Interviewer: Alan Young
Interviewee: Saori Yamamoto (pseudonym)
Location: Mrs. Yamamoto's Manhattan apartment
Date: March 3, 1999
On February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans (defined as anyone having one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry). This was enacted even though the 25-page Munson Report submitted to the President concluded that there was an extraordinary degree of loyalty to the US among Japanese residents and that there were "no Japanese problems." To this day, no allegations of espionage or sabotage by Japanese Americans have ever been proven. In 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians ruled that there was no "military necessity" for the mass evacuation and incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent, and that "such action taken by the federal government was prompted by wartime hysteria, racism, and the failure of political leadership."
As a second generation Japanese American living on the West Coast, Saori Yamamoto, along with her father and two sisters, was driven from her home to an internment camp. What follows is her recollection of life in the camp, life immediately following her release, and her general thoughts on the state of American society. Any errors in this transcript are solely the responsibility of the interviewer. Notwithstanding these errors, it is hoped that the spirit and integrity of this remarkable woman may be captured in this work and that her message of hope and reconciliation may be brought to life.
First of all, where were you living at the time Pearl Harbor was bombed?
My familys home was in Oakland, California, in Chinatown. My father, two sisters, and I lived there.
Do you recall how you felt after hearing of the attack?
Well, personally, we knew that the attack meant that our father would be leaving us soon. Our father was a newspaperman, an avowed and outspoken Japanese nationalist. Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, the FBI rounded up all Issei (first-generation Japanese) who were considered "dangerous." This included Buddhist priests, language teachers, Japanese Association leaders, and newspapermen any Issei that was considered a leader in the Japanese community. My father knew he would be picked up and was ready with a packed suitcase. Two FBI men rang our doorbell to arrest my father, but I guess he was nervous and asked to go to the bathroom. I remember that they tried to follow him into the bathroom but we objected. They then tried to poke around some letters that were on the mantle-shelf and my sister grabbed the letters and told them that they were personal. When my father came out of the bathroom they led him out and we didnt see him until the end of the war.
When were you and your sisters taken?
Our experience was a little different. First of all, we chose to go to the relocation center. The rule was that if you had friends in another state, and we had friends in New York, you could go and stay with them. We chose not to, however, because we felt that we wanted to experience what our other Japanese friends were going through.
In fact, we had another offer that would have kept us out of camp. We had a Japanese friend who was a diplomat in the US. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he urged my sisters and me to go to Japan and said that he could make arrangements for our safe journey there. But we really felt that Japan was a part of the Axis and politically we could not consider it. He was persistent, though, and continued calling us until he had to go back. He really thought that he was doing us a favor.
Thats quite amazing. You had the chance to go elsewhere, yet chose to go to camp.
Thats right. All our friends were going. The night before we were to show up at the train station to be picked up, a bunch of our friends came and stayed at our place and we went down together. We had no idea what was going to happen, but I have no regrets. We wanted to undergo what our friends were going through.
You described your family to me as being quite political and being comprised of "a Japanese nationalist father and three radical daughters." In light of that, I guess the decision to go to camp shouldnt be considered strange.
No, not at all. My family was political and used to have a lot of arguments at home because my father was pro-Japan. He was unusual, though, in that he let us think however we wanted and said that as long as you stick to what you believe in and are willing to go to jail for it, you can do anything you want. So, he was really an unusual person and recognized that we didnt agree politically at all, but he felt that that was our privilege and right.
Another thing he always told us was, "You all are Americans. So you be the best Americans that you can be. They wont give me citizenship so Ill be the best Japanese citizen that I can be (As a first-generation Japanese, by law, he was not eligible to become an American citizen.)
So in your mind, there was no question about divided loyalties?
No, absolutely not.
Most of us just never felt that connected to Japan, only our parents. My father always wanted us to go there and get an idea of what Japan was like, but we never had enough money to go. And the truth is, we couldnt even speak Japanese very well. My mother tried to teach us and my oldest sister went to Japanese school, but my father always felt that with our going to American school until 3:00 PM everyday, that there were other more important activities to get involved in than Japanese school. He was really a wonderful man.
Of course, I regret it now because I wish I could speak Japanese.
Id like to return to the time you were getting ready for your journey to the internment camp, but before that, I think we need to get our terminology straight. Earlier you referred to these camps as "relocation centers." Theyve also been referred to as "concentration camps," "internment camps," and "detention centers," among other names.
I think they were concentration camps, but we need to distinguish between the concentration camps that the Jewish people were in because they [American camps] were not as horrendous as the Nazi camps. On the other hand, they were like concentration camps because there was barbed wire and armed guards who kept watch over us. They certainly were concentration camps and we were forced to be there. "Relocation" sounds so innocent as though you went of your own accord.
