Learning – and Preserving – the Lessons of Internment

Posted on: May 5th, 2010 by Guest Writer

Written by Hanako Wakatsuki

Chizuye Wakatsuki with her children, Patricia, George, and Woody Jr.  at Manzanar.

Chizuye Wakatsuki with her children, Patricia, George, and Woody Jr. at Manzanar

I knew about camp, but never completely understood what it meant until I attended college. I knew that my family had been interned, but it did not mean much to me at the time because my family rarely spoke about it. I did not realize how much this experience affected my family until I tried asking my paternal grandmother a few times about her experience. In my second year of college, I found out that there was an internment camp, Minidoka, only two hours away from where I live in Boise, Idaho. I was appalled because it was never mentioned when I was a child attending primary or secondary school. Not once. This was when my interest turned into a passion for internment history. I wanted to preserve this time in history and let others know what happened in our backyard not long ago.

I am fifth generation Japanese American. My family emigrated from Japan to the United States in the late 1800s. Back in Japan, my family was a military family. My great-grandfather did not want to be a military man, so he left to start a new life in Hawaii. He eventually moved to the mainland and met my great-grandmother, who was American born. They moved down to Southern California and were in the fishing business prior to World War II.

Woodrow Wakatsuki Sr.

Woodrow Wakatsuki Sr.

After the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. The United States government used fear and hysteria to institutionalize racism in governmental policies. Under the authority of the Executive Order 9066 and the Act of March 21, 1942 the government excluded all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the United States.

Japanese American families had to pack up their belongings and uproot themselves in a matter of days. Some people were not given enough notice that they literally only had the clothes on their backs. When the families arrived at one of the ten Relocation Centers, they found themselves stuck in remote, desolate locations strewn across the United States and inadequately furnished. Camp life was devastating to the family unit, undermining the family structure.

My family was uprooted from their Southern California home and was incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. My grandparents, Chizuye and Woodrow Wakatsuki, were in their twenties when their young family was incarcerated. My grandfather enlisted into the Army in 1944 at Manzanar and fought on the Pacific front during World War II.

A modern view of one of the gardens at Manzanar. (Photo: National Park Service)

A modern view of one of the gardens at Manzanar. (Photo: National Park Service)

Many men felt that they should prove their loyalty to the US by enlisting and fighting in the war, and many became part of the 442nd battalion, a segregated Japanese American unit, which became the most decorated unit in the US for its size. Others felt that they were being just as patriotic by standing up to the government that was incarcerating them by not fighting in the war abroad but fighting the war for their civil liberties at home.

Over a span of four years, 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. Men, women and children were prisoners of the United States. Many families lost everything they owned. Some families never recuperated from this traumatic event. Others struggled to forget their experiences and tried their best to suppress it from memory and just move on with their lives. They went through extreme hardships and treatment that we as a nation should never impose onto others ever again. We need to preserve and uphold the legacy of those interned and the internment experience and to promote education of this time in history.

Hanako Wakatsuki is an interpretive specialist assistant at the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site of the Idaho State Historical Society.

Manzanar was an early Save America's Treasures (SAT) grant recipient. Now, SAT and other preservation programs have been cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding, and how SAT has impacted other sites associated with Asian Pacific American heritage.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

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