This is a piece I wrote for Columbus Alive! newspaper in Columbus, Ohio about 20 years ago. Since today is George Takei's birthday and he wants to raise awareness of what the Japanese endured in the internment camps, I offer this as part of the story for one woman and her family so long ago. Please note, my original first sentence compared the internment camps to concentration camps in Europe during WWII and was changed because it was too incendiary, and because the advertisers complained. Columbus Alive! is a liberal newspaper and I was not being politically correct, but then I seldom am. ~ J M Cornwell
Summer camp is a childhood institution in America, but for one Columbus woman, contemplating photos of herself as a child at “camp” brings back bittersweet memories of those times. As American pundits debate the merits of demanding an apology from the Japanese for their role in the war that concluded with an atomic blast 50 years ago this month, Karen Jiobu looks back with mixed emotions on a childhood spent in part in an American internment camp.
In March of this year, Jiobu and her husband, Robert, their son, Eric, and other relatives and friends, gathered at the former Butte Camp internment site in Arizona to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their liberation, and to remember a family member who had died at Hiroshima.
In a halting, trembling voice, Karen Jiobu said in a recent interview: “I really never thought about camp until after I went to the reunion and took a communications class. I had to give a speech. I decided to talk about my experiences. I didn’t have many memories. As I gave my speech, I started to cry. I didn’t realize I felt such deep emotions.” She smiles slowly, eyes bright with unshed tears.
Karen, now in her mid 50s, is an executive director of a medical laboratory here. She speaks willingly, but in a soft voice, of her experiences as a Japanese-American child growing up in a nation filled with fear. Her brothers and sisters tell their stories as though the happened to others; her mother and father never talked about their internment.
Robert Jiobu, a professor of Asian-American studies at OSU, declines to discuss his experiences at Amache, Colorado, where he was imprisoned on an isolated Indian reservation. Many more Japanese-Americans also prefer to remain silent.
Karen was three years old when she “went to camp.” Her father, mother, grandfather, three brothers and three sisters went with her. Another brother was born at the camp, she said.
Karen’s father, Mr. Yoshimoto, was a second-generation Japanese immigrant, a Nisei, born in Hawaii and educated in japan. Her mother was a first-generation immigrant, an Issei, from the west coast. Karen, a Sensei, or third-generation immigrant on her father’s side, and Nisei on her mother’s side, calls herself “Nisei-and-a-half.” She says she is American–, as was her father.
Karen describes her father as “a strict man who sought only to make a better life for his family.” Before the war, he provided camp housing for laborers he contracted with for local grape growers.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, catapulting U.S. forces into Word War II, Karen’s father worried about his family’s future freedom. He feared repercussions.
In the meantime, U.S. officials, themselves fearful of Japanese involvement with Germany, had been keeping a wary eye on the japanese-American community on the west coast through FBI investigations. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had been changed from the protective jurisdiction of the Department of Labor to the punitive control of the Department of Justice, and an Alien Registration Act was enacted in June 1940.
Though FBI agents failed to find any evidence of subversive activities among the Japanese-American population, they continued to watch—and wait.
The future that Karen’s father dreaded became reality on February 19, 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which forced more than 100,000 Japanese-American families to be incarcerated in hastily constructed wood-and-tarpaper barracks in the desolate, arid, harsh interior of America on Indian reservation lands.
“I was only three years old when a stranger came and told my father we had three days to pack. Many things were sold or left behind,” Karen said. The Yoshimotos were taken to Stockton, California and housed in animal pens on the fairgrounds. They had to clean out the horse stalls at the Santa Anita racetrack stables where they lived while waiting for other internees, who were being assembled, processed and assigned.
Karen’s family was sent to Gila River, a bleak expanse of scrub, rocks, and desert just outside Phoenix on the Pima Indian reservation.
“I had never seen so many Japanese people in one place before,” Karen recalls.
Freedom could be obtained—but at a price. Draft age Japanese-American males could secure the freedom of their families by signing a loyalty oath.
The price was too high for Mr. Yoshimoto. “My father refused to sign,” Karen states. “He was an American, born in America, raised in America, and treated like a criminal because of his race. He was hurt and angry. It’s like being the victim of rape. Everyone wonders what you did to deserve it. We did nothing; we were just different.”
At Gila River, Karen’s entire family was housed in half of one barracks building. Her aunt and her family lived on the other side. A wall separated one family from another. “There was a pot-bellied stove, and mother always told me to watch out for gila monsters,” poisonous lizards common on the Arizona desert. “I played and had fun. I don’t remember much,” Jiobu commented.
“My older sister Bev was 16 when we went to camp. She graduated high school there.” Karen has Bev’s high school yearbook. It shows the haunting faces of young men and women playing basketball, baseball and attending meetings, school and dances at the camp. “I can remember running up a hill to see movies at the amphitheater the government built,” Karen recalls, with a smile. She points to a photo of a large, flat-topped hill. “The water tower was on top of a butte. That’s why the called it Butte Camp.
“When we went back to the camp in March [of this year] I picked up a piece of barbed wire and kept it. I shouldn’t have; it’s probably illegal. I thought it was from the camp, but my brother, Bob, told me they took the barbed wire down after six months and put up chain link fences.”
Karen has two albums full of pictures of Block 30 where her family lived. “Not everyone had to go to camp. Bev had a friend who lived near the camp. She was Japanese-American, too. Her family wasn’t interned.” Karen’s voice breaks.
“Once when Bev wanted to visit her, she had to write to Washington, D.C. to ask permission. Even when she wanted to spend the night with her friend, she had to write to Washington for permission.”
Some Japanese-Americans were never interned because they lived outside what the U.S. government considered the “danger zone” on the Pacific west coast.
“When Bev graduated from high school she left. If you were old enough, you could leave early if you moved to the east coast and had someone to sponsor you. Bev’s sponsors lived in Michigan.”
After the war ended, Karen stayed in camp because her father refused to sign the loyalty oath. “He was angry and hurt. He was American. He shouldn’t have had to sign.” Eventually Karen’s family was freed, though her father never signed the oath.
When they returned to California, the Yoshimotos settled in Woodbridge in a house on two acres. It was very different from the home they had left in 1943. They had to start over. “Before we went to camp my father had just bought his first new car.”
While striving for some normalcy in this post-war world, the Yoshimotos suffered a serious setback. News finally reached them from Mrs. Yoshimoto’s family in Japan, where two of her sisters owned a slipper shop. One sister had left the city and asked the other to stay behind and mind the store. That day an atomic bomb destroyed their home in Hiroshima, killing one of Karen’s aunts. “My aunt always blamed herself for leaving her sister at home. My mother was devastated. She never went back to visit.
“After the war I saw the Hiroshima maidens. They were young women disfigured in the blast who were brought to the U.S. to have plastic surgery. They visited all the Japanese-American communities and spoke. I can still remember seeing their veiled faces.”
Karen has no picture of the Hiroshima maidens, but she has an album full of photos, souvenirs, and memories from a recent visit to Japan. The blasted, broken carcass of a building sits like a stark monument amid modern Hiroshima’s cars, people and temples. The shadowy figure of someone caught in the hellish atomic blast is darkly etched on two marble stairs. A children’s memorial rises through flowering trees where it is decorated with heaps of thousands of brightly colored origami chains. “It is so beautiful,” Karen whispers.
“When I talked to Bev, she reminded me about what happened after we moved back to California. My father saw someone coming up the road and ran out to look. He said it was a stranger. He called to mother and told her to pack. Mother didn’t questions him. She began to pack. I hadn’t remembered that until Bev told me.
“Father always lived with the fear that the government would send us away again. I don’t understand what [the government was] afraid of. Most Issei were too old to fight the Nisei and Sensei were Americans.
“I just wish my parents could have lived to see President Bush personally apologize to all the Japanese-Americans who were interned. A couple of years ago the government gave each survivor $20,000. The apology was enough; I was very touched, but the money made it real for [the rest of America].”