Last year several prominent politicians, including Donald Trump and Roanoke, Virginia Mayor David Bowers, evoked the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in calls for discrimination against Muslims. Clearly people have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore, the suffering that the internment caused. Furthermore, Islamophobia and the ignorance that it represents must be actively denounced and combated. We should not return to the discriminatory policies of a bygone era. In this spirit, I decided to start off 2016 with a post on one Japanese American family’s experience during World War II.
Recently, I interviewed a friend, Stacie Kageyama, whose family members experienced both the internment during WWII as well as the discrimination that those Japanese Americans outside the camps faced. While more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interned, they were mainly from the West Coast as well as 3,000 from Hawaii. Other Japanese Americans were not put in camps but faced other kinds of discrimination. For example, the part of Stacie’s family in Wyoming found themselves in dire straits when Stacie’s grandfather was summarily fired from his job and suddenly had no way to support his family.
Stacie has a Ph.D. in Forest Science from Oregon State University and a B.A. in Biology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Stacie and I first met as students in Boulder when I was working on a short story about the internment called “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal.” I asked Stacie if I could share her family’s internment story now as a rebuke to politicians who would have us treat Muslim Americans in a similar discriminatory manner.
I’ve put a transcript of the interview below (edited for clarity and length) so that readers can learn about this Japanese American family’s experience during WWII.
Interview with Stacie Kageyama:
MC: Where was your father’s family interned?
SK: My father’s family was interned in Manzanar in eastern California. However, my paternal grandfather, Kumaichi Kageyama, was arrested by the FBI soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Grandpa was born in Japan in 1894 but had been a legal resident of the United for more than thirty years. He was taken initially to a detention center in Lordsburg, New Mexico. They moved him to another detention center in Santa Fe at some point. He spent almost two years there but was never charged with a crime. He was finally allowed to join the my grandmother and their three sons in Manzanar at the end of November 1943.
The Kageyama Family before WWII.
MC: How old was your father?
SK: My father, Hideo Kageyama, was six years old when the family was interned. His brother, Akira, was eight and their eldest brother, Hiroshi, was eleven. All three of the boys had been born in Los Angeles, California and were American citizens. None of them had ever been to Japan. Each of the boys enlisted in the US military when they were old enough. My dad enlisted in the Army during the early part of the Vietnam conflict.
MC: When did they get out of camp and where did they move afterwards?
SK: The family left Manzanar in October 1945. Internees that had relatives in states that were not on the west coast of the US could leave the camps before the war ended. They could also leave if they chose to return to Japan, found employment (away from the west coast of the US), or joined the US military. My father’s family stayed in Manzanar for as long as they did because they had no place else to go. They didn’t want to return to Japan because their sons were American. After leaving Manzanar, they returned to Southern California but they were essentially refugees. They stayed in a tent city set up by a Christian church until they found a place to live in West Los Angeles. My grandfather started doing gardening for people. My grandparents eventually opened their own nursery in West LA. My cousins are running it now. It’s one of the few family-owned nurseries still in existence in Los Angeles.
MC: I remember that you had told me about your mother’s father’s experiences in Wyoming. I believe that all the Japanese American workers in WY had to give up their cameras, guns, and was it radios after Pearl Harbor? After your grandfather was fired, how long till he moved? Was he already married?
SK: My maternal grandparents had also been born in Japan. Two of my grandfather’s older brothers had settled in Wyoming. He joined them in Rock Springs to work in the coal mines when he was seventeen. He returned to Japan in 1924 to marry my grandmother and bring her back to Wyoming. My grandfather [Kikuji Kumagai] was working for the Union Pacific Railroad as a section foreman outside of the town of Medicine Bow when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The sheriff of Carbon County came to the house and confiscated my grandfather’s rifle and Kodak camera soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t remember hearing anything about radios. My grandfather was fired from his job on the railroad in February of 1942, as were all the Union Pacific Railroad workers of Japanese descent. The family lived in railroad housing and were given 48 hours to evacuate their house. One of their neighbors helped the family to find a place to live in Medicine Bow. People in town tried to help the family by giving my grandfather odd jobs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to support a family of six and they ended up moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, where my grandfather’s brother’s family was living. I’m not exactly sure when they moved to Utah. It was some time between February and June of 1942. We have a postcard in the family photo album from one of my mom’s classmates in Medicine Bow. It’s addressed to my mother in Salt Lake City and it’s dated June 12, 1942.
The Kumagai Family.
MC: Can you tell me again about your maternal grandparents’ experiences during WWII? Did you say that your grandfather tried to get a job as a cook in a hotel but they asked him to make a salad with blue cheese and he spent a lot of time taking the mold out because he thought the cheese had gone bad? What did he end up doing? Also, was your grandmother the pastry chef during this time?
SK: My grandfather found a employment as a cook in the restaurant at The Hotel Utah in downtown Salt Lake City. He was told to make bleu cheese salad dressing but had never seen bleu cheese before. He thought that the cheese had gotten moldy and tried to salvage what he could. In spite of the bleu cheese incident, the management of the restaurant continued to employ my grandfather. I believe that he continued to work there for several years after World War II ended.
My grandmother [Tamai Tsuru Kumagai] also found employment working in a restaurant in Salt Lake City. She worked at Lamb’s Grill until my grandparents moved to California in the 1950s. Yes, she was the pastry chef and learned to make all kinds of pies, cakes, eclairs, etc.
MC: Thanks, Stacie!
I hope in 2016 our political leaders and pundits will act more responsibly and not continue to evoke one of the darker periods of discrimination against a minority group in America as anything our country should do again. The internment disrupted lives permanently—one-fifth of all former internees ended up living in poverty after being released from the camps, for example—and it is a blight upon the human rights record of the U.S. The U.S. government officially apologized for the internment in 1988.