Sagebrush Santa: Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

by Storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

Five-year-old Kiyoshi, tries his best to make sense of his world which has been turned upside down since Japan attacked a place called Pearl Harbor. Since his father was taken away, he has had to leave his home, and spend the summer in a horse stall in the big city of Portland, Oregon. He has gone on his first train ride ever and has ended up near Twin Falls, Idaho in a place called Minidoka. It is Christmas Eve, 1942 and Santa will be coming soon.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Sagebrush Santa-Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

Discussion Questions:

  1. You are sent to a remote location with no access to stores, schools, or libraries.  You are away from most of your friends and are forced to stay in one place.  There is no cell phone service, internet connection, and electricity is unreliable.  What would you do to keep from being bored?
  2. Suppose that everyone in your class who wore the color purple on a particular day are told to go stand in one part of the room and everyone else are to stand in another part of the room.  You are now told that those in the purple group are bad and are not to be trusted.  Your best friend is in the purple group.  How do you feel?
  3. Under what circumstances does the Government have the right to put people in jail without trial as they are suspected or have the potential of doing something wrong?
  4. Christmas is coming and you have no money to buy gifts nor are there stores nearby, and mail delivery is unreliable.  Yet you want to give presents to your family.  You have access to wood, paper, string, paint, rocks, glue, some desert plants, sand, some tools, and lots of time.  What gifts would you make for your family?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. A few years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Minidoka Relocation Center near Hu… Twin Falls, Idaho along with other members of the Japanese-American community from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. That’s an annual event that happens about every June. And it includes a tour of the site as well as side trips to the local attractions and the sharing of memories and personal experiences. I listened to the stories of these people who were children incarcerated in the camp. I asked a lot of questions and did more research. And I wrote this story about what it would be like to be a child far away from home, the first Christmas in a place called Minidoka.

The morning rains had turned the paths and roads into muddy swamps. By evening, the mud was covered over with a blanket of snow that softened the outlines of the towers and the buildings. The snow just glistened and glittered in the moonlight and to five-year-old Kiyoshi, he thought that this was… made the perfect Christmas picture.

In the high desert of southern Idaho, in the winter of 1942, Kiyoshi sat in the wi… Mess Hall of Block 7 squirming with anticipation. His older brother and older sister went off with their friends and his mother, his Okasan, was in the, in the barracks resting ’cause she had been doing laundry all day. But it was Christmas Eve and Santa Claus was coming.

Now, about a year ago, there was an attack in a place called Pearl Harbor. And shortly after that, these men in suits and the, and this big car came and took Kiyoshi’s father, his Otosan, away. That made Kiyoshi and his whole family very sad. And that’s when a cold, empty space opened up in Kiyoshi’s stomach. He missed his Otosan; he missed his father, the way that he would tousle his hair and call him Kiyoshi-chan, or little Kiyoshi.

Then came these things called curfew, which made people scurry around after the sun went down. And then there were these things called blackouts in which everything went dark.

But the thing that his mother feared the most was this thing called evacuation. When that came, Kiyoshi’s mom and his older brother and older sister, they packed whatever they could in the suitcases. They moved out of their house and into a horse stall at the Exposition Center in the big city of Portland, Oregon. Aw, it was hot and stinky and, aw, just horrible in this horse stall. Kiyoshi couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t go home. And then came the day when people gave them little pop… paper tags with the same number on it.

The whole family had to wear this little paper tag. And they were herded out of the horse stalls and onto a train guarded by these big soldiers with big guns. They went on this train over the mountains where they were herded out of the trains and onto buses. And they’re taken to their new home of wood and tarpaper shacks and dust. This’s the first time Kiyoshi had ever been on a train. It’s the first time he’d ever been out of the state of Oregon. It was also the first time he’d ever seen a barbed wire fence.

When they first arrived in Minidoka, there was no heat in the barracks. They’re only cold-water showers. The dust just kinda blew in through cracks around the windows and doors and through the walls. And the outside toilets were freezing cold, and often Kiyoshi would be woken in the middle of the night by the fussing of the baby at the far end unit of the barracks. At least now, they had hot water, and Kiyoshi could make it from the showers to his unit in the barracks without icicles forming in his hair.

As Christmas approached, Kiyoshi began to worry and he asked his Osakan, his mother, “Uh, will Santa be able to get a pass to get through the front gate? Do you think Santa will be able to make it through the small chimney of the stove in our, in our unit? Do you think the guards will shoot the reindeer if they get too close to the fence?”

