Then And Now: From Internment Camps to Muslim Bans
A Conversation with Pia Sawhney
“For me it goes back to — do you remember when the Iranian hostages were taken, way back when? And I was in San Francisco at the time. And when that happened, there was a cry to deport all the Iranian students and anybody living in here who had a background. And every time something like that happens — it happened after 9/11, it’s happened now and every time it happens my first reaction, of course, is it’s horrible but my second reaction is, it’s happening again, what happened to us. I may have been two months old, but what happened affected my whole family and the way our lives went on after that.”
— Margie Yamamoto (center), Co-president of the New England Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. Her family was interned at Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona between 1942 and 1944.
Also pictured: (left) Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro; (right) journalist Pia Sawhney. (Note: A condensed version of this discussion was also published to The Aerogram.)
It’s a grim year indeed. As Donald Trump’s insidious tweets and speeches roll on — his bluster, contempt, and prejudice show little sign of abating. As such, it is quickly becoming cause and reason to reflect on the past and consider historical moments that, although distinct from ours, still endure and resonate.
Playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro and educator-activist Margaret (Margie) Yamamoto lived through World War II and the Japanese internment experience. They recently spoke with journalist Pia Sawhney on the art, activism and personal histories that have shaped their lives. Their Japanese American heritage has informed their caution and concern in the Trump era, especially, and both have actively protested the Muslim ban.
Rosanna has also written and produced two plays on Japanese internment. You can read one of them, “Don’t Fence Me In,” online for the first time here. (This discussion has been edited for clarity and was filmed last May in Concord, Mass.)
PS: So, 75 years ago [this year] Japanese Americans were interned, unable to leave the camps they were assigned to, surveilled constantly, had to bathe and eat collectively, and line up for filthy bathrooms.
Two-thirds of those incarcerated were already American citizens.
So, Rosanna, the genesis of this discussion, and you may or may not realize this, is this photo that you sent me in an email.
After the ban, there was talk of putting in place a Muslim registry. In fact, it started during the campaign but continued after Trump unveiled the ban.
And it’s much like the one Roosevelt enacted, in fact, to require Japanese people to register with the Department of Justice in 1942, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
So, I’m curious where you got the photo and what prompted you to send the photo, but we’ll get to that later in the discussion. For now, you’ve written on Japanese internment and one of the things you’ve said is that there are a lot of different internment plays out there, but there are some internment plays in particular that you would like to see.
And I’m going to read what you’ve written [in the past]:
There’s obviously no model for the perfect internment camp play but there are many I would like to see on stage. One would be a sustained assault on everyone who plotted the idea and the execution of the camps, including President Roosevelt, Governor Earl Warren of California and the Communist Party. The play would be full of bitter, uncomfortable, reproachful questions by, say, a 100-year old survivor of the camps, someone with total recall, someone still furious, still unforgiving. It would be an orchestration of anger, hidden anger, seething anger, anger bursting the dam and flooding over the horror of the camps.
—Quotation from Rosanna’s 2003 essay. See: https://www.amazon.com/Last-Witnesses-Reflections-Internment-Americans/dp/1403962308
So why don’t we see a lot of those plays right now.
RYA: I think you do see a lot of that. [But] I think, first of all, in this country, there’s always a prejudice against political plays. They want plays that entertain, not teach. So that’s one thing. Another thing is that people, I don’t know if you would agree with this, is that they still don’t know much about the internment camps.
What American literary critics don’t like is a lot of exposition. But you have to have exposition if you’re going to do an internment camp play because nobody knows, has the foundation, from which to jump or even to tell a joke.
(Left: A program brochure from one of the early productions of “Behind Enemy Lines,” an internment play staged at Peoples Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Rosanna also lives. She wrote it in 1983 to tell the story of a Japanese American family confined during WWII. Rosanna also later wrote a second play titled, “Don’t Fence Me In,” which was shorter and on the same subject. In both productions, characters have varying perspectives depending on the generation they belonged to as the war unfolded.)
