“Seventy-five years ago, I lived in a horse stable.”
That’s how 90-year-old Kaz Yamamoto describes the summer of 1942.
Yamamoto, a longtime Spokane resident, lived in the Yakima Valley with her Japanese immigrant parents when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Feb. 19, 1942, executive order evacuating Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.
Her family was sent to a hastily built “assembly center” in Portland, where they lived for three months, making due with sheets for walls to separate families, no ceiling, blazing heat and the constant smell of horse manure.
For Jeanne Tanaka, now 93, internment started earlier. Police came for her father one January day while he was working in the pea fields on their farm in Auburn, Washington. They took him away with no explanation.
Tanaka came home and found her mother, who didn’t speak English, sobbing on the floor.
“She said, ‘They’re probably going to line all of us up and take us and shoot us,’ and I told her, ‘No, America doesn’t do things like that.’ ”
Her father would remain incarcerated in a special Department of Justice facility for the rest of World War II, separated from Jeanne, her mother and her brothers. The rest of the family was ordered to Puyallup, Washington, and eventually to Tule Lake, a camp in Northern California reserved for “disloyal” Japanese and Japanese-American people.
The pain on Tanaka’s face is still palpable as she described her family’s forced relocation: sent by train in the middle of the night, told to pack only a suitcase, with no idea where they were heading or whether they would be killed or imprisoned when they arrived. She teared up more than once during an interview and said this will be the last time she talks publicly about internment. Even now, it’s just too difficult.
“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Our country doing something like that. But they did it to us,” she said.
Changing the face of Spokane
Japanese internment occupies a strange place in American history. It’s the only act of large-scale violence or discrimination for which the U.S. government has formally apologized and paid reparations: $20,000 to each surviving internee, as mandated by a 1988 law signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Still, it’s often a footnote in World War II history. Many internees describe the places to which they were sent as concentration camps, and point out the hypocrisy of the United States freeing Jews from death camps in Europe while keeping their own citizens imprisoned here.
But especially outside the American West, in communities without Japanese populations or camps nearby, internment is often barely mentioned in school.
Roosevelt’s 1942 order, 75 years ago now, applied to people of Japanese descent living in coastal areas of the U.S. In Washington, the line was drawn at the Columbia River. Anyone west of it, including the Yakima Valley, had to leave or be sent to camp, while Spokane’s Japanese people were generally allowed to remain. But internment left a wide mark across the Inland Northwest.
Sumi Okamoto, 97, was 21 and getting married on the morning Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. FBI agents interrupted her Dec. 7 wedding reception at the Desert Hotel and detained everyone of Japanese descent for several hours. Two men, first-generation immigrants who were prominent in the local community, were arrested and taken to Department of Justice camps, where they would remain for the rest of the war. The rest were free to go, but told not to leave town.
The raid interrupted Okamoto’s planned honeymoon.
“He was going to take us to California, but they told us we’d better not go anywhere,” Okamoto said, speaking of her husband.
Internment pushed Japanese people from across the Pacific Northwest to Spokane. A handful moved after Roosevelt’s executive order, hoping to avoid forced relocation. They came because they had family here, or because they thought it would be safer, said Rose Krause, who wrote a master’s thesis at Eastern Washington University about the local impact of internment.
Many, like Tanaka and Yamamoto, settled in Spokane after the war because they had nothing to go back to. Krause estimated 2,500 people of Japanese descent moved into the Spokane region from 1943 to 1945.
Those not sent to camp still faced restrictive laws governing their movements and whom they could do business with. People of Japanese descent had an 8 p.m. curfew. Older Spokane residents who lived here during the war said they didn’t know what happened to those who broke curfew: It wasn’t something they ever considered.
“My sister discouraged us from speaking Japanese. It drew attention to us,” said Alice Tanaka, 81.
For decades after the war ended, internment wasn’t mentioned at all in schools. Elaine Okamoto, Sumi’s daughter, said she never learned about it.
“It wasn’t in the history books,” she said. She learned about it from relatives in Seattle who were sent to camps.
“It reminded me of Hitler and concentration camps. It was scary,” she said.
Tanaka was 17 and months away from high school graduation when the relocation order came.
In Auburn, where she’d grown up, the Japanese community mixed with German-American neighbors and American families. Her first job was picking weeds in the neighboring Snyder family’s corn patch, and she remembers hearing the mother yodeling during the day.
After school, the Japanese-American children of first-generation immigrants went to a special Japanese school. There, they learned the language so they could communicate with their parents. There were no English classes for the immigrants to take.
Tanaka hated the extra schooling and said she felt distant from her parents. English was her first language, and her communication with parents was restricted to mundane topics like work and getting ready for school. They never talked about politics, religion or anything “deep,” she said.
“I vowed that when I raised my family, we’re going to speak only English,” she said.
She found out about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and immediately thought she’d be treated differently at school.
“They kind of shied away talking to me after Pearl Harbor,” she said. “In a way, I can’t blame them.” No one, including young Japanese-Americans, knew what to think of the attack.
After her father was taken, the family spent several days in shock. Eventually, they learned he was being held in an immigration office in Seattle and went to visit him. He was behind steel bars.
“We were not even allowed to get close to that cage,” she said. “It was hard to see him behind bars for doing nothing.”
Later, they would learn he’d been reported as a possible Japanese spy, an absurd claim, Tanaka said. No evidence was ever presented and her father was never told what the allegations against him were. He wasn’t even involved in the local Japanese immigrant community, she said.
Japanese, Italian and German community leaders and noncitizens who were suspected of being influences were detained in Department of Justice camps during World War II. Officially, they were supposed to have hearings, after which they could be released to the general internment camps run by the War Relocation Authority, but in practice, many were held without evidence and without legal representation.
The rest of the family had to leave in the spring, she said. They could pack 60 pounds of personal belongings. Her mother brought one pot so she’d be able to cook rice wherever she went. Many neighbors and people who had been friendly with the family stayed away, but Tanaka’s art teacher, Mrs. Drake, came to say goodbye.
“I appreciated so much that she had the courage to come,” she said.
The family was sent to the Puyallup fairgrounds as a temporary assembly place, then to Fresno, California. It was so hot people regularly fainted, and internees had to make their own mattresses from straw.
Tanaka said her family was moved to the Tule Lake camp in California in fall 1942. Once again, the internees weren’t told where they were going – they were simply ordered to get on a train. The camp housed about 18,000 people on 26,000 acres. Newspapers were banned, and armed guards said anyone who left without authorization would be shot.
Because she had finished high school, Tanaka was put to work as a nurse’s aide, where she changed beds, cleaned bedpans and helped with minor procedures. They had wards A through H, which included people with infectious diseases, children, maternity and more.
In 1943, the War Relocation Authority made people of Japanese descent fill out a “loyalty questionnaire.” Two questions, numbers 27 and 28, would shape the rest of the war for many families.
Question 27 asked if the respondent would be willing to serve in the U.S. military. Many Japanese-Americans did, even while their families were locked in camps, but Tanaka said no, she didn’t want to serve unless she was released.
“Why should they go to war if their parents were in a concentration camp?” she remembered thinking.
Question 28 asked if the respondent would forswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor and swear allegiance only to the United States. Tanaka reasoned that she’d been born an American citizen and had never sworn allegiance to the emperor or Japan in the first place, so she had nothing to forswear.
Her answers put her in a group called the “no-nos,” people of Japanese descent who were branded disloyal.
“They can call me whatever they want to. I don’t think I’m any more disloyal than anybody else,” Tanaka said.
Those from other camps were relocated to Tule Lake, sometimes separated from families. People who led strikes or protests in other camps also ended up there. “Loyal” Japanese from Tule Lake were supposed to be moved elsewhere, but many declined to transfer.
“The people that came to Tule Lake were people who were loud about the injustice that was done to us,” she said.
at Heart Mountain
Yamamoto’s family spent three years at Heart Mountain, a camp about 60 miles east of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
They were farmers before the relocation order came down and had to get rid of any possessions related to Japan: dishes with the Japanese flag on them, photos from her parents’ home.
“We had to either burn it or break it,” she said.
The family tried to sell their farm implements, but left some things sitting where they were, including a brand-new Dodge pickup.
Most Western states, including Washington, had laws barring immigrants from Japan and other countries from owning land or becoming citizens. The Supreme Court would rule those laws unconstitutional in 1952.
Both Tanaka’s and Yamamoto’s families were farming on rented land. When they left, they lost everything: the houses they had built, the improvements they’d made.
At camp, Yamamoto’s family was assigned to barracks and given an identification number: 37004. One barrack would house six families, with the two at either end reserved for families with more than five. Her family had one of the middle rooms, she said. Inside, they had straw mattresses and a coal-burning stove.
It was better than horse stables, she said, but not by much: “blazing hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter,” she said. The food was served in a mess hall and was often weak stew. Toilets were communal. Privacy was scarce.
No one knew how long the war would last, but Yamamoto assumed her family would be there until it ended. She remembered the Army coming through to try to recruit young men.
“I never heard of such a thing, putting people in camps and telling them to serve,” she said.
At camp, she went to school and still has the 1944 and 1945 yearbooks. They had a student government and sports. It was as normal as a school can be when its students live surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
to return to
When the war ended, many internees were unsure what to do next.
“A lot of people in camp didn’t go back home because there was nothing to go back to,” Yamamoto said. Her family settled in Spokane, where her father had a friend. She’d wanted to go to college, but after internment, the family had no savings, so she did housework and eventually went to beauty school.
The U.S. government offered internees a free one-way ticket to Japan after the war. Many first-generation immigrants wanted to go home, including Tanaka’s mother. So the family left for Japan, where she lived for several years. One of her four brothers had been studying there during the war. They stayed with family, and Tanaka got a job with a shipping company.
In 1952, she moved to Seattle for school, leaving her family behind. There, she met and got engaged to John Tanaka, an aspiring doctor, and followed him to St. Louis for medical school, then to Spokane around 1967 when he got a job at Deaconess Hospital.
Tanaka has few photos from camp: cameras were banned at Tule Lake, though a few people managed to sneak them in. She said she’d like to forget what was done to her, but doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to. The contrast between her father’s personality – kind, soft-spoken, eager to try her cooking – and the way the U.S. government treated him is an especially bitter memory. No apology, even if it came with a check, will ever make that right, she said.
“I don’t think we really received justice for what they did to us because we lost everything,” she said.
For her, internment was an act of racism, plain and simple. If there’s any good that can come out of it, she hopes it will serve as a cautionary tale against the knee-jerk fear and assumption that all people of Japanese ancestry were the same that led Roosevelt to sign the order.
“The United States is a pretty young country and we’ve got a lot to learn yet,” Tanaka said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kaz Yamamoto’s name.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.