The rising arc of the winter sun cast a warm geometric light upon the bedroom wall, illuminating a memory from my childhood when my mother talked about her early years in Japan. Those moments were golden as tragedy, and drama flowed through her spoken narratives, echoing her Biwa songs. Her instrument was the Chikuzen Biwa, a short-necked, fretted lute with five strings, played to accompany narrative storytelling. She attained the Shihan Master Degree (the ninth of ten degrees) by playing before other masters at the Annual National Concert in Japan. My parents met playing the Biwa in class, but that was all put on hold in the years that followed.
In the rising tide of wartime hysteria and prejudice, encouraged on all levels of the U.S. government, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, setting in motion a controversial policy with lasting consequences. It authorized the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States, a tragic injustice that violated American rights.
Anti-Japanese American sentiment strengthened, prompting the FBI to make arrests even before the order was given. Leaders within the Japanese-American communities were among the first to be removed. For others, the support and connections they had within their communities only delayed the inevitable.
It was impossible to evacuate in the forty-eight hours we were given, particularly for those who owned homes, businesses, or properties. Sellers received only pennies on the dollar; it was a fire sale for bargain hunters. We were allowed only what we could carry ourselves. We were processed and tagged, along with our luggage. More than two-thirds of us were U.S. citizens and over half were children. Without being charged or having the benefit of due process, this “relocation” was based solely on race, and, in part, for economic gain. There were ten prison camps built in remote areas of the interior:
Amache (Granada), Colorado
Gila River, Arizona
Heart Mountain, Wyoming
Poston (aka Colorado River), Arizona
Topaz (aka Central Utah), Utah
Tule Lake, California
Euphemistic terminology was used by the W.R.A. (War Relocation Authority) to obscure such blatant violations of civil and human rights. Language choices such as “non-aliens” rather than “citizens,” and “relocation,” “assembly center,” or “internment” rather than“concentration camp” were used. “Evacuation” was also misleading when describing the removal of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes, implying that the measure was a precaution for our own safety.
My father, my pregnant mother, and my brother Daniel, who was under two years old, were taken to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, a racetrack repurposed as a temporary detention center. My brother Douglas was born in July of that year, in a white-washed horse stall that still smelled of manure and urine.
After several months, we were moved to the Topaz Relocation Center in the Sevier Desert, a desolate place in west-central Utah where the ceaseless winds, dust storms, and temperature extremes of 106 degrees to below zero caused innumerable problems. When it rained, the clay soil turned into a quagmire. Many of us came from areas with temperate climates and were completely unprepared for the freezing winters and bleak environment of these camps. Barbed wire and armed military personnel stationed in watchtowers guarded the perimeter.
There were distorted, persistent reports that inmates enjoyed a leisurely life eating steaks, while the local people suffered wartime shortages and rationing. They were very suspicious of having POW’s in their midst. Camp was hardly the paradise as rumored. Many worked in the vegetable gardens and kitchens, in low-level administrative positions, and local farmers’ sugar beet fields for very low wages.
The typical barrack was a single-wall construction, with thin partitions dividing the rooms but not extending all the way to the ceiling. Each room was provided with army cots, a blanket, and one bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The austere rooms were without plumbing or cooking amenities. Sounds of everyday living echoed over the low partitions and through the thin walls, and spilled into other apartments. There was absolutely no privacy.
The green pinewood shrank under the unrelenting desert sun and the knots dropped out of walls, leaving more spaces through which dust storms and winter snow sifted. In order to keep the snow off their beds, my mother recalls placing an umbrella over my sleeping brothers. Coal was scarce and we slept under the maximum allotment of blankets.
My mother had the comfort of her younger sister in camp. Etsuko met Joe in Topaz, who was allowed to work and live on the outside away from the West Coast, doing seasonal work with poultry farmers as a chicken sexer, determining which newly hatched chicks were male or female. Uncle Joe was able to continue working partly because his expertise was very much in demand, and partly because his circuit took him outside of the West Coast Exclusion Zone. He had met my aunt during his off-season while visiting his family, and they later married. They had a baby, but he sadly lived only a short twenty-four hours, leaving the family devastated. Uncle Joe bribed someone to allow them to hold and keep their beloved baby overnight.
The traditional family structure was seriously degraded. Parents lost authority over their children as responsibilities, hierarchy, and alliances shifted under the stress of incarceration and repression.
Since the apartments were devoid of furniture, my father built storage, shelving, tables, and chairs from materials scavenged from the builders’ scrap piles. He was skillful at making toys: a wooden firetruck, a couple of dachshund pull toys for my brothers, and later a miniature one for me. They were wonderfully crafted; I can remember playing with them, and wish we still had these childhood treasures.
The communal mess hall and laundry facilities were located blocks away from our barracks. Showers and toilets were housed in separate buildings without privacy stalls or curtains. As inmates settled into their camp lives, leadership positions were offered by the government to the Nisei (American-born second generation). My father volunteered as a camp policeman.
