Generations of Japanese Americans were scarred by WWII internments

02/19/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:33 AM

In the spring of 1942, Donna Nakashima's father came home to Florin on leave from the U.S. Army to help his widowed mother gather the family's belongings – one suitcase per person – as they prepared for wartime incarceration.

Renowned photographer Dorothea Lange captured the moment. A uniformed Ted Miyata stood alongside his mother in the strawberry field she rushed to harvest before segregation orders aimed at Japanese Americans forced the family from their home.

Seventy years later, consider the stark generational changes forged by wartime trauma.

Nakashima's late parents – the children of immigrants who were forbidden by law to become American citizens – were part of a generation that came of age during the war, many of them imprisoned behind the barbed wire of internment camps because of their Japanese heritage.

But her own two children think of themselves as American, not Japanese American. And so does she.

"I don't know my culture," said Nakashima, 50, a state analyst who lives in Sacramento. "But that's how my parents raised us. They didn't speak Japanese at home. They only spoke English."

On Feb. 19, 1942, with a frightened nation still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attacks two months earlier, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Two-thirds of them were native-born American citizens like Nakashima's parents.

More than four decades would pass before a congressional commission found that the imprisonment accomplished no national security purpose and was, instead, based on what the commission called "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." By 1990, former internees began receiving presidential letters of apology and reparation checks.

Today Japanese American educators and researchers say that the community's third generation – the Sansei, most of them born after the war to parents who had been imprisoned – has inherited a complicated generational legacy that has played out in the Japanese American culture ever since the days of camp.

"A lot of what people experience in adulthood can be traced back to the trauma their parents passed on intergenerationally," said Satsuki Ina, 67, a psychotherapist and retired Sacramento State professor who was born to Nisei (or second) generation parents at the Tule Lake camp in Northern California.

Through her research, which culminated in an Emmy-winning PBS documentary, "Children of the Camps," she discovered that post-traumatic stress scarred the lives of Nisei and their Sansei children in the years after they were released from camp.

In her own case, she said: "I think of what it was to be a baby carried in the arms of a mother who wrote in her diary, 'Is today the day they're going to shoot us?' "

She also found that many Nisei lives in the years after camp were marked by chronic, low-level depression, a dark cloud of lingering despair.

"It has to do with the fear," she said. "It has to do with not taking chances, not expressing themselves or realizing their full dreams. With depression goes anxiety, too."

Their fears and internalized shame taught their children powerful but unintentional lessons.

Research shows that Sansei whose parents were not imprisoned during the war – mainly because they didn't live on the West Coast – tend to have significantly stronger confidence in their rights as American citizens, compared with the children of former internees, according to University of Michigan psychology professor Donna K. Nagata.

Despite their grace in enduring the war years and their accomplishments afterward, despite the drive to achieve they instilled in their offspring, the Nisei still handed down a profound unspoken insecurity about their place in American life.

Rosemont resident Kiyo Sato knows why.

"Something like camp happens, it sets your pathway in life," said Sato, 88, an Air Force veteran and registered nurse who has written about her family's incarceration at the Poston, Ariz., camp in her memoir, "Kiyo's Story."

"You're with it all the time. You never get over it. It's like being labeled as a kid. There's something always lingering that says you're not quite good enough. I still feel that."

A legacy of silence

One of the most striking generational themes, said Nagata, has been the Nisei silence about incarceration. Nearly three-fourths of the Sansei she studied reported that their parents mentioned internment camp only incidentally, if at all.

"For Sansei growing up, the absence of communication actually communicated a lot," she said. "They picked up a sense that this was negative and too painful to talk about."

Nisei parents not only wanted to put the past behind them; they also didn't want to burden their children with what they had experienced. But their silence came to resonate in unexpected ways.

When Nagata, who grew up in California, moved to Ann Arbor two decades ago to work at the university, her parents visited her there in what she thought was their first trip to Michigan. Then her father mentioned that when he relocated to the Midwest from camp in Utah during the war, he had washed pots in the same building where she ended up working.

