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Justice Denied: A Personal Story of the Japanese Internment Camps

To Margie Yamamoto, her talk last month for Asian Caucus and Japan Club was nothing special; she has presented her talk, Justice Denied, upwards of 30 times since her retirement. However, she has managed to maintain her same level of enthusiasm, with her passion and drive equally matched by her poise and professionalism from a life’s work in the communications industry. On October 5th, she shared her family’s story and the devastating history of Japanese Internment Camps during World War II.

Her story, like many Asian Americans, started with her parents. Her mother Kinuko was Nissei (Japanese for second generation), born in Hawaii after her family came to the states in 1897. Initially brought over as contract laborers to work on sugar plantations, they eventually saved up enough money to start a bakery. It was at this same bakery that Kinuko had to work full-time starting at the age of 15. After her father’s death, she was forced to quit school and help out with the family business. Eventually, however, she was able to take a trip to Japan in 1928. Staying with relatives in their home village near Hiroshima, she spent her time teaching English and sowing to the locals. Margie recounted how her mother always enjoyed the independence she was able to get in Japan, but it could not last forever. At the age of 26, her parents forced her to return home to find a husband.

The man she would marry was Sohei Yamamoto, a Californian Issei (first generation) she was introduced to through her cousin. At the time, the immigration quotas had set strict limits on people coming in from Asia, slowing the influx of Japanese (among other nationalities) to a trickle. Sohei, ever the resourceful man, got around the restrictions by taking a ship to Mexico and walking all the way to the US. Sohei and Kinuko’s first contact was an exchange of pictures facilitated by Kinuko’s cousin. The practice, known as picture brides, was common among Japanese immigrants at the time. After photos and several exchanges of letters, Kinuko took a ship to California, and the two were married within a few months. When asked why she was able to marry a man she hardly knew, Kinuko would say that she “didn’t want to worry [her] mother.”

In 1929, the Great Depression hit, uprooting families across the nation, with the Yamamotos being no different. The couple moved to Terminal Island, a large Japanese community off the coast of LA. The island was centered around the local canning industry; the men worked as fishermen while the women worked in the cannery on an as-needed basis. The couple opened up a grocery store there, catering to the local Japanese population, but with Sohei speaking little English, it was up to Kinuko to do most of the communication with non-Japanese speakers. There they settled down and started a family, with just over a decade of living on Terminal Island.

December 7th of 1939 was the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared to be “a date which will live in infamy.” The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II, and 120,000 Japanese Americans in its wake. Located right next to a naval station, a military base, and the city of Los Angeles, Terminal Island was one of the first places affected. The FBI immediately came in, arresting local leaders on the suspicion of treason, as well as any men who owned fishing boats, suspecting them of potential sabotage. Many of the Issei men they took away were gone for months with no word for their families; some were gone for years. None of them were ever found to have contributed to the Japanese war effort. As for Sohei, he had managed to escape the initial sweep, but only because they had already checked his background several months prior and had deemed him to not be a threat.

In response to the attack, many newspapers and public figures exacerbated negative sentiment against those of Japanese descent. One of the most well-known is beloved kid’s book author Dr. Seuss, who published a series of racist cartoons that he would later apologize for. Similar to the more recent COVID-19 pandemic, however, anti-Japanese sentiment soon turned into hate against all Asians. Chinese attempted to show that they were not Japanese, while Japanese Americans emphasized their American citizenship. Time magazine even ran graphics showing how to differentiate between Japanese and Chinese, under an article titled “How to tell Japs from the Chinese: Angry Citizens Victimize Allies with Emotional Outburst at Enemy.” Of note is the fact that the Chinese were notable US allies, having fought the Japanese in Manchuria since 1931. Such attempts at differentiation, however, likely meant little to the Chinese on the receiving end of racism, nor to the Japanese Americans who were none too glad to be discriminated against no matter how accurately.

A famous photograph of a Japanese American-owned grocery store during the war.

A little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 over objections from the FBI and Attorney General, giving the US military total control over the western part of the United States. Terminal Island was one of the first places affected; everyone on the island was given forty-eight hours to pack their items and leave, with no provisions for food or transport, or lodging provided. The Yamamotos moved to nearby LA, where Masumi Margarett (Margie) was born. However, their stay in LA would soon be cut short. After only a month, the military gave orders for the relocation of all persons of Japanese ancestry to be moved to detention centers. Overall, this would end up affecting approximately 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were citizens. The relocation started and gradually expanded, with Sohei desperately trying to keep his family out of the affected areas, but eventually, they were caught up in the tide. With four children in the family and Kinuko taking care of infant Margie, Sohei was the only one who could carry the provisions for a family of six.

Due to the sudden nature of the war, the Japanese were initially housed in temporary relocation centers while the camps were under construction. The Yamamotos were one of the lucky ones, having the “privilege” of being housed in military-style barracks, lacking in many amenities and with no privacy whatsoever. However, such lodgings were still better than the horse stables that many Japanese Americans found themselves in. Soon after, the family was sent on a train to the Gila River camp in Arizona, where they would spend the remainder of the war. Located in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, the camp would house 13,348 people at its peak, becoming the fourth largest “city” in the state of Arizona.

