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But We Survived: A Story of Living Through the Japanese Internment in America

I met Natsumi* almost 10 years ago in Los Angeles.

She was the program coordinator for a senior community center (“I’m a professional volunteer!” she likes to joke) I taught at. Observant, articulate, energetic, and precise, I had no idea that she spent three years of her childhood at the Japanese Internment camp at Tule Lake. “Concentration camp” she called it when I spoke with her recently – why mince words?

At the time, I knew she was in her late 70s, she was nisei, or a first generation Japanese-American, and that she was born-and-raised in California. But for some reason I never made the connection that she may have been incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II. Intellectually there was a such a gulf for me between the survivors I’d read about in books or articles, and the cheerful woman I worked with.

In our multiple conversations about plays, literature, and politics, she would sometimes mention her family or the empathy she felt toward those persecuted, but I never remember her saying anything about her relocation and incarceration. Maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough. Maybe she did and it just didn’t make a dent.

Unfortunately, the Japanese-American internment hasn’t made a “dent” on many Americans. For the majority of US educated Americans, the Japanese internment is either glossed over or relegated to a footnote in a history textbook. Blame it on the failings of the American education system, the eagerness of the government to sweep its shame under the rug, or straight up revisionist history – what was done to American citizens on American soil, less than 75 years ago, is a gaping hole in our collective memory.

However in talking with Natsumi recently, I learned that it is one thing to understand that something atrocious occurred, but it’s entirely another to have it told to you in a voice that can recount the look in her mother’s eye when they were put in the train, the cold of the barracks, and the dust that infiltrated everything.

So here is Natsumi’s story, as she told it to me. I hope it serves to fill in some of the gaps in our memory.


“President Roosevelt decided that they should incarcerate us.”

Natsumi paused to gather her thoughts. Throughout our conversation, she apologized for her failing memory. No apology was necessary.

“You know, I was approached by several people back in 1964 to do a documentary, but I cried because, you know, it was very painful for me because I almost died there. But that’s beside the point…”

She paused to gather herself again. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to continue, and before I could say another word she said, “No! No! I just need to get my memories in order,” she laughed. Natsumi’s laugh, loud, bold and generous, is my favorite thing about her.

“We lived in northern California, in the country, because my parents were farmers. Of course, they couldn’t own land until 1953, but they worked for a landlord – a family named Huntley.

Before the relocation, the FBI went into my parents’ friend’s house – they were pillars of the community – and arrested these people. They sent them to Crystal City, they were incarcerated there. So we started getting really worried.”

How did it progress? From worries to relocation?

[The government] put out a curfew for us. We couldn’t go out past 10 o’clock or else we might got shot or arrested – at least that was the fear, the military was out there, they were the ones who were doing it. I remember my parents had a picture of the Emperor in our home. They had to burn it because if someone [from the military] came into our home and saw it, my father would probably be arrested.”

Natsumi kept referencing threats to her father throughout our talk. It seemed that a tactic to keep her family, and other families in line was to threaten the patriarch or parents.

“I remember they posted the executive order [Executive Order 9066] information on telephone poles or wherever they could find a place to put it. We were told we had to evacuate, but they didn’t give us much time. We had to hurry.

We had to be vaccinated. We had to trash everything, or put it into our storage unit by our house. When it was our turn to leave, they said we could not take anything. The only things we could take were our clothes. And that wasn’t very much because my parents had seven kids.”

Where were you told to go?

“They told us how to get there [the train] but we couldn’t drive because my father didn’t have a car anymore, so our friend took us out to the remote area where we had to catch the train. I can’t remember how many of us there were waiting for it.

They put us in this old, rickety-rackety train, it was wooden. There were two sentry guards at both ends of the car – one in the front and one in the back. They carried rifles. The curtains were pulled down [in the car], it was black. We didn’t know where we were going. And you know how kids are, we wanted to see out the windows. But my mother said, ‘Don’t do that because the guard will come and take father away.’ They were really strict.

I don’t remember how long we were on that train. We traveled so long, from early morning until dusk. I don’t know how we got food.

We were the first ones to get to Tule Lake [late May of 1942]. They were still building it when we got there, it all happened so fast. It was so dusty.”

What were your first memories of arriving at the Tule Lake concentration camp?

