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Let It Not Happen Again: Lessons from the Japanese-American Exclusion 

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May 27, 2021

To recognize Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage month and to honor their significant contributions to the Port and the region, Port employees of Japanese descent tell stories of their families’ experiences in World War II. 

  • Two events were co-hosted by the Port's Asian and Pacific Islander Advocates  and VOICE (VOICE of Immigrants Committed to Equity) groups. 
  • With special thanks to Nancy Kitano, Ester Suan Tjoe, Pennie Saum, and Leona Komatsu. 

What do you think when you hear about going to camp?

Adventure? Sleeping in a tent? Mosquito bites and nature? For some, the word brings happy memories of fun and freedom from our parents.

For many Americans of Japanese descent, however, it means broken families, inhumane living conditions, and losing their businesses and possessions. And trauma, not just for those taken from their homes during World War II, but for generations to come. 

In May, the Port honored Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and shared the stories that have been passed down from Japanese-American elders, family members, and friends. In the hopes that learning and talking about the past and present of Japanese-Americans will prevent this from happening again to anyone in the future. 

Japanese women working at the camps wearing a mask
"Public Domain: WWII: Woman at Manzanar  Camp by Dorothea Lange (NARA)" by pingnews.com is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Pacific Northwest firsts

In the late 1880s, Bainbridge Island, Washington, with its massive old growth forests of hemlock and cedar, was the epicenter of the timber industry. Blakeley Harbor was home to the largest lumber mill in the world. And Bainbridge Island had electricity ten years before Seattle did!

People from all over the world came to the region to make their fortunes. And many of them were Japanese immigrants who moved to Washington to escape an economic recession in Japan. They were professionals and military generals who came to start a new life but along the way started a company town, lived in tight-knit communities, and worked hard in a variety of dangerous industries. 

The first settlement of Japanese workers in the 1880s was named Yama, which means hills and mountains in Japanese. There was a hotel, general store, an ice cream parlor, and a traditional bathhouse. All island children attended school together, as Washington state was one of the first to have compulsory public education.
Because their names were too difficult to pronounce by Americans, the Japanese residents were known only by their numbers. And many of these residents became prolific strawberry farmers. 

December 1941

Life changed on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. Only two days after the event, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came to 23 cities looking for residents who were loyal to Japan, contraband, and weapons. Because of their proximity to the Naval bases, Bainbridge Island was their first stop in the United States, and residents of Japanese descent were the first in the United States to be incarcerated. 

February 1942

On February 4, 1942, the Washington State Patrol and the Kitsap County Police came to Bainbridge Island. They raided all 52 Japanese homes at once and took 13 community elders away. There were no search warrants, no trial, and no evidence of disloyalty to the United States. It turned out the F.B.I had been watching and spying on all people with 1/16 or more Japanese ancestry since the 1930s.  

On February 19, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that authorized the evacuation of all Japanese residents of the West coast to be evacuated and moved further inland. And the paranoia and resulting discrimination continued with other orders that allowed civilians to be prosecuted without a trial or a hearing. 

Japanese-Americans evacuating Bainbridge
People of Japanese descent leaving Bainbridge Island. Source: National Archives

March 1942

Executive Order 9102 on March 18 allowed people of Japanese descent to be taken away from their homes, family, and property and relocated into Concentration Camps. 

On March 23, 1942 the first Civilian Exclusion Order requires that all persons of Japanese ancestry “evacuate” Bainbridge Island, Washington within one week.  People of Japanese ancestry were taken away by the government on a ferry and in troop carriers. Many of them lost everything and never returned to their homes.
On March 30, 1942, the government took 227 men, women, and children away from their homes and families with no evidence, no charges filed, and no due process of law.  Two-thirds of these people were American citizens.

On March 24, 1942 Public Proclamation 1 came into effect and defined Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and California as a military area. And labeled Japanese residents and Japanese-Americans as “enemy aliens,” even if they had demonstrated loyalty to the United States. All “contraband” like short wave radios, guns, binoculars, cameras were confiscated. It also included a curfew that meant that all people of Japanese descent were required to stay inside from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. The restrictions applied even if they had been born in America and had been loyal American citizens for decades and many generations. 

April 1942

Several individuals – all U.S. citizens – attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s actions through the courts.  The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the government’s “military necessity” argument in 1944, but decades later a historian discovered documents showing the government tampered with evidence in the original litigation and some of the convictions were overturned. Every family member who told the stories of their parents and grandparents said that they rarely discussed their experiences and never complained. But the pain is still there in future generations, hidden by shame and silence. Soul Wounds carry the historic trauma of their family for generations. 

Manzanar guard tower with barbed wire and mountains
Photo credit: "Guard Tower" by U.S. Department of the Interior is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Stories from camp

Below, Port employees tell their stories of their family so we can all listen and learn and remember. To ensure this never happens again. 

Cindy and Janet Kawamoto 

(names, ages, and the year have been been changed to preserve their confidentiality) 

(As told by Leona Komatsu, who is not part of the Kawamoto family) 

Cindy and Janet Kawamoto, two sisters born and raised in Seattle, were the Nisei — the second generation Japanese-Americans, the largest generation of survivors of Japanese-American concentration camps. At the ages of 87 and 84, they told their stories about the concentration camps; even in their 80s, it was clear that both Cindy and Janet exhibited long term effects of race-related injustice trauma through the Exclusion Act. Janet remembered the pain of being judged an enemy despite a lack of evidence. She loved baseball and being an American was her life’s theme. Upon waking, she often repeated the phrase “I am an American. My parents used to tell me ‘From this day, you are an American!’  I served for the United States, I worked hard for the United States, and  I am proud to be an American!!”  

Her older sister Cindy remembered when they were taken and their release: 

“You know the fairground? That’s where we were taken – to Puyallup first. I don’t know how long we were there, but then we were shipped to Idaho and there was a guard. You know Macy’s in downtown?, It used to be called the Bon Marché? They used to sell badges with your nationality. All other Asians, like the Chinese and Filipinos would go buy them. They wanted others to know that they were not Japanese. Some Japanese people tried  to get badges from other nationalities  so  they would not get stones thrown at them. One day they came to us {in the camp} and said ‘Here’s $100. And you can go now.’ We did not know where to go. My oldest brother was sent to Japan and my uncle, dad’s brother raised him. The second child died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. The third  child, Shoji, fought in the 442nd and died in China when he was 29. We never met our grandparent, nor the oldest brother. And there are just two of us left now.   

When I heard the story from Cindy for the first time, I could not put my feelings into words — a mixture of anger, confusion, deep sorrow and shock. If I had been born 70 years earlier, it could have been me in the concentration camp. My immediate thoughts went to Cindy and Janet’s parents, the Issei, first generation, who gave up their first son and never saw him again. Their second son joined the 442nd to prove his loyalty to the U.S. government and died in the war. These two brothers were two or three years apart.

Would you imagine they could have been in the war, fighting against each other as brothers, but not knowing they came from same parents?

How was Cindy feeling sharing this with me, knowing I was from Japan? The country I belong to, and the country attacked Pearl Harbor, caused them to be forcefully relocated, to lose everything, and take their brother away.

I didn’t know what to think but cried while listening to Cindy. Knowing that Cindy and Janet had no children. I asked myself "who was going to pass on their stories?  Who will remember them?" I really hoped their story would not die after their passing.

My big thanks to the Port colleagues who took the time to attend both events to learn the history that did not appear in the  mainstream history books. I am grateful of my Port colleagues’ courageous learning spirit and feel relieved that Cindy and Janet's story remains alive today.  


The Matsuomo and Hirai Families

(as told by Leslie Hirai)    

My parents were in the camps during World War II and I grew up hearing their stories. It’s a shared experience for all of us in the Japanese-American community to hear these tales, although our parents were usually reluctant to talk about it. 

My mother’s parents were Jiro and Masayo Matsuomo. My grandfather was a tailor, and they came to Seattle from Japan in 1910. Their six children were all born and raised in Seattle. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were taken from their homes to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, where they were held in animal stalls; the camps were just being built and were not ready yet. Then they were all sent by train to Hunt, Idaho, to the Minidoka Camp.

My parents always referred to it as “camp.” But this camp had five guard towers, and miles of barbed wire fencing to keep in the 10,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans. 

