SENIOR MOMENTS: Telling Our Stories



Mas Yamashita and his wife, Norma Jean, are long-time friends of ours. Prior to his retirement a few years ago, Mas worked in advertising for Honda. He volunteers each week as a docent at the JA National Museum.

As we all remember, last month, Donald Trump, in responding to the statement he had made that we should refuse entry into the U.S. of all Muslims, said he was not sure whether the incarceration of Japanese Americans was justified.

In response to Trump’s comment, NPR (National Public Radio) interviewed Mas. For many years Mas’ camp experience was too painful to talk about. As an eight-year-old the camp experience was bad enough, but the hardship his family faced in leaving Topaz was particularly devastating. When he started to talk about this part of his experience, there is a pause in the interview — even after 70+ years, the pain suffered by Mas and his family was still deeply felt. (To hear the interview, go to

Mas says people contacted him after his radio interview. In am sure that volunteering at JANM has been a satisfying way for Mas to educate people, particularly young people, and at the same time relieve those long-buried emotions from the past.

In my long career in education, I have had a lot of opportunities to tell young people about my camp experience. I was a couple of years older than Mas, and like Mas kept my feelings hidden. In one of my early classroom talks, I remember becoming choked up when telling the class about seeing all of our family’s belongings for sale, scattered on our front lawn, before boarding the bus to Santa Anita.

The redress hearings of the 1980s served as a long-needed chance for our community to tell our stories, and the DVDs of the testimonies will be an invaluable part of our legacy. And currently, George Takei’s Broadway play, “Allegiance,” is serving to bring our story to a wider American audience.

In this political season, with so much inflammatory rhetoric that could harm innocent men, women and children, it is important that those of us who experienced the violation of our constitutional rights not remain silent.

Perhaps those of us who were in camps may feel we were young when we were incarcerated and were not affected very much by the experience, or for whatever other reason, we may not feel comfortable talking about our camp experience. Yet, let us consider the life-changing loss and deprivation suffered by the Issei and older Nisei. As Mas demonstated, personal stories are powerful, and should be shared.

I remember speaking to my daughter Laurie’s high school history class about my camp experience and realized I was telling this classroom of strangers things about camp I had never told Laurie or her younger sister. Since that experience I have had to think about what kept me (as well as my wife, Marion) from sharing our camp stories. Which brings me to a related story that touches on some amazing coincidences.

Our daughter Laurie, as I have mentioned in the past, lives in San Francisco. Next door to Laurie and her husband live their good friends Danny and Amy Jong, who have two sons. On a recent visit, we discovered that Amy’s mother, Miki, was interned in Rohwer, where Marion spent 3½ wartime years. Then it turns out they were in kindergarten together, but were separated because Marion’s parents answered “yes, yes” to the loyalty questionnaire and remained in Rohwer, while Amy’s parents answered otherwise and were banished to Tule Lake. The family subsequently expatriated to Japan, before returning to the U.S.

To further add to coincidence, Laurie, Amy and Amy’s mother, Miki Kiyota, recently attended a ceremony honoring poet and playwright Hiroshi Kashiwagi with the prestigious Carey McWilliams Award by the California Studies Association. Through his poetry and other vehicles, Hiroshi has written extensively about his experience at Tule Lake. Laurie’s associate, Martha Bridegam, also attended the ceremony. She interviewed Hiroshi after he had received the award. This interview can be viewed here:

Hiroshi and Miki were able to share their memories of Tule Lake, and in the process Amy learned of her mother’s Tule Lake experiences, which she was not aware of.

A happy outcome of this story is that Laurie, Amy, Miki and perhaps Amy’s two sons are planning to attend the Tule Lake Pilgrimage this year in July. I am planning to attend, as well.

So, what can be derived from all of this? By telling our stories we can come to share our important histories, drawing families together, and allowing our stories to pass on to future generations.

Our descendants need to know these stories to be able to counter future Donald Trumps who would threaten the well-being of future generations of innocent people.

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.



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