Concentration camp U.S.A. – a personal account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II

Barracks of Japanese American internment camp
Barracks of a Japanese-American internment camp (OSU Special Collections & Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, home of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The massive aerial attack claimed more than 2,000 lives, and it precipitated the entry of the United States into World War II. It also marked the beginning of the one of the blackest chapters in American history, during which the U.S. government interned over 100,000 of its own citizens, simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. This is the story of one of those internees: Morgan Yamanaka, who teaches a course at San Francisco State University, entitled “Concentration Camp U.S.A.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: September 26, 1991


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Concentration camp U.S.A.” – a personal account of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Today, I tend to use the word “concentration camp” because indeed by dictionary definition, it was a concentration camp.

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, home of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The massive aerial attack claimed more than 2,000 lives, and it precipitated the entry of the United States into World War II. It also marked the beginning of the one of the blackest chapters in American history, during which the U.S. government interned over 100,000 of its own citizens, simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. This is the story of one of those internees: Morgan Yamanaka, who now teaches a course at San Francisco State University, entitled “Concentration Camp U.S.A.”

Japanese immigrants first arrived and settled in the United States in the late 1880s. Most of the immigrants were farmers or poor fishermen, seeking a better life in the land of golden opportunity. Their hopes and dreams though started to sour by the turn of the century as people on the west coast of the United States openly began talking about the Yellow Peril, about an unknown Asian culture trying to carve out a place for itself on the Pacific coast. The anti-Asian feelings were directed first towards Chinese immigrants, later towards the Japanese. By the early 1900s, Japanese immigration had been severely curtailed, and in 1913, the State of California prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. It was this anti-Asian hysteria which would be a determining factor in the U.S. government’s actions when war broke out.

December 7th 1941, a date that will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

In so far as Pearl Harbor was concerned, I think ethnic Japanese were caught unaware as any other U.S. population. We ethnic Japanese were more aware of the United States-Japan relationship, and it was not as much of a surprise. We thought something was going to happen. But when we actually heard the bombing of Pearl Harbor, our reaction was: “oh my God. Now what’s going to happen?”

10 weeks after the Pearl Harbor on February 19th 1942, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

By virtue of the authority vested in me as president of the United States, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas in such places in which any or all persons may be excluded.

All ethnic Japanese on the West Coast – we’re roughly talking of 120,000 people – were placed into the 15 assembly centers. This was done within 3 months period, 3.5 months. The ration for this, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was in Executive Order 9066 and that was to apply to enemy aliens: Germans, Italians and Japanese. I was placed in the camp under the category of non-alien. All American citizens of Japanese ancestry automatically became non-aliens. Euphemism. Anyone who was 1/16th so-called Japanese blood was required to go into the camps. As I said, it was to apply to enemy aliens. No Italians were placed into camps. No Germans were placed into camps. It was only ethnic Japanese. In my case, I was a senior in high school, 17 years old. I was to graduate in June of 1942. I went into camp on April 7th. On April 14th, I turned 18 in the Assembly Center Santa Anita where I was living in a horse stall, where six months earlier they were keeping horses. The evacuation order said you must go into the camp with what you could carry in your two hands, including bedding, linen, eating utensils and clothing. For how long – they wouldn’t tell us. Where we were going – they wouldn’t tell us. So we had no idea where we were going, what kind of clothes would be necessary or for how long They just said show up at this corner on a certain day. We had seven days to dispose of any and all material. We were living in a 7 or 8 room house, a Victorian house, in San Francisco. We did not lose home because we had no home to lose. Keep in mind: my father could not buy property, by law. We had seven days to get rid of everything so that we could go into camp with only what we could carry. In most cases, the local churches or Buddhist temples became the storehouse with what you could not take into camp. In our case, my father was able to store some things in the place of employment where he was, a Caucasian family, in the basement. So, we were somewhat fortunate.

