Civil Rights

It Did Happen Here: When our Japanese neighbors were sent to concentration camps

By Scott Yuda, Jr.

During World War II, under Adolf Hitler and his Nazi organization’s “rule,” so to speak, ordered for any person 1/8 Jewish or more to be relocated to concentration camps, where they were decimated. Ultimately, approximately six million Jewish citizens were killed in these concentration camps by the order of a crazed dictator who felt that he was doing the work of Providence (Ha!). The United States of America — Darlings that they are — acted as some sort of global police to put an end to this attempted genocide. However, a turn of events occurred on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese Navy launched an attack on the US Naval Base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The “day that will live in infamy.”

Shortly afterward, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 and 9102, which called for Japanese-American citizens to be relocated into internment camps. They were given very few days to vacate their own houses and farms, and had to leave all of their possessions behind, except for what they could carry in their arms. There were many of these camps throughout the country, such as Manzanar, which was nearby Sierra Nevada. Other camps included the Santa Anita racetrack, where these “Japs” were forced to live in horse stables, as if it was acceptable for dehumanization of this caliber on American soil, but we were engaged in combat with Germany for the same reasons. “Oh, we’re not killing them, so it must be okay.” If I had to choose between dehumanization or death, I would undoubtedly choose the latter.

My aunt, Akiko Yagi, was one of these loyal Japanese-American citizens. In 1942, she was relocated from her farm in Lancaster, California, to Holston-One (of three) in Parker, Arizona when she was only eighteen years old. They leased their lands to Caucasians, and, after they left, their worldly possessions were stolen, vandalized, and sold.

Thankfully, she was kind enough to elaborate on the conditions in which they were subject to in these internment camps. Parker, Arizona is a high-desert climate, meaning that they must endure the scorching heat of day, and the blistering cold of the night. Upon arrival, they were hauled into barracks, and forced to construct their own mattress out of straw, and were given one blanket a head.

Each barracks consisted of about five people. She said, “It was so hot during the day that we put wet towelettes on top of our heads, but by the time we walked from one barracks to the next, the towel was bone dry.” They were living in a barren wasteland, yet they persevered, and, within time, made their exile a bit more livable. They started planting around their barracks, and gave the deserts of Parker a more vibrant contrast. They made their own tofu and soy sauce to add more taste to their bland food rations of sauerkraut and a greenish stew that passed as curry.

Their rest room was a hole dug in the ground. They were considered aliens. And these were law-abiding, tax-paying, honest, American-born citizens that just happened to be of Japanese descent at the wrong time, apparently. In their absence, everything they ever owned was stolen and vandalized. Even a World War II memorial, showing reverence to Japanese soldiers fighting in U.S. uniforms was demolished, and was not reconstructed until May of 2008, when the Lancaster Rotary Club had a stone from India lasered to re-honor those lost in battle.

Upon their release, between the years of 1945 and 1946, they were thrown back into the world with absolutely nothing. It took my aunt and her brothers almost four years to get back on their feet. They couldn’t even farm, due to the fact that their farming equipment had been stolen, let alone their farms to begin with! Caucasian tenants had moved in during their absence, and refused to let them have their land back. Any who challenged these new tenants were shot or hung. Also, prominent members in Japanese Societies, such as the West Los Angeles Katana Society, were incarcerated without trial and severely beaten because of their affiliations in these legitimate organizations.

However, there was hope. My great-grandfather, George Inagaki, along with his close friend and business associate, traveled from Los Angeles, California, where they owned property on Centinela (the shopping center in between Washington Boulevard and Washington Place) to Washington, D.C., where they were to have a meeting with the Secretary of Defense. Both were active members of the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), and were held in high respects. During their travel, they were incarcerated in Alabama for being citizens of the United States that happened to have slanted eyes. Basically, they were incarcerated because their prosecutors held xenophobic-racist beliefs, and were scheduled to be hung. They missed their appointment with the Secretary of Defense due to their incarceration and pending execution, and, luckily, the Secretary had heard of their trouble and had rescued them, for lack of a better word, so they could hold the meeting. By the end of the meeting, George Inagaki and Mike Masaoka had volunteered military service for the U.S.

George was sent to the Pacific Theatre, and became Admiral Nimitz’s personal interpreter, given that he spoke both English and Japanese. Mike Masaoka was sent to Europe and initiated Japanese-Americans held in internment camps to volunteer for service in the 442nd American Infantry Regiment, which became the most highly decorated regiment of American military service in United States history. The 442 Battalion has earned a plethora of Medals of Honor, Purple Hearts, and so on and so forth, and have implemented an unsurpassed display of bravery.

In the end, the five Masaoka brothers all joined the service but only four returned alive, and one permanently disabled from a wound to vital organs. The price to pay for a Purple Heart award, no?

In 1946, the Japanese-Americans were thrown back into a cruel world with nothing to their name, and, eventually got back on their feet. By the end of World War II, six million Jews were killed in the crematory pits and by firing squads, and some 100,000 Japanese-American citizens were subject to the internment camps.

After years and years of racial discrimination and derogatory statements, my family has persevered, and are residing in and around Venice, California. We are members and affiliates of the JACL to this date, and, I guess it’s safe to say that we’re managing up to this point. As my aunt said, “It happened, and it was an experience, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.” I guess we just “moved on.” It’s no use holding fast to it and not letting go; that would only serve as a burden; extra baggage. We just accept it and continue with our lives, like the passing of a storm or something.