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Hear from 2 community members who joined their families in Japanese incarceration centers

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JCCH/U.S. Army Signal Corps Collection
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Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i
Sand Island Internment Camp under construction on February 13, 1942.

Eighty-one years ago this week, Hawaiʻi was under martial law.

Military officials had unprecedented power, and some individuals from Hawaiʻi's Japanese community were arrested and held like criminals.

As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, we hear from two community members who joined their fathers in incarceration centers on the mainland. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan introduces their stories.

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Densho Digital Repository
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Lillian Nakano in an interview on July 8, 2009 in Torrance, California.

Sansei Lillian Nakano was born in Honolulu, where her family ran a successful wholesale bakery business. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father was picked up by the FBI and sent to the Sand Island internment camp.

She shares her memories of the response of community members to news of her father's incarceration. Later, the family would move to Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas, so they could be reunited with him.

Nakano: When he was sent to Sand Island, it was kind of a stigma. Because, you know, they took so many thousand from the entire island. Now, that's only a handful. So in your neighborhood, when he'd be the only one. So then people would be wondering, "What's going on? Is he a spy?" [Laughs] you know, and things like that. So there was a certain amount of stigma attached to it.

Of course, we were worried about him. But my mother took care of everything, and she was always the type that, "Don't worry about it. There's nothing you can do about it." "I'll do the worrying."  

Interviewer: Were you able to communicate with him?

Nakano: No. I think she was able to. They would have visitations. Not the whole family, though. Then, after about a year, it became more liberal where they said that, "If you want to go to the mainland, to the camp, then you can go as a family and he'll join you guys." So we said, "Of course, by all means." So that's how we left for the mainland.

Interviewer: So what about that sort of journey across the Pacific?

Nakano: Well, for us, I'm sure, for my mother and for my parents, a lot of it was full of apprehension and everything. But for us, we were just having fun on a ship with our friends, making all these new friends, people from the other islands all came together, to get us out there. And so it was just a lot of newness, and just a lot of excitement.

Family members of other inmates who left Hawai‘i similarly experienced upheaval. Masamizu Kitajima, a Hawai‘i Island resident, recalls the arrival of his family at Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas after leaving the islands when his mother could not support the family alone.

Together, they crossed the Pacific and the United States to join his father, a prominent Buddhist minister, who had been arrested by the FBI after the Pearl Harbor attack.

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Densho Digital Repository
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Masamizu Kitajima sitting for an interview on June 12, 2010 in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.

Kitajima: We got into Arkansas, Jerome, probably about ten o'clock, at night. And as we got to Jerome I saw a big bonfire. Big, big fire. The people in Jerome had a bonfire from old crates and lumber and stuff like that, just to greet us.

The train pulled in, and as we got out the people helped us get off the train, and we all stood around the fire and held hands. These people were all from California who was sent to Jerome earlier who knew that we were coming in from Hawaiʻi, so they came out to greet us and help us out. They had blankets, lots of blankets with them. So we had blankets, and we could warm up, stay warm.

They put us on trucks and shipped us to the, our assigned barracks, and they came and helped us, until we got settled down. Lit the fire in the pot-bellied stove for us and stuff like that, helped us, "This is how you do things. We had no idea how to live on the mainland. We didn't know how to make a fire, how to burn wood in a pot-bellied stove. So the guys went out and got wood for us, brought it into the room and says, "This oil can help you. This is how you do it." Started the fire for us. Said, "You have to go get your wood from now on.

— — —

That was Lillian Nakano and Masamizu Kitajima with ethnic studies professor Ty Kawika Tengan. Both interviews are part of the Densho Visual History Collection. The Densho Digital Repository, a multi-partner initiative of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, contains oral history interviews, photographs, documents, and other materials relating to the Japanese American experience. Additional information on the project is available at www.densho.org.

This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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