Japanese-Americans of all ages are physically separated by barbed wires.
Japanese-Americans of all ages are physically separated by barbed wires.
WWII: Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp for Japanese-Americans/Hikaru Iwasaki/Flickr/CC0 1.0

Behind the barbed wires

The story of a Japanese internment camp survivor

The flyers were put up quickly to announce the imprisonment of thousands of adults, elderly people, and children. It was the winter of 1942, and there was no apparent reason for these arrests. However, the victims all had one thing in common. They were all Japanese-Americans.

In reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an act to bring all people of Japanese descent to internment camps. Despite most of these people being American citizens, the fear of spies within the United States working with the Japanese government drove thousands of innocent people into concentration camps. According to the National Park Service (NPS), there were over 120,000 Japanese-Americans imprisoned within barbed wires.

As many Japanese people immigrated to the United States to begin a new life, it came as a surprise to many when they were treated as anything but American citizens.

Avery Wong

Tak Shirasawa, a San Francisco-born American citizen, spent time along with his family in the Poston internment camp in Arizona. Shirasawa grew up in Visalia, CA, and was only 15 when the imprisonment began.

For Shirasawa, the life-altering journey began with signs around town giving strange instructions specifically for Japanese citizens. These were put into effect as the suspicions of Japanese-American citizens being spies gained the attention from the government. In retaliation to these rumors with no concrete evidence, the leaders of the “land of the free” came up with a quick solution: to take away their freedom. 

“I was most disturbed by the curfew law which said we had to be in our homes and on our property from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. daily. My parents, of course, abided by the law and we did what we were told,” Shirasawa said.

It only escalated after that. The infamous “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” posters were hung around the country, directing “both alien and non-alien” Japanese citizens and their families to evacuate their homes. 

Japanese people across America began to pack into trains to embark on a journey they were given no information about.

“We were ordered to show up at the railroad station with our luggage at a specific date and time,” Shirasawa said. “[There were] more rumors again, ‘Where are we going? What will they do to us? Are they going to shoot us?’ But we, of course, complied with the order.” 

As thousands of Japanese-American citizens arrived at the relocation sites, life became filled with uncertainties. Even the barracks were still being built due to the hasty decision to relocate thousands of people. 

Privacy was unheard of in the barracks, according to the NPS. There were anywhere from 200 to 400 people living in each block, divided into 14 barracks made up of four rooms.

Unhealthy living conditions were also a large part of the struggle for people living in the concentration camps.

“Arrival at the campsite was not good, [it was] dusty, and [there were] lines of barrack buildings with black tar paper outside covering it,” Shirasawa said. “It was also very hot. We thought, ‘is this going to be our home? And for how long?’”

Other incomplete facilities included the latrines, which had no stalls, and showers with no dividers. Life became unsanitary, as camps were overpopulated and basic human rights became sparse. The families in the concentration camps were given paper tags and were referred to as numbers, further dehumanizing the innocent prisoners. 

“I remember our first meal after getting off the trucks by the barracks to which we were assigned. It was served in a large building which was our mess hall for 300 people to share. I remember having sliced baloney, canned peas, and bread,” Shirasawa said. 

Even through all this, Shirasawa considers himself one of the lucky ones to go through this experience. 

“My friends and I were fortunate in being able to finish high school and seek admission to colleges,” Shirasawa said. “We were helped by Quaker groups who helped Japanese-American students gain admission to colleges.”

Others were not so fortunate. Some spent up to three years in the internment camps working as farmers, janitors, and nurses. In addition to the dangers of living in an unsanitary environment, there were also watchtowers and guards carrying weapons. Not only did they serve as a warning, but also to take action in case a single person stepped out of line. 

According to the National WWII Museum, the government recorded approximately 1,862 deaths. These were due to violence, disease, and improper medical treatment around camp. 

However, even after they were released from the internment camps, Japanese-Americans were still not safe. People continued to struggle with discrimination years later. Children dealt with racism in their classrooms, and adults struggled to find work and housing. 

Despite this experience creating a permanent scar on hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American citizens, the government has previously tried to justify these actions of racism. Even more so, there is an obvious lack of portrayal in the media of the acts of racism against Asian people. Many people in today’s society are still ignorant of the struggles faced in the past.

“We have never been taught the history of the Japanese internment camps in school. There is little to no representation even though it is an important subject,” said Soichiro Tomoda, a freshman.

The discrimination and xenophobia have been carried on into today’s society, where Asian hate is still active and often goes unseen.

“Although it is scary, I think it’s important that people pass on their stories because it’s a way to raise awareness through generations,” Tomoda said.

Young generations grew up learning about how to use their voice and protest for the greater good. It connects millions of people to their pasts, confirming that anybody, regardless of age, can learn from history. 

“I think the stories from internment camp survivors are deeply saddening, but they also provide opportunities to bring communities together,” said Haruka Eguchi, a sophomore. “Historical events tend to make an impact on the future.”

According to Britannica, the last internment camp was closed in 1946. As families were set free and barbed wires were cut down, the tensions due to the internment camps became a bit more distant. Although the tales of internment camp suffering will never be forgotten, there is still a desire for a respectful society among future generations. 

“I think there is still hope in this world where everyone can treat each other with empathy and compassion,” Eguchi said.

About the Contributor
Avery Wong
Avery Wong, Staff Writer
Avery Wong is a senior at Carlmont High School. She enjoys creative work and helping others tell their stories. She strives to raise awareness about worldwide events, as well as community ones.

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