Q&A - Looking Back

A prisoner of the Japanese-American internment camp at Minidoka recalls his time there, 60 years ago.

By Scott Kirkwood

A year ago, President George W. Bush enacted legislation authorizing up to $38 million for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites where thousands of Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. The National Park Service has been seeking public comment on how to best allocate those funds, which may bode well for Minidoka Internment National Monument in Idaho, where structures continue to crumble, and rangers are nearly impossible to find.

Last fall, NPCA and other groups helped stave off a purchase of nearby land that would have placed a huge animal feedlot just upwind of the site, bringing all the noise and odor that go along with such operations. The next step is to help the park do a better job of telling its stories—stories like those of Dr. Frank Kitamoto. When he was only 2 years old, Kitamoto’s family was removed from their home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and taken to Manzanar then Minidoka. He now shares his experiences with schools and other community groups in and around Seattle. In October, Kitamoto spoke to National Parks’ editor in chief, Scott Kirkwood.

Q. You were very young when these events took place. How much do you really remember?
A. I don’t have any memories of leaving [home] and I don’t have that many memories about Manzanar, but I do have some memories from Minidoka, because I was a little older at the time. I remember the simple things, like playing in the sandboxes and watching the older people play baseball. I remember going to a Miss Minidoka contest and sitting in the oil and gravel in the front row. When they announced the winner, everybody surged forward and trampled me into the gravel and I ended up in the hospital, where they picked all the gravel out of me. I was just a little kid, but it seemed like I was always running into something.

Q. Talk a bit about the conditions at the camp.
A. I think it was really hard on the adults, especially the men. The women certainly struggled as well, but at home, many of them were working in the fields constantly, so in ways that gave them a little bit of relief. Even so, the conditions were hard—the mothers occupied themselves in trying to make it seem like life as usual because they didn’t want their kids to know how terrible it was. And as kids, we were all were having fun with our relatives and the other children. But I’m sure it was really hard on a lot of the older kids in high school or junior high because they had to leave a lot of their friends, and didn’t really know why.

Q. What did you do most of the time you were there?
A. We had to go to school, just like any other kids. I went to kindergarten in Minidoka. When the kids from Bainbridge Island first got to Manzanar, there was no school yet, so the principal on the island, Mr. Dennis, sent them schoolwork through the mail, and they graduated by correspondence. They even had a graduation ceremony in Manzanar when the rest of the kids on the island were graduating.

Q. What did adults do?
A. The mothers who had kids were occupied. The camps themselves were run like a city so some of the teenagers and a lot of the men worked in sanitation or cooked meals. Eventually many people took on jobs and got paid as much as ten to 12 dollars a month. If you were a physician who was taken to a concentration camp, you worked in the hospital, dentists worked in dentistry, and so on.

When the camps were turned over to the War Relocation Authority, they didn’t think we should be there, so they actually went out and recruited businesses and farms for people to go work—like being on probation or getting out on a pass. Remember, there was a manpower shortage because of all the people that had gone to the war. Eventually they started letting people leave the camps if they had found a school that was willing to sponsor them. That’s what my father did—he didn’t stay in the camp with us very long, he left to back to Chicago to go to watch-repair school.

Q. And how did you eventually get out?
A. We were transferred from Manzanar to Minidoka, mostly because the adults wanted to be with other people they knew from Washington state; Manzanar was getting so crowded, the government was happy to transfer us to Minidoka. After our dad left the camp, a case before the Supreme Court [challenged the Constitutionality of our imprisonment], and the government lawyers knew that they were going to lose the case, so before the war was even over, they decided to let people out of the concentration camps. They said, “Here’s twenty-five bucks, find your own way home.” My father went back to Bainbridge to make sure it was safe to go home, then came back and took us home.

Q. You don’t seem at all bitter about your experience. Why is that?
A. Some people, including the younger generation of Japanese, often say “Why did you go so willingly? Why didn’t you protest and kick up a bigger fuss? This was against your Constitutional rights.” Many adults still won’t talk to their children about it, and some of that probably comes from a sense of shame. But in the Japanese culture, to criticize someone in a position of authority is shameful, because you’re saying to that person “You’re not good enough to be an authority,” so it was very hard for the first generation to protest what was happening. And realistically, they just didn’t have a lot of power. The people who did protest—the nissei, or second generation—ended up in federal prison when they decided not to go enter the draft.

It was probably a good 40 years before people began thinking differently. As the years have gone by, we’ve realized it was not something that should have happened and because of that, when former prisoners visit the site for annual reunions, it’s a chance to tell ourselves that it’s okay that we had these feelings and it’s okay that we made it through a period of time where people lost everything and had to start all over again.

Q. You mentioned the annual park reunions. What are those events like?
A. The first time I went to a reunion I was really surprised to find nothing looked like I’d expected it to: All the buildings were gone and the pastures were green and lush, just like farmland; I remembered only sage brush and desert as a child. It quickly became obvious to me that the irrigation ditches that were dug by incarcerated people were now being used by people who had bought the land to make it a really fertile area.

With each pilgrimage, it becomes more obvious to me that the richest part of these reunions is the people—whether it’s the older people who share their experiences or the young people who knew very little about what was going on, there’s this feeling that we all got through this, like a badge of courage that really binds us. Knowing that this doesn’t make us lesser people, but people who should take pride in what they had to do to get through it all.

Last year we brought my 96-year-old aunt with us for the first time, and she kept saying, “I don’t know if I want to go back there,” but by the end of the weekend, she was really glad she had gone, because she was able to share her stories and talk to other people who had experienced it too. 

 Q. As you know, visiting Minidoka doesn’t quite compare to many other park units because of the lack of interpretive staff and poor funding for maintenance and upkeep. How does that make you feel?
A. Well, I think it’s a slow process. Eventually it really is going to be something to see, but it’s always hard to find the funds to do these things, and the Park Service can’t simply throw up new structures without any historical background But I do think the Park Service has done a good job of getting everybody involved and trying to listen to people with an interest in the park. It may take some time, but I think it’s going to be worthwhile.

Q. Why is it important for people to know about these places?
A. A lot of people think that the United States is special is because it’s such a powerful nation, but I think what people really like about the U.S.—especially those who aren’t citizens—is our freedom of thought, the chance to advance and grow and the humanitarian qualities that are associated with this country. When we start focusing on our country’s military power, it really is contrary to what makes us special as a nation. When we act as though we know what’s best for the rest of the world, people get really resentful. As individuals, when someone takes that attitude, we generally don’t like it, so I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to understand that when countries do the same thing, people may not like it either.

These concentration camps can show that when we fear for our safety and want to protect ourselves, we sometimes forget about the human aspects of things and we forget that everybody really is of value—these camps help remind us there are things more valuable than power.

In a way, they represent the hope for this country—not to remind us that people can be awful, but to remind us that we really need to be on our toes and be aware that we can do these kinds of things if we let fear or a thirst for power override the more important things, like being helpful to each other and caring about each other. The hope really lies in people being reminded that this can happen again, but it doesn’t have to happen again.

Q. Why do you give talks about your experience to public groups?
A. This is a passion for me. I decided it’s one of my purposes in life, to share the experiences I’ve gone through and the things I worried about as a kid—being different, wishing I was somebody I wasn’t, spending a lot of my school days trying to be as white as I could be and denying who I was as a person. I didn’t realize until I was in college that it wasn’t working—people just looked at me and instantly knew I wasn’t white. I think a lot of our country’s problems would be solved if our children had good positive self images and understood that who they are and where they are is probably the right place for them, and to make the most of that, because wishing you were somebody else doesn’t work very well.

I don’t think we have to do big things in this world beyond how we affect each other, and if one person I speak to can affect another person, that’s how things get better over time.

Q. Have you seen similarities between the way you were treated and the way people have treated those of Middle Eastern descent in recent years?
A. Definitely. Much of it seems to come from being fearful, and struggling to see people as individuals, and a tendency to clump them together because of the way they look. So in a lot of ways it’s similar, but in other ways it’s more subtle, because everything was out in the open when they took us away, but there have been a lot of recent cases where people have been harassed or arrested and no one really knows that much about it. So it’s up to people like us to say “Hey, this is something that has happened before and these people deserve their constitutional rights just like we did back then.” Unfortunately the current political atmosphere is really conducive to these sort of things happening again. When people in the general population become afraid for their own safety, it’s easy to forget that we all have certain rights that shouldn’t be ignored.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 issue.

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