His mother said that she didn’t know but she was pretty sure the guards wouldn’t do anything to hurt Santa Claus. And then Tommy, Kiyoshi’s best friend who was seven, who knew everything, said, “Ah, no, Santa Claus and reindeer, they’re magical! They can go anywhere.”

Kiyoshi watched the snowflakes drift past the window outside and got excited all over again. He looked into the mess hall and there he could see that the, the wait staff and the cooks dressed in their finest. They just served a beautiful turkey dinner. And someone had, had painted the nativity scene on one of the walls and the whole room was decorated in crepe paper streamers and tin can stars. Someone even brought in a, a sagebrush and decorated it with tinfoil and, and cotton ball snow – a Christmas tree. There was even a Christmas wreath made of wood shavings, and Christmas carols were playing very softly on a small radio. You see, in camp, you didn’t celebrate Christmas just with your family but with all the families of your block.

And, suddenly, then the door slammed open and someone began shouting. Kiyoshi immediately thought of the men who had come to take his Otosan away, his father. He dove under the table, clapped his hands over his ears, and shut his eyes. He didn’t see that the man who was coming in was dressed in a red suit, had a long, red hat, and a white beard. What he saw were the men in the suits taking his Otosan away while he’s dressed in his pajamas. He didn’t hear the man shout out, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” What he heard was his mother weeping.

All the other children gathered around Santa Claus as he sat down his sack and began handing out presents. Then, suddenly, someone touched Kiyoshi on his shoulder. It was his best friend, Tommy, “Kiyoshi, there you are! Santa Claus is here and he brought presents!”

Kiyoshi climbed out from under the table, saw this man dressed in this rumpled, red suit and a cotton ball beard who was gesturing to him. “Aw, Kiyoshi-chan, aw, aw, I’ve got a present for you!”
“A present? For me?”

“Aw, Reverend Townsend and Shigeko Uno had written letters to all these churches across the United States telling them about the situation here in camp and I have presents for all the children here in Minidoka. And I picked this one out just for you.”

And he handed Kiyoshi this oddly-shaped object dressed… wrapped in brilliant red paper and green ribbons.

“And, I, I know it’s hard with your Otosan, your father, away. But Kiyoshi-chan, do you know this Japanese word, gaman? It means to bear, to carry on, to not complain. We must adjust to the new situation. We must prove to everyone else that we are Americans first, ne? Wakade mas ka? Do you understand?”

“Hai! Wakade mas. I understand.”

“Aw, very good. Aw, now, I must go and deliver presents to all the other children in all the other mess halls. Now remember, gaman, Merry Christmas!”

And he was gone. Kiyoshi looked down at his present; he wasn’t forgotten. Santa remembered. Santa still cared. And he began to unwrap his present as all the other children, all the people in the mess hall began filing out ’cause the camp choir was singing Christmas carols outside in the snow.

And what emerged from the wrapping paper was this toy wooden truck. And Kiyoshi felt his chest tightened. It reminded him of that old truck that his father used to carry groceries from their farm into the markets in Portland. That small, cold, empty space in Kiyoshi’s stomach opened up and threatened to swallow him down.

Gaman. How could he carry on? He was just a little boy. He missed his father. He just wanted to go home. Tears began rolling down his cheeks. And he didn’t hear the door open up behind him while the footsteps approaching him.

“That is a beautiful truck you have there, Kiyoshi-chan.”

Kiyoshi turned around and looked at this man, gray hair, glasses. Who was this man? He didn’t recognize him until he reached out and tousled his hair. “Otosan! Father!”

And suddenly he was in his father’s arms smelling his smell. Aw, and that cold, empty spot just melted away and was replaced with this glowing warmth that make his whole body tingle.

“Father, how? When?”

“Aw, they let me go, Kiyoshi-chan so I could be here with all of you. Come! Let’s go outside and, and listen to the choir!”

So, hand-in-hand, they went outside but Kiyoshi couldn’t see so his father picked him up, put him up on his shoulders, and Kiyoshi balanced there with one hand on his father’s hat and one around his new toy truck. These three Army flatbed trucks have been pulled up in a “U” and the camp choir was standing on the trucks being led by Mae Hara, who the camp… the choir director. She had a baton with a little light on the end of it and she was leading them in Christmas carols.

