Freedom Prison Home

September 13, 2014 by Admin

By Arthur Mayeno

Authors’ Note: In 2005, Arthur Mayeno wrote and illustrated the story of his childhood and adolescence because he wanted very much for his children and grandchildren to know this history. Laurin helped him craft this essay taking pieces from what he wrote in 2005 and adding in more information from Arthur’s writing as well as memories from different family members. The drawings are from Arthur’s 2005 book.

At Home on Lane Street

In October 1941, my family posed for a photograph in the living room of our Seattle home. My father Kunizo, brother Jim, and I were dapper in our formal suits and ties. My mother, Masaye, in a black velvet dress with a white corsage, sat elegantly with her hands folded in her lap. My younger sisters Dorothy and Nancy wore taffeta dresses with short puffy sleeves and gathered skirts. We all gazed into the camera without smiling, except for sister Dorothy whose gleaming eyes and upturned lips betrayed her excitement. Much care was put into the details that made our house a home–a bouquet of flowers in the background, Japanese art, white lace curtains and dark drapes. The dark blue mohair sofa and chair, a recent purchase of my father’s, was adorned with embroidered doilies and cushions. My mother chastised him in Japanese, “You shouldn’t spend money like that in these uncertain times.”

Before we heard the rumors of “G-men” picking up leaders in our community and before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we lived peacefully in this home. I was 10 years when old when my youngest sister, Nancy, was born, and we rented the house at 1818 Lane Street, a few blocks from our previous place. A plain looking two-story with a tree in front and very little yard space, the house rested on a steep lot with a concrete retaining wall that kept in the dirt. There was a back porch where we fixed our bicycle and a basement where we stored it. Long lines of clothes usually hung in the back to dry.

Inside, the house was spacious with three bedrooms upstairs to accommodate our family of six, plus a bathroom with running water and a tub. I shared a room with my brother, Jim, who was two years older than I. My parents worked hard for everything we had–a gas stove, a refrigerator, our first washing machine, beds with real mattresses, linens and furnishings for all the rooms in the house. I was comfortable and secure in this home for four years, not suspecting that the life I knew would soon come to an end.

My mother, Masaye, wasn’t very affectionate, but she showed her love through the hard work she did to care for us. She woke early in the morning to wash the clothes and hang them to dry. She then made our school lunches, woke us, and cooked and served us breakfast. She shopped after work and came home with food for dinner. Then she brought in the wash and made and served supper. She cooked a variety of Japanese meals and kept us well fed with a small budget. After dinner she ironed our clothes, making sure that everybody had outfits ready for the next day. Every New Year my mother prepared an elaborate meal for my father’s friends who came to visit.

An active member of the Seattle Japanese Chamber of Commerce, my father, Kunizo, also ran the Washington Beer Distributing Company with two partners. He hardly made it home in time for dinner and wasn’t around much. Dad was more lenient and playful than mom, so when he came home at night, we kids gathered eagerly around him to welcome him home. I only saw my parents relax on the weekends, although Mom would often use that time to catch up with housecleaning, sewing or knitting, or to take one or more of us kids downtown to buy clothes.

Brothers Roaming Free

These were our years of freedom. Dad occasionally played catch with us boys or took us fishing at a distant spot with a friend who had a car. A few times he took us out in a rented rowboat to fish on Puget Sound. Fishing was our favorite activity, and Jim and I often left early in the morning for the piers, arriving home at night. We fished with hand-held lines wrapped around sticks with bait such as worms we found under the pier, shrimp we bought in Chinatown or perch we caught and cut up in small pieces. When we caught something edible, we were happy to contribute to the family dinner. Sometimes my fishing line would get hopelessly tangled, and I’d bring the mess home to my mother. The next morning I would find the line wrapped neatly on the stick.

Jim and I sometimes brought in the laundry or chopped firewood for the stove and obligingly attended church on Sundays. But mostly, we did what we wanted on the weekends and in the summertime. Sometimes we played with other kids who lived nearby. Much of Seattle is hilly and our neighborhood was no exception. The only flat area was at the intersection of 18th and Lane, which became the neighborhood baseball diamond in baseball season and our basketball court during basketball season. Passing cars frequently interrupted us. We had a neighbor who drove by in his old Model-T with a sign on the back window that said “SmileS” (a mile between two S’s), and whenever we saw the sign, it made us smile.

