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'What did I do to deserve this?': The 75th anniversary of Japanese incarceration

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Sally Sudo in her Bloomington home.
Sally Sudo sits in the living room of her Bloomington home on Wednesday. Sudo was 6 years old when her family of 12 was incarcerated at an internment camp in south-central Idaho during World War II.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Seventy-five years ago, Hannah Semba was forced from her home for simply looking like the enemy. 

The attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor had nothing to do with her — she was an American citizen. She and her family had lived quietly in Mount Vernon, Wash., for years. 

But none of that seemed to matter. After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that killed more than 2,400, fearful Americans didn't know whether they could trust their Japanese and Japanese-American neighbors. Many believed they needed to be removed from the West Coast, where most of the population was concentrated, as a matter of national security. 

The result was that on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcibly relocating some 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of whom were U.S. citizens — to internment camps. 

The evacuation of Japanese civilians during World War II
Japanese civilians who live in Los Angeles are evacuated in 1942 as they leave their homes for internment. The sidewalks piled high with personal possessions, cars and buses wait to transport the evacuees to the war relocation camps.
AP 1942

Hannah Semba (then Hannah Hayano) was about 16 when the Army came for her family. 

Bringing only what the seven of them could carry, the Hayanos were loaded onto an open-bed Army truck and driven through the center of town on the way out. 

Everyone could see them. Some called out, "Good riddance!" 

Even today, at 90, Semba remembers the shame of that ride. 

"You can imagine the embarrassment and the ugly feeling we had within ourselves," she said. 

The Hayanos were sent by train to the Tule Lake camp in northern California, one of 10 scattered throughout the United States. 

Today, Semba lives in Minneapolis. She was among the hundreds of survivors to resettle in Minnesota after the war. In 1940, just 51 people of Japanese descent lived in the state, according to the census. Ten years later, the population had soared to 1,049. 

Local survivors and the Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League will be marking the 75th anniversary of incarceration with a series of events this year, including one this weekend at the Minnesota History Center.

Camp life

Each of the internment camps was isolated, its living conditions bleak. Families cramped together into often shoddy, tar-papered barracks with little privacy. Hung sheets served as room dividers. People ate in large mess halls and bathed in communal restrooms. Relationships deteriorated in the close quarters. 

Some had to walk a half-block or more from the barracks to the bathroom. For a simple drink of water, internees had to go all the way to the mess hall; there was no water in the barracks.

A family in their barrack
A family in its barrack apartment at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Internees made much of their own furniture.
Courtesy of National Archives

"The normal functions of community life continued, but almost always under a handicap," said a 1983 report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which examined the impact of the camps. "Doctors were in short supply, schools which taught typing had no typewriters and worked from hand-me-down school books; there were not enough jobs." 

Through it all, the Japanese internees lived behind fences and barbed wire, surrounded by armed guards in watchtowers. 

At the Minidoka Relocation Center in south-central Idaho, where 6-year-old Sally (Ohno) Sudo and her family of 12 were incarcerated, temperatures stretched from the triple digits during the summer to below zero in the winter. 

It was miserable, Sudo said: "Imagine being in a building that's covered with black tar paper and no insulation." 

'Ashamed of my own ethnicity'

As World War II ended, the camps were gradually emptied and shuttered; some families chose to go back home, while other resettled elsewhere. 

Hannah Semba and Judy Tabata
Sisters Judy (Hayano) Tabata and Hannah (Hayano) Semba at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming in 1943. They were transferred from the Tule Lake internment center to Heart Mountain in 1942.
Courtesy of Semba family

Tule Lake was the last internment camp to close, in March 1946. 

Today, more than 70 years later, survivors still vividly remember the shame and pain of being imprisoned and stripped of their rights as citizens.  

"You carried this guilt of: 'What did I do to deserve this?'" Semba said. "You're in a state of confusion — 'Why are we here?' I'm an American citizen." 

No Japanese or Japanese-American person living in the U.S. was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage during World War II. 

In 1980, Congress established the  Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to examine Executive Order 9066 and its impact. Its report, titled "Personal Justice Denied," concluded that the incarceration was a "grave injustice" motivated by "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." 

The United States formally apologized in 1988 for what President Ronald Reagan called a "sad chapter in American history" when he signed the Civil Liberties Act. The legislation also paid out $20,000 in compensation to internment camp survivors. 

Still, the experience left some, like Sudo, feeling as though there was "something wrong with being Japanese." 

Barracks at Minidoka
Looking down the rows of barracks westward from block 44 at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. At the extreme left is a corner of the dining hall where the 275 to 300 residents of the block ate their meals. At the center of the background is the bathroom -- including showers, lavatories, toilets and washtubs. Nearly all the residents planted flowers and vegetable gardens in front of their barracks.
Courtesy of National Archives

"It made me ashamed of my own ethnicity," she said last week. "I carried that feeling all the way through school — that there was something different about me, that I didn't seem to fit in or belong, that if the government was doing this to us, there must be something wrong with us." 

