In part 2 of the series "Prisoners in Their Own Land" about the internment of Japanese Americans 75 years ago, KING 5's Lori Matsukawa examines how families returning home after the war often faced prejudice and discrimination. They had a hard time finding jobs, housing, and respect. Yet even in those difficult days, there were acts of kindness and generosity that gave them hope.
When the war was over, those forced into American concentration camps were forced out, given a one-way ticket home and $25. What they came back to was often less than welcoming.
“The manager took one look at both of us and said, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Japs.’ And bang! went the door,” recalled Lilly Kitamoto Kodama. This was on her honeymoon trip 10 years after the war ended.
Kitamoto said her father was a lifelong Republican because President Roosevelt, who signed the incarceration Executive Order 9066, was a Democrat. She said her father remained bitter over the act that put his family and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans into incarceration camps.
After the war, it was difficult to find housing, jobs, and, for Taky Kimura, self-respect.
“Being of Japanese extraction, after Pearl Harbor and all that, I was beat up and chased down the street, called a God-damned Jap and all that,” he said. “It just destroyed me.”
The war kept Kimura from attending WSU. He ended up working at the family grocery, where he said a customer saved him from despair. That customer? That customer was martial artist and movie star Bruce Lee.
“Bruce was the guy that came into my life. And even though he was young enough to be my son, he was so wise with philosophical lessons. He kept working on me, telling me I was just as good as him or anybody else," recalled Kimura.
Kimura taught at Lee's martial arts school and became Lee’s best friend. Kimura tends his grave to this day.
The racial prejudice was so bad after the war, Shokichi Tokita's family could only find housing in the Seattle Japanese language school.
Classrooms were turned into apartments costing families $6 a month. They called the school the "Hunt Hotel" since most of the residents came from the Minidoka camp near Hunt, Idaho.
Even though the Tokitas lived in a single classroom and shared the language school kitchen and baths with several other families, he said it was nothing like camp.
“There’s a huge difference,” Tokita said, beaming. “Freedom to go to different places. No sagebrush, no rattlesnakes, no ticks.”
Freedom, yes, but a painting of an empty chair represents the three suicides that happened there over 14 years.
“That kind of gives you an idea of how devastated people were and how hopeless the situation seemed coming back,” said National Park Service
historian Elisa Law.
Auburn resident Frank Natsuhara was always grateful he had something to come home to. His son, Charles Natsuhara, said before leaving for camp, his dad simply handed the keys to the family’s farm supply store and home to their neighbor, Raymond Sonnemann, who ran the cleaners next door.
From Minidoka, Frank Natsuhara would write to Sonnemann, asking him to send items that other families needed. Sonnemann even transported Natsuhara from Minidoka back to Auburn to check on the business after a break-in.
Wendy Sonnemann Morris said not everyone in town liked what her grandfather was doing. But he told her, “If that meant that people said 'Nope we're not going to do business with you anymore,' then okay, that's your choice. My choice is to believe in my neighbors and my friends.”
Charles says when their family got back to town, Raymond Sonnemann was there to greet them.
“We came back. He gave us the key. The electricity was on, the water was on because there was a laundry, there were linens for the beds,” recalled Natsuhara.
Part 3: Warriors and Resisters
The Japanese American community divided. While still in camp, some young men decided to volunteer for the Army. Others went to court to challenge the incarceration and were called “chicken” or worse. It's a division that haunts some families to this day.
Related links and resources:
Internment Camp vs. Concentration Camp
Some viewers may be wondering what to call these wartime camps. The words "internment camp" are considered imprecise by scholars, since those were used for holding dangerous aliens and prisoners of war. I use the words "concentration camp" in my reports because that's what the people I interviewed called them and, by definition, that's what they were, according to history website DENSHO: “Prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designated to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity." This is not meant to take away from what happened to Jews and others in Europe, who were imprisoned in "concentration camps," which some now acknowledge was a euphemism for Nazi "death camps." - Lori Matsukawa