were removed from their home in California in 1942, after the wartime US government ordered the incarceration of Japanese Americans. The Sakatanis were first sent to a camp in Pomona, California, and then sent to a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming where they were housed in crowded barracks.

Most of Bacon’s Heart Mountain memories revolve around the activities that were set up to occupy youths, whose lives had been uprooted. He and other children got in trouble for aimlessly congregating in gangs and later joined Scout troops. When the Sakatanis left camp at the end of the war, they had no home to return to. They moved to a farm in Idaho before settling back in California. The post-camp years were lonely for Bacon, who had spent the formative years of his adolescence in camp and had trouble fitting in at a normal American high school.

Forty years after Bacon’s arrival at Heart Mountain, he helped organize the first Heart Mountain reunion. Bacon volunteered to make a history slideshow for the event and was stunned by the information he discovered. As a child in camp, Bacon had not realized how forcefully and completely the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans were taken away. He has since dedicated his life to educating the public about the dark legacy of Heart Mountain and the experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans. Bacon’s commitment to preserving the memory of Heart Mountain gained him the title of “Mr. Heart Mountain.” He has led several projects related to Heart Mountain and has served as a human archive of documents related to incarceration.

By Thomas Castleman ’23 and Naya Lee Chang ’24 (RISD/Brown Dual Degree)

Transcript of life at Pomona Assembly Center
Bacon: We had nothing to do, five thousand people all crammed together with nothing to do. So the recreation department started softball, we didn’t play hardball, we played softball. They formed teams for all age groups. I was put onto a softball team, and so that was something for all the teenagers to do. It was a great enjoyment. And then watching the adults play softball, it was my first time watching adults play, oh it was really amazing to see the adults play, you know, for a country boy living way out on a farm area, to see activity going on, it was really an amazing thing for me. And then one of the best things that they did to occupy us: just inside the camp people were put to work working in the mess hall and they had some kind of delivery service for all the goods and all that so some of the people were working and earning pay from their job. (When the war started, many lost their jobs, businesses lost customers and sales, bank accounts were frozen, and when they were forced to report to camps, some lost everything they owned and went to the camps with hardly any cash.)The pay I believe was eight dollars a month for unskilled, twelve dollars a month for semi-skilled, and sixteen dollars a month for very skilled workers like doctors. That was the pay we received. At that time, we had to buy everything except for our food. If we wanted Kleenex or some extra clothing or something like that, we had to purchase it ourselves with our own money. They were just feeding us and giving us a place to stay. So we did that for three months. But I still didn’t mention one of the good things they did, they rounded up all the people who had talents—that could sing or do some performing onstage. There were enough musicians—you get five thousand people, you’re gonna find a dozen people who could play the trumpet, and the saxophone, the piano. They got these adult groups together to form a band and then they found some singers and they put on a weekly talent show. That was a really great thing that we had there. They made a wooden stage on this open dirt area, just open dirt. And so we sat on the dirt to watch what was being performed on the stage. And then later on, people would make little small chairs, folding chairs, that they would make out of scrap lumber, you know if they found a wooden crate or something. And then they would find a burlap sack, you know, a potato sack, and make a beach, what do you call that, the stuff you sit on the sand and lay back a little. And people were making those to sit on the dirt open field. Laughs. I laugh about it now but, you know, that’s what we did.
Original WRA caption: Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Looking west over the Heart Mountain Relocation Center with its sentry name sake, Heart Mountain, on the horizon.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Bacon: I remember potatoes were a big crop in Idaho. So in the fall of 1945, the schools were stopped for a couple weeks and my sister and I would harvest the potatoes, and then harvesting was over and the snow came and there were no more jobs. So we just packed up, got on the train, and went back to California to the area where we once lived. And I remember that train ride, oh it was full of returning soldiers from the war in uniform, and here we are, Japanese, you know, the enemy. So we just sat quietly in the train, and we finally got back to California, we couldn’t find a place to live, we went back to the former place we leased, we couldn’t get that place back. We lived in a tent. Then we found a broken-down farm in Pomona, where we had the assembly center. Oh it was a great struggle. No money, we couldn’t, for instance, buy a refrigerator. After the war, they were not available, because they were not being built during the war. Then they started production and you had to be placed on the waiting list. So we had an icebox, which was like an ice chest, where you could put big chunks of ice in it, you know a big White person would come in—we lived in like a shack—White person would bring a big ice cake on his shoulder and come into our shack and open up the icebox and put the ice in it. I remember we couldn’t buy a washing machine, so I remember putting water in a washtub and we would build a wood fire underneath it to heat up the water, and my mother would do the laundry like that. Oh boy. It was really tough after the war. Some people had it well, they had money, they had places to go. But many of the people didn’t have any money, had a terrible place to stay, and this is one area that people will not talk about. It was so embarrassing. For some people, they would just lie about it. They would just lie about how tough they had it. I remember I went to Pomona High School. And my sister and I were the only (Japanese) students, and I remember I used to take a sack lunch and I would go to the football field and eat by myself. And then in one of my classes, the teacher, he was (maybe) a Navy veteran from the war, and all the students in the class had to speak in front of the class. That was a hard thing for minorities to do, all White class, to go up in front of the class and give a talk about anything. For me, it was very tough, and so I went up and because I was the only Japanese boy in the school, I went up in front of that class and I told the class, “I am an American too.” I told them just over the hill was the Pomona Assembly Center, and I was there. Five thousand of us. Now that I think about it today, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

Bacon: In 1981, a group of Boy Scouts got together and discussed putting on a Boy Scout reunion. And then they started talking about making it all camp reunion. And I was into photography. I was making a lot of slideshows. And then you get a projector and put it on a screen and talk about your vacation trip. So when the reunion idea came up, I said, “Wait, I could put on a slideshow!” I could copy, take photographs of camp photos and put on a slideshow. So it was my job to do this. Well I didn’t know anything about the camp history. So I thought well I’ll go to the library and start reading up about it. And then I found just how ILLEGAL it was. You know, I wasn’t reading the newspaper or anything, but the books show how stupid we Japanese Americans were in going to the camps. So that made me read more and more. I went to the University of California, the famous Bancroft Library. I went to the University of Wyoming, they have the original camp administrative papers. They had all the Wyoming newspapers, I made copies of that, I had a five-foot stack of all these copies. It made me angry as to how we were treated. And here we obeyed the orders, we complied! Because that’s the way we were brought up! And so I put on the slideshow at our reunion, and then we had, other areas had Heart Mountain (reunions), San Jose—there’s a large group of Heart Mountain people, they put on a reunion so I put on a slideshow for them. In Seattle, another group there. So I put on a slideshow for them. So, you know, I’m learning more and more about the Heart Mountain camp. I’m becoming known to them. And because I’m putting on these camp photos, all the people who have photos, they come to me and give me these photos.
Original WRA caption: Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Boy Scouts conducting a morning flag raising ceremony at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Where persons of Japanese ancestry, evacuated from West Coast defense areas, now reside.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

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Fujiko Tamura Gardner

Photo courtesy of Kelsea Larsen

Fujiko Tamura Gardner spent her 10th birthday at the Puyallup Assembly Center,  also known as “Camp Harmony.”  She was incarcerated at Minidoka War Relocation Center during World War II.

Fujiko is the youngest of 11 siblings and recalls hearing the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor over the radio and running to tell her family. Her entire family, with the exception of her eldest brothers who had already left home (one in Chicago and one already in the Army) were forced to leave behind the farm, their tractor, and their life’s work to relocate to camp. Two other brothers joined the 442nd from Minidoka. Her family did not own the land that they had leased and worked on before they were removed and they did not return to their home after camp. However, Fujiko shares the story of meeting the daughter of their old landlord recently by chance. Though COVID has forced a delay, the two have plans to meet in person once it is safe to do so.  

In her oral history interview, Fujiko also discusses how camp affected her family dynamics. She recalls the toll the incarceration took on her father and the “gaman” spirit her mother embodied. She talks about life growing up in camp and the gratitude and awe she feels towards both her parents and Issei.

By Jadey Hagiwara ’23

Fujiko: I had my tenth birthday there. Right. And Camp Harmony, I remember, everybody got a coupon booklet and at the end of the barrack next door, seven barracks were right along the main road line, it was a residential road, and anyways the barbed wire fence was right behind our barrack and the guard tower was right behind our barrack, and one of my brothers got a little can of blue paint. I don’t know where he got it. Then, with a paint brush, and he got permission from the guard, if he could put “FIFE” on the back wall. You know, and the guard said yes and so my brother put “FIFE F-I-F-E” on it, big letters. And a bunch of guys came on by and they’re yelling “FIFE! FIFE! FIFE! FIFE!” and so we heard them and so then we went out to check and hear about Fife and the neighborhood of the guys that got on their bicycles and came and they sat there. And one of the guys, their mother had cookies that he brought. And he had to get permission to pass it through the barbed wire fence and the guard said “Yeah if you share some with me”, and so the guard got some of the home baked cookies and the guys on the opposite side of the barbed wire fence got to just talk, talk, talk. So that was nice. So I think that there was one family in particular that had sons and of course they joined the navy right away. And so if any of the neighbors had any feelings against us, I would say it was this family. I won’t mention the name, but otherwise all the other neighbors were very, very good to us.
Woman and girls behind barbed wire at Camp Harmony; Tamako Inouye on far right. Written on back of photograph: “Camp Harmony, Puyallup, Washington, 1942”.
Courtesy of the Tokuda Family Collection, Densho
Fujiko: You know, my second to the oldest brother Hiroshi was already drafted into the army. And so Masato and Hiroshi, they’re my two older brothers, did not go to camp, but they did visit us in Minidoka. That– it was– you couldn’t imagine getting rid of all the things that my parents had, you know, gotten ever since they came to this country. Like, dad came in 1899, I believe it was, at the age of 14, my mother came 1911 at the age of 19. And getting in this, they were picture brides, except the families in Japan knew each other. And so they said, “Well, mom should come to the United States and marry my dad”, which she did. And she arrived in Seattle, and the next day, they went to the Buddhist church, and were married. And then he was working on saw mill or on other people’s farms. And then, when they got married and started the family, they leased the land from Mr. Cheslock who had the slaughter house next door. And then of course, there was 11 of us when the war started. So my father, you know, had to fill out the fields. And we had a nice creek, running through our farm and there was a nice wooden bridge that you could drive, you know, your tractor across. And so our farm was big, and they put in the raspberry field, then they have to put in the posts by hand. And, you know, the plow that I ended by the horse, and so they weren’t tight. Even, even the old house didn’t have electricity in it, but by the time I was born, my brother Masaru, who is the one that was killed in Italy, put the electricity in the house. So that was nice that I could remember that: the old kerosene lanterns in the olden days. Yeah, we still have some of those, too.
But– so when– when it was Pearl Harbor, on a Sunday, I remember, I can’t remember if we went to Sunday school that day, or, or, or what, but I remember turning on the radio, and we’re listening to the radio. And of course, I saw that was on the radio. And so then I ran out to the fields to tell, you know, mom and dad and my oldest brothers and sisters that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And so you know, that was kind of devastating to us, because mom and dad still had their brothers in Japan. So that was hard to take. And then of course, when we got the word that we had to pack what we could carry, and like yeah, in a short period of time, didn’t give us much time at all. It was really devastating. We were in lots of confusion and in turmoil. And then the only thing I knew about Puyallup was the Puyallup fair that we got to go to once and when the school starts because we’re neighbors, Fife and [inaudible], we’re neighbors. We just have the Puyallup River, you know, between us, but school would be closed for Fair Day. And we would get a free ticket that I always look forward to going to the fair for their famous hamburger smothered with onions. And I said if we had that hamburger with the onions every day for lunch in camp, I really would have been a happy camper. You know, the food wasn’t that great at all. So yeah, I would have been happy with a hamburger. (Laughs) And, and so we made the best of it. Thanks to the adults who had talent, would share their talent, teaching people. Whoever wanted to learn how to knit or crochet, or, and I know that Norio wrote the book “The Nisei Odyssey”  put a sign in the Mess Hall saying math classrooms at three o’clock. So he, you know, volunteered to teach math. So, I think this is one of the good things about the Japanese people who have talent, they share it with others, when– when you know, the occasion arises. And so that’s the good thing I know about Camp Harmony. The other thing was about the– being given a large white canvas bag and to go out to the haystack and fill it with hay, because that was going to be your mattress. And we had a metal bed. So you know, the mattress will keep it- and when we feel that our bag it was a drizzly day. And so some of that, hay, you know, would get kind of damp. But, you know, we survived it. If you were to ask me to sketch a picture of the latrine, the toilet there. I do remember that one. I don’t remember the one in Minidoka because I think there was too much stress going on in my family. Where you know, my– my sister who’s a year and a half older than me, had to empty the chamber pots morning and evening. And because my parents, my father said when he wasn’t going to go to the mess hall or go to the latrine, nothing. He was just going to stay in the corridors. And so my mom being a wonderful mom, you know, she– she would stay with him that I (Phone rings) Oh I’m sorry, how do I turn off these things? Gosh, I’m sorry about that. I hope we can edit.

Jadey: Don’t worry about it, we’ll figure something out.

Fujiko: Well going back to Camp Harmony, the one thing I remembered about Camp Harmony’s toilet situation, it was just like a small building. And one side of that building was for the men and that was partitioned to separate us from them. But then you’d go in and there’s a platform like, I think five holes. So you start to do your business. But on one end of this building was a big water tank, open water tank and it’s always, water was always flowing in this tank. And when it fills up, it will automatically kick the tank over and so all that water would just come gushing down. So you have to have your timing just right because you don’t want to be sitting there when all this water, haha, that was the way that the toilet was flushed. So you know all this water would just flow down real fast to the other end of the building.
Fujiko: And so we lived in the parking lot of the fairgrounds. We did not live inside the fairgrounds, my two uncles did live in the fairground. But we were lucky, because ours was a parking lot, they built the barracks. Those are flimsy barracks, no privacy, they had knot holes in them so you could spy on your neighbors if you wanted to. And even the very top part of the barrack if you stood on one end of the barrack on a ladder, you could see to the far end of the barrack. I suppose this was deliberately done so that you couldn’t have conversations without other people hearing it. Because who knows, maybe the government thought that we would be planning things, you know, horrible things that we might be planning. But nothing like that ever happened. You know, we were such good citizens, doing our thing and helping other people within the camp. So, this is why I was really — I appreciated the video “Alternative Facts: The Lies” about the internment, but my mother was like, I would call, psychic. She was aware that all of this was based on lies, and when my brother Hiroshi came to visit us, they had long conversations about it and my mother would tell my brother Hiroshi “No, this is all lies. President Roosevelt knew the truth and he lied to us”. Things like this. And I was just so happy to get this video on “Alternative Facts” because this kind of let me know that my mother was correct in her thinking and Hiroshi, of course, thought mom shouldn’t be talking like that in camp. But no, she would just very gently and quietly say to my brother that all of us being in camp was based on lies.
Barracks and the Minidoka Co-op store
Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 210-CMA-CS-3
Fujiko: When camp was ready to close. The phone– somebody would have records playing. And they would be playing out loud. So if you were outdoors, you could always hear this music playing, and it was always Glenn Miller. Not Glenn Miller, but Bing Crosby’s: “Don’t Fence Me In.” And then also Benny Goodman and Dick Haymes’ song, “Idaho.” Well we knew we were going to go to Idaho, but we didn’t know where in Idaho. But we would hear that music every day like somebody was trying to brainwash us, but anyway. When we had to be ready to leave for Idaho. On that dust-filled, hot train. We were told that the shades would always have to be pulled down. I never, and I thought it was just to keep the hot sun from coming in. But no, I find out later that, no, it’s that because they didn’t want us to know where we were going. Well, when the train stopped for a long time, I peeked out the windows and saw nothing but dry land and all these humped up shrubs. And so I asked the soldier who was guarding our car what that was and he said he didn’t know. So I said, because it was right there, you know, right along that track and so I said “Can I just get a branch of it?” Because you know, I’ve never seen it before. And so he said sure. So I got a branch of it. Brought it back into the car but with that heat in the, you know, car, that smell just was too much for everybody. And they said “Get rid of it!” So I had to get rid of it. Well it was sagebrush. And so it was the sage that really made everybody a little bit upset. Not only, now everybody was upset with me too but little did we know that that’s all we were going to see for a few years was dried land and sagebrush. No evergreen trees like we know here in the state of Washington. So that was a big, big blow to us. And so when we were assigned our quarters, we lived in Block 21 where the Minidoka pilgrimage people see the dining hall and barrack which is what 22, so we’re right next to like 22. And Block 23 was the junior high and high school block. And oh gosh, when we went to our quarters we just suffocated with all that dust in that hot, hot room. And so we had to get a newspaper and, you know, put it around the windows, all the openings, to keep the dust from coming in when they had a windstorm and they did have strong windstorms.
Original WRA caption: Evacuees entrain for Minidoka. September 1943.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Fujiko: You know, psychologically, it has affected the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these internees, too, because we’ve never talked about it in any of our kids. And yet. I think it was 2018 when they had the Psychological Effects session. I remember this young man was just leaning against the wall, because it was such a popular session, people were sitting on the floors and and leaning up against the wall during Question and Answer, a young man by the name of Frank said, he told his story about his relationship with his father, that he could never understand why his father couldn’t be like all other fathers that he knew until he was old enough to learn the internment camps. And so he asked his father if he was a part of the internment camps. And of course, the father broke down and said, Yes. But it was too late for his father to come to Minidoka. But it was good that Frank did come and share his story. Because last year, in 2019, I attended the same session, The Psychological Effects, and no one spoke up about how it affected the relationship of their parents. And so I decided that I will share with the group Frank’s story. And after the session was through, this young man came up to me, and thanked me for sharing Frank’s story, because he went through the same situation with his own father, but he had two years to make it up to his father. So I know that the pilgrimages are so important, not just for the internees, but you know, for their children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and for generations to come. So this is why I feel it is so important that those who can should go back to Minidoka, see what they’ve done, or to any of the camps, former camps. You know, the young people are doing an outstanding job to preserve that– to preserve that type of history. Because it truly should not ever happen again. And look at today, what’s happening today, you know. And so, this is why I thank all you younger people, and then not only that, you know giving up our land with, you know, the crops were in, and who should take over the land. It was an Italian farmer. And I thought, Gosh, comparing the Italian farmer coming to a land that’s already got all the crops and the raspberries are all in, you know, every year, he could profit from the raspberries, and the strawberries, and all of this, and so I thought, I could see how hard my mom and dad worked from the day they came to our country. And no complaints, never any complaining. My mother just showed her strength or what you would call the Gaman spirit that I never heard a harsh word coming from her mouth. And she never had to discipline us. Because if we knew that we made my mom unhappy for something we may have done. That was great punishment for us. Because you know, she was such a special person, that we wouldn’t want her to be sad or anything like that. But no, she truly had that Gaman spirit. And so, in that way, we were lucky, we were financially poor, but we were rich in so many other ways. So I’m just very, very grateful. Like I say to you, young people, to let our story be known. And thank you for making us talk about it. (Laughs) Because I can see that it has been good for me too, because we just kept quiet for so long. You know, I’m 88 now and, so to think that for all these years, we’ve been silent about that experience. And when you think, you know, that’s over three years of your life that you went through something like this. And so it really should be told to all of Americans so that they understand.
Fujiko: What ended up with us when camp closed? Well, before it closed because people were leaving camp, the Mess Halls were short of help, right? And so my sister now, my sister and I helped in the Mess Hall, and was paid $10 a month. But then when camp closed, each person was given an allowance. But because we made $10 a month, whatever it is the total came to, I can’t remember. Anyway, they minused the $10. We didn’t get the allowance, because we made money, you know, working in the Mess Halls. So that’s, you know, a sore spot with me. But then, because we did not have any place to come back to in Washington. Well, my oldest brother, I have to go back. I’m sorry. I have to keep going back. My oldest brother, when my brother Masaru, well I had Masaru and Mitsuru. Mitsuru just graduated from high school. And so Masaru and Mitsuru went to serve with the 442nd. And here’s the irony of it, when they came back from basic training before they were shipped overseas. And you know, they have to clear with the guards that got the same uniform as they were wearing. So that’s another irony of it. And then, when we were working at um, with the Twin Falls Farm Labor camp, before my two brothers were ready to go to Italy. We went to Campbell’s restaurant in Twin Falls for a chicken dinner. And as we were leaving the restaurant, there was a bunch of young guys heckling us, you know, “Go back to where you came from” and all these horrible, horrible things. But we just ignored them and kept walking. And then when we walked half a block, my two brothers just turned around and faced them because the guys were following us. And my brothers just turned around at the same time and started going towards this gang of guys. And the guys just scattered all over the place. And like I said I wish I had a camera. So I could have taken that picture. But you see my two brothers had Judo experience, so they weren’t afraid of those guys. But my brother Masato came to visit us when we got the word that Masaru was killed in Italy. And then also he brought his beautiful wife Rose. They just got married, and he brings her to Minidoka because he was so anxious for all of us to meet her. She’s just a wonderful, wonderful gal, this beautiful person inside and out. Anyway, when they went back to Chicago, they decided they needed to get us out of Camp as soon as possible. So they looked for an apartment building and they found one that had eight apartments in it. And, and so they wanted us to leave camp and move to Chicago. But my father did not want to go to the big city, he wanted to come back to Washington. So my brother Vince and Tad, my fourth to the youngest, Tad, could not go because he broke his leg playing football in camp and was in the hospital, spent a long, long time in the hospital, because he felt that they didn’t know what to do with him. So his leg was not put in the cast for over a month. And so when they released him from the hospital and he was walking from the quarters to the Mess Hall, his leg gave up, gave out on him because evidently a little piece of flesh went in between the two sections of the bone, and so back in the hospital, so he spent a lot of time in the hospital and he was crippled from that. So he stayed with my sister Reiko, and I, and mom, and dad. And then we heard that Mr. Ellis Schawver, a big potato farmer in Eden, Idaho had a little white cottage that we could go to and work on his uh– harvesting the potatoes. Sacking the potatoes is what it really amounted to. And so we worked there until my dad felt that it was time for us to come back to Washington, however, we didn’t have a place, any place to come back to. And then Mr. Schawver drove us to Shoshone to catch the train to Tacoma. And it was a troop train. Also, we were the only civilians. And we looked like refugees, because the only thing we carried was our suitcase. But when we got into Tacoma, my dad said, well, he knows that there’s some old hotels up the hill from the Union Station. So we went up there, and, and it was a fleabag place, it was horrible. And the town was just crowded with soldiers just, you know, mingling on the streets, the main streets of Tacoma. And anyway, my oldest sister and her husband, they got married in Twin Falls, but they had heard of a government sponsored low-income housing. So your rent would be based on your monthly income. And to this day, I don’t know how she was able to communicate with us, because she didn’t have a phone, we were in this hotel that probably wouldn’t accept any phone calls for us. But somehow we were able to connect to each other. And so she told us how to get there, everything she had all the bus things, how to catch everything. And so we were able to get a duplex, one side of a duplex and the rent was based on my mom and dad’s insurance that they were getting from my brother being killed in the war. And so my sister and I were in junior high school, my sister had to be held back a year because she has a late birthday. And so she and I graduated from Lincoln High School in Tacoma, the same year. And then, and we faced, we wanted to get a job right away after our high school graduation, so we could save up enough money to put a down payment on the house. So we could get out of the Salishan, the low income housing area. And but then, you know, we faced a lot of prejudice. And uh, my sister got a job with Day’s Tailored Clothing, a men’s manufacturing, clothing manufacturing, in the production office. And later, she worked up to being the assistant to the production manager. Well when Seattle Woolen– when Day’s Tailored Clothing bought Seattle Woolen Company and brought it to Tacoma, right next door, to Dave’s Tailored Clothing. They were looking for a secretary to the president of that company, and they went to my sister Reiko and asked her if she knew of a Japanese girl that did secretarial work. And right away she said yes, me! So anyway, I got that job. And, and then when I got married and started a family, they asked me if I knew a Japanese girl who could take my job. And so then I, you know, checked in the Japanese community and somebody said, yes, Bev Yamamoto and so Bev got my job, until she got married. But once she got married, the freeway was coming through Tacoma and it would go right by the Day’s Tailored and Seattle Woolen Company and so they had to sell out so that company is no longer– both companies are no longer there. Anyway. So that’s my story.

