By ELLEN ENDO
Nisei author Toshi Ito held back tears as she told of her family’s struggle to make ends meet after the war—a struggle so demoralizing that it led to her father’s suicide.
Ito only recently told her adult children of the tragedy when she published her memoirs last year. She was one of several who shared their stories and commentary during a multi-generational gathering Sept. 24-25 at the Japanese American National Museum. Among other topics, the conference looked at the challenges of rebuilding lives while racism lingered on the West Coast after the war.
Born at Heart Mountain, Dale Kunitomi of Camarillo was overcome with emotion as memories of his father’s postwar hardships began to surface.
Irene Kuromiya remembered the war’s emotional toll on her parents. After the war, they re-settled in Fresno, an anti-internee area where even uniformed Nisei veterans returning from the war, were shot at.
“(The Issei) sacrificed so much,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that my parents aren’t around so I could tell them how much I appreciate their sacrifice.”
Participants ranged in age from 18 to 96, but the decades that separated them seemed inconsequential as they probed the nuances of terminology and delved into assorted accounts of postwar resettlement.
For many conferees, it was the first time they learned of the political environment outside the barbed wire. Wyoming historian Mike Mackey’s meticulous research described politicians clamoring to justify the removal of the Issei and their American-born offspring as a military necessity.
Wyoming Governor Nels Smith and Colorado Governor Ralph Carr were at opposite ends of public opinion. Heart Mountain was originally conceived as an open encampment without barriers, but Smith warned that allowing such freedom would result in “a Jap hanging from every tree.” In contrast, Carr declared, “Our state will welcome these people.” Carr’s pronouncement cost him re-election.
By the end of 1942, about four months after the War Relocation Authority opened the camp, Issei and Nisei had contributed $50,000 to the Powell economy and paid $12,000 in sales tax. At the time, Nikkei doctors in the camp received about $200 per year, while Caucasian nurses were paid $1,800 annually, Mackey explained.
Mackey noted that Heart Mountain was deemed an ideal location for the camp for two reasons: (1) it was Federal land; and (2) it was near the railroad.
Conference moderator Alan Kumamoto, an HMWF board member who was born at Heart Mountain, said that purchasing the land was first proposed in the late 1990s. Former internees quickly supported the idea and contributed the first monies. Today, the HMWF owns 50 acres on which the $5.3 million Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center is being built and will open in August 2011.
Douglas Nelson, HMWF vice chair and author of the Pulitzer-nominated Heart Mountain: The Story of an American Concentration Camp, explained that three years ago the Foundation launched a campaign to build a center befitting the importance and dignity of the Heart Mountain story.
University of North Carolina law professor Eric Muller, author of American Inquisition, underscored the indignity contained in the so-called loyalty questionnaire distributed in the camps in 1943. Although Questions 27 and 28 were directed at draft-age men, Muller pointed out that the entire questionnaire was aimed at measuring levels of security and loyalty. According to Muller, each question was assigned a point value. Someone who had attended Japanese language school or was active in the Buddhist church, for example, might receive a lower score than someone who had served in the U.S. military. Muller concluded that Japanese Americans were “used as a blank screen” onto which the U.S. government projected their own prejudices and objectives.
Baruch College professor Charlotte Brooks shared her research into the postwar era, pointing out that Japanese Americans returned to a racialized housing market, where 80 percent of the L.A. area homes were off-limits to them. Even though Issei and Nisei men had a higher education level than whites, many couldn’t find jobs and became contract gardeners, she stated.
Raymond Uno’s father, Clarence, an Issei and World War I veteran, passed away nine months after the family was sent to Heart Mountain. When the camp closed in the fall of 1945, his mother faced the challenges of raising three children by herself. Uno became a “gandy dancer,” or railroad worker—grueling work for a 15-year-old.
Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig and educator Mako Nakagawa urged conferees to add the terms, “American concentration camp” to their lexicon and avoid using words they consider euphemisms, such as “evacuation,” “relocation” and “internment.”
Herzig has been studying the topic for over 30 years, beginning as a researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. She stated that archival documents reveal 19 examples of use of the term “concentration camps” by government officials, including Congressional representatives and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“What should we use to describe the people that were in camp?” asked Vanessa Yuille, a student from San Francisco. The descriptives “prisoners” and “incarcerees” were mentioned, but Nakagawa admitted that “incarceree” doesn’t “roll off the tongue.”
During the interactive discussion that followed the presentations, attention turned to the need for the lessons of the WWII experience to be carried on by younger generations. Attorney Patty Kinaga talked of being inspired by her father’s military service in making a documentary film about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Her husband Peter Wong, admitted that, as a Chinese American, he knew almost nothing about the camps before meeting Kinaga.
“Removal, Resettlement, Reflections: A Community Conference,” was conceived by Lane Hirabayashi, UCLA Professor of Japanese American History, Internment, and Redress, and Carolyn Takeshita, HMWF program committee co-chair, with JANM as host and co-sponsor.
Hirayabashi welcomed the conferees along with Akemi Kikumura-Yano, CEO, Japanese American National Museum; and Shirley Ann Higuchi, HMWF board chair.
Takeshita said the reaction to the conference has been overwhelmingly positive. The Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center grand opening and pilgrimage are planned Aug. 19-20 next year in Wyoming. Higuchi emphasized that all camps are invited to join in celebrating the launch of the new center.
Other experts included Tetsuden Kashima, University of Washington professor of American Ethnic Studies and author of Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II, and filmmaker Frank Abe, creator of the PBS documentary, “Conscience and the Constitution,” who brought clips of oral history interviews collected as part of his research.
Dr. Donald Hata, history professor and a pioneering researcher into the WWII era, commented, “This is a dialogue that ought to continue.”