Excerpt from I Am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment
Published in 1994
When the American naval base at Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese fighter planes on December 7, 1941 (see Franklin D. Roosevelt entry for more information about Pearl Harbor), approximately 125,000 Japanese Americans resided in the United States. Japan's surprise attack on U.S. forces plunged the United States into World War II (1939-45). Within a few months, more than 115,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of them born in the United States—were forced to leave their West Coast homes. (At the time, about ninety-five percent of the Japanese in the States lived in the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California.)
Americans of Japanese ancestry were easy targets of discrimination because of their distinctive Asian features. "We looked like the enemy," noted Japanese American author Yoshiko Uchida in her book The Invisible Thread. In no time Japanese Americans were being treated like the enemy—the so-called "Japs" who had brought the war so close to America's shores. (The disparaging term "Jap" was used widely during World War II to refer to Japanese soldiers.)
Fear and racism sparked a wave of hysteria that overwhelmed the nation in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Throughout 1942 "No Japs Wanted" signs became familiar across the United States. Newspapers regularly reported stories of Japanese restaurants being boycotted, businesses being vandalized, and other Japanese-American-owned property being destroyed.
In February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. Army to confine Japanese Americans in special holding places called internment camps. In his book The Greatest Generation, broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw referred to the order as "one of the most shameful documents in American history"—a document clearly racist in nature. In 1942 America was also at war with Japan's allies, Italy and Germany, but Americans of European ancestry were not treated as shamefully as the Asian American population. Brokaw pointed out: "Italian and German immigrants were picked up and questioned closely" during the frenzy that accompanied America's entry into World War II. "They may have had some uncomfortable moments during the war," he continued, "but they retained all their rights. Not so for the Japanese Americans."
Any American with a Japanese ancestor, including any American of mixed racial heritage who had just one Japanese great-grandparent, was affected by Executive Order 9066. Stripped of their rights as citizens of the United States, the Japanese Americans were subject to curfews, travel restrictions, illegal searches, seizure of their property, complete violation of the right to privacy, and, ultimately, relocation to detention centers. Once there, these loyal Americans faced a frightening and uncertain future.
Evacuation orders (orders to the Japanese Americans to leave or vacate their homes) were issued by the U.S. Army in the late winter and early spring of 1942. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), established by executive order in March, directed the assembly and relocation process. The Japanese Americans had to give up their homes, their property, their businesses, and even their pets. Families were identified by number, not name, and packed onto buses headed for temporary holding areas called assembly centers. By the fall they were transferred to war relocation camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Internees were expected to live in uninsulated shacks furnished only with cots and coal-burning stoves. (All other furniture was made by the residents from scrap wood and other materials.) Limited amounts of hot water were available in the common bathroom and laundry facilities. Worst of all, the camps were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
Interned Japanese Americans struggled to establish some sense of community at the camps. They set up schools, churches, farms, and newspapers. Children tried to escape the monotony of life at the camps by engaging in competitivesports, scouting, and arts and crafts. But the relocation processtook its toll on the Japanese American population. Internedchildren were forced to spend their formative years in anatmosphere of tension, suspicion, and hopelessly mixed messages: instructors at the camp schools tried to teach the students to be loyal Americans, but their Japanese heritage automatically brought their loyalty into question. Internment, after all, was the U.S. government's way of dealing with apotential threat to national security. As Japanese forcesstormed the Pacific in late 1941 and early 1942, the U.S. government feared that America's western states would be the next site for an enemy invasion. It was widely thought that Japanese Americans living on the coast would aid the Japaneseif such an attack ever took place.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from I Am an American:
- Author Jerry Stanley interviewed Japanese Americans Shiro and Mary Nomuri in 1986 and 1993. He used their firsthand accounts of the internment experience to write I Am an American.
- Some Japanese Americans were born in Japan. These people, called Issei (pronounced "EE-say,") were Japanese citizens who had come to the United States in the early 1900s. They were denied U.S. citizenship because of their race. (Not until 1952, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, were the Issei allowed to become naturalized citizens.) American-born Nisei (pronounced "NEE-say") were the children of the Issei. The Nisei could not be denied citizenship because they were born in the United States.
- Shiro Nomuri was the son of Issei farmers who grew fruits and vegetables first in northern and later in southern California.
