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Children of Topaz Return to the Prison They Once Called Home

August 1, 2017
by Martin Snapp
people protesting the Japanese internment camps

On April 22, 2017, six tour busses left Berkeley for a trip—the passengers called it a pilgrimage—to the place where 15 of them grew up more than 70 years ago.

But it wasn’t a sentimental journey. They place they visited was a dusty, heat-baked, windswept prison camp called Topaz in the middle of nowhere in central Utah. They were some of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast who were arrested after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to euphemistically named “relocation camps” further inland, where they were imprisoned behind barbed wire and watched over by armed guards in towers like those of high-security prisons.

Around 65 percent were American citizens, having been born in this country. The other 35 percent had been forbidden by law to apply for citizenship.

A panorama view of the Topaz Internment Camp captured from a water tower
A panorama view of the Topaz Internment Camp captured from a water tower / Francis Stewart, National Archives

Many prisoners where children, including five who went to Cal after the war: Kazuko Iwahashi ’53, Ruth Ichinaga ’54, Ben Takeshita ’58, Flora Ninomiya ’54, who was in another camp in Colorado called Amache; and Geraldine Furuzawa ’65, who was born in the Gila River camp in Arizona. Together, they made the pilgrimage to Topaz, along with their families.

“The dust storms are the one thing everyone remembers,” said Iwahashi. “When we arrived at the camp in 1942 we saw these whirls of dust in the wind. Then we got out of the bus, and the ground was so soft it was like walking on powder. And it stayed that way for the first couple of years until the ground got pounded down by our walking on it.

“I remember one time when another girl and I were walking to the library on one end of camp. A sandstorm came up, and it really hurt. Not just sand, but pebbles. It hurt our legs, got into our teeth. We had to press up against the side of a building to protect ourselves. The dust would come through the windows, through cracks in the walls, and from under the floorboards. There was dust everywhere, all the time.”

When winter came, it was the first time most of them had ever seen snow, so the kids did what kids do: They had a snowball fight.

“But when it got cold, it got really, cold, cold, cold!” Iwahashi continued. “One day, the father of a friend of mine came up to me, shaking a handkerchief. ‘See, Kaz?’ he said. ‘It’s so cold, the handkerchief froze!'”

It was a different story in the summertime, when temperatures often rose to the triple digits.

“And there were very, very few trees,” Iwahashi said. “The only shade we had was in our rooms or the recreation hall. As kids, we took it as is; but when I look back at it now, I think, ‘My God, how the heck did we survive all this?”

We knew we were confined in this prison and the guards were pointing guns at us, but we couldn’t do anything about it. So we did our best to survive and enjoy life as best we could.

The food was a culture shock. “A lot of baloney, salami, and other cold stuff the older people, who were used to vegetables, fish and rice, didn’t like,” said Takeshita. “But as a kid, it was fine with me. I’d go around the mess hall and grab stuff they didn’t want and have a good meal. We knew we were confined in this prison and the guards were pointing guns at us, but we couldn’t do anything about it. So we did our best to survive and enjoy life as best we could. We played marbles, and the older kids formed teams and played against the other blocks, mostly softball.”

“We also had sumo tournaments,” said Iwahashi. “Smaller guys, but the essence is the same. A lot of us learned Japanese cultural things in camp. The Buddhist church held a harvest dance each autumn called Bon Odori, honoring our ancestors…That’s how I first learned Japanese dancing. Of course, everything was taught by the internees themselves.”

But aside from a new Topaz Museum that just opened on the site, there’s hardly any evidence left that any of that ever happened. The mess hall, the guard towers, the barracks—all are long gone.

“You can see blank spots where the barracks were standing, and the concrete foundations of the mess hall, the latrines, and the laundry room,” said Ichinaga, who was eight years old when she entered the camp. “That’s about it.”

But the barbed wire is still there,” said Ninomiya. “And lots and lots of rusty nails, jillions of them all over the land.”

“The people of Delta were told they could take whatever they wanted when the government closed the camp after the war,” explained Takeshita. “They took the buildings apart to transport them to town but left the nails behind.”

“We went on a tour of Delta and saw how they made those old barracks into houses and sheds that are still in use today,” said Ninomiya.

One site they were able to locate was the spot where 63-year-old James Hatsuki Wasaka was shot and killed on April 11, 1943 by a soldier while walking his dog inside the barbed wire fence, which was depicted in a painting by another internee, renowned artist Chiura Obata, who was an art instructor at Cal before the war and professor of art there after it.

Drawing of Hatsuki Wakasa being shot
Hatsuki Wakasa shot by M.P. / Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History

“The Army claimed he was trying to escape and that the soldier told him to stop but he didn’t,” says Iwahashi. “But other people kept telling the soldier he was hard of hearing. And why would he be trying to escape if he was walking parallel to the fence, as all the witnesses said, instead of toward it? The soldier was acquitted, of course.”

A dark stain on U.S. history

This pilgrimage to Topaz was timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Army to round up and imprison Japanese Americans without trial. Ironically, it was the handiwork of two men whom history remembers as champions of justice: the man who requested it, California Attorney General Earl Warren, who later became Governor of California and Chief Justice of the United States; and the man who issued it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, historians regard it as the biggest stain on both their reputations.

The man FDR gave the job to was Maj. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Army’s Western Defense Command, and he didn’t bother himself with legal concerns like the Constitution.

“A Jap’s a Jap,” he told a Congressional committee. “It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”

Infographic showing the timeline of the Japanese internment camps

A handful of public figures objected, most notably University of California President Robert Gordon Sproul, who cofounded the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play, to protest the imprisonments, which he considered an obvious violation of the Constitution’s Due Process clause. He pointed out that there had been no reported incidents of foul play by Japanese Americans, but that didn’t matter to DeWitt.

“The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken,” he said.

Undeterred, Sproul tried to help in whatever way he could, including asking the presidents of 32 other colleges and universities to admit his Japanese American students to save them from being sent to the camps (they all turned him down), smuggling diplomas to graduating Cal students in the camps, and storing Chiuri Obata’s prized paintings in the attic of the President’s House on campus for the duration of the war.

His protests caused a serious rupture in his longtime friendship with Warren, with whom he had been close since 1911, when they played together in the Cal Marching Band. But the two reconciled after the war, and in 1948 Sproul nominated Warren for Vice President at the Republican national convention.

On April 21, 1942, Gen. DeWitt issued Exclusion Order 19, ordering all Japanese Americans on the West Coast to register and be “evacuated” by May 1. Takeshita, who was 11 when he went to Topaz, remembers it as if it were yesterday.

“We were living in San Mateo, and as I was walking to grammar school one day I saw bulletins on all the telephone poles telling us that all people of Japanese ancestry must move out of the West Coast. There was nothing telling us where we were going.”

He was stunned because he had no inkling that it was coming,

“My parents must have known, but they never talked about the situation in front of us kids. They must have been hiding their worries from us. I have a lot of respect for them for doing that.

“A few days later we were notified that next month we would be going to a place called Tanforan in San Bruno. I had no idea where San Bruno was or what Tanforan was, so then the day came my mother told us to wear as many clothes, jackets, and sweaters as we could. We didn’t have any suitcases, so the older kids were given canvas bags my mother had made to carry bed sheets, blankets, dishes, whatever.”

They had to walk to a designated “assembly center” many blocks away from their home. Takeshita had to leave all his toys, even his beloved baseball bat behind.

“We couldn’t take any of that, only what we could carry. We left a lot of clothing behind, too. My mother didn’t want to leave the sugar at home, so she made peanut brittle without the peanuts to nibble for energy in case we didn’t have enough food. As we walked down the sidewalk to go to the meeting pace, I saw my schoolmates pulling apart their curtains, watching us. I remember thinking, ‘These are my schoolmates! Why aren’t they coming out and at least saying goodbye and wishing us well?’ But many years later I realized that a lot of them were Italians, and some were Germans, too, and they weren’t sure what would happen to them. They were afraid of being identified as enemy aliens on telephone polls like we were. So I forgave them.”

At the meeting place they met several people who were there to greet them, give them refreshments, and help them find the busses that would take them to Tanforan, which was a racetrack at the time but is now the site of The Shops At Tanforan, a regional shopping center. “Years later I found out they were Quakers who volunteered to help us. They really stuck their necks out. I always try to mention this.”

When they got to Tanforan they had a little bit of luck.

“Because we were a family of ten, we were fortunate to get the jockeys’ barracks inside the racetrack. But my cousin’s family of four were assigned to the horse stables. I would go visit them, and I can still smell the stench of horse manure to this day. I didn’t want to go visit them very often because of the stench.”

To make mattresses to sleep on, they took the canvas bags their mother had made to carry valuables and filled them with hay from the horse stalls. “Maybe this is where my hay fever started because I’ve had a runny nose all my life ever since.

“In Tanforan we had our first experience of what camp life was going to be like. There were no ceilings, so you could hear people talking from one end of the barracks to the other, so we had to learn to speak in whispers. There was no running water, so we had to walk to the latrines outside, and the only light was one bulb hanging down from the ceiling on a wire. There was a total lack of privacy, especially in the latrines, no partitions between toilets or showers. The men and boys got used to it, but my sisters were very shocked.”

Being imprisoned changed family life in many different ways. “We met new friends to go to the mess hall with, not our parents as we used to. My mother had high blood pressure and couldn’t do strenuous work. Even going to the mess hall was too much for her, so we would get food at the mess hall and bring it back to her. It broke up our family togetherness.”

To make mattresses to sleep on, they took the canvas bags their mother had made to carry valuables and filled them with hay from the horse stalls. “Maybe this is where my hay fever started because I’ve had a runny nose all my life ever since.”

Tanforan was a temporary way station on the way to their ultimate destination, Topaz. “In September we boarded the train to Topaz. I didn’t even know where Utah was,” said Takeshita. “The shades were down, but I figured we would be passing by my hometown, San Mateo, and I wanted to see it for the last time. I went up to an MP and asked if I could open the shade when we passed San Mateo, and he yelled, ‘No!’ After that he kept watching me closely to make sure I didn’t peek. But I fooled him by counting the railroad crossings from San Bruno to Burlingame, and when we got to the point where I said to myself, ‘This must be San Mateo,’ I waved my final goodbye, not knowing when I would be back, if ever.”

This scene was repeated all over the west coast, cheered on by most of the population and press. “A viper is a viper wherever the egg is hatched, ” editorialized the Los Angeles Times. “While it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies…such treatment should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.” Fifty years later, the Times retracted that editorial under the headline “In 1942, we favored Japanese internment. Shame on us.”

In Berkeley, more than 1,300 people, including Cal students and professors, were forced to vacate their homes, quit their jobs, leave school, close their businesses, and sell their possessions, often for ridiculously low amounts.

The Army chose a vacant car lot on University Avenue for the Berkeley “assembly center,” but First Congregational Church on the corner of Channing and Dana offered its Pilgrim Hall instead to give the victims a more comfortable and dignified place to await the busses. For four days, churchwomen from different denominations throughout the city came to offer food and support while they registered and then boarded the buses for Tanforan.

A minister from the Berkeley Buddhist Temple welcomes pilgrims home their journey
A minister from the Berkeley Buddhist Temple welcomes pilgrims home their journey / Kenny Ina

On April 26, 2017, the pilgrimage to Topaz ended where the story began—back at First Congregational Church. First off the first bus were four people—including Ninomiya and Ichinaga—who had made the original trip in the other direction 75 years before almost to the day, on April 28, 1942. Greeting them were well-wishers carrying signs reading, “Welcome home.”

