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Youth Radio: Japanese-American granddaughter questions internment

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Eagledale ferry dock
Japanese Americans walk down the Eagledale ferry dock to catch a special ferry to Seattle in 1942.
Photo Courtesy the Post-Intelligencer collection

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in an attack that began a devastating period for Japanese Americans in the United States. 

In the following months, more than 110,000 of them were rounded up and sent to internment camps scattered around the western half of the United States. The government was worried they might be aiding the Japanese army, even though many had been in the United States since the beginning of the 1900s and had children who were American citizens.

One of the families affected was Mara Kumagai Fink's, a senior at St. Olaf College and a reporter for MPR's Youth Radio series. Mara spent the summer visiting the internment camps and uncovering what happened to her family during the war. 

Why weren't they angry?

Ever since I was in grade school I've known that my Grandma Kay was forced to live in an internment camp during World War II. Her family was taken from their strawberry farm on Bainbridge Island, Washington and lived in army barracks in the desert. But whenever I ask her about it, she tells me it wasn't that big of a deal. 

"Actually camp life, it's an experience, but I don't think it hurt," Grandma Kay said. "I think it hurt a lot of people, but mostly financially."

Grandma Kay said being as young as she was at the time, in her early 20s, it didn't bother her at all and considered it just something you endure and said it was "fine."

How could living in desert camps with barbed wire and guards with guns be fine? I wanted to see for myself. My Grandma's memory is not what it once was and so I took her younger sister with me to the internment camp in California where her family was sent during the war. 

Manzanar

At Manzanar, the wind cuts across the desert, and the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains rise in the background. But it's also really hot; 102 degrees and sunny.

Aunt Matsue
Mara Fink's aunt Matsue was 14 when she left for camp and remembers much of her experience very clearly.
MPR Photo/Mara Fink

My aunt Matsue is one of my grandmother's younger sisters. She was 14 when her family left Bainbridge Island and came to the camp.

My aunt's been back to Manzanar before and she laughs when I ask her if she recognizes it.    The barracks aren't here anymore, but she describes  how she and her brother and sisters stayed with their mom.

"They're just open rooms and you just have one cot after another," Matsue said. "You have to have a little privacy, so that's why you took a bedspread and put it up at one end of the apartment so you could change your clothes."

Changing clothes was only one of the challenges. Temperatures ranged from over 100 degrees in the summer to below freezing in the winter. Frequent dust storms coated the insides of the barracks with a fine layer of grime.

I asked Mastue how she could not be mad. If I had to live in that heat in the summer and be freezing cold in the winter, I would be angry about having to live there, regardless of whether I was stuck or not.

"We had no choice," she said. "We had to just accept it, we had no choice, and we couldn't go anyplace else. What could we do? We can't run out of here."

Matsue said of course she felt mad at times, but said it was just one of those times of life that you had to just accept it as it was.

Matsue's father, my great grandfather, was not in the camp with them. Just before the family was evacuated, the FBI arrested my great grandfather alleging he sent a small amount of money and comfort bags to the Japanese soldiers and possessed sticks of dynamite. 

The dynamite part was true, he needed it to clear stumps from the strawberry fields; the sending of money to Japanese soldiers was not.

Matsue remembered going to visit her father at the immigration center in Seattle.

"You see your dad behind bars and that was just such a terrible feeling," she said. "I just stood there and I just cried so I couldn't even talk to my dad I was crying so hard. And then of course we didn't see our dad until a good year after that."

Grandpa in the military, family locked up

My Grandpa's family was also in camp. Thirty-five years after coming to America, they had saved enough money to buy a greenhouse in Seattle.  When the government put them in the camp, they lost everything.

Ross Kumagai
Ross Kumagai, Mara's great uncle side, was also in the internment camp.
MPR Photo/Mara Fink

My Grandpa died before I was born, but my Uncle Ross, my Grandpa's youngest brother is still alive. Ross was nine when his family was moved into horse stables at the Pinedale Assembly Center in California and then transferred to two other camps in Northern California and Idaho.

"I remember when we went out to play football," Ross said. "We were playing by the fence and the ball rolled toward the fence. And the guard in the tower says 'stop or I'll shoot!' and I said, 'yes, sir!' Then we ran and to this day I don't know if we ever retrieved that football or not."

While Ross was in the camps, my Grandpa was in his 20s, and serving in the armed forces. My Grandpa's job was to recruit Japanese American soldiers from inside the camps for the military intelligence service. While my Grandpa was able to go in and out of the camps recruiting soldiers, his family remained locked up by the country he worked for.

After the war was over, they returned to find that people had shattered the windows of their greenhouse. His family couldn't keep up with their mortgages while in camp, so they walked away, and started over in Minnesota.

Ross said he wasn't angry while he was a nine-year-old in camp.

"Not until I got much older did I feel anger," he said. "It took a good part of my life that they put me in there for four years, I missed a lot, particularly schooling. 

When Ross got out he was in the 8th grade and said he had to work twice as hard. He said there were many evenings of crying to catch up.

"I think I'm still crying," he said.

My Grandma's family was much luckier. Neighbors had taken care of their land. But my Grandma's youngest sister, Shima, found that picking up where she left off wasn't easy. She tried to rejoin the Brownie troop she had been in before the war, but the leader claimed she'd fallen behind the other girls. 

"The next thing I wanted to do was join another group," Shima said. "I found out I couldn't join because I was Japanese, and I went to bed that night in tears because I couldn't join anything."

That feeling of rejection was experienced many more times by Shima and her sisters, and they still tell me that they're not angry. But after talking with them, I realize now that they didn't hold on to their outrage because they couldn't. They had to move on with their lives. 

When I read about an effort in Texas to revise textbooks to say that the internment wasn't racially motivated, I was concerned. As a Japanese-American granddaughter, I want to make sure that what my family experienced as American citizens isn't forgotten.

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Mara Kumagai Fink is a senior at St. Olaf College. She's received a grant from the college to create a program that teaches elementary students in the Northfield and St. Louis Park school districts about the history of the Japanese American internment.