I’ve always held on to the ways in which Japanese American Internment Camp during WWII has had a multigenerational impact on our family. We currently live a wonderful life together, and the Nisei (2nd generation Americans from Japan, which is my Bachan’s generation) don’t speak of their experiences during WWII regularly. But sometimes, during mundane tasks together, like walking our dogs or pulling weeds in the garden, I pick her brain about her experience. I could write about her childhood internment for hours, but here are some detailed aspects of her experience that stand out to me.
When my grandmother, Hisa Shiba, was 8 years old, two FBI officials in black suits knocked on her door at home in Los Angeles. She and her sister took their dog and hid under the bed. The government officials told her family that they had anywhere from 24-48 hours to pack one bag each. They would be assigned a number, and government transportation would take them away to relocation centers. Hisa, her parents, and her 7 siblings would be surrendering their home, their schooling, their jobs and their lives in a matter of days with one bag each. If they violated the order, they were issued a $5,000 fee (equivalent to roughly $80,000 now) and it would result in severe punishment.
Watch an assembly with Ms. Miyashima’s Grandmother and her brother about their experience, 12 minutes.
Days before being taken, Japanese-American families were selling furniture for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, after eviction, homes were ransacked by neighbors and government authority figures alike. Kimonos, wedding gifts, and jewelry were burglarized. Right before leaving for “camp,” Hisa couldn’t find her favorite teddy bear. Her 8-year-old self was crying and crying and crying as she was evicted from her house in LA. As their family hastily drove away on the government truck, the family dog chased the car as far as it’s legs would hold up until the dust of the road took over. No family wanted to leave their dog. Tears streamed, their dignity remained, but questions lingered ambiguously about where they were going, when they’d return, and if they’d return at all.
While the barracks in the middle of deserts were being constructed, families were taken to “holding areas’’ before relocating to the internment camps for the remainder of the war. One holding area was the Santa Anita race track. It was hot and muggy in the summer, and the smell of manure was ever present. Eventually, her family was transported to Manzanar Internment Camp in Central California. They were given blankets that were scratchy. The barracks had little to no privacy, and she remembers many adults being embarrassed with how gaping the restrooms felt.
Life in camp was what it was. My Bachan, Hisa, or “Bachi” as we call her (we couldn’t pronounce “Bachan” when we were young) taught me the phrase “Shikata ga nai,” essentially meaning “it is what it is,” similar to “C’est la vie.” Schools were formed, baseball became a major pastime, families constructed stone gardens, she learned and performed Japanese dancing, and people did the best they could.
Other prominent moments in camp were when young men volunteered to fight to prove loyalty to the USA (including my grandfather-in-law) with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, and the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history. The young soldiers imagined returning to accolades and praise of honor for their country, but they returned to live in internment with their families, if they returned at all. Bachi’s brother, George Shiba, and his friend and famous Japanese American Photographer, Toyo Miyatake, managed to secretly build cameras in camp to take photos. Absolutely no photos were technically allowed, because those running the camps didn’t want the country to know what conditions these civilians were living in. When photographers from the government did come to photograph internment, however, they persistently asked the Japanese American families to “smile!” and “look” like they were “having fun!” George and Toyo wanted to document and share the truth. They worked with famous photographer Ansel Adams to photograph the camps accurately.
Upon release, families had nothing. My family knew of a farmer in Layton, Utah, who could use help, so they lived and worked on the farm. This shameful Executive Order criminalizing Japanese Americans affected the lives and opportunities of thousands of youth, like my Bachan. College opportunities for the young adults exiting camp were unrealistic, and childhood years were tainted, spent in barracks in the middle of dusty California. Many teachers and schools did not want “Japs” reintegrated into their classes, and some Japanese American seniors were denied the ability to walk at their own High School graduations. I listen to my Bachan casually recounting her experiences as we wash dishes or during commercial breaks of NBA playoffs, and I can’t believe the upbringing I was able to receive. I remember my dad and Bachi being so excited about my opportunity to apply to and attend college. They never pressured me about what to study or where to go, but their eyes would light up upon the thought of me simply lounging on a campus quad reading a book, wearing my future school’s sweatshirt, and maybe cheering on a football team. It was something they wanted me to experience since they couldn’t.
I am proud of the resilience of the Japanese-Americans in our country. Perhaps during WWII, their only option was to embrace “Shikata ga nai,” but what about everyone else? Could someone have been a voice for the voiceless, or have protested on behalf of the Issei and Nisei families who couldn’t? My Bachan’s childhood incarceration experiences have instilled in me the belief that I am lucky to have the choice and the power to help shape the future of those being wrongfully treated, especially our youth. So, only when I feel that I’ve done all that I can to help prevent injustice in our country will I say, with dignity and strength, Shikata ga nai.
Watch an extended assembly with Ms. Miyashima’s Grandmother and her brother about their experience as well as Q&A from Class VII students with Ms. Miyashima, 21 minutes.
February 27, 2018
April 30, 2021
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