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Editorial: Japanese relocation camps a chapter of our history we shouldn’t forget

Growing up in the Puyallup area, I remember the annual pilgrimages my family and friends and I would take to the Puyallup Fair. If you’ve never been, it’s a huge venue with a stadium and dozens of buildings. Imagine our local fair multiplied a hundred times.

While chowing down on an Earthquake burger or taking a jaunt on the wooden roller coaster, I never really knew until much later in life that the fairgrounds had been a holding area for thousands of Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II.

That just wasn’t talked about growing up — either by adults or my teachers. My high school history classes just skipped past that part.

But as a young reporter covering the Puyallup area, I started learning more about the history. I’d go on to study the issue much more intensely during my studies for a history degree at the University of Washington in Seattle.The pictures that are still ingrained in my mind today are of little white children on one side of giant black iron bars staring at Japanese-American children, their hands held out, trapped inside the bars, barbed wire on top of them. It was striking. Some form of those bars, a fence that surrounds the fairgrounds, still exists today. I must have walked by them and past them hundreds of times over the years.

The politically correct terminology is that the fairgrounds had been transformed into a relocation center. It always looked like a prison to me. I had a college teacher describe it as an American concentration camp once, although I’m not so sure I’d go that far.

A history of the fairgrounds notes that the center served as the temporary home for 7,390 Japanese-Americans. They were at the fairgrounds from May of 1943 to September of 1943, when they were sent elsewhere. Around the country, more than 125,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to camps.

All of this came about in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which permitted the federal government to basically ignore constitutional protections for the sake of national security. They lost their jobs. Many lost their homes and property after neighbors ransacked them. And, of course, they lost their family — some dying from disease and cold after four years being trapped in some of the harshest climates around. Some were even shot to death by American guards.

From Puyallup, one of the main sites Japanese-Americans were sent was the Minidoka Relocation Center in southwestern Idaho. Working for another newspaper in 2003, I had a chance to travel to this site and tour what was left of the facility with National Parks Service staff. The place is a designated national historic site, located between the towns of Twin Falls and Jerome, Idaho — in a desert region where some potatoes are grown. I guess I felt compelled to go. Growing up in the Puyallup area, where this bit of history was never really talked about, I wanted to see where these innocent souls were sent.

Not much remains of the camp. Traveling along the highway, some of the original buildings that had once served as barracks had been co-opted by neighbors and turned into outbuildings. At the site itself, I remember finding the remains of a rock garden by brushing away the ground. There were also pieces of buildings, but nothing concrete standing.

I remember seeing a giant pile of tin cans, partially buried by desert dust and soil. And another pile of shoes. Yes, shoes. I was taken aback by it — trying to figure out why the shoes were left behind.

In the decade since I visited the site, I’ve since learned about a project to reconstruct one of the original guard towers at the site — but, besides that, there’s not much in the way of mementos at the park. What amazes me even today is that the environment was brutal. In the summer, the heat was exhausting. In the winter, the snow was everywhere.

It angers me thinking that the American government forced all of these people away to these camps just because they looked different. Many had been naturally born in this country.

And, sometimes, families were torn apart. A fascinating book called “Imprisoned Apart” tells the tale of Iwao and Hanaye Matsushita. Iwao was imprisoned as an “enemy alien” sent to a facility at Fort Missoula, Mont., and Hanaye was in Puyallup and then sent to Camp Minidoka in Idaho. Because they were separated for years at different camps, we have their correspondence preserved and re-printed for all to see that tells us the specific conditions they underwent.

The hope they had in each other as the months ticked by is what is striking.

“As I’ve mentioned many times, try to relax and don’t swell on the past,” Iwao wrote to her spouse at Minidoka on Jan. 20, 1943, while stuck in his own prison environment. “Please have patience and put your hope in the future as you face each day. … Even if, by chance, things don’t turn out as we hoped, take heart that the sun’s already risen in the form of a family camp. It shouldn’t be long now for the sun to shine on us too.”

“Their understated letters show us the pain of the separation inflicted on them,” writes historian Roger Daniels. “The World War II internment policies constitute a relatively dark page in the history of civil liberty in America. Not the least virtue of ‘Imprisoned Apart’ is that … at the human level, how unnecessary and cruel those policies could be.”

We’re lucky to be able to read the correspondence from the Matsushitas. Many families had their letters burned, confiscated or lost.

Enter the organization Densho and the Japanese American Legacy Project, which has been conducting oral histories of those who were trapped in the camps.

At 7 p.m., on Thursday, Feb. 27, Tom Ikeda, the founder and executive director of Densho, will be conducting a presentation “When Citizenship Didn’t Matter: Personal Stories from Japanese Americans Incarcerated during World War II” at the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at The Evergreen State College, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW in Olympia. It’s a free lecture. Ikeda’s parents and grandparents were incarcerated during World War II at Minidoka, Idaho. Like me, he’s a graduate of the University of Washington.

If you’re not able to attend, learning more about this important piece of Washington state history and our country’s history is critical. I encourage you to go online to http://www.densho.org/ and see the collected oral histories. The stories of survival are amazing — and sad.

It wasn’t that long ago, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, that I recall hearing disturbing words about rounding up Muslims and putting them in camps. It’s a scary thought that people still have that mentality.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com