Prisoners of their heritage

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Jack Yasutake, who came to America in 1907, with granddaughter Jeni Yamada, born in 1951.
Second of three parts

Jack Yasutake was reading poetry when the government came for him.

Within hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, three FBI agents pulled up outside his elegant, turn-of-the-century home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

Only his children were there. Nineteen-year-old Tosh, 18-year-old Mitsuye and 9-year-old Joe were huddled around the radio listening to the news. Older brother Seiichi was upstairs in bed, recovering from tuberculosis.

"Where is Jack Yasutake?" an agent demanded.

"He's not here," Mitsuye replied. "He's with his poetry group."

The day was grim enough already, even without strange men in suits asking questions about their father. That Sunday morning, word of the surprise attack in Hawaii had begun spreading across the country. Everyone was stunned. The Navy's Pacific fleet had been crippled and more than 2,300 servicemen killed. The nation was headed for war.

Jack's wife, Hideko, returned from church to find the agents in her home and began quizzing her children.

"What's going on here?" she asked. "Who is this?"

"Don't speak in Japanese!" one of the men told her. "Speak in English!"

Room by room, the agents scoured the two-story, wood-frame house. They rolled up the rugs, took the paintings off the walls, looked between stacked dishes in the kitchen to see if anything was hidden there. They rifled through books and letters written in Japanese and dumped out the drawers of Jack's desk. They seized radios and cameras and the 16 mm films Jack had made of memorable family moments.

When they found their suspect at his meeting at a local restaurant, the agents tore down the poems the group had posted on the wall. The elaborate Japanese characters, they suspected, might contain something sinister.

For 20 years, the Stanford-educated Jack Kaichiro Yasutake, a respected member of the community, had worked as a translator for the U.S. government. But now he was considered a threat; his ties to Japan were suspicious. He was a danger, the government said.

That afternoon, FBI agents took away three boxes of Jack's things. Then they took Jack away, too.

In America

The story of Jack Yasutake and his family is one pieced together through the accounts of Jack's wife, daughter and sons in interviews, oral histories and written recollections; from government letters, records and transcripts; and from the research of Jack's granddaughter, Jeni Yamada, the family historian who lives in North Baltimore.

This summer, Jeni and her family added another chapter to the tale, traveling to the Idaho internment camp where her mother, grandmother and uncles were held, apart from Jack, during the war. It would be a pilgrimage filled not just with remembrance and pain but, for Jeni, great pride. It was a tangible connection, finally, to that day her family's journey began 63 years before.

For several months after his arrest, Jack was held in the very building where he had reported for work every day: the Seattle office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Jack had it better than the other Issei, or first-generation immigrants, detained there. Thousands of Japanese nationals along the West Coast were picked up for questioning after the attack as part of a government sweep. Jack, at least, had INS colleagues bringing word of his situation to his wife -- and, better, vouching for his loyalty.

It was an unexpected detour in what had been a classic American success story. The son of a farmer, Jack had sailed to the United States in 1907 at age 16, in large part to escape becoming a farmer himself. He worked as a houseboy in San Francisco in exchange for room and board while he learned English and attended high school. He later enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied engineering and indulged his love of the arts, playing the lead in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, whose lines he could recite years later. He joked that he could have made it in Hollywood but for his 5-foot frame.

In 1918, during an extended visit to Japan, Jack married Hideko. After his return, he was forced to leave Stanford to find a job to support them. He worked days as a secretary at an import-export firm. Nights, he was a hotel janitor. Then, after the couple's first son, Seiichi, was born in 1920, Jack was hired as a Japanese translator for the INS, making $1,200 a year. It was as if he had struck gold.

Jack was the kind of natural leader who got elected to everything. He served as president of the Fukuoka-kai, a collection of families with ties to the Japanese prefecture where he was born. He headed a reading club, Sokoku-kai, whose members subscribed to a magazine published in Japan, and a poetry group that wrote haiku-like verses known as senryu. He worked with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and the Japanese Association of Seattle, social organizations that helped local Japanese and sometimes sent money, clothing and food to families in Japan displaced by disasters.

It was not unusual for Issei immigrants such as Jack, who still had family in Japan, to maintain ties to their homeland. Though they had lived and worked for years in the United States, they could not become Americans; at the time, immigrant Asians were ineligible for citizenship. Neither were they fully accepted into mainstream society. Giving up their Japanese heritage would have meant giving up their very identities.

