Japanese American incarceration and present-day migrant camps: Perspectives of 3 survivors

The haunting images of children caged in chicken wire, warehoused in government facilities surrounded by armed guards are chilling reminders of the U.S. government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Three survivors reflect on the present in the context of a common past.

‘We’re repeating history’

Joni Kimoto never shared much with her daughters about her experience living in a U.S. concentration camp as a child.

Many survivors don’t talk about it – especially first-generation Japanese (Nissei) like Kimoto’s parents, who were forcibly moved to the Portland Detention Center, today the Expo Center, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941.

“My parents never showed their anxieties,” said Kimoto, who lived in U.S. concentration camps from age 2 and a half to 6. “They were silent about their experiences. Sometimes I wonder why they kept it from my brother and I.”

Researchers say many Japanese immigrants felt humiliation and even shame for not resisting the incarceration, even though, traditionally, they are taught to hold back their feelings. 

But the years of keeping quiet are over for Kimoto and many other Japanese American concentration camp survivors, who now are sharing their stories to help protest the current separation of families and incarceration of migrant children along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“They are being treated like animals in my mind,” said Kimoto, now 80. “It’s disgusting. I can’t believe we’re doing this in America. We’re repeating history.”

Kimoto recently returned to the Expo Center to revisit where she and her family spent four months living in a converted animal stall before being sent to Camp Minidoka in the Idaho sagebrush in 1942. The smell of animal feces came right back to her.

“It was one of those things that stopped me dead in my tracks as I entered the building after 75 years,” she said. “A sensory feeling, more than an actual memory. It was an emotional moment.”

Although she was too young to remember much about the camps, Kimoto said she still has a lot of anger about how she and her family were treated by the U.S. government. She is determined to channel that anger into something positive for the children and families struggling on the southern border.

“For us, it was an indeterminate detention,” Kimoto said. “We didn’t know what our future would be. I don’t believe these children or parents will, either. They don’t know how long they’ll be separated. I think this will leave a big scar on their lives.”

‘It takes away from what we went through’

Yoji Matsushima spent years behind barbed wire with his mother and his baby brother at the Portland Detention Center and the Minidoka concentration camp. His father was arrested, without explanation, at the beginning of the war, so Matsushima’s mother was forced to take over the family store and sell off the inventory before they headed to camp.

Matsushima watched his mother age prematurely as she faced the stress of taking care of his baby brother all alone while he ran wild in the camp with friends.

“You’d go to the mess hall and not eat with your family,” Matsushima said. “The family unit kind of broke up. Parents didn’t have control of the kids anymore.”

After two years of not knowing the fate of Yoji’s father, the family finally was reunited at a Department of Justice prisoner camp in Crystal City, Texas. 

“We were in the bad boy camp,” Matsushima said. “We went three years in Crystal City without going outside the fence, except for one picnic out the back gate for the kids in school.”

Even at the age of 10, Matsushima knew Crystal City was serious. 

“The soldiers patrolled the gate by horseback,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t go near the fence. They had rifles and pistols.”

The Matsushimas lived in a 400-square-foot cottage, which had once been used by cannery workers. For the first time since the Japanese-American incarceration began, Matsushima’s mother was back in charge of the cooking.

“I think that brought us closer together,” he said. 

When the war ended, the government didn’t release Matsushima’s father. The former shopkeeper had to appear repeatedly in front of a hearings board until the government finally let him go home. The family was sent back to Portland by train with $25 each.

“Nobody wants to live in a concentration camp,” Matsushima said. “But I think it takes away from what we went through to use the Japanese- American situation in comparison with what’s happening now on the border.

“I’m sorry those kids have to go through that, but their families didn’t have to come into the United States that way. They must have known they were going to be separated before they came in.”

For Matsushima’s family, there was a war going on, and that meant lawmakers were dealing with too much wartime hysteria to change anything, he said.

“But now at the border, politicians could change the situation,” he said. “They could change the asylum rules, and we wouldn’t have to be talking about this.”

Matsushima said his point of view may get him in hot water from younger generations of Japanese Americans.

“I think they’re trying to use the historical aspect and compare the two, saying it’s happening again,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be that way.”

‘No one stood up for us’

Dr. Satsuki Ina – a California State University-Sacramento professor emeritus, author and filmmaker – is a psychotherapist who specializes in captivity trauma. She was born at the Tule Lake War Relocation Camp in California and believes there are many parallels between what Japanese-American children experienced in concentration camps and what is happening today. 

“Having experienced mass incarceration, indefinite detention and family separation … and being told that we’re an economic threat or mostly spies is the kind of rhetoric being used today,” she said. “I’d say, it’s more that the rhetoric is similar, not the exact experience.”

Like Matsushima’s family, Ina’s family was eventually reunited at the prison camp in Crystal City. She was 2 and a half when they boarded the train back to San Francisco in 1946. Little did she know, she’d be back at the border years later, protesting the treatment of children at a U.S. detention center in Dilley, Texas.

 “We wanted children who were held inside these facilities to see that people outside cared,” she said. “There were no marches or outrage as we Japanese Americans disappeared from our homes, our schools and our jobs. It was a deep injury to our community that no one stood up for us.”

As a therapist, Ina has worked with many Japanese Americans who struggle with the effects of trauma from incarceration, particularly children.

“Depending on the age of the child, there’s this idea of ‘Who am I?’ I am looked upon with disdain. My parents are treated in this very disrespectful way. The world is not a safe place. I am flawed and I deserve to be treated this way,” she said.

In her own experience, Ina said, her camp experience has made her anxious, cautious and obsessed with being the best at everything.

“It’s just never enough.”

Ina said trauma alters the brain, and many people tend to compartmentalize what happened to them.  Silence becomes part of that trauma.

“Some survivors don’t even remember the camps, even though they were 6 or 7 years old,” Ina said.

Ina is a member of the Tsuru for Solidarity group, which protested at Fort Sill twice this summer before the government changed its plans to house 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children at the facility. It is the same location where 700 Japanese men were imprisoned during World War II. 

The group now is organizing a pilgrimage for Japanese-American survivors and descendants to caravan to Washington, D.C., to display 120,000 Japanese cranes, which represent the estimated number of Japanese Americans incarcerated in the war.  

“America needs to know our story,” Ina said. “People are being imprisoned, not just detained. They’re being tormented. Indefinite detention is a form of torture. It is legal to seek asylum.”

Courtesy of Street Roots / INSP.ngo