My mother, Fumiko Matsumoto, was 13 when she entered the camp. Her memories were mostly of daily life in the desert. Summers there were very hot and dry, with windstorms and dust blowing into the barracks where the prisoners lived. The barracks were covered with tar paper and had no insulation or heat, so they were very cold in the fierce Idaho winters. My mother recalls that she put hot water bottles under the covers of her cot to stay warm. 

The camps were run like a small city — and they had a relatively normal routine except for the inadequate living conditions. My mother attended high school but I never really heard her complain about the conditions.

My grandfather was a tailor, and had customers who would deliver fabric to him in camp and he would make their jackets and send them back to Seattle. He brought his sewing machine to the camp. I later realized that they only brought what they could carry, so the sewing machine must have been his only possession in the camp. 

The Hirai family owned and worked at the Maplewood Gardens across from the golf course on Highway 169 in Renton. They provided plants for the golf course and worked at the greenhouse, went to school, and learned to swim in the Cedar River. They were friends with the kids of the golf course owner.

My father’s Japanese name was Shiro Hirai. But after the war, he never went by his Japanese name and went only by Fred Hirai. His parents were Gisuke and Tami Hirai.

My father remembers the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was 13 years old and working on the farm shoveling cow manure when he heard the alarms and sirens go off. The F.B.I came early the next morning and arrested his father. Evidently, the F.B.I. had been watching the Japanese in the community for some time and built their case based upon informants with untrue stories and unsubstantiated rumors. 

When the F.B.I. arrived, they went across the street to talk to the golf course owner, Frank Aliment, who became the mayor of Renton in 1960. Frank had not interacted much with my grandparents, but he told the F.B.I. that the Hirai children caddied at the golf course and played with his children. Frank Aliment gave the F.B.I a written affidavit that stated that the Hirai family were good residents and had raised their children to be good and loyal Americans. 

The F.B.I. told Frank that my grandfather had a shortwave radio and knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And that he had been collecting money from the Japanese-American community and was sending money back to Japan to support the war effort. None of these stories were true. 

My grandfather was taken to the immigration center, then sent to a camp in Montana where he worked teaching Japanese to the U.S. Officers. He did not return home to the family until after the war ended.  

And the rest of the family was sent to Minidoka. My grandmother never made it home — she had a breakdown and was in the hospital for a year before passing away. I think it was the stress of managing without her husband and worrying about all the kids. 

My grandfather petitioned for citizenship in 1949. Before then, people of Japanese ancestry were denied citizenship. Despite everything he went through, he still wanted to be an American. 


Exterior view of barracks at Manzanar
Photo credit: Nancy Kitano

The Nishimori and Kitano Families  

(as told by Nancy Kitano)

The Nishimori family was my mother’s family from Bainbridge Island with a strawberry farm and six kids. My mother was nine years old with older brothers and sisters in their 20s. As a child, I would hear stories from my aunties about when the government was evacuating all the Japanese from the coast after Pearl Harbor. They talked about my grandmother crying over and over “Why? Why do you have to go? You are Americans.” 

In February, the F.B.I arrived and was going to all the Bainbridge Island Farms. They stopped by my grandfather’s farm and were asking where my grandfather was. He was inside sleeping. The F.B.I. asked “do you have any contraband around the house?” Just then, my uncle came home. He answered that there was one piece of dynamite up in a cupboard that my grandfather had saved for use in clearing the strawberry fields. My grandfather was arrested and taken to the Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center in Montana. And the rest of the family was sent to Manzanar Camp in California.

It’s said that the Bainbridge Island people were the first to be sent away because they were so close to the Bremerton Naval Shipyards and they were accused of spying on defense operations for Japan. History shows that there were never any Japanese-Americans convicted of spying in the United States. 

Manzanar barracks inside
Photo credit: Nancy Kitano

In Manzanar, there were guards and guard towers. And guns. Pointed inside the camp, not outside. They lived in barracks, which were tarpaper shacks. When they first arrived, the barracks were not completed and the tar paper was not yet on. The wind would blow through the cracks in the building and it was so cold. When you got there, you had to get your own mattress cover and fill it with straw yourself. Each barrack housed four or five families divided by partitions that did not go up to the ceiling. So there was no privacy and you could hear everything that was happening with the other families. The restrooms and showers were also communal. 