By 1933, Jack and Hideko had three more children -- two boys, Toshio and Joseph, and a daughter, Mitsuye, who was born during a visit to Japan. The family needed a larger place to live. But because Jack was not a naturalized citizen, he couldn't own property. A good friend, an INS telephone operator, bought a four-bedroom house for the family in her name.

Hideko hadn't mastered English as Jack had. After his arrest, she didn't attend his first government hearing because she couldn't follow the proceedings. The family minister who went in her place returned with word that the Justice Department had a thick file on Jack.

According to his arrest record, he was initially charged only as an "alien enemy." But in the months that followed, the government would compile a dossier that, in its view, showed he was a danger: As an INS translator, he enjoyed free access to visiting Japanese ships, which could allow him to serve as a carrier of secrets or anti-American sentiment. One of his Issei friends had been convicted of tax fraud and, after serving time, returned to Japan. His eldest son was an enthusiast of kendo, considered a "militaristic" Japanese sport, and his daughter had been born in his home country. A letter associated with an anti-Semitic group thought to be pro-Japanese was found in his possession. Membership in Sokoku-kai alone, which had been deemed subversive by the U.S. attorney general, was considered cause for internment.

During one session with a government examiner in March 1942, Jack, placed under oath, was peppered with questions: How many times had he returned to Japan, and why? Had his wife visited there, and for how long? To what organizations did he belong, and had he made any political speeches? How did he come to have $10,000 in his bank account? Had he knowingly sold insurance, a job he held on the side, to illegal aliens? Where did his sympathies lie in the war against his native country?

Jack answered as best he could, explaining that he had traveled overseas to visit his father and that the money in his account had come in part from real estate inherited from his parents. To the last question, his reply was plain. "Well, I have nothing -- no reason to sympathize with Japan. Specially in a war between the United States and Japan," he said, according to the transcript. "When Japan fights with the United States, I have everything in this country -- nothing in Japan -- and no reason why I should be a sympathizer with Japan."

Mitsuye and her family were relieved to hear through Jack's friends at the INS that he was doing all right, but they also heard rumors about his fate. That he might be deported to Japan. That he might be exchanged later for American prisoners of war. That he might be sent to a government prison camp.

The last rumor would prove true.

But first, Mitsuye, her brothers and her mother would be sent off to detention facilities of their own.


Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed on Feb. 19, 1942, allowed military commanders to designate areas from which "any and all persons may be excluded." Though it didn't specifically say so, the order targeted an estimated 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry living primarily along the West Coast -- the Yasutakes among them. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens known as Nisei, the American-born sons and daughters of immigrants.

After Pearl Harbor, the government froze Jack's bank account. But the FBI's sweep of the house had overlooked a safe hidden at the back of Mitsuye's closet, which contained a large sum of cash. Between them, she and her elder brothers also had a few hundred dollars they'd saved in school bank accounts.

Jack, though, had run the household. Mail piled up on his desk; bills went unpaid. Mitsuye was stunned when the gas, electric and telephone companies called seeking payment, warning that service would be shut off if they didn't get their money. A straight-A student who had devoured her father's set of Harvard Classics, Mitsuye quit high school and got a job as a live-in baby sitter and housekeeper -- until the evacuation orders came.

That was what the U.S. government called it -- an "evacuation," a term many of those rounded up would come to spurn. The Yasutakes made arrangements for some of Jack's INS colleagues to look after the house. They packed up their belongings and parceled out the boxes. Not every family was so fortunate. Many had to sell or abandon their books, their furniture, their pets. Business owners posted "Evacuation Sale" signs to scrape together a little more money before permanently shutting their doors; farmers sold their land for pennies on the dollar.

As evacuation day neared, Mitsuye, her mother and brothers bundled what they could into two suitcases each, exactly as ordered. Mitsuye, who loved to read, hid a dictionary in with her clothes. She also took some writing tablets from her father's desk, the kind he used to write poetry.

Nearly everyone in Seattle's Japanese community was bound for the Puyallup Assembly Center, where they were to be kept until more permanent "relocation centers," as the government called them, were built. On a spring day whose precise date the family can't recall, Mitsuye and her family, dressed in what appears to be their Sunday best, made their way to the gathering area, a nearby public school. As they prepared to board a bus for the drive south, a photographer called out: "Smile!"

Instinctively, Mitsuye did.

