Forced from home in World War II
This week we remember an important date in American history. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii. That event led the United States to go to war against Japan. The US also joined the war already going on in Europe against Germany, Italy, and several other countries. This became known as World War II.
After Pearl Harbor, many Americans were afraid that people who had Japanese heritage, even if they were also US citizens, would help Japan invade America's West Coast. This led to the imprisonment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans - not just adults, but children, too - in internment camps run by the US government.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an order that forced Japanese-Americans to leave the West Coast. They were sent to 10 camps located in remote parts of the country. (Canada also relocated Japanese living on its western coast to camps.)
At the time, the US government thought it was necessary for national security to imprison Japanese-Americans, even though they had not committed crimes. But more than 60 percent were US citizens.
Many internees had to give up everything they owned when they had to go to the camps, and had no homes to return to after they were released.
In a few cases, neighbors took care of the farms, businesses, and personal belongings of those who were imprisoned. Other acts of kindness included writing letters and mailing gifts to camp inmates.
US internment camps were not like the Nazi German prison camps of World War II, where millions of people were killed, starved, or forced into slave labor. American camps provided three meals a day and let families live together, although under very crowded conditions behind barbed-wire fences. Armed guards watched over the camps, and internees were not allowed to leave without special permission.
But eventually, the American government apologized for confining people to these camps. In 1988, Congress passed and President Reagan signed into law a bill that provided restitution payments of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese-American internee.
Educators and other interested people hope that as young people learn more about this part of American history, they will help prevent such incidents from being repeated.
On page 19, two Japanese-American grandparents, who, as children, were sent to the internment camps, tell what their experience was like.
Sadie Yamane, now a grandmother, was once a first-grader called Sadie Katano. A Japanese-American, she lived in Delano, Calif., and had an ordinary life - playing games, enjoying the outdoors, going to school, and attending church.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, everything changed for her and her family.
"People weren't allowed to play with us [Japanese-American children] because we looked like the enemy. They called us 'Japs.' As young as I was, I knew it was wrong because those words hurt," Mrs. Yamane recently told a class at Timmons Elementary School in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.
When young Sadie and her sister, Laura, walked home from school, they were teased and bullied by neighborhood children. This made their father sad. Mr. Katano wanted his daughters to be able to defend themselves, so he taught them martial arts moves.
Then President Roosevelt signed an order requiring the evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast. [See article on page 18.] Sadie and her family, all born in America, were to be interned in Poston, a camp in the Arizona desert. It was the largest of the 10 internment camps for Japanese-Americans.
With less than two weeks' notice, the Katanos took to the camp only what they could carry. Sadie gave away or left behind her dolls. Buddy, the family's dog, was given to a friend. The Katanos also had to give up their house.
"My aunt and uncle had very close friends whom my uncle left money with in hopes he could keep up payments on his house," Mrs. Yamane says. "After my uncle couldn't pay him any more, he [the friend] said he would keep up the payments, and he did. So my uncle had a place to go after the war. That was something; that was a deep friendship. But most people lost everything."
A young American high school boy, who had a lot of Japanese-American friends, was the only one who came to say goodbye to his friends just before they were sent to the internment camps. "I remember my father saying how much courage it took to do that," Mrs. Yamane says.
She was 6 years old and her sister was 9 when they arrived at the Poston camp in 1942. Her family lived in one room. They slept on cots. Although they hung blankets from the ceiling as partitions, there was no privacy. They had to share bathrooms and showers with others.
The adults worked to make camp life better and more interesting for the children with a school and a recreation hall. The children held jacks tournaments. They also played Red Rover, Kick the Can, and basketball.
Sometimes Mrs. Yamane is asked why the Japanese-Americans didn't protest. "People will say, 'How could you let this happen?' " Mrs. Yamane says. "This was 60 years ago. There wasn't civil disobedience."
Also, Japanese culture taught that "people in authority are to be obeyed," she says, "and if your government tells you to do this, [you] will obey."
Mrs. Yamane isn't resentful about her experiences. "I know a lot of people who are very angry and very bitter about that time," she says. "But I was ... a child. And my parents were very understanding and told me [that] most people are kind; most people are not this way."
Ed Ezaki , who is Japanese-American, was born in San Jose, Calif. In 1942, when he was almost 9 years old, he and his parents were ordered to leave San Jose and move to an internment camp called Gila River, in southeast Arizona.
His family had owned a successful fruit and vegetable farm since the early 1930s. When they had to go into a camp, they had to leave almost everything behind.
Why didn't he or his family protest when the government made them leave home?
"I had to follow my parents," Mr. Ezaki says. "We just went along with it. Going on the train, there were soldiers with bayonets. There was no protest as there should have been under the circumstances. We hadn't broken any laws or committed any crimes. [Those being interned] were very docile. It was Japanese culture."
At the camp, Ed attended school. His teachers were either white or were Japanese-American internees who had been teachers before. "I recall pledging allegiance every day to the American flag while we were incarcerated," he says. He sang the lead role in a school play. And he remembers working with papier-mâché sculptures and writing a poem about the war effort.
Adults tried to make life as ordinary as they could for the children. "I attribute any success that I have to the adults in those camps," he says. "They made things as normal as possible within horrific conditions." The grown-ups formed football, basketball, and baseball leagues for the kids. "I learned all my sports in camp," he says. "The adults cleared out desert sagebrush within our camp for a baseball diamond. [They also] made a basketball court for us."
Adults managed the housing and took care of problems that came up. They were paid $12 to $16 per month for their work. His mother worked in the mess hall (dining hall) preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She was his biggest sports fan and attended all of his games.
Mr. Ezaki's father worked as a pharmacist's assistant in the camp hospital. After a year, his dad left to pick potatoes in Idaho. This enabled him to gain early release from the camp. The rest of the family was allowed to leave in 1945, when Ed was 12.
Mr. Ezaki says he doesn't feel bitterness toward the US. In fact, he loves his country: "This is my country, I served in the Army [1953-1955]. I would live and die for this country." On the other hand, he understands how his parents probably felt. "Not committing any crime, they were forced to go into an area they did not know where, for no idea why, and not knowing for how long."
Mr. Ezaki says the government's apology and $20,000 payment to each internee was significant, but not enough to cover all the emotional and financial losses: "To us, the money was not what was important; it was the apology.... It's not an easy thing for our government to admit they were at fault."