Okay. So where was this relocation center and what was it like preparing to leave Oakland?
We eventually were interned at Topaz, which was in Utah, but before reaching Topaz we were sent to Tanforan, which was a racetrack.
Before leaving for Tanforan, I remember that a curfew had already been put into effect. All Japanese along the coasts of California, Washington, and Oregon had to be home from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM. We were angry about this because our home was like Grand Central Station and we had friends dropping by at all hours. It became a kind of game to see who could beat the curfew and stay out the latest without getting caught.
About a week or so after the curfew was announced, we were ordered to assemble at designated bus and train depots. We were only allowed to bring what we could carry by hand. We were tagged with numbers and herded by armed guards into the trains and buses.
Can you describe the conditions at Tanforan and Topaz to me?
The conditions at Tanforan were horrendous. They used to be horse stables, and even though they were whitewashed, you could still see all the horsehair. There was a dirt floor and straw mats that were very hard. All you have to know is that they were still stables. The cooks at the camp were inexperienced and so many of us suffered from diarrhea and the lines to the inadequate public toilets were long and miserable.
Also, there were rumors constantly going around camp families were to be separated, men would be sent to Japan, and women were going to be sterilized. And I understand that there was really a bill that came before Congress over the issue of sterilizing women that lost by only one vote.
It was an anxious, physically and emotionally trying time, with only the presence of family and friends to console us. But the majority of us were young at the time and somehow tried our best to laugh and make jokes about the whole situation.
We eventually were put on trains for Topaz and they put black curtains over the train so that people couldnt see us from the outside. They were horrible. They must have gotten the oldest trains bumpy, rattling, noisy. These trains took us to the relocation centers where they had barbed wire fences and had built these army barracks. But like the stables, the walls didnt go all the way up to the ceiling so there was no privacy and you could hear everything.
So now youre at Topaz. What would a typical day there be like?
All the meals were served in the dining hall. Wed get up and go to breakfast. All of us had some kind of paid job. About $8 a month. My oldest sister was teaching piano, my other sister was teaching English, and I was working for the Social Service Office. So wed go to our jobs, have lunch in the dining hall, go back to work until we had dinner, and in the evening wed always socialize with friends. It really was not a terrible existence. What was terrible was when there was a sandstorm. That was just horrible because you just couldnt escape from it. Sand would seep through the windows and you had to cover your eyes. It was in the desert so it would just be overwhelming. And of course the fact that you were constantly conscious about the fact that you had to be there made it worse.
While you were at camp, how were you able to keep track of what was going on the outside?
Well, friends would write. Actually we really didnt have much a way of knowing because we werent allowed to have newspapers and things like that.
I assume that you werent allowed to see any movies while in the camp either.
Thats right. We couldnt see any movies.
Have you seen any of the movies made about the relocation? You know there was a movie secretly filmed at Topaz with a camera that had been smuggled into the camp.
Yes, thats the film by David Tatsuno. Of course, I had no idea that it was being made at the time, but I have seen it. I think it gives a really good idea of what life was like at the camp, especially the sandstorms. I wouldnt say that I found it very moving, but I think it was very well done considering the circumstances it was made under.
Of the other movies made about the internment experience, do you recall any that you feel were exceptionally well done?
The best one was one of the earliest that was made. It was made by Readers Digest, and I found it really stirring. Im trying to remember what it was called. I think the word "Betrayal" was in it. In this movie, a lot of young people, third-generation Japanese Americans, give their thoughts on the incarceration. Im sorry, I just cant seem to remember the title.
Thats okay. Moving on, how long were you at Topaz?
I cant really remember. I didnt stay until the end because I left to get married. I would say that I was there about a year and a half.
So you could leave if you got married?
Yes. We were actually married while we were in camp. Shortly after that, my husband was sent to Mississippi and I was allowed to go and live with him there.
What were other reasons that you could be released?
If you had jobs you could be released, but the FBI had to okay it, of course. Others were leaving for school. But you had to have something definite and receive permission.
And then there were others leaving to join the fight, like the members of the 442nd (The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was a fighting force comprised entirely of Japanese Americans that suffered some of the greatest losses during the war but emerged as the most decorated battalion of the war. Mrs. Yamamotos husband was a member of this group.)
