The Japanese Internment Camps (1942)

views updated


In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, citing concerns about wartime security, issued executive order 9066 which forced upwards of 110,000 Japanese-Americans to relocate to a number of "relocation centers," or concentration camps, on the West Coast. These Japanese-Americans, a majority being American citizens, were confined in makeshift rural camps for up to four years before being allowed to resettle. Basic issues of constitutional liberty and due process were blatantly violated by this order, which forcefully detained American citizens who had neither broken any laws nor shown any signs of disloyalty. It is now believed that racism and hysteria, rather than actual threat, led to the internment of the Japanese. In the selection here, a young girl narrates her family's experience of being thrown out of their house and moved into a horse stable in Santa Anita before being transported to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

Cornell University

See also Asian Americans ; Internment, Wartime ; Japanese-American Incarceration ; Japanese Americans ; World War II .

The war became real for me when the two FBI agents came to our home in Long Beach. It was a few months after December 7. It was a rainy Saturday morning. My three sisters, my mother, and myself were at home doing the chores. I was twelve.

A black car came right into the driveway. One man went into the kitchen. As I watched, he looked under the sink and he looked into the oven. Then he went into the parlor and opened the glass cases where our most treasured things were. There were several stacks of shakuhachi sheet music. It's a bamboo flute. My father played the shakuhachi and my mother played the koto. At least once a month on a Sunday afternoon, their friends would come over and just enjoy themselves playing music. The man took the music.

I followed the man into my mother and father's bedroom. Strangers do not usually go into our bedrooms when they first come. As I watched, he went into the closet and brought out my father's golf clubs. He turned the bag upside down. I was only concerned about the golf balls, because I played jacks with them. He opened the tansu, a chest of drawers. My mother and sisters were weeping.

My father was at work. He took care of the vegetable and fruit sections for two grocery stores. He was brought home by the agents. He was taken to a camp in Tujunga Canyon. My grandmother and I went to visit him. It was a different kind of visit. There was a tall barbed-wire fence, so we were unable to touch each other. The only thing we could do was see each other. My father was weeping.

Our family moved to my grandmother's house—my mother's mother. At least six of my uncles were at home, so it was very crowded. My next recollection is that my mother, my three little sisters, and I were on this streetcar. My mother had made a little knapsack for each of us, with our names embroidered. We had a washcloth, a towel, soap, a comb. Just enough for us to carry. It was the first time we took a streetcar. Because we always went by my father's car.

We went to Santa Anita. We lived in a horse stable. We filled a cheesecloth bag with straw—our mattress. The sides of the room did not go up to the ceiling, so there was no privacy at all. They were horse stalls. We'd have fun climbing up. The floors were asphalt. I do remember what we called stinky bugs. They were crunchy, like cockroaches, large, black. Oh, it's really—(Laughs, as she shakes her head.) We had apple butter. To this day, I cannot taste apple butter.

She shows her internee's record, which she had saved all these years: her name, birthdate, internment date, places of internment. At the bottom of the sheet, in large print: KEEP FREEDOM IN YOUR FUTURE WITH U. S. SAVINGS BONDS.

Our teachers were young Nisei internees. There was a lot of rotation among them. The schooling was informal. Oh, I learned how to play cards there.

In the mornings, a man would knock on the door. There was a sort of bed check at night. There were searchlights always going.

All during this time, I was writing letters to Attorney General Biddle. I was asking him to release my father. I said we are four growing girls. We need our father here. Period.

We left Santa Anita in October 1942. It was a very long train with many, many cars. The stops were made at night with all the shades drawn. We wound up in Jerome, Arkansas. It was in the swamps. The toilet facilities had not yet been finished. The minute we got off, we had to go to the bathroom. I was standing in line, next thing I know people were looking down at me. I had fainted.