On our way to the fishing piers, Jim and I usually walked down Jackson Street, the same street where we got our haircuts and bought our shoes and Hohner harmonicas. There, we passed a feather-plucking establishment where we saw chickens running around with their heads cut off. To get to our favorite pier at Puget Sound, we walked past hundreds of small shacks, constructed of discarded materials, recycled lumber, and used metal advertisement signs, among other things. The area was called “Hooverville” like many other encampments of single unemployed men across the US. Several of the inhabitants befriended us and graciously showed us the interiors of their Jerry-built shacks.

We also explored other areas we loved, including the swamps near the railroad tracks where we hunted for tadpoles, pollywogs, frogs, and sticklebacks. Sometimes we would walk to Mt. Baker beach, which was two miles in the opposite direction.

Jim and I also ventured into Seattle’s “red light district,” which was located just one block north of the International District. Once at dusk, we walked a discreet distance behind a couple of sailors who were checking out the action. As they strolled for several blocks, porch lights went on, windows and doors opened, and painted ladies aggressively invited them to come in. After they passed, the windows and doors closed, and lights went off behind them.

My father thought that a saltwater ocean beach might be the best cure for the eczema and impetigo I suffered from, and Alki in West Seattle was the closest one–a few hours away by streetcar. Jim and I usually spent half our summer vacations there. The waves and cold water made it challenging to practice swimming. From the beach we saw the Kala Kala, a modern ferry, go to and from Bainbridge Island. Minutes after it passed, large waves rolled in from its wake. The tide left a trail of small rounded stones on the beach, and we walked up and down looking at the strip of pebbles for agates. Sometimes we would get so engrossed in the search that we lost all sense of time and space.

A Drastic Change

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was stunned and dismayed. How could Japan do something so terrible? Why are they starting another war? What will happen to us now? I felt as if we were caught in the middle between two warring parents. We were sure things would change drastically for our family; and they did. I woke up in the middle of the night when two FBI men came to our house to arrest my father. I got out of bed and watched in silence as they took him away. How would we manage without him? When would we see him again? We could only hope it would be soon. As it turned out, our only contact with him for nearly two years was an occasional letter from Montana or New Mexico where he was imprisoned.

We listened closely to the radio for any news. We heard rumors that we might be forced to leave the West Coast, but I didn’t believe it. Then came news of the “relocation.” I was still in disbelief. How could our government imprison us when we had not committed any crime? Though I felt hurt and betrayed by our President, I kept my thoughts and feelings bottled up inside. Like many others, our family endured the hardship without complaining.

Mom was suddenly thrust into the role of head of the family. With little information about what was happening, she spoke limited English and had few people to talk to. Until then, my father had made all the difficult decisions. While continuing to work to support and care for four children on her own, Mom also had to get ready for our departure. She had to decide what to pack in the five suitcases we were allowed to bring with us to camp, what treasured objects to store at the Buddhist temple, and what to sell or give away. While Mom worked, Brother Jim and I were given the job of selling and disposing of almost everything that our parents had worked so long and hard to accumulate. We had just a few months to sell our possessions, including the recently purchased mohair sofa and chair. I was saddest to part with our bicycle that we rode all over the city and the drum that I played in the Boy Scouts drum and bugle corps.

A few months after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, we were taken by bus to “Camp Harmony” at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, about 100 miles south of Seattle. Although I don’t remember it, I spent my 15th birthday in a temporary residence built hastily at the racetrack and horse stalls. Months later, we were taken by train to Minidoka, a prison camp in a sandy, treeless desert of south central Idaho. In this camp, a barbed wire fence surrounded us, and there was almost nothing but miles and miles of sagebrush in every direction. Armed guards checked the papers of all those entering or leaving and armed sentries manned the watchtowers.


Our family was among over 9,000 people who were taken to Minidoka–an entire city imprisoned in 36 blocks of tar paper barracks. Our family was given the number 22-6-C, which translated to block 22, barrack 6, room C. Like every other block, ours had a mess hall, laundry room, restrooms, and furnace room. Our barrack, like every other, had six rooms–one room per family.

Our 20 X 20 foot room held 5 iron cots, which took up nearly half the room, and a potbellied stove. Filling cloth bags with straw, we made mattresses for our cots. The floors consisted of barren wood, and the unfinished walls offered no insulation. We hung a sheet across the room–the only privacy afforded between the sexes. With no running water in our room, we used communal bathrooms and showers with little privacy. My family was imprisoned here for nearly three years.