Right, I believe that in December 1942 Washington decided to allow Nisei (2nd generation Japanese Americans) to volunteer for the army. This was very controversial. I dont know how it was at the other camps, but at Topaz, the camp was quite split about the volunteers. They were called baka (foolish) for joining when their families were incarcerated, but these were young idealists and many of us supported them. We felt that it really took a lot of guts for them to volunteer. Many of them were mistreated and beat up in our camp. So some of us formed a kind of a security force and would go with these volunteers wherever they went. And we would sometimes be spat upon as well. It was a very difficult time.
This was by other Japanese in the camp?
Yes, but many of the Kibei (Japanese born in the US but educated in Japan) were not treated very well by Nisei either. The Kibei were mostly pro-Japan and would cheer in the mess halls when it was announced that the Japanese had won a battle, while others of us would "boo."
In Manzanar (a detention center in California), there were actually riots because a lot of the Issei, who had previously held leadership positions within the camp, were replaced by Nisei. The Issei, along with the Kibei, were then assigned to kitchen and sanitation duty. One of the Issei leaders was put in jail after an attack on a pro-American sympathizer. In response, a crowd of 1000 descended on the jail. Waiting at the jail were troops with rifles and machine guns. Tear gas was released and in the confusion some of the internees rushed the soldiers. I believe two men died and nine others were injured but there were probably a lot more injured who were simply nursed in the camp.
There was this kind of division and tension which made things very difficult.
But there was also another controversy that really stands out in my mind from that time. In February 1943, a "loyalty" questionnaire was given to all internees 17 years old and above. These were going to be used once we were set free. Questions #27 and #28 were the most troubling. Question #27 asked if Nisei males were willing to serve in the armed forces for the US and if Nisei females would volunteer in the Nurses Corps. Question #28 was the real problem. It asked if we were willing to swear allegiance to the US and severe our allegiance to the Japanese emperor.
This was an example of just how insensitive the government was. For the Issei, they werent allowed to be American citizens so if they voted "yes" on question #28, they wouldnt have a country. But if they answered "no" they were scared that theyd be separated from their families and sent back to Japan.
For the Nisei, we felt that we shouldnt even be asked question #28. We were American citizens. Of course, if we answered "no" we would be disloyal to America.
So this is where the term "no-no boys" emerged?
Thats right. Some people decided to vote "no" on both questions. A lot them ended up being sent to another camp where all the "disloyal" Japanese were being held. I think there were plans to send them back to Japan.
May I ask how you voted?
I voted "yes" on both.
Getting back to your leaving Topaz, what was life like in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where your husband and the other volunteers were sent for training?
Personally, for my husband and me, it was strange because there were so few Asians there. Cars would literally stop and just look at us when we walked around. When my husband and I were looking around for an apartment, we met a minister and his wife who eventually rented us a room. They kept staring at us until they finally said, "You know, we thought that you would have buck teeth and glasses." Im sure they had all these ideas from the movies and posters where Japanese were drawn with all these exaggerated features.
What I hated most about being there was the way the African-Americans were treated. They were treated so horrendously. As you know that was a time when everything was black and white. There were separate drinking facilities, toilets, they were forced to walk on the streets rather than the sidewalk Ive never seen such cruelty. Little children were thrown out of stores physically. We used to argue a lot with our landlord who believed that blacks were inferior. They still did like us even though we felt that it was like fascism for the blacks in the South. So to us, it was so ironical.
You know on the bus, the black people had to sit in the back and were given only a couple of seats. And so when some of the Hawaiians (442nd trainees; all references to Hawaiians were made for the benefit of the interviewer who is also from Hawaii) would ride the bus, they would always say, "So where are we supposed to sit? In the middle?"
Because they felt that they were neither black nor white?
Right. The guys in Hawaii were great because they wouldnt take any of this stuff.
Anyway, I remember one time I was on the bus sitting near the back because I always identified more with the black people. There was a pregnant black woman that got on the bus and I stood up to give her my seat. The bus driver stopped the bus and stared at us in the mirror and wouldnt budge. Well, the black woman just stood there because she didnt know what to do and I wouldnt budge either. Finally, a white woman called me to come and sit next to her so the black woman could take my seat.
Those kinds of incidents made me just hate that place. It was just so awful the way the African-Americans were being treated. My husband and I would always say that it was so ironic. Here we were trying to fight against fascism and the blacks were treated this way. They had to walk in the street, you know, not the sidewalk. And they couldnt do they just were treated its unbelievable. My stomach would get like this, you know, from watching this kind of thing.
Did what you witness in Mississippi influence your views and attitudes toward America?
Well, I was politically aware so that I knew that it was the system that created these prejudices. The majority wasnt like that but the rich people own this country and they control radio, television, and everything and really determine policies.
It was really a class kind of thing and along with that theres racism.
But, this is my home and thats why Id like to make this an ideal country and Ive always fought for that.
It wasnt a matter of being disillusioned because I always knew that it existed. We were born here and so its up to us to try and improve this country.
Id like to move on to the period after your husband went to Europe to fight.
I was working for the USO until he left. Once he left, I came to New York to live with my sister.
USO stands for?
United Service Organization. The reason they had to create a USO in Mississippi to organize activities for the servicemen was that there so many fights between the guys from Hawaii and the locals. So, they had this USO where they could come and have social activities and stay occupied.
Were you in New York when you heard that Japan had surrendered?
Yes, I was working for the USO in the Empire State Building at the time but I dont remember exactly the moment that I heard Japan had surrendered. I remember that we all cheered when we heard, though.
Was there that same stigma attached to being Japanese in New York as there had been in the West?
No. Thats one of the things that I love about New York. This is where I really felt free. You dont have quite the prejudice here that you have in California. Also, you learn to fight in New York and wont take that stuff.
Have you been back to Topaz?
No. Manzanar and some other relocation centers have been preserved and turned into museums, but I dont think Topaz is still standing.
Would you like to go back to the site?
After leaving the camp I really had no desire to go back West, particularly California. Now, I still dont have strong feelings about going back.
So the war ended, and your husband came back from Europe.
Fortunately. He was a member of Company L and lost all his friends except for two.
You touched on this earlier, but can you describe in greater detail the accomplishments of the 442nd? Im not Japanese American, but being from Hawaii, Ive always felt a sort of tie to these men.
You should because there were about 3000 volunteers from Hawaii who joined about 1500 camp volunteers and another 5000 pre-war Nisei draftees. Also, it wasnt just the 442nd but the 100th Battalion as well.
Anyway, I just think they really were just amazing. They did such a great job but of course the price was very high. I just think it took so much courage for those who volunteered to do what they did. My husband is against war and says theres nothing so horrible. They did a great service. I wish that they didnt have to go through it but I respect them a great deal.
Theres one last subject that Id like you discuss regarding the internment. In 1988, the United States government, by passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, agreed to give $20,000 to all surviving Japanese Americans who were interned during the war. What are your thoughts on this decision?
Well, I wasnt active in the reparations movement because I knew that there were some very capable Nisei working very hard. I was very involved in things in Chinatown here in New York and other organizations and didnt have time to get involved in another cause.
Before the whole reparations thing started, though, a group of us met and one of the reasons I was for the reparations movement was that I felt that there were other groups like the Native Americans and African Americans who could also ask for reparations if we were successful.
Of course the money that they paid in no way re-paid all of us for what we suffered, but it was a gesture and I was for it because it made the government suffer a bit by having to pay. It forced them to recognize that it occurred.
How was your family affected financially by being forced into the camps?
We were fortunate because we had some friends who took care of our house while we were gone.
So after the war, you still had that house to go back to?
Yes, we did. My sister and her husband ended up going back to live there.
You were quite lucky in that sense because most of the people lost all their land and possessions or were forced to sell everything at bargain-basement prices, werent they?
Thats right. The people who had farms, in particular, came back to nothing.
As I said, these friends took care of our house, but unfortunately they threw away a lot of precious Japanese things that we had in the attic, thinking that if they were found, they might be considered subversive.
Also, we had stored all our family heirlooms in a separate storage facility, but it was broken into while we were away and everything was stolen.
I assume there was no effort made to find the people responsible for the thefts.
Oh no, nothing like that.
But the people on the farms had an even worse time. They lost their farms or had to sell them for peanuts.
So, do you think the government succeeded in "righting a grave wrong" through the apology and reparations?
No. Under the circumstances and considering the kind of government that we have, its probably the only thing that could have been done. But I do think theres more that can be done. For example, I think its a disgrace that many schoolchildren dont know that it happened. It should be in schoolbooks and taught that it must not happen again.
To wrap things up, what would you like America to learn from this incident?
It is absolutely wrong to incarcerate a group of people especially when there was no proof of betrayal or spying. Its wrong to force the removal of groups of people and should never be tolerated.
People need to stand up and be educated about it. Only the masses can say, "No, this must not be done and cannot be tolerated." Thats why we need to be politically active.
There will be more attempts because there will always be reactionaries who will try and do something like this. You remember the backlash against the Arab-Americans during the Persian Gulf War. The JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) came out in support of them during that time.
Do you still harbor any feelings of bitterness or resentment?
At my age, oh no. Im in my eighties. You just know that bitterness wont solve anything. You just have to be enlightened and actively work to improve our societys ills.