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Two Manzanar Internment Camp Survivors Speak at Our School

Randy Cai and Mayzee Hsu

Randy Cai and Mayzee Hsu, Opinion Editors

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On January 19 of this year, two former Japanese internees, Dr. Bo Sagakuchi and Mr. Mas Okui, shared their experiences with the seventh grade classes of HMS. Many camps containing thousands of Japanese-Americans were scattered across the US, with one of the most popular ones settled near the west coast: Manzanar. In the middle of the desert, they had to endure high winds, water shortages, very little electricity, and more.

The internment of Japanese Americans began in February 19, 1942, two months after the Empire of Japan invaded Pearl Harbor by surprise on December 7, 1941. The order to evacuate Japanese-Americans was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, out pressure from the public who suspected foul play. Despite the obvious violation of natural rights caused by Order 9066, the Supreme Court even upheld it in two separate cases: Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States. In total, approximately 120,000 Japanese people on the West Coast were relocated to ten concentration camps as a result of the rash decision. The two major camps in California were Manzanar and Tule Lake. Many of the interned people were American citizens, and some weren’t even Japanese. In spite of being the enemy of the American public at the time, 3600 Japanese-Americans from the concentration camps and an additional 22,000 form other areas served in the US military effort. In fact, a highly decorated combat team called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was exclusively Japanese. After the war was over, many of the camps started shutting down, with the last one being closed in 1946. Congress instituted a law in 1948 which reimbursed for internees’ property losses, and a law in 1988 which provided a $20,000 (adjusted $41,000 in 2017) reparation for each camp survivor.

Mr. Okui and Dr. Sagakuchi were asked various questions about their lives before, during, and after Manzanar. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-Americans were shunned by most people. In Okui’s class during that time he was classmates with a Chinese kid named Maurice. Maurice had a big sign on his desk that said “I am Chinese” to indicate he was not Japanese and didn’t fall in the categorization of “people who ‘bombed’ Pearl Harbor.” East Asians who were clearly innocent and did not partake in the bombing whatsoever, especially the Japanese, were immediately generalized and grouped together to be put in camps.

During this time, usually Japanese-Americans had their belongings and savings in Japanese banks. Mr. Okui said “if you had money in a Japanese bank, which many Japanese Americans did, the government froze all of that money; the Japanese didn’t trust the white bankers, but we didn’t have any money so it wasn’t a problem.” In Dr. Sagakuchi’s case, he was “fortunate enough to own our own home, and were able to store most of our things…but of course, after returning, someone broke into the shed.” When preparing for Manzanar, many items found in everyday homes couldn’t be brought. When asked what did they bring to the camp, Sagaguchi automatically answers with “a suitcase full of candy,” and Okui explained he did not have a suitcase of any kind; he only had a big, white bed sheet, in which he stored clothes, books (*ie. The Bible and Huckleberry Finn), and various items he didn’t bother to list. In April 1942, they boarded a bus that sent them to Manzanar.

Located in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of 20×25 feet barracks (ie. a classroom’s size) were built to house the Japanese-Americans for however long the government wanted to house them for. At first, it was overcrowded and many families had to share barracks. In time, more barracks and even a farm were built, making conditions better. Dr. Sagaguchi describes his living conditions in Manzanar, saying “we had to share a barrack with a couple, and we had six people in the family, making it eight…the couple hung a bedspread over the wall for privacy, and when more barracks were built they finally left to join their son and daughter…making it just the six of us again.” He adds “there was only one light hanging in the middle of the room, and that was your light source; there was also one gas..oil heater, and that was your warmth.” The camp had a huge washroom and laundry room in the middle intersection of all the barracks for everyone to use. Japanese-Americans in that camp ate their meals at the mess hall. Many of them brought their own clothes, but most weren’t suited for extreme desert weather. To “help out” their situation, the camp gave hand-me-down WWI Filipino war outfits for them to wear, as Japanese and Filipino people had similar body types.

We’re thankful for Mr. Mas Okui and Dr. Bo Sagaguchi for sharing their stories with the seventh graders to further educate them about WWII and the treatment of Japanese-Americans at that time. It was another very unfortunate event of our times, but it also taught many morals and lessons through that. Like last year, Mrs. Fong thanked them with a plant for them to keep. Alongside the two former Japanese internees, Hal Suetsugu (*HMS seventh grader Riley Suetsugu’s father) was thanked for his services of providing us with this program. Without Mr. Suetsugu’s arrangements and connections, this experience wouldn’t have been possible.

 

 

 

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Two Manzanar Internment Camp Survivors Speak at Our School