4. What I Learned from the Japanese American Incarceration during WWll

In postwar Japan where I grew up, deep wounds from the war were everywhere. The calamity left by atomic bombs, the reconstructions of burned cities… everyone was trying to do their best making efforts to live in a time where things were scarce with the same goals. In my family, one of my uncles died in the naval battle of the Solomon Islands and one uncle came back home alive miraculously. I also heard of tough ways of living during the air raids in Tokyo and the life in a suburb where my mother’s family evacuated. My mother’s father, younger sister, and brother all died there due to illness, because of the lack of medicine. A baby cousin died without sufficient milk to drink. These are what I remember of the stories I heard from my parents. Regardless, I was not one who experienced the war. I have never faced the difficulty of having no method to obtain food nor watching my family’s death without anything to help them. I also did not have to go to a war plant to work on parts of weapons instead of going to school. I was one of “the children who did not know the war.”

However, things changed after I got married to a Japanese American and moved from Tokyo to California in 1980. As I attended church with lots of Japanese Americans, I began to hear people saying, “when I was in the camp” from time to time. At first I did not understand what “the camp” meant. Then I found out it was not like the “camping’ we enjoy in the forest, but it referred to the bitter experiences of confinement that Japanese Americans experienced during WWll. I did not recall hearing about that history in the Japanese history class of high school in Tokyo. Gradually, I began to find out what kind of suffering it brought to the lives of Japanese Americans.

Here is a short summary of this shocking history. A surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu took place on December 7, 1941. The attack led to the United States' formal entry into World War II the next day. Because of that, all of the residents of Japanese ancestry in the US were considered suspicious as spies. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced “relocation" of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast from their homes and into incarceration camps. A lot of them were American citizens. With this sudden order, Japanese Americans had to give away all of the fortune they had painstakingly accumulated with hard labor. They had to leave ripe strawberry fields ready for picking behind them, and a small new laundry business just furnished with necessary machines by the first-generation grandparents had to be sold for nothing. In addition, flyers with a discriminating word, “Jap”, were all over town and it was dangerous for Japanese Americans even to walk on the streets.

When the time came to leave their homes, each person was allowed to carry only two suitcases as their belongings, and their destinations were ten relocation camps in the middle of the desert where nobody lived. In such camps, surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers with soldiers carrying guns, the Japanese Americans were given shacks like stables for their living. People were speechless at the sudden change of life in shame and without freedom. This is how Japanese Americans had to endure suspicions from the United States government because of the attack by Japan, the home country for the first generations, even though they already had citizenship. It was a violation of human rights. In the midst of their difficulty coping, they decided to give up the acquisition of the Japanese language cherished between different generations, in order not to be viewed as learning the language of an enemy country. They had to show how American they were. After the war was over and they were able to go back to their own lives, they continued to make a lot of effort. Because of that, Japanese Americans have won the reputation as solid citizens that support American society now. This way, the United States developed trust in the faces of the Japanese Americans based on their efforts. However, not too many people in Japan are aware that they are the beneficiaries of such efforts when they come to the US.

After I had the realization of how the trust in the Japanese in the US was founded by the arduous experiences of the Japanese Americans, I came to understand what the weight of that history means. In regards to the experiences of WWII, I still belong to a generation that does not have the experience of war since I was born after that time. However, from the viewpoint of the Japanese Americans, I am from the country that started the war, which created such adversity for their cherished lives. Thus I have to admit I have something to do with the war.

The circumstances the Japanese Americans encountered made them give up continuing to learn the language of their parents. Thus they became English speakers who have difficulty getting first-hand information of how things have developed in Japan after the war in the original language. They depend on English translation to obtain information about Japan. Therefore, I would be glad if my Japanese American friends find this English website interesting. That will bring our mutual recognition that the history of their incarceration during WWII has some similarities with the history of the Japanese taken to Siberia, even if they are different in essence: both historical facts are about how people of Japanese descent experienced an invasion of human rights in the middle of a war, and they were isolated for no just reason. In both cases, the rights of the weak, who did not do anything wrong, were taken away by the people in power. I thought it was also meaningful to present an English translation to ensure informing a wider range of interested readers.