By Storyteller Anne Shimojima
How would the government treat your family if it went to war with your ancestors’ country of origin? Anne Shimojima describes life in an incarceration camp for her Japanese-American family during World War II.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Incarceration
- Imagine that you were in an incarceration camp in World War II. How would you answer Question 27 and 28 and why?
- How do you think the experience of living in an incarceration camp (when you have not done anything wrong) can affect a family and succeeding generations?
- How do you think the lack of privacy affected the people living in the camps?
- Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives – University of California – Teacher created lesson plans for grades 4-12 based on photographs, letters, diaries, transcribed oral histories, and artwork of the camps – www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/
- Looking Like the Enemy; My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald
- Asian American/Asians
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Anne Shimojima and this is an excerpt from a longer story “Hidden Memory: The Japanese-American Incarceration.”
In 1942, by executive order 9066, my grandparents and three of their four children ages 20, 23 and 28 had to leave their homes. They had less than two weeks to sell all of their possessions. They didn’t know where they were going or for how long. They had been… not been charged or convicted of any crime.
First, they were sent to an assembly center. The incarceration camps were not yet built so the government had to find already existing structures that could hold thousands of people. My family was from Portland, Oregon so they were sent to the Portland International Exposition Center. There, they lived in a horse stall. It was one stall per family – stalls that had barely been cleaned. They spent the summer there in the heat and the smells and the flies.
By the end of the summer, they were sent with 16,000 other people to Tule Lake, California. Tule Lake was one of ten incarceration camps created by the government. Most of the camps were built in dry, desolate, desert areas. I had gotten a map of Tule Lake and took it over to my aunt’s house, my father’s older sister. And we spread it out on her dining room table and looked at the rows and rows of the barracks, long wooden buildings built in such a hurry they had to use green and unseasoned wood, which dried and shrank, leaving large cracks in the walls.
The barracks were covered with tar paper – no insulation against the bitter, cold winter or the 100+ degree heat of summer. The buildings were 20 x 100 feet; each was divided into four apartments. Each apartment was one room of 20 x 25 feet; each room held one family. There were 13 or 14 barracks in a block; each block had a dining hall and buildings for showers, toilets, laundry, ironing… and there was a recreation building.
My aunt remembers that they lived in Block 4. She remembers internees were given a cot, a sack stuffed with straw for a mattress and there was a pot-bellied stove. No other furniture! If you wanted any other furniture, you had to build it yourself out of scrapped wood. There was no running water in the barracks. She remembers the communal shower room, the toilets all in a row – no partitions between them. There was no privacy. Each family was one thin wall away from the next. She remembers the lines for everything – lines for showers, for toilets, for meals. She remembers the dust that blew in through those cracks in the walls. The dust that blew over everything, everywhere! The dust they could never get rid of no matter how hard they tried.
She remembers the barbed wire. She remembers the search light that swept the camp at night. She remembers the guard towers for the guards holding guns that pointed in, not out.
Well, the people tried to set up some semblance of a normal life. There were schools, churches, a newspaper, stores, clinics, clubs and sports teams. The people planted gardens and helped to raise food. They also worked various jobs in the camp. The highest rate of pay was $19 a month for doctors and other professionals.
Family life and structure suffered terribly! My grandfather was no longer the head of the family, the breadwinner, the authority figure. At mealtimes in the dining hall, children ran off to eat with their friends. And the Issei, my grandparents’ generation, had poor English skills. They felt powerless.
Well, the following year, in 1943, the government decided that Japanese-Americans could serve in the military. There was a war on; they needed bodies. So the War Department developed a questionnaire to test the loyalty of those who might serve. Everyone had to answer the questionnaire, even my grandparents who were too old to serve.
Two questions became the focus of controversy. Question 27. Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? And Question 28. Do you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and will you defend it against any attack, foreign or domestic? And do you foreswear allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign power of government or organization?
People agonized over these questions. The first asked men if they would be willing to serve, risk their lives for a country that had imprisoned their families behind barbed wire. First sons were especially torn because they have a traditional responsibility of caring for their aging parents. If they answered, yes, they would be leaving their parents to an uncertain future. And would they find themselves fighting a Japanese relative?
The second question was especially hard for my grandparents because they were not allowed to become U.S. citizens. If they gave up their allegiance to Japan, they would be stateless – people without a country. The controversy raged; people were angry, upset and scared. The vast majority of people did answer, yes, to both questions. We know my grandparents did because they were moved to another camp. Tule Lake became the place they put the no, no’s – as people who answered no to both questions were called.
My grandparents were moved to Minidoka in Idaho. They lived there until the camp closed in 1945. As the internees left, each was given $25 and a train ticket. $25 for three years of imprisonment, lost homes, lost businesses and a lost way of life.
We don’t know if my grandparents ever went back to Portland to collect what they left there. Eventually, they made their way to Chicago to a new life. My grandfather never worked again. He was 60 years old when he left camp. He thought he was too old to start over.
Well, during World War II, not one Japanese-American was ever convicted of sabotage. And the nissei men who fought for the United States, they proved their loyalty with their blood. They became the legendary 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated unit in the history of United States military.
It wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford finally rescinded executive order 9066. It was President Jimmy Carter who signed legislation creating the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The commission held hearings, listened to testimony and, in its final report, declared that the evacuation had been caused by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership. In 1990, the internees still living began receiving redress payments of $20,000 each and a letter of apology from the United States government.
My family never told stories about coming to the United States from Japan. They didn’t talk about World War II or what it was like to live in the incarceration camps. This was common among Japanese-American families. I don’t know if it was shame or embarrassment or just trying to forget a terribly difficult time.
So I’ve been researching my family’s story for the last few years. I interviewed my 91 year old aunt. I collected family documents and photos and I made a photo book. And then a DVD of slide shows for our four generations. I finished the DVD just in time for Christmas. I went to our family’s Christmas Day gathering and we all gathered in front of the television – aunts and cousins, grandparents and grandchildren. And I played the DVD for them and watched them watching the screen, laughing and smiling as the years passed before our eyes.
This moment was for my grandparents, a gift to recognize their gifts to us. The sacrifices they made, the indignities they suffered, and the hopes they had for our future. I wish they could have been there. But since they couldn’t, I tell this story now to thank them for their gifts and to honor their journey.