In the picture the Seattle Times ran the next day, she looked like a girl going on vacation.

A camp called Minidoka

The assembly center in rural Puyallup sprung up in less than 30 days on the grounds of the Western Washington State Fair, a miniature city filling every available space around the racetrack and the roller coaster. For bedding, Mitsuye and her family were handed empty mats to fill with straw. Others were told to sleep in the stables.

Camp Harmony, as it was called, had street signs, a mayor and a mess hall dubbed Spike's Cafe. A newsletter, delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays to the barracks doorsteps, marked the arrival of the youngest resident, a 3-week-old girl, and provided the latest news about church services and barber hours. It also announced a call for help to ready the more permanent camp planned for Idaho. Mitsuye's brother Tosh volunteered.

After a few months, the Yasutakes were transported from Puyallup to the relocation center, called Minidoka. The shades on the train were kept drawn, Mitsuye remembers, but she peeked out now and then. Each time, the landscape looked more desolate. She felt as if they were headed to the middle of nowhere. In fact, they were.

The camp, on 33,000 acres outside Twin Falls in south-central Idaho, was still under construction when the family arrived. There was no hot water or sewage system; Mitsuye distinctly recalls the barracks smelling of fresh wood. Five miles of barbed wire fencing sprung up around the perimeter of the residential and administrative quarters. The Yasutakes were assigned to Block 4, Barrack 4, Apartment C. Hideko immediately hung a blanket to create some semblance of privacy in the open space.

Apart from cots and mattresses, there was no furniture, just a single overhead light bulb and a potbellied stove in each family's room. But the internees were resourceful: Some collected scraps of wood and crafted chairs and dressers on which they inscribed their names. The Yasutakes were not skilled artisans, so their coffee table was an apple crate. Mitsuye stored her clothes in containers once used to ship oranges.

A fine dust continually seeped through cracks in the floor and walls, coating things inside. When a windstorm blew up, one trick was to stuff newspapers or rags in the holes. Hideko constantly swept and dusted, just as she had at home. Cleanliness was still a point of pride.

Minidoka was one of 10 U.S. internment camps, all but two located in Western states. Eventually, it had more than 600 buildings, including mess halls and fire stations, a post office and library. Life was generally peaceful there, but it was bleak as well. There was little privacy in living quarters or restrooms. Some internees fell ill with diseases such as chickenpox, dysentery or tuberculosis because of the cramped living arrangements.

At Minidoka, many detainees worked for nominal wages in the fields, the hospital, even the camp's administrative offices. Others toiled outside the gates as contract laborers on farms. A camp government was established to mediate conflicts between prisoners and the administration. Those born in Japan, though, were barred from holding office.

In spite of the circumstances, the dreary camp quickly became a community. Internees formed Japanese drumming clubs and swayed with their sweethearts during Saturday night dances. They hung makeshift decorations for Christmas and held funerals with flower arrangements fashioned from scraps of paper. The student body at the camp high school crowned a king and queen and a court of attendants.

Even behind barbed wire, Mitsuye's younger brother Joe, a handsome, skinny kid of 10, passed the time like other boys. He remembers taking jars from the mess hall and plucking tiny fire ants from the dust. He hunted rattlesnakes, played baseball in a sun-swept clearing and dealt covert hands of poker in the cool shade beneath the barracks. He and the other children attended school, though supplies and textbooks were scant. Joe adored his teacher, who would read chapters from Hardy Boys novels if the class behaved.

For kids like Joe, life was consumed with none of the weighty matters that grown-ups at Minidoka had to deal with. Sometimes at night, after he climbed into his cot and everyone thought he was asleep, he would overhear his family talk about the war, their suspect status, their uncertain future.

"When I grow up," Mitsuye recalls him saying one day, "I'm going to be white."

"I don't think so, Joe," she replied.

But he insisted: "It's too hard being Japanese."

Swearing allegiance

By early 1943, the government had forced the loyalty issue front and center in the form of a questionnaire designed to test internees' allegiances. Every detainee 17 and older, male or female, was expected to answer "yes" to two questions: Are you willing to serve in the U.S. military? Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance to Japan?

The second question put many Issei in a quandary: It called on them to renounce the country of their birth and declare loyalty to a country that barred them from becoming citizens.

For many of their Nisei children, the first question was similarly outrageous. Months before, they had been forced to surrender their regular lives and their rights and were shipped off to internment camps. Even some of the 5,000 Japanese-Americans in the military at the time of Pearl Harbor had been discharged and interned. Now they were being asked to defend the country that had imprisoned them.

