“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
“SUDDENLY AND DELIBERATELY ATTACKED”
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
December 8, 1941
The wheels on the train began to churn beneath us, aching like a joint that hadn’t moved in a long time. The horn howled across the platform and the train inched forward, slowly at first, then faster and faster.
There were no guards on the train this time—nobody telling you to draw down the shutters on the windows. They didn’t want people on the outside to see your face back then. The car had been filled with people, babies who cried and grandparents who didn’t speak English. Nobody knew where you were going.
You never speak about it now. Maybe you don’t like to remember it. Maybe there is nothing to say. But maybe we never asked. Or maybe you don’t know where to begin.
You don’t bring it up and we try not to mention it, scared to somehow cross a line firmly drawn by all that has gone unsaid. After all these years, perhaps the memories have begun to break away in wisps, lost or gone or wedged so deep into the cracks of your mind that you can’t pull them out and unfold them anymore.
Dad says that it’s always been this way with you. When he was a child, you never mentioned it. “No one talked about the camps,” he tells me. “It was buried.”
Instead we read the stories others set loose, and over time those stories have become our own. Unconstrained by dates and details, memory and history knotted together in a tangle of fact and fiction. We have never heard the truth—if anyone even knows what that is anymore. Our imaginations were left to plug up the holes through which these stories—your stories—are fleeing untold.
Do you remember it, Grandma? You were only twelve years old when it began.
“If we had a tractor, this would be so much easier,” Kiyo complained, as he and his father struggled to hold onto one of the horses.
As Seiichi turned to reply, the horse shook its head and broke loose. Seiichi sighed. He had never been good at controlling horses, but he was a stubborn man. He said, “We’ve always used horses. Why change now?”
Under a nearby tree, Fudeko half-listened to the familiar exchange while working on her homework. She looked up and saw her little brother Seiyo wandering near the irrigation canal.
“Seiyo, don’t go too close,” she called out. Once, when they were little, Fudeko’s older sister Kats had nearly drowned there before their mother had managed to pull her out of the water. Fudeko shuddered to think of it now.
Seiyo came over. Whitie trailed behind. It was silly, Fudeko thought, to give the dog the name Whitie. He was not white but a patchwork of black and brown and white. But Seiyo had insisted on calling him Whitie after his predecessor. Now, Seiyo sat next to Fudeko, petting Whitie absentmindedly.
“It’s 1940,” Kiyo was saying. “Many of the other farms already have tractors.”
Kiyo wanted the Ford Ferguson 9N Tractor with a harrow disk. The ads in the paper boasted: “Even your wife could do it.”
Seiichi shook his head and said what he always said, “I’ll think about it.”
Kiyo fell silent. Fudeko turned back to her work. Seiyo lay his head against Whitie’s belly.
When a car drove by, Whitie’s ears perked up, and he scampered off, barking. Chasing cars was his favorite pastime—that and lying in the sun with Seiyo.
Through the kitchen window, Kinue saw Whitie running past the house toward the road. She stirred the sukiyaki briefly. She tasted the broth and added a little soy sauce. Kats was grating the daikon at the counter. As Kinue watched her eldest daughter, she thought of how her own mother had taught her this recipe. It reminded her of home.
Kinue Yamasaki had grown up in Nunohiki, a small town in the Wakayama prefecture. She was the youngest daughter in a family that owned a small piece of land along the coast where they grew vegetables, caught fish, and harvested sushi nori from the ocean.
When Kinue was nineteen, a young man from the village returned to find a wife. He lived in America now, the rumors went, where he owned a farm. His name was Seiichi Tsuji, though this had not always been his name. As a child, he was called Kiyokazu. His father grew rice. Kiyokazu’s father left to find his fortune in America when his son was too young to remember him.
When the unknown father sent for Kiyokazu ten years later, the village was astounded he had found his fortune—he was a bit of a gambler. Kiyokazu arrived in Seattle in July 1910. He handed his papers to the immigration official, but the official did not read them correctly. Where the characters spelled Kiyokazu, he read Seiichi. When Kiyokazu heard the mistake, he stayed silent. In his silence, he embraced a new name. A new name for a new life in America.