But the ordeal was particularly devastating for people of her parents' generation, she said. As immigrants, they had already rebuilt their lives once in the U.S., only to see it all taken away. Now, they had to do it all over again. 

"People lost their businesses, they lost their homes, they lost their personal property" because they had to leave it all behind, Sudo said. "They're living here as legal immigrants and working hard, supporting their families, earning a living and then you lose all of that." 

Her father had immigrated to the United States in 1899 at the age of 18. He was 63 when he left Minidoka. 

"After the war, he really lived in a state of depression. I don't think he ever recovered from it," Sudo said. 

From Minidoka to Minnesota

Many Japanese, believing there was nothing they could do, had resigned themselves to living at the camps until they were released. But there were a few ways to get out, even though — as one University of Minnesota professor describes it — while the camps were in operation, they never were truly free.   

Many of those deemed "loyal" to America were eventually allowed to leave the internment camps if they were able to get a job elsewhere — or to join the Army or attend college inland. In short, they were considered "good" minorities. The "bad" ones stayed behind, locked up indefinitely.  

But living outside the camp just meant that they had the "freedom to obey, freedom to assimilate," said Yuichiro Onishi, who teaches Asian-American and African-American studies at the University of Minnesota.

Japanese-American translators at Fort Snelling
Japanese-American translators at Fort Snelling.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

One of Sudo's older brothers, Joe Ohno, ended up in Minnesota in 1943, training and working at the Military Intelligence Service Language School. 

The school was established after military officials started to realize that there was a need for Japanese translators in World War II's Pacific theater. They decided to train the Nisei, the American-born children of Japanese immigrants, for those roles. 

The 4th Army Intelligence School opened in San Francisco in 1941. But after Executive Order 9066, the school moved to Camp Savage, just southwest of Minneapolis. It outgrew that facility within a few years and moved again to Fort Snelling. 

Eventually, more 6,000 Japanese-Americans were trained at the school. They went on to break codes, serve as translators and interrogate prisoners of war. Their work was kept secret from most Americans until the 1970s, but their efforts have been credited with shortening the Pacific war by about two years. 

Once Sudo's brother Joe was in Minnesota, he helped get three other siblings out of the camp: Amy started doing secretarial work at Fort Snelling; Tom found employment with a Minneapolis family; and Fred studied at the Dunwoody Institute. With four of the 10 siblings living in Minnesota by the time the war was over, it made sense for the rest of the family to head here after leaving Minidoka. 

After the dry deserts of Idaho, Sudo couldn't get over how green Minneapolis was. The home where they lived in south Minneapolis had trees lining the block. 

"It just felt like the whole city seemed like a park," she said. 

Meanwhile, Semba had also found her way to the North Star State. Her older sister had started school at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Figuring she'd at least know someone nearby, Semba enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul. Beginning in the fall of 1944, she studied there for a year before transferring to the University of Minnesota. She graduated in 1948. 

Their parents joined them in Minnesota after the war — and both Sudo and Semba still live here today. 

Could it happen again?

This Sunday, the Minnesota History Center will mark the anniversary of Japanese-American incarceration with a special program. Attendees can join local survivors in a day of remembrance that will include readings from the letters and diaries of internees, exploring the question: Could it happen again? 

Survivors see parallels between America post-Pearl Harbor and America post-Sept. 11, 2001. They believe the anger and fear that was directed toward Japanese-Americans during World War II is playing out again, this time against Muslims.

In 2015, reported hate crimes against Muslims rose to their highest number since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to FBI data. 

The Tule Lake internment camp site
Top: A watercolor painting of the Tule Lake internment camp in California, showing Castle Rock in the background, created by Shima Semba in July 1943. Bottom: Survivor Hannah Semba, her son Charles and grandson Jonathan at the Tule Lake internment camp site in August 2015.
Courtesy of Semba family

"Things are happening that happened to us. It's all starting again," Sudo said. 

Last month, after President Trump announced his immigration and travel ban, the Japanese Americans Citizens League condemned the order. 

"Although the threat of terrorism is real, we must learn from our history and not allow our fears to overwhelm our values," it said in a statement.  

Last week, a federal appeals court refused to reinstate Trump's ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. The president has vowed to fight on

After the war, Semba and her husband rarely talked to their children about their experiences. It was too painful. 

But she has started speaking about them more openly now, worried about what will happen if she doesn't. 

"The story has to be told," she said. "Can it happen again? Yes. In some ways it's happening now."

More events

What: "Roger Shimomura: Mistaken Identity." Several pieces within the exhibition draw upon Shimomura's experiences while incarcerated at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. 

Where: Law Warschaw Gallery, Macalester College

When: Through March 10

Online: More information