Japanese-Americans recall how war tested loyalties, spurred identity crisis



During an annual pilgrimage in late April to the site of a former internment camp, U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. recounted divisions among Japanese-Americans during and after World War II.

During the war, the U.S. government interned more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry at 11 relocation camps built across the U.S., as they were deemed a danger to national security. Some 10,000 people were relocated to a camp constructed in the desert in Manzanar at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley, the site of the April pilgrimage.

Satsuki Ina, 71, professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, who was a keynote speaker at the 46th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage at the Manzanar National Historic Site, was born at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, another former camp in the state. The war ended when she was 1 years old and the family was subsequently released.

Ina did not even know that such camps for Japanese-Americans had existed before she began studying at the University of California, Berkley, in the 1960s. Shocked to know that her parents had been interned, she decided to pursue a career in the field of combating racial discrimination.

Ina’s parents were ashamed of their internment and said nothing about it until their death, she said.

The relocation camps were built in remote areas, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.

Toru Isobe, 89, was a high school student when he and five other family members were interned and forced to live in a small room at the Manzanar camp. Dust blown into the dwellings made the residents’ eyes red, he recalled.

Shared lavatories and showers, without partitions, were limited in number and inmates formed long waiting lines outside even when it snowed, said Isobe, who was raised in the city of Shizuoka and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12.

Inside the internment camps, there was strife among residents pledging their loyalty to the U.S. and those siding with Japan. Divisions between issei, the direct immigrants from Japan, and their U.S.-born offspring, or nisei, ran deep.

Ina’s father was a “no-no boy,” the term given by the U.S. government to Japanese-Americans who answered no to two key questions on a questionnaire to examine their willingness to serve in the U.S. armed forces and defend the U.S. No-No boys were segregated at the Tulelake camp and considered potential enemies of the U.S.

Ina’s father loved Japan and named his daughter Satsuki in honor of her birth in the month of May. After the war, however, he did not speak Japanese and called his daughter Sandy instead. He never revealed the reason for the change.

Issei helped each other survive in the U.S. and established Japanese communities in various parts of the country. Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles is a typical example.

It was a bustling district with a large number of Japanese restaurants and other shops.

But no longer. Japanese-Americans are now a minority in Little Tokyo, where many sushi and ramen restaurants are run by other Asian immigrants. Hotel New Otani, a symbol of Little Tokyo, has been taken over by a U.S. hotel chain.

At the pilgrimage to the former Manzanar camp, Ina called for Japanese-Americans today to say “no-no” to the discrimination she says they still face.

Isobe, meanwhile, lamented that “Japanese (in the U.S.) don’t feel the value and pride of being Japanese.”

Issei have passed away and nisei have moved to the suburbs, said Isobe, who serves as a guide at the Japanese American National Museum.

Little Tokyo remains only in name, he said, and other Japanese communities in North America have faded as well.

Japanese-Americans, cut off from Japan through the war, have Americanized themselves and lost their linguistic heritage and communities, according to Ina.

Driven by pressure to be respected, they tend to pursue careers as professionals and engineers, she said.