After spending years with this new name, he returned to his village and met Kinue. Their families arranged the union.
They married quickly, the Asian Exclusion Act looming over their nuptials. Afterward, they traveled to Tokyo where they boarded the Shinyo Maru, a ship headed to Angel Island, California. It was the second-to-last ship from Japan allowed into the United States.
Kinue was not permitted to leave Angel Island after they arrived. The doctors had found a parasite clinging to her stomach that had to be eradicated before she could enter the country. She stayed at Angel Island, where a white woman gave classes on how to be American to women who could not become Americans. Kinue learned to walk beside her husband, not behind. To let him carry the bags, instead of carrying them herself. To wear Western clothes while her kimonos stayed in her trunk.
For the Chinese women there, Angel Island was the purgatory where they waited and wondered whether they would be allowed beyond that golden gate into the United States—or turned away for the sin of being Chinese.
Kinue was lucky. Her husband came to take her to her new home after a few weeks.
Nineteen years later, she had four children and lived with her family on this same farm. She dished out the sukiyaki with grated daikon, and told Kats to go fetch the others. As the sun began to set, the family sat down to eat.
When spring approached, Seiichi thought about the tractor. It was 1941. The family was finally beginning to prosper. Seiichi and Kinue had four children who did well in school and dreamed of going to Berkeley—or at least that was what their father dreamed for them.
“Berkeley,” he said, “is the best school in the country.”
Seiichi wanted all his children to go to college, including his daughters. And, with big dreams like these, perhaps a tractor was a good investment for the future.
When Seiichi bought the tractor, Kiyo hopped on and drove it around. Kats, Fudeko, and Seiyo clapped. But Seiichi never drove the tractor. Work went faster now, but he refused to drive it. The horses broke loose, and he spent hours chasing them, but still he refused to drive that tractor.
In late summer, the family harvested their grapes. The children wandered along the vines all day, picking the grapes and spreading them on paper trays to dry in the sun. Each night, their bodies ached, and they devoured the hamburgers Kinue made for dinner. Gradually, the raisins turned golden brown in the sun.
When September came, school began again. Kiyo was a junior in high school. Kats was in eighth grade. Fudeko was entering sixth grade. Every morning they said the Pledge of Allegiance. On Saturdays, they attended Blackstone Japanese School. They hated it.
By early December, Christmas decorations were hanging in the shops. One Sunday morning, Kiyo was listening to the radio at a friend’s house. When they heard the news, their jaws dropped. He grabbed his coat and rushed home. He hurried inside, the door slamming shut behind him.
“Slow down,” Seiichi scolded. But Kiyo didn’t listen.
“Have you heard?” he asked, breathlessly. “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.”
U.S. ACTS TO END JAP PERIL HERE
“The total number of Japanese dual citizens who have applied for release of allegiance to Japan is so small that it is definitely indicated that in the majority of cases their allegiance is not to the United States, but to Japan.”
- Representative Harry Sheppard February 19, 1942
The facts soon became clear: the Japanese had sunk four U.S. Navy battleships and damaged more. 1,282 men were wounded. 2,402 were killed.
There were so many questions. What would happen to them? Would they be safe? Panic had seized the country. The FBI had arrested hundreds of Japanese men in the community. They arrested more every day. No one knew where they were sent. Signs proclaimed, “We’ll Bomb Each Jap Right Off the Map.” Stores refused to serve anyone who looked Japanese.
On February 19th, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the government the right to forcibly relocate anyone it deemed a threat to national security—including a 12-year-old girl born on a farm in Central California.
Sixty years later, when I ask you how you feel about Roosevelt, you won’t look at me. But your quiet words ring in my ears. “I hate him,” you say.
Signs appeared on light posts overnight. The children saw one on their way to school. Kinue saw one at the grocers. They had all known this day was coming—the day when they would have to leave. For months now, the government had been naming a day, then cancelling it, then announcing another. Now they knew.