The weather was much more extreme in the camp than in Seattle, and strong winds created frequent sandstorms. With no sidewalks, we sloshed through mud when it rained. During the cold season, Mom kept the potbellied stove stoked to keep the room warm. In the summertime, the heat was stifling. We children spent most of our time away from the room, going back to our barracks only to sleep at night. We no longer had family dinners. My siblings and I ate our meals in the mess hall with other children, and Mom ate with other Issei.

I longed for the freedom to roam the streets with Jim. I missed fishing, beaches, skating, biking, camping with the Boy Scouts and playing in the drum and bugle corps. I missed my schoolmates, hanging out at the library after school with my friends and the vast array of books at the library for studying and enjoyment. Did no one care enough to speak up for our freedom? Every night I lay in bed listening to the radio, hoping to hear that it was all a big mistake, hoping to hear we’d be able to go home. Every night I was disappointed.

We sometimes went out to work for local farmers harvesting potatoes and sugar beets. Due to a severe shortage in manpower during the war, we were asked to help. This was our chance to see a bit of freedom and earn some money to spend in Twin Falls. One day we completed work early and jumped at the chance to go to town when the farmer offered us a ride. In town, we stood on a corner and debated whether to go to the movies, the drug store fountain, get a hamburger or shop at Newberry’s. Two soldiers approached us and one loudly said, “I want you guys out of town. When I come back in half an hour you better be gone.”

As we stood stunned and angry the second soldier came back and apologized for his buddy’s behavior. We thought that it was unlikely he’d be less drunk in half an hour, so we left town.

Most of the time, we were stuck behind barbed wire, in a city of tar paper barracks, sand, and dirt. Jim and I usually hung out with boys our age from the same block. An irrigation canal ran along the side of the camp, which brought water to many of the surrounding farms. When it got hot, a group of us boys sometimes climbed between the barbed wires of the fence to go swimming. The guards didn’t try to stop us. The irrigation ditch was at least 20 yards wide. The force of the current made it impossible for us to stand up in the middle, and I didn’t know how to swim very well. I knew it was risky, but the water was a refreshing escape from the scorching heat and boredom. Using all our strength to fight the current, we swam across to the other side and back again.

My friend Shig Tada had a younger brother, Noboru, who was 11 years old. When he and his friends went wading one evening, he slipped and fell into the drop-off. Carried away by the current, Noboru was found unconscious after an hour-and-a-half search. He was rushed to the hospital, where attempts to revive him failed. I felt sad for my friend and his family. I knew that this could have easily happened to me or Jim, or one of our friends. But the tragedy didn’t stop me from going again. Swimming in the cool water outside of the barbed wire fence, I felt the sense of freedom I so dearly missed.

To pass the time, we built a chinning bar against the laundry room using leftover building materials. We probably got the pipe and wood from one of the Issei who worked in the warehouse. We braced one side of the bar against the laundry building and built a wooden scaffold to hold up the other side. The chin-up bar turned out to be my main source of exercise. We would climb up on the bar and fall backwards, holding on with our knees. At just the right moment, we would let go and fly through the air, landing on our feet.

We spent many hours at the recreation center playing ping pong, a game I still play with my children and grandchildren. We also hung out in the laundry room, where we were shielded from the wind and sun and it wasn’t ever really cold. We played different games like chess, bridge, poker and shogi (a Japanese game similar to chess) with a few of our playmates. Jim found a “beginners’ guide to chess,” which we used to teach ourselves the game. Learning various openings and other strategies for board control, we beat a visiting college student and thought we were “hot shot” players.

Mr. Nakano, an Issei, showed interest in learning chess, so we taught him how each of the different pieces moved and how to “castle.” We knew he was a shogi player, so we challenged him to a game. Although he made a number of unconventional moves, he won handily. When he beat us easily a second time, he also won our respect. We received much advice about many things from many people, but the only advice that I remember came from Mr. Nakano: “Get yourselves in a position to buy a house and do so.”

Our next family photo was taken in front of our barrack after Jim went away to college and my father joined us at Minidoka. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras to camp, but a few cameras eventually turned up, and somehow we ended up with one family photo. Instead of mohair furnishings, curtains and drapes, our backdrop was rickety wooden boards and black tar paper. My mother, my sister Nancy, and two of her playmates were seated casually on a handmade wooden bench. The children’s legs dangled in their scruffy lace-up leather boots. My father, sister Dorothy and I stood behind them. It must have been a sunny day, because Mom wore short sleeves and Dad donned his aviator style sunglasses.