Certainly, the characters, the problem with, I think, internment camp plays is it’s usually a nuclear family that’s affected and the father and the mother are the older generation. They don’t, perhaps they don’t speak English that well, they’re absolutely furious. One of the children wants to go off to fight in the 442nd to prove he’s 100 percent American. Then you have another child who is rebellious and wants to go back to Japan when he doesn’t speak the language anymore. And then you have the dutiful other child who goes off to college and you have this exit from the camps by being able to get into a place like Swarthmore or Oberlin. So, I think you get a lot of plays that are like that, from way back to even now with Allegiance [a play by George Takei].
PS: Yea, I think part of it is that we don’t get a lot of history about internment in public school, for example. So when you have plays like Allegiance put on, people go to see them without a lot of reference to the past.
MY: And that’s the unfortunate thing because that’s the only thing that represents what happened. And you have to know that in Allegiance, that was George Takei’s perception of his family’s experience. And each family, I know from my own experience, has a unique experience.
I’m very thankful to George Takei for having done that and for at least starting the conversation about what really happened during WWII to all of us.
PS: And it’s something that’s continued, the lack of real foresight and really reflection on the internment. We were talking earlier about terminology, that we don’t call them “concentration camps,” even though if you look at the dictionary definition of “concentration camp,” it mostly means confining people against their will, which is exactly what the internment camps were.
(According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a concentration camp is one where persons (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined.)
So, Margie, when we spoke earlier, you talked about how your family left Terminal Island and went to what they called the Gila River [pronounced “Hila River”] Relocation Center, which was really an internment camp. And they spent two years there at that camp.
(Left: Margie’s parents, Sohei and Kinuko Yamamoto, and their three children at the Japanese grocery store they owned on Terminal Island, near the Los Angeles Harbor. The photograph was taken before Margie was born. In late February 1942, the Yamamotos left everything they had, including the store, to relocate to Gila River camp.)
And then they were sponsored by a relative and ended up in Chicago. And then they started a restaurant, which they called the “Gila River Inn.” And so tell us a little bit about that. They named it after the internment camp. Why?
MY: Well, at the time, a lot of Japanese Americans were going to the Chicago area because.. If you left camp before they closed the camps, you were allowed to leave as long as you did not go back to the West Coast and you had a sponsor and a job. So we ended up in Chicago and we called it the “Gila River Inn.” And it was mainly because we wanted those leaving the camps to find us easily. I don’t think the name meant anything to the outside community, the white community, but it certainly meant a lot to us. And, yes, they did find us and a lot of our clientele was primarily Japanese Americans. And most of them coming out of the camps.
And we cooked the Japanese American foods they were used to and liked.
PS: Well, did other people ask, “Where does this name come from?”
MY: Well, I was only about two years old when this happened so I don’t know exactly what was happening as far as who did walk in. But it’s sort of like Chinatown. I’m sure, in the early days, the only people who ate in a Chinatown would be Chinese people. And I’m pretty sure very few whites came into our community and into our restaurant unless they really knew what was happening. But I don’t think they knew what was happening or what “Gila River Inn” really meant.
PS: Tell us about Gila River camp and what you learned over the years. (Editor’s note: The camp was part of the Gila River Indian reservation in Arizona.)
MY: Well, I was two months old when we went into the camps and so I only know what my mother told me about what happened.
And on the positive side of camp, my mother worked hard her whole life with my father’s businesses so she said it was the first time she didn’t have to work and she could concentrate on just taking care of me. That was on the positive side.
But then on the negative side, apparently the barracks that we lived in, families were confined four families to a barrack. The barrack was a 100 feet long by 20 feet wide so we were in a 25 by 20 foot segment of it. There were six of us, living in there, so primarily this room consisted of cots that were covered with a mattress.
They gave us empty mattress to fill with straw to make our mattresses. So there were [not] six cots, there were five cots and then whatever they put me into to sleep in. But my mother told me the cots were made with green lumber that hadn’t been aged properly, so when you’re in the Arizona sun, the very hot Arizona sun, the wood shrank and there were always dust storms. And no matter what you did, dust just filtered in right in through the floors, through the walls, into wherever you were living. (Margie meant to say the cots were made out of metal, not green lumber. It is the barracks that were made of green lumber, which is why the dust from the walls and floors filtered through.)