And to five-year-old Kiyoshi balancing there his father’s shoulders, he knew that he could carry any weight, bear any burden. Gaman. To him, it was the best Christmas ever.

Exotic Food: The Legendary Origin of a Chinese American Dish

by Storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

People from all over the world came to America in the 1850s in search of riches during the California Gold Rush.  Many young Chinese men immigrated to America to earn money to support their families in China.  They experienced discrimination and violence, and could only live in specially designated areas, which became locally known as Chinatown.  Chinese food was considered to be “exotic” by the Lo Fan or White people.  This story follows one of the legends surrounding the origins of a popular Chinese American dish.  No one knows when or where the dish was invented and that makes for a good myth.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   Exotic Food-The Legendary Origin of a Chinese American Dish

Discussion Questions:

  1. You have just arrived in a new country by yourself and are unfamiliar with the language or culture.  You must find a place to stay, food to eat, and a job to earn money.  What do you do?
  2. What is your favorite food?  Is there a special way you like to have that dish prepared?  What country or culture did that dish come from?  What food makes you most think of home?  How does it make you feel when you eat it?
  3. When did your ancestors first immigrate to the US?  Where were your ancestors born?  What did your grandfather and grandmother do for a living?  Where did your father and mother grow up?  In what cities have you lived?
  4. Why do you think the Chinese Americans had some fun feeding the white people leftovers? How does humor help relieve stress when people are being oppressed?
  5. You have travel to another country, can not speak the language, and have become separated from your parents.  You are lost and have no money.  What do you do?  How would you like people to treat you?  What would you like them to do for you?

Resources:

  • Chinese Immigrants in America: An Interactive History Adventure by Kelley Hunsicker.  2008.  Capstone Press, Mankato, MN.
  • The Gold Rush: Chinese Immigrants Come to America (1848 – 1882) by Jeremy Thornton.  2004.  PowerKids Press, New York
  • snopes.com/food/origins/chopsuey.asp Chop Suey Origins

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. And this story, some people believe it’s true. You choose, you decide for yourself.

Hi, my name is Ming Wah. 1850’s or so, when Chinese began creating restaurants, yah, in America, Lo Fan, Westerners, white people thought, oh, Chinese food was exotic. So, I’m going to tell you this story, my restaurant friend told me about a famous Chinese American dish. Maybe true…hmm…maybe not. But, hey, good story.

I guess around 1850 Chinese can come into America in large numbers. See, in China this time is the revolution. Things, the whole country, was in ruins. Taiping Rebellion. People rising up against the government. There’s no work. And then in the South-eastern part China, all around Toisan District and ’round Canton. Lots of rain, flooding. Oh, people cannot even grow food. People starving. No chance for good life in China. Then, they hear about Gam Saan, Gold Mountain, America. See, gold was discovered in a place called Sutter’s Mill, California, 1848. People from all over the world come to America to get rich. In America, maybe chance for good life.

Whole families get together, pool money, buy one ticket, send one young man to America. One young man sail from Canton, China, cross Pacific Ocean, all the way to San Francisco, California. They hope maybe they find gold or get money. Send money back to China support the family. They think maybe work, three, maybe five years, and then come back. Some people in California, some people found gold, got rich, went back to China. Most, um, not. ‘Cause people, they had to deal with not only different culture but different language. And, also, Chinese had to pay special Foreign Miners Tax, four dollars a month. That’s about as much gold as you normally find in a month! Oh! And on top of that, people get beaten. They get, they get robbed. They get, even sometimes, killed! Oh! Some give up, go back China. Me? I stay. I still got family back in China I gotta send money to.

So, in China at this time, also, got, ah, alien land laws in the United States so Chinese cannot own land. Cannot vote. And we cannot live just about any place we like. Could only live in places specially designated, away from the Lo Fan, away from the white people. But wherever they are allowed to live, that becomes Chinatown.

Chinese, they open up stores, they open up restaurants, they open up laundries. Me? I got a job in store. We sell vegetables and fruits from nearby farms. Me, I keep the best vegetables, the best fruit for my restaurant friend. He tell me, “Oh, you guys got bess foo, best fruit, best vegetables!” He takes all that good food. He chop ’em up. He serve to his best Chinese customers entertaining special guests. Lo Fan. They like coming to Chinese restaurant because the food is exotic but for them, all too spicy.

My restaurant friend tell me, one night, almost closing, all these Lo Fan come to his restaurant. They are hungry. They want something to eat. Oh! He’s looking around. Almost no food left in the kitchen! All he has is leftover vegetables and leftover meat he wouldn’t serve his best customers! Ah! Never mind. Chop them up, put ’em in the wok. Chop up the meat, put ’em inside. Stir ’em up. Make gravy and then no spice. No, nothing. Make ’em bland. Put ’em on a plate. Serve ’em to the Lo Fan. The Lo Fan eat. “Oh! This is good! Oh, OK!” (Thumbs up.)

My friend look at them and go, “OK!” (Thumbs up.)

He go in the back, talk to all the cooks. The other cooks look at him, go, “OK.” (Thumbs up.) They start laughing. I think they’re still laughing.

See in the Toisan District, we call this dish tsap seui or leftovers. Now, white people, they cannot pronounce that so they call them Chop Suey.

Ha. My restaurant friend tell me, “You, you, you, come, come, come. You special friend. You, you, you eat free!”

I go, “Haha! OK!” (Thumbs up.) But me, never, ever order Chop Suey

December 7, 1941: An Eyewitness to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

by Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

Charles Ishikawa grew up in Plantation camps in Waipahu, Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s.  He was 14 years old and on his way to his high school basketball practice when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  He saw the planes diving like sea birds over the ships in the harbor.  After Marshall Law was declared, he helped patrol the Plantation camps to make sure that no lights shown out at night.  He was issued a gas mask at school and helped dig an air raid shelter in his backyard.  He and his family took down and burned everything that was Japanese in their home.  They were Americans, but worried if they were American enough.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   December 7, 1941-An Eyewitness to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Discussion Questions:

  1. Imagine your town was being attacked.  You can see the planes dropping bombs and hear the explosions, but you appear to be in no danger.  What do you do?
  2. Imagine soldiers are being stationed in your school.  These soldiers can arrest anyone for any violations of the new laws and put them in jail.  They seem to be watching you and your friends.  What would you do?  What would you do differently?
  3. Imagine that important people in your community are being arrested and taken away.  Food is being rationed and travel is being restricted.  The internet has been shut down and all cell phones must to be turned in to the government.  You must carry around an identification card at all times.  How does all of this make you feel?
  4. Imagine that the government censors all newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, and reads your mail.  They also read all of your e-mail, internet posts, track your internet activity, and listened in on all of your long-distance phone calls.  How does this make you feel?  What would you do differently?

Resources:

Pearl Harbor Child: A Child’s View of Pearl Harbor from Attack to Peace Revised Edition by Dorinda Nicholson.  2001.  Woodson House Publishing.  Raytown, MO.

VisitPearlHarbor.org March 8, 2017  The Attack on Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath

Forbidden Photos Reveal What Life Was Like In Hawaii After Pearl Harbor.  December 7. 2016.  Huffington Post.  huffingtonpost.com/entry/hawaii-pearl-harbor-attacks-photographs_us_58462170e4b055b313990dad

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview a tour guide at Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu, Hawaii. And it’s an open-air museum focusing on what life was like in the sugar cane and pineapple plantation camps in Hawaii from 1850 to about 1950. My guide, Charles Ishikawa, a retired principal and schoolteacher, grew up in the camps around Waipahu. And this is one of the stories that he told me.

My name is Charles Ishikawa and I grew up in the plantation camp in, around Waipahu in the 1930s, uh, 1940s. Waipahu is located about, oh, two, three miles from Pearl Harbor where, uh, WWII began for the United States. Now, my dad worked for the Oahu Sugar Company but we lived in Ota Camp. Ota Camp was, uh, a camp with the flatlands between, uh, Waipahu and Pearl Harbor. He lived there because he wanted to raise pigs and, uh, chickens for extra money. Oh, plenty pigs living close to plenty people. Mmm! Not a good idea because of the, uh… aroma.

But everyone else lived in segregated camps in, uh, above Waipahu, uh, and above the sugar mill. I mean, there was the, the Filipino camp and the Korean camp and the Portuguese, the Chinese, and the, the Puerto Ricans, and the Japanese people like us. Everybody had their own camp but all us kids, oh, we all went to school, Waipahu High School, so we all knew each other and we got along okay. Things changed a little bit after that Sunday, December 7th, 1941.

