Our Citizenship Did Not Protect Us
Japanese American couple speaks about U.S. Internment Camps
Saburo and Marion Masada are survivors of WWII U.S. Japanese American Internment Camps. They shared personal experiences and documentary evidence with listening students across 10 school districts, nearly 400 of which were a live audience at Wahoo High School, on April 23, 2012.
“Our citizenship did not protect us,” began Saburo Masada as he chronicled World War II events that are infrequently detailed in United States history textbooks.
With the stroke of a pen, the lives of Saburo Masada, of Marion Nakamura, and of 120,000 American families of Japanese descent on the West Coast were irrevocably and shamefully changed.
Signed by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt just 10 short weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 gave Lt. Gen. John DeWitt authority to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
|Video & Speakers Photos Courtesy of Fremont Tribune
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Saburo said it was not really much of a choice for his father; we could do one of two things: move inland or go to a camp.
Saburo’s family were farmers; so, for this boy of 12, the nearby Fresno (California) fairgrounds was a fond, familiar place … at least until May 16, 1942 when it was changed with barbed wire fencing into a temporary detention camp where he, along with his immigrant parents and others of this family of nine, were imprisoned (“assembled” according to official government euphemisms) until being removed to desolate, permanent concentration (euphemistically “relocation”) camps in southeastern Arkansas (Jerome & Rohwer), a four-day trip by passenger rail.
Marion Nakamura’s family lived near Salinas (California) and were truck farmers, meaning they raised vegetables and trucked fresh produce to a local market for sale. Marion was only nine years of age when her family of eight was incarcerated in a detention camp on the Salinas rodeo grounds prior to transport to Poston Concentration Camp II in Arizona.
Following the signing of Executive Order 9066, “inklings” (suspicions, talk) about these camps circulated among Japanese American communities and households. Like many fearful citizens, Saburo’s family painfully buried or burned cherished objects and documents associated with their Japanese heritage. That did not protect them either.
“Our only crime was our face; we looked like the enemy,” said Saburo.
When asked by a student why they had not resisted or attempted escape, Marion reiterated a statement she had said earlier, “we [the Issei, or first, and Nisei, or second, generation] are an obedient people,” and she taught her audience to say these Japanese words and phrases, which expressed the cultural values of their generation and, therefore, explained their accepting behavior, even giving in to imprisonment without trial for a duration of almost four years, until WWII U.S. internment camps were closed in 1945:
- Giri, “duty, obligation to family or group”
- On, “a debt of respect, a moral obligation to parents and teachers"
- Gaman, “patience, perseverance, self restraint”
- Shikata ga nai, “it cannot be helped”
- Shinbo shimasho, “let us be patient, bear or put up with”
Not everyone submitted, said Saburo, alluding to Fred Korematsu, who resisted Executive Order 9066. His case, Korematsu v. the United States, was argued all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1944 did not rule in his favor (a conviction overturned 40 years later in federal court in 1988).
Japanese Americans wore numerical identification tags when first incarcerated. Saburo’s was 29534 and Marion’s was 13141. Each wore a visible replica of this dehumanizing memory.
Other permanent childhood memories include
- the interminable clickety-clack of the passenger trains that transported them from temporary to permanent internment camps and having to pull the window shades when they approached depots because disdainful people threw rocks ...
- the daily sight of guard towers and the nightly sound of a bugle declaring it was curfew ...
- reciting the Gettysburg address as an Independence Day camp celebration and really wanting to believe the opening statement: 'Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'
Marion’s family of eight survived oppressively hot Arizona summers and dust storms in a single 25'x20' barrack room, sharing a central mess hall (kitchen-dining) and central toilet-shower-laundry facility with many other family units. More importantly, she survived molestation.
Finished by prisoners themselves, Saburo said the Jerome barracks were so shabbily constructed that they were bull-dozed into a deep hole and covered over after the camp was closed.
Racial discrimination did not cease with the closing of U.S. concentration camps and the end of WWII. Most families did not have homes and livelihoods to return to; looting and destruction of property was a common occurrence. People would not hire or rent to Japs (a humiliating cultural slur, an insult) and, so, Japanese Americans were forced to live in cast off properties that were hardly more than sheds and to accept menial jobs and pay. As a 12-year old child, Marion Nakamura cleaned houses for 50 cents an hour and worked seven years as a maid. After college, she turned down a job as a telephone solicitor when told she would have to choose a Caucasian name.
Responding to a student who wondered how Marion and Saburo (who met and married years after their separate imprisonments) found the courage to speak out publicly, Marion replied, “telling the truth empowers me; sets me free,” referring to Scripture (John 8:32).
The couple served 43 years in the Presbyterian pastorate before retiring 17 years ago in 1995.
In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) and took steps to hold hearings in cities across the U.S., to gather testimony from more than 750 witnesses and, subsequently, to locate and review the records of government action. The Commission’s seminal report "Personal Justice Denied” was instrumental in effecting a 1990 presidential apology and a vote by Congress to pay monetary reparations to surviving Japanese Americans.
Saburo and Marion each received $20,000 (total $40,000). The Masada’s donated $10,000 to charity and used the remaining $30,000 as a down payment on their first house in 1995.
Participating School Districts, Teachers include:
|Allen Community Schools, Marcia Rastede
Elba Public Schools, Luke Thompson
Garden County Schools, Dorene Paisley
Greeley-Wolbach Public Schools, Bill Steele
Ord Public Schools, Ben Lansman
|Stanton Community Schools, Jacob Blum
West Point Public Schools - Beemer, Diana Knaak
Wheeler Central Schools (Bartlett), Paul Nordhues
NE Unified School District #1, Jim Schutt