Oral History Series presented through the Concord-Carlisle Adult Education
Renee Garrelick, Coordinator.
The mass incarceration during World War II those of Japanese decent living along the West Coast remains a blighted chapter of American history.
Tama and Jiro Ishihara relate the forced deportment from their California homes in 1942 to internment camps. They each became eligible to receive reparations of $20,000 when President Reagan signed a bill in 1988 to redress the loss of liberty to Japanese-Americans evacuated from their homes.
Many of their generation of nisei had been silent about the war experience. It was their children's generation, the sansei, who pushed for the current legislation and a government apology. The Ishiharas donated the $40,000 reparations payment they received this month to the Concord-Carlisle Scholarship Fund in memory of their parents, Tameji and Chiyo Yoshimura and Seitara and Shina Ishihara. An expression of hope to guide a future generation in knowledge, compassion, and tolerance.
Tama: On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a Civil Liberties Act of 1988 often referred to as the Redress Reparation Stop Bill. I'd like to read the opening sentences of that speech.
"More than fifty years ago shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in make shift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent. How can such an event happen? Well, the U.S. government played a semantics game. Although Japanese-Americans were being forced against their will and held in barbed wire compounds, the U.S. Government called the event an evacuation and relocation. Imprisonment was clearly against the Constitution, but evacuation/relocation can be interpreted otherwise."
So these were the okay words that were used over and over again prior to the movement of Japanese into the camps. The mass incarceration internment was called an evacuation and relocation but it was truly being confined and being held against their will. The places and camps where Japanese were put were really not concentration camps, prisons, detention centers but the U.S. Government called them assembly centers, relocation centers. The prisoners were called evacuees and the Americans were called non aliens. In April 1942 I was no longer Tama Yoshimura from Richmond, California. I was a non-alien NO. 13563.
Tama: My family was evacuated from Richmond, California, which is a town about 14 miles north of Berkeley of about 30,000 at that time. Our family consisted of my parents, my older sister and myself. We lived in Richmond equal and normal. We never really felt any racial discrimination. Perhaps because my sister and I were too young and too naive to realize if some things that happened to us had racial tones to it. Our parents never mentioned anything much. I think our parents would have talked about it. We lived in Richmond which was a very small town, and we lived in an all white neighborhood and we felt quite accepted. In April 1942, our family was sent to campgrounds in San Bruno, which was a fairground and racetrack. We were there until October 1942 when we were moved to Topaz Relocation Center. Topaz Relocation Center was just about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City, and it was vast desert area. Here is an artist's drawing of the camp.
The focus and emphasis of the war relocation authority was to set up a town, a community, that was as normal as possible considering the situation. So schools were set up and churches and a hospital. This is the hospital where Dr. Boardman was medical director or he was certainly on the staff. Actually the internees amazingly ran the whole camp. They provided the staffing for the jobs that operated the whole center. It was really remarkable that they did this, and they did this well.
The lack of privacy was probably the single most disturbing factor in the camp. There were community living quarters, community latrines, community mess halls and laundries. The camp was one mile square and within that were blocks, and each block contained twelve barracks, roughly about 200 people in each block. Each block had a community latrine, showers, laundry and dining hall.
In each family, with the kind of background culture they came from, there was a strong emphasis on keeping the families together. But they found in camp that so many children were choosing to eat with their friends instead of family and the nisei were quite upset and thought they were losing control. In our particular case we had a very strong mother and we always ate together.
The focus of the WRA was to set up a formal community, but the barbed wire fence, which enclosed the whole camp, with an armed sentry and all the guard towers was a daily reminder that we were indeed prisoners. I left Topaz in September 1944. I left to go to college in Wisconsin. My leave was sponsored by the National Student Relocation Council which was set up in May 1942. It's a Quaker-based organization in Philadelphia. There were several Quakers that came to camp as teachers or worked in the hospital. They were conscientious objectors, I believe Dr. Boardman was one of them.
Jiro: My father came to the U.S. in 1907. He came with five of his friends and landed in Seattle. He worked at odd jobs. He came to make his fortune and go home. Having not done that, time started stretching out and with all these restrictive type things showing up, his parents decided that what he needed was a wife. Although the gentlemen's agreement was going to cut off all working types, it was possible for family to join persons who were already here in the States. The marriage was arranged through the family, my mother was married in a picture ceremony in Japan. I always thought that was unusual to the Japanese, but then I read later on that it wasn't just Japanese. It seems that was some of the Irish immigrants entered the U.S. in that manner.
My mother arrived in San Francisco in 1912. In fact they were married in a civil ceremony in San Francisco. He did farming in Eagle Rock which was a farm country outside of LA. From that he worked as a commercial fisherman out of Terminal Island, and when I was born, I'm the youngest of six, in 1925, he was working as a gardner. At the time of the war, he was selling or peddling fruit and vegetables from a truck route.
The community that I grew up in was bounded by major roads. There was no fence there but as kids you would know there wasn't a nonwhite face outside of that area. We walked to a grammar school in the area, but I had to commute quite a way to get to high school. I always thought that the majority were Japanese until I started to read. It turned out that within this block there were only 1500 Japanese. I go back and I look at my junior high annual and most of my class are not Japanese. But to me the world I was in was Japanese outside of some very good friends.
Comes Pearl Harbor. Our family was at church. In fact I was at church for some unusual reason. We started hearing these rumblings about the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor, which we thought was just some more rumors against us, but we soon found out that it was true. It was just outright fear. I remember just not knowing what was going to happen. The two houses next to us happened to be rooming houses with a lot of single men living there. I know one man was picked up that afternoon. He was all dressed ready to go, he must have known they were coming to pick him up. So it was not as if our intelligence service hadn't done their homework.
After this initial pickup of this group, this search and seizure starts to get out of hand. There were all kinds of rumors in the community, so and so was picked up because they had a magazine, so and so was picked up because they had a model airplane. My parents burned everything and anything that had Japanese on it.
My older sister was married and had a child and they lived in what had become a military sensitive area. My second sister was married to a man that lived and worked in New York and had arrived just several years before the war in LA. So in that little window of 3 weeks they took off for New York and settled later in Chicago. I have to account for my brother. My brother is a family tragedy that I would rather not talk about. The only comfort is that he died two years ago and he buried with my parents in Englewood, California. So that left two older sisters, myself and my parents.
We were shipped off to Santa Anita. It was very convenient for us because our control center happened to be St. Mary's Episcopal Church, which happened to be across the street about two blocks up. It was possible that if you were within some mileage of the assembly center to which you were to be transported that you could bring your own transportation, if you were willing to abandon it once you got there. So my father on that day that we moved parked the truck out front and loaded everything. The house was rented but the owner gave us permission to store things. We had a whole four-car garage so we stored everything, all our household things, and some other neighbors' things, and I remember just boarding up that four-car garage. So we drove the truck to Santa Anita.
I don't recall anybody coming to see us off. All I recall is I didn't see any reason why it took soldiers in full battle dress with fixed bayonets standing around to impress us. So my father and I drove off in the truck in a convoy. Today by freeway it's probably about 20 minutes, but back then it was about an hour ride. My sisters and my mother went by bus.
I remember the first day at Santa Anita. Just getting there, we were assigned a room that was 20'x12' for my sisters, myself, and my parents. It must have been the worst grade lumber there was because even the partition had knot holes in it so there was no privacy at all. However, we felt lucky because we had seen the people who had come earlier and had been put away in the stables.
One of the things about camp that I think everybody remembers besides the lack of privacy are dust storms and the long lines. At Santa Anita, one mess hall fed 6000 at a meal. Most of the others served 3000 people at a meal. So it was getting in line for the next meal or getting in line to fill out a form or what have you. Even going to the toilet you had to line up in line, and the smell of overflowing cesspools and things, which I really didn't smell again until I came to New England.