And she would cover my crib with layers of wet cheesecloth to keep me from breathing any of this fine dust. And she said that was a constant problem with the dust coming in.
Everything we did, we did with long lines whether it was to go to the toilet, which was apparently was built military style. There were no partitions between the toilets, they were just toilets so you had no privacy.
It wasn’t until the churches intervened that they built partitions between each one of the toilets but they wouldn’t allow you to put a door on. So people would improvise their own. They’d bring a sheet or something to cover the front..
PS: Yes, Rosanna talks about that in her plays, I think..
RYA (speaking, gesturing, left): Sometimes cardboard boxes..
MY: Yeah, uh-huh. So it was pretty crude. Same with the showers. They were just shower heads. Some of the women who were more modest would take their showers with bathing suits on.
And the mess halls were that, mess halls. And families, the family unit, was beginning to break down. Because children would rather eat with their friends and they could go to any one of the mess halls. So if there weren’t any strict rules about the family eating together, the kids were going off, eating on their own, and the parents on their own.
And there were some sociological tests, studies that were made about the breakdown of the family unit during that time.
PS: Rosanna, when you grew up, you lived in Michigan where Japanese Americans did not live, and yet you still grew up with Japanese American children. Explain how that happened.
(Left: A photograph of Rosanna as a young girl with another Asian American classmate in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she grew up. Before the war, there were very few Japanese Americans who lived there. During and soon afterward, however, Japanese Americans were recruited from the internment camps to teach Japanese to American soldiers at the Army language center.)
(Lower left: Rosanna’s father, one of the first hired for the task, was already living in town. But before the other families came, Rosanna and her parents were among the only Japanese Americans in all of Ann Arbor.)
(Bottom left: Rosanna’s parents, Joseph Koshimi Yamagiwa and Hanako Hoshino Yamagiwa, on the day Hanako, also a Japanese language teacher, graduated from the University of Michigan.)
RYA: Well, it was very unusual because my father was teaching Japanese, Japanese literature when the war began, and so, suddenly he was put in charge of the Army Japanese language center. So lots of GI’s, soldiers came in to learn Japanese very quickly.
And then he brought in many Japanese Americans from the camps who spoke English and Japanese perfectly. So that group came over to become teachers. So the first time I had Japanese American friends. Otherwise, there were two of us my age in Ann Arbor at the time.
There was no overt prejudice because there were so few of us. The only thing I remember of my classmates saying anything about it at all was, “oh, you’re so lucky. Whichever side wins, you win.” Course you could say the opposite very easily too.
PS: So they knew that it was happening?
RYA: Well, they knew it was happening but nobody ever mentioned it. And I don’t think my parents really mentioned it until later. And in Michigan, there was no overt prejudice. This was in Ann Arbor, university town. So my experience was completely different from the 95 percent who were put in the camps.
MY: They knew the war was happening but they didn’t know about the internment.
RYA: They knew about the internment but nobody ever talked about it. And, I think, I don’t know, it was a Japanese thing, of not talking about such things. I mean, it’s true people, even in the internment camp, didn’t talk about it, until two generations later, [not] often in public.
And, so, if you were in Michigan, it’s even more removed.
PS: I brought in some of these caricatures and cartoons that Margie sent me. They were really circulating at the time and the idea was telling Japanese apart from Chinese. And they’re really kind of outrageous. I mean if you take in a look here, you see ways of categorizing so you could tell, presumably, whom to admit to various schools or public places. And so, even Chinese Americans themselves, posted signs and placards saying, “Chinese not Japanese, please,” so you have people differentiating themselves.
Every immigrant group feeling like they have to defend their own ethnicity. Do you see that shift happening, where other groups have come together, after the civil rights movement? Would it be fair to say that that’s when the shift really took place or do First Generation immigrants always feel fearful being in a political sphere in any regard? Is it just an enduring problem with being a First Generation immigrant?
(Left: A clipping from Margie’s personal archive. It was part of an article in Life Magazine published during the war and designed to inform Americans how to differentiate Japanese from Chinese Americans. The idea was to exclude Japanese Americans from public places and events.)
