I was eight years old when our family boarded a bus parked in front a Japanese Methodist church, in southwest Los Angeles, which was part of a caravan headed for the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia.
My divorced mother, my sister, and I were to spend 6 months in a Santa Anita barracks before being put on a train to Amache, a so-called relocation center in Colorado. We spent a year and a half there before relocating to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my newly acquired stepfather got a job as an auto mechanic.
Not being able to return to the West Coast, we were to spend two years in Milwaukee during the war before returning to Los Angeles.
I worked as a high school counselor in the San Fernando Valley and was on occasion invited to speak to classes about my wartime experience in the internment camps.
In standing before these classes, I came to discover my wartime experience in the camps affected me more than I realized. When speaking of having to sell all our belongings in front of our house before leaving for Santa Anita, my voice would quaver.
Japanese culture bred within me the trait of enduring without complaint. And looking back now, I can see how this stoicism may have been shown by the adults around my sister and me as a kind of denial, perhaps to minimize the emotional damage. After leaving camp, our family never spoke of our life behind barbed wire.
Growing up in Milwaukee during the war, I faced the pervasive message of all the negative stereotypes of the “evil Jap” enemy. Sad to say, this message not only affected the way I felt about myself as a Japanese youngster, but it turned me against the Japanese enemy: If they had not bombed Pearl Harbor, our family would not have had all this happen to us.
Fortunately, while in my 40s, I was exposed to a human relations camp, and through their program was enabled to come to terms with my identity as a Japanese American. Once this happened, I could deal with my prejudices toward other ethnic groups, including the Japanese enemy in Japan.
When I assumed the presidency of our JACL chapter in 1975, my friend Paul Tsuneishi and I organized the first Southern California redress panel, which was held in the San Fernando Valley. We then formed a redress organization, EO 9066 Inc., and had as speakers such people as Gordon Hirabayashi and Wayne Collins Jr. Surveys we took in the community indicated strong support for redress.
Shortly after this, we were invited to meet with other redress organizations at the JACL Headquarters in San Francisco, where I became part of the first National Redress Committee. The inspiration for holding a Day of Remembrance came from the Redress Committee and I was, with the help of the Manzanar Committee, able to sponsor the first Day of Remembrance in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo on Feb. 19, 1978.
I, along with Harry Kawahara, worked with other community organizations to prepare testifiers for the redress hearings held in Los Angeles in 1981.
In September of 2008, Harry and I received the “Heroes of Redress” award presented by the Pacific Southwest District Council of the JACL.
I am proud to have been a part of the successful passage of the Civil Liberties Act. Seeing so many men, women, and groups who worked together to bring about the passage of the legislation was inspiring. After the redress resolution was passed at the JACL Convention in 1978, many took up the call for action.
Who were these people? Of course, there were the activist JACL members, but there were others: It was the young Japanese Americans, born after the camps, who captured the spirit of the civil rights movement. It was Japanese American women who gained empowerment from the feminist movement. It was the Japanese Americans in Congress who responded to the petition for redress from the community. It was the righteous members of Congress who supported these Japanese Americans. And, to be sure, there were the many outside the community who provided invaluable support.
The signing by President Reagan of the redress bill was one of the high points in my life. It felt like being reborn as an American!
Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.