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Hideko Graves

Photo courtesy of Hideko Graves

As a midwestern Japanese American, Ms. Graves was not incarcerated during the war. However, her story reveals incarceration’s impact on the entire Japanese American community, not just those who went to camp. When the war broke out, Ms. Graves’ family was operating a small laundry in Nebraska. Anti-Japanese sentiment forced the business to close, and her father and two brothers moved to California in search of work. They were sent to a camp in Poston, Arizona while Ms. Graves remained in Nebraska with her mother and six other siblings. Ms. Graves’ narration is rich with details about her upbringing as a sharecropper in the midwest and central California, from images of an orange grove thick with smoke to the miraculous feeling of lighting a gas stove for the first time. Her story is a reminder of the scale of incarceration and its effects on families and individuals that may otherwise not appear in the historical record.

By Miya Matsuishi-Elhardt ’23

Miya: Just going chronologically, because you were not incarcerated, what is your earliest memory about incarceration? How did you learn about the incarceration and what were those earliest messages and memories?

Hideko: Well, let’s see. I was born in 1939, and it didn’t happen until 1942. And I don’t think I was cognitive in 1942 enough to form any memories of what had happened. And so my memory of it was formed by what my mother told me. And my mother was…she had eight children and I was the last of eight. And there were eight years between me and my next brother. So when the war broke out, they had been operating a little dry cleaning business in their town of, um, it’s actually called Gering, Nebraska. It’s near Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. And they had a small drycleaning business and, due to the hostility towards the Japanese, their business dried up. 
So my father, now this is according to what my mother told me, took the two older sons, who were…gee, they must have been 21 and 19. Something like that. And they came to California to search for work. So they could send money back home to support the family. And while they were out in California, they were picked up and they were, um, incarcerated in Poston. So at that time, my mother had no income. She did not run the dry cleaning business herself and the business was dying anyway. So, somehow, she was able to get a sharecropper arrangement in Idaho. Idaho and Nebraska are close together. So she moved with the six children, including me, to Idaho. And then I’m not sure how much time went by, but she was able somehow to get my father released because if you were going to go someplace inland, that is not on one of the coasts, you could be released from internment. So he came to Idaho to join the family and help with the farming operation that was part of the sharecropping arrangement. Do you know what a sharecropper is?

Miya: Yeah. 

Hideko: Meanwhile, my two older brothers, they were still incarcerated. And then eventually, the eldest brother didn’t qualify for the army – he had something, a hernia or something – so they didn’t take him. But he had offered to go to Utah, so they released him. He went to Utah, and then the next brother joined the 442nd. And he was there until 1945 or 6, something like that. So, that left my father and my mother and six younger children. I don’t know whether my brother who went to Utah rejoined my family in Idaho. I think he might have. But those states are all close together – Nebraska, Idaho, Utah – they’re not that far apart. 

And so that’s where they stayed. And they were in Utah until about…early in the, maybe it was ‘42 or ‘43. Well, the incarceration happened in ‘42 so it must have been ‘43 when they finally secured another arrangement in Utah to do some sharecropping. So the whole family moved there, and stayed there for the duration until 1949. And my brother, who was in the service, was discharged in ‘46, or something like that. ‘45 or ‘46. And he came to rejoin the family. And there we were, all these people in this little tiny house, with basically a dirt floor on one of the levels, and an outdoor toilet, and no indoor plumbing. But somehow we managed. We managed to stay there until 1949, when we came to California.
Original WRA caption: Poston, Arizona. Living quarters of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center as seen from the top of water tower facing south west.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Miya: Because you were so young when all of this was going on, how and when were these stories passed down to you by your mother?

Hideko: Oh, it just seemed like they were always talking about it. My brothers never said too much about it. They never told me what it was like to be inside of one these places. So I didn’t hear it from them firsthand. It was mostly filtered down from my mother. And they didn’t say anything really negative, so I really can’t say that it was a terrible experience for them, but I do know that the two brothers that were incarcerated had a different experience from the two that were not. So, I had two other brothers who stayed with the family, and they, for some reason, seemed to be, uh, very…not introspective, but they seemed to be extremely shy. They had very little social skills and I don’t know for sure, but I kinda think they were at a very tender age and I think the discrimination really kinda had an effect on them. Because they were the enemy throughout this time. And I don’t think they really had a well-rounded view of society as they were growing up.
Miya: At what age did you move to California?

Hideko: It was 1949, so I must have been ten.

Miya: Okay and where in California did you move?

Hideko: We ended up in Azusa, which is in the San Gabriel Valley. And at that time it was dedicated to oranges, so there were lots and lots of oranges, and lots and lots of rocks. The roads were very limited, and I remember just lots of of rocks. And it would get really hot, because rocks reflect the heat. And so in summertime it was hot, and then we would be burning smudgepots – I don’t know if you know what a smudgepot is. They didn’t want the orange trees to get frozen, so they would burn, um, a smudgepot, which is basically like a little stove, and I guess it’s got oil in it or something, and it produces this really toxic black smoke, and they burned those in the orange groves to keep the trees from freezing. And it was very hard on, if you were walking through there to go to school, your nose would turn black. By today’s standards, it was probably pretty terrible. 

