Remembering the Japanese American Internment
Mayumi Tsutakawa’s research on the forced detention of Japanese Americans during World War II took on a very personal meaning.
After all, the story of Executive Order 9066 is also the story of her family. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 measure to imprison both recent Japanese immigrants and citizens of Japanese descent expelled 120,000 men, women, and children from the West Coast to ten huge detention camps in the interior.
Among them was her mother, Ayame Iwasa.
The story of how her family endured and recovered from that ordeal informs Tsutakawa’s Speakers Bureau presentation, “The Pine and the Cherry: Japanese Americans in Washington.”
“I decided that after some years of doing the historical research, and having done some work in graduate school on the history of Japanese and Japanese American newspapers, that it really needed a family or personal perspective for audiences to want to grasp it,” Tsutakawa says.
Others in her family had a far different experience than her mother. Her father, noted Seattle sculptor George Tsutakawa, was allowed to enlist in the US Army during the war, and taught Japanese language to fellow personnel. Ayame and George met during her internment at Tule Lake, California, while George was visiting family members who were also held there.
The internment didn’t end until the close of the war, and survivors of the camps and their descendants struggled for decades with the aftershocks: dislocation, unemployment, loss of property, restrictions on citizenship, and historical erasure.
Tsutakawa’s parents settled in Seattle, where Mayumi worked as a journalist, educator, and arts fundraiser. February 19, 2017 is the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, and her presentation aims to put listeners in her family’s shoes.
“I hope that college students or even high-school students can sort of visualize themselves as youngsters, being happy in school, in sports, in music and clubs and all that — and being suddenly yanked away from their towns, with no notice of where they would be going or what they would do when they got there, or even if they would have any friends when they got there.”
Humanities Washington: Your parents had very different experiences of Executive Order 9066. Did that give them different perspectives on the situation?
Mayumi Tsutakawa: My mom and dad were both born in America, grew up in Japan, and came back to America. They were both bilingual, and had that upbringing, so the marriage was arranged. Both sets of parents felt like this could be a good match. The thing that’s different about their points of view politically was that my dad stood there and said, “The US is going to win the war. Look at our superior firepower and resources!” Whereas my mom’s family was part of the group of people interned at Tule Lake, which became the highest-security camp — because a lot of the people there were still pro-Japan. They were imprisoned by the US government, and some of them had contraband radios, and they were receiving offshore broadcasts that said, “Japan is going to win the war, it’s imminent.” So definitely, I would say they had different points of view. But it’s not like they had political arguments. They only met each other briefly, and then after the war he went back to Seattle, and she went to Sacramento to help her mom in a little restaurant they started up. Arguably, she hardly knew him.
It was really common for us, the next generation who were born after the camps, to not know anything about it, because our parents didn’t talk about it. The Japanese Americans wanted to forget.
Did your father have mixed feelings on serving in the same military that detained his family?
Yeah, and of course, the dropping of the atomic bomb on two cities in Japan was very painful. I want to point out that my mother’s older brother actually was in Hiroshima during the bomb blast, and he was killed. That was the reason there was this kind of hiatus [between my parents]. She was mad at the US government and the Army — and my dad. There had to be this sort of cooling-off period. Surely, during that time, he was very sad and very sorry, and he created a very important, poignant sculpture called War Mother, in honor of the people who had died in the Hiroshima bomb blast. I think after that point, my mom agreed to come to Seattle and get married. In a way, the sculpture almost serves as an apology — not for himself, but for war.
Growing up, what awareness did you have of your parents’ experiences?
It was really common for us, the next generation who were born after the camps, to not know anything about it, because our parents didn’t talk about it. The Japanese Americans wanted to forget. Not only were they physically deprived in the really deplorable conditions of the camps, but psychologically. The families were really devastated and quite depressed — particularly the fathers, having no career, no work, no decent salary for their skills. There was a great deal of sadness and wanting to forget, and to get back into American life and make sure that us kids, the next generation, were successful. But I have to say it wasn’t until the 1960s and early 1970s, because of the civil rights movements, that Japanese young people and Asian Americans created a movement to demand ethnic studies, to learn and share our history. It was then that we really started talking to our parents — and demanding the right to gather some oral histories, do some writings, and have some righteous anger about what happened, instead of covering it up.
Executive Order 9066 was a government decree, but did non-Japanese civilians collaborate or profit from it?
The Japanese in Seattle were really successful businesspeople — they owned or managed the largest proportion of hotels in Seattle, so there was envy and competition. When the Executive Order was proclaimed on February 19, it said that people should be ready to leave by April. Two and a half months, and they had to get rid of everything. Because of redlining, most of them were renting, unless they had purchased a house in the name of their kids, because of the Alien Land Law that was passed in Washington in 1921. Because they could only carry one suitcase, they had to leave their business machinery or furniture or tools in the hands of friends. And these so-called friends or business colleagues weren’t necessarily all in favor of helping out their Japanese neighbors. There’s this whole string of legislation that was caused by conservative journalists and businesspeople who said the Japanese were not fit to become Americans. So there were many reasons why normal people took up the hatred of Japanese and Japanese Americans on the basis of race. If you look at the people who were imprisoned, over half of them were actually American citizens, born here. They were still considered suspect as the enemy.
Are there parallels to today’s political climate? Or differences?
I would say that among Japanese Americans and our organizations that speak for us — particularly Densho, the Japanese American history archive, which has been speaking out a lot recently — there’s a lot of fear of the term “Muslim registry,” or anti-alien sentiment, or anti-immigration rules. These are all things that we’ve already experienced, and they’re very frightful. Civil rights and due process and equal treatment under the Constitution — these are all things we had hoped the United States government would provide for people who come to our shores, to be integrated into the United States by their own choice. After all, one of the reasons we were considered “unassimilable” — which was a word that was actually used then — was because a number of our people were Buddhist. That kind of intolerance, repeated by Americans today, is very frightful and very scary. And definitely, in my talks that I’ve been giving, in discussion afterwards, there is always recognition of that difficult situation.
Mayumi Tsutakawa is presenting her free Humanities Washington talk, “The Pine and the Cherry: Japanese Americans in Washington,” around the state. Find out where she’s appearing next.