In the 1940s, Americans filled with prejudice and fear put 120,000 people into internment camps. Could something like this happen again?
To young Fumie Ishii in the early 1940s, racial hatred seemed as foreign as her looks may have seemed to others. One of a handful of Japanese families in the Reno-Sparks area, she was sheltered by geography. The man she’d later marry was not so lucky.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Sam Shimada was 9 when the roundup began. Of Japanese heritage and American nationality, he was torn from the familiarity of Northern California and sent to a desolate outback—Amache, a Colorado internment camp. Change was the only thing he understood. Change was the only constant.
“We were moved into the middle of the dust bowl,” Sam said wryly. “It was a completely different place than home. I remember the wind and the 5-mile-high dust clouds.”
Sam was one of nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast corralled into the forbidding corners of the United States during World War II. Uprooted from their homes, many lost everything, including their liberty. They lived as prisoners in a country fearful of an attack not from the outside, but from within.
That was nearly 60 years ago.
Today, that fear still exists, albeit in different forms. A recent national poll, taken before the Chinese spy-plane incident in March, showed that 25 percent of Americans held negative views of Chinese Americans. When the movie Pearl Harbor opened in May, some Asian Americans readied their guard, fearful of anti-Japanese backlash.
“Deep prejudice against people of color exists in the United States, and it is this prejudice which is a danger to people of Asian descent,” said Hugh Shapiro, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
These attitudes keep the Shimadas, now Sacramento residents, on edge.
“Right now, the Japanese American Citizens League is fighting with radio stations, where the deejays said Chinese Americans should be interned after the spy-plane incident,” Fumie said. “At Sacramento State University, a dean was fired for using racist terms. So far, we’ve been very successful fighting this ignorance.”
But something like the internment camps could happen again, Sam said. “Education … will help, but some people just can’t understand why minorities behave in a certain way.”
Americans may still be in denial over these deep expressions of prejudice.
“The paucity of understanding about the camps within the United States must …. be related to American self-image,” Shapiro said. “American society does not think of itself as the type of place that puts people in camps. It has very little to do with Japanese culture and everything to do with American culture.”
What went wrong in 1942?
It began with the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor that shattered America’s sense of invincibility.
Anti-Japanese paranoia was widespread, especially along the West Coast. White businessmen and farmers who resented competition from their Japanese American counterparts mobilized under the guises of the Native Sons of the Golden West, the California Grange Association and even the American Legion. These groups pressured politicians, who responded quickly.
“At the time this was happening, the government itself pressed propaganda,” Sam said. “We were caught in the turmoil.”
Japanese immigrants were already barred from becoming U.S. citizens. California enacted laws limiting the civil liberties of people of Japanese descent. Though the government only interned people west of the Sierra, Reno had its own rules.
“There were some bad times from a few bad people,” said Bud Fuji, president of the Reno chapter of the JACL. “My father owned a business, and at times, it was difficult, but his customers didn’t abandon him.”
Though he was not interned, Fuji remembers the restrictions in Reno.
“There was a curfew. You couldn’t go more than five miles from home, and you couldn’t go downtown after certain hours,” he said.
But the worst was yet to come.
In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Though it didn’t specifically call for the roundup of Japanese Americans, it did delegate such powers to the military if national security was threatened.
“This was a result of panic primarily from the military,” Fuji said. “They didn’t know a whole lot about Japan and what to do after Pearl Harbor.”
For years, the Shimadas didn’t discuss what happened during World War II.
“At the time of the internment, there was no sense of anger, because the confined communication made things very vague,” he said. “I was confused. At that age, I was more frightened and filled with anxiety than anything.”
Today, many internees still refuse to discuss their painful memories. For some, the humiliation was too much, Fuji said.
“It’s just [the Japanese] way,” he said. “They don’t talk about bad things that they can’t control.”
As the camps closed, some wished only to move on. “Shikata ga nai,” they said. It cannot be helped. Shikata ga nai. It must be done.
Sept. 2, 1945, more than three years after his camp opened, Sam was free. By then, the guard towers that once were the home of rifle-toting soldiers were deserted.
“They knew we weren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Not without any money or any transportation.”
Outside the camps, Sam’s family started over. Moving to Denver, his parents, like many camp refugees, took whatever work they could, usually menial jobs.
“We were the working class, my family,” he said. “We didn’t cause any trouble, but life was boring, with no higher aspirations. Segregation was tolerated. It was not the way of life we wanted, but minorities had no political power then.”
Fumie, who had not been interned, re-called the good times growing up in Sparks, where she later taught middle school.
“I didn’t feel any hostility,” she said. “It was a good life, but I was sheltered while the entire nation was afraid of the ‘Yellow Peril.’ People showed a lot of resentment towards us. There are a lot of repressed memories, and drawing upon that is very painful.”
Facing the future
In 1988, a JACL-led campaign demanding reparations for the internment earned a victory. Under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, the U.S. government acknowledged the injustice. Each internee was awarded a $20,000 cash reparation payment.
To Sam, this was of little consolation.
“It was a relief, but it was all in vain,” Sam said. “I mean, gee, is that what it’s worth? … $20,000 is a lot of money, but they didn’t even make it a crime to do this. They took the back road. The so-called apology letter didn’t serve as an apology. It was not sincere. It was a political apology.”
Today, most Japanese Americans look to the future, when education and increased cultural awareness may make such apologies obsolete.
“A lot of younger people have no idea what happened," Fuji said. "But it needs to be known. … Maybe education will help future generations from making the mistakes of the past. But still, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink."