I travel 500 miles from Springfield to Little Rock, Ark., to tack a note on the conference message board: "I would like to talk with anyone from Rohwer who knew Shizu Yoshimura, Ayako Arishita, or the Nagatanis. Please contact Yosh Golden . . . ."
Some 600 people are expected, but more than 1,300 register for "Camp Connections: A Conversation about Civil Rights and Social Justice in Arkansas," a conference that developed out of a three-year project between the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Japanese American National Museum. Funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the project examines the Japanese-American experience in Arkansas during World War II.
The late-September conference, which draws many elderly Japanese-Americans to Little Rock, provides the backdrop to my search for anyone who might have known my paternal grandmother, Shizu Yoshimura; an aunt, Ayako Aono Arishita; or anyone from my Uncle John Nagatani's family. All were rounded up in California and incarcerated in the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps in the Mississippi Delta of southeastern Arkansas during World War II.
Over five days, conferees share the sad indelible memories that were triggered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans beginning in 1942.
Barbara Futumachi Newman of Cincinnati describes how her father took his cherished pet dog to a co-worker for safekeeping, only to see the man pull a gun and kill the dog on the spot. Others speak of fathers and grandfathers who were taken away at night and did not return for months or years, of funerals and burials of parents and infants at Jerome and Rohwer, of young men who died while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the hope that their demonstration of patriotism would win the early release of their families from the camps. The Masada family describes how vigilantes' gunshots tore through their home at midnight within a month of their return to California from Rohwer. Other conferees who left childhood friends behind while they were incarcerated describe never being able to trust again.
The central event of the gathering, which draws so many people from nearly every state in the United States, plus Canada and Japan, begins at 7 a.m. Sept. 23, when some 150 conferees board buses for the two-hour ride to Jerome. During the trip down state highways 65 and 165, Time of Fear, a documentary set for national broadcast on PBS next spring, is shown on the buses. The film recalls events beginning with Pearl Harbor and stretching to the incarceration of more than 16,000 in two camps created practically overnight in southeastern Arkansas. Townspeople who remained in the area are candid about their resentment and fear at having the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps in their midst. In turn, one of the internees interviewed in the documentary, Sam Ozaki of Chicago, says he wished "I didn't have this face."
We pass fields of harvest-ready soybeans and cotton, swamps, a catfish farm, weathered towns waiting for economic renewal. The travelers, especially the elderly, become more animated as we draw closer to the camp sites. Retired Col. Harry Fukuhara, 84, of San Jose, Calif., is seeing the Jerome and Rohwer sites for the first time. Fukuhara served two years with the Military Intelligence Service, in the 33rd Infantry Division, which was formed in December 1942, before the famed 442nd RCT was organized. Fukuhara described how "young men were recruited out of the camps and used as translators and decoders" in the Pacific war arena. He led a 10-man team which doubled in size just before the planned invasion of Japan. But the dropping of the atom bombs ended the war and Fukuhara returned to live with family in Chicago for a few years.
The air-conditioned buses in which we ride are quiet and comfortable; 60 years ago, the people removed from Hawaii and California rode on hot, cramped military trains. For four days and nights they sat, old and young, even while sleeping, or trying to sleep. I wonder what my slight, timid grandmother was thinking as she rode the train; I wonder whether shy Aunt Ayako was too scared to speak to strangers from so many different California cities, their only shared bond their Japanese ancestry.
Among the first to get off the bus in Jerome is George Nakano, a California assemblyman who represents the state's 53rd District. He and a friend who was also interned in Jerome raised funds to erect the Jerome Relocation Camp monument, one of just two visible reminders that 8,497 persons of Japanese ancestry were once incarcerated here. The other is a tall but decaying boiler-room smokestack many fields away. "This place used to be surrounded by trees," Nakano says. The trees are gone, and now there are only cotton and soybeans. Rice is the other major crop grown in the area.
Harry Kitahata, a spry 83-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif., stands for a few minutes by the monument, gathering his memories: "I was 17 at the time. I was sent to Santa Anita [a California racetrack that served as an assembly center where families were housed in stables] for seven months and then to Jerome. I was in Jerome about four months. It was a five-day trip. There were 10 [train] cars, 50 to 60 people in each car."
Once off the buses, conferees walk across the highway and look up and down the endless railroad tracks, trying to gauge the state of mind and heart of family members who were taken under military escort to this strange, hostile place. Among the 16,000 Japanese-Americans sent to Arkansas were 811 rounded up in Hawaii and shipped to Oakland, Calif., where they joined people from the West Coast on military trains headed east.
As we reboard the buses to travel to our lunch site, Irene Katooka, a 78-year-old returnee, remarks, "What could we do? It was 'Gaman . . . gambate,' -- 'Just bear it.'"
After a quick lunch of fried catfish, hushpuppies, French fries, apple fritters, and coleslaw, we ride for 30 minutes to Desha County, site of the Rohwer Relocation Center, which opened on Sept. 18, 1942, and held 8,475 inmates. During the bus ride, Lisa Sasaki, museum educator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, says that, after Rohwer, her grandfather "never wanted to eat curry" because that seasoning was used in the camp to cover the taste of meat "going bad."
The returnees stop at its cemetery of 24 headstones, two crumbling camp-era monuments, and two recent monuments, one signifying the site's National Historic Landmark designation. Some of the headstones are inscribed with Christian crosses. At the southeast corner are three headstones for infants: Masaki, infant, 1942; Tasugi, infant, 1943; Sano, infant, 1943. For several minutes, Barbara Futumachi Newman crouches and prays for these three, left behind more than 60 years ago.