(Lower left: A Dr. Seuss cartoon during the war, also from Margie’s archive. It depicts Japanese Americans, most of whom lived on the West Coast. During the war, there were ten internment camps euphemistically called, “Relocation Centers.”)
MY: My personal experience with the Japanese American experience is that it started with the black movement, “Black is beautiful” if you remember back in the 60s. And the certain pride they took in who they were, and then I saw in the Asian American, specifically in the Japanese American community, a move towards things Asian American and a certain pride in being Asian American. A move to have Asian American studies in universities and colleges and I think that’s when I saw the change. I had just gone back to graduate school after all this was happening and that’s when my eyes were opened to things about my own culture, about what happened to us during World War II because my parents never really talked much about the camp experience or what was happening.
RYA: Same here. I mean I learned about it in graduate school.
MY: Oh was it graduate school for you?
I did know little things about camp because in the Japanese American community, if you met another Japanese American family, your first question was, “What camp were you in?” Or “Were you in?” You would compare notes as to if you were in the same camp, were you in the same block, then, you were neighbors, practically.
It was as if someone said to a non-Asian person, “Where do you spend your summers? Oh Cape Cod? Which part of the Cape do you go to, you know?” It’s the same sort of question so it never occurred to me that there was something different about what this question was. It was just part of who you were.
But never did I hear anyone say anything about it being unconstitutional or unjust until I went to graduate school. That’s when I heard it all.
PS: And so, Rosanna, what prompted your interest in the topic in graduate school?
RYA: At Stanford, there was all these riots and protests against the Vietnam War and one got very interested in that sort of thing.
PS: And then you wrote your first play about the internment camps [called “Behind Enemy Lines”] and you were upset. You were upset when you wrote the play. And so, did you find a sympathetic audience at the time that you wrote the play, did you put on the play on when you wrote it?
(Left: Two brochures from early productions of Rosanna’s first internment camp play, “Behind Enemy Lines.”)
RYA: Well, the play came out in about 1983. You have to remember that the Asian American theaters like Pan-Asian Rep, and East-West Players. I think East-West Players began in 1965 only so it’s way after the camps and Pan-Asian Rep began in 1973 so the audience for a play like mine would be People’s Theater, first, in Cambridge and then it went on to Pan-Asian Rep and then workshopped at East-West Players so that was the audience then. I mean, people were not that fascinated by the subject and nobody knew anything about it.
I think now things are very different.
PS: And you had some trouble finding cast members for the play.
RYA: Oh that was hilarious. In Cambridge, you really couldn’t find any Asian Americans to act because everyone was interested in becoming a doctor or a lawyer, nobody [Asian] wanted to be in this field that made no money. So we sent out, I think it was 200 calls to Boston area actors, we found only one who was Chinese and had only acted in a high school production. And then the father was played by a Jewish actor, wonderful. And then, the mother was played by a Portuguese actress, the older sister was Jewish, the older brother was the Chinese American from MIT, and the youngest brother was African American.
RYA: That was a typical Asian American play in those days because nobody [Asian] was in theater.
PS: Well, even today, finding roles for Asian actors is difficult because nobody writes for them either. So, at that time, it seems like when you wrote your play, you said initially there were few playwrights doing it but then there were a flood of new plays written.
RYA: And now, there’s great numbers of really wonderful playwrights. But back then, I think, “M Butterfly” was the one that came out. But that was the first, really big splash for Asian American theater and before that, there was Ping Chong, [Phillip] Gotanda maybe, I’m not sure. But now, it’s amazing how many you can see in Boston. You can see maybe three or four Asian American plays. In my day, to find even one was very unusual.
(Ping Chong and Phillip Gotanda are two pioneering Asian American playwrights who have written on Japanese Internment. Ping Chong’s plays are experimental while Phillip Gotanda’s deal explicitly with Asian American subjects, experiences and concerns.)
PS: So there has been clearly a resurgence and interest in the audience. Maybe not a resurgence but a first time interest.
RYA: Well, the younger, you can now find younger Asian actors everywhere. They’re wonderful. If you’re looking for someone about 60 years old, it’s still very difficult.
PS: So I’m coming back to the photo that you sent me.
RYA: I think Margie might have sent it to me.
MY: I think I might have.