Uprooted, with virtually no belongings, the 120,000 Japanese Americans were taken to 15 assembly centers, which were temporary quarters at race tracks and fair grounds, where they would remain for several months. Japanese Americans were then concentrated in 10 more permanent mass detention camps, built in the interior of the United States – from the eastern part of California to Arkansas, from where the Japanese Americans, presumably, could pose no threat to national security. But the Japanese Americans had committed no wrong. No charges were ever brought against them. For no reason, they were locked up for the duration of the war. So how did they feel about what their government was doing to them?

It all depended upon age and where you were from, the occupation. For school-aged children, we used the word camp, but concept of a camp is a summer camp. Where else do you use in American society the word camp except summer camp? So some of the children thought of camp as being enjoyable. To the older – 18, 19, 20 – American-born, American citizens being uprooted and placed into a camp was essentially a deprivation of one’s civil rights. We had been educated in American laws, rights, bill of rights, constitution. And this didn’t jibe with what we were taught. One’s experiences are determined by one’s perception of the experience. I was old enough to realize that something is rotten in Denmark, that this shouldn’t take place. Here I was college bound. I was a senior in high school, ready to go to university and this happens. Why I’m selected? Only because I’m ethnic Japanese. I’m aware the law, executive order, said Germans and Italians – old enough to know this – but no Italians or Germans… So again, point of discrimination. So there was the mental attitude. In terms of physical activity, it was a terrible place. It was hot. It was cold. Living facility…as I said, living in a horse stall. Where two horses were occupying six months earlier, my brother and I, my father, mother living in a horse stall was incomprehensible, coming from a 7, 10 bedroom Victorian home in San Francisco. And then, going from that of the assembly center to a one-room with a light bulb, hanging down from the top, tar-paper shack, approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, where the four of us, all they had was four metal cots and four mattresses and that was it.

It wasn’t only the actual living conditions that were small: 7 by 7 meters. The detainees had to eat in mess halls and showers were in mass facilities. For the evacuees, the lack of privacy and bathrooms was particularly degrading.

No question. But it depends also how degrading that is in terms of the physical plant of the latrine. One’s concept of a latrine is public toilets. Well, these happened to be holes dug in the ground with a plank of wood, unfinished lumber, with holes separating every three feet, primitive camping style. A hole dug in the earth with a board placed on top. You squat on top of that, with no partition. One of the things that was very common was for the elderly ladies to go into the bathroom with cardboard cartons, and we knew exactly what they were going to do. They were going to sit down and put the cardboard around them so they could have privacy. So yes… Mess hall again – the old adage that you and I are family of the family that eats together stays together – well, this actually came out in the negative. Whereas most ethnic Japanese families prior to the war had their meals together. Now, it was camp style, mess hall. People lined up and ate. There were – in a camp of 18,000 people – how many mess halls are needed? Quite a few. The youngsters could really go to any mess hall they wanted. No more family unity. So not only no more family unity, but the beginning of the disintegration of the family unity, exacerbated by a number of variables. In a normal family situation, the society in the classic sense, father is the bread winner, mother in the ’30s and ’40s was still the housewife, children went to school. Family ate together. They did everything together. The role of the father – no longer the bread winner. Authority is pulled out from under him. The mother is losing authority over the children because they could eat anywhere they wanted. Was no longer dependent on mother’s cooking. It was mess hall cooking. So it was really in a sense a disintegration of the family unity.

The camps, for the young people, it was a devastating time in terms of creative use of one’s time. For the older people, who had worked hard in the fields, it was a sort of relaxing period. For the first time, they didn’t have to work hard. So one could say it was a little respite for them. It was one hell of a way of getting one’s respite, but again, when one has free time, it’s how you get the free time. You could have lots of free time in a jail. But if you’re in a jail, you’re in a jail. And one doesn’t have the motivation, any more than we had the motivation because we were in a jail. We could not go out beyond the fence. We could not go beyond the little picket fence because in Topaz, a man was shot beyond the picket fence and he had no means, thoughts of escape. He just wandered over the fence and pick up a flower or pebble or God knows what. But he was shot dead there. So we were aware that we were in a jail. We could not communicate with the outside world. People were living very freely one day, and then the next day they were inside the fence. It may no sense. Again, as I said, it depends on the individual. There were beautiful artwork done by some of the people in camp who were able to make use of the time.

