The Price of Liberty

More than 60 years after their own internment for the "crime" of looking like the enemy, some local Japanese Americans are telling their stories and warning of the dangers of wartime hysteria.

For more on America's internment camps

A National Park Service interpretive center opened this past April at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California. Ironically located just five miles south of Independence, Calif., Manzanar is the best preserved of the 10 internment camps.

Among the displays in the museum is a wall bearing the names of all the internees. The list reaches almost to the 17-foot ceiling. There are 8,000 square feet of exhibits, two movie theaters and a bookstore. Possible future projects include reconstruction of a guard tower and restoration of a World War II-era mess hall brought to the site in 2002.

Every year, on the last Saturday of April, former inmates and their families participate in the Manzanar Pilgrimage to commemorate the closing of the camps. 2005 will mark the 36th-annual pilgrimage.

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Dec. 7, 1941 — The message crackled through the radio: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. It was three days before Tanaka's 19th birthday, and he felt nervous. He looked at his parents and worried about their fate. A law prohibited Japanese immigrants from obtaining citizenship, and the outbreak of war meant the government would look at them as "enemy aliens."

Salem, Ore., where Tanaka was born and raised, was a peaceful community before the war. Many other Japanese around Salem were farmers, living peacefully in the countryside.

Eight miles into the farmland, a Japanese language school held Saturday classes. Much to the delight of his parents, Tanaka decided to enroll and spent eight years learning the language and playing baseball. He was a second year pre-med student at Willamette University in Salem before the outbreak of the war.

His father, Frank, owned a restaurant, Tokio Sukiyaki House, on North Commercial Street, where they served Salem residents sukiyaki dinners, noodles, chow mein and "something different to eat," as a poster advertised.

Everything changed Dec. 7.

Pearl Harbor ignited a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment. Japanese businesses suffered, and it wasn't long until Tanaka's father lost his. Vandals struck the restaurant and all his customers disappeared, afraid of being called unpatriotic.

Soon, the coast was plastered with posters. Residents of Japanese ancestry, even citizens, were instructed to report to the nearest train station or face jail. The posters read as if they'd go on a one-day trip: only one change of clothing and one bag per person allowed.

Tanaka's mother told him to go buy duffel bags for the family because they had more room in them. He remembers his mother rolling up his father's cooking knives in a cloth and hiding them in the middle of the bag, since they were contraband. "Of course, knives are very important to him because that was part of his trade," says Tanaka. "In those days, they didn't have metal detectors, so it got through."

Taking only what they could carry, as the posters ordered, 19-year-old Tanaka, his parents and his three sisters, ages 7, 9 and 20, arrived at the crowded train station in Salem. The government tagged each family with numbers, as if they were pieces of luggage. Questions went unanswered. Fear circulated throughout the train, marked by the nervous cries of children.

"There was a considerable amount of anxiety on the train," recalls Tanaka. "People were thinking we're gonna be sent somewhere where we're all gonna be killed." The military guards' order to keep the passenger cars' shades down intensified the uncertainty.

Tanaka's train traveled all night. The fear never ceased. They didn't know they were headed to the biggest of 10 "relocation camps," Tule Lake, a barren site in a dry Northern California lakebed.

Ventilation in the train was poor. When the train finally stopped, people slowly peered under the shades. "I could see what looked like a rooftop. I couldn't see any trees," says Tanaka. "As the fog lifted and the sun came out, there was not just one rooftop but thousands of rooftops; those were the tarpaper barracks."

All over the West Coast, the military herded families like the Tanakas into trains and buses, taking them away from all that they had known. Businesses were lost, friendships broken and rights stripped away.

The order to relocate came from President Franklin Roosevelt himself. Facing intense pressure from government officials and the public, he signed an executive order on Feb. 19, 1942, granting the military the power to create "military areas" and evacuate "any or all persons" from them. Military officials soon used the order to evacuate the entire Japanese community on the West Coast into relocation camps. Lt. General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, argued for the orders by claiming the Japanese could carry out guerrilla attacks on the coast. "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken," he wrote.

