A Japanese-American remembers internment


My mother is 97 years old and was among the first Japanese-Americans to receive a check for $20,000 from the the government for her internment during World War II. I do not know exactly what this payment means to her; I am not even sure how it will affect me when I receive my check two years hence. But I do know that the reparations will have a different meaning for every generation.

During the war, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were locked i camps. In 1988, Congress passed legislation granting $20,000 to each of the 60,000 survivors. The first checks were issued this month.

My mother was not an American citizen when we were interned in the summer of 1942. At the time, U.S. law did not permit Asians to become naturalized. My father had come to America in 1903, my mother in 1910, but they were Japanese subjects.

I do not believe they concerned themselves with the question of whether internment was justified. What Mama worried about was survival.

We lived in Guadalupe, Calif., a small farming community. The night the war started, the FBI came and arrested all the Japanese community leaders, mostly farmers like my father. Papa was probably glad he was included; he would have been humiliated if they had arrested all his best friends and not him.

People were saying the men would be executed, and Mama thought it would be just like Papa to get himself shot out of pride. That was fine for him; he didn't have to deal with the sheriff, the man from the bank who wanted the loan paid up, the awful men who came to the house to buy the furniture for a pittance. She did not know how she survived those months, all the worrying, getting the finances in order, paying the bills, the packing.

We were first sent to an "assembly center" at Tulare, Calif., and upon our arrival Mama collapsed and was hospitalized for two weeks.

Those dreadful months after the outbreak of the war had taken their toll on Mama. Her once-plump face was shrunken, and the skin under her chin hung in flaps. What she used to call laughingly her raccoon eyes, round and sad-looking, had lost their light. At 49 she was almost completely gray. Only a few months before, her hair had been black.

Before, she used to collect rainwater in tubs to wash her hair, because it added smoothness and luster, and she carefully pulled any white strand that appeared. But there were too many of them now, and what did it matter anyway? She was probably a widow.

By midsummer, the permanent camps in the interior were completed, and we were sent to one at Gila, Ariz. The trip began early in the morning, but it was in the heat of the afternoon that the train entered the Mojave Desert. We had never seen such a landscape before and could not have imagined it. The trees were gnarled and had needles for leaves, and the cactus looked stunted. They bristled like angry, ill-natured dwarfs with a venomous stare. Here and there were the bleached bones of dead animals. It might have been a scene from jikoku, a Japanese nether world inhabited by horned, crab-red demons.

At Gila, my mother ate only the two slices of toast she got at breakfast and saved the bread she got at other meals. It was difficult not to eat the breakfast toast, because usually there was nothing else, and she feared she would not get the toast if they saw she did not eat it.

The kitchen was run by the Japanese, and they were very careful in the early months when food was scarce. They would give women smaller servings than the men got, and big people more than little; at least so it seemed to us. But they gave everyone two slices of bread at every meal.

Mama stashed in her blouse the two slices of bread she got at the midday and evening meals. At the compartment, she toasted them on the hot plate or on the oil heater and crumpled them

into brown paper bags. We thought she was being silly, but she was convinced of the invincibility of Japanese soldiers. When America was defeated, she explained, there would be chaos, and who would care about the Japanese in the camps? There would be no food until Japanese troops came to rescue us.

It was near the end of the second year in Arizona when Papa was allowed to rejoin us. I was 11 at the time, and my mother and I were the only ones left at Gila from our family. My oldest brother, Nimashi, had been sent to another camp because he was suspected of pro-Japan sympathies. My brothers Yoshiro and Goro were in the U.S. Army. My sister Hoshiko, after graduating from high school, got a scholarship while in the camp to go to Carlton College in Minnesota.

When Papa saw the bags of bread crumbs, he asked Mama about them. When she told him, he said in a quiet voice that he did not think they were necessary. It was all over for Japan, he said.

Mama agonized over her bread crumbs for some time, but she eventually threw them out.

The struggle for survival began in earnest after the war when we returned to Guadalupe. My father had lost his farms, so he and my mother had to find work as field laborers. It was backbreaking work, especially at their age, but they were grateful for whatever they could get.

When Yoshiro got out of the Army, he could not find a job, even though he was a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in economics. He survived as a vegetable peddler for two years, and when he managed to start a small grocery store in San Pedro, Calif., we moved there to help him run it.

Since my father's death in 1965 at the age of 81, my mother has lived alone, supported mainly by Yoshiro, who has prospered as a businessman.

Mama has never liked to talk about her war years, and my Japanese has never been adequate to plumb very deeply into her thoughts.

Since the early 1950s -- after Congress extended naturalization privileges to Asians -- my mother has been an American, but I have never talked to her about that. And every year, she grows more forgetful and hard of hearing, making discussion of any depth all but impossible.

So I do not know how she understands the significance of the $20,000. There was a time when the money was badly needed, but today its symbolic meaning might be more important.

The law establishing the payments contains the sentence, "On behalf the the nation, the Congress apologizes." I cannot read those words without tears, and I hope future generations will understand their significance.

Recently a woman born in 1955 to Japanese-American parents told me how it upset her when people asked her whether she was married to "an American." Her husband happens to be white, she said, but "I'm an American, too. And my parents are Americans."

It occurred to me that my children and grandchildren are Americans. They will not receive any reparations, but the significance of the congressional apology is not without meaning for them.

The government of the United States has officially acknowledged that they -- with their Asian faces -- are fully American and that their Americanism is as pure and as inviolable as that of any other American.

This is an event with emotional resonance that most white Americans cannot possibly comprehend.

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