"It had been a dorm for naval officers during the war," she said. "This will forever send chills down my back. What a coincidence. And it dovetails with the silence."

As a result of their incarceration, she said, the Nisei generally encouraged their children to turn away from their cultural roots.

"Among the Sansei in my interviews, some said they inherited a sense of shame about being Japanese," Nagata said. "There was something negative in the identity.

"The Nisei parents emphasized their children achieving and being 200-percent American and proving themselves through education and skills – and at the same time, not making waves. You should blend in and be a good representative of what's Japanese, so people can't find fault."

Some Nisei, deeply fearful of standing out, even worried that being in the public eye again because of the government's official apology in the late 1980s could lead to renewed attacks or more incarceration.

Not surprisingly, a vast majority of Sansei today don't speak Japanese. And more than 60 percent of the Sansei generation has "out-married" – wed someone from another ethnic or racial background.

It's an ironic footnote to the Japanese American experience, considering that it was almost 1950 before the U.S. Supreme Court declared laws forbidding Asian and non-Asian intermarriage to be illegal.

'Just like that'

To understand the generational legacy of Executive Order 9066, said UC Davis history professor Eric Rauchway, it's necessary to know the history of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in California.

"Executive Order 9066 is universally regarded as the worst decision of FDR's presidency, but it was popular at the time," he said. "There's a long history of Washington placating California racism against Asian immigrants."

By the time they were imprisoned, California's Japanese Americans cultivated all but about 15 percent of the Central Valley's patchwork of small farms, even though they were forbidden by law to own property themselves. Their industriousness and success, like that of Chinese Americans before them, gave rise to organized efforts to limit their employment.

To reduce the competition for jobs, California law in the 1880s excluded the Chinese from immigration. In the 1920s, those laws expanded to the Japanese, as well. And Asian immigrants were denied the possibility of naturalization.

"Look at it this way," said Rauchway. "The same time is a phenomenal period of immigration from Europe, and there's no Italian exclusion act."

When World War II began, Japanese American families paid the price on the home front.

"Discrimination was high after Pearl Harbor," said Jim Tanaka, 85, a retired mechanic who lives in Greenhaven. He grew up in Oak Park, where his family rented farmland.

"You'd be surprised. We'd take our produce to a market, and they stopped buying it. Boom, just like that. They didn't want anything to do with us."

During the war, his family was imprisoned at the Topaz camp in Utah. Meanwhile, he served in the highly decorated, all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe – soldiers who fought to prove themselves to a country that incarcerated their families and made them sign loyalty oaths.

Releasing the shame

As hard as the war years were, Nagata's research shows that the Nisei generation's anger and anxiety peaked after camp, when the Nisei were putting their lives back together and starting their families.

Suicides in the community were frequent then, as well, said Tom Ikeda, executive director of the Seattle-based Densho project, which since 1996 has collected the stories of former internees.

His own parents hadn't talked about their internment – and when he founded Densho, his father warned him not to stir up bad memories among the Nisei.

"Part of that was not wanting to relive the memories himself," he said.

But the opposite proved true: For many Nisei, telling their stories provided healing.

"When we started doing our interviews, I noticed our narrators had a sense of relief from telling their stories," Ikeda said. "All it was, was the release of their pain and shame. Even though they did nothing wrong, they felt shame."

The Sansei generation sometimes picked up the pieces of their parents' broken dreams, said Nagata. Some dedicated dissertations to parents whose education was derailed by the war. Others chose universities, even careers, that their parents long ago desired.

"And some people chose specifically to go into law or become activists to prevent things from happening again," she said.

The legacy of imprisonment has included decades of quiet civil rights advocacy handed down from Nisei to Sansei. Most recently, Japanese American activists worked closely with Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks to curtail calls for another mass civilian incarceration without due process of law.

"The lessons stayed with us," said Andy Noguchi, 61, civil rights co-chair of the Japanese American Citizens League's Florin chapter.

"Our generation didn't have the pain to overcome. We didn't have a problem standing up and saying, 'This is America, and what our parents went through was wrong.' "

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