For myself, I must say, I really made no use of my time. There was no motivation. I had no motivation, certainly, so I did nothing, except be a fireman. You see, in San Francisco, I happened to live across from a fire station. My parents took a Japanese newspaper, but no Chronicle or Examiner or the San Francisco News. So I went to the fire station to read my newspaper, comics and everything. I became familiar with the fire engine and what firemen do. I go into camp. What can you do? Well, I used to be on a crew time. High school. What else? Well, nothing really. I was a high school student, college bound. I could clean house. What else did you do? Well, I used to go to the fire station. Ah hah! You are now a fireman. So I became a fireman.

I think one has to be aware of certain psychological attitudes of the ethnic Japanese at that point, other than the very young kids. We had been taught to accept things. We were taught to endure. We were taught to obey orders. And if you combine – if I may use that word – typical Japanese characteristics, then you accept things. You’ve heard of Oriental fatalism. I think that was part of it. You accept. Your government put you here, so… Now, my brother and I did along with many others react to all of this in certain ways. For instance, in 1943, they were trying to determine who is loyal and who is not loyal in order to get the ethnic Japanese citizens to volunteer to the military. And so, they put out a questionnaire. Two of the questions was: will you swear unqualified loyalty to the United States and forswear any allegiance to the emperor of Japan? My brother and I had no problem with paying allegiance to the United States, but with the second part of that, we did have questions. Who in the hell ever said we were ever loyal to the emperor of Japan? And then the second question was would you go into the army wherever sent? Well, here we were, my brother was three years older than I. He had volunteered…he was very fluent in Japanese, as I was. He thought they would want him. We were at war. With his Japanese fluency, he was a college student. He had volunteered for the naval intelligence, army intelligence, army. “We don’t want Japs.” I turned 18, first week in camp, and selective service. I signed up for selective service, and they gave me a military classification. Here was a high school athlete, a good athlete really, physically sound body. So I was expecting 1A classification. They gave me 4C, enemy alien classification. So my brother and I – by the time this questionnaire came around – in ’43, if you pardon the word, we were pretty well pissed off. And so, in terms of the attitude that we were feeling this, we said no. We would not be loyal to the United States. We really didn’t mean it, but we acted this way because it was a Catch 22 question there. And then we go into the military? Why the hell should we go into the military from one camp, concentration camp, to a GI boot camp? And so we did react in certain ways like this. And for whatever reason, my brother and I were sent into the stockades. I was the youngest kid in the whole stockade. Again, why I was sent into the stockade, nobody knows. I don’t know. One day I was put in. The next day I was put out.

The world will note that the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. We won the race of discovery against the Germans. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.

Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States. This is a victory of more than arms alone. This is a victory of liberty over tyranny. It was the spirit of liberty which gave us our armed strength and which made our men invincible in battle. We now know that that spirit of liberty, the freedom of the individual and the personal dignity of man are the strongest and toughest and most enduring forces in all the world.

For the most part, of the 120,000 people who were evacuated from the West Coast, they came back to essentially nothing. Some people came back to more. Most people came back to nothing of more or less. Some farmers did have property, and there are actual cases of when they returned to their farms, what used to be a thriving farm was after three or four years was just barren fields. Crop was all gone. Fruit trees were not taken care of. Other people went to their homes, and then the night-riders came and bombed them and shot at them. People, who go around at night, shooting at these Japanese farms. The Ku Klux clan approach. This is after World War II.

Most of the ethnic Japanese were released. But, for whatever reason, they would not release me and my brother until March, five to six months after the war was ended. And then one day in March of ’46, I have a letter coming to me in my little room saying that you are now released. The question is what am I going to do now? Well, my parents were back in San Francisco, where they left from. The West Coast was still anti-Japanese, no question. So my brother and I decided to go to New York. Why New York? God knows why. We had some friends there. That was about it. I stopped off in Chicago with 19 or 25 dollars in my pocket and started washing dishes as a means of eating. You wash dishes in a restaurant. There’s food there, and I paid my rent. Then one realizes how long am I going to do this? I thought I’d better do something about this. So, go back to school. My original idea of going to university. So I came back to San Francisco where I was more familiar with the environment and then started school.

Morgan Yamanaka eventually obtained a college degree and later became a professor at San Francisco State University, where he taught a course on the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. But does he still harbor any bitterness or resentment towards the U.S. government to him, an American citizen, and to his 120,000 fellow Japanese Americans?

I think my wife’s comment perhaps might be more telling than any other. I happen to be married to a non-Japanese, so she didn’t go through this. So she has an unbiased perspective on this. And she says to me: “I think you’re bitter”. Because I tend to say that I am not bitter. Yes, four years were lost. I make no bones about it. I make no bones about the fact that with my limited knowledge of legal structure, of the ten Bill of Rights, seven were taken away from me. That the U.S. said anybody one sixteenth Japanese blood must go into camp, when Hitler said only one eighth Jews must go into camps. So we were pretty much more anti-Japanese in terms of getting rid of the ethnic Japanese from the West Coast. There was no question to get rid of… This was not a military motivated movement in terms of Japanese out of the West Coast. The Congress people, farm groups said we want to get rid of the Japs. so this was a good excuse. I say that the treatment of ethnic Japanese by the government in ’42, ’43 was inexcusable. I still maintain in spite of that that the U.S. government structure, the court system is the best damn form of government in the world, that human minds have conceived. So, in a way, I am very proud of being an American. I’m also aware that it was one hell of a period for America to do what it did to its own citizens.

Nonetheless, after the war, Dr. Yamanaka and others began a campaign to get the U.S. government to acknowledge that it had erred in its treatment of Japanese Americans, that it had deprived them of many of their most basic rights, and that there was no military justification for the internment. Japanese Americans lobbied for years to clear their names, and in 1983, an official commission on the wartime relocation and internment of civilians issued a report which stated:

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it were not driven by military analysis of conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race, prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry.

The commission also made several recommendations to the U.S. government, which amounted to a national apology to the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned. Most notably, it asked Congress to set aside 1.2 billion dollars to provide compensation to the internees. That’s 20,000 dollars for each of the 60,000 survivors. It was a controversial decision at the time. But was it necessary?

[Sigh] Yes, I think it’s very necessary. As far as that money is concerned, 20,000 dollars isn’t very much for a person like me who has been interned for almost four years. That’s kind of a statement that one may or may not agree with. The reason that I am making that statement is U.S. government, the Washington DC courts, the judicial system in Washington D.C. in 1970’s arrested a number of Vietnam demonstrators. The Washington D.C. courts said these Vietnam demonstrators were arrested without due process, and the courts awarded 10,000 dollars per day for these people who were kept in jail. So whether any amount is good or bad, is enough or not enough, is in comparison to something else. So, from that perspective, I see myself having been in camp for approximately four years. And if any reference point is the Vietnam vet for 10,000 bucks a day or this lady awarded by the same court system, 40 to 50,000 for a couple of days, that’s not fair…is one way of looking at it. And yet another way of looking at it is for Washington to be willing to pay 1.2 billion dollars in these tight budget years, my God as a social worker, as an educator, my God, we could use that money elsewhere. Does Yamanaka need the money? One could say hell no. I’m a comfortable university professor. But I maintain that if the government does not pay, something else happens. If U.S. government is made to feel that they did something wrong and it hurts 40 years later, then would it happen to another group of people?

“Concentration Camp U.S.A.” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Rick Kingma. This has been a Radio Netherlands presentation.