Legacies What Internment Did to My Family
The court finally condemned Korematsu v. US, but the lessons of history are being overlooked by those claiming to have recognized them.
Grandma, born Midori May Mori, was fourteen years old when she was imprisoned with her family in Granada War Relocation Camp in Colorado. She was nisei, second-generation Japanese American, forced from her home in Los Angeles to a place she’d never seen by military personnel with guns. She was too young to fully grasp that the US government saw her in the same light as the Japanese pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor. A high school freshman, she was considered a threat to national security.
Every day at Granada, she woke up to the view of the sun rising above the barbed-wire fences and machine gun towers. She had to be careful when she walked outside, because the campsite was prone to strong dust storms. The filth stung her eyes and brought her to tears.
She lived with her parents in an army-style barrack with dusy brick floors. They slept on thin cots. As an only child, she had to learn to fend for herself when her parents were busy. At lunchtime, she sat with the other teenagers and tried to mingle. She choked down government-issue American lunches of boiled vegetables and white bread, her stomach rumbling for fresh fish, brown curry, and chewy soba noodles. She attended school with the other children, all the while missing her friends in sunny Los Angeles.
She quickly learned to lay low and follow the rules; to tamp down anger and despair. The elders she met said, “Shikata ga nai” ( It can’t be helped ). Word went around that an internee at Fort Sill was shot to death after attempting to escape. Prisoners were warned that if they broke the rules, they’d be separated from their families. If they tried to run, the guards would shoot.
The Vincent Thomas Bridge is a magnificent green steel structure. During the day, the gentle arch of the bridge seamlessly guides visitors to their loved ones across the port. Blue lights line the bridge’s arch at night, and glow like a field of fireflies. It opened in 1963, crossing the Los Angeles harbor and linking San Pedro and Long Beach to Terminal Island, which was a Japanese American fishing community before World War II.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans of Terminal Island were sent to internment camps. Today, Terminal Island is home to a federal prison visible from the hills of San Pedro, where many aging Japanese Americans reside.
image via wikimedia
One spring evening, we drove over the bridge on our way to pick up Grandma. She had recently lost her driving privileges, but still loved to go see the Dodgers play. It was the annual day to honor Japanese Americans at Dodger Stadium; many ex-internees were gathering to watch the beginning of the season together on a day dedicated to them.
I could see the smog blanketing the LA skyscrapers in the distance. My dad had his old, worn Dodgers cap on—so broken in that the fabric was soft and velvety, and the once-bright Dodger blue had faded to the grey hue of the port water I could see lapping at the tall, barnacled sides of resting cargo ships. “Kazuhisa Ishii is opening tonight,” Dad said to my brother and me.
Later, on our way home from the game, we dropped Grandma off and watched her shuffle to her door, her fading blue Dodgers jacket swallowing her tiny body. She was happy to have seen her friends, a rowdy pack of elderly Japanese American women, while they rooted for the home team. Ishii, a Japanese-born pitcher, made every Japanese American grandma swell with pride, despite his tendency to walk batters after the fourth inning. It was still surreal to them to see a man like him being cheered on by a crowd, rather than heckled—or forgotten behind a barbed-wire fence.
Grandma remembered those fences well. She recalled American soldiers training beyond the barbed wire, their guns glistening in the Colorado sun. No barrier since had intimidated her.
After September 11th, my dad and I would listen to reports of hate crimes against Muslim Americans—and those perceived to be Muslim—on the news. Mosques were vandalized in the same way Japanese Buddhist temples had been during World War II.
“I remember that,” my dad said after hearing about a Muslim boy being viciously bullied at school. “The boys used to pick on me. They called me a Nip.”
He had grown up with his two older brothers in San Pedro, where many Japanese Americans had moved after they were released from the camps. My dad and his brothers are sansei, third-generation Japanese American. As children of the interned, they were raised in silence. They were not taught to speak Japanese. They only visited the Buddhist temple after deaths in the family. They were trained to be good American Protestants, in an attempt to mollify white people who looked at them and still saw the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor instead of those who had run their corner stores, raised their crops, and fished for their dinners since long before the war.
the author’s father in 1978
The youngest of the brothers, Dad was a California version of the all-American boy. He skateboarded on sidewalks and bluffs, drove to Mexico to chase the swells with his surfboard, and played guitar in a band. He let his hair grow to his shoulders, thick black locks that didn’t quite wisp and curl like the hair of white rock stars he saw on MTV. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who—he learned their songs, and could rock his way up the Stairway to Heaven.
But worshipping the likes of these men didn’t shield him from the fact that he looked like the enemy. The white boys on bikes still balled their fists, picked fights, and used him as their outlet for the passed-down rage of their parents.
My dad and his brothers and I took shifts by Grandma’s side that summer. Her thinning grey hair shone like fragile silver chains in the afternoon sunlight, her frail body sinking into an ocean of pristine hospital cotton.
Many days a week, I’d drive over the Vincent Thomas Bridge to see her. She had late-stage Alzheimer’s and could no longer tell if I was a friend from camp, or her granddaughter. At her beside, I read and wrote, texted and breathed.
The sun warmed the skin on the back of my neck, as it had many a time through the balcony windows in her old house on the hill in San Pedro.
the author’s grandmother in 1971
I looked like her, more than any of my other grandparents. I had inherited her slender brown hands, the square eyebrows that dominated her face under a small forehead, her arched cheeks that stayed full no matter how sick she became.
She passed away quietly, a week after the Trump administration attempted to bar grandparents of people in the US from entering the States if they were from any of the Muslim-majority countries targeted by the president’s travel ban. Grandparents, according to the administration , were not “close relationships.” At her funeral, my dad hung her Dodgers jacket from the pulpit.
The Supreme Court finally condemned its 1944 Korematsu v. United States ruling, which upheld the continued internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This should have signified the court’s recognition of the amorality of the original ruling, but in truth it meant the opposite. While condemning Korematsu, the Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslims.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “ Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided . . . and ‘has no place in law under the Constitution,’” but also claimed it had “nothing to do” with Trump’s Muslim travel ban, despite the fact that both cases cited threats to national security as justification. As Justice Sotomayor argued in her dissent , both Korematsu and the Muslim travel ban are both “rooted in dangerous stereotypes about . . . a particular group’s supposed inability to assimilate and desire to harm the United States.”
After seventy-four years, Korematsu was repudiated at last. But the persecution and suffering of Japanese Americans was being replicated in a new group of people, the lessons of history overlooked by those claiming to have recognized them. I cried for my family and for the administration’s new targets, feeling a pain that transcended many generations.
The port was lovely that evening as Dad and I left San Pedro. The moon lingered high above the bridge in a starless sky. Stacks of cargo boxes cast shadows on the golden surface of the water. Everything was quiet except for the lapping of small waves on the loading decks.
That day, Grandma had spoken in a fog, asking her long-deceased mother if she could go watch the military men train outside of the barbed-wire fence. Her friends were going to watch, and she wanted to join them. Explosions for entertainment.
Dad hadn’t slept in a while, and the bags under his eyes had grown heavy. I couldn’t quite see his eyes in the rearview mirror, because he did not look up far enough for me to catch them. But I knew them like I knew my own. They were large and jet-black, like the shaggy hair that framed his dark Okinawan face. I pressed my cheek against the window and felt the warmth of the summer evening. Behind us were the humble silhouettes of the Pedro hills, and all around was the spread of the city and the ocean.
I could tell Dad felt chilly, though the weather was temperate. We listened to a recording of Donald Trump announcing his candidacy. Trump promised to fight “Islamic terrorism” and “foreign threats,” and my dad groaned and turned down the radio.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
For weeks, Dad had been saying he didn’t believe Trump was serious about running for president. He had hope that America was moving in the right direction.
Now he turned the radio back on, switching it to the Dodgers game. It was the bottom of the eighth, and the Dodgers were losing. “There’s still time for them to make a comeback,” he said, turning the volume up again. “One more inning, many more games.”
the Kumamoto family in 1965