- Nomuri—nicknamed Shi (pronounced "Shy")—was a high school senior when he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in April 1942. A popular student and gifted athlete, he never really thought of himself as anything but an American citizen. Shi was sent to the Manzanar Relocation Center (pronounced "MANN-zuh-nahr") in eastern California.
- Shi was about to propose to his girlfriend, Amy Hattori, just before receiving his evacuation notice. The internment experience altered his plans.
- Japanese American internees could leave the camps by (1) joining the armed forces or (2) contributing to the war effort through work. Shi had been injured in an accident prior to internment, so he was unable to join the military.
Excerpt from I Am an American
Shi's family was evacuated to Manzanar on April 25, 1942. Earlier that month, Amy and her family had been sent to an assemblycenter at the Santa Anita racetrack. Built to confine the Japanese until permanent camps were constructed, the assembly centers were cre ated in just twenty-eight days. Fashioned from fairgrounds, race tracks, and other open areas, they were enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by armedsentries in towers. In April and May 110,723 Japanese were escorted into the assembly centers, while another 6,393 were sent straight to permanent relocation camps.
With 18,000 men, women, and children, Santa Anita was the largest assembly center. The horses had been removed only four days before the Japanese started to arrive. [Some] families were housed in horse stalls heavy with manure dust.…
After their baggage and clothes were searched, Amy's family moved into an openbarrack, where they slept on mattresses stuffed with straw. The army had used raw lumber in hastily constructing the building. As the boards dried, gaping cracks appeared in the walls and floors. Within three weeks mushrooms were growing through the floor. Every day Amy went to the main gate where the buses unloaded, until she received word that Shi had been sent to Manzanar.
Manzanar was one of ten permanent relocation centers, or internment camps, built and supervised by the War Relocation Authority. It was located just south of the town of Independence, in Inyo County in eastern California. Two more camps were in Arizona, at Gila River and Poston. Temperatures reached 115 degrees at thelatter, and the Japanese poured water on their canvas cots to keep cool in what they jokingly renamed Camp Roastin'. At Minidoka, in Idaho, the average summer temperature was 110 degrees… At Amache, in Colorado, and Heart Mountain, in Wyoming, winter temperatures fell to minus thirty degrees. In November 1942 thirty-two Nisei children were arrested for sneaking out of the Heart Mountain camp and sledding on a nearby hill. At Topaz, in Utah, an elderly Issei was shot and killed in broad daylight for walking too close to the camp's fence. An eight-foot barbed wire fence, a thousand armed soldiers, and six tanks guarded the Japanese interned at the Tule Lake camp in California. The other two camps, Rohwer and Jerome, were in the damp, swampy, lowlands of Arkansas, where the most poisonous snakes in North America lived.
Manzanar was modeled after an army base designed to house single men. It was one mile square and divided into thirty-six blockswith twenty-four barracks to a block. Each barrack was twenty feet wide and 120 feet long. Laundry and bathroom facilities were located in the center of each block, each of which had an open mess hall. There was a hospital in one corner of the camp, but themotor pool, warehouses, and administrative offices were located beyond the barbed wireperimeter . At night, searchlights scanned thebrush . One of the largest internment camps, Manzanar held over 10,000 men, women, and children guarded by eight towers with machine guns. No area within the camp was beyond the reach of a soldier's bullet.
When Shi arrived at Manzanar, he was greeted by "a great ball of dirty fog." Because of the dust storm, created by the fierce Manzanar wind, Shi did not see the guard towers with their mounted machine guns or the barbed wire fence until the next day. Visibility was near zero, he recalled. "The strong wind picked up rice-sized sand from the construction areas and pelted the buses like buckshot."
The buses rolled to a stop in the middle of afirebreak between Blocks 14 and 15…
Soldiers marched the new arrivals to a mess hall, where their numbers were recorded. Guards searched them, seizing anything they considered dangerous—kitchen knives, knitting needles, even hot plates for warming babies' milk. Each internee was issued a cot, an army blanket, and a sack to be filled with straw for a mattress; then families were assigned to a barrack according to size and number of children. Childless couples had to live in an open barrack, with only sheets hung up as partitions to separate them from strangers… (Stanley, pp. 37-43)
What happened next …
Amy was transferred to Camp Amache in Colorado later in 1942. Thinking that he might have a chance to see her, Shi enrolled in a 60-day program that allowed selected Manzanar internees to leave camp and perform agricultural work in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Montana. Western American farmlands were nearly ruined in the early 1940s because so many farm workers had been drafted into the military. Interned Nissei were asked to help save certain farms in the West by harvesting remaining crops before they froze. Many agreed because they knew they would be freed from the barbed-wire camps, if only for two months. Shi was accepted into the program, but he was not sent to Colorado. Instead, he and the rest of his crew ended up in the icy sugar beet fields of Great Falls, Montana.
In the summer of 1943 Shi and Amy were finally able to see each other, but the time apart had changed them both. Realizing that they would not be able to renew their relationship, they broke up. In 1945 Shi married Mary Kageyama, a beautiful singer who had gained a reputation as the Songbird of Manzanar. He later ran his own fish market and grocery. Amy married Tatsumi Mizutani, a former Manzanar internee, in 1947.
Relocation ended officially in December of 1944. Evacuees were expected to vacate the camps just as quickly as they had been rounded up and herded into them. They then faced the difficult task of reestablishing themselves in society—rebuilding their lives, their homes, and their jobs.
In the postwar years anti-Japanese sentiment continued to exist in the United States. In 1990—forty-five years after the relocation program had ended—then-President George Bush issued letters of apology to camp survivors along with token redress payments (small offers of compensation or repayment) of $20,000 each.
Did you know …
- Many Japanese Americans contributed to the war effort even while interned, sending handmade blankets to the American Red Cross and purchasing war bonds with the little money they were allotted by the U.S. government.
- For a little over a year after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Nisei were not allowed to join the U.S. armed forces. Then, early in 1943, a segregated "all-Nisei" combat unit called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed. Not until January 1944 were Japanese Americans included in the draft—and even then they were forced to make an official declaration of their loyalty to the United States and forsake any allegiance to Japan.
- U.S. senator Daniel Inouye, a decorated Nisei veteran of World War II who lost his right hand fighting the Germans in Italy, couldn't even get his hair cut when he returned from combat overseas. A racist barber in Oakland, California, told Inouye that he wouldn't "cut Jap hair."
- Not one Japanese American was ever accused of a war crime. The ten people who were accused, tried, and convicted of spying for the Japanese during World War II were white.
For More Information
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II. New York: Holt, 1972.
Davis, Daniel S. Behind Barbed Wire: The Imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. New York: Dutton, 1982.
Myer, Dillon. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971.
Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: Morrow, 1976.
Children of the Camps. First broadcast on PBS-TV, 1999. Video copies available through the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA; http://www.naatanet.org/distrib).
The Camps. [Online] http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8420/camps.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
War Relocation Authority Camps in Arizona. [Online] http://www.library.arizona.edu/images/jpamer/wraintro.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Japanese-Americans Internment Camps During World War II. [Online] http://www.lib.utah.edu/spc/photo/9066/9066.htm (accessed on September 6, 1999).
National Japanese American Historical Society. [Online] http://www.nikkeiheritage.org/main.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Remebering Manzanar. [Online] http://www.qnet.com/~earthsun/remember.htm (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Japanese-American Internment Camps. [Online] http://www.umass.edu/history/internment.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.
Fremon, David K. Japanese-American Internment in American History.Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.
Stanley, Jerry. I Am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment. New York: Crown, 1994.
Tunnell, Michael O., and George W. Chilcoat. The Children of Topaz. New York: Holiday House, 1996.
Uchida, Yoshiko. Journey to Topaz. New York: Scribner, 1971.
Uchida, Yoshiko. Journey Home. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Uchida, Yoshiko. The Invisible Thread. New York: J. Messner, 1991.
A Tradition of Racism: African Americans in the U.S. Air Force
During World War II the U.S. armed forces were segregated by race. African American air force trainees received instruction at the 66th Air Force Flying School at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and at Tuskegee's Army Air Field. The all-black 99th Squadron, later incorporated into the 332nd Fighter Group, became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The exemplary performance of these black fighter pilots in missions over Europe and North Africa led to the slow but eventual desegregation of the U.S. military. For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen, see the following web sites: www.afroam.org/history/tusk/tuskmain.html ([email protected]) and www.kent.wednet.edu/KSD/SJ/TuskegeeAirmen/Tuskegee_HomePage.html