Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II share their shocking experiences in front of many students on Wednesday February 17, 2010 at the University of California, Irvine.
By: Chie Kobayashi
The clock strikes 6:30pm and the low hum of whispers fill Doheny Beach rooms A & B in the student center of University of California, Irvine. It is time for Tomo No Kai, the Japanese/ Japanese American culture club to host their annual “Day of Remembrance” event on campus. This event commemorates the men and women who were held in Japanese/ Japanese American internment camps during World War II.
Each year, men and women who interned in these camps are invited to come in and speak of their experiences that changed their lives forever. This event was designed to reach out to the community, and to educate students and faculty on the Japanese/ Japanese American history.
“Day of Remembrance is a great way to show students and faculty the history of Japanese Americans in the United States” says Kristen Wong, president of Tomo No Kai. “I always feel so grateful for the life I’m living now compared to what these men and women had to go through.”
Guest speakers for this year include John Kitamura, Kiyo Watanabe and Harry Nakagawa. John and Kiyo were interned at Manzanar, California while Harry was interned at Tule Lake, California.
“Every year, we bring these guests in to educate and spread the history of Japanese Americans to college students” states Tomo No Kai sophomore member Randy Shiozaki. “I always heard about internment camps from my grandparents that were also interned in Manzanar but I never really knew the details of what went on in the camps because I never really dared to ask my grandparents.”
On February 19, 1942, soon after the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which commenced the round up of Americans of Japanese heritage.
According to www.nps.gov, more than 110,000 men, women and children were forced to leave their homes and were detained in ten different remote military-style internment camps across the United States. The internees were met with camps surrounded by barbed wire fences, unpartitioned toilets and a budget roughly around 45 cents daily per capita for food rations.
Kristen Wong wearing a pearl necklace and a black dress outlined in lace gives the opening words to the event. She introduces the three speakers and proceeds to sit down in an open seat after signaling Harry to go up and give his speech.
79 year old Harry Nakagawa, bald in the center of his head slowly gets up and proceeds to the podium as he fixes his collar of his grey and blue dress shirt. Harry is a second-generation Japanese American and a retired civil engineer. He currently lives in Arcadia, California. Harry was sent to the internment camp at Tule Lake, California when he was just 12 years old. Leaving his home in Sacramento, California and heading to the internment camp seemed incredibly unreal to him.
“It was around late May in 1942. I remember my parents coming into my room and telling my younger brother James and me that we had to leave our home. That’s when I looked at my brother and we both said, “Why?” I think at that time, I was too young to completely understand. I thought we were going to a hotel and staying there for a couple days. My father, mother, James and I packed our belongings into two brown suit cases, and left everything else behind. We literally just had the clothes on our backs, and some extra belongings. I remember James was crying because he couldn’t take his toy train. We kept on asking how long we had to leave for. But “I don’t know” was the only response that came back from my parents” Harry said.
Most internees lost or had to sell their homes at a great loss and close down numerous businesses. They had no idea when they were coming back.
Nothing except silence and intent concentration comes from the audience. Harry sips on water.
“We arrived at the camp located at Tule Lake, California. The camp was surrounded by nothing but flat land and dust. The camp just simply looked uninviting to me. We lined up in a single file line, as the officers of the camp inspected us and checked us in. The room that my family was put into was at the edge of our barrack. The room was definitely way too small for a family of four.” Harry chuckles. “My mother had to hang sheets from the ceiling to create a section where she could change and get some privacy.”
A family occupied a single room of 25 by 20 feet. Housing provided was tarpaper covered barracks without plumbing or cooking facilities. A bath, laundry and toilet building was shared by more than 250 people. Poor food, cramped quarters and communal facilities were common at every camp.
Segregation took place within these camps between the internees. Issei, or first generation Japanese immigrants were deprived of traditional status and respect, while Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans were permitted positions of authority within the camps.
Harry continues his speech by saying, “I hated living at Tule Lake. I was utterly miserable in the beginning. Living in these camps took awhile to get used to. After some time had passed, James and I met a couple kids around our age living near our barrack that we started to play with. We used to draw pictures with a stick in the ground during our pass time.”
Contrary to popular belief, many Japanese Americans did not accept the treatment that they received. Riots and protest demonstrations often occurred in many of the internment camps.
Trumanlibrary.org declares that the Tule Lake relocation center in June of 1943 was selected as the place where evacuees who were perceived to be loyal to Japan rather than to the United States were to be sent. Tule Lake became one of the most turbulent camps, where internees frequently held protest demonstrations and strikes against the United States government. The Tule Lake internment camp was opened on May 27, 1942 and closed on March 20, 1946 with the peak population being 18,789.
While Tule Lake received a lot of political action, John Kitamura and Kiyo Watanabe lead lives of solidarity at the internment camp located at Manzanar, California. Manzanar is one of the most famous internment camps known today, mainly from the book and movie titled “Farewell to Manzanar” written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.
The internment camp located at Manzanar, California was the first of the ten camps to open their doors. It was opened on March 21, 1942 and was shut down on November 21, 1945. The peak population was 10,046.
John Kitamura is a 67 year old retired automobile worker who is originally from the San Fernando Valley when he was relocated to the camps. He now lives in Cypress, California. John was sent to Manzanar when he was just 8 years old.
“I can still remember how the camp was, just like it was yesterday” states John, as he adjusts his pair of Ray-Ban reading glasses on his nose with his index finger. “It was definitely not the best place to be when you are only 8 years old.”
The crowd seemed to renew their attention, when 69 year old second-generation retired nurse Kiyo Watanabe took to the stage. Kiyo wore her grey hair neatly permed into perfect curls. She is also from the San Fernando Valley, and wore a nice top decorated in elaborate purple and black flower designs. At the age of 10, Kiyo and her family left their homes to relocate to Manzanar to live a life surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.
Kiyo had one main message for the audience in the room and the whole world to hear: “I do not want pity and sympathy from people who hear my experience of being interned at Manzanar” declares Kiyo. “I want the world to take our experiences as an example that such a thing should never happen again. My life was affected drastically by my internment, and I do not want anyone to go through such suffering and discrimination ever again.”
The experience that these Japanese/ Japanese Americans endured is unimaginable. The three guest speakers John, Kiyo and Harry have left a lasting impression on all that was present in the room.
“I was really intrigued by what the guest speakers had to say in their speeches” says Jennifer Tran, a UCI student who attended the event. “It was definitely more impactful and convincing hearing the stories from people who actually went to these internment camps. After hearing the three speeches especially Kiyo’s, I am even more captivated by the Japanese culture. If the internees do not speak of their experiences, Japanese American history would be lost, so it is absolutely important to spread the word! What happened back then changed how it is for the Japanese Americans today. I am glad I attended tonight, because I felt like I learned a chunk of Japanese American history in less than 2 hours. I feel so knowledgeable now!”
According to www.pbs.org, through the efforts of leaders and advocates of the Japanese American community, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 almost 50 years later. This act acknowledged that a “grave injustice was done” and mandated Congress to pay each victim of internment $20,000 in reparations. Although reparations could never replace the atrocious experiences, a signed apology from the President of the United States on behalf of the American people was also sent to the internees.
Despite this redress, the trauma of the internment experience still continues to affect the mental and physical health of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. Health studies have shown a 2 times greater incidence of heart disease and premature death among former internees, compared to non-interned Japanese Americans.
The “Day of Remembrance” will continue to spread the words and experiences of the Japanese/ Japanese Americans in the years to come.