Today is a grim anniversary in our family. President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 on February 19, 1942. That order led to the internment of around 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. I have told this story before, but it is worth repeating. So many people today have grown up without knowing anything about it. But my family never forgets, because it happened to us.
The internment of those who lived on the Pacific coast happened after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. World War II had sparked hysteria, and many feared that a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was possible. With stroke of a pen, a single man, the president who went on to become one of the greatest that America has ever seen, denied due process to a group of American citizens because of where they or their ancestors came from.
It is not unlike what President Donald Trump did when he barred unfettered travel from seven Muslim countries with his own executive order. In fact, the parallels are so obvious, starting with the failure to treat every person as an individual. The courts have barred the enforcement of the travel ban, with good reason.
Back then, there was no legal precedent. The Japanese Americans were told it was for their own protection, but the guards and the guns pointed inward. They were told it wasn’t based on race, but the order didn’t apply to people of German or Italian ancestry on a massive scale, as it did with the Japanese Americans.
The government rounded up everyone with the memorable “instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry.” The queues of people lined up to be processed were captured in black-and-white pictures. Signs like “I am an American” and “Japs Keep Moving: This is a White Man’s Neighborhood” have become a part of modern memory.
During that time of panic, my extended family was thrown into a time of turmoil. My father’s family was sent to the Tule Lake internment camp near the Oregon border, a very cold place. At age 11, my father Thomas was essentially an enemy of the people. During the years he spent in camp, my father grew to hate the American government. Once, he told me, the camp served macaroni for 30 days in a row. He played baseball in the camps, and told me how he once missed a ball in the outfield that cost his team the championship. He later taught me and my brother how to play baseball. While he was a child in the camps, that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. He later said that he felt like his childhood was stolen.
But my father remained loyal. After the war, when the U.S. fought Communism in Korea, my father served in the U.S. Army. He was a translator who went into during the Inchon invasion. He didn’t see action, but he was not far behind the front lines. During World War II, my father’s family had signed “yes, yes,” to the key questions in a loyalty oath. Question 27 asked: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?” And question 28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear and form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government or organization?”
The government later filled the Tule Lake camp with people who had signed “no, no,” to the answers. There was conflict in the camp between the “yes, yes” people and the “no, no” people. It was captured in the novel, years later, “No No Boy.”
Dillon S. Myer, the director of the camps, later admitted: “A bad mistake was made in the loyalty question.” For one thing, question #27 put to the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants), whose average age was 54, was not conceivable, while question #28 forced them into an untenable position: they had not been allowed U.S. citizenship, and now they were being asked to renounce allegiance to the only country of which they were citizens.”
My father’s father, my paternal grandfather, had a stroke in camp at Tule Lake. He lost the use of half of his body, and he had to pull himself along on the ground aboard a makeshift skateboard-like device. He died shortly after the camps closed. The family never recovered the farm or truck that they had owned before the war. Like many, they probably had no means to make payments and forfeited it.
In Kingsburg, Calif., my mother’s family held on to the farm. That was because a neighbor kept the payments updated and watched over the farm during the duration of the war. When my uncle and his family returned after the war, the white family returned the farm to his possession. That farm along the Kings River is still in my cousin’s possession today.
My mother’s family had a very different experience. My mother Hiroko was with her sister Tami, and her parents, on the trip to Japan. They took a ship over to visit a sick family member in Kyushu. The family had a farm in Hitoyoshi, a small village on a river in the Kumamoto Prefecture, not far from a place called Yatsushiro, where there were more family members.
My mother spent the war in Japan, stuck there, as an American who didn’t belong. She was put in a lower grade in elementary school, since she couldn’t speak Japanese well. And she was treated by the other kids as an outsider. During the war, food became scarce. They ate turnips, and occasionally rice. Bombers flew overhead. My mother said she could see the atomic bomb go off in Nagasaki at the close of the war. She returned to the U.S. with her family after the war, in 1947.
But there were other members in the family, as my mother’s parents had 11 kids. Two died very young, but nine had grown up together in Kingsburg. My Uncle Kai (Kazuyoshi) and his siblings and their families were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona.
As I noted in an earlier post, Poston was a hell of a place. As a journalist, I visited it in the 1990s, and saw the bunkers where the internees lived. They were broken down and scrawled with obscene graffiti. I interviewed a Native American named Orlando Lafoon who lived on the reservation where the Poston camp was placed. He talked about how Japanese Americans returned to the place, as a kind of pilgrimage, and how he enjoying having “fellowship” with them. I remember interviewing other Poston residents. They talked about how the sandstorms blew grit into their barracks, which were covered with loose boards, like someone was spraying a “firehose.” In the LA Times, I wrote a story that began, “50 years ago, the only thing that was free to come and go as it pleased here was the wind.”
One of the brothers, Mac, was 18 when he went into the camp. He had a lung disease, but was not allowed to go outside the camp for treatment. He died in the camp. Many years later, at the National Archives, I found a short autobiography he wrote, where he referred to himself as a “shrimp.” I wondered why that autobiography was still in his file, and I figure it must have been considered as a piece of evidence of some kind.
My aunt, Shiz, was married to Shiro Shiraishi. While Shiro’s family was interned in Poston in violation of their constitutional rights of due process, Shiro volunteered to join the U.S. Army. He was part of company A of the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most-decorated unit in the war. He came back as a sergeant, with a combat infantryman badge and a Purple Heart.
Another sister was not so lucky in her choices. Her husband was born in Japan, and he returned with his family to Japan in a prisoner of war exchange. When they arrived there, they found that Japan was clearly losing the war, and they were criticized for leaving the U.S. But as their family was imprisoned in America, who can blame them for returning to Japan? The decisions you make in wartime, sadly, turn out to be so momentous in the long run.
My father’s family started over, and they acquired a new farm over the years. They grew strawberries, and I used to go there with my brother to pick them and eat them. That is a sweet memory.
Oakland native Fred Korematsu, who died in 2005, challenged the legality of the order. So did Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui. In a 6–3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the government, saying the exclusion order was constitutional. One of the dissenting justices, Frank Murphy, wrote that the decision and exclusion fell into the “ugly abyss of racism.”
The Korematsu case was revived because of new evidence uncovered along the way that proved there was no evidence of spying or other traitorous behavior, as the government had originally claimed. Solicitor General Charles Fay reportedly suppressed evidence from the Office of Naval Intelligence suggesting there was no evidence Japanese Americans were acting as spies.
In 1983 his conviction was overturned by federal judge Marilyn Patel, because of the failure to disclose evidence. In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. In 2011, the Justice Department conceded that the solicitor general had indeed been in error.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford ended the order and apologized for the internment. In the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans started a movement for redress and reparations. In 1983, the Congressional commission issued a report, Personal Justice Denied, condemning the internment. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, sponsored by Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson. It provided $20,000 in redress and an apology for each surviving internee. The total cost was $1.2 billion.
My grandparents didn’t live to see that day. But my father did. He used the money that he received to take our family to Japan for the first time. We visited in 1992, and I remember having a conversation with a distant Japanese cousin about the internment during a dinner. She told me that they had not been taught about this in school, and she never knew that it happened. We visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, a place that President Barack Obama visited last year, as the first American president to do so.
My father and the rest of my family never forgot what happened. Nor should anyone, especially President Trump, as he wields his pen for executive orders that will be felt for generations to come. That is the way we should think about executive orders. They can impact entire groups and generations of their descendants. So we must be careful about the papers we sign.
There’s an event honoring the internment order anniversary today at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm.