Monday, August 16, 2004
When Kara Kondo was a young girl she was taken from her home, forced to give up nearly all of her possessions and was escorted to a train by armed soldiers for a long trek to a concentration camp she would call home.
Kondo was not a criminal. She had done nothing wrong. The only crime she committed was living on the west coast of the United States during World War II.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the world changed for Kondo and others like her. People who had moved from Japan to the United States decades earlier were suddenly being accused of spying for their home country.
"You're a traitor, more like a spy. Why, because you're Caucasian or African American or Asian or European or Middle Eastern. There have been allegations against 'your people,' not Americans, but the people [who] share your skin color, of spying. You might not have known, but it's safer to put all of 'you' away, just in case, since color and ancestry, not personality, determines whether you are trustworthy or not.
"This is basically what President Roosevelt said to all people with at least 1/16 Japanese blood living in California, western Oregon, western Washington and southern Arizona, citizen or not, in February of 1942 in Executive Order 9066," writes Elizabeth Church, a student in Irene Smith's class at Discovery Lab School in Yakima.
The students in Smith's class spent an entire school year researching the experiences of Japanese Americans during the United States' involvement in World War II. The middle school students interviewed Japanese Americans who lived in the Yakima Valley during that point in history, read books about relocation centers and visited museums to learn about the experience.
Kondo, one of the women interviewed by the students for the project, said during the taped interview that she remembers calling the relocation centers, concentration camps.
"Relocation center is a nice term for concentration camps," Kondo said in the tape.
Kondo, who was born in the Yakima Valley and grew up in Wapato, told the students that her father came to the United States from Japan in 1905, with her mother following in 1912. She said her mother grew up in a privileged family in Kobe, Japan, leaving it all to live with her husband in the brush land of eastern Washington.
"You can't imagine what it was like in 1912," Kondo said. She explained to Smith's class that it was all sagebrush, with dirt roads meant for horse and buggy traffic.
Kondo added that making the adjustment was difficult for her mother, who couldn't speak English.
"I'm not sure how she got through it," Kondo said.
However, her mother wasn't the only Japanese immigrant working to adjust to life in the Yakima Valley. Kondo explained during the interview that in the 1920s the Valley became a popular area for Japanese immigrants to settle. She noted that once the Japanese began to arrive in the Valley, they started to isolate themselves. She said the Japanese immigrants couldn't speak English, ate different foods and had their own traditions. She told the students that isolation meant they could speak to each other in their own language and eat familiar foods, making it feel more like home.
"It was a small community within a larger community," she said.
Kondo told the students that the Japanese community in the Yakima Valley had their own clubs and churches. She said the Japanese Methodist Church was established in the early 1920s and the Japanese Buddhist Church was established in the early 1930s in Wapato.
One of the reasons Japanese immigrants settled in the Yakima Valley, Kondo said in the tape, was because people coming from Japan were not given the right of citizenship, which meant they were unable to purchase land. She explained that it ended up being easier for them to lease land from the Yakama Nation.
"That is why many of them lived on the reservation," Kondo told the students.
One of the students in Smith's class, Lauren Antonio, said after hearing Kondo talk about the isolation of the Japanese in America and after reading the book "Farewell to Manzinea," several class members got together to talk about whether or not the students had ever felt isolated from society because they were different.
Antonio said during the discussion it became apparent that many of his classmates felt that at some point in their lives they had been bothered because they were different. He said there were a wide range of things that came up during the discussion.
Antonio said one thing the entire group agreed on after the discussion, is that although they may have felt singled out or different at some point in their lives, it was nothing like what happened to the Japanese living in the United States more than 60 years ago.
Kondo told the students that she can still remember the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. She said on Dec. 7, 1941, she remembers going to church but not hearing the radio announcement that the Navy base had been bombed.
"My father looked very, very troubled when we got home," Kondo told the students. "That was when we realized that Pearl Harbor was bombed."
Kondo said in the taped interview that she remembers her family being uncertain as to what would happen to them.
According to Kondo, it was just days after the attack that many of the leaders of the local Japanese community were picked up by the FBI. She said this meant there were families who didn't know where their fathers were taken.
"In a way, the community was without their leaders," she said. "That was the first reaction."
However, in the days and weeks that passed after the attack on Pearl Harbor life for the Japanese living in the United States became more and more restrictive. Kondo told the students that the government first confiscated their guns, swords, radios and cameras. She said they were then given an 8 p.m. curfew, meaning that no one of Japanese ancestry could be out of their home after that time each evening. Kondo said in the interview that another restriction meant Japanese-Americans could not travel more than 15 miles from their homes and if they did, they had to be back by 6 p.m. that evening.