Miya: So moving to California, it’s a different environment but it’s still farm life, I suppose.

Hideko: Yes, it was strawberry farming this time. And the interesting thing was we were sharecropping with a Japanese woman, Mrs. Ginoza. And she was not a nice lady! I remember her because she had a house, and it was this house with stones. It was a rather substantial house in those times. And our place of residence was a made-over chicken coop. And the way they used to have chickens, there was a long, one-story building. The chickens would be housed in there and then they would prop open the windows with sticks during the daytime. So she had converted those coops into residences. Well, into living quarters, we’ll say. And so you’d go out – you’d have to leave one room and you’d walk out into the yard, and then go into another room to get to another room. So I think there were three of these rooms that were chained together, which comprised our residence. And I remember, I think we had a set of bunk beds and I had the top bunk. And I could see the sky through the boards. But it was California, it didn’t get too cold. And I don’t remember suffering any. And then the outside toilet was way down a walkway. So it was a little bit of a hike to get there. And since we had no indoor water, we had to have a bath in the tin, one of those round galvanized – I think they’re called galvanized something – like a big washtub. And that was our bathing. And we were there since, let’s see, ‘49 til ‘50, maybe the middle of ‘50 or something. And then we moved to Long Beach.

And that was the first time that we had an indoor house, with actual locks on the door and everything, and an indoor bathroom. And a telephone! Of all things, we had a telephone. That was really…we were living pretty high then. We got our first gas stove when we were in, uh, Azusa. And I remember my mother was cooking with a coal stove up until then. And we got this gas stove, and it was like a miracle. Absolutely a miracle. You lit a match, you turned on this little lever, and you got a flame. And it was wonderful to be able to actually cook something with that much control. Turn it up, turn it down. We had an oven. I learned how to bake, it was really pretty nice.
Original caption: Near Mission San Jose, California. Family of Japanese ancestry laboring in their strawberry field at opening of harvest season. Note the distant Coast Range Hills and their farm homes and buildings that can be seen at the end of the strawberry rows. Evacuation is due in a few days.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Miya: Do you remember, being on the coast, if you peers had been incarcerated?

Hideko: Yes. Many of them had. In fact, the ones who did not were decidedly in the minority. Everybody, all of my friends had had some sort of experience because they had basically been in California, the people I knew in California.The people I knew in California had been from California, so we were sort-of new to the area.

Miya: And did they talk about that at all? I’d imagine that in high school – 

Oh, yeah. And they all thought it was a lark. They thought it was not a hardship at all, you know. The people that I associated with were so young at the time that they didn’t lose much, and they didn’t have the feelings of being “other.” They thought it was okay. All their needs were met, they got it to be with their friends. So I don’t think they really experienced it as bad as the older people did. However, once they got out, I think it became…there was still quite a lot of racism after the war. And they were sometimes discriminated against. My first, let’s see – my first husband, I married when I was 26 or so.
Miya: What was it like to be in that social space and not have experienced those same things? To not have a “camp story”?

Hideko: Well, I had the feeling that they had…they were sort-of, they were in one group and I was kind of like, not in that group because I didn’t share the same experiences. It wasn’t bad, but it was definitely them and me. And I always felt like they had a shared experience that I could not, um, participate in. So it was a little bit, it wasn’t anything serious. It was just a distinct knowingness that they were in these places and I wasn’t. And I didn’t feel that I was advantaged in any way, because we were…we didn’t have somebody giving us three meals a day. So it was not that, but it was that they had something that bonded them together and I did not have that same bond with them. So I think that might have been a difference. And even today, um, when JA people meet each other, they frequently ask what their camp experience was. And it’s almost as if they separate them out. “Oh you’re from Rohwer, oh you’re from Heart Mountain,” whatever. And it seems to kind of give them a little badge of identity. Not in a bad way, but it’s just an interesting thing to watch.
Miya: When you were raising your sons, did you talk about incarceration at all? In his upbringing?

Hideko: Just a little. And remember, they weren’t even teaching it in school. So they were able to pretty much grow up without thinking too much about it. Um, they played in Japanese American sports leagues, and there was also that bond among the parents. For their experience. So, it kinda soaked into their consciousness. But since they didn’t have any firsthand experience, it’s hard to feel something you’ve never experienced. I think they knew about it intellectually but I don’t think they really had it in their hearts about what it was like or what the injustice was. And I think they, personally, I think they did not suffer too much discrimination. And so if you’ve never…also this is Los Angeles, you know. It’s a real cosmopolitan area. So I don’t think that it was brought to their attention. But I do think that they think there’s a specialness about the Japanese American community. Where they work really hard, they’re very honest and ethical. And I’m not really sure if that’s true but I think they believe that. And we tend to give credit to somebody just because that’s what we think they are, even though we don’t know for sure. It’s just…I guess it’s a prejudice.

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Joe Abo

Mary & Joe Abo.
Photo courtesy of Joe Abo

Joe Abo is the son of Tadeyasu Abo, one of the thousands of Japanese Americans who renounced their American citizenship after being asked to swear “unqualified allegiance to the United States” in 1943. Abo was the named plaintiff in the 1940 case Abo v. Clark, a class equity lawsuit filed by Wayne Collins, famed ACLU lawyer and attorney for Fred Korematsu.

As a child, Joe was unaware of his father’s role in this seminal lawsuit. It was not until after high school that he discovered the case. As an adult, he became fascinated by the story, requesting records from the National Archives and digging deeper into his family’s history. In this interview, Joe reflects his childhood in Shelton, Washington, his quest to learn more about his own father’s activism, and his memories of incarceration. His family’s story is a powerful narrative of resilience and intergenerational strength.

By Ronald Yuan ’23 and Miya Matsuishi-Elhardt ’23

Ronald: Was it the first time that you found out about it, was through reading this particular article by [John] Christgau, maybe?

Joe: No, actually…when did I read that article? It was, oh it was way after high school. I think I had been married, I forget what year it was. I think it was in the ’70s, maybe, early ‘70s when I found that article. I don’t remember exactly how I found that article but, uh, so I really wasn’t aware of this fight that Wayne Collins had been doing for my dad and 5,000 other Japanese Americans.

The unique thing was that they used our name for the title of the, uh, litigation. It was Abo vs. US.
Joe: Yeah, all I remember is my mom did say that initially, at least, my dad said that he just refused to sign the document. You know, the questionnaire? And uh, I’m not sure if he actually wound up filling it out and signing it but uh, he was branded essentially a No-No Boy. And later he renounced his citizenship. As did my mother.

Ronald: Right.

Joe: But I didn’t know about all of this until, oh, after high school.
Court Documents for Tadayasu Abo et. al vs. William P. Rogers, San Francisco in California, 03/10/1958. Gift of Hideo Kaneshiro.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History
Joe: I went to school in a small town, a lumber town. The town was called Shelton, just a few miles…oh about twenty miles west of Olympia, Washington, the state capital. And it was primarily a white community. When I started junior high and high school, I was the only Japanese kid there. There was one Chinese girl, she was younger than I, and the rest were primarily caucasian and some of them were Native American. A few Native American. But uh, I took US history in high school and there was nothing mentioned about, you know, the camps at all. That subject was never brought up in school. And of course, I never talked about it so, you know, nobody knew that I had been in one of those camps.

Ronald: Right.

And, you know, I had no reason to talk about it. So I didn’t, essentially.
Joe: Before the war, apparently – and I learned this through…I talked to my, well, my mother told me I guess – but before the war, one time she was in town in Olympia, so this would have been when I was a little kid, you know. I would have been like two or three at the time. Or younger. So I wasn’t aware of it, but it’s something that my mother told me. She went to town in Olympia one time and I don’t know what the incident was but apparently, somebody kicked her. And it was, it had something to do with her being Japanese. But she didn’t really go into explanation of what went on. 

But as far as for myself, and this isn’t from my own memory but right after camp, my dad got a job on the Southern Pacific Railway in Red Bluff, California, which is just about 75 miles southwest of Tule Lake camp, where we were incarcerated. Anyway, I started school there. We got out of camp in, I think in February? Late February? And so I started school there in Red Bluff. You know, it was in early spring. And I don’t remember this incident myself but one day my mom came to the school to take me home and walk me home, and she said that the school bell rang and I ran out of the building and hid behind a bush. And when she asked me, you know, why am I hiding behind a bush? And I guess – and I don’t remember this myself, but this is something she told me – she said that uh, I told her that some guys were harassing me. Bullying me, I guess. And I wanted to hide from them. So that’s one incident when I was a kid. And that’s something that I actually don’t remember.

And then it was only a few months later that we moved up into Olympia, on Oyster Bay. And then there was one small incident that I do remember myself, and uh, this was on the school ground in grade school in Olympia. I was swinging on the swing and I had an aviator cap, you know those red caps with the goggles and ear flaps? You’ve probably seen ‘em. I had that on and I was swinging on the swing and then I heard this…Bombs over Tokyo! And I looked up and there was this white kid up there. Teasing me. And uh, I don’t know how he was, you know, what his intent was in saying that. But anyway, after that day I never wore that cap to school again. So I guess I took it the wrong way.
Joe: Well, I was about two and a half when we first went to camp, so there’s not a whole lot of memories that I have. I know that when we moved into the barracks it was just one single room, and my dad ultimately got a job as the mess cook in the mess hall. And, uh, my mom…actually my mom took a lot of sewing classes and she learned to sew there in camp. And as far as for myself, I played with other kids. I remember an incident where a bunch of us got together and somebody had swiped some carrots, uh, not carrots but potatoes. From the mess hall. And so we thought, oh that’s cool! So we all went down into the washroom and he cut up the potato, and so we were gonna eat these potatoes. But you know, we took a bite and (laughs) you know how raw potato tastes. None of us finished that potato for sure. So I remember a little incident like that.