Neighbors had agreed to lease the farm. But there was so much more to do.
At dinner that night, nobody spoke. Kinue thought about everything they had to pack. Fudeko thought about whether there would be schools where they were going. Kats wondered if her friends would write to her when she was gone. Seiichi thought about the tractor. They still owed money on it. He’d have to sell it back to the dealer. He’d lose money, but there was nothing else to be done. Kiyo thought about what he’d heard the boys from woodshop chatting about in the halls at school that day. The government had recruited them to build barracks at the Fresno Fairgrounds. Kiyo felt his throat swell up as they gloated about skipping class to build the barracks where he would have to live.
“And they had these barracks built by anybody,” Uncle Kiyo tells me, the hurt still caught in his throat all these years later.
Seiichi pulled the nails out of the pump house floor, one by one. He lifted one of the boards. Kinue lovingly wrapped their good dishes and lacquerware—gifts from her parents brought from Japan—in cloths and handed them to her husband, who put them into the space beneath the pump house floor. When the last dish was hidden, he replaced the board and nailed it down.
“When do you think we will come back?” she asked.
He swallowed. “I don’t know.”
She went back inside. He stood and scrutinized his work. Would anyone guess their most prized possessions were hidden there?
When he returned to the house, Kinue and the children were packing suitcases.
“Only what you need,” she reminded Seiyo gently, as he tried to pack another toy. Kinue wondered what they would need. Would they need winter coats? Would they be made to work? She tried to prepare for everything, unsure of what would happen.
That night, Whitie stole away from the house. His ears perked up as he heard a truck down the road. Maybe the driver heard a dog barking just before the truck collided. Maybe the driver leaned forward in his seat, trying to see what he had hit. Maybe he opened his door and climbed out of the truck. Maybe he kept on driving.
Somehow, the family thought, Whitie knew that he wasn’t going with them, that he and Seiyo would no longer explore the farm together.
Kiyo buried Whitie at the side of the road. A few days later, Seiichi locked the door for the last time. The military police had come to take them to the Fresno Fairgrounds.
INQUIRY OPENED ON CHARGES OF JAP ‘PAMPERING'
“85,000 persons remaining in 10 government-directed centers are enjoying large quantities of foods seldom available to civilians.”
- Los Angeles Times
June 1, 1943
That summer, in a place where toilets had no partitions, food poisoning ran rampant. When the food went bad, people lined up outside the bathrooms, or dug new latrines while trying to ignore the tossing in their bellies.
When fall came, the family boarded a train. They got off the train five days later and saw the place where they would live for the next two years.
“From the train stop, we were trucked or bussed—I don’t remember which—to the newly constructed camp surrounded by barbed wire fence, watch towers with military police carrying rifles with fixed bayonets,” you tell me. “I knew I was a prisoner somewhere but didn’t know where.”
In time Fudeko would learn that this place was Jerome, Arkansas. The family carried their belongings to their barracks: 40-10-F. Kinue opened the door tentatively and turned on the light. It flickered in the middle of the room, illuminating a small stove surrounded by cots. Fudeko pushed her suitcase under one. She sat down and the springs groaned beneath her.
The bathrooms in their block were not finished yet so the family went to another block to use theirs. There were no partitions between stalls—fortunately all modesty had disappeared at the Assembly Center. Kinue drew a curtain across the room to separate the girls’ side from the boys’ side. In time, Seiichi would decorate the room with kodu, polished wood figurines he carved from growths cut from oak and hickory trees. Kinue would plant flowers out front.
When the family arrived at the mess hall, a line had already formed outside. They went to the end and waited. The autumn wind was blistery.
“Tomorrow,” Seiichi said, “we must arrive early so we won’t have to wait in line.”
Finally, they arrived at the front of the line. One by one, they were handed a plate with mush.
“What is it?” Kats asked.
“Don’t ask,” the worker said.
The family headed over to one of the tables, which were set up in rows across the room. They picked at their food.
After that, Seiichi insisted the family arrive at the mess hall early to avoid the line. Meal times were important to him. Most kids ate with their friends, but Seiichi insisted meals were for family.
Over time, the food became better. Prisoners began farming. Seiichi got a job at the hog farm, and other prisoners planted crops that gave the mess halls fresh vegetables.
Life went on but everything had changed. Fudeko got used to the noise in the mess halls and the barracks. She learned not to mind when every conversation she had could be heard by the family across the wall. She learned to go to the bathroom with other people around, with boys peering through cracks in the walls until they were chased away. At night, the spotlight from the guard towers trailed her. She was always being watched.
“There were barbed-wire fences and sentry towers,” you tell me. “I knew I was a prisoner.”
The kids took classes from other prisoners. Some barracks were turned into a high school and grammar school. Students sat on fold-up chairs since they didn’t have desks. There were no books and teachers were anyone with a few college courses. Eventually, the camp hired outside teachers to work alongside the prisoners in school.
Every morning, the family ate breakfast together in the mess hall, and then the children would head to their classes. Seiyo walked to the elementary school. Kats and Fudeko walked to their classrooms while Kiyo shuffled into the 12th grade classroom. He headed to the back where his friends were lounging around, and they traded hellos innocently.
The teacher entered and chairs squeaked as the students rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “We pledge allegiance to the flag,” they began, hands across their chests.
The class mumbled its way through the pledge: “with-liberty-n-justice-ferall—”
The class turned to Kiyo and his friends, shocked.
“The teacher gave us heck for that,” Uncle Kiyo tells me. “So the next day, we said, ‘with liberty and justice for all whites and coloreds.’”
The teacher didn’t like that either. The morning after, whispers coursed electrically through the room as the class wondered what would happen next. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all...”
“Except us,’” the boys continued in unison.
“Anyway,” Uncle Kiyo tells me, laughing a little, “those were some of the lighter moments I remember from our school.”
Miss Kasai, another prisoner, was teaching piano. Fudeko had never played before, and she eagerly signed up. At her first lesson, Miss Kasai handed a piece of cardboard to Fudeko who took it, confused.
“Your piano,” Miss Kasai explained. The keys were drawn carefully in pencil. The only piano in camp was being used for bands and orchestras and dances. Miss Kasai pointed to a key. “That is middle C.”
She hummed the note as it would have been if a cardboard piano could make sound.
As Ms. Kasai taught Fudeko simple tunes, she heard music where Fudeko heard silence. Fudeko heard the wind howling and the sagebrush murmuring. She heard the dust scratching at the windows to get in. She heard babies cry and couples fight. She heard doors slam shut. She heard crowds cheer at baseball games and guards yell at kids who came to close to the fence. But she couldn’t hear middle C.
Back on the farm, the crop was poor. The grapes had a disease, the renters reported. They demanded a new lease agreement.
With a heavy heart, Seiichi told his family that they would have to sell the farm.
He wondered what would happen when they were allowed to leave. He was not a young man anymore, and now he had a wife and four children to care for. Would he be able to start over again? Where would they go? How would they live?
His hair grayed and thinned. His shoulders sagged. He seemed to have aged many years in the months they had spent behind barbed wire.
One day, in the mess hall, Kinue mentioned to Seiichi, “They are offering an English class for adults.”
The camp offered adult education classes, including English language classes. Although she had now spent nearly twenty years in this country, Kinue had never learned English.
Seiichi looked up.
“It ends at noon,” she said, tentatively.
“You’ll be late for lunch,” Seiichi said.
“It’s just for a little while,” she said, softly.
But Seiichi had seen the way the parents sat by themselves while their children ate with their friends. Other parents lamented the way their children barely spoke to them anymore and didn’t show respect. He knew that if they stopped eating together, their family would fall apart too.
“No,” he said, “Meals are important. We need to stay a family.”
“A JAP’S A JAP.”
