February 19, 1942. Nearly 64 years have passed since the day that President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order stating that all Americans of Japanese ancestry must report to various places for interment.
In light of the Pearl Harbor bombing, officials within the U.S. government felt it was the best course of action. Approximately 120,000 Americans reported and were encamped in places such as Tule Lake and Manzanar, and there they stayed for the next year. Homes were lost and families uprooted.
The families whose lives had been interrupted survived without many of the comforts many Americans had become accustomed to, living in tar paper barracks, their children going to school in tiny rooms, forced to stay within boundaries, living in the middle of nowhere.
Despite the fact that most of them were American citizens, they were all regarded as a risk. High school graduates and college students put their lives on hold because they had no choice. The parents that had worked hard to make roots for their children had done so in vain, it seemed. It was a horrendously desolate time for the Japanese-American community and a despicable mistake made by the U.S. government.
This month, we remember those days, honoring the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II along side Americans of other ancestry, for the country they called home. This month we remember the mistake that was made, so it is never made again.
Terry Manji, a second generation Japanese-American, spent some time in the Tule Lake camp when he was 13. “I was living in Yuba City at the time, when they told us to report to the camps,” he recalls. “We ended up in Tule Lake, which is near the California-Oregon border, just an old dried up lake.”
Manji’s family was featured in an article from a 1944 Life magazine, which classified his family as “disloyal.” Despite the fact that many of the people placed in these camps were children, born as naturalized citizens of the U.S., racism reared its ugly head against them as well, simply because their ancestors belonged to the enemy country.
From January 30 through February 28, in the Yuba College library entry hall, an exhibit features articles, photographs and other memorabilia, borrowed from many sources such as the Sacramento State archives and the Yuba County Memorial Museum. There are pictures of school children and baseball teams interred in the camps.
“We had schools.” Manji remembered. “We went to elementary school during the day hours, and we had a high school. Also, there were organized sports like baseball and basketball. We had Boys Scouts. I was in Boy Scouts.”
On February 11, a reception was held at Yuba College, where the Marysville Japanese American Citizens League and the Yuba College Crossing Borders-Guest speaker Dr. Paul Takagi, a taiko performance, and refreshments from Wonderful Restaurant were all part of the event. Takagi, Ph.D, Professor Emeritus, UC Berkley, spoke of his experiences in the internment camp of Manzanar, recalling his experiences.
“When they took us from the train station in Elk Grove,” said Takagi, “they drew the shades down so we could not see where we were going. There were armed military personnel on board the train. They told us this was for our safety.”
Dr. Takagi also recalled how Japanese-Americans were segregated even before the internment order. “My dad took me one day to see the schools. He said ‘Here is where the children go to school’ and then we crossed the train tracks. ‘This is where the Japanese go to school.'”
Takagi remarked how groups had formed in the camps, the people dividing themselves into social classes. Takagi told of his being an orderly for the camp hospital and of the event that caused him to quit.
“People were upset over a man being held in jail. There was a group of people. Soldiers threw tear gas and shot into the group, injuring eleven people. I held a man we’ll call James all night long. No nurses or doctors came. He kept telling me he didn’t want to die. In the morning, after he died, I resigned. I could not take that again. I had never seen a man die.”
In the years that have followed, it seems many Americans remember the devastation of Pearl Harbor, with the movie released in 2003 and the stories that are often told in the media. But not many take a moment to remember the travesty that was brought upon the citizens who suffered in its repercussion, simply because they too were of Japanese ancestry.
They were considered to be traitors.
Yet during the time of internment, many of the Nisei (younger generation Japanese citizens) volunteered to fight in the war. They were trained and sent into battle.
Two of the most decorated units in Word War II were the 100th battalion and the 442nd infantry, staffed with Japanese-Americans. They served the United States voluntarily, fighting Germans, translating for US military officials and questioning Japanese prisoners.
A plaque at the Poston Relocation Center reads: “May it serve as a constant reminder of our past so that Americans in the future will never again be denied their constitutional rights and may the remembrance of that experience serve to advance the evolution of the human spirit.”
That is the purpose behind these Days of Remembrance: not to follow in the footprints of our nation’s mistakes and never to forget that it is not how a person looks that makes him a citizen. It is what is in his heart.