"Day by day these orders came down," Kondo told the students. "You knew you could not be as free as we were before."
Church wrote in her Japanese internment essay that what other Americans didn't understand about the bombing of Pearl Harbor was that it also affected Japanese Americans, because they lived in the United States.
"The Japanese of America were just as affected as others after the bombing of Pearl Harbor because they, too, were Americans," Church wrote. "Still others automatically convicted people of Japanese ancestry of being spies because they were afraid and wanted all measure of safety to be taken by the U.S. government to keep them safe...But no one in America was actually convicted of spying before, during or after the two years the Japanese internment lasted. In fact, Japanese- Americans themselves were shocked when they were accused of spying for a country that they didn't even consider theirs."
Kondo said during the taped interview that she remembers Jan. 19 as the date the government sent down orders for exclusion. She explained to the students that at first the order stated that all people of Japanese ancestry living within 150 miles of the Pacific coast of the United States be sent to relocation camps.
Kondo said for Japanese living in the Yakima Valley, it made life more uncertain because they lived just outside that 150-mile mark. She told Smith's class that people in the area were told to continue living their lives as usual and to keep farming.
"For a long time we weren't sure whether the people from the Yakima area would be taken and put into camps," Kondo said during the interview.
Then in April 1942, the area of those to be sent to camp was enlarged, with the entire area from the Columbia River to Canada being established as a military zone. She said that was when the Japanese in the Yakima Valley were notified that they too would be evacuated.
"What does that mean?," Kondo asked the students. "[It means] you will be taken from your home."
Kondo said this meant that people had to prepare to only take with them what they could carry. She said by late May people had either sold or stored most of their possessions.
When it came to time to leave Wapato, Kondo told the students she can still remember soldiers coming to town from Fort Lewis, taking their names and telling them when to board the train for the North Portland assembly center, which had previously served as a livestock center.
Kondo said there was an old train that left for Portland at sunset on June 4, carrying 1,300 Japanese from throughout the Yakima Valley. Kondo said during the taped interview that she can still remember the soldiers who put them on the train, then stood two soldiers per train car for the entire two-day trip.
Disembarking the train, carrying all she had in the world, she told the students she remembers seeing a tall barbed wire fence running along the perimeter of the center.
"I still remember the sound of the metal gate clanging behind me," Kondo said of entering the center. "Then you knew you were in this [camp] and [had] no more freedom."
When Kondo's family arrived at the center what they found was a livestock center that had been converted into a rudimentary assembly center. She told the students that the center had been prepared by simply putting down plywood floors and putting boards up every few feet to serve as a place for families to sleep. Kondo said each unit was large enough for two or three cots and not much else. There were about 3,000 people housed at the assembly center.
"It was noisy, there was a lot of confusion," she said during the interview. "It was very uncomfortable."
Despite being torn from their Yakima Valley home, Kondo said those housed at the assembly center tried to maintain some semblance of an ordinary life. She told the students that at the center there were different clubs for people to take part in and the Japanese children attended classes.
Kondo and her family spent the summer at the assembly center, moving from Portland to Heart Mount, Wyoming in September. Kondo said it took her family two nights to get from Portland to Wyoming, arriving to find construction workers still building parts of the facility. Kondo said during the interview that the Heart Mountain relocation center, which housed 10,000 to 12,000 Japanese, made the community the third largest city in the state of Wyoming.
The relocation center consisted of rows and rows of barracks, long buildings that were divided into six apartments housing two or three people each, to larger apartments that housed up to five people. She said when her family arrived at their apartment all they found to greet them was a single bed and a large pot-bellied stove.
Also making up the relocation center were several mess halls, a laundry room and a latrine with toilets and showers. Kondo told the students that this meant regardless of the weather, people had to stand outside in long lines waiting to use the bathroom.
Despite being torn from their homes and moved to an unfamiliar place, Kondo said the Japanese-Americans living in the camps tried to maintain some semblance of normality. She said over the first few months churches were established, schools were started for the children and clubs were organized.
Kondo said during the interview that the camps also had their own doctors and camp police officers.
"We tried to live as normal a life as possible," she said.