And also, in the winter there at Tule Lake it would get very cold. Cold enough that, you know, things would freeze up. And they made…they were making an ice skating rink out of the baseball diamond by throwing little dikes, little earthen dikes around the baseball field. And filled it water. And they had an ice skating rink. And I remember walking out on the ice and immediately my feet went out from under me and I fell flat on my back. I guess for a few seconds I was unconscious. And I remember waking up and seeing a circle of faces looking down on me.

Ronald: Oh no!

Joe: (laughs) And I remember that distinctly. And I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I must have been at least, oh, four or five years old. Anyways, I remember this distinctly too – someone was saying “Get that gum out of his mouth! Get that gum out of his mouth! He might choke on it!” And so I remember stuff like that. And uh, I was told that one of the neighbors built a little wagon…built a little wagon for me out of scrap lumber. And I played with that a lot. But that was when I was pretty young because I really don’t remember that. I think my mom told me that. 

Ronald: Right, yeah.

Joe: And I remember one Christmas where they got me a wind-up toy submarine and it actually would submerge because my parents filled a washtub full of water and I was able to play with it in the washtub. And thinking back, I wonder: how the heck did they get ahold of this toy? But I guess in those days they had access to catalogs. And they had a Sears catalog. So they must have gotten it out of the catalog. And my dad was making enough money that, you know, he could buy such things. I think it was, from the National Archives I actually got his pay records for that period when he was in camp. And uh, it showed that he got $16 a month I think, for being a cook in the mess hall.
Mess hall workers at Tule Lake, January 1946.
Courtesy of the Shizuko and Shigenori Oiye Collection, Densho
Joe: Well, I don’t know if you want to call it overlooking but it was just something that the family never talked about. And, uh, it wasn’t until after my dad died, which would have been 1988…I don’t know exactly what triggered it but I became more interested in our family history as far as the camps were concerned. And then again, mom wouldn’t talk about it much anyway either. So I think it was at that point that we sent for the documents from the National Archives. 

And I think the other thing too was that you know, my parents were kibei, which is the term for Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans, who had been returned to or had returned to Japan for their education. And dad went back when he was seven years old or was taken back when he was seven years old. And he went through the eighth grade and he stopped his education there. My mother went all the way through high school. And so when they came back to the United States, they spoke Japanese much better than English. In fact, their English was very broken. And so I think that might have been a barrier for us to talk about camp and the history. Just the fact of the language barrier, you might say,
Joe: As time goes on here, I find it interesting that, you know, the Japanese community during the war and after, for a long time, felt that the dissidents and especially the No-No Boys were, you know, bad for the community, and were essentially ostracized from the Japanese American community. And we met this guy at the Tule Lake pilgrimage, his name was Timmy Yamauchi (?), he was the foreman for the project to build the jailhouse in Tule Lake. And uh, turns out that he was a No-No Boy. And that after the war, he related an incident to us after the war that when he was walking in the town of San Jose, where he lives, and there was a Japanese guy walking across from him on the sidewalk, and the guy walked across the street to avoid him because of the fact that he was a No-No Boy and uh, being shunned by the community. But nowadays, people are looking at it where, you know, these guys did the right thing. They were doing the American thing. They were protesting an injustice.

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Mary Abo

Mary & Joe Abo.
Photo courtesy of Joe Abo

Mary Tanaka Abo was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. Her father, Shonosuke, immigrated from Japan in the late 1800s and opened the City Cafe, a restaurant at the heart of Juneau’s industrial activity, while her mother Nobu rented rooms above the cafe to local workers. Mary was born to three older siblings: Alice, John, and Bill. A year prior, her brother Teddy went missing; Mary’s birth, according to Alice, helped the grieving family heal.

In December of 1941, Shonosuke was arrested by the FBI and separated from his wife and children. In 1942, Mary and the rest of her family were removed to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. Though Mary’s memories of camp are limited, she remembers celebrating holidays like Halloween and Christmas with her family, even in the harsh conditions. Describing her life in terms of “pre-” and “post-camp,” Mary says there was a silence around incarceration within her family.

After returning to Juneau in 1945, Mary’s time in camp caused her to lose pride in her Japanese ancestry. Once after watching a movie about WWII and the Japanese regiment, she became ashamed of being seen in public with her mother and walked a separate road home from her. Now, she’s learned to embrace her heritage and emphasizes the importance of remembering history. Mary and her sister Alice were instrumental in creating the Empty Chair Memorial, which honors the 53 Japanese Americans from Juneau who were incarcerated. According to Mary, the monument made Alaska feel “like home again.”

By Viviana Wei ’24

Viviana: Did your mother ever resent your father for taking her from Japan, or do you feel like that that was present?

Mary: Yeah, I don’t think she resented him, but I think that she was not happy, you know, in Juneau, Alaska because everything was so foreign. But she just—she had to make the best of the situation, and she—I did ask her, you know, at one time if she wished she could go back to Japan—this is after the war—and she said no, because everybody there was so poor, you know, yeah, that she would prefer being where she was. I think it’s unfortunate that they didn’t have a happy marriage because one of their age differences. Also, my father drank when he came home from work, and that caused a lot of arguments, and then I think they probably had different views of the situation. I think it was not a happy time for them after the war.

Viviana: I’m sorry; this is very hard to talk about.

Mary: But I think it’s kind of interesting that I don’t think my parents thought of happiness was something that was part of their life. It seems like—it was like hardship was part of their life, so that’s why when I grew up, I just didn’t want to have hardship, you know, because hardship filled so much of their life. But it’s kind of interesting that they didn’t—they didn’t expect happiness I don’t think; they just expected hardship and made the most of it. Like, I think young people today would not be very—they would not tolerate a marriage like that, right? If you’re gonna have hardship, why stay in it, right? But there was no other option, and they felt they just had to make the best of the situation they were in.

Viviana: I think my parents are very similar.


Mary: Endure, right? You just have to—

Viviana: Yeah, exactly.

Mary: Which is a good quality, don’t you think in a way? Endurance, yeah.
City Cafe in Juneau, AK, 1936. Shonosuke and John Tanaka, back row. Alice, Teddy, John, and Nobu Tanaka in front.
Photo courtesy of Mary Abo
Mary: I didn’t even know much about Japanese food, Japanese culture, anything, you know, Japanese history and that—because they never taught us any history about the Japanese other than the war, and they were the enemies, right? So when they, Hollywood, came out with that movie, Go For Broke!, I was so surprised. I was in 7th grade; my mother wanted me to take her to the movie. And I had always thought of my family being in one part of Juneau, which was the restaurant and our house, and the other part of Juneau of my life was school, or the Caucasian part of my life. So when she wanted me to take her to the movies, I was really surprised. And I was kind of—I was ashamed because she dressed differently, she wore her hair in a bun, and she always wore her clothes all the way down to her ankles and always wore shoes that were too big because her feet hurt, but, you know, she was pretty. My mother had a pretty face, but she just looked different than everybody else. But so I took her to the movies, and I was just horrified because it showed all of these Japanese fighting, and, you know, I had this image of the Japanese enemy because, you know, that’s how I grew up is the Japanese as the enemy in the history, and, you know, kids making fun of you and everything, stuff like that, and I didn’t realize the movie was about the 442 of the Japanese Americans fighting, you know, for America, but I didn’t get that message. And after the movie, I was walking home with her, and I just was overwhelmed with this feeling of shame, especially being with my mother who looked Japanese and was part of this Japanese enemy, so I walked across the street from her, and so we were walking on parallel sidewalks home. And when we finally came home, she never rebuked me or anything; she just kind of accepted my strange behavior, and I never had to apologize. She never asked me to apologize, but it remained in me as a clear moment in my life when I realized I was definitely ashamed—ashamed of my ethnicity and ashamed of my family and ashamed of my mother.

Viviana: And did you start realizing that only after camp, or was that before camp too?

Mary: Oh, no. Well, before camp I was just, like, two years old, and in camp, we were very close because, you know, she had me with her all the time, and I’m sure we were totally bonded. And it was only when I came out of camp and, you know, I was the only Japanese girl in my whole town, and boys would make fun of me, slant their eyes and things, you know. And then, you know, you just— when you—I’m sure you’ve felt this way too; sometimes you feel less than other people, like other people are picked before you, you’re not invited to birthdays or whatever, you know, and other kids have nice houses, nice clothes, and things like that, so I felt, you know, kind of unfortunate growing up. I forgot the question; what was the question? Oh, did I feel what?

Viviana: Did you feel, like, aware of your own race before camp? Oh, I guess you were too young, but did you think being in camp made you more aware of your own ethnicity?

Mary: Well I didn’t even know that being in camp was unusual. I mean, I didn’t even talk about it because we didn’t talk about it. It’s just like a phase of your life like maybe living in Tacoma. But here we were living in a prison camp. I didn’t think it was that odd, and our family didn’t talk about it like it was a shameful period of our lives; it was just like it had to be, you know. We were living in Juneau, and then we were relocated to Minidoka, but fortunately, we were able to come back, you know. So it was just like—well they have that saying, you know, “shikata ga nai,” which means “it can’t be helped.” That fatalistic “we just roll with the punches” idea. So my friends didn’t even know about me ever being in camp, like in the book, you know, that Karleen wrote, my friend Margie said she was shocked to know that I had been in the camp because I never talked about it.
Mary & her mother, Nobu Tanaka, at Minidoka in 1944.
Photo courtesy of Mary Abo
Viviana: You’re telling me about your best friend, Margie, yeah.