We’re driving to the gymnasium, yeah, on the west side of, uh, of Pearl Harbor for basketball practice when, suddenly, we noticed this plane swooping in low, just over the treetops. Had these big red circles (hinomaru) on the wings. And it’ll… the pilot was so low we could see the pilot. I mean, he had big goggles on, a dark helmet and as he flew on by looked like he was looking down upon us and so some of us looked up and we waved. He looked down and kinda smiled and waved down at us.

Further on down the road we see this lone U.S. National Guardsman. He has a Springfield bolt action rifle and he’s shooting at the plane. And then, suddenly, all these other planes… gots… diving in. He starts shooting at them.
(Bang! Chi-chick. Bang! Chi-chick.) We pull over. “Eh, howzit,” I say, “Uh, these guys, eh, terrific! The maneuvers, they look real!”

“What? Son, those are Japanese! They’re attacking Pearl Harbor.”

“What? Nah!”

And then a buddy of mine who is smarter than the rest of us kinda put it all together. “Hey, they not fooling around! This for real kine! They dropping real bombs!”

This made no sense. I mean, Japan was far away. How did they get here? And why would they attack us? What did we ever do to dem? Heh! Whatevers! I didn’t know what to believe but I kinda figure… eh, had, had nothing to do with us.

We didn’t want the coach to yell at us so we continued on our way. We arrived at the gym a little after 8:00. People already dribbling, shooting practice shots. But before we could change into our gym clothes, the coach called us all together.

“Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor and, uh, President Roosevelt has declared war. Uh, you should all just, just go home.”

Nobody said anything. Just went to the cars.

War? What did that mean? I mean, I was Japanese but I was also an American. And Japan had attacked America and that’s wrong. But I had an uncle and cousins and other relatives in Japan. Now that we’re at war, that means, will I ever be able to see them again?

Driving back to Waipahu, we could see the, the thick, black smoke billowing up from Pearl Harbor. And the planes diving, zigzagging all across the sky just like, like seabirds diving on a school of fish! Explosions are shaking us! You can see the flames shooting up into the sky! And the air was filled with the screaming sound of, of air raid sirens!

We pulled into town. We could see that, you know, all these people sitting on the roofs of the houses trying to get a, a better view of the… what was going on, the action of, uh, Pearl Harbor. And that’s when we learned that, later on, that one of our classmates, one of the Sato boys, was killed by shrapnel from friendly anti-aircraft fire. I mean, we just saw him yesterday. And now, he was make. He was dead! I mean, for real kine. Dead! He’s probably one of the first casualties, civilian casualties, of WWII. And it… this was bad… I mean, ships were on fire. Things were exploding ova there! People probably dying! This’s really bad.

That night mama called all us kids together. Tell us, “Uh, go through de house, uh. Pull down anything that has Japanese on it or look, uh, Japanese. Take ’em in the backyard. Burn ’em!”

Oh, we took down art work, family photos, even calendars! We burn it all. We were so afraid that the military police would come and arrest us for being spies. I mean, we were Americans but, suddenly, we felt like we were suspects, guilty until proven innocent. Americans but, mmm, maybe not American enough.

Then came martial law. It was 8:00 p.m. curfew and then nighttime blackout. Is… Everyone is so afraid that the Japanese would attack again or, or invade. And so, all the windows had to be covered over so no light shine through so the Japanese wouldn’t have any targets to shoot at. You know, the pineapple company, at this time, they would put down this tar paper in the fields to control the weeds. Overnight, rolls of the stuff just disappeared. And, you know, next few days all de windows of all de plantation houses had dis tar paper put on top just like the ones the field. Funny, yeah?

Now, I was in Boy Scouts and so, our job, we had to go patrol at night to make sure that no lights was coming through the windows. Uh, the, the light coming through the windows, we had to knock on the door and tell them to cover the windows. We had the little flashlight that, uh, we put this red paper on top so we can see but not be easily seen. Kinda creepy walking through the plantation town like this. Well, this real tiny red light to guide you.

Then everybody we knew was digging air raid shelters. So, we dug one too. But the only place we could dig it was between the house and the bath house and underneath mama’s clothesline. Oh, we spent hours digging that hole. ’Cause it had to be big enough for the whole family to go inside, yah? So, we dug it six feet down and four feet by four feet. We cut steps into the earth to get inside. And then we got these two by fours; we placed them on top. And we got an old piece of totan, this corrugated iron, to put on top the two by fours. And we covered over all the dirt that we dug out from the hole. Trouble was that totan we use was kinda weak and corroded, rotten. But that’s all we had. If anyone stood on top, the whole thing would collapse.