Years later, I visited the barracks at the recreated camps with my Aunties, who said “these are too nice. The ones we lived in were not this nice.”  Those Aunties later served as consultants to advise on the recreation of the camps for education purposes

After my grandfather was released from the camps, he said “I’m not moving any more,” and stayed in Manzanar for the rest of the war. 

The Kitano family was my father’s family living in Seattle. When they were removed from their home, they were sent to the Puyallup Fairgrounds which was called “Camp Harmony.” From there, they were bussed to Minidoka Camp, between Twin Falls and Hunt, Idaho. There was a guard shack, barbed wire, and guns. And a mess hall for group meals. 

My father was 12 when he arrived at camp and would share memories of swimming in the canal at the camp. My mother was one of the first people to have her birthday in the camp at Manzanar. 


Kent Farming Families

(as told by Mike Akiyama)

I grew up in the Kent and Auburn valley, which at the time, had many active berry and vegetable farms owned by Japanese Americans.  My parents were living in Colorado and Hawaii so they never went to camp. As a teenager, I worked on farms in the Kent Valley with a farmer and his family were who interned in the camps.

They did not talk about the camps very often.  I don’t think they felt comfortable sharing their experience with people they weren’t close to.  When working on the farm, every day at 2:30 they would have a break and bring out snacks and soda for the crew.  Every now and then during the breaks, they would tell stories from camp. We never asked them about camp, but when they shared we would sit and listen. 

I remember a story about making homemade mayonnaise. They would ask us “Do you know how to make mayonnaise? We used to make our own with eggs and egg whites.”

I have reflected since then on how difficult the times were that their big enjoyment was making mayonnaise. They also were young at their time in the camps and they played baseball on different teams at the camps against other Nissei. They were tough times, but they still found joy in the simple things like baseball and mayonnaise. 

My mother was in Hawaii and did not have to go to camp. My grandfather was a fisherman. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government sank his fishing boat because of the fear of Japanese-Americans spying. He lost his livelihood and the family struggled. This had a huge impact on his livelihood and changed his life. For a while, he was homeless, and he never fished again. 

Growing up, I’m the first generation in my family not to speak Japanese. It just was not encouraged that I identify as a Japanese-American because of everything my parents went through. 


The Quasius and Taninari Families

(as told by Marie Quasius) 

My mother is Japanese from Hiroshima and her family name is Taninari. I moved to Seattle and one of the things that struck me is that I felt like I should have been here the whole time. My great grandfather lived in Seattle with my grandfather and had been here for decades. They were on the last ship to leave Japan before Pearl Harbor. He could not bring his wife so he would go back to Japan to see his family. 

He owned some forest land and a house in Seattle with white partners, because people of Japanese heritage could not own land on their own. My grandfather was not interned in the U.S. but he was living in Japan and tracked during the war. He was very tall — 6’4” and 200 pounds — and lived in the US for 30 years. He could not survive on Japanese wartime rations which were made for much smaller people. He starved on the family farm outside of Hiroshima. 

My Uncle refused to enlist and started protesting for peace. This got him in trouble with the Japanese government and he was sent to work building railroads in Manchuria as a prisoner of the Japanese government. He never talked about it but it affected him. 

My mother came to the U.S. for college. She was facing an arranged marriage that she did not want. So she saved money and ran away to marry my father, a white American. This caused a big rift in the family, but they eventually came around and as a child I would visit the family farm in Japan every summer. 

I was raised in a white community disconnected from the Japanese experience. My mother wanted me to have a white-sounding name so nothing would be held against me. These stories are the things I’ve waited to hear my whole life. 

We are talking about ghosts in a way. I walk around Seattle and I see ghosts everywhere.


The Ochi Family

(as told by Tom Tanaka)

My mother was put into a camp at the age of 18 after Pearl Harbor was bombed. She was in the Poston Camp in Arizona.  The Nissei (second generation), like the first generation immigrants, did not talk expansively about their experiences. They told us minor details, like it was hot or cold and dusty.  As kids, my brothers and I asked questions but they never talked about how they felt about what happened. On reflection, it was clearly traumatic. I overheard my mother say “they did not like to think about it.” We really only learned how they felt about about their experiences from what we overhead from their conversations with friends and when they were interviewed. 