To call life in the camps uncomfortable would be an understatement. The family of six lived in a cramped 20 x 25 foot room. The walls they put up between the rooms of different families were thin and were by no means sound-proof, offering little privacy. The showers and bathrooms also were exposed to everyone. The hot Arizona desert shrunk the wood walls of the buildings, leaving holes in the walls and causing sandstorms to seep through and torment the people living there. Margie described how there were lines for everything: food, restrooms, showers, laundry, and countless more basic aspects of life. Mine Okubo, an artist, is known for her depictions of life in the camps; one can often see the long barracks-style lodgings and the crowded and uncomfortable existence for the interned in her art (pictured below). However, despite the obvious discomforts, the Japanese Americans at Gila River managed to make a life for themselves. Fresh vegetables were never an issue, as the residents had started an agricultural operation to grow their own food, producing over 40 different crops. Some of them even got jobs, though due to camp rules, no one could earn more than the average GI. This meant that everyone from teachers to doctors made no more than a paltry $19 a month.


Waiting in Lines by Mine Okubo

By 1943, life in the camps was falling into a routine, but would prove to be shaken up once more by two significant events. The first was the visit of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the Gila River, home of one of the “model camps.” After her visit, she condemned the existence of the internment camps, advocating that “All of these people, including the Japanese Americans, have men who are fighting today for the preservation of the democratic way of life and the ideas around which our nation was built.” This line in particular, meant no doubt as a way to build solidarity with the Japanese Americans and to appeal to a common nationalism, also had a perhaps unintended, more haunting meaning after the release of the loyalty questionnaire, which was administered in the camps that same year. 

Given to everyone over the age of 17, the loyalty questionnaire proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of the camps. In particular, two questions stood out. Question 27, which asked if one were willing to serve in combat, made those interned wonder if they were going to be drafted. Question 28, which asked if one would be willing to swear allegiance to the United States and deny loyalty to everywhere else, worried Issei that they would become stateless, and proved insulting to many Nissei. The results of the questionnaire would form the foundation of two important groups: the 442nd and the No-No Boys. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an all-Nissei combat unit formed out of those drafted after answering yes to question 27. Serving under the motto of “Go For Broke,” they are known today for being the most decorated military unit of their size, with 21 medals of honor and over 4,000 purple hearts, among many other awards. The regiment also produced several important national figures, including Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye. As for those who answered no to both questions, they came to be known as the No-No Boys. They often faced prison sentences and faced social stigma as even many Japanese Americans saw them as disloyal or cowardly. Their experiences would later inspire the novel No-No Boy by John Okada. The Yamamotos answered yes to both questions.

Questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire.

Eventually, the camps started letting families out if they had a job and a place to live. Sohei and Kinuko took their children to Denver to stay with an uncle, finally leaving life in the camps behind. However, this by no means meant that the discrimination stopped outside of the barbed wire fences; Margie recounted how on the way to Denver she and her family stopped at a diner, but during the meal, an angry crowd had gathered outside after finding out that a Japanese family was eating at the establishment. They had to leave out the back door for their safety. After Denver, the Yamamotos moved to Chicago, joining a burgeoning resettled Japanese population there. They opened up a restaurant called the Gila River Inn, choosing the name to create a sense of home for anyone who was also interned there in the community. 

A few years later, they moved back to Southern California to Compton. In the area, there were few places that were both affordable and available to be purchased by Japanese, but the family still managed to find a home. Sohei and Kinuko opened up another grocery store, known as Aloha Market, and later renamed Yamamoto Brothers. After Sohei’s retirement, Margie’s oldest brother took over the family business, while her other brother became a lawyer. Her sister got married, but after her husband died, she helped run the grocery store as well. Margie recounts how her parents never spoke ill of their experiences in the camps until she gave her father the only book she could find on the camps that was translated into Japanese. She recalled how Sohei broke down, describing it as the first time when he had heard of the injustice he and other Japanese faced, and was finally allowed to feel betrayal and hurt at what he and his family had been subjected to. After that, Margie tried to get him more books, but he would die of cancer before she was able to find more.

In 1988, 12 years after Sohei’s death, President Reagan would sign a bill giving $20,000 in reparations to all living interned Japanese Americans. The act was a result of over eighteen years of campaigning, primarily driven by Nissei and Sansei (third generation) activists. Kinuko would never cash her check, keeping it by the family Buddhist shrine dedicated to Sohei’s memory, in hopes that he would know that if not justice, there was finally nationwide recognition of the mistakes of the nation. As for Margie, she first moved to Boston some forty years ago and often recounted how she was assumed to be a foreigner. Knowing that it was the same assumptions that led to the creation of the camps, she would work to fight against racism in the workplace. Many times both the only Asian and the only woman in the meeting, she would rise to eventually be the Director of Community Program Initiatives at WGBH (Boston’s public broadcasting station). She also dedicated much of her time to spreading the word about the injustices of the internment camps, eventually becoming the Co-President of the New England Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving $20,000 to all surviving interned Japanese Americans

Her talk concluded with an urge for civic engagement and a condemnation of the recent anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which she saw worrying parallels in the same xenophobic rhetoric that drove the creation of the Japanese internment camps. Drawing from civil rights icon and US House Representative John Lewis, she ended with a quote of his: “We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”

Her talk was recorded on Zoom, with the full recording available here.

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