It’s a part of American history not often spoken of: over 100,000 Japanese Americans forced to leave everything behind and take residence in U.S. government-sponsored internment camps, victims of World War II-era paranoia.
Now, the California State University system, including Camarillo’s CSU, Channel Islands, has collaborated to archive and digitize oral histories, artifacts and photographs belonging to survivors of the early 1940s camps in hopes of preserving the legacy for future generations and researchers alike.
Beginning in 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed by the U.S. government from Oregon, Washington, California and parts of Arizona, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens. Ten so-called “relocation center” camps were constructed in the western states, including two in California: Manzanar at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and Tule Lake at the very northernmost edge of California bordering Oregon.
The decision to pluck Japanese families from established homes and place them in camps came just two months after Dec. 7, 1941, the day Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which created so-called “military zones” within which Japanese Americans were excluded from living. On March 18, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102 establishing the War Relocation Authority, which was responsible for managing the camps in which the forcibly relocated Japanese would be interred.
Many survivors of the camps are still living, and some have either lived or currently reside in Ventura County. Their collected stories are currently being digitized as part of the California State University’s Japanese American Digitization Project, for which CSU, Channel Islands, has contributed three interviews, which are now available to hear and read online at www.library.csuci.edu/collections.
The project’s goal of collecting and digitizing personal accounts from living survivors is a statewide effort, headed by CSU, Dominguez Hills, which received a $260,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the spring, adding to a $321,554 grant from the National Park Services in 2015.
By 2018, the project, says CSU, Dominguez Hills, Director of Archives and Special Collections Gregory Williams, should have up to 15,000 items digitized and accessible to researchers and interested parties worldwide.
“From scrap books to personal letters to war relocation authority documents, which a lot of people have, to camp newspapers, letters to and from former incarcerates,” said Williams, who heads the project, “to gauge what the situation was for Japanese Americans returning to the general population after their imprisonment.”
Williams says that what happened then has a “wide variety of connections” to today’s politically and racially charged climate.
“It’s important because the government arbitrarily imprisoned citizens based on their race and [out of] fear,” said Williams. “That connects not only to our post-9/11 world but also connects to the immigrant crisis on the border of this country where families are imprisoned, after coming here, and waiting for deportation.”
The CSU, Channel Islands, collection began independently, however, when CSUCI archivist Evelyn Taylor began gathering oral histories and artifacts in 2003.
Since, with support from CI’s Head of Unique Collections and Scholarly Communication Matthew Cook, Taylor has contributed three oral histories as well as photographs to the project collected from local residents, including 79-year-old Agoura Hills resident Marilyn Takahashi Fordney. Fordney was just 6 years old in 1942 when her family was taken from their Los Angeles home and forced into a redistribution camp in Santa Anita, where they would await relocation.
“I was sitting on the curb as they brought things out of the house and I couldn’t figure out what was happening,” Fordney told researchers. “They were taking out furniture and discarding it.”
Fordney’s mother soon gave birth to her brother while living in what she said were crude tar-paper barracks. The family was forced to eat watery oatmeal instead of the traditional Japanese meals, to which they had been accustomed; her father worried that the newborn wasn’t receiving proper nutrition.
The family escaped life in an internment camp, however. Fordney’s mother, who was half-Irish, wrote a letter to the then-famous Irish priest Father Edward Flanagan, who at the time was well known for founding the orphanage Boys Town. Flanagan arranged for the family to be released, after which they boarded a train to meet the priest in Nebraska, where they stayed until 1947.
“We went on the train for two or three days,” Fordney told CSUCI researchers in 2003. “Father Flanagan came at night to the train depot to meet us. I remember he had this big brown paper bag full of candy. We ended up living in a farmhouse on the very edge of Boys Town.”
George Wakiji, however, spent three years in the Gila River internment camp, about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. Taylor interviewed Wakiji in October of 2003 when he was living in Camarillo. He now lives in Arleta, a suburb of Los Angeles.
Wakiji was raised in Pasadena, where his father, Hanhichi, in 1905, with two partners, founded Nippon Nursery, the first Japanese-owned nursery in Southern California. In all, Hanhichi and his wife Taeno had six children, including George.
Growing up in the nursery, Wakiji learned his father’s trade while attending elementary and middle school — until 1942.