Mary: Oh right, yeah, so when she—of course now, we’re in our—we’re like fifty years old, and she found out about it. I don’t know through—I don’t know just how it came out, but she wanted to make sure Juneau did something about it, so she spearheaded that community movement to have a memorial for all the Japanese who were, you know, evacuated from Juneau. So it was really good because people still remembered our family, my brother, and my, you know—still some people that remember; of course, they’re all like ninety years old, but it’s the urban legend in Juneau of our family and the City Cafe. So that really helped a lot, especially after the, you know, the redress movement and the apology and the reparation. All that—all really helped—and the memorial all helped, you know, to take the shame away from what happened, you know, during World War II. So I’m really fortunate that all of this happened in my lifetime. And it’s really—it made me really learn that you need to be educated about all this—about your history, right?

Viviana: Yeah, sure. Do you want to talk a little bit more about, like—I think there was like an event at the memorial—where, like, people came for the weekend? Do you want to tell me about that?

Mary: About that weekend?

Viviana: Yeah.

Mary: Well, Margie and I, you know, we were able to get substantial funding from the National Parks Service and from the contributions from the community, so we felt it was really important to have educational resources, so we bought a lot of books about the incarceration that would be for the school. So we called it the Empty Chair Collection, and we had a little public—the school library had a circulating library, so they could check out all these books. We also asked authors to come; we were able to pay for authors to come to talk. One was an elementary author, and one was a secondary author—I mean, adult—Jamie Ford; that was really exciting. And then we had library readings, book readings, and we just had a lot of events. And the community did such a wonderful thing of welcoming the survivors that flew up to Juneau. One was the Fukuyama family that’s mentioned in the book; they lived—before the war. The son was Walter Fukuyama; he came with his family, and my whole family came, and the Kito family. It was just really exciting, and what the community did that—was when every Japanese family came, they were met at the airport like celebrities and driven where they were staying. There was this reception where the community could meet them. And we were just treated like movie stars, you know, in Juneau. [laughing] It was really wonderful.

Viviana: Have you been back to Juneau since then?

Mary: I’ve gone back I think a couple times. I never really felt like I was gonna go back before the memorial because I, you know, my parents didn’t live there, and my friends who did live there always came through to Seattle, so I saw them. But after the memorial and all the work that went into it, I just felt like Juneau was my home again, you know. And so yes, I have gone back, and I intend to go back every couple of years, you know, to see my friends, but also to visit the memorial.
The Empty Chair Memorial in Juneau, Alaska honoring members of Juneau’s Japanese American community that were incarcerated
Viviana: How do you think the experience of camp has affected the rest of your life?

Mary: Well, I’m really—I’m just—how it’s affected my rest of my life? I feel like—I feel more empathetic for the immigrants that are trying to come to America, and I’m appalled that, you know, this president has separated children at the border. And it’s our country as well as him. And then, you know, not becoming a welcoming country as much as we had been when, you know, we used to think that this was a place that welcomed you. But then the reality is we were always going to be different in a way because we—you know, our country of origin, our culture,  and everything was different. But I think that the Japanese experience has been unique in that it covered a certain period of time, a specific group, and was able to become—what do you call it—retribution because of the education of certain activists and the political allies that they were able to get. So it kind of to me is like a pilot or a model for other ethnicities that we need to ally ourselves with. Now, for instance, the African Americans and the Natives Americans, they also suffered injustices, but it was so—it was not—it’s so vast; it’s so big. But it’s nevertheless even more—was kind of like it led up to our, you know, discrimination: the Native discrimination, the African American discrimination, and the Japanese discrimination. It’s something that we all need to keep working on, and we need to ally and recognize that we have; we are Americans, right? That Americans are not necessarily White people or Europeans. We’re all here; we’re all making our country wonderful if we can. But we can because we all—these disagreements, we can keep working at it, right? So I think the camp experience you have to study it, and you have to realize that it was a very difficult learning experience that we need to study.
Mary: Our family had family reunions, and so we wanted—we older ones, that’s my sister and me and my brothers when they were alive—we wanted our children to know that there was a camp and that, you know, if you were interested, we’re willing to talk about it. And as they’ve gotten older, they’ve become more interested. I think what’s really interesting about families is that if something’s really touchy in your family, people really don’t want to talk about it. It’s only when you’re older and farther away that you can talk about it and ask questions, and I think that’s how my daughter is. She really wants to know everything she possibly can. My son is interested but not as interested as my daughter, and their children are kind of, you know, kind of interested, but as I said, it’s hard to believe that, you know, something so terrible could’ve happened to your own family. Isn’t that kind of interesting how people don’t want to talk about things that are—well it’s not funny, but it is probably understandable that people don’t want to talk about things that are hurtful, and you’re afraid that you’ll open doors that have been closed or something like that.

Viviana: I think it’s important, yeah, but also very difficult.

Mary: I agree; it’s very important. We have to feel safe when you do talk about things like that.

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Naomi Oshita

Photo courtesy of Naomi Oshita

Naomi Oshita is a retired public health nurse who was born in the United States in 1938 to Issei parents, four years before she and her family were forcibly removed from her home in Southern California to the Pomona Fairgrounds and then eventually to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.

Naomi experienced incarceration with her older brother, mother, and father. Unlike most people who were incarcerated, Naomi has the unique experience of talking to her parents about camp. Though she was very young during camp, she feels that the experience made a lasting impact on the way that she understands the world.

By Stanley Yip ’21

Naomi: And so, we arrived in Wyoming in August, right after my birthday. And, um… Japanese, basically, are quite passive people. They follow rules, they do what they’re told to do, and it was certainly a time of learning for me, being there from four to seven. We never knew what Wyoming was like. No one had ever been there, and we realized, wow! By August in WYoming and early in September, it snows, not every year, but sometimes. And we soon found that it was going to be a very cold place where we would be living. We had no clothes for the weather. And our winters there, I have found out since then (really quite recently). Our winters went down to minus 35, and in southern California we’re used to the coldest maybe being 50 degrees, but it was often minus 35. We had no clothes for this cold weather, so they did apparently approve of us sending for warmer clothes through the Sears catalogue. And I was still a preschooler. They had, back then, we didn’t call it pre-school — they called it, I think, nursery school,, in which we children age 3, 4, 5 before we start school that we would be permitted to be together with adult supervision. And they, I think, realized after a while that the Japanese were a passive people, so they did permit people to leave the camp to go to work, so my father took that opportunity, he felt that if we could make a little bit of money that they could put away while he was in camp. He took that opportunity and he left us to go to Idaho to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was a timekeeper and he was given a little — I don’t know what you would call it, I never asked daddy what you would — but it was a little mode of transportation that is on the railroad rails that he would go just twice a day to make sure the workers were at work and doing work, and so he was considered a timekeeper. So he actually had some freedom, he said, so he was able to go fishing, and Daddy fished everyday as a child in Japan, because where they lived was right next to the ocean. So he was used to fishing, and so he did not live with us the entire time, but he was there part of the time with us. And Mom was alone with my brother and I and she struggled, because she had asthma and some lung conditions, and it was very windy — all these camps were built in desolate areas. I think because it would keep us from running away. They were far away from any town. So, Mom struggled.

We all had a coal burning stove in our barracks, and each barrack housed one family — err six families. The two ends were smaller for a couple, and the others, I believe, were 20 by 24. So if you had six kids, too bad! You live in one room. And so, I learned from very young, no one complained! I couldn’t believe; this difficult time, and no one is complaining! In the Japanese culture we have a word called gaman. I don’t know if you’ve heard that word at all. It means to do the best you can under the circumstances. It is endurance, perseverance, and the nature that God has given me in my personality, I watch people and I listen to people, and that is how I have learned all my life — by watching people and listening to them talk. And I rarely heard complaining. They did the best they could under the circumstance. And of course, the greatest lesson I learned from camp is really, as I grow up from adulthood, looking back. When I’m a child of 4-7, you know, these lessons don’t come to you (laughs). You’re just there living life. But as I look back, I really feel: being in camp defined who I am today. I have learned to live with gratitude for what this country now affords us: freedom.
Family posing with barracks and Heart Mountain in the background.
Courtesy of Yoshio Okumoto
Naomi: I had, at six, I was enrolled in school in the first grade. I had the most wonderful teacher. She was a caucasian woman from Colorado who volunteered to come to a camp to teach, and she was kind. We were in a class, my first grade class. She had an 18 year old who was her assistant, and there were I believe 40 students in that class. Japanese, because I say we were, by nature, in our culture, passive. We really — everybody listened to our teacher. I know she never had to tell us “Now I want you to be quiet, I don’t want you to talk”. Everybody was respectful when she was up there, we all remained very quiet. And um, she was kind.

While I was in school, in the first grade, I had to have a tonsillectomy, and I was out for about a week I think. And I came home from the hospital. I told my mother “Oh mommy, the nurses are so kind! And if you can be that kind while you’re working, I want to be a nurse!!” So at six, I decided to be a nurse. I never wavered! Never, ever thought of anything else, but being a nurse. And my mother said she came to visit you, gave you a book so had you something to do while you were at home recovering, and umm, well Mom wrote her a thank you note and gave her a little silk vest. And to the time mom died, she said “I don’t know what was in my mind, taking that little silk vest to camp!” It’s a little silk vest that a child wears until about they’re a year old. And of course you were going to camp and you were about to be 4. Why I took that, it must’ve had special significance to her, and so she took that and she gave that to the teacher with a thank you note for being so kind. But that teacher wrote to me after we came back from camp and I don’t know how long I corresponded with her, but she was the kindest, most thoughtful person, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. It’s just etched in my mind.

Well, I have always taken a special interest in camp, and I’ve met some of my parents’ friends, and this one guy. Japanese, you know, the generation of our parents, they were almost all from Japan. My father was from Japan, but my mother was born here in Fresno, in California. And so, all of my friends who are the same age, they’re all in their 80s. Their parents were all from japan, so they all have Japanese first names, and so often as teenagers, especially the boys, they gave themselves an American name. And this one guy, he named himself Bacon, like bacon and eggs. and he’s very active in Heart Mountain, still. He lives out here, he’s a friend of mine. And one day he called and said “Naomi, I have something, can I come over? I want to show you what I got in a package”. Well my teacher, my first grade teacher Mrs. Snyder saved some things, and as she got older and she decided that she shouldn’t keep these things, it should be sent to some of the Japanese. Well she apparently had a Japanese friend in Colorado where she was living, and that friend sent this box to Bacon. And Bacon showed me this and oh I cried when he came. She saved some of my schoolwork from first grade! I did not want to just print. No! I wanted to do cursive, I wanted to do handwriting, so I did some of my schoolwork in cursive. So she saved some of my schoolwork. In there was my vest, the silk vest my mom gave her with that thank you note, and other things that were from camp that apparently other people gave her. And Bacon said, you know, “you take whatever you want from this box Naomi”, and there were pictures of my class! And it showed the first picture of our class when school started, and I was only there in first grade and after first grade I left to come home, and the last picture was apparently when we were all going to leave or school was ending in like June.

My birthday’s in August and she apparently celebrated birthdays, but since three of us had birthdays in the summer when we wouldn’t have school, she also celebrated the three of us, our birthdays. She had a birthday cake and there’s a picture of the three of us holding the cake with candles. And you know, I see the picture of her, the one school year I was in first grade. Oh, she must’ve aged 10-20 years. On the back of one of the pictures she wrote, “If only these children knew what was going on, what was going on through this war and the camp situation”. She had such tenderness and love to us. I will never, ever forget her.
“Japanese and Caucasian nurses in front of Nurse Quarter,” 1943
Courtesy of Yoshio Okumoto
First grade students and teacher at Heart Mountain
Courtesy of the Dell Family Collection
Naomi: When I came back, I was seven. And I think that most people and I was not even aware until really quite just a few years ago, in the Japanese culture, you protect your children. From difficult times, we don’t talk about it. None of my friends, I went back to the church where we went, before we were sent to camp. There were probably 30 to 40 of us. We formed a teenage club. And we still meet. That church is gone, we still meet once a year. And I only found out about 10 years ago, and there’s only about 20 of us alive in that group that met together. None of them ever talk to their parents about camp. None. No one. I am the only one. They have hardly a recollection. They said, I remember, if they were in Heart Mountain, it was cold. It’s all I remember. It was so cold. So I’ve tried to share with them what, you know, my dad, we came back. And Daddy said, you know, “there is a white couple, across the street a few houses up, that’s passing a petition around.” And he explained I was– I probably was either seven or eight, he said– he explained so my brother and I would understand what a petition was. It said, we don’t want the Japs here. We went back to our home. The Japanese could not own property if you weren’t citizens. So none of those families went back to their home. Our church provided about eight families a place to live and it was small: one toilet for men and one toilet for women and I think there were eight families living in the social hall. But because mom was born here, we had a home; our neighbor took care of it. But anyway, this neighbor said, “we don’t want the Japs here.” So he was walking in the neighborhood getting people to sign and some — back then we called them blacks — moved in and they would not sign the petition. And my father told us exactly what was going on. And he said “the blacks have experienced prejudice so they know what it’s like. So they would not sign the petition.” But he said, “You are not to say that the blacks are good because they wouldn’t sign the petition and that white couple bad. That is judging people. We are never to judge people. God is the only judge.”

But my father was very open about talking about camp. And he said to my brother, “we all have an opportunity to change people’s thinking.” And so he said, “I want you kids to live with kindness, unselfishness, integrity, gratitude. So when you see that white man who’s passing the petition around, he’s struggling to bring his garbage can out– back then we would call it a garbage can.” He told my brother “You go help him! You go help him. And you know how we live every day. We can change people’s thinking about us. We can change it around. It is how you live your life every day that makes a difference in this world today.” So my father was always positive, always positive, seeing the good in everything. And he just– both my parents were that way. They were humble. They never talked about themselves. They never talked about how they helped someone. It’s only after my parents died, that people would tell me little things that my parents did. And I just feel that everything I experienced– oh, and this is what he told us when we came back from camp, “In every good and bad experience of life”, and he was kind of referring back to camp, but everything, “there is a lesson for you.” And because we were Christian, he added this part, “It is your responsibility to ask God, what is the lesson he wants you to learn?” And I’ve thought about camp all my life. Still be grateful that we are in this land of freedom. It is how you live your life, how you look at life, that will determine if you’re happy or that you will carry this burden of hatred or you know, of a difficult experience. That weight becomes heavier and heavier and our parents stress forgiveness in life because life is too precious to be carrying a heavy, heavy burden that really doesn’t help but hurts. So I’ve, I’ve looked at camp and life hopefully with a positive attitude.
An embroidered piece by Asano Ota showing Heart Mountain.
Courtesy of the Doris and Carl Saito Collection
Naomi: I feel, maybe that’s not the correct word, in some ways grateful that I was put into that situation. And I have, my husband has passed away. But I used to tell him, you know, God put me on this Earth exactly when he knew I should be here because I went to camp. My husband was from Hawaii, three years younger. He was born just before Pearl Harbor was attacked. And so I said, “Boy, you might have had something to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor”. But he took interest in every bit of my life. So we have been up to Heart Mountain many times before what exists today! And my son has taken an interest, he climbed Heart Mountain with a group of 75 people when it was dedicated in 2011. And I have tried to really share with my son so much of my childhood in camp. I don’t look back at it. I mean, there were, yes, difficulties. We were so poor, but you’re as a child, you don’t know you’re poor, you don’t. And of course, life when I came back at seven was far better here than being in a camp. And one day when we were in camp, my brother– our brother doesn’t talk much about camp, I don’t know, he– and he doesn’t live close by to me. So I haven’t talked much to him about camp. But he told me this. He said, “One day when I was in camp, I asked the guards, the prison guards, what are you doing?” And the guard shouted back at me, “I’m protecting you!” And my brother, who is not a person who talks back, said, “Well, if you’re protecting us, why do you have your rifles pointed at us?” And the guard just walked away. So I think I understand some people’s, you know, reason for not wanting to talk about camp and just remain silent.

But for me, I just think it’s a learning– life is a learning experience. And I do, I do try to share, and I try to share in a positive way, I would say, I share my experiences, at least once a week, once a week, often– often to strangers. We are often at Costco or at a store. And, you know, they’re– they’re complaining or they’re– they’re complaining about the election or, you know, different things in life. I said– I said, “we still live in a wonderful country.” And then immediately, I would say, you know, “I’m Japanese and in World War Two, we were taken away and put into a concentration camp.” But I tried to really emphasize positiveness in my story. There is still so much to be grateful for. And when you live with gratitude, or your heart is filled with gratitude, you do live with gratitude. Oh, and they would say, “I never thought of life that way.” And so I just, it’s almost like a burden that I have that I share. Because, you know, I would say all of us in our 80s, we’re the youngest of the group that was in the camp. So once we’re gone, you know, there are no people alive that actually experience what we did. And so I just feel a burden to share this. It is not just just the negative. I said I learned so much how you can still remain positive, because that’s kind of how the Japanese attitude was.

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Reiko Nakano

“Untitled,” painted by Estelle Peck Ishigo, depicts Heart Mountain and the rough landscape of camp.
Image courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum,
Estelle Ishigo Collection

Reiko Nagano is a Nisei elder who has spent much of her life navigating her racial and cultural identities within the Japanese American communities of Los Angeles.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Reiko—who was only five years old at the time of the incarceration—and her family were removed from their home and incarcerated at Heart Mountain. While most of her childhood memories of camp are pleasant, Reiko forever has her family number ‘1522D’ embedded in memory. She found community within an Issei-run church community after her family moved back to Los Angeles in 1945. Reiko entered the third grade that year, and recalls having to prove how “good” of an American she was throughout the rest of middle and high school. She speaks to how she didn’t connect much with her Japanese identity until meeting her husband, who is Kibei and nearly had an opposite experience growing up in comparison with Reiko. He fought for Japan in the war, and instead had to prove himself in spite of his American birthplace.

Reiko also traces much of her understanding of trauma to experiences long after leaving camp, experiencing sexualization as a young woman in the workplace and engaging in Japanese art and history showcases in LA. She and her husband traveled to Heart Mountain two years ago for a pilgrimage with their children and grandson, and Nagano mentions that this experience was what truly allowed her to fully understand redress. She remains penpals with many who were also delving into their histories and still holds onto a cane signed by those from her bus. She, her husband, and that cane all continue to reside in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles today. 

By Ren L[I]u ’23

Reiko: And that, that, that, plus my father’s dictum, which was that, we, we three kids had to prove that we were good Americans. And I remember asking him, why, why do I have to prove that I’m good? What have I done that so bad, you know, and I don’t remember the explanation. But that thing of doing well pleasing, achieving and getting the honors, that was really, I didn’t tell too many Japanese American kids. And I think it really molded our personalities. And, and, and they, they were good things. But for you know, for example, when I got accepted to UCLA, I didn’t have to take the subject a exam because my English skills were pretty good. So I just got right into regular English class. However, I guess it affected my identity. I always felt that I had to prove that I belonged where I was.
Reiko: No, no, at that time, I didn’t have any Japanese identity at all. I was an American. And since my mom didn’t speak very much English. And my brother, my younger brother had trouble in school. So whenever the teacher called mom for a conference, I had to go and I just speak like an adult and you know, you know, asked mom in broken English, and then she would tell me in Japanese, and then I would translate to the teacher. But I did it as an American, I really didn’t feel any connection to Japan, until after I married my husband, because his entire family was still in Osaka.
Reiko: We had lots of fun as kids, you know, we we and I don’t— I’m not even sure of what my parents were doing. I don’t know about my dad. I know what my mom was doing because I followed her around but I don’t know what my dad was doing. But I do know that whatever food they gave us, there was an awful lot of uncooked pork. So my dad’s health deteriorated in camp. And then after we left camp, mom never never cooked pork. Never. I cook it now but you know, she just, it just brings back bad memories.
Group of young ladies posing together with Heart Mountain in background, photo by Yoshio Okumoto.
Courtesy of Grace Kawakami
Reiko: I think I think the trauma part started more when we left camp, and then it was the insecurity of Where are we going? And who are the people going to be and they’re not all going to be Japanese Americans. And are they going to be friendly and, and the racial prejudice but I, I don’t I don’t remember having I don’t remember having any really negative experiences being Japanese American.