But after a few days I noticed this notice that said anybody with a bicycle could be a messenger. I was only sixteen but they gave me a job because I had a bicycle. Some day somebody's going to ask me why I had a bicycle but I won't go into that! The only perk about this messenger job was that since there was no one place that you would in camp, they gave us colored key tokens for the assigned mess halls. There were six colors. The messengers had this perk of being able to eat at all six mess halls. So my big game used to be to see how many mess halls I could make at any one meal. However, the negative part was that I soon realize that I part of them. I was part of the "administration." Most of the jobs available were dishwashing, pot washing or latrine duty so I could see the handwriting on the wall. I wasn't about to get beat up. Having now connections within the "administration," I got myself a job as a dishwasher. This was three hours, three meals, two days on, one day off. The pay was $8.00 a month with room and board. It was a tough job. I could see why they always had openings.
Again being a wise kid that I was, I realized that now I could get in without waiting in line and I didn't have to eat my ice cream first or my jello first because the stainless steel plate, these compartmental stainless steel plates would get hot by the time they went through the dishwasher a few times, it would melt. So you'd come in and you had to eat the things that melted first. I didn't have that problem any more working as a dishwasher. But I always felt that the guys in the kitchen were eating better. The next job that there was always openings for was pot washer. That's not only dangerous but a tough job. Same thing, three hours, two days on, and so on.
It turns out, now that I have read up on it, that our neighborhood was the one of the last ones to be moved out of Santa Anita. The green mess which happened to be next to the railroad track was where we served the last meal to everybody that was leaving camp. These were very heart wrenching moments because now we really didn't know whether we would ever see each other again. These were people we knew from the other areas of LA and now people we had worked with together for some six months.
Our family went to Gila River. There always was a platoon of soldiers, gas masks, fixed bayonets, steel helmets, and they would move us out with the shades drawn. Why they had to move us with the shades drawn, I don't know? When I got to Gila River, it was October. School had already started so I couldn't talk myself into going to work or anything, they signed me up for school as soon as I got off the train.
Schools were very make shift. The worst parts were science or lab courses, it was nonexistent. However, we had some very good teachers. Again we point to Friends of the Society of Friends. I had a very marvelous English teacher. I mean she made Chaucer's Canterbury Tales exciting.
I'd like to add on to what Tama had said. There was this core of friends who had started this student relocation movement. There were college officials involved also. They were the ones who found schools in the midwest and on the east coast that would accept Japanese, found financial aid for them, met the trains when the students came. In that trickle before this May break, there were 300 or 400 people left in camp and most of those were people going off to college. I know in the case of my parents that probably was the one thing that kept their hopes up. The American dream for them was gone, but the American dream for their kids was still there. I know that's how I felt.
My father and I never talked to each other really, not verbally. We would go fishing together. We would communicate without talking. We did a lot of things. But that was the one time he gave me, "your country, right or wrong." He said "You have no future if you left this country. Don't listen to these people, know matter what it is, tell them you're a U.S. citizen."
Since I had a sister in Chicago that could guarantee residence and a job for other family members, my two sisters left camp as soon as these things were available. I finished high school in camp in June and left in September 1943 with my parents.
One story about leaving. It turned out that in our block in camp, the older neisi had gone into the service, gone on to work, or gone on to school. Somehow or other I ended up being the gang leader on our block. Somehow or other we decided we were going to build a baseball field. We actually dismantled a good part of a barbed wire fence on our side of the camp. Instead of 40 acres and a mule, we were given $25 and a one-way coach ticket to wherever you wanted to go as long it was where you could go. We were driven to Phoenix and took a coach to northern Arizona to wait for the Santa Fe coming from LA to Chicago. I remember because I was afraid.
Tama: President Reagan concluded his redress speech as follows: "Yet, no payment can make up for those lost years, so what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor, for here we admit a wrong, here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law. Fifty years ago, 120,000 Japanese, 65% American citizens and all innocent of any wrongdoing were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned. They were in the concentration camps for only one reason, their ancestry. We ask 'Can this event happen again?' Yes, it can. Evacuation was a result of racial prejudice, war time hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. The U.S. Constitution is the document that protects and guarantees the rights of every citizen but these rights require constant vigilance or the Constitution becomes merely a piece of paper. Instead of asking can it happen again, we should join together and say "No, we won't let it happen again'."