“I didn’t even finish eighth grade, I was a few months short,” recalled Wakiji from his home in Arleta. The Wakiji family was forced to leave their nursery behind — sold to a Scottish man who promised to care for the facility until the family returned — and taken to an assembly center in Arcadia at the Santa Anita Race Track, where they stayed for six months. From there, they were relocated to Arizona’s “Gila River Relocation Center. That’s what they called it, but it was prison to us.”
A school was built and it was there that Wakiji would complete much of his education through high school over the next three years while living in a 20-by-25 foot room, a quarter of a barrack holding three other families. In all, 13,000 individuals called the camp home, with one bathroom and washroom per 200-family block, as well as a mess hall where internees ate breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“They cooked Spam and we didn’t get rice at the beginning,” said Wakiji. “We had pork and beans and stuff like that.”
Wakiji says the prisoners were resourceful. The camp had been built on the Gila River Indian Reservation in the Arizona desert. Because many of the residents were former farmers, a successful growing operation was created, and produce from the facility served Gila River residents as well as others in camps across the country, said Wakiji.
The environment was harsh. Rattlesnakes and scorpions were a constant threat and extreme temperatures caused many illnesses.
After returning home to Pasadena in 1945, the Wakiji family found that the Nippon Nursery was in ruins, the former caretaker having quit six months after he started. Hanhichi rebuilt the nursery, and the family thrived in Pasadena, where Wakiji says the people were “more civilized” than in some other parts of the country where “night riders” would terrorize Japanese families. The residents of Pasadena didn’t treat him and his family unkindly, Wakiji recalled.
George was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950 and served during the Korean War, for the same government that interned him and his family. Later, Wakiji helped to procure land needed for the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation to construct a memorial to Japanese internment camp survivors in Washington D.C., two blocks from Union Station.
Wakiji has spoken many times in high schools and colleges across the country, including in Ventura County. He says that he hopes anyone who hears his story learns something.
“I hope that they will understand that our government, the U.S. government, is not flawless. They make bad errors. In fact, they took away our civil rights; they made a big faux pas,” said Wakiji, adding that he sees similarities to the 1942 wartime paranoia in the way Muslim Americans have been treated in recent memory. If he could speak to young people today, said Wakiji, he would “tell them that it’s very possible that this could happen again. You have to be alert and not let our government do illegal things.”
Several years later, the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act reimbursed those removed from their homes for their losses — for a total of $38 million, or 10 cents to the estimated dollar lost, according to the Japanese American National Museum.
In 1981, the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, formed in 1980, concluded that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was a “grave injustice,” after hearing testimony from Japanese Americans as well as Alaska Natives who were also incarcerated. In 1983, the Commission published Personal Justice Denied, concluding that the relocation was based on “war hysteria” and “race prejudice” more than on necessity.
President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and in 1991 President George H.W. Bush amended the act and issued a formal apology, saying that “the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice and it will never be repeated.”
Wakiji received a signed apology letter from President Bush along with $20,000 in reparations. Around 82,000 Japanese Americans received the same.
“The problem was that most of the first generation, our parents, was not around when they started handing out the money,” said Wakiji. “They were all gone, they’d already died.”
Taylor says that speaking with the survivors was eye-opening in that she couldn’t believe how “blatant the whole procedure was.”
“It was very mechanical,” said Taylor of forcing the individuals and families to leave everything behind. “There was no real concern for these people who had been living here all of their lives with their families neither for the children or elderly in particular.”
What happened to the Wakiji family’s nursery wasn’t a unique occurrence, said Taylor. Many of the Japanese families were forced to ask neighbors to watch their belongings while they were away; some returned home to find that nothing remained. On the other hand, she says, acts of extreme kindness were not uncommon, either, where survivors would return to find neighbors having cared for and kept their property intact.
“These stories are really very interesting; [the families] came out of it with pain and suffering and sadness,” said Taylor. “On the other hand, there is also triumph and the evidence of the human will shining through and showing the goodness of so many people despite very negative surroundings.”
Interviews, photographs and other materials digitized by the CSU Japanese American Digitization Project can be seen by visiting www.csujad.com. To view material collected by CSU, Channel Islands, and to read transcripts and hear stories, visit www.library.csuci.edu/collections.