A Home of Our Own

Sixteen years after leaving Minidoka, I bought a house in Berkeley, California, with my wife Rebecca. Around that time, Jim and his wife, Mary, bought a home in Seattle. Because of our camp experience, Jim and I felt strongly that we needed stable homes as anchors for our lives. We still own those homes–the smartest financial investments we ever made.

In 1961 Rebecca and I had four kids, including an infant daughter, and the duplex we rented was getting cramped. I worked as a silkscreen cutter for a poster company and didn’t earn enough to save for a down payment. But my mother lent us the $3,600 we needed, and our real estate agent found an amazing deal–a four- bedroom house with a mortgage of $91.25 per month. The house had a big backyard with a giant maple tree. Located on Walnut Street, near UC Berkeley, it was walking distance to local businesses and services.

As soon as we moved in, I set about making home improvements. I took down some old bamboo blinds and burned them in the fireplace. In the middle of the night the baby woke up and started crying. When Rebecca got up to take care of her, she saw a strange reflection on the neighbor’s house and realized that our roof was on fire. Sparks had flown up the chimney and ignited a bunch of old leaves on the roof. I couldn’t find a hose, and we didn’t have a phone yet. Rebecca saw a light on across the street, where two elderly ladies were up late playing games. They kindly let her use their phone to call the fire department. That was our introduction to the neighborhood.

Another big event in that house was the birth our youngest daughter, Reiko, who came so quickly that I ended up delivering her at home. Rebecca knew it was time, and I didn’t have to do much, except cover the bed with newspaper. Sara, our five-year-old, was allowed in the room and had the job of keeping Amy, the two-year-old, out. Amy made a big racket about how unfair that was. Dr. Meyers, arriving about half an hour after the birth, cut the umbilical cord and washed the baby off. When Sara asked the doctor why the baby was covered was milk, he responded: “It’s hard for the babies to drink inside the mother, so they spill a lot.” Sara believed this tale for many years.

I didn’t earn much money, but my income was enough to live on because the mortgage was so low. For many years I worked hard just to keep food on the table. When Reiko, our youngest, started school, Rebecca finally had time to continue her education. She earned her Master’s degree and began her career as an elementary school teacher in the Berkeley Schools. Her teaching income allowed me to retire early and do artwork and other activities around the house.

The thing I enjoyed most about the house was spending time fixing it up. The full basement gave me a place to store my tools and supplies for numerous home improvement projects. I made constant changes and additions to meet the needs of our family–painting, stripping paint, building furniture, adding a second bathroom and a set of bars in the backyard for twirling, and even building a room in the backyard to give my son Ian his own space. When Laurie needed her own bedroom, I divided our bedroom in half so she would have her own room. When Rebecca took up pottery, I built her a pottery shed in back.

Our home gave us room for arts, crafts, Easter egg hunts, birthday parties and Christmas celebrations. Rebecca’s mother was Jewish, so we sometimes celebrated Chanukah and Passover. Over the years, we had many pets, including a cat we collectively named Nekko Kekko Bubble Gum Mayeno, dogs named Boris, Daya, and Goose, and an array of guinea pigs, turtles, and other creatures.

Rebecca made lots of friends and had a spirit one friend described as “reckless generosity.” She had no qualms about opening our house to friends and strangers alike, and I didn’t mind the stream of houseguests. Our house provided a temporary home for many family members, friends, and even some strangers. Among our many houseguests was a young girl named Sunshine who needed a place to stay away from her family. During her stay with us, she tried to commit suicide by drinking bleach that she had found in the laundry area. We also hosted a young couple, newly arrived UC Berkeley freshmen, who Laurie met living in their car in front of the house. They borrowed our tent and camped in the backyard until they got their own place. Rebecca’s nephews and nieces from Israel also came for long visits.

Our latest family photograph was taken in July 2006 on the wood deck I built behind the house. Rebecca and I sat in the middle surrounded by our five children, ten grandchildren, great grand-stepson, spouses and partners. Everyone was dressed casually and smiling. Our backdrop was windows and doors framed by natural wood and an array of potted plants. The green leaves of a Japanese maple gently frame the upper right hand corner of the photo.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
%d bloggers like this: