Birthplace in the Desert


Topaz babies, from left, Jane Ouye Yamamoto, Yoshihiro Oka and Kazuko Hishida during the 2010 Topaz/Central Utah Pilgrimage. (MARTHA NAKAGAWA)


(Second in a three-part series)


The highlight of the 2010 Topaz/Central Utah Pilgrimage was visiting the former campsite. To welcome this year’s attendees, the local Boy Scout put up signs, indicating various landmarks such as the Buddhist church, hospital, etc.

This year’s pilgrimage included three attendees who had been born at Topaz, two of whom were visiting their birthplace for the first time.

Yoshihiro Oka wished he had returned earlier. “I’m a procrastinator,” said Oka. “In hindsight, I kind of regret not taking advantage of returning here while my parents were alive. There’s so much I want to ask them but it’s all lost.”

Although Jane Ouye Yamamoto was scheduled to retire from her job a week before the pilgrimage, she felt compelled to drop everything and go on this trip, particularly after attending a panel discussion with former Topaz inmates May Saito Takashima and Kazuko Iwahashi and receiving a flyer from Kazuko Hishida through her cousin.

Toru Saito pretends to wash Jane Ouye Yamamoto, who was born at Topaz, as she sits in a broken wash basin near her former barrack site. (MARTHA NAKAGAWA)

As a child, Yamamoto found out about her birthplace after a close family friend accused her of being born in prison.

“I was infuriated that my black friend would say something so awful to me,” said Yamamoto. “But when I asked my mom, she just very quietly told me, ‘No, it wasn’t a prison camp but you were born in a camp.’”

Ironically, it is Yamamoto’s sister, Alice Ouye Fukushima, who was born after the war, that has been asking about the camps, writing school papers and presenting class speeches.

“When I got to college, I took a speech class,” said Fukushima. “I did one of my speeches on camp and it was a revelation to a lot of them. And I remember one guy, sitting up front, who said, ‘It couldn’t have been that bad.’ Then everybody says, ‘Yeah, it was.’ So we need to keep this alive and let people know the camps happened.”

Kazuko Hishida visited her birthplace in 2003 with her mother, who passed away in 2008.

“It was something I wanted to do,” said Hishida. “I never told my dad that I appreciated all the sacrifices they made because he died suddenly of a brain tumor, but with my mom, I let her know all the time and we came together to Topaz in 2003.”

* * *

Three of the nine Yoshida family members imprisoned at Topaz attended the pilgrimage.

Ken Yoshida was one of two Yoshida brothers who refused to serve in the U.S. military until the Nikkei community was released from U.S. style concentration camps. For his stand, he and his brother were imprisoned at the Santa Catalina Prison Camp in Tucson, Ariz., which was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi recreational camp grounds after its most famous inmate.

“They tried to draft me from a concentration camp,” said Yoshida. “I said, ‘They’ve got to be crazy.’ But the government just sent me from one prison into another.”

Aiko Yoshida Morimoto, Ken’s sister, said she was never ashamed of her brothers’ stand.

“We all faced a lot of ostracism and I got angry at people that couldn’t see their point of view, but I’m proud of what my brothers did,” said Morimoto.

Shigeru Yoshida was about 10 when his brothers got picked up.  “It wasn’t talked about in the family,” said Shigeru. “And I think I was just too young to think about it.”

Shigeru’s wife, Paulynn Tom Yoshida, who is Chinese American, said she is impressed by the resiliency of the Nikkei community.

“It really astounds me that this could happen in this country but I’m also astounded that the people survived and did well,” said Paulynn.

Keiko Hirabayashi Quan’s brother, Irving, had also been a Topaz draft resister.

“I thought it was under the influence of my father but when I questioned him about that, he said, ‘Don’t you realize we’re a people without a country? I’m a displaced person,’” recalled Quan. “He was only 18 but he’d made up his mind. He stood for his rights, and he followed it through in prison.”

Sumi Keikoan Guilday was a 13-years-old, living in Sacramento, when her family was sent to the Walerga Assembly Center, then to the Tule Lake WRA camp and finally to Topaz.

“We had to sell the car real cheap,” recalled Guilday. “And we had a basement in our house so we put all our stuff in the basement but eventually, it was all stolen. Other people put their stuff there too and that was also all stolen. But we were lucky we still had our house when we came back. We owned that house so we had a place to go.”

Jun Dairiki stands next to the former pond that her father had built. (MARTHA NAKAGAWA)

Guilday found the conditions at Topaz to be better than at Tule Lake. “At Tule Lake, we used to wash our faces in a horse trough,” said Guilday. “So when we went to Topaz, they had porcelain sinks and toilets. I was flabbergasted.”

Although May Saito Takashima was only nine-years-old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, that Sunday is seared into her memory.

“That’s when I became a Jap overnight,” said Takashima. “When I went to school Monday, I became a Jap. I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew that was not a good word because people would make fun of me.”

The family lived in the horse stalls at the Tanforan Assembly Center before being sent to Topaz, where Takashima remembered the heat, dust “like flour,” and whirl winds.

“We could see a whirlwind coming from a distance,” said Takashima. “Even as kids, we knew that was scary. It would get dark and dusty so we’d try to run away. If you can’t get to your place, we’d run into a bathroom or something, but since everything wasn’t sealed, the dust would come through the cracks and windows.”

