‘Site of incredible darkness’: Japanese Americans trace family history in US-run internment camps
By LOLLY BOWEAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: May 15, 2019
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — Some of the lettering on the death certificate for Mary Doi’s grandmother has faded away. But the space that lists where she died in 1943 is bold and legible: Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center.
The document brings Doi to tears. She recalls the quiet grief her mother carried with her from losing her own mother while they — like tens of thousands of other people of Japanese descent — were detained in camps on American soil after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II.
More than 75 years later, Doi and her daughter Lisa traveled for the first time to the place in rural Arkansas where their ancestors were detained, retracing a chapter of history that defined the lives of many Japanese Americans but that many chose not to talk about, the memories too painful to be relived.
“I can approach (that history) through my head. I can approach it through documents. But I can’t approach it emotionally,” said Doi, who is 66 and lives in Evanston, Ill. “I know I’ve been guarded. For me, deciding to go on the pilgrimage, I wanted to see if being there would trigger feelings.”
The Dois are part of a growing number of Japanese Americans seeking to learn about their family’s experiences of internment — justified then for purported national security reasons but now seen by many as one of the most shameful episodes in American history. The mother and daughter were among more than 130 descendants of internees who stood together at the Rohwer camp on the April trip.
The resurgence of interest in the internment camps — now often referred to as incarceration camps — seemed to be spurred by the deaths of those with firsthand knowledge of them, by a new generation of descendants seeking to understand their past, and by the echoes that some see in current U.S. policies on immigrant detention and more broadly in attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities.
“There are a lot of young people, third and fourth generation, who are taking interest in their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ life experiences,” said Karen Umemoto, director of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Asian American Studies Center.
Umemoto last year went on her own pilgrimage to visit what remains of the Manzanar camp in the Owens Valley of California, where her father was detained.
“The Nisei generation (those born to Japanese immigrants) that were in camps as children or as young adults — many have passed on,” Umemoto said. “Part of the phenomenon of the pilgrimages is an honoring of those ancestors.”
Detained and released
People of Japanese descent began to be rounded up swiftly after Pearl Harbor, on order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the number of those detained eventually grew to an estimated 120,000. According to government records, two-thirds of them were American citizens. Some had never set foot in Japan.
And many were given just a few days to figure out what to do with their property. They had to abandon their homes, their jobs, communities and most of their belongings.
Without knowing where they were going, or how long they would be detained, some spent weeks and months living on racetrack grounds that smelled of animals until the camps could be constructed. Then they were moved to 10 relocation centers, located in remote inland territories in California, Wyoming, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Utah and Colorado.
In the camps, the families lived in barrack-style shelters. They shared bathrooms and ate together in a cafeteria. They were under guard and forbidden to leave, but many used their skills to work at the sites: teaching children, cleaning, cooking and maintaining the grounds.
When the war ended, some internees were released with only $25 and a bus or train ticket.
Chicago became one of the largest resettlement hubs for Japanese Americans who didn’t return to the West Coast. Those formerly detained didn’t escape discrimination in Chicago, but the Japanese American Service Committee helped many of them find housing, banks, attorneys, doctors, jobs and houses of worship.
Decades later, the U.S. government issued reparation payments of $20,000 to internment camp survivors.
Pilgrimages of today
Most of the camp sites have long been dismantled, and many of the grounds are now privately owned. Yet still they draw people who want to stand and see.
And they are also prompting some descendants to speak out. They don’t want the history — the trauma of the experience for those who lived it — to be forgotten. They don’t want it to be repeated.
“Any Japanese American who saw and understands what our parents and grandparents went through is left with a feeling that they don’t want to see anyone else go through that experience,” Umemoto said. “So when there is talk of Muslim bans, deportations based on race or ethnicity, or just the overall racial hatred being sewn against immigrants … well, we know what terrible things that can lead to.
“A motivation for some on these pilgrimages — it’s an act of ceremonial commitment to social justice,” she continued, “and to making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Umemoto’s visit to the Manzanar camp made her father’s experiences that much more real, she said.
“You feel how it might have been for the families who were put behind barbed wire with armed guards not knowing when they could leave or what would happen to them,” Umemoto said. “The isolation of the camps, in the middle of these vast open lands that were lightly populated and sometimes on Native American land. … The government could do anything, and no one with any power was watching.”
Kimiko Marr’s interest in her own family’s history prompted her to start organizing gatherings at the former camp sites. Both of her grandparents were imprisoned in a camp in Topaz, Utah. Her mother was there as a small child.
But many families never talked about those experiences, said Marr, a chapter director with the Japanese American Citizens League in the Santa Cruz, Calif., area.
“There was a generation of Japanese Americans that were born after camp and were never told about them,” Marr said. “As they’ve discovered what happened, they want to reclaim this story. We don’t want the history forgotten, even if our parents were too pained to share it with us.”