PS: It’s circulating on social media, the photo.
PS: Was this something many people you know were doing? Were they demonstrating?
MY: This came out after the Women’s March in Washington and I was getting all sorts of photographs from a lot of people and this one came to me. I think they found it on Facebook. So I don’t know where the original picture was taken.
PS: What’s the connection between Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans today? How would you make that connection? I say it because it may in some sense seem like a self-evident question.
But I say it because, even in the South Asian community, there is a tendency sometimes to say, well, you know, I’m not Muslim.
I may look like a Muslim but I’m not. I don’t want to be lumped in with Muslims because they appear to be disloyal and I don’t want to have the baggage of that associated with my identity. How do you feel the Japanese American community has rallied on this, and why do they think this is so important?
MY: Well, for me it goes back to — do you remember when the Iranian hostages were taken, way back when? And I was in San Francisco at the time. And when that happened, there was a cry to deport all the Iranian students and anybody living in here who had a background. And every time something like that happens — it happened after 9/11, it’s happened now and every time it happens my first reaction, of course, is it’s horrible but my second reaction is, it’s happening again, what happened to us. I may have been two months old, but what happened affected my whole family and the way our lives went on after that.
And so, especially after 9/11 when I was here on the East Coast and I saw the reaction to it, and what was happening to South Asians. Being killed and murdered because of the fact that they wore a turban or something and talking to our South Asian friends who were not allowed to get on airplane flights.
PS: I was wondering if you could tell us about some of the work the Japanese American Citizens League did because you really managed to make some headway on rules that were repealed, the laws that were repealed.
MY: There’s some real interesting laws in our history. I, just, in doing a little bit of research found there was a law that said, if you were an American citizen, and married an Asian national, in our case, a Japanese national — Quite frankly, I don’t know if it was just for the Japanese or if it was all Asians — you lost your American citizenship.
I know the only reason I know about it is that a Japanese American woman worked to have it repealed. Because my mother was an American citizen and my father was a Japanese citizen.
(In March of 1907, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which decreed that U.S. women who married non-citizens were no longer Americans. At the time, Asian immigrants were not considered racially eligible to naturalize. Then, in 1931, the Naturalization Act of 1906 amendment allowed women to retain their citizenship even after marrying Asians.)
PS: And your family, I mean, you mentioned your father came here as an illegal immigrant.
MY: Oh yeah. My father came in about 1925, when there was an Asian Exclusion Act in effect and no Asians were allowed to immigrate into America. And so, my father took a boat from Japan to Mexico and then he walked into California where his brother had previously immigrated. And he went with the Mexican migrant workers picking tomatoes and he could pass because he got tanned and he picked tomatoes with them all the way into LA, I guess. And then hooked up with my uncle and then stayed.
(Left: Margie’s father, Sohei Yamamoto, on the ship that eventually led him to the United States. He came illegally and stayed. When he arrived, Asians were still banned from legally entering the United States.
Under the Immigration Act of 1924, also called the Johnson-Reed Act, the number of immigrants permitted to enter was limited through a national origins quota. But the act excluded all immigrants from Asia.)
PS: It’s interesting on the topic of illegal immigration because Trump was elected and even before Trump’s campaign, it seemed sensible to talk about legal immigration. It seemed like, you know, obviously everybody wants to come here and at some point, maybe there should be some parameters about who gets to come here and who doesn’t get to come here.
But after Trump started campaigning and really race-baiting and creating a sense that there was something unworthy about immigrant groups, about people who came from other places illegally, that there was something about their ethnicity that was the problem. That there was a need to create a whiter country, well, then we start asking, well, why should we make this compromise over legal immigrants? Why should we say, because if the idea is well, we’re trying to get to a whiter nation, there’s a moral obligation to say, well, I’m not going on that voyage with you.
Well, we might as well allow all immigrants, regardless of status, to come and to live here. And so, what do you think about that? Do you think it’s affected how you think about this? Or have you always felt the same way about legal versus illegal immigration?
MY: Well, right now, everything I’m hearing about how difficult it is to get into this country, from anybody, I’m not for that type of immigration. You know this is a question I haven’t really thought about, do I want wide open immigration or do I want somewhat controlled immigration?
Well, I guess, that is a very tough question to ask. I would think I would want some sort of control.
PS: Well, it’s the rationale, the rationale is also significant. And how you present the rationale is significant. That’s what I’m wondering, it’s one thing to say, well, we need parameters, we have limited resources and this kind of an argument. But if the argument is, well, we need to make the country whiter, well, suddenly the argument for legal immigration suddenly shrinks a bit.
MY: You say, wider or whiter?
PS: No, whiter with a ‘t’. You feel like you’re on some other journey, some trip you didn’t ask to join.
MY: Well, I’m not for the way it is now.
RYA (speaking, left): I’m certainly against any racial or religious restrictions. I went to the immigration rally in Copley Square and there were Muslim scientists carrying placards, you know, saying, “I am saving people from heart disease, I’m not a terrorist.” And that’s so obvious and it just breaks your heart to see something like that. And what kind of country are we going to be if you’re going to deny all these people who’re doing so much good just because of the way they look.
PS: Immigration is already complicated but it makes the topic even muddier. Because [now] it’s hard to take a position at all.
MY: You can’t say, “Only those who benefit the society can come in here,” because you don’t know who it’s going to be.
PS: Well, that’s another argument too. There is now a representative from this anti-immigrant group in the Trump White House. So they want people with high IQs.
Well, you start thinking, well, where do you stop? You start down this road, but then if you start down this other trajectory, then you have to start to question the whole enterprise of having these kinds of immigration rules at all. As you say, you don’t know, there could be many illegal immigrants that could be incredibly, incredibly productive and successful in this society.
(Left: Screenshot from the Southern Poverty Law Center website reflects that back in January the Trump administration appointed Julie Kirchner, the Executive Director of FAIR, a eugenicist, anti-immigrant organization, as the new Chief of Staff at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a federal agency that oversees and manages our immigration policy. Traditionally, FAIR has advocated that fewer immigrants be permitted to enter the US, but also that they be ‘whiter’ and have higher IQs. More at: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/01/23/former-executive-director-anti-immigrant-hate-group-fair-joins-trump-administration)
MY: And, traditionally, all the immigrant groups came in and they did all the hard labor. Traditionally, all of them. From the Irish right up until the Asians.
RYA: Oh, absolutely.
MY: They did the hard labor that needed to be done to make the world our country function. So, they’re going to cut that all out?
PS: I was hoping that you could give us a sense of what you learned about Terminal Island. If you could tell us, based on your conversations with your mother but also what you learned, what happened at the time?
(Left: The US military issued “civilian exclusion orders” like this one prompting Japanese and Japanese Americans relocate to one of ten internment camps. This Civilian Exclusion Order is dated April 1, 1942 and followed Executive Order (EO) 9066, which President Roosevelt issued in February that year. EO 9066 authorized the Secretary of War and any military commander designated by him “to prescribe certain areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded,” but did not mention Japanese Americans by name.)
MY: My parents came to live on Terminal Island shortly after they were married, which would be about 1933. And that was during the Depression in the United States. And Terminal Island was really kind of unique, it’s a teeny little island off of the, right in the LA harbor. It’s only about a mile or even less from the shore. Today, there’s a bridge but back then, there was only a ferry that went across.
And it was a primarily Japanese community of about three thousand Japanese living there. They lived there and they worked there. Many of them were fishermen and their wives worked on the canneries. The canneries were also located on the island so the fish would come in and go straight to the canneries.
It was a whole thriving community. It had their own churches, grocery stores, doctors, dentists.
Some schools. Everything.
(Left: A map of Terminal Island, California, a tiny area a very short distance from Los Angeles. Bridges now connect the island to the mainland. The government later razed the homes Japanese Americans rented and owned when they lived there before the war.)
So my mom and dad went there to live and they opened a grocery store, Japanese grocery store, of course. And they lived there until the outbreak of World War II — they had their first three children there. And then the war broke out.
Because of Terminal Island’s location which was right there, as I said, in LA harbor. On one side was Long Beach where they were starting to build a major naval base. On the other wide, the west was San Pedro, where there was an army base. And then straight north from it was Los Angeles. And then the open sea to the south.
So there they were in this really questionable area, [a site of potential] espionage. So the day after Pearl Harbor, the FBI descended on Terminal Island. And they took all the community leaders. The FBI came and took all the community leaders.
And they went into all the homes and searched for contraband. After Order 9066 was signed on February 19, 1942, a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the military was given jurisdiction over the whole western military zone [ie. large swaths of the West Coast]. Terminal Island was the first place affected.
They came in and gave us forty-eight hours to get off the island. My mother was eight and a half months pregnant, and we had forty-eight hours to take all our possessions and get off the island with no help from any outside agencies.
So the churches, primarily, came in and helped. We moved off of Terminal Island in the given forty-eight hours, and had to abandon the grocery store and everything that we couldn’t sell that was in the grocery store. And we moved into Los Angeles, where let’s see, about two weeks later, my mother gave birth to me.
I was the first baby [in our family] born in a hospital at that point.
I’d like to add just one more interesting fact. The Japanese in Japan were not aware of what was happening to Japanese Americans during the war. And I just spoke to a student at UMass who is from Japan and I talked to him about the whole experience. And he was totally surprised and he said, “We didn’t know anything about this.” And there seems to be a kind of resurgence of interest because there has been a TV series on Tokyo television about the internment and about Japanese Americans.
There was a museum exhibit on the art of the camp that went to Japan and toured about half a dozen cities and from what I understand, the Emperor’s son went and was very moved by it all.
So, they’re finding out about what happened to us.
One thing I’m still taken with is Hiroshima and what happened after the war. And did you go to the Hiroshima monument? Oh, it is the most incredible thing that anyone who goes to Japan should see because if anything, that tells you what happens when someone drops a bomb on somebody and you don’t ever want to see it happen again.
And the Japanese revere, not revere, but they have kept it as a monument and, justly so, and one that they are very much taken with as far as nuclear weapons and war. That is something that the Japanese people embrace. And I wish the whole world embraced.
(Editor’s Note: Soon after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August, 1945, World War II came to a close. Public dismay in Japan over the scale of the destruction led the country to establish its non-nuclear weapons policy and join the US “nuclear umbrella.” Japan also signed a standing security treaty on 8 September, 1951, with United States, which among other things, grants the US primary military base rights in the country.)
Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro has written and produced several plays over the years. They include Before I Leave You(Huntington Theatre in Boston), Behind Enemy Lines (Pan Asian Repertory in N.Y.), Mishima (East West Players in L.A.), Martha Mitchell (Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Six Figures Theater Co. in N.Y.), Barrancas (Magic Theater in S.F.), Pablo and Cleopatra (New Theatre in Boston), Mexico City and Sailing Down the Amazon (the Boston Women on Top Festival), and It Doesn’t Take a Tornado and Amsterdam (La MaMa in N.Y.) She is also the writer and narrator of Japanese American Women: A Sense of Place, a documentary directed by Leita Hagemann, which aired on PBS in Seattle and was part of a traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution. Rosanna was also a 2010 Huntington Playwriting Fellow and received a 2011 MCC Artist Fellowship in Playwriting. Several of her plays have been produced nationally and abroad and anthologized by Baker’s Plays, Heinemann, Meriwether Publishing, PlaySource, Smith and Kraus, and Charta Books, Ltd. She graduated from Harvard, received an M.A. from Berkeley. She lives with her husband, Gustavo Alfaro in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her daughter Anna lives in Brooklyn with her daughter Juliana, and her son Pablo lives in New York City with his wife Marie Villafuerte and his son Michio.
Margaret Yamamoto is co-president of the New England Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, a national human rights and educational organization. She has addressed several audiences on the topic of Japanese incarceration during WWII, providing an historical summary of its events and relating their consequences to the personal experiences of her family as it coped with imprisonment and subsequent re-assimilation.
Margie retired recently after more than 40 years in the communications and public relations fields. She worked for WGBH (the Boston PBS television station) for most of her tenure and has served on the boards of the Japan Society of Boston, the Asian Pacific American Agenda Coalition, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.
Pia Sawhney (@poltx) produced, edited and directed the interview. She is a reporter and filmmaker.