“We started crying because we didn’t know where we were. We didn’t know what was happening. My mother said we had to stay together, and dad would go find out what was going on.”

What was the first thing you did at the camp?

“They took us to our quarters and, because my parents had too many children, they split us up. Three of my sisters lived with our friend who didn’t have any children. They gave us cots with straw mattresses and the room had a potbelly stove – that’s all they gave us.

The camp was broken up into blocks. There were so many barracks in a block, and for each block there was a manager or captain who made sure we were OK.

The structures themselves were wooden with tar paper roofs. Wind would seep through the tar paper. It wasn’t a very comfortable situation to be in. In the winter we only had the potbelly stove; we never experienced such cold in our lives. I don’t know how my parents were able to get us kids winter clothes, but they did.

My parents found pieces of wood to make a little furniture for us, and I don’t know how, but my mother got seeds for plants so things would be nicer for us. She tried to make it so the kids could enjoy being there.

And very often we had fun, because there were lots of other kids to play with [Natsumi was “just going into” her teens], but our parents were always worried, worried, worried. You could see it on their faces, how worried they were, but then they’d hide it because they didn’t want to scare us. They wanted to make the best of it.”

A black and white photo of Japanese internees at Tule Lake milling aound a flimsy building.
General Store Number One at Tule Lake. Photo: Francis Stewart/War Relocation Authority

What was daily life like?

“My mother worked at the mess hall and my dad worked for the farm. [The farm workers] had to have badges to allow them to go beyond the barbed wire fences. I don’t know if they got paid.

It was traumatic. We were enclosed in barbed wire fences with sentries all around. You couldn’t go near the fences. But us kids were curious, and wanted to go near the fence, to talk to the sentries. But so many adults got killed trying to talk to the guards – the guards always thought we were trying to escape. I don’t know how many were killed this way.

Our school was inside the barbed wire fence, but the hospital was outside. It was scary because, when I got sick – I almost died – my mother had to go to our block captain to get the right papers to go beyond the gate and the fences. If we didn’t have the right papers…who knows what would have happened.”

As Natsumi told told me about her illness, having to get the correct papers to go to the hospital, and having to contend with the guards’ paranoia that she, a young sick girl was a threat, I couldn’t help but wonder how many were denied medical care or even died because of a “clerical error”?

Natsumi continued that though the children in the camp were often protected by their parents and elders, they were not immune to the realities of incarceration.

“One time there were thee or four of us, just sitting together and playing, when an army tank came running through the area and they threw tear gas at us. It was so painful. We ran home and cried and cried.

But my mother said, ‘You have to watch what you’re doing. You don’t know what they could do to you.’ We were so afraid, but we had to keep up our life. So we kept going to school, kept playing.”

The confrontations at Tule Lake weren’t just between guards and prisoners. Conflict and violence broke out amongst those incarcerated, primarily concerning the answers to the “loyalty oath”.

Tule Lake was infamous for not only being the largest internment camp, but also the one with the highest number of “disloyals”, or Japanese-Americans who had either refused to answer, or answered “no-no” to questions 27 and 28 on the “loyalty oath” or the “loyalty review program” questionnaire. Many who were deemed “disloyal” at other camps were sent to Tule Lake. Along with the camp where Natsumi was held, Tule Lake became home to a high-security Segregation Center.

Poorly worded and confusing, the “loyalty oath” questions seemed like questions meant to trick the responders:

27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

If men answered “yes” to 27, were they essentially enlisting? Fighting for a country that didn’t want them, had taken away their citizenship rights, while keeping their family incarcerated?

By answering “yes” to question 28, were they insinuating that they’d formerly held allegiance to Japan? Would that serve to incriminate them as an “enemy alien”? Would issei, or Japanese immigrants, be left without a country if they answered “yes”? Upon their incarceration they had been defined as “aliens ineligible for citizenship”. 

So now the US government wanted Japanese-Americans to swear undying loyalty to the country that saw them as untrustworthy, dangerous, not American. Many were enraged that the government was asking these questions of “loyalty” after over 120,000 Japanese-Americans had been sent to concentration camps.

Natsumi saw a change in Tule Lake when the loyalty oath came into play. 

There was a loyalty oath that [the government] wanted people to sign. I remember my father saying to my oldest sister, not to sign it, ‘Because we live in America. And we’re not going back to Japan.’