But after all dat work, we never used it. I was afraid to go inside that thing ’cause it was dark and dank and it was filled with cockroaches and centipedes. I kinda figured if the Japanese ever attack, I kinda just take my chances rather than go and hunker down in the mud with the cockroaches and centipedes.

Now, in school, they handed out… everybody had the handed-out gas mask. Oh, we had to carry dem wherever we went. They showed us how to put it on; how to breathe in it. Thing was made of rubber, smelled funny, and was kinda gross. You put it on, we all look like elephant people.

One of the scariest things was the soldiers. There were soldiers stationed in, uh, high school and, and off to the plantation camps. I mean, big haole soldiers, Caucasian soldiers, and big guards stood looking at all of us. I mean, do they think that us kids and our parents will cause trouble because we Japanese? I mean, we never figured out what they were guarding. We never ask. But… looking back upon it, they’re probably just ordered there. They’re probably just afraid of us as we were of dem.

Lots of stuff changed because of that Sunday. We hadda come up with new ways of living. I mean, anything Japanese, we disowned. We disowned part of who we were. And all the leaders of the Japanese-American community, they all got arrested and taken away. We hadda figure out how to do a lot of stuff on our own now. And the soldiers, the soldiers are always watching us. Hoh!

It was a long time before life was normal again in Waipahu. Three months after I graduated high school in 1944, I was drafted into the Army. Huh, Japanese-American boy, learn how to fight the Japanese. Huh, and what happened to me afta dat. Ah, well, dat’s another story.

Reflections on Minidoka

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Introduction:

Searching for a resource for Japanese American experiences in World War II relocation camps? Alton Chung tells the true story of his journey and encounter with an 89 year old former internee who made her first visit after 66 years. This personal and challenging story is food for thought for all of us.

Summary:

Alton Chung relates the true story of his journey to the Minidoka Relocation Camp site at Hunt, Idaho and of his encounter there with an 89 year old former internee. She was 23 years old when she left this Japanese American incarceration camp and this was her first visit back to the site after 66 years.

Touring the old camp evokes emotions and thoughts of loved ones and life at Minidoka during World War II. The internee shares personal memories of that time and how the internment affected her life. The story provides a view of relocation camps that allows us to experience the difficulties encountered and, hopefully, encourages us to think differently about others.

Classroom Applications:

  • Create a webquest (an online scavenger hunt) for students to uncover information about incarceration camps
  • Visit a WWII museum
  • Write journal prompts for students to respond to daily.

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ONARA

by Storyteller ALTON CHUNG

 

Story Summary:

This is a true story written by Mako Nakagawa and told by Alton with her permission. A young girl wonders about the difference between “hakujin” (white people) and “nihonjin” (Japanese people) while in an internment camp in WWII. She speculates as to why hakujin do not onara (a euphemism for “passing gas”).

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Onara

Discussion Questions:

  1. You have been ordered to move out of your house in two weeks and can only take one suitcase weighing 50 pounds. You will be gone for an unknown period of time for an unknown destination. There are no stores where you are going, no Internet or cell phone or cable service, and very little electricity. What will you take with you?
  2. Meals in the camps were served in large mess halls like the cafeteria in your school. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of serving meals in this way? How would you feel about eating in a cafeteria for all of your meals for the next year?
  3. The incarceration (internment) camps were surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire fences, and soldiers with rifles. Do you think such measures were necessary? Why were they implemented? How would you feel if you had to live under those conditions?  How do you think it would change you?

 Resources:

  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki
  • Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps by Michi Weglyn.

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello. My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung.  The story I have for you is called “Onara.” It was written by a woman by the name of Mako Nakagawa. It is with her permission that I can tell it. It’s in a collection of stories that I call “Kodomo No Tame Ni.”  (For the Sake of the Children) Now, “Onara.”

For the first five years of my life, I grew up in Seattle and I was surrounded by friends and family, mostly Japanese people. See, we were Nipponjin, Japanese people, and I didn’t know much about white people or know very many of them. We called them Hakujin. And I knew there were differences between us Nipponjin and the Hakujin. I mean, they were foreign, “strange,” and very large!