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Sam Mihara

Photo courtesy of Sam Mihara

Sam Mihara is a retired Boeing rocket scientist and now spends his time educating students, teachers, and the public on Japanese incarceration during World War II. Born and raised in San Francisco, Sam was only 9 years old when he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in California and sent to Pomona Assembly Center, a temporary detention center.  Soon after, his family was moved to and incarcerated at Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming.  Sam and his family spent 3 years at the camp and lived together in a cramped room that was part of a larger barracks. Sam attended school at Heart Mountain and it was there where he was inspired to become an engineer.

The Mihara family, 1937. Sam is in front, with folded arms, about age 4, between his older brother and grandparents. Sam’s parents are standing.
Photo courtesy of Sam Mihara

Although Sam was very young at the time, he remembers his prisoner number, that his family lived in Barrack C and that it felt like a prison.  While in camp, Mr. Mihara spent a large amount of time in the hospital, as his grandfather had cancer and his father was going blind.  Due to the inadequate care given at Heart Mountain, his grandfather died in camp and his father went completely blind.  After the war, he and his family moved back to J-Town in San Francisco where they struggled to survive as his father could not find work.  Despite the hardships, Mr. Mihara’s parents pushed for all of their children to attend college.  With their backing, Mr. Mihara earned his bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley and earned his master’s at UCLA.

After speaking at Heart Mountain over 10 years ago, Sam recognized a dire need to have conversations and further education on the civil rights violations and inhumane prison conditions Japanese endured in the US. He has, therefore, dedicated his time to public speaking through the Memories of Heart Mountain presentation that he gives at universities/schools across the country, and at the annual Heart Mountain pilgrimage (an event for which he is on the board of directors). In addition to public speaking, Sam appears in Memories of Five Nisei: The Untold Stories of Five Former Prisoners, and has published a memoir–Blindsided: The Life and Times of Sam Mihara. Both projects reflect Sam’s primary goal: informing the younger generation and facilitating a healing process for former incarcerees, all while ensuring such a human rights atrocity never occurs again.  

By Charlinda Banks ’24 and Timothy Nakamoto ’24

Charlinda: You said the people of Cody (Wyoming) wanted the camps built as prisons. As a child when you were there, did the camp feel like a prison to you?

Sam: When I saw guard towers with soldiers, with weapons and searchlights pointing in toward us and warning signs on the perimeter, on the fence that say “do not cross” “warning, you could get shot,” I knew something was wrong, you know. I probably didn’t know the term prison in those days—I was nine years old—but I could certainly feel like I was locked up. And I wouldn’t dare get close to that fence because of the warning. That defines a prison, if you’re restrained to a given location with a warning that you can get hurt if you try to cross. That is being imprisoned, so there’s no question in my mind I felt that way.
“Men and women gathered around barbed wire fence” at Heart Mountain
Courtesy of Yoshio Okumoto
Charlinda: Did learning about racial hatred at so young an age affect your view of America and patriotism?

Sam: I have a couple of comments. Number one: the hate was not uniform throughout the entire United States. In fact, the percentage of people who had that degree of hate was relatively small. A large majority sympathized with our cause, in fact, a lot of them tried to help us out in the camps, sending in materials and books and helping us get jobs after the camps around the country. So it’s more accurate to say that a part of the country had a high degree of hate.

Am I bitter today against what the government did? And the answer is, well, sure I have some basic bitterness against the people of 1942 and against the leaders of 1942. But on the other hand, the people of today, in general, are different. I think they’re better educated and I think that equal opportunity and civil rights for all is something that many young people today are learning about more than they ever had. And most important, this is still a great country. I could think of other countries where I cannot do what I’m doing. I can’t speak out against the government, I’d be in jail if I did that. But here in America, I can do that, and still, it’s an area where you can feel free to speak, you can pursue the kind of career that you want to, and that’s what makes America great. The point is, today this is a better America than we’ve had before, and hopefully it will get even better.
Original WRA caption: Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Scene at the emergency entrance of the Heart Mountain Hospital, as obstetrics case is brought in. Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Timothy: Did you personally talk to your parents about their experiences in camp?

Sam: With my parents—absolutely. Because I lived it. In my longer talk, I talk about what happened to my parents, in particular my father. He went blind in the camp, and I saw him going blind because he had no medical attention. There was no person skilled to take care of it. And the government would not let him go back to see a specialist in San Francisco where he was being treated before the war. And I remember living and watching my grandfather die in the camp and one reason he died—he died of cancer—I looked at his medical records and I found out they were treating him horribly. Literally they were trying to hasten his death by starving him. We had no doctors who knew anything about how to take care of cancer and so that’s an example of the inhumane treatment that we were given during the camp days.
Sam Mihara (center) after speaking with Matoaca High School students and faculty about his experiences as a child in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II (January 2015).
Courtesy of Chesterfield Observer.

Return to Narrators

Using oral history methods @ home!

We invite you to consider recording your own oral histories – from your own life, of a family member, or of someone in your community! Below, we’ve shared a few reflections on best practices from our own experiences. We’ve also included some information about the app, Saga, that we used to record most of the oral histories you just experienced.

Who we are:

Curatorial Team

Amelia Chalfant: Amelia (they/them) is a sophomore from Northampton, Massachusetts pursuing a double concentration in American Studies and Music at Brown University. They spend their time writing songs, embroidering clothing for their friends, and listening to podcasts in an effort to learn as much as humanly possible. 

Naya Lee Chang: Naya (she/her) is a multimedia artist and second-year dual degree student at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, where she is pursuing a BA in American Studies and a BFA in Furniture Design. She grew up in the California Bay Area and enjoys reading novels and making artist books.

Ren L[I]u: Ren (they/them) calls the lands known as Los Angeles, C.A. (Tongva) and Providence, R.I. (Wampanoag and Narragansett) home. They are currently concentrating in Ethnic Studies at Brown University, and are interested in intergenerational connection particularly through art and oral history. Their work is always informed by their grandma, who they really really miss. 

Miya Matsuishi-Elhardt: Miya (she/her) is a rokusei descendant of prisoners held at Poston and Topaz. She is currently a sophomore at Brown University, where she is studying Ethnic Studies and Modern Culture and Media. She lives in the Bay Area with her two small dogs, Langston and Mochi.

Grace Xiao: Grace (she/her/hers) is a first-year student originally from the Dallas, Texas area. She is planning on concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, spending time with her corgi, and watching Studio Ghibli films.

Stanley Yip: Stanley (he/they) is a senior from Las Vegas, Nevada studying Computer Science and Music at Brown University. He spends his free time cooking, playing video games, and learning how to grow as a musician.

Erin Aoyama: Erin (she/her) is a fourth-year PhD student in the department of American Studies. Erin, a yonsei whose family was incarcerated at Heart Mountain during WWII, was the instructor for the course “Japanese American Incarceration: Past & Present Encounters with the Racial State,” the final project of which became the foundation for this exhibit. Erin’s research is interested in questions of race, memory, nationalism, and historical repair, with a specific focus on the Japanese American redress movement.

Oral History Interviewers

Charlinda Banks (she/her): International and Public Affairs, Class of 2024 from New York

Thomas Castleman (he/him): Computer Science, Class of 2023 from Charlottesville, VA

Jadey Hagiwara (she/her): Computer Science, Class of 2023 from Honolulu, HI  

Timothy Nakamoto (he/him): Economics, Class of 2024 from Hilo, HI 

Julianne Schwerdtfeger (she/her): Class of 2024 from Los Angeles, CA

Viviana Wei (she/her): Class of 2024 from Cooper City, FL 

Ronald Yuan (he/him): Class of 2023 from Birmingham, AL 

Curatorial Statement & acknowledgements

This exhibit emerges out of the final project from an intro American Studies course taught last semester, in which students conducted oral history interviews of Japanese American elders, all of whom were impacted by the removal and incarceration of west coast Japanese Americans during World War II. A major emphasis of the project, and of the class as a whole, was thinking about how we learn what counts as “history” – what stories do we hear and what stories get silenced or left out of the archives and the textbooks? – and how, in turn, these “histories” are shared with various publics. 

Our hope is that visitors will come away from this collaboratively curated exhibit with a deeper, more complex understanding of the histories of Japanese American incarceration – and of the very processes of historical memory and narrativization. Hearing stories from ten Japanese American elders alongside reflections from the students who conducted the interviews, Storytelling (as History) will serve as a reminder, we hope, that history is an interactive, ongoing story that must be told in many voices.

We would to thank the many folks who made this exhibit possible. First and foremost, our narrators – Adeline, Alice, Amy, Bacon, Fujiko, Hideko, Joe, Mary, Naomi, Reiko, and Sam – who so generously shared their time and their memories with us.

Thank you to the families of our narrators, who helped facilitate interviews or sent photos. Without Hanako Wakatsuki, Julie Abo, Kimiko Marr, and Amelia Lin, this project would not have been possible – thank you for your time, expertise, and generosity. And thank you to Caroline Cunfer, for sharing your oral history expertise with us.

Many of the images featured in this exhibit, as well as the historical context that undergirded our entire semester, come from Densho – an invaluable resource. Thank you, Densho, for all of the historical caretaking work you have done to preserve and educate about the histories of Japanese America.

Please reach out to Erin Aoyama ([email protected]) with any questions, comments, or reflections.

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