Manzanar Committee: Answering Questions From Schools

Editor’s Note: On occasion, the Manzanar Committee receives questions about Manzanar, along with the Japanese American Incarceration experience, from students and teachers from all levels, from K-12 schools, and from colleges and universities across the United States and even from other countries.

The Manzanar Committee encourages those with questions to feel free to contact us. We don’t always have the answers, but if we don’t, we can usually put people in touch with those who do.

Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki, who was incarcerated at Manzanar as a child, answered some questions sent to us by Terry Healy, who teaches a sixth grade class at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Manhattan, Kansas.


Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki was a child when she was incarcerated at Manzanar, shown here in this famous photo by renowned photographer Ansel Adams.

by Joyce Okazaki

I was sent with my family to Manzanar, California, and arrived there on April 2, 1942. I was a second grader, and when I left in August, 1944, I finished fifth grade. I had a difficult adjustment to regular school, but did not suffer any discrimination from people in Chicago, Illinois.

The following are my answers to often asked questions by students in schools across the country, when assigned by their teachers.

1. What was the reaction of those who were sent to the camps?

In that day and time, the Japanese Americans were a silent and obedient minority, who went along with whatever was ordered for them by the authorities. There were very few, only three out of 120,000 people, who refused to obey the curfew, or to register and be forcibly removed from their homes to go to an unknown place.

Although I was a child then, I went with my parents, who obeyed orders. But imagine if you are an adult, forced to leave your comfortable home, leave your job, and sell or store your belongings and furniture, because you don’t know where you are going and how long you will be gone. No one tells you anything other than you have to leave, and you can only take what you can carry. If your parents have young children, they have to carry everything for the children as well as themselves.

2. What is the best way to describe the camps? We have heard internment camps, prison camps, concentration camps, and relocation camps?

The best description is concentration camp, because I was incarcerated in one, surrounded by barbed wire fencing and eight guard towers with armed sentries. I was a citizen and denied my civil rights. There was no hearing, and no charges for any crimes.

An internment camp for internees are for enemy aliens during a time of war. We were citizens.

A prison camp is for criminals who are convicted of crimes usually after being tried in court.

A relocation camp is for people who have to be moved away from a hazard, such as a toxic or polluted area. An evacuation of an area happens during a time of hurricanes, fires or floods to move people from their homes, but are eventually moved back within a short period of time.

A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned, not because of any crimes they committed, but because of who they are. During World War II, America’s concentration camps were distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s camps, which were torture camps and in some cases, death camps or extermination camps. Concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and Bosnia. All of these camps had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.

3. What was the impact on the families that were sent to the camps short term? Long term?

Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki (seated to the left of the gentleman in the blue shirt) participates in a small group discussion
at the 2007 Manzanar At Dusk program.
Photo: Gann Matsuda.

Families in camp had difficult times trying to control their teen-age children. Teens would go to eat with friends in the mess halls and go out for long periods, only coming back to the unit to sleep. Schools were not set up when people started to live in camps, and did not open until the fall of 1942. Many parents had difficult times controlling their children.

Families also had to learn to go outside to another barrack to shower, use the toilet, and do laundry.

The long-term impact was that Japanese American adults did not talk about this period in their lives for many years to their families, friends and the community, and some of the people may never have spoken about this event. This is probably because of the perceived shame of being sent to a prison for no reason, and many could never understand the reason why this had to happen. They were silent to their graves.

4. Did many people leave the camps to go to other parts of the United States or remain there?

The West Coast of the United States was designated as a restricted military zone, and was closed to all who were incarcerated in concentration camps. The Japanese Americans were not allowed to move back to the West Coast. Once the US Supreme Court decided, in December of 1942, that the Japanese Americans, who were determined to be loyal, could leave, some applied for permission to leave the camp, provided that they had a sponsor at the destination.

Each person leaving camp was given a one-way ticket to wherever they chose to go and $25. My father requested permission to leave and was given a train ticket to New York. He found a job that was in Chicago, Illinois, and moved there. He sent for us and we left camp in August 1944. We lived in Chicago for eight years before Dad got a transfer to Los Angeles, and we moved.

Many of the people who settled in Chicago have remained there all of their lives. Others moved to New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Denver, Colorado, Salt Lake City, Utah, Seabrook, New Jersey, and various other cities that were accepting of the Japanese Americans.

After December, 1944, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) decided to lift the restrictions of moving back to the West Coast. My grandparents then moved back to Los Angeles in March 1945. After the war ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, those remaining in the camps returned to the West Coast, and suffered from a housing shortage. The last camp to close was Tule Lake, California, which closed on March 20, 1946.

5. Did the court case of Fred Korematsu make any difference?

The original decision of Korematsu vs. US was tried all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the US Government was justified in placing all Japanese Americans into concentration camps because of military necessity. Documents stated that there were instances of spying and sabotage recorded. All of this was later found to be false after documents found in the National Archives in the early 1980’s actually showed that documents were falsified to justify their position. One such document, of which there were ten copies, was the only one remaining in the files, because the other nine copies were destroyed, was discovered by a researcher, Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga. With this document, constitutional lawyers then set about to open the case by a writ of error of Coram Nobis, an old procedure, to attempt to appeal Korematsu’s case, The appeal was filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court decision was eventually vacated, freeing Korematsu of being a felon in 1984.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


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3 Responses to Manzanar Committee: Answering Questions From Schools

  1. Mark Carlson says:

    Thanks for sharing this. The Manhattan, KS connection caught my eye, as my cousin’s family in Western Kansas are mostly K-State people. She did not know there had been a camp at Amache, in Granada, CO, until I told her and mentioned a person I know who was born there.

    What a privilege and blessing to have been in that small group in 2007, my first visit to Manzanar. That is me with the bald head and chin in hand and the partially obscured Amache t-shirt. Coincidence? God’s way of remaining anonymous!

    -Mark Carlson, Lutheran Office of Public Policy – California, Sacramento
    (my first pilgrimage in 2007 because Rev. Paul Nakamura had been inviting me for years!)

  2. Susanne La Faver says:

    Thank you to Joyce Nakamura Okazaki for this interview. I always learn from each personal narrative. I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Ms.Okazaki at the 2011 pilgrimage. She even autographed my copy of Born Free and Equal!!

    – Susanne La Faver, Golden Gate University, Ageno School of Business, San Francisco
    (my great-aunt, Margaret D’Ille Gleason served as Manzanar social welfare director)

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