Even before Pearl Harbor, as tensions increased between the U.S. and Japan, the government had frozen the accounts in West Coast branches of Japanese banks. Many ethnic Japanese lost their banked assets. After Pearl Harbor, the government closed all Japanese banks and took over about $2.7 million of businesses and real estate owned by Japanese aliens. It also confiscated all their cameras, weapons, radios and other instruments of potential espionage and sabotage, and created prohibited military areas.

Yet the government never produced any evidence to claim that the Japanese were a military threat. "The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than factual data," FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to the Attorney General on Feb. 3, 1942.

The people who were rounded up won't let America forget. Sixty-two years later, Tanaka and seven other former internees in Cleveland are speaking out about their experience of a country that betrayed them during the war. As members of the Speakers Bureau of the Japanese American Citizens League, they tell anyone who'll listen about their internment. They've seen how easily the American government can strip its citizens of their civil liberties. So, since the Sept. 11 attacks, they've been warning people about the dangers of wartime hysteria.

The camps were barren. Barbed wire and watchtowers surrounded the campground, lined with monotonous rows of 20-by-100-foot barracks that sandwiched a laundry building and a women's and men's lavatory.

Upon arrival, the internees were registered. The newly created War Relocation Authority, in charge of the camps, conducted a two-hour "intake" process, assigning housing, conducting physical examinations and fingerprinting everyone. Tanaka remembers the long line. Children cried from the unbearable heat and the elderly had difficulty standing. Everyone was cleaned with chemically treated water. "It was a humiliating experience to be treated like this by your own government," he says. "What did we do to deserve this treatment?"

Tule Lake registered about 300 the day the Tanakas arrived. The barracks housed four families each and were partitioned, yet did little to give families privacy. Each unit had Army cots, a naked light bulb and a potbellied stove.

Tanaka saw young children in the camps saluting the American flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance under the supervision of armed U.S. soldiers. He knew he could not stay in a place with such injustice. "As I got in camp, I knew right away, this is no place for me," he says. "It was ironic to witness the salute to the flag."

The camps served food in a regimented, cafeteria-style community mess hall. Hundreds of people crowded the hall, forming long lines. The food wavered from edible to not, says Tanaka. He later found out they were eating Army rations, and sometimes horsemeat. The constant repetition of meals took a toll on many, who felt physically sick.

With no paved roads and no drainage system, walking in the camps became unbearable, especially after it rained; puddles were everywhere. There were no trees to protect the internees from bitter winds, and they scrambled to find warm clothing for the coming winter months.

Some laborers earned monthly pay inside the camp. Tanaka was a surgical orderly in the camp hospital, for which he received $12 a month. For skilled laborers, the pay was $16, while doctors and other professionals received $19 a month. At the time, a soldier's base pay was $21 a month. Many anti-Japanese people on the outside opposed the idea of the internees receiving pay, but the WRA didn't consider them prisoners. They were people who had simply moved and needed initial assistance. Still, even with a salary, some could not afford the bare essentials because of the camp's limited work opportunities.

Many who were farmers prior to the internment grew produce for the camp. According to a 1943 article in the Tulean Dispatch, 450 internees at Tule Lake farmed 1,900 acres of barley, potatoes, onions, carrots, rutabagas and other vegetables in 1942.

With the little cash they had saved, internees ordered clothing from JC Penney and Sears catalogs for the coming winter months. At one point, the WRA issued navy-blue peacoats for everyone. "They looked like penguins walking around," recalls Tanaka.

Edwin Ezaki of Cleveland was 9 years old when the government put him in Gila River Camp, Ariz., for three years. "My family was 40306. I'll never forget that number," he says.

Raised on a fruit and vegetable farm in San Jose, Calif., Ezaki's early life was full of joy and laughter, despite the physical farm labor. Growing pears, celery and strawberries, the family farm had a good reputation for quality produce. In the morning, Ezaki's father would put little Ed on the horse while he plowed the field. After school, in the evenings, he learned Japanese at the language school. "I don't recall any prejudices whatsoever when I was a kid," says Ezaki.

Ezaki's grandparents emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, but had to wait until the eldest of their six children — Ezaki's father — was old enough to purchase land in his own name because laws prohibited them from doing so. Until then, they had no choice but to work under other people.

"Once Dec. 7 came, the mood of the family changed," says Ezaki. "They weren't as jovial and happy anymore. More talking in whispers than anything else."

Days after Pearl Harbor, the war hit home. The Ezaki family was eating breakfast when they heard knocking at the door. It was the FBI. Two agents rummaged through the house and took away Ezaki's grandfather, who was not an American citizen, without letting him finish his breakfast or finish getting dressed. "That scared our family to death," says Ezaki. "That fear stayed with our family for quite a while."

Ezaki's grandfather was one of the initial 2,000 Japanese men the government put into temporary internment camps because of their active role in the Japanese community. Japanese Buddhist priests, schoolteachers, businessmen and leaders all over the West Coast were briskly plucked from their homes and placed in different temporary camps. Although Ezaki eventually reunited with his grandfather in camp, not everyone was so lucky. Tanaka's uncle was also part of the 2,000. To this day, he doesn't know what happened to him.

After Ezaki's father learned that his sister had been taken to a racetrack converted into a temporary camp, he packed up his family's belongings into a couple of trucks they used on the farm and drove inland to safety, away from the designated military areas. Ezaki remembers staying in motels for about a month until the WRA found them and sent the family to Arizona.

The American victory at Midway in June 1942 weakened the argument that the internment was a military necessity. The government released a trickle of internees to continue their education or to help with crop harvests that suffered from the shortage of manpower. In 1943, Ezaki's father left for Idaho to pick potatoes and an uncle came to Cleveland. In Idaho, anti-Japanese sentiment was fervent. Restaurants denied Ezaki's father service and barbershops refused to cut his hair.

"My uncle said there were a lot of opportunities [in Cleveland] and it was very industrialized, so Dad came here," says Ezaki.

Meanwhile, he and his mother stayed at Gila River. Living conditions were unbearable. Cracks in the barracks allowed snakes, scorpions and lizards to crawl in, so internees mended the openings with paper and cardboard.

"How I survived three years in the middle of the Arizona desert with temperatures going above 100 degrees without air conditioning, I'll never know," says Ezaki. "Today, when I go into a restaurant and the air conditioning is broken in the summer, I'll go to a different restaurant. Maybe it's because of the heat that I went through during those three years."

Ezaki attended a camp school set up by the WRA and led by government-appointed teachers. In many camps, internees who were former teachers helped in the schools. At times, they would teach despite a textbook shortage.

Other adults set up baseball and football leagues and a basketball court with the material they could gather in camp, keeping the children active. "I'm ashamed to say, because I'm somewhat of a chauvinist, that a girl taught me how to play basketball," Ezaki chuckles. "But she did a pretty good job because I was fairly decent [at it] during my young life." An electrician who lived in Ezaki's barrack block found enough equipment to string up some lights for the basketball court.

"The adults tried to make things as normal as possible under some very horrible conditions," says Ezaki.

College was a ticket out of camp, and Tanaka was intent on getting out.

He had the help of his former sociology professor, Dr. Charles Laughlin, and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social-justice organization. Yet there were many obstacles. Nine government agencies had to agree to let Tanaka go to college, and the approval was delayed as the government reviewed Tanaka's visit to Japan as a boy. He finally received an acceptance letter from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., in fall 1942.

Tanaka was more than ready to go when a wire arrived from the president of Earlham, warning him to wait until the spring semester. Anti-Japanese sentiment was increasing among residents of Richmond, spurred especially by local politicians running for office. Tanaka stayed in Tule Lake.

In January, amid the harsh camp winter, he received another wire from the college president. "I remember it saying that the situation hadn't changed and that many of the townsfolk will kill any Japanese on sight, but that the college is still open to me." Tanaka was on his way.

"I was ambivalent the day I arrived at the train station," he says. He was worried, but counting on the college administration to keep him safe. A group of students and faculty greeted Tanaka and a few other Japanese-American students at the station.

On campus, Tanaka didn't feel targeted by prejudice, but the town of Richmond was strongly anti-Japanese, and it was rare to see any Japanese there. When Tanaka went to a local barbershop with other Japanese Americans, he felt the tension. "The barber welcomed us with caution," says Tanaka. "By plan, I went first. When the barber started to sharpen his straight razor, the three of us were prepared to leave the shop — although nothing happened." Tanaka and the other students soon became regular customers and told the barber about their time in the camps.

In 1943, while Tanaka was in college, the government issued a loyalty questionnaire to the internees to weed out the "disloyals" in the camps. Two questions were particularly hard for many internees to answer: whether they would serve in the U.S. armed forces and where their loyalties lay. The first-generation immigrants were expected to renounce their Japanese nationality and side with a country that hindered them from becoming citizens. The second generation, known as the Nisei, was also caught in a predicament.

"Fight for the United States? I'm classified as an enemy alien!" Tanaka remembers thinking. "How could I be loyal to Japan? I don't even know what Japan's all about. I'm a Nisei!" The year before, the draft board had changed their status from citizen to enemy alien and discharged all Japanese-Americans from the armed forces. "I was really flabbergasted! As a result of that, I didn't know what I was. Am I an American citizen or not?" recalls Tanaka.

Those who answered "no" to both loyalty questions were nicknamed the "no-no's" and were sent to Tule Lake, which had the highest number of "disloyals" of all the "relocation centers." For many, answering "no" was not an illustration of their disloyalty, but an expression of their anger at being maltreated, a way to get back at the government. The camp, which became a high-security segregation center for the "disloyals," added 10 new watchtowers to the existing six. Six tanks rolled in.

The Tanakas, who had answered "yes" to both questions, were given the choice to move to another camp. They left for Topaz in Utah, along with 6,500 others. The more than 12,000 "disloyals" sent to Tule Lake created "a very militant kind of environment there," says Tanaka, who learned about their experience years later. "They were definitely pro-Japanese because they felt that they did not want to stay in a country that was not treating them like the citizens that they were."

Walking away from the barbed-wire fence was not easy. When the government began closing down the camps in December 1944, the internees had to step back into a life interrupted. Their former lives, from businesses to banking assets, had been erased. Prejudice was still strong.

"Shortly after we were in, I think the government found that we were not a threat, that they made a mistake and they violated our constitutional rights by taking us without charges," says Ezaki, who left Gila River with his mother and moved to Cleveland in 1945, after three years behind barbed wire. "We had not committed a crime. Our only crime was that we looked like the enemy."

Many suffered from inner struggles and fear of reintegrating into the community. Clevelander Yoshiko Ikuta witnessed the aftereffects of internment on her husband Frank's family members, who were interned at Poston, Ariz. Ikuta's sister-in-law Mutsuko never recovered from being singled out. "She was the youngest, so she was much more sensitive. She only drives American cars, either a Chevy or a Ford. That's the fear of being singled out," says Ikuta. "Emotional scars live on more than 50 years."

High-school graduates filled with horror stories of discrimination hesitated at going to college. The American Friends Service Committee began recruiting internees who'd gone to college to counsel the young back into society. Upon graduating from Earlham in June 1944, Tanaka joined this volunteer group for the summer and helped students at Manzanar, Calif. In September, he reunited with his family in Topaz. They set their sights on Cleveland and left camp life after two years.

A mass migration of Japanese Americans to the Midwest had begun in 1943. Many did not return to the West Coast out of fear, so cities like Chicago and Cleveland became popular destinations. At its peak, Cleveland housed more than 3,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Today, the census counts less than 1,200 in Cuyahoga County.

"I thought it was an international city with a lot of different ethnic backgrounds," says Tanaka. "Of course, I didn't realize how discriminatory it was here."

Incidents of violence were common and general harassment, such as the posting of signs reading, "No Japs allowed" and "No Japs welcome," was widespread. Housing was a critical problem. Even with help from the Cleveland Resettlement Committee, the Tanakas could not find a place for all six family members. Sometimes, discriminatory property owners lied about their vacancies.

"The vacant fraternities became godsent, because housing was extremely critical in those years," says Tanaka. "It was very difficult for anybody to find housing." Tanaka settled in a vacant fraternity near what's now Case Western Reserve University, while his family split up. He worked at the biochemistry department of the medical school until his life was interrupted again; this time, by the draft.

In 1944, the government reinstated the draft for Japanese Americans and restored their citizen status. (Some 300 or so refused to serve and were tried in federal court and sent to prison as draft dodgers.) Tanaka was shipped to a basic-training camp in Crowder, Mo., and then to Fort Snelling, Minn., to attend the Military Intelligence Service Language School. He learned more Japanese in the three months he was there than in the eight years he spent in language school.

After turning down a field commission in occupied Japan after the war, Tanaka was shipped to South Carolina and then on to Mason General Hospital in Long Island, where he helped set up and run a medical lab for GIs suffering from battle fatigue. When his two-year draft commitment ended in November 1946, he came back to Cleveland. "I wanted to return to civilian life," he says.

About 25,000 Japanese Americans served in the armed services during World War II, including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-volunteer unit made up of the 100th Infantry Battalion of Hawaii and young men from the relocation camps. During their campaigns in Europe, the 442nd became one of the most decorated combat units in the history of the U.S. Army.

Ezaki joined the Army, too, and spent 1953 to 1955 in the Army Corps of Engineers. Even after being imprisoned, his loyalty remained with the United States. "People are amazed that we're not bitter or have ill feelings towards the government," he says.

When Ezaki returned to Cleveland, he worked at General Motors and became a union leader for the United Auto Workers until his retirement. To this day, he is active in the Speakers Bureau. "Even though I'm an old man now, I'm still willing to fight for freedom," says Ezaki. "I will live and die for the U.S."

Tanaka married Sachie Fukiage in 1947, and joined the Cleveland chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League a year later.

He specialized in psychological rehabilitation and served as the executive director of Hill House, a nonprofit organization serving mentally ill adults, for 30 years before retiring in 1991. He received several awards and distinctions from the U.S. Senate and Ohio Senate for his rehabilitation work.

He also served as national president of JACL in the 1970s, and helped lead the organization to seek reparations for former internees from the federal government. Their cause didn't attract much support until they discovered a startling fact: Only 21 members of Congress were even familiar with the Japanese-American incarceration.

Once former internees began to educate Congress, the legislators began to listen. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill establishing a commission on the internment. The commission held hearings across the nation. About 750 witnesses testified and shared their personal experiences of the camps.

Tanaka was one of them. "It was the most emotional experience that I've ever had," he says. Some witnesses, he remembers, "were crying about the experiences that they suffered in camp and how they were mistreated." The hearings proved cathartic for those who had kept silent. "That was the turning point of the whole movement," says Tanaka.

The commission concluded that the internment did not have a "military necessity," but was carried out due to wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and political leaders' failure to defend internees' constitutional rights. In response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1988 and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. It provided a presidential apology and a symbolic payment of $20,000 to each internee who lost their rights during the wartime frenzy. In 1990, half a century after the internments, the government issued its first reparation payments in Washington, D.C. Rev. Mamoru Eto of Los Angeles, age 107, was the first to receive his check.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the former internees have been speaking out again, warning that the rights they worked to defend are threatened. From high schools to local churches, the seven members of Cleveland's Speakers Bureau share their experiences during World War II and relate them to recent events. They point to the detainees held since the Afghan war at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the "enemy combatants" the government held without access to legal counsel and claimed could be detained indefinitely.

"Some enemy combatants who were held for years without an attorney were American citizens," says Ezaki. "They were denied their civil rights. This is not the America I went into service for." (In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to a hearing.)

When Congress passed the USA Patriot Act a month after the 9/11 attacks, Tanaka and others strongly argued against it, believing some of its provisions threaten civil liberties.

"The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided for a personal apology and token reparations for Japanese Americans," says Tanaka. "With the Patriot Act being up for renewal next year, will our freedom of choice and right to fair trial be jeopardized again?"

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