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, my mother mentioned how so many families were in a panic and ended up destroying anything that could be tied to Japan because it could be seen as disloyal.  Many families’ heirlooms and treasures were destroyed in the days after Pearl Harbor.  Both of my parents’ families lost farms in southern California as a result of the relocation. They never got their land back and they were never compensated for their losses. 

I remember reading a diary entry my mother wrote right after she heard the news about Pearl Harbor. One of the things she wrote:

They came about 8:30 and took father. A  routine check-up I suppose.” The following day, she wrote …. “Father has not come home.”  She did not see her father again for four years.  He was imprisoned at Fort Missoula in Montana.

My mother was able to get out of camp in 1943 to attend college at Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  She stayed there through the end of the war and eventually met my father and they were married in 1948. 

My father graduated from college in 1939 as an engineer. He could not find work in the United States but through family connections, he was able to work for a geology professor in Japan.  In September 1941, he received a message from the State Department that all Americans in Japan needed to get out of Japan and return to the U.S. He came back on the last ship from Japan before war was declared.  When he arrived, his draft papers were waiting. He entered the army right away but his family was sent to Poston Camp. Eventually, he transferred to the newly-created 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and fought in Europe.  The 442nd was a Japanese-American segregated unit and one of the most decorated units of its size in the history of the military. 

Hearing others whose parents and grandparents were Issei and Nisei and were incarcerated, it sounds like our experiences in talking to the older generations are so similar. In the Japanese culture, shame and embarrassment are powerful influences so that something like being treated as something other than loyal Americans carried a stigma and it was something they preferred to forget.  

It’s clear that trauma left a mark in their lives and this part of my family history has remained hidden. I think they chose to demonstrate their loyalty to the country by not being bitter or complaining and they did not want to pass on their pain to the next generation. 


Never again

The purpose of telling these stories is summarized by the Japanese phrase

Nidoto Nai Yoni" —
Never let it happen again.

Port Commissioner Sam Cho emphasizes the necessity of educating people. 

Thank you to all those who shared their stories. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s to our collective benefit to share these stories. When I think about what they went through, I benefit from it. As a millennial in the 1990s, I have not been educated enough on this. And it’s something that was passed over during history lessons in grade school. It’s only been in the last three or four years where I dove into the experience of Japanese-Americans. I have many mentors on the national and local level who are politicians and whose families were put into concentration camps. I have had the benefit of learning from leaders like Norm Mineta, Mike Honda, and Bob Hasegawa

Over dinner and drinks they would tell me stories. Norm Mineta loved baseball and told the story about how the military took his baseball bat when they were being relocated because it could be used as a weapon.  Later as a member of Congress, he was gifted a baseball bat signed by a famous player; but he had to return the bat because it exceeded the Congressional gift limit. So he would say “the damn government took my baseball bat twice.” Later in in life, Mineta used a baseball bat as a cane rather than an actual cane. 

The point of many of these stories is that just because it ended and we are back to a normal life, the trauma of these injustices don’t just go away. Not just for one life but for generations. Our colleagues may not understand if they have not experienced it. Educate all of us through your stories. It’s to our collective detriment if we don’t all know.

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it rhymes. 

Over the last four years, we saw scary things coming from our government that resembled what we have seen before — the Muslim ban, targeting Chinese-Americans, and spy accusations. We are in the midst of some hateful times. 

Never again is now.

Take time to reflect on the history and ensure that we are not approaching that slippery slope again.

Resources

  • Densho: A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese-Americans to promote equity and justice today Link 
     
  • Wing Luke Museum about the Asian-American experience in Seattle Link
     
  • Panama Hotel: a historic Seattle hotel that stored the belongings of many Japanese residents when they were sent away Link
     
  • COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act: This law was just passed by the U.S. Congress and was enacted on May 20, 2021. It requires law enforce to expedite tracking and reporting for hate crimes Link
     
  • Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial   Link
     
  • Humanities Washington, Clarence Moriwaki’s Let It Not Happen Again  Link
     
  • National Park Service Timeline: Japanese Americans during World War II Link
     
  • Bainbridge Island Japanese American community Link

Related to Let It Not Happen Again: Lessons from the Japanese-American Exclusion 

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