The War Department and the W.R.A. decided to test the loyalty of everyone incarcerated in the camps by asking two questions intended to separate the loyal from the disloyal, which intensely disturbed the internees:
Question #27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”
Question #28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”
The loyalty oath was an extremely controversial issue with deep layers of complexity. It created powerful repercussions that divided generations, fathers and sons, siblings, and friends. Those who did not sign, or answered “no” to those questions, were labeled disloyal and were segregated to the Tule Lake camp. They were classified based on their answers to these intentionally loaded questions. For some, the separation was permanent and the devastation compounded. For the Issei (first generation), who were already denied U.S. citizenship on the basis of race, this issue was even more complex, because they feared either response could conceivably render them stateless.
Despite the fact that many of their families were incarcerated, young Japanese-Americans joined the military to prove their loyalty. The 442nd Army Unit was composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
In the fall of 1944, I was born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center near the Oregon border. The accused “disloyals,” draft resisters, and those who protested the injustices were sent to this maximum-security facility. Tule Lake had the most dynamic political environment of any other camps. There were protests over the loyalty oath, strikes over lack of promised goods and salaries, and arguments over the poor sanitary conditions; all were courageous and legitimate acts of grassroots civil disobedience.
With a burgeoning population of 18,000, there were endless queues for everything, especially at mealtime. My mother always fed my brothers before herself, and there often wasn’t much left when she returned for her own food tray. Her weight dropped to a frail eighty-five pounds during her pregnancy with me.
The end of the Exclusion Order came in 1945, and we were finally allowed to leave camp. Incarcerated at a different camp, my father couldn’t rejoin us until 1946. He stayed behind to help others “resettle.” Some found their homes, businesses, and properties burgled, squatted on, burned, or simply gone. However, there were also heartwarming stories of loyal friends keeping the homes, businesses, or properties safe for the return of their long-lost neighbors.
My mother moved us into a Hunter’s Point housing project in San Francisco. She worked long hours as a self-employed caterer for wealthy families in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. During high school, I worked with her to help share her work load. My father worked at the Simmons Mattress Company and as a weekend gardner. He was frequently in and out of hospitals and mental institutions; I would later feel that his diagnosis of schizophrenia was exacerbated by his camp experience. My father’s dream was to become a doctor, but someone he worked for as a gardner told him it would be a futile dream to pursue.
To fall ill meant lectures from my father on mindfulness, and I would have to read the Holy Sutra as he listened with closed eyes. I once had a cough and stifled it as best I could at the dinner table. My strategy was to avoid his eyes by hiding behind a milk carton and sinking low into my chair; it seemed to work.
Sitting next to him when we went to see the movie King Kong is one of the few times I felt his comfort. I was frightened whenever the scary gorilla appeared. I sank into the seat, burying my face deeply into my father’s sleeve. I remember the smell and the smooth texture of his leather jacket, and the strength in his arm beneath.
My father was but a vague memory, living in my periphery when he was not with us, but a strong and powerful presence when he was. Quick to anger, I often took the brunt of his displeasure to spare my mother and little sister.
On Biwa practice days, I would run home after school, change quickly from my school clothes, then settle down quietly to listen. I remember many times I saw my mother leave for her music lesson, upset that I couldn’t accompany her because I had homework. Disappointed, I lay down and daydreamed as I watched a patch of afternoon sunlight glide across the floor, wishing I could magically transport myself to sensei’s (teacher’s) house. She had a very close bond with her Biwa teacher, which was more like that of a mother and daughter. I loved their warm and nurturing interactions, made more poignant because my mother lost her own mother at the age of six. It wasn’t often that I saw my mother so happy and relaxed.
My parents insisted their children only speak English, which had its downsides: We soon lost the facility to speak Japanese fluently. So during the summer and weekends we went to Japanese school for refresher courses. The old schoolroom was unheated and Suzuki sensei was very old-fashioned and strict, carrying a long ruler that appeared out of nowhere to snap us to back to attention.
While waiting for my bus to go to school one morning, an alcoholic war vet loomed over me and began yelling, calling me a Jap. I was petrified and backed away. A brave lady finally came to my rescue and he calmed down.
My older brothers practiced Judo and fought their way up in the neighborhood, earning their “Don’t mess with the Ishii’s” reputation, which paved the way for my sister and me for the most part. But if anyone dared to threaten my younger sister, he or she had to answer to me.
Our lives were shaped and honed by the sacrifices and individual strengths of my parents under very adverse situations. Their generation are the keepers of the Camp experience, and with each passing year, there are fewer survivors. The haunting narrative of wartime injustices still echo through our lives. If we do not share these stories with future generations, they will be lost to the empty, windswept landscapes of those years.
Notes: To write about the evocative memories that surround my father and the trajectory of our lives brings a measure of deeper understanding and the connectedness I didn’t feel as a child. Distilling the fragility of these reflections creates a contextual narrative, and the fractal nature of this narrative, as expressed in my artwork and poetry, explores these themes.