Who tells our story? How Japanese Americans remember – and forget – their World War II incarceration

Growing up, junior integrated educational studies anajor Kristi Kayoda took frequent road trips from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes, California. During the drive, her family always stopped in Owens Valley, California. The dry, barren land that sits under the shadow of Mount Whitney is home to the abandoned Manzanar War Relocation Center.

The Kayoda family stops at the historic site to see their last name listed among approximately 10,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly taken to Manzanar during World War II, according to the National Park Service.

Though the family members now acknowledge their painful history during each visit, confronting it was years in the making: Kayoda’s great-grandmother “never spoke a word” about the family’s incarceration, she said.

“My great grandma never talked about it because of how it made her feel,” Kayoda said. “I don’t really want to know what she went through for her to not want to talk about it.”

Kristi Kayoda, a junior integrated educational studies major, visits the Heart Mountain. to remember her family’s incarceration.
Photo by Laura Claypool

Although the forced relocation of many Japanese American families caused emotional and financial suffering, not all elders are forthcoming about what they experienced in the camps, Kayoda said. Japanese Americans have different stories of how their families choose to remember — or forget — their time in camp. At Chapman, each Japanese American student descended from a camp survivor has their own understanding of what it meant to be Japanese American then, and how they identify within their culture now.

Feb. 19, 2017, marked 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast — about two-thirds of which were American citizens — into 10 concentration camps across the U.S., according to the Japanese American National Museum.

The country formally apologized to the Japanese Americans more than 40 years later with the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, which stated incarceration was “motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” However, the emotional scars inflicted by the incarceration are lasting.

Stephanie Takaragawa, a Chapman sociology professor, is the daughter of a Japanese American man born at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming during his family’s captivity. Although Takaragawa has a direct link to this part of Japanese American history, her family avoided talking about the camp while she was growing up.

It wasn’t until the family visited the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in 2001 that Takaragawa’s grandmother began to talk about her experience at Heart Mountain. Takaragawa said that the creation of JANM initiated many conversations about the incarceration. For some, it was their first time ever talking about “camp.”

“The Civil Liberties Act and JANM helped the Japanese Americans to reframe the experience in a way that allowed them to talk about it,” Takaragawa said. “I don’t know if they would have spoken about it if those things didn’t happen.”

Toshi Ito, a 1946 Chapman College alumna, was incarcerated at Heart Mountain at the age of 17. She has dedicated many years of her adult life to sharing the story of the Japanese American incarceration “so that it never happens again,” she said.

In 2013, Ito was featured in KABC News anchor David Ono’s Emmy Award-winning documentary, “The Legacy of Heart Mountain.” Ito and her husband, James Ito, were active members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which established the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in 2011.

She also published a book in 2009 titled “Memoirs of Toshi Ito: USA Concentration Camp Inmate, War Bride, Mother of Chrisie and Lance Ito.” It took Ito nearly 20 years to finish writing her book because she could not write about the death of her father. He committed suicide because he could not find work as a Japanese man after the war and he knew that his life insurance would financially support Ito and her mother, Ito said in “The Legacy of Heart Mountain.”

Toshi Ito, a 1946 Chapman College alumna, was incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. She is holding a photo of her mother. Behind her is a portrait of her husband.
Photo by Emiko Kaneoka

After overcoming the pain and anger of her past while writing her memoir, Ito was finally able to talk to her mother about their incarceration. Ito also anticipated questions from her children when she began working at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and when she released her book because she never talked to them about the incarceration during their youth. Ito attributes Japanese Americans’ collective tendency to avoid talking about the incarceration to intense memories of pain and shame, which they reflexively suppress and hide.

“They grew up with gaman,” she said. “It means ‘taking it’ or being stoic.”

However, some Japanese American students grew up with family members who were open about their camp experiences. Parker Jue, a freshman television and writing production major, is Japanese and Chinese. Her mother comes from a family of Japanese Peruvians kidnapped from Peru during World War II and taken to a justice department camp in Crystal City, Texas. Her grandmother was 12 when she was incarcerated. Jue said that she is open about her past whenever Jue asks questions.

Jue’s family was part of a little-known and shameful piece of U.S. World War II history, which the country swept under the rug for years. In order to secure the Western Hemisphere after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered an agreement with the Latin American countries to remove prominent Japanese citizens and place them in U.S. justice department camps, according to the Asian American Law Journal. Since Jue’s great-grandfather was a wealthy businessman in Peru, he was captured and taken to Kenedy, Texas, and later moved to Crystal City, where the rest of his family joined him.

The U.S. government intended to use Jue’s family for American civilian exchanges with Japan, so they were forced to learn Japanese, she said. Their native language was Spanish, and they didn’t speak English when they were brought to the U.S. Jue’s family was eventually allowed to stay in the U.S.

However, more than 2,000 Japanese Latin Americans detained in U.S. camps did not qualify for the reparations of the Civil Liberties Act of 1987 and instead received just $5,000 each as reparation in 1998 after filing a federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S., according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Now, Jue’s grandmother speaks English, Spanish, and some Japanese. However, her father encouraged her to only speak English when they were released from Crystal City and moved to Northern California in order to assimilate, Jue said.

Despite her diverse cultural background, Jue said that she only embraces her Japanese American side through family traditions, such as helping to prepare the special Japanese New Year’s food. She said that she mostly identifies as an American – even if America has not always embraced Japanese Americans as equals.

“I wish I was a little more involved in Japanese culture,” Jue said. “I don’t know as much as I think I should.”

Illustration of Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas by Shinobu McKinley, the author’s grandmother, where she was incarcerated with her family as a toddler. Photo courtesy Shinobu McKinley.

Kyler Asato, a junior sociology major who prefers they/them pronouns, also wants to reclaim their Japanese American culture. Asato is from Oahu, Hawaii, where their family lived during the war. Due to the large population of Japanese Americans on the islands, those in Hawaii were not placed in camps, according to the JANM website.

However, Asato said that their great-grandfather was a leader in the Japanese community on Oahu, and was incarcerated in a camp on the mainland U.S. during the war. Asato said that they do not know which camp their great-grandfather was in during the war because their family did not talk about it.

Asato’s grandmother spoke about her experience in a limited way — she suffered from dementia and often repeated the same memories of being separated from her father and struggling financially during and after the war. She remembered how traumatic it was for her family of eight children to lose their father for 10 years, as her father was incarcerated and then deported to Japan after he refused to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to fight for the U.S.

“My grandma’s family suffered financially and emotionally. She went through the trauma of having her family member forcefully taken from her,” Asato said. “That trauma existed within her, and I could see it.”

After the war, Asato said that their grandma tried to repress her Japanese culture as a subconscious “defense mechanism” by not speaking the language at home and using her American name.

“They still were ashamed of their culture due to the war and being branded as ‘the enemy,’” Asato said, “They felt they had to erase part of their culture to survive.”

Now, Asato’s goal is to reclaim their Japanese culture. Asato began learning the language at Japanese school and continued to learn in high school and college. Asato is also interested in learning more about Japanese culture and politics. Looking back on Asato’s childhood, when mochi (Japanese rice cakes) and Children’s Day were their only connections to Japanese heritage, Asato wishes that they had a choice in how they experienced their culture.

“I wanted to have culture. But I didn’t get to because my family had a history of white-washing themselves,” Asato said. “That was unfair that I didn’t have a choice, but I recognize that sometimes you need to do that in order to survive.”

Racism towards Japanese Americans continued long after the war. Ito remembers A local grocer refusing to sell her mother produce since she was Japanese. They returned to the market the next day with Ito’s husband, who was dressed in his U.S. military uniform — he volunteered to serve in South Korea as a Military Intelligence Service translator. When the grocer saw James Ito, he sold them vegetables.

Despite everything that Ito lost during her incarceration — her freedom, financial well-being, her cultural expression, her father — she still calls herself an American. In light of President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslims, Ito said that it’s more important than ever to talk about the Japanese American incarceration and to have compassion for people of all backgrounds.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself. This whole world needs to do this,” Ito said. “People need to accept people for who they are, and understand different cultures and histories.”

1 Comment

  • OMG….This article had me in tears…..Brought back even more memories that I had pushed aside…(Don’t think about it and maybe it never happened)…I think many of us who were toddlers and younger when this all happened either remember because they need to or forget because the pain is too great…Hoping this never happens in the United States again to any Nationality…..

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