Most of what I knew about Hakujins came from magazines or movies.  I mean, they were filled with Hakujin people.  But even as a child I knew that the Hakujins were the ones with the power. That became very evident when they came and took my dad and threw him in jail, after Pearl Harbor.  And again when they took me and the rest of my family and put us in Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington in 1942. Later in Minidoka, Idaho and Crystal City, Texas.

All the teachers and all the guards were all Hakujins. We learned to be wary of them. One day about a dozen of us second graders were all gathered together making a sound of onara. Oh, we were having a wonderful time, making all these wonderful sounds using our hands and our fingers and our lips. We knew if the adults caught us, we would be in big trouble, but it was so much fun being naughty.

Each kid had a different sound and we critiqued each sound. we tried to imagine what kind of person would make that kind of sound. And then, Akira made what we considered to be, hands down, the best onara sound ever. We fell on the ground laughing, our sides were hurting. You know, “onara?” (Sound made through blowing in hands that sounds like gas.)  “Onara!” And then one kid said, “How come the Hakujin don’t onara? Huh?”

Hmm. Half of us thought they did. Half of us thought they didn’t. I always wondered what it would be like, not to onara. One person said, “No no, no, they have to, they are human beings!”

“Oh yeah, if they did, wouldn’t they have an English word for it?”

“Yeah . . Hmm.” Since none of us could come up with an English word for onara, we concluded the Hakujins didn’t do it. Then my friend Janet said she thought she heard one coming from her teacher, but she wasn’t sure because her teacher moved her chair at the same time. Hmm, inconclusive. I mean, who could we ask?

The only Hakujins we knew were our teachers and the guards, and we didn’t think it was a really good idea to ask them anything. It seemed strange to me that they wouldn’t have an English word for onara. I knew there were differences between us, but we weren’t that different. I decided to ask my mom, see what she thought. My mom, she looked at me, and then she smiled and said she had no idea. I don’t think she wanted to know the Hakujins that well.

Anyway, one day, again, I was playing with my best friend Janet, and the whole idea came up again. We finally concluded that onara was the result of what you ate. Logical! And we knew that the Hakujins ate differently than us. Therefore, the Hakujin food must not produce onara. But when I was in camp, I ate a lot of Hakujin food and I still onara. I never discovered the non-onara-producing Hakujin diet, but I did discover the meanings for certain key phrases, such as “angel whispers,” “breaking wind,” and “cutting the cheese!” Hakujins did do it! That’s when I realized, maybe we’re not so different after all.

A TWICE SAVED LIFE

by Storyteller ALTON CHUNG

 

Story Summary:

Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian Jew, was a boy when Germany invaded his country in1940. He was eventually sent to Dachau and was rescued by members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese American unit. Fifty years later he once again meets the man who saved him.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Twice-Saved-Life-The-Solly-Gaynor-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Canada and forced millions of Canadians south across the border into the US. Would you open your house to take in some refugees who have nothing?  What would you give up to share with them?
  2. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Mexico and forced millions of Mexicans across the border into the US, would you open your house to some refugees who had nothing?  Would your behavior be different than your reaction to the Canadian refugees?  Why?
  3. People who lived through WWII are passing away.  In a few years, there will no longer be any eyewitnesses to the events of recent history. How do we know what happened in Civil War, in Medieval Europe, at the building of the Pyramids in Egypt?  How is history preserved?  How does the past affect our present and future?
  4. If you and your family were sent to an incarceration camp, would you volunteer to fight for the U.S.? Would you serve, if drafted into the Military? Would you remained loyal to the U.S.?

Resources:

  • Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale by Solly Ganor
  • Visas and Virtue, Visual Communications, Cedar Grove Production, 26 minutes, 1997, (1997 Academy Award, Best Live Action Short Film)
  • Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you.) A DVD by Alton Chung

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Interfaith
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello.  My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung.  The story I am going to tell you right now is called, “A Twice Saved Life.”  It’s from a large collection of stories which I created and called, “Okage Sama De.” (“I Am What I Am Because Of You”)  and now, “A Twice Saved Life.”

We, Jews, have a saying, “To save one life, is if to save the entire world.”  Kaunas, Lithuania.  Just a dot on a map for most Americans.  But for me, it is where I grew up. I was 11 years old when Hitler invaded Poland from the West in September of 1939. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Poland from the east.  And over the next several months, Polish Jews began streaming across the border into Lithuania.  In December of that year, like many other Jewish children in Lithuania, I decided to give my Hanukkah gelt, my Hanukkah money, to the refugees who had nothing. And then, ah, wouldn’t you know it, the new Laurel and Hardy film came in town and I just had to see it!

