One Family's Story Of Japanese Internment In America.
WORDS Mark Takahashi IMAGES Toyo Miyatake
Fear makes people do stupid things. Two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the relocation and incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry. Of the almost 120,000 detainees, some two-thirds were American citizens, including my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
My maternal grandfather, Toyo Miyatake, was an artist with a passion for photography. He was one of the more fortunate internees because he had Caucasian friends that held onto his house and business in his absence; most internees lost everything they couldn't carry with them to the relocation camps. He and his family were sent to the Manzanar relocation camp in the desert about 230 miles north of Los Angeles.
He smuggled in a camera lens and sheet film holder and built a box camera out of wood scraps. In secret, Miyatake documented the internment. When he was caught, the camp director was somewhat sympathetic to the Japanese-American plight and allowed him to officially resume his photography. FDR rescinded his Executive Order in 1944, the camps closed in 1945, and the Miyatake family returned to Los Angeles, taking in several other families who had lost all of their possessions.
My paternal grandfather, Seytsu Takahashi, had a much different experience. The American government branded him an enemy alien because of his loose ties to a navy association, his status as a community organizer — he founded a Boy Scout troop — and because he was a Buddhist priest. The FBI picked him up just days after Pearl Harbor and took him to jail. He and other detainees were sent via train to Fort Missoula, Montana, then to Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Livingston, Louisiana. The years were cruel. Rumors circulated that the prisoners would eventually be executed; some committed, or attempted, suicide instead. Glimmers of kindness from the people in power were few and far between.
His pregnant wife, Suzue, and their three children — including my father — were initially housed in a dirty horse stable at Santa Anita Racetrack, then moved to a prison camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. During this time, my grandmother and the government of Spain (a neutral country in the war) petitioned the U.S. to reunite families torn apart by the internment, but to no avail. When their youngest son fell ill, my grandfather was allowed to visit, but only for three days, and he was only permitted to see his son through a window. He came prepared for a funeral, but his son somehow recovered.
Eventually the whole family was reunited at a camp in Crystal City, Texas, for "high-risk" detainees. It was there my grandfather met his three-year-old youngest daughter for the first time. Life was much more civilized in Crystal City, and the "residents" did their best to establish a sense of normalcy and community, much like those in Manzanar. After the war ended, my grandfather remained an enemy alien and would have been deported if the people in the community hadn’t petitioned in his favor.
The Japanese internment remains a dark period in American history. It was a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment; American citizens — including men who fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment — were unjustly imprisoned without due process. Despite this, the 442nd went on to become the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare. Let that sink in. Many Japanese American internees credited a saying, Shikata ga nai, for helping them get through this hardship. Loosely translated, it means, "It can't be helped."
Seventy-plus years later, with the clarity of hindsight, it can indeed be helped. Steps — however symbolic — were taken to make reparations, but that is not enough. The actions of Executive Order 9066 were motivated by fear and racism. While we have made great strides in regard to civil rights in recent decades, fear and racism are, sadly, a permanent part of the human condition. As the internment generation fades from view, so too do their voices. It is our responsibility as Americans to stand up to those who twist the truth to perpetuate discrimination and oppression. Otherwise, these struggles will have all been in vain — and the disgrace will be ours to carry.
This article was originally featured in Issue 033 of Iron & Air Magazine.