Army recruiters began descending on the camps, seeking volunteers for the newly created, all-Japanese 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Unit. Military service was pitched as a golden opportunity for internees to prove their loyalty.

Mitsuye's eldest brother, Seiichi, a pacifist, would not agree to fight. Her brother Tosh was glad to be given a chance to serve, though the idea of a segregated unit angered him. He wanted to serve alongside the rest of the troops, not just those who looked like him. But when the deadline to sign up arrived he enlisted, he recalls, swayed in large part by one thought: Maybe it would help to win his father's release.

A father's wish

From the visitors barracks near the entrance of a government prison camp in Lordsburg, N.M., Mitsuye stared at the man walking toward her.

She and Tosh had been allowed to leave Minidoka temporarily to visit their father before Tosh's induction into the Army. So they had traveled here, 80 miles north of the Mexican border, to this camp occupied by captured German and Italian sailors and Issei detainees like Jack Yasutake.

Mitsuye hadn't seen her father in more than a year. The man walking toward her appeared too slight, too old. But indeed it was him.

The roundness in Jack's face was gone; he was thin and wiry. The government still had not charged him with any crime; his last hearing had been about a year earlier, in May 1942. But in spite of his situation, his spirits seemed remarkably high.

There was no mention of Tosh's decision to enlist, he says. Neither he nor his father wanted to talk about it. Instead, Jack boasted about learning German, which enabled him to converse with some of the other prisoners. He also spent part of his days writing letters home for the American soldiers guarding the camp.

Jack had always emphasized the importance of education, drilling into his children's heads that they would graduate from high school and go to college as he had. Now he turned the conversation to Mitsuye, discussing her plans as if they were within her control.

"Does he know there's a war on?" she recalls wondering.

Her father peppered her with questions about college applications and choosing a major, urging her to consider a career in medicine.

"But I don't want to be a doctor!" she protested.

"You can do other things with a medical degree," he said. "At least you'll have a job."

The government had wrenched him from his family, his home, his career -- everything he had worked decades to attain. But Jack Yasutake was still determined to ensure his children's future, even if he couldn't ensure his own.

Question No. 28

Mitsuye did dream of college. College meant freedom -- or at least a way out of camp.

Though the evacuation had forced her to leave high school early, she had earned enough credits to graduate. Now, at Minidoka, she spent hours during slow midnight shifts as a nurse's aide at the camp hospital filling out college applications.

She combed through the list of schools at the back of her Webster's dictionary. She was careful where she applied, thinking she might have a better chance of gaining admission to small schools with Christian connections. Unlike her brothers, who were U.S. citizens, Mitsuye had been born in Japan. Though she had lived in America nearly her whole life, she was, like her father and mother, an enemy alien.

Every response letter, she recalls, held the same disappointing news: admission denied.

Then, finally, a stroke of luck. The American Friends Service Committee, which had created a program to sponsor internees wanting to leave the camps for higher education or work, helped Mitsuye's brother get accepted at the University of Cincinnati -- and line up a job as a dishwasher in the cafeteria. She applied for work there and also got a job. After a year at Minidoka, she could now seek permission from the War Relocation Authority to leave.

Getting permission meant filling out paperwork and, in some cases, undergoing extensive questioning. Some of the government's inquiries were innocent enough: Where are you planning to resettle? How long do you plan to remain in this job?

But most compounded the humiliation and isolation many internees already felt: Will you avoid the use of the Japanese language except when necessary? Will you try to develop American habits that will enable you to be accepted readily into American social groups?

So close to freedom, Mitsuye, then 19, diligently completed the "loyalty questionnaire" she had heard so much about. She paused, briefly, at the final question.

No. 28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?

There was only one answer: Yes.

Free at last

By 1944, after persistent lobbying, Jack was reunited with his wife and youngest son at an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas. In March, his case was considered by an alien enemy special hearing board, which called him an "honorable type of man" and recommended that he be freed.

"We are entirely convinced," the panel wrote in a four-paragraph report, "that this man is not only entitled to his freedom, but that he is entitled to an immediate unconditional release."

But for reasons that are unclear, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle, in a letter dated July 1, ordered that Jack be paroled instead. So, though he'd never been found guilty of any crime, Jack Yasutake was now, for all intents and purposes, an ex-convict. Even that didn't satisfy the military, which continued to regard him as a threat. Jack, along with a whole class of men, had lost not only his livelihood but his good name.