One thing Kondo did to help make the transition to camp life easier, was to get a job at the camp newspaper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel. She told the students she worked her way from being a reporter to serving as the society editor. Kondo said when she tells people she was the society editor of the camp newspaper, no one can imagine that there were society events to be published. She said she would write about weddings, club meetings and church events. She said the newspaper was published once a week in Cody, Wyoming.
Ed Iseri, who was also interviewed by the students and lived in the Yakima Valley before being relocated to Heart Mountain, was a young boy when his family moved to the relocation center.
Iseri said in a videotaped interview that he can remember being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day at the school located at the camp. Iseri said the children would recite the entire pledge, ending it by saying, "...with liberty and justice for all, except us."
Iseri told the students that at first teachers at the school tried to make the children stop ad-libbing at the end of the pledge, but then one day they just stopped. "Because they realized we were right," Iseri said.
Iseri told the students that when he and his family first arrived at Heart Mountain he attended school in a barracks that was furnished with nothing more than chairs and notebooks. He noted that later a school was built for the children.
According to Iseri, some of the people living at the camp were also hired to work at the camp. Iseri's father served as the assistant cook in the mess hall.
Kondo told the students that there was a store at camp where people could buy little trinkets and items they needed for everyday life. She added that most of the people in camp opted instead to spend the little money they earned to order items through the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
Kondo said in the interview that the Heart Mountain relocation camp was in existence for several years before the government decided it was time for those living in the camps to be let go, between 1943 and 1945.
However, the residents of the camp weren't simply released and sent home. Instead, freedom came just as slowly as imprisonment had. Kondo told the students that at first the young men in the camps were sent outside the camp walls to work at farms in the area. She said the next people granted permission to leave were students who were allowed to attend colleges on the east coast and in the mid-west.
"Gradually they encouraged families to leave the camp," Kondo told the students. She noted that it wasn't until 1945 that most families were allowed to return to their homes.
For Iseri and his family, being given permission to leave the camp wasn't enough. Instead, he and his brothers and sisters were forced to pick potatoes in fields outside of camp to raise the money needed to make it back to Washington. Even once the money had been raised, it wasn't an easy trip for the Iseri family.
Iseri told the students that his father and other siblings left camp during the summer of 1945, while Iseri, his mother and his grandmother stayed at the camp until later that fall. He said the reason they stayed back is because he had gotten very sick once he had come back from picking potatoes and was unable to travel.
For Kondo, permission to leave the camp came early. She said she left in April 1943 to get married in Chicago. She said during the interview that together she and her husband lived in Louisville, Kentucky until after the war, when they moved back to Wapato.
"That was the place that was home," she said.
However, when she returned to the Yakima Valley she didn't find the same welcoming community she had left behind so many years before. Instead, she told the students she remembers there being "No Japs wanted" signs posted in many of the store windows in the Wapato community.
"The Valley was a very hostile place," she said.
In fact, she noted that of the 1,300 Japanese who were forced to leave the Valley after Pearl Harbor was attacked, only about 2 percent of them returned to the area after the war.
Iseri told Smith's class that he feels one of the reasons so many Japanese never came back to the Yakima Valley is because before the United States' involvement in the war, they made their living as farmers. He said after the war farming was no longer lucrative.
When Iseri's family moved back to the Valley after they were given permission to leave Heart Mountain, Iseri said during the interview that instead of living in Wapato, as they had before, his family moved to Granger.
"We had nothing in Wapato," Iseri said.
He explained to the students that before boarding the train that would take them to the assembly center in Portland, his father had leased someone the family business with the understanding that the family would get it back when they returned. However, Iseri said his family returned to find the business condemned.
The family business wasn't the only thing that had fallen victim to the politics of war during the absence of the Japanese in the Valley. Iseri told the students that when his family returned they found the Japanese language school in Wapato had been burnt down.
Iseri told the students that the subject of what his family went through during World War II was one his parents simply never talked about.
"They just held it inside," Iseri said.
Kondo told the students that gradually the Japanese had their civil rights returned to them and in 1952 Japanese immigrants became eligible for citizenship.
Although it's been nearly 60 years since Kondo first boarded the train that would take her away from her home, it's an experience that will in live on in her mind forever.
"The memories are still there," she said.
And it's those memories that students in Smith's class are working to ensure don't get lost over time.
"We really want to share this experience with others," Church said.
The students recently donated two large boxes filled with an entire curriculum that outlines the Japanese experience in the Yakima Valley after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The curriculum boxes were donated to Heritage College in Toppenish and the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima.