Japanese-American internment: personal reflections on a trying time

''It was a tearful time,'' Mas Uesugi, a jeweler, is telling eight people gathered in the living room of a friend here. ''Nobody knew quite what was going to happen.''

The group has come together on this hot summer evening to discuss a common experience most have kept in the background for more than 40 years. All are eager to hear the views of the others but are unsure how to break into a subject long left untouched.

That topic is their internment in American evacuation camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Everyone here - a group including doctors and college professors - spent time in those camps, anywhere from 11/2 to 31/2 years. Most went with their parents, who had settled in California many years before, but who were unable to obtain citizenship because of their race. All the Nisei, the second-generation children, were US citizens when they entered the camps.

''It was so disillusioning,'' says Maria Uyeda, now a second-grade teacher. ''We believed in what we'd been taught in school, and here we were entering the camps.''

A special commission, appointed under President Carter, investigated the motives behind the massive internment of Japanese-Americans in February 1942. In its December 1982 report, the commission concluded that racism and political interests in large part motivated the order. In June of this year, it recommended that reparations of $20,000 per person be made the internees.

Right now, this group is thinking back to the moment of the order. Their recollections seem worlds away from the setting of this comfortable, airy living room, with large orange trees outside and a community pool next door.

''We were sent to Merced, and we stayed in barracks (waiting for relocation), '' continues Mr. Uesugi, a gentle, friendly man. ''I remember that a couple of friends hitchhiked over from home to say goodbye. That really fortified my faith in Americans.''

Mr. Uesugi's family got 48 hours notice to sell their business and prepare for relocation. ''My mother had a restaurant - the place was fully equipped. She got just $500 for it.''

There were 10 camps located throughout the US, though most were in the West. Two were located in Arkansas. Families in these barren areas usually had to deal with sand several inches deep - or, in the case of Sumi Akiyama, who was sent to Rohwer, Ark., with terrible humidity and swamp conditions. Home was a barracks room measuring 16 by 20 feet for families smaller than nine people. All used common latrines and eating areas.

The reasons given for the evacuation are numerous. ''The Japanese had made the land very fruitful,'' says Harry Kajihara, saying that much of the reason for evacuation stemmed from a desire to get hold of the well-developed businesses of the Japanese-Americans. Despite legal barriers to citizenship and land ownership, the immigrants were quickly successful.

The attack on Pearl Harbor brought to a head simmering resentments against this group of about 120,000. Unsubstantiated rumors of emperor worship and fifth-column spying activity flew around the West Coast.

Despite poor living conditions, many of the Nisei who experienced camp living - especially those who were younger - took it in stride. Many were still in high school and so continued their education in camp. But there were problems.

''Many of us thought we were there for only two or three months, so we stored our equipment instead of selling it,'' says Hiroshi Kamei. ''It was all gone when we returned.''

Mr. Kamei, who was high-school age at the time, went with his family on work furlough to Colorado, something many of the interned families did during their stay at the camps. Most worked on bean or beet farms. ''Honestly, we were badly mistreated,'' Mr. Kamei says quietly. ''So we went back to camp.''

Family ties were strained during the camp experience. Some children joined the military against their parents' wishes. The traditionally strong structure of the group was broken down as families ate in large halls, meals were prepared for them, and children became independent at a much earlier age.

Leon Uyeda says it makes him angry that some imply that life was happy there. ''The Japanese worked very hard. All of us had a very positive attitude. That attitude saved us. But we weren't happy.''

''There was no question of loyalty,'' he adds. ''We threw away our heritage trying so hard to become Western.''

Trying to become ''more American'' was something that confronted many of the families once they left camp in 1945. Moving back was difficult. Property was stolen, and stories abounded about prejudice and attacks on anyone resembling a Japanese. Compounding the problem was the government's farewell issuance of just

Mary Nitta, who met and married her husband in camp, went back to Orange County with her family. ''Several nights after we arrived, some white farmers who'd taken over Japanese land came to try to frighten us and tell us to go back. When I went into town, I was frightened. I felt like everyone was looking at me. And one store in Santa Ana wouldn't wait on me.''

The effects of the experience are varied. This particular group is prosperous , well-dressed, and well-educated. They have built solid lives for themselves since the war and talk confidently about their achievements. And they are proud of their children's lives. There is some bitterness, more among some than others. But there is also gratitude for the direction of their lives since the experience.

Mrs. Masunaga recalls the kindness of a neighbor when her husband began to develop a nursery business.

''One man gave us all the parts to his greenhouse. He told us that with these , we'd be able to hire people someday.

''The adjustment time, for us, was so short,'' she adds reflectively. ''If you would labor, work was plentiful. So everyone became domestics or gardeners. ''

Mas Uesugi participated in building a Japanese garden in the civic center mall in Santa Ana with the philosophy, he says, of ''dedicating it as a thank you to the county for accepting us and giving us an opportunity. It's also a tribute to our Issei fathers.''

When he was young, the Caucasians and Japanese-Americans in the community did not mix socially. Now, he says, ''I feel an obligation to get into the mainstream and fortify things with more person-to-person communication. ''

''Maybe we were shy out of self-defense,'' comments Mr. Kamei, now a doctor. He has never told his children directly about his camp experience.

Mary Nitta is surprised. ''I told my children, and they gave reports about it in school.''

Everyone here is pleased with the commission's findings on the episode that took four years out of their lives. Ken Hayashi points with gratitude to the third-generation Japanese-Americans, without whom, he feels, the issue would never have become so visible.

Most speak positively about the publicity and the growing awareness of what happened. Mr. Uyeda, however, is concerned it could perpetuate views of Japanese-Americans as a separate group.

While all agree they personally don't need the money reparations would provide, many believe that a significant amount must be awarded if the commission's finding are to have a real impact. Some are concerned about asking for an outlay of $1.5 billion at a time of great budget deficits and are more interested in the Japan-American Citizens' League proposal to form a foundation that would study this kind of issue.

But, they note, redress will ensure that people know what happened. If they don't talk about it, they say, the problem of lingering racism might continue and repressive tendencies might again tyrannize some minority group. To this day , they are surprised to find many people who don't know about the evacuation. They believe all American history textbooks should discuss the issue.

The group wants particularly to remind other Americans that the Nisei are citizens too. Mrs. Masunaga tires of having people expect her to understand Japanese. And Mr. Uyeda wonders how many more times he will hear the question: ''And how long have you been here?''

Leon Uyeda's wife, Maria, speaks up. ''I excuse the country because it's young. But we must progress and not let it happen again. The beauty of this country is that it does recognize its wrongs.''

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