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.  (more…)

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.  (more…)

Reflections on Minidoka

ahm-header

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.

Watch the video now

.

.

Explore our many other RaceBridges videos for
Asian American Month or any other time of the year.

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 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.  (more…)