I ask, without success, whether fellow riders remember the names I tacked on the message board back at the hotel in Little Rock. But four days are left in the conference, so I remain hopeful.
On the return to Little Rock, another film is shown, but by its end, most of the conferees' gray heads are nodding or slumped in deep sleep. It's been a long day and a long journey: many memories, many mixed emotions, strangers making friends, inmates being reunited. We ride in silent comfort as the sun sets.
Conference events on Friday, Sept. 24, begin at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, where exhibits examine the plight of the internees and commemorate the heroism of Japanese-American soldiers in World War II are to open.
Before the exhibit openings, some 800 people, gathered under a tent in front of the museum, hear U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a Medal of Honor recipient, speak of the "Go for Broke" soldiers, some of the 25,000 Japanese-Americans who served in World War II. He recounts the bravery of Japanese-Americans who saved the "Lost Battalion" of Texans, the breaking of the Gothic Line, and the Japanese-American soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion who were among the first to enter the Dachau death camp.
The fact that Japanese-American soldiers whose families were incarcerated in concentration camps back in the United States liberated victims of a Nazi death camp in Germany remained a military secret until some 15 years ago, Inouye says, when Dachau survivors came to this country to thank the soldiers. The survivors searched among the assembled group and then asked for the men with "Mongolian" faces whom they remembered from that long-ago first meeting. The "public-relations problem" was no longer a classified secret, Inouye said.
Inouye's remarks about the courage of young Japanese-American soldiers was echoed the next day by actor George Takei ("Mr. Sulu" from Star Trek). Takei, who spent his childhood at Rohwer and at Tule Lake in northern California, said, "These men showed that Japanese-Americans have a burning passion for justice and the guts to show it.
"This heritage is part of our larger American heritage," Takei continued. "America is a continuing story . . . a dynamic work in progress. This is the glory and challenge of our American heritage."
On Friday afternoon we attend the official opening of two additional exhibits that artfully memorialize the 10 camps, including Manzanar, the one in which I was born. I study a photographic enlargement of Manzanar's layout and consider the distances from Block 20, Building 2 -- my first home -- to various camp buildings. I think of my mother, then 23, walking nearly a half-mile of dusty desert road to the hospital to give birth to me. Enduring a long, difficult labor, she did not have the comfort of her mother, who was living in Hiroshima, or her older sister, Ayako, who had been taken to Rohwer, a camp somewhere in the middle of the United States. I wonder how my mother cared for a newborn in that tarpaper barrack, with the latrines, laundry room, and kitchen several buildings away.
Saturday is filled by dozens of well-planned discussion sessions. I listen as speakers describe their childhoods in Jerome and Rohwer. I am still searching for family, trying to capture a sense of my now-deceased older brother, John. John was just 18 months old when he went into the camp and 4 years old when he was able to finally leave. Some Vietnam veterans who attended John's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery -- with horse-drawn caisson, marching band, and 21-gun salute -- said that John told them of being the quickest of all his little pals in field-stripping the rifle carried by the friendly sentry in the Manzanar guard tower. Contrasted to his extraordinary service to this country, that John was scarred even at such an early age was evident in a story he wrote and illustrated for his college literary magazine: It described Mama, her fatigue, her barely disguised despair.
Early Sunday morning, the last day of the conference, several hundred mostly elderly conferees board 13 buses headed for Jerome and Rohwer. Although my search for specific information has failed, I feel peace and kinship as I look at all of the faces, so much like mine. In previous days, conversations with strangers have been easy, often resulting in the exchange of addresses and phone numbers, friendly handshakes, and occasional hugs, as well as -- in a few instances -- the sharing of personal journals documenting loss, despair, sacrifice, and hope.
Watching the buses drive away, 71-year-old Yooichi Wakamiya of Villa Park, Calif., 8 years old when he was shipped to Santa Anita and Rohwer, notes, "This looks a lot like the Freedom Riders."
Thinking of those long-ago military trainloads from the West, another conferee answers: "They were . . . that's what they were."
Yosh Golden, a data manager in Springfield, has previously worked as a public-information officer, a deputy director of business and finance, a reporter, a lobbyist, and a university administrative-staff employee. Her father, Yoshizo James Yoshimura, lives in Chicago, where the family resettled after being released from Manzanar. Golden's mother, Sachie, died in 1998. Nine siblings, all born in Chicago, are living in cities across the Midwest and on the East Coast. Her older brother, John, served in Vietnam and retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He finished his professional career in the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Golden is the spouse of retired UIS professor Larry Golden, the mother of three daughters -- Mariko, Tomo, and Kazuko -- and grandmother of Malia.
How this happened
Racism, political opportunism, economic greed, and wartime hysteria led to President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to sign Executive Order 9066 in February 1942.
The order resulted in more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry being ordered from their homes along the west coast of the United States.
In addition to 15 assembly centers and 10 camps, there were eight Department of Justice camps and four U.S. Army facilities that held mainly Japanese nationals and several hundred persons who were forcibly brought here from Latin American nations. They were shipped to hastily constructed camps surrounded by barbed wire in desolate, harsh areas of the U.S.
Hearings in the 1980s led to congressional action and a presidential apology, with a symbolic redress of $20,000 given to survivors of Japanese ancestry directly affected by E.O. 9066. The amount represented a fraction of the value of the homes and businesses that were lost.