September 13, 2014 by Admin
By Barbara Horiuchi
As a child, I was an awful snoop. While family, friends, and relatives sat around the kitchen table and talked for hours, I hovered at the edge, listening. Sometimes, the older Issei would tell a ghost story that would scare the living daylights out of me for weeks. Once, Mrs. Ono sang old Japanese folk songs that reminded my Baachan of Japan, bringing tears to her eyes. I heard and gathered fragments of their remembrances–a mix of stories about hard work, picture brides, G-rated war stories from Dad’s experience in the 442nd, as well as funny family incidents and happy times. And then in lowered, sometimes angered voices, they would talk about “camp.” The kids would usually go off to play, but I would invariably sneak back, hide behind the Dutch door to the kitchen, listen and soak in all the stories. I’d hear fragments about the “mess hall” and “community baths” or “guards in the towers with machine guns.” When the salacious tidbits piqued my interest and I could no longer contain myself, I would pop up and ask, “What are you all talking about?” My dad would call me “pesty” or “nosy kid” and everyone laughed.
But I had questions. A million of ‘em. I wanted to know about “camp.” When I would ask Ma directly about “camp,” she would laugh nervously, get fidgety and vague. “Oh, that’s something you don’t need to know about.” Or, irritated with my incessant questions, she would say, “Urusai! You ask too many questions!” As a youngster, I knew some history about WW II, the war with Japan, Pearl Harbor, and the war in Europe from asking my parents and reading Encyclopedia Britannica. But “camp” was still a muddy mystery. Not until the summer of 1966 did my mom finally tell me about it.
I was sitting at the kitchen table. The glass curtains from the open windows cast silken shadows on the floor. Ma was standing by the counter, getting ready to feed our numerous cats and dogs. Lining up the plates on the counter top, she started with, “I have something very important to tell you. It’s about something that happened during the war. I’m telling you because I want you to know about it.” She paused. “It was something bad. And I want you know that we did nothing wrong.”
She wasn’t looking at me while she spoke as she normally would. She opened a can of pet food and said, “I want to tell you about “camp.” It wasn’t like camp for kids.” She stopped her pet-feeding production line and continued, “It was like a prison camp. We were put there simply because we were Japanese and, at the time, were seen as the enemy. It was an awful, awful time and an awful, awful place.” She began to cry as the events and memories flooded back. She was in her late teens during the time the executive order for the forced removal was initiated. She wondered with great fear if she and her family would be rounded up and killed “like cattle.” She told me of her great sorrow at watching her parents abandon their home and her father’s livelihood as foreman at an apricot ranch. A lover of animals, she expressed her heartbreak at leaving her beloved pets behind.
She described her immense shame as her family and other families were herded onto buses and driven through streets with people jeering–or worse, cheering at them–as they rode by. She conveyed to me the horror and disbelief of she and her family as they were led to their new temporary housing: horse stalls complete with fresh manure at the Turlock Assembly Center. As they cleaned out their new living space, she fretted about getting horse manure on the nice clothes that they still wore from earlier that day, when they were forcibly taken from their homes. She was shocked at the lack of privacy in the bathroom facilities and the conditions of their new temporary home. As she was telling me the story, she paused and looked to the side, away from me. I could see her shoulders going up with a sharp intake of each short breath and the tears falling off her face.
When they finally were ordered to leave the assembly center, she told me of the train ride to an unknown destination in the stifling heat with the shades drawn all the way down. “None of us knew where they were taking us. I was so scared.” She occasionally peeked out under the blinds only to see a desolate view covered with desert scrub. She would never forget their entry into Arizona when she left the train and was met with a blast of heat that hit her face like “when you open an oven on broil.” After their arrival in the desert, she realized immediately that they were really in a prison made for those accused of being criminals with the sentries pointing their guns inwards and barbed wire all around.
She cried at the memory of the armed guards in the tower. Her shoulders shuddered, and she covered her face with her hands. Only nine years old, I went over to her and told her “Mommy, don’t cry. You’re not there now. Everything’s okay.” At the time, I remember feeling sad about what had happened to my beloved parents, grandparents, relatives, and so many others. I couldn’t understand why the US government would want to do this to my family. The more I thought about it, the more angry I became. At a very young age, I learned what the word “injustice” meant.
Before Ma shared her story of camp, I was sometimes envious of the other non-Asian girls at school. I used to wish I had bigger, deep-set eyes with long eyelashes, lighter colored hair, freckles, and some sort of developing chest. But after hearing Ma’s story, I never felt more proud to be Japanese. I am immensely proud of my family’s, and the Japanese American community’s, fighting spirit to endure, persevere, and find strength in adversity.
Over the years, into my teens and adulthood, Ma and other family members would continue to talk more and more frequently about their experiences in the concentration camps where they were incarcerated and of their difficult saga during and after the war. It was as if somehow talking together about the painful experience made the injustice more palatable. Sometimes a tale was prompted by me with multiple questions. Other times their memories were sparked by something as innocuous as hearing a Big Band song from that era, a scorching hot summer day, or the smell of tar. Ma hated the smell. When my father would tar the gutters of the flower nursery hothouse, she would sometimes stay inside the house to avoid the smell. She told me that the scent reminded her of the tar paper covering the barracks, which was amplified by the Arizona heat, and how her sensitive nose could pick it up. The smell sickened her.
My mother was a happy, strong,tremendously caring, and wonderful parent. She would often sing songs when preparing dinner, dance with my Dad in the kitchen (much to our delight), and had a unique, wry sense of humor. But Ma’s incarceration experience left her with a deep wound of internalized shame, guilt, anger, and even acceptance. Even through the years past “camp,” happily meeting and marrying the man of her dreams, raising children, years of working hard until her comfortable retirement, the wound was still there. She would try to put behind the event that had a deep impact on her, her family, and over 120,000 others’ lives, but little reminders would draw her back to that time.
Once, around the mid 1970s, after seeing an old magazine cover picture of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, she recalled the memory of the day in camp when she and family heard the news about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At the time, she wondered how the US could have created one bomb that had the power to kill thousands of lives in an instant. She then pondered the uncertainty of their own fate at the hands of that same government who incarcerated them, even though many had left the camps and relocated eastward at that point. She then noticed her own mother crying. Her mother told her they had distant relatives in Hiroshima. Ma said she tried to comfort her mother as best she could but felt helpless watching her mother cry at the loss of relatives a world away.
Until my mother’s death in 2000, Ma would sometimes still weep at the retelling of a story, or hearing someone else’s war time experience, and even photographs. She once came across an old shoe box with some long-forgotten, black and white photos of a family picnic with acquaintances just outside of the camp in the desert in 1945. The faded images brought back a barrage of painful memories from that time. Like my mother trying to comfort her own mother, and like most children, I wanted to make things better for her; to heal her wound. Even if that meant just listening, understanding, and telling her
again, “Don’t cry Ma. Everything’s okay.”