“A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”
- General John L. DeWitt
August 13, 1943
Individual Number: 12368E. Relocation project: JEROME. Birth Place of Parents: JAPAN. Total Years of Schooling in Japan: NONE. Total Length of Time in Japan: NONE. Age at Time in Japan: NEVER IN JAPAN. Name: FUDEKO TSUJI.
“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in,” crooned a twangy voice on a radio in a nearby barrack. A boy hummed along, out of tune. Fudeko was collecting crates for the family’s things. Jerome was closing. In a few weeks, it would be a camp for German prisoners of war.
There were rumors—rumors you remember years later—that the government needed to improve the barracks because they didn’t meet Geneva Convention standards for prisoners of war. And so, you and your family prepared once more to leave, this time for Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
When the family stepped off the train in Wyoming—land of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West—the military police ushered them into trucks and drove them behind barbed wire once more.
Winter came quickly at Heart Mountain. Kiyo had left that fall to attend college in the Midwest, and Kats wanted to skip a grade and apply early. There was talk that students would be allowed to return to California soon.
One morning, Fudeko woke up and shivered as her toes touched the cold floor. By morning, even the last embers in the stove were cold. Fudeko quickly pulled on her warmest clothes and opened the door. Thick white flakes waltzed through the air before her. She held out her hand and smiled as they melted against her palm. It was the first time she’d ever seen snow.
Most days, the cold was just a bitter reminder of how much their lives had changed. Whenever she needed the bathroom, she had to put on her winter coat and boots.
Seiyo came down with a cold that winter. He had a fever so he had to go to the hospital. People who had contagious diseases in camp were quarantined. When the family went to visit, Seiyo was lying in bed next to a man who was coughing violently. He had tuberculosis, they learned. You believe that’s where Seiyo began testing positive for the disease.
At college, Kiyo got a job caring for lab animals. After he started working, the professor asked him what his draft classification was.
“4c,” he said, dreading the next question.
“What does it stand for?” the professor asked.
“Enemy alien,” Kiyo said softly. He was going to be fired. He knew it.
“Oh, that’s good,” the professor said. “You’ll be around here for a while.”
Kiyo was surprised. Time and again, he had had to demonstrate his loyalty to this country. Show your loyalty by complying with the evacuation, the government had urged. But this was not enough. In January 1943, the camps had asked all prisoners over the age of 18 to complete loyalty questionnaires.
Kiyo had answered the first questions quickly.
9. Father’s name: Seiichi Tsuji
10. Mother’s name: Kinue Tsuji
21. Have you ever been convicted by a court of a criminal offense (other than a minor traffic violation)? No.
26. Have you ever applied for repatriation to Japan? No.
But he paused when he saw question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
This country had put them in camps without any trial, had attacked their loyalty. Now they wanted him to fight for them? To die defending them?
28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power, or organization?
Seiichi and Kinue, as Asian immigrants, weren’t allowed to become American citizens. They loved this country, but this question would force them to give up their citizenship to Japan to be little more than prisoners here. They would become people without a country. But this was the only country their children knew.
Kiyo wavered for a second then quickly signed his name.
A few months later, despite the professor’s prediction, Kiyo’s draft classification became 1a, and he received a notice from the army to appear for his physical examination. “I didn’t think it was fair because my parents were still interned and yet they’re asking me to serve in the military,” he tells me. “But I still didn’t refuse to go with the draft.”
He was placed in the Military Intelligence Service. In June 1945, Kiyo received a furlough and visited his family in Heart Mountain. One day, the family gathered outside the barracks for a family portrait. In the center, Seiichi wears a suit and tie. Kiyo stands on the left in his uniform. His mother’s eyes crinkle from the joy of having her eldest son back for a few days. Seiyo’s shirt is untucked. Behind him, Fudeko smiles neatly, her hair curled and pinned back. Kats looks off beyond the frame.
Soon after, Kiyo left for the Eastern Theater. That fall, Kats left to attend college in California.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE JAPANESE RELOCATION PROGRAM
“First comes the safety of the United States. To maintain that safety the Japanese must be kept inland. Those about whom there is any suspicion must be detained in camps.”
- Los Angeles Times
July 9, 1943
A few months later, the war was over. Seiichi would return to California to find a place to live, while Kinue, Fudeko, and Seiyo packed up their belongings.
The army would ship their things back to California. But they didn’t have many belongings, so Seiichi began to collect rocks. One rock for being forced from their homes. One rock for being called a traitor. One rock for never receiving a trial. One rock for the guards pointing guns at them.
Seiichi made boxes out of scrap wood and filled them with the rocks.
“What’s in the boxes?” one worker asked.
Another lifted one of the boxes, groaning under the weight. “It feels like rocks.”
Back in California, Seiichi gave the rocks away to friends or left them behind because they were too heavy to carry.
In their last days at Heart Mountain, one of the neighbors who had a car offered to take Kinue, Fudeko, and Seiyo along on a trip. They were going to see Old Faithful.
The guard towers looked forlorn as the car drove through the gates. They were useless now. Everybody was leaving.
Fudeko stood next to her mother and her little brother, and they waited impatiently. Just a few more minutes to go. Fudeko checked her watch. Once every 91 minutes, the geyser erupted. Three... two... one...
With a roar, the pungent water exploded into the air, droplets rained down on us. The water rose higher and higher before tumbling back underground.
We had traveled a long way. We crossed the Mason-Dixon line, then drove through Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Michigan, we took a train westward through Minnesota and the Dakotas to Montana. We hiked through Glacier and Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. But none of these were what we had come to see. We were nearly there.
“I STAND FOR AMERICA ALL THE WAY”
“In a shooting rampage on Saturday, a gunman in Arizona fatally shot the Sikh owner of a Chevron gas station ... Mr. Roque shouted, ‘I stand for America all the way,’ as he was handcuffed.”
- The New York Times
September 17, 2001
I was twelve years old the first time you returned to Heart Mountain. More than fifty years had passed since you had last seen this place, with its barbed-wire fence and the mountain face, the barracks and guard towers.
We drove for miles along Highway 14 and saw no one and nothing. We started to wonder if maybe we’d driven past it. If somehow, we’d missed it.
Finally, my dad pulled over to the side of the road, with tumbleweed scurrying around in the wind and sagebrush poking out from the dry, dusty earth.
“Are you sure we’re here?” Dad asked.
“That’s what the map says,” Mom replied.
Without a word, you climbed out of the car, and we followed. There were no fences. No guard towers. No barracks. No mess hall. It always had been meant to be temporary.
The mountain in the distance looked nothing like a heart. But in the empty space, you saw faint scars of the past buried in the dust and brush. You gestured to where certain buildings once stood, like the mess hall and the school. All gone now, bought for a buck by homesteaders after the war and turned into homes and barns. What they had failed to remove, the dust and sun and silence had long since covered.
We walked over to the two hospital buildings. The shingles were falling apart and the doors and windows were boarded up. Nearby stood a tall red brick chimney. These were the only buildings that remained.
A small plaque, a tomb for the camps, boasted of the state-of-the-art hospital and great schools. Underneath, in black spray paint, someone had scrawled, “It was a concentration camp.”
All you said was, “The mountain is smaller than I remember.”
That past fall, I had watched on television as planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands. Walls and windows shattered. A yellow cloud of dust and debris hovered overhead. Floor by floor, the towers collapsed. Every floor and staircase unraveled like threads coming loose.
The country crumpled down to its foundations. Our fear had a name: terrorism. As troops were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism hid faceless like a monster in the closet and our minds instead conjured up images of people who wore turbans and called God “Allah.” Within weeks, murmurs scuttled around that airport security was subjecting people who looked “Arab” to extra searches, that there was a list of people who were not allowed to fly.
Now, you and I wandered through the absent ruins of the camp that once existed in the desert in Wyoming. We saw a mountain in the distance, smaller than it once appeared.