"No Issei or Japanese-American was ever convicted of a crime of espionage or sabotage," says Dale Minami, a San Francisco lawyer who worked to overturn the conviction of a Nisei jailed because he defied the initial evacuation order. "There was no real good evidence. What there was was benign circumstantial evidence of a relationship to a mother country."

The Yasutakes made their way to Cincinnati to join Mitsuye, but the reunion would be short-lived. Seiichi had moved to Boston after some of his answers on the loyalty questionnaire were judged suspect and he was expelled from school. Mitsuye, meanwhile, had been accepted to New York University.

Free after three years as a prisoner, Jack struggled to find a job. Several prominent universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, had approached him about teaching Japanese, but the government, which still restricted his movement, denied his requests to travel.

The only work in demand was domestic help, because so many household workers had left for wartime factory jobs. So he and his wife, Hideko, moved into the servants quarters in a Cincinnati mansion. Jack tended the garden, served as a chauffeur and took care of odd jobs. She was the cook.

It wasn't until two years after the war, in 1947, that Jack was able to accept another job: executive director of the Chicago Resettlers Committee. The former prisoner whose family had been interned was now helping other internees re-establish their lives.

With the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act removing racial barriers to U.S. immigration five years later, Japanese nationals finally were allowed to apply for naturalization. Jack did so immediately. On March 7, 1953, after 46 years in the United States, 62-year-old Jack Kaichiro Yasutake became an American citizen.

Twenty-three days later he died of a brain hemorrhage.

Emotions long buried

For years, the scribbled notes Mitsuye had kept in camp remained in a box, mostly forgotten. She briefly resurrected them after 11-year-old Jeni learned that her mother had been interned -- "How come you never told us?" Jeni asked -- but in the routine of daily life, they were put away again.

After the war, Mitsuye had finished NYU and begun graduate school in Chicago. But after marrying Yoshikazu Yamada in 1950, Mitsuye had focused on raising their four children while her husband threw himself into his work as a research chemist. She was intent on protecting Jeni and her three siblings from the racism she had faced and felt persisted after the war; insulating them from what had happened at Minidoka was one way of doing so.

Slowly, though, Mitsuye underwent a transformation. It began while she was ill, confined to bed after being misdiagnosed with terminal emphysema. She began reading newspapers voraciously and learned of the work Amnesty International was doing on behalf of political prisoners around the globe. She spent hours writing letters in support of their release.

At some subconscious level, Mitsuye related to these prisoners. And yet, at the time, she didn't connect their experiences to her own.

In the mid-1960s, after the family had settled in Southern California for Yosh's work, Mitsuye got her first teaching job at a community college. Encouraging her English students with their writing prompted her to return to her own. Once again she dipped into the shoebox of notes from Minidoka.

When her first volume of poetry was published in 1976 by a small feminist press, Mitsuye felt that she had finally faced her internment head on. Still, she had never talked to her children about how the experience had shaped her life -- and theirs. That was still to come.

She unexpectedly found herself in tears during her first trip back to Minidoka, in 1980, for the filming of a documentary about Asian-American poets. She found herself sobbing in a restroom at UCLA in 1992 during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

This year, during her family's June visit to the internment camp, some of that emotion would emerge again. Standing before her brothers, her children, her nephews and her grandchildren, as well as other internees and their families, she would recite several poems about the experience she had kept in a box for so long.

Her eldest child, Jeni, who had come to feel deeply the impact of the internment on her life -- and her sons' -- sat listening in the audience, moved by the words. They told the story of a family's struggle, a story of endurance, a story she, too, had come to embrace after all these years.

Mama is mending
my underwear
while my brothers sleep.
Her husband taken away by the FBI
one son lured away by the Army
now another son and daughter
lusting for the free world outside.
She must let go.
The war goes on ...

Internment and after

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, paved the way for the largest forced relocation on American soil.

It authorized designation of military areas from which "any and all persons may be excluded." During World War II, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent - two-thirds of them U.S. citizens - were interned.

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford repealed the order, calling Feb. 19, 1942, a "sad day" in U.S. history. In 1983, a congressional commission found that the internment was not a "military necessity" as claimed, but was spurred by "race prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorized payment of $20,000 to each detainee. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush apologized: "A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories. ... We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II."