Once Nikkei were allowed back to the West Coast in 1945, the family moved into government subsidized dormitory housing at Hunters Point. With five children to feed, the family barely made ends meet.

“My father was working as a janitor, and we couldn’t even afford cafeteria food, not even once a day,” said Takashima. “So we would go to this store that we called the Hilltop and get two loaves of bread, a package of salami, bologna and a jar of mustard. Then we used this old fashion desk in the dorm that pulls down as our table and ate our food sitting on the bed.”

Takashima also had a difficult time adjusting to her new three-story junior high school, which was a far cry from the wooden barrack at Topaz. She had a particularly trying incident in her cooking class.

“At Topaz, we ate in the mess hall so I never saw a saucer or pot or pans,” said Takashima. “So the teacher was telling me something about the lid. She said, ‘Pick up the lid.’ I didn’t know what a lid was. So she kept yelling at me, ‘The lid! The lid!’ And everybody is looking at me but not wanting to help me. I almost cried. I was going crazy, but then somebody finally showed me. And I thought, ‘Oh, I call that the cover.’”

Yonsei Akiko Takashima, Takashima’s granddaughter and Toru Saito’s niece, said the pilgrimage was worth her missing music classes.

“I wanted to come because it’s such an important chapter of my family history,” said Akiko. “Just by being here with my uncle, rather than on my own, it gave me an opportunity to have him show me the exact place where he buried his marbles, to see the pile of rocks he collected as a little boy and to hear that last year when he came, he burned incense and finally felt that he could let go of coming back here.”

Jun Nakahara Dairiki was seven-years-old when her family was forced to leave their San Francisco home.

“My mom was sad because we had to get rid of all of our things at a fire sale,” said Dairiki. “I remember the vendors coming around, knowing they could get things next to nothing. We had a piano and a solid wood dining room table. My mom had to get rid of all of that.”

The family lived in the horse stables at Tanforan but when her sister got sick, her mother was able to get the family transferred to newly-built barracks. About a month later, the family was sent to Topaz.

Some of the lifelong impact Topaz has had on Dairiki is that she will not eat pork and beans and egg foo young, nor watch the movie, “King Kong.”

“One year, our block had a Halloween party for the kids,” said Dairiki. “That evening, they showed ‘King Kong.’ It scared the beejeebers out of me. After the movie was over, one of the older teenagers told us spooky stories. I tell you I was never so scared. And it was cold and the wind was howling that night. I literally slept under the covers. I didn’t even go to the bathroom because to go to the bathroom, you had to leave your unit.”

When the family was released from Topaz, they took along their adopted stray dog.

“I don’t know where we got the dog, but I called him Fudgecicle, Fudge for short,” said Dairiki. “It was kind of a black and brown dog with little white spots. When the war ended, my mom said we can’t leave her behind. Other families left their dogs behind, and my mom said it was too cruel to do that.”

Ruth Ichinaga was seven-years-old when she arrived at Topaz but has little recollection of those years.

“I’d forgotten so much,” said Ichinaga, whose family lived in Berkeley before the war. “I wanted to come to see where we lived and see if it would stir up memories for me. But when Jane Beckwith said that Block 28 where we lived might be hard to find because something was thrown on it, I felt these tears coming up. Maybe part of it was because I was so much looking forward to seeing where we lived.”

Marielle Tsukamoto’s family was sent to the Fresno Assembly Center and then to the Jerome WRA camp. Tsukamoto, then a 4 1/2-year-old, recalled the day the family left for camp.

“I remember standing next to my grandmother outside, on the back door of our house,” said Tsukamoto. “She was crying and looking at the roses in her garden, her garden that she loved. She was saying that she didn’t think she was ever going to come back to see this. I remember taking her hand and telling her that it would be okay, that she would come back.”  After the war, the family was able to return. “We were one of the lucky 15 percent,” said Tsukamoto. “A man by the name of Bob Fletcher took care of our farm, paid the taxes and the mortgage. Most people lost their property because they couldn’t pay the taxes and the mortgage, or they put the land in trust with someone who in the end took the land from them.”

Sansei Haruko Joanne Doi’s father was at Manzanar, while her mother was at Heart Mountain. Doi teaches a graduate theology course at the University of California, Berkeley, where she incorporates the camp experience. “The course looks at pilgrimage practice, memory, reconciliation, solidarity, suffering and hope,” said Doi. “Those are theological themes, and it’s interesting how these memory affected people, especially in California.”

When Doi first offered the class, she was surprised to see many non-Japanese taking the course. “Slowly, the stories came out,” said Doi. “People either saw a neighbor being taken away or knew someone who was taken away. That’s when I realized how big the story is.”

Dr. Howard Kline, who is married to Dr. Ellen Sawamura, a former Tule Lake inmate, made his fourth trip to Topaz. In describing his first time at Topaz, Kline said, “It was a very powerful experience. It angered me because of what the Japanese lost, which was their freedom.”

Kline, a Jewish American, did not lose immediate family in the Holocaust, but has visited the Nazi death camps. “I was horrified,” Kline said. “I still feel the anger that sometimes surfaces in my being. It comes back to me, both in terms of my dreams and thoughts. It was one of the worst moments of history, I think.”


Read Part 1 of 3: Pilgrimage to Topaz


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