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Japanese Americans in World War II

Japanese American Family Profiles, Sansei Reflections

This exhibit represents examples of Japanese American families, mainly from the Central Valley, that were profoundly affected by Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. It was my job to capture these brief family histories, or family profiles, surrounding the war years.

Over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were ordered with only what they could carry into the Assembly Centers for months; and then were imprisoned for three to four years in these internment / American concentration camps.

These were American families, many of whom had lived in the U.S. for decades. Two-thirds of the prisoners were U.S. citizens; over one-half were children. They were all reduced to an assigned number pinned to their clothes for transport to the camps. The ID numbers were also used for roll call each morning to make sure no one had escaped. For example, my family’s number was 13256 A-J (one letter per family member, assigned from oldest to youngest, so my mother’s number was 13256I.) This was dehumanizing. Restroom and shower facilities were communal, which was humiliating. It is important to understand that these were real people, just like you or your neighbor. For me, they were my family members … my mother, my three aunts, my four uncles (all of whom were U.S. citizens, born right here in California), and my grandmother and grandfather (from Takahashi, Japan). My mother was only 7 years old, when she was imprisoned. As for the adults before the war, they held real jobs and were hard workers; they had their own personal material property (cars, farm equipment, household items, and etc.); and they had their own lives. They had relationships with friends and business colleagues; they were involved in their communities, places of worship, and schools. With the signing of Executive Order 9066, their lives were turned upside-down with uncertainty. All that they had worked for was gone.

I am grateful to the families who shared their stories. I was especially moved by the feelings of loss that is palpable even today … the loss of friends and family members (some of whom died in camp), the loss of what had been their normal lives, the loss of a favorite doll or a child’s tea set, and mainly, the loss of what could have been. There is also this Japanese principle of gaman that was mentioned by almost every family, which helped hold them together. Mostly, these were ordinary American families, thrown into highly unusual circumstances, an act that had no basis … driven by racism and greed.

A few families were fortunate enough to have good hakujin friends or neighbors, who took care of their property, businesses, and/or belongings while they were imprisoned for those years. When 9066 was put into action, the Religious Society of Friends (a.k.a. Quakers) stood out as the only non-Asian group opposing the en masse imprisonment of West Coast Americans of Japanese descent. The Quakers entered the camps and talked to the prisoners, encouraging them to relocate to the East Coast and Midwest. My mother’s family was helped by the Quakers, which is why they ended up in New Jersey rather than returning back to California. (At the time, Japanese Americans were not allowed to return to their California hometowns.) My family was sponsored by a Quaker family in New Jersey that provided a farmhouse for the family and employment for my grandfather, growing and harvesting apples and peaches on their farm.  The two youngest (including my mother) attended the Westfield Friends School in Riverton, New Jersey. We are grateful to the Quakers, who helped to give my family a second chance in trying times. In most cases, certainly in my family’s case, this is also a story of resilience. From two people came a vibrant family of 50 blood relatives, the nisei, sansei, yonsei, and gosei. The adults are productive U.S. citizens, educated in diverse professions, including librarianship, engineering, education, and the ministry.

With the 75th Anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, we are reminded of what happened when the U.S. turned its back on its own Constitution. It was a sobering reminder of just how fragile our constitutional rights are. This also demonstrated the importance of protecting civil and human rights for all. When asked the question what each family wanted people to understand about this part of our history and its legacy, there were two common themes: 1. Do not forget what happened to the Japanese Americans during this dark period in U.S. history; and 2. Do not ever let this happen again to any other group of people.

Julie (Shimomura) Moore, Sansei
Compiler, Japanese American Family Profiles