“I saw that sign, all of a sudden my emotions took over,” said Takeshita. “I felt tears coming out. I was surprised at myself. I had withheld that the whole trip; but when I saw that sign, all of a sudden it just boiled over.”

Among the greeters was First Church’s current minister, Rev. Molly Baskette.

“It was very moving,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about coming back, if there was some trauma that would surface. I wanted to honor them, but I wasn’t quite sure how to pitch it. But as soon as they got off the bus the atmosphere was so warm, so effusive, so great, it was easy to feel that despite the difference in our ages and life experiences, we were one community.”

Asked if she’s proud of the way her congregation behaved 75 years ago, she said, “Well, yes, but I can’t help looking at if from my 2017 sensibilities and wonder: Why didn’t the whole city of Berkeley rise up and say, ‘You can’t do this to our neighbors?'”

Carrying the legacy of internment

“Often times we feel ashamed or guilty, or repress our feelings,” said Ichinaga. “We had a clinical psychologist, Dr. Satsuki Ina, who also went to Cal, with us on the pilgrimage, and she was able to help us not feel guilty, to understand why we were having those feelings. It’s survivor’s guilt, but it might be something other than that, also. There was also a lot of shame associated with being in the camps. It’s weird how the victims are the ones who are ashamed, so we don’t speak of it.”

“I was born in the camp, so I was too young to remember much about it,” said Furuzawa. “But my parents never talked about it. To tell the truth, I didn’t know much until I got to Cal. I remember in 9th grade history class there was one sentence: ‘The Japanese Americans were sent to relocation camps.’ That was it.”

Topaz closed on Oct. 31, 1945, but the political impact of that era is still with us. Over time, many American leaders have expressed regret at the mass incarceration, including President Gerald Ford, who formally rescinded Executive Order 9066 in 1976, President Jimmy Carter, who established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980, and President Ronald Reagan, who signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, in which the government formally apologized to the victims and established a $1.25-billion trust fund to pay them reparations.

But the legal legacy is muddier. On June 12, 1942, Fred Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. On December 18, 1944, in the case of Korematsu v. U.S., the Court ruled 6-3 that whether or not the government’s actions were “constitutionally suspect,” they were justified because of the circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

Korematsu was convicted of evading incarceration and sent to Topaz. Four decades later, on November 10, 1983, Federal Judge Marilyn Patel overturned his conviction, ruling that the government had knowingly submitted false information to the Supreme Court; namely, it covered up reports from the FBI and military intelligence that said Japanese Americans posed no security risk. But she had no authority to overturn the broader Korematsu decision itself. Only the Supreme Court can do that.

The Mochida family awaits "relocation" in Hayward, CA
The Mochida family awaits “relocation” in Hayward, CA / Dorothea Lange, National Archives

Some legal scholars think Korematsu has become so discredited that it would have little chance of standing up to Constitutional scrutiny today, including Prof. Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, who wrote,“Korematsu’s uniquely bad legal status means it’s not precedent, even though it hasn’t been overturned.”

But, as he admits, it has never been explicitly overturned. It’s still there on the books, theoretically ready to be dusted off and used against another minority whom another president perceives as a threat. And don’t think Jeff Sessions doesn’t know it.

“When I heard some politicians promote the idea that our World War II imprisonment was a precedent to justify the imprisonment of undocumented immigrant mothers and children, I knew it was a gross mistake and that something had to be done about it,” said Sam Mihara ’56, who was in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. “Those politicians need to be better educated, along with everyone else.”

On June 18, 2017, First Congregational Church voted unanimously to establish itself as a Sanctuary Congregation, pledging to “resist any policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginal communities,” including “opening our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate.”

“It’s a demonstration of our values consistent over decades to welcome the stranger,” said Baskette, “and our understanding that our neighbor is anyone who is in need and, as Jesus told us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that we are called on to love our neighbor.”

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