By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN
On Aug. 13, 1943, Japanese Americans at the Tule Lake concentration camp opened copies of the Tulean Dispatch to find, on Page 2, a letter from Helen Keller, the deaf-blind disability activist. The entry was surprising but not unexpected: days before, students with disabilities decided to name their newly opened school in the camp in her honor.
Hannah Takagi wrote to Keller on behalf of the Japanese American students: “We are but a few of the thousands of Japanese Americans who were evacuated from our homes on the West Coast, over a year ago…our school is called ‘Helen Keller’ in honor of you, Miss Keller, because you tried so hard to succeed and became famous.”
Keller’s response to the letter was delightful. She told Takagi: “I shall never forget the tribute you have paid me — giving my name to the Tule Lake Project…Let [the students]only remember this — their courage in conquering obstacles will be a lamp throwing its bright rays far into other lives beside their own.”
Unfortunately, the school did not survive for long. The Keller School was poorly organized and only lasted a few short months before it closed amid the transformation of Tule Lake into a segregation center, while students with disabilities found themselves without any support.
The story is especially sad for Takagi, as her family had trekked from Manzanar all the way to Tule Lake specifically for her to attend the new school. When she enrolled in a regular school at Tule Lake, a teacher banned her from using sign language, leading the family to resettle out of camp.
In later years, Hannah Takagi Holmes, who had become a disability rights activist, expressed her anguish over her camp experiences before a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held in Los Angeles in 1981. Her testimony is precious not only for her frank description of the deprivations endured by Japanese Americans in the camps, but also for revealing a lesser-known story: the experiences of disabled Japanese Americans.
Since the 1980s and the rise of the modern disability rights movement, disability history has grown as a field. Although scholars are beginning to turn their attention towards the lives and activism of disabled Japanese Americans, there are no books or articles that document such cases. Nonetheless, the story of Japanese Americans with disabilities is revealing of not only the perils facing disabled individuals generally, but underscores the added toll that incarceration took on the community.
The experiences of Japanese Americans with disabilities during incarceration were varied and traumatic. (For the sake of clarity, in this article I examine only those Japanese Americans with physical disabilities such as blindness, deafness, or other physical impairment, while I will discuss those with mental disabilities in a separate article.)
Ironically, one of the few categories of Japanese Americans exempted from leaving the West Coast under military exclusion orders were those already confined to hospitals, tuberculosis sanitariums and psychiatric wards, as well as incarcerated convicts, because they were already under guard.
June Hoshida Honma recalled in an interview for Densho having to send her sister to a care facility in Hawaii because she was physically unable to make the journey to the Jerome concentration camp, later learning she died at the facility due to staff negligence.
In contrast, at the War Relocation Authority camps — hastily designed to accommodate masses of inmates — little consideration was given to those with disabilities, whether in the design of barracks or the provision of materials for the blind. While the WRA claimed it provided most of the kinds of essential services available to individuals with disabilities before the war, the reality was different.
Disability cases were handled under the WRA’s Welfare Section. Upon arrival, depending on their condition, inmates with a disability were either confined to quarters with their families or sent to the camp hospital. Individuals with specific disabilities were exempted from work and were allowed to apply for government benefits. Although they received work exemptions, adults had few means of evading boredom during their time in camp; Takagi Holmes later stated “isolation was my worst enemy” while in camp.
WRA community analysts noted that following their arrival in the assembly centers, disabled children received little to no support. Even after the children were moved to the more substantial camps, very few resources were available for educating them.
It should be noted that at the time, students with disabilities in the U.S. were segregated and either attended separate schools or were home-schooled. As most students with disabilities came from such specialized schools, the transition to camp life was difficult. Initially, the WRA attempted to petition specific schools such as the Oregon State School of the Deaf to accept Nisei students, but their petitions were denied on the racist grounds that “this is no time to admit Japanese children to the Oregon deaf school.”
In the end, the government attempted to support those confined with disabilities by opening schools such as the Helen Keller School. One weakness of the WRA’s program of aid to Japanese Americans with disabilities was the inconsistency in policies across different camps. While WRA officials attempted to open schools for disabled students, schools in fact opened only in select camps and — as in the case of Tule Lake — lasted for only a short time.
At Manzanar and Minidoka, separate schools were established for children with disabilities, where teachers could monitor the progress of students and provide activities. At Manzanar, the administration opened the first school for disabled students after a teacher noticed a lack of support for deaf students like Takagi. Conversely, at Minidoka it was not until December 1942 — almost six months after the arrival of the camp population — that teachers noticed that a number of students were unable to attend regular classes, and petitioned the WRA to hire a specialized instructor.
At Topaz, no formal school for disabled children was established until June 1944, when Catherine Jones, an instructor specializing in educating children with cerebral palsy, arrived in camp. In smaller camps such as Rohwer, no formal school for disabled students was established, because of a lack of both resources and teachers. Instead, families were encouraged to resettle outside camp to allow their children to enroll at state institutions.
At Manzanar, the Education Department produced a report of the school for disabled children, including the curriculum and activities developed by the teachers. The most fascinating aspect of the report is the photographs of the students at school, showing the range of their disabilities and their participation in activities within the barracks. Eleanor Thomas, the instructor of the students, included these photographs as part of her section of a report on the school. In addition to listing the activities and specific exercises, teachers listed individual students and noted those deserving special attention.
At Topaz, George Sugihara, a community analyst and editor of the Topaz art magazine **All Aboard,** published a report on its school for disabled children. Sugihara replaced the names of students with letters, and included information on homework assignments in the report as evidence of progress.
Whatever the facilities available, students with disabilities faced discrimination throughout the camps. Sugihara noted in his report at Topaz that white teachers struggled with one deaf student because the teachers believed his parents’ “Japanese lip habits will deter his progress.” Hannah Takagi Holmes stated that when she attempted to enroll in a flower-making class at Manzanar, the instructor told her she preferred to teach “all-hearing women.”
More problematic was the evaluation model for judging the placement of students; while students were diagnosed by the camp doctors, teachers were given discretion to place students by grade.
Starting in 1945, the WRA, fearing an increase in government dependency by the confined, began to close the camps. Staff in the Welfare Divisions began to devise plans for supporting disabled individuals (euphemistically labelled as “dependency cases”) after their departure from camp. Dependency cases were promised funding for “resettlement” along with help from a social worker in making arrangements.
Unfortunately, this did not protect resettlers from further discrimination as in the case of disabled 442nd veteran Kakuo Terao, who was denied housing in the San Fernando Valley due to restrictive covenants against non-whites.
In the postwar years, a number of Japanese Americans became disability activists. Perhaps the most well-known was attorney and future senator Daniel Inouye, who lost his left arm during his combat service in Italy with the 442nd RCT. He supported accessibility initiatives for the D.C. subway system, and sponsored Senate Bill S.933, the basis of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Likewise, James Sakamoto, who lost his eyesight in his early 20s due to boxing injuries, went on to become the editor of the Japanese American Courier in Seattle and one of the founders of the JACL. In the postwar years, Sakamoto worked for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as the head of a telephone solicitation campaign that employed disabled individuals. Following his sudden death in December 1955, he was eulogized in the Pacific Citizen by Bill Hosokawa and Bob Okazaki, with Okazaki referring to Sakamoto as a “dedicated fighter for the rights of the underdog, the under-privileged, the unchampioned.”
In 1968, Nami Oshima of the Twin Cities region of Minnesota was named to the national board of the International Parents Organization, an affiliate of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.
And while not himself Japanese American, noted blind activist Jacobus tenBroek became known as a supporter of the rights of Japanese Americans, co-authoring a study on wartime incarceration, “Prejudice, War, and the Constitution.”
With the exception of Holmes’ statement for the CWRIC, very little written testimony exists from disabled Japanese Americans. Piecing together the written evidence helps give us a glimpse of a forgotten yet important story within Japanese American history. Disability history not only emphasizes the suffering wrought by the incarceration, but shines a light on the importance of activism within both communities.
Indeed, the shared legacy of activism among both the Japanese American and disability communities played an important role in fostering key legislation such as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a PhD student with the History Department at UC Santa Cruz.