On February 19, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a speech on Memorial Day apologizing for the federal government’s internment of Japanese Americans. However, 80 years have now passed since Japanese Americans were placed involuntarily in concentration camps. These days, Japanese American and civil rights organizations try to educate Americans about this terrible public policy that was based on fear and racism, and deprived U.S. citizens of their civil rights. The majority of Japanese Americans who experienced incarceration have died or survivors are elderly. In this context, we asked two Japanese Americans to share their experiences of imprisonment and Japanese American life. Hopefully, this interview will positively impact readers’ perspectives on the Pacific War.
Reporter: Thank you very much for your time today. Could you tell me about yourself and your family during the war?
Ms. Uyeki: Of course. I was only 12 years old when I was notified that the evacuation would begin. I lived with my parents in Fresno, California.
Reporter: Fresno is a city with a sizeable Japanese-American population. I heard that it also has a Japanese name, Fu-Shi (cloth city).
Uyeki: Yes, it is. My father was born in Niigata, moved to Oakland, California, and then graduated from Oregon State University. It was rare for an Issei of Japanese descent to graduate from an American university at that time. So, in Fresno, he used his bilingualism to bridge the gap between the Nikkei and the other populations. My mother was a Japanese American born in Oakland. When she was eight years old, she went to Tokyo to study with her grandparents, who lived in Tokyo, and then came back to the U.S. called “Kibei.” Also, I had an older brother. He was attending the University of California, Berkeley, at that time, so we didn’t live together.
Reporter: So you did. Both your father and brother went to prestigious universities. They even acted as a bridge between the Japanese American community and the outside world. How were you taken to the concentration camps?
Uyeki: On that day, my family and I were taken to the concentration camp with my brother, who had returned home. We barely had enough belongings to fit in one trunk… We were not even told how long we would be away from home. At first, we were housed in a housing center in Fresno. Then we were transferred by train over several days to a permanent housing facility in Jerome, Arkansas.
Reporter: I googled that the camps in Fresno and Jerome are about 2,000 miles apart, almost a continental crossing. It must have been terrifying and harsh to be taken to such a faraway place and not know when you would be able to come back. What was life like in the camps?
Uyeki: My family and I had to live in one small room. There were four beds in the room, and we had to eat our meals in a separate large dining room. Bath and laundry facilities were also provided separately from the rooms. Because of this, the parents and older adults seemed to have a hard time adjusting to life in a residential facility.
Reporter: The living environment was minimal. Did you live in that environment until the end of the war?
Uyeki: At first, that was all we had, but gradually, recreational facilities and playgrounds were built. By the time we moved to Jerome, a school was built inside the camp.
Reporter: A school?
Uyeki: Yes. There were no laboratories or facilities, but teachers were brought in from inside and outside the camp to give classes. Some of the teachers were Japanese Americans who had been interned.
Reporter: I see. Perhaps consideration was given to the children’s right to education. Recently, there have been strong voices saying that the internment of Nikkei was a violation of human rights.
Uyeki: Absolutely. The forced internment of Japanese Americans from the west coast of the U.S., of whom approximately two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth, was a terrible injustice because we were deprived of our civil rights.
Reporter: You are absolutely right. Did the fact of incarceration change your life?
Uyeki: Of course. One day, a 12-year-old girl was suddenly separated from her home, school, church, friends, and hometown and put in an internment camp with her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans. However, my parents and their generation and my grandparent’s generation were the most affected. They had to deal with so much uncertainty of what was going to happen to them and their children and their lives. It was most difficult to consider the future.
Reporter: It’s still hard to imagine, but that’s what incarceration means. Everything they had built up would be uprooted or, in any case, gone. And there is no guarantee that it will come back. Significantly, the Japanese are people of color and are in a weaker position than Caucasians. In that respect, did you face any racial harassment for being of Japanese descent? Well, of course, you are an American, but your surname, Uyeki, is very Japanese. Did you have any difficulties because of that?
Uyeki: Yes, of course. I often received racist remarks from Caucasian children because of my physical features as a Japanese-American.
Reporter: The United States is a multi-racial country that is said to be a “melting pot of races,” and there is inevitably a sense of discrimination against non-white people. Japanese Americans are Americans, not Japanese, but they are discriminated against and evacuated. I feel that this is similar to the mono-ethnic mindset of some people in Japan. I think it is identical to the feeling that some people in Japan have being mono-ethnic, of being lumped together and called “gaijin” because of their “non-Japanese face” or something like that. I feel that this trend is spreading in Japan these days.
Uyeki: Well…in terms of “mono-ethnic thinking,” the U.S. and Japan are quite different. In the U.S., there is a wide variety of races, ethnic groups, religious beliefs, cultural values, languages, and even mixed blood. There is not only racism but also tolerance for mixed-race people. Japanese Americans also marry non-Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, so there is a sense of mixed-race values.
Reporter: I see. Mixed-race. In Japan, there is not so much of a sense of mixed race. Thank you very much. This is the last question, do you have any message for the readers of this article?
Uyeki: My message to your readers is to always extend interest, kindness, empathy, compassion and concern for all regardless of race, age, appearance, religion, sexual orientation or their background. We can all learn from others if we listen to each other’s experiences, especially those who do not look like us.
Reporter: Thank you very much for your time today.