Marr coordinated a trip to the Alien Enemy Detention Center in Crystal City, Texas, earlier this year. She has also helped organize gatherings at the so-called relocation centers at Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas, using social media and a network of civic groups to reach descendants.
“I’m one generation removed from that period. I think there was a shame that they were incarcerated,” Marr said. “They thought not talking about it would protect their children from racism. For some that had really bad experiences, they just didn’t want to think about it again.”
Mary and Lisa Doi spent months tracking down public documents and sorting through their family archives to get a deeper understanding of how their ancestors survived the camps and what they experienced.
They dug up death certificates and found a record granting their family patriarch permission to travel from the camp to Washington University in 1942 so he could teach a Japanese language course. They located the identification card for Mary’s mother, Mary Ansai, which allowed her to leave the camp and move to Chicago after her mother, Sano Ansai, died in 1943. Through the War Relocation Authority archives, the Dois located their family members’ names on what was called the Rohwer Final Accountability Roster of Evacuees.
They had many relatives at Rohwer but feel most directly affected by Sano Ansai’s death there. The matriarch of the family was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died at age 54, never to see freedom again.
Once Mary Ansai arrived in Chicago, she found work and a home and established her life here. But other than reflecting on her mother’s death, she never talked about the camp experience.
Years later, when Doi tried to talk to her mother about what happened, it was too much to confront.
“It has taken time to really recognize and accept that I need to understand this through my heart, not just in my head,” Doi said.
While the Doi family leaned on government records to better understand their history, Jason Matsumoto was able to rely on direct accounts from his grandparents.
The Chicago resident first learned about internment camps when his grandfather was asked to speak to his middle school class. But it didn’t really resonate with Matsumoto until he went to college and began studying Asian-American history. About three years ago, he interviewed his two grandparents, who both were held at Rohwer.
His grandfather’s family owned a small hotel that they had to essentially abandon. His grandmother’s father had to quit work. The two met at the barren, isolated camp that was patrolled by armed guards.
Sit in discomfort
Last month, Matsumoto and a group of his relatives traveled to see Rohwer. There, Matsumoto said he stood on what is now a muddy field where the barracks were once located. There’s a small cemetery on the grounds along with two plaques to honor Japanese American service members and those who died in the camp. Besides a chimney stack that was once attached to a building used as a hospital, there is little left.
“There’s this current landscape that’s beautiful, but at this site of incredible darkness,” Matsumoto said. “To stand there and think about what happened to your family — you sit in that discomfort.
“It’s a moment of reflection, and there’s a deep sadness and also reverence when I think of my privileged life and the stories I’ve heard of what my ancestors went through,” he said. “Especially when (I stood) in a cemetery of people who passed away, who didn’t make it beyond the experience. There’s a reverence for the heartbreak … the trauma.”
On a recent afternoon, the three generations of the family gathered in north suburban Lincolnwood. They shared their only two family photographs taken at the camps and later portraits taken after the war.
Matsumoto’s grandfather, Ben Chikaraishi, was a college student when he was sent to Rohwer. Kiyo Chino Chikaraishi, who would become his wife, was just a teenager.
Both had to halt their education. At camp, they lived with their entire families stuffed in one room with no privacy, they recalled. They both worked at the camp, him offering medical aid and her preparing food.
The most troubling part was the uncertainty, they both said.
“Anyone with Japanese blood had to go and get rid of all their belongings. We had real estate. People would come and offer you 10 percent of the value. They knew you had to leave,” said Ben Chikaraishi.
“It was a pretty raw deal for all of us,” Kiyo Chikaraishi added. “The (guards) didn’t mistreat us. People who worked in the camps were nice people. They understood what we were going through.”
“Nobody knew how long it would last,” Ben Chikaraishi said.
It was an experience they shared, but afterward found little reason to talk about, said Ben Chikaraishi, who is now 98.
“We moved on and wouldn’t complain,” he said. “We thought it was something no one cared about. We felt there was nothing we could do. We could only do our best.”
The two are encouraged by this new interest from their grandson, and a younger generation, in what happened to them.
“The young people now won’t tolerate unfairness,” said Kiyo Chikaraishi, who is 95. “They do not want to see any other group treated like this. They won’t allow it.”
In 1944, Ben Chikaraishi moved to Chicago, where he had to start life — and optometry school — over. Kiyo followed a short time later. Ben finished school, and they married and started a family here.
He doesn’t reflect much on the year he spent at camp and has never returned to the site. When his grandson showed him a video clip of his pilgrimage to the camp, Chikaraishi leaned in to look closely at the phone. After viewing it, he sat back on the couch, for a moment speechless.
“It was a sad time of life,” he said later. “We hope nothing like it ever happens here again.”