By Storyteller Anne Shimojima
What if the U.S. went to war with your country of origin? Anne Shimojima tells of the difficult days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when her Japanese-American family were forced to evacuate their home. Could it happen to you?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Evacuation
- Imagine that your family had to leave its home in ten days. You can only take what you can carry. You may never return. What will you take and why? What will you have to leave behind that will break your heart to leave?
- What can we learn from the experience of the Japanese-Americans at this time when Muslim-Americans face so much prejudice?
- Being an American citizen gives us certain rights. If you lost your rights as the Japanese-Americans did in World War II, what are some of the actions you could take in response?
- Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project – The Densho Digital Archive contains 400 videotaped histories (fully transcribed, indexed, and searchable by keyword) and over 10,700 historic photos, documents, and newspapers. www.densho.org/
- Personal Justice Denied; Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and University of Washington Press, 1997. Available at: books.google.com
- Asian American/Asians
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
In 1906 my grandfather left his family’s silk worm farm in Japan and came to America. He was not the oldest son, so he would not inherit anything. So, he left and decided to seek his fortune in the United States. Thousands of Japanese men did this. Some had to find work when high taxes forced them to sell their farms. Between 1885 and 1924 200,000 of them made their way to Hawaii. Another 180,000 found work on the U.S. mainland. They worked as merchants, laborers and farmers and like the Chinese before them they faced much discrimination.
In California the alien land law prevented Japanese, who were not allowed to be US citizens, from owning land or even renting land for more than three years. Trade unions blocked them from membership. Japanese Americans had trouble finding work as teachers or being seated in restaurants. Merchants had rocks thrown through their windows.
My grandfather owned a grocery store in Portland, Oregon. He did not face this level of discrimination, but when my father graduated from college in Oregon, he had a hard time finding a job on the west coast, so he went to Hawaii and found work there. Lucky for him because he met my mother there. Lucky too because he spent the next few years in Hawaii and missed what was to come. My grandparents had lived in this country for 35 years when on a Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 everything changed.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor threw the Japanese American community into fear and confusion. My grandmother thought they would be sent back to Japan. My grandfather began selling down the inventory in the grocery store because he knew bad times were coming. Soon wartime hysteria and racial prejudice totally took over. The rumors started flying. Japanese American farmers in Hawaii had planted their crops in the shape of giant arrows pointing to Pearl Harbor. Japanese American fishermen were secretly officers in the Emperor’s Navy. All of these rumors were false of course but white Americans were only too ready to believe them.
Lieutenant General John DeWitt, the western defense commander, said in his final report, “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” He also said, “a Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference if he is a citizen or not.”
Two months after Pearl Harbor, in February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 which authorized the internment of ethnic groups. Japanese Americans were not mentioned specifically but they were the target. Because of this order a hundred and twenty thousand Japanese Americans were imprisoned behind barbed wire. Two thirds of them were American citizens. They had broken no law. They had not been charged or convicted of any crime.
Two people of note did object. One was J. Edgar Hoover and the other was Eleanor Roosevelt. More weeks went by with my family not knowing what was to happen and then the signs started going up ordering Japanese aliens and non-aliens to report to assembly centers.
Now what is an alien? That’s a citizen. It’s as if the US government could not bring itself to admit it was imprisoning its own citizens without due process of law. My grandparents were told they had to leave their home. They didn’t know where they were going or for how long. They had less than two weeks to get rid of everything they owned. They could only take what they could carry – clothing, bed linens, and towels, tableware. No pets were allowed.
They had to get rid of everything else. They had to sell their business and belongings for a fraction of their value. My grandfather sold the grocery store. Years later my uncle Henry said, “you wouldn’t believe what he had to sell that store for.” He wouldn’t tell me the amount, but almost 50 years later I could still hear the bitterness in his voice.
Things were worse in California. Many of the Japanese Americans were farmers. They had crops in the ground. This was summer, the growing season. One strawberry farmer asked permission to wait until harvest. He was denied. He was so upset he plowed under his own crop. Then the FBI arrested him for sabotage and threw him in jail.
In June 1942 the Battle of Midway crippled the Japanese fleet. US naval intelligence told President Roosevelt that all threat of Japanese invasion of the US was gone, but still plans for mass evacuation continued even though the Japanese Americans were clearly no threat to US security.