Op-Ed: The Internment of My Japanese American Family in WWII

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Aiko Yoshinaga, a 17-year-old high school student in Los Angeles, was walking home after a party with classmates when she heard a shocking report on the radio: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Even at a young age, Aiko immediately realized that with a declaration of war by the United States on Japan, her Japanese immigrant parents, legally barred from becoming naturalized citizens, would not only be considered aliens – they would be enemy aliens.

A citizen of American origin, Aiko didn’t think she had any reason to worry. She thought she would be protected by the US Constitution. She, along with my grandparents and parents, would soon find out how wrong she was. My father, then a 14-year-old freshman at Huntington Beach Union High School, later recalled, “People couldn’t or didn’t want to distinguish between Americans who had Japanese parents and Japanese people. .

A boy whose family is sent to a detention center awaits his parents while a military policeman watches him in San Francisco on April 6, 1942.

(Associated press)

The attack on Pearl Harbor intensified anti-Japanese sentiments that had existed since the arrival of the first wave of immigrants from Japan in the 1880s. Amid decades of discriminatory policies, the Japanese-American community was vulnerable because a dismayed and angry nation regarded anyone who looked like the enemy to be the enemy.

Even before the attack, senior officials in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and military leaders assumed that the Issei, or first generation immigrants, as well as the Nisei, their US-born children, would be disloyal to US interests in the event of war, despite intelligence reports that refuted these claims. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, who would lead Western Defense Command during the war, said publicly, “A Jap is a Jap, regardless of whether he is a US citizen or not.

Paul Webb, then director of Los Angeles High, determined that Aiko and the 14 other Nisei seniors would not graduate because “your people bombed Pearl Harbor.”

A military officer oversees the evacuation of an American family of Japanese descent.

Shigeko Kitamoto and his children were evacuated from Bainbridge Island, Washington on March 30, 1942. A child was detained by a member of the military guard who oversaw the dispatch of people of Japanese descent to desolate “camps” in California.

(Associated press)

In January 1942, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron was among the West Coast mayors leading a racist chorus to expel Japanese residents who lived in their area. Officials from the League of California Cities, heads of major industries – especially defense contractors and large agricultural companies – and journalists joined us.

U.S. Representative Leland M. Ford, whose district included Santa Monica, was the first congressman lobby for mass incarceration of “all Japanese, whether citizens or not”. He even argued that they could prove that they were genuinely loyal and “patriotic” by voluntarily taking themselves into custody.

On February 19, 1942, just over 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt published Executive Decree 9066, setting in motion the imprisonment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent – of which two thirds were US citizens Nisei – as a “military necessity”. Soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets removed men, women and children from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.

Portrait of the author's father as a teenager.

Hiroshi Kamei, the author’s father, as he appears on the War Relocation Authority file at the National Archives when he was about 15 years old and incarcerated in Poston, Arizona, in 1942.

(Family photo)

On short notice, they had to give up their businesses, farms, jobs, studies and even their pets. They were only allowed to take what they could take. They had to sell, store or give up the rest of their belongings. My father’s farming family had to on foot of several hectares of celery who was ready to harvest. My father, Hiroshi Kamei, called it “my family’s greatest economic loss”.

That spring, Americans of Japanese descent were sent to temporary detention centers euphemistically called “assembly centers,” including one at the Santa Anita Racecourse in Arcadia. After my mother, then 14-year-old Tami Kurose, and her parents arrived there, they felt lucky that they were assigned to barracks and not horse stalls that reeked of manure.

Later that summer, Japanese Americans were moved to one of 10 newly constructed sites, in desolate locations, under the jurisdiction of the War Relocation Authority. When Aiko realized how isolated the Manzanar prison camp was in the Sierra Nevada, she said she thought, “This is where they are going to shoot us.” She feared that “no one would know the difference” if the government killed them all there.

The Santa Anita racecourse with barracks in its parking lot.

The Santa Anita Racecourse in Arcadia on April 3, 1942, after being converted into one of the temporary detention centers euphemistically called “assembly centers”. Japanese Americans lived in barracks erected in the parking lot and in horse stalls.

(Associated press)

Aiko, my parents and their families, as well as the other imprisoned Japanese Americans, would remain behind barbed wire, enduring harsh conditions, for the duration of the war. Even as the war drew to a close in 1944, FDR refused to allow the so-called camps to be closed until he was re-elected in November.

For decades after the war, those who had been incarcerated focused on rebuilding their lives and suppressed their feelings about their wrongful imprisonment. My father recalled being “too busy” trying to recover from the devastating impact of incarceration to be bitter. In the late 1960s, while living in New York City, Aiko became involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, which questioned the actions of the government. Inspired by the activism of others, she became motivated to investigate the causes of incarceration.

Six people of Japanese descent lean over a fence railing.
Some of the first Bay Area residents to be incarcerated at the converted Tanforan Racetrack, Calif., On April 28, 1942.

(Clarence Hamm / Associated Press)

Using research techniques she has developed and working with lawyers and professor of law Peter Irons, Aiko started combing through thousands of documents at the National Archives in the late 1970s. She would play a crucial role in documenting government misconduct, including never having a factual basis to suspect Japanese Americans of disloyalty, knowingly perpetuating lies to justify incarceration and to cover up attempts by Justice Department officials to tell the truth.

Evidence formed the basis of the 1983 report “Personal justice denied” the official government study on the imprisonment of people of Japanese descent during WWII. He concluded that Decree 9066 was not justified by military necessity, but was the result of racial prejudice, warlike hysteria and a failure of political leadership. His recommendations – a formal apology to those who had been incarcerated and symbolic reparations for those who were still alive – were not made until 1988, when the Civil Liberties Act was passed.

Dozens of people cross a ferry landing.

Residents of Bainbridge Island, Washington, pass through a ferry disembarkation on March 30, 1942, about to be incarcerated in California.

(Associated press)

In 1989, Los Angeles High sought to make amends, releasing Aiko and her classmates Nisei the diplomas that were refused to them in 1942. For its role in the development, the Japanese American National Museum honored Aiko with his award of excellence at his gala in April 2018, recognizing his service to democracy. Three months later, she died at the age of 93.

Today, as violence against Asian Americans has escalated in what the California Attorney General has called “an epidemic of hate,” the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack is cause for anxiety. among those of us who are viewed with suspicion or who are overlooked. as “quite American” because of our heritage and how we look. President George W. Bush once said about incarceration, “Sometimes we lose our soul as a nation. The notion of “all equal before God” sometimes disappears. “

For former incarcerates and their descendants, the annual celebrations of the Pearl Harbor attack evoke complex feelings. They joined in honoring those who lost their lives in the December 7 attack and in pay homage to the Nisei soldiers who valiantly demonstrated in combat the loyalty of Americans of Japanese descent. But every December 7 for the rest of his life, my father, who died at age 79 in 2007, braced for the anti-Japanese backlash that invariably occurred around every birthday. He was always anxious to see that date come and go.

Susan H. Kamei is a lecturer in the Department of History at USC Dornsife. She is the author of When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American incarceration during WWII.


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