But a lot of people signed the oath [answered “no-no”] and went back to Japan. My cousin did, and my father was so angry with him.

People from other camps who wanted to renounce their citizenship and wanted to go back to Japan, would be sent to our camp. From Tule Lake they would be shipped to San Francisco, and from San Francisco they’d be shipped to Japan

There was a lot of confrontation about loyalty. The people who were going back to Japan thought the people who were staying in America, weren’t loyal to Japan. The people who wanted to stay in America, were angry at the people renouncing their citizenship.

We [Natsumi and her siblings] were scared, so we stayed within our block. With the sentry guards and so many powers around, we didn’t want to do anything that would harm our parents. They were always threatening us.”

Natsumi stopped and apologized that her memory was “foggy”. “It was so painful, it’s hard for me,” she reiterated.

After a moment, she picked back up and jumped to her family’s release. When I asked her if she remembered what they told her family when they were released from Tule Lake she exclaimed, “I don’t remember! All I knew is that we were going home”

But being released back into the world after three years of incarceration was not easy for Natsumi and her family.

“We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t have a home. We didn’t know what we were going to be confronted with. There were signs that said ‘no Japs’ or ‘we don’t want Japs’ – we were discriminated against.

So we went to the Buddhist church in Sacramento and we stayed there for I don’t know how many weeks. We slept in the gymnasium on the floor. After that we went to stay with my father’s friend, their son was in the army. I think there were about four families that stayed there. It was a big, two-story house.

Eventually, my father’s old boss at the farm asked him to come back, so that’s what we did. We went back to our old house.

But it was trashed. There was nothing left. Everything that could be stolen, was stolen. There was a lot of damage done to the furniture in our storage area. They even killed our dog. We had nothing. No money whatsoever. My parents had to start over – and they had all those kids to support!”

Natsumi’s voice changed slightly, she kept saying, “It was very sad, it was very sad…”

She continued.

“The first day of school, I was scared. But my father’s friend’s son – the one who was in the army – said, “OK. I’m going to take you guys to school.” So he took me and my friend to school.

He drove us and took us all around the school, while everybody] said all these things like “dirty Jap” to us as we walked through.

Oh my God! It was so hard. We cried a lot when we got home. It was very painful for several years. But we got used to it.”

We got used to it. Natsumi expressed similar sentiments several times during our conversation. It seems that part of surviving this ordeal was continually testing the limits of what you could “get used to”.

Does any of the language that the current administration is using to describe the “travel ban” or the treatment of Muslims, Mexicans, or other American minorities sound familiar? Do you see parallels between your experience and what’s happening now?

Natsumi’s response was emphatic, practically shouted.

“OH MY GOSH, YES. I can completely relate! It’s very scary what they’re doing. It just scares me, all of these people are citizens, why are they treating them the way they treated us is beyond me. Now I think they might be building something…”

Sensing she was ready to leave the memories of Tule Lake, Natsumi and I chatted about the old days, her new home in Los Angeles, and what she was reading (histories of World War II incidentally). Her demeanor brightened the further we got from our initial conversation. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to revisit such memories after all these years. “Grateful” is too small of a word to convey my experience of talking with her.

Those who lived through the Japanese internment are a reflection of America and what it is capable of, whether we like or not. They are not footnotes of the past, they are survivors among us, and their stories must be heard – else we be doomed to repeat the past.

Before I left Natsumi, I thanked her and told her I that I wished more people knew about what she went through; that the Japanese internment wasn’t an historical sidebar. She, her family, and the people who were incarcerated with her deserved better.

She graciously thanked me, and in just a few words distilled the most vital part of her story.

“But we survived. That’s the important thing,” she said, and even surrendered a small, relieved laugh.

*”Natsumi” asked that I only use her Japanese name in this piece.

Photo: John Cook/War Relocation Authority


Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.

One thought on “But We Survived: A Story of Living Through the Japanese Internment in America

  1. My mom and her family were sent to Tule Lake in 1942. She described it as horse stalls. My mom spent most of 1942 in Tule Lake. In December, she was sponsored to go to college in St. Cloud, MN and left the camp.

    Her family – parents and younger sister and brother – stayed in Tule Lake but were transferred later to Topaz, UT.

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