I decided to go see my aunt who ran a gourmet grocery store in downtown Kaunas. When I walked into the store, there was an elegantly dressed man with strange, slanted eyes.  I had never seen a Japanese man before!  Well, I told my aunt what I needed. And the man laughed and reached into his pocket, and said, “Here, here. Take it. Take the money.  Take, take it.”

I said, “Oh no, no, no! You a stranger.  You’re not family.  I cannot take money from you.”

“Well, for the holidays, why don’t you consider me to be your uncle?”

I took the coin. “Uh…Uncle…uh…my name is Solly Ganor.”

“And my name is Chiune Sugihara.”  Chiune Sugihara.  He was the Consul for the Empire of Japan to Kaunas.

Well, time went on.  In June 1941, Germany invaded Lithuania.  Eventually, my family was split up and I was sent to Bavaria, southern Germany, to a little town outside of Munich, called Dachau. I witnessed many…horrible,…terrible things…  But I survived.

In 1945, the SS guards wrestled us out of our barracks and made us march off into the frozen night.  And we marched…And we marched…And we marched.  For six days and nights we marched.  I was weak.  I was exhausted and I collapsed into a snow bank by the side of the road where the guards just left me to die.  I was drifting away and then I felt someone grab hold of me and pull me out of the snow bank. And I opened my eyes and stared into this face with strange, slanted eyes.  And I remembered Sugihara had strange, slanted eyes. There were four of them.  They were dressed in khaki uniforms and they were tired and unshaven and dirty.  And although they were speaking English, I knew that they were Japanese.  I thought to myself, “Oh, these Japanese soldiers are now here to kill me.” By then, I didn’t care.  “Go ahead! Kill me! Just get it over with!”

They looked at me and said, “No! We’re not going to kill you! We are Americans.”

“Oh, no, no, no! You are Japanese! You’re here to kill me!”  We went back and forth.

And finally, this Japanese man, fell down on his knees, weeping.  “You’re free, boy! We are Japanese Americans. You’re free!” I stared into this Japanese man’s eyes. They were kind and gentle like Sugihara’s.  It was only then that I believed.

His name was Clarence Matsumura and he was attached to the 522nd Artillery Battalion, which was part of 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  The all Japanese American unit.  They were amongst the first to discover and begin liberating the complex of camps around Dachau.  I found it ironic that Clarence and his kinsmen had volunteered to fight and die for the United States for many of them had their families locked up in “American Relocation” centers.

Well, after the war, I moved to Israel.  I didn’t talk very much about my experiences except to other people who were survivors of the camps.  Ever since my liberation, I had not been able to cry.  Psychiatrists told me that the trauma of the holocaust had just dried up all my tears. That I was now an emotional amputee; I would never cry again.

In 1992, I received a phone call from a man by the name of Eric Saul.  He was a historian from San Francisco. He said that he was here in Israel with a group of Japanese American men who were there at the liberation of Dachau.  They had come from Hawaii and California to Israel to be honored by the Knesset.  Would I meet them?

Well, I arrived at the hotel and there was this group of old Japanese men. They were all gray haired, in their 70’s.  They asked me to read an account that I had written when I had first met the members of their battalion.  And as I began reading my account, we were joined by another Japanese man – gray hair, glasses.  And when I got to the point where these Japanese men were pulling me out of the snow bank, I looked up at the newcomer.  And there were tears in his eyes.  I stopped reading.  I couldn’t go on.  I couldn’t speak.  After years of suppressing the insuppressible, this tidal wave of emotion is erupted through me.  And I began to weep.  The little boy that I had hidden away all those years had come out of hiding.  And it was he who was weeping.

All these old men gathered around me to comfort me.  “Uh…Don’t be ashamed. You are among friends now.” It was the voice of the newcomer. “Solly, this is Clarence Matsumura.”  I looked at this man, the newcomer, – gray hair, glasses.  How could this be?  I couldn’t tell.  And then he smiled.  Oh… Nothing could change that smile!  We fell into each other’s arms and the years melted away.  I was weak and he held me up…just as he had done 47 years ago on the road to Waakirchen just south of a little town called Dachau.