Seventy-five years ago Tuesday, Minoru Yasui was arrested for taking a walk.
He was intentionally violating a curfew established through Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 — the law that allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Yasui eventually fought his way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the curfew was unconstitutional, but the court ruled against him.
He posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
George Nakata grew up Portland and was incarcerated at the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during the war.
Nakata says of Yasui, “He is my hero. He is the voice of the Japanese. He protested and he said, ‘This is all wrong. This is all unconstitutional.’”
Nakata was sent to the internment camps when he was 9 years old, but he still vividly remembers the experience. The first location where his family was interned was a livestock yard in Portland
“I remember walking into that building to this day — the pungent odor of manure seeping through the wooden floors, the urine smell permeating throughout the building, fly paper hung with flies all over, pigeons flying around, surrounded by barbed wires and a guard station.”
He says despite his age, he understood something was wrong.
“Those kind of things are not normal, and they leave indelible memories in your mind. My family number: 15066 … I remember friends at university asking me, ‘George, how do you remember that number?’ And I simply tell them, ‘How can I forget?’ And that’s how it was with many of my personal experiences. I just don’t forget those.”
He says Yasui was the exception to the way most Japanese-Americans handled the exclusion laws of the time. Most people he knew obeyed the laws and did as they were told. But they also made the most of their experiences in the internment camps.
“Japanese people are resourceful. They built schools; they built a hospital. We had no equipment. The Red Cross and Quakers sent in used X-ray machines and dental equipment, sent in some used books, so a high school and two grade schools were started. We made life livable for ourselves there in the Minidoka camp for the duration of the war.”
Nakata spoke to Geoff Norcross Monday on OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” They were joined by Linda Tamura, who grew up in Hood River after the war, and wrote “Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence: Coming Home to Hood River.”
Nakata and Tamura spoke of the other ways that Oregonians responded to internment and racism during and after the war. Most Japanese-Americans, they said, didn’t want to cause a disturbance. Even when Tamura began looking into the racist history of Hood River decades after the war, her Japanese-American family and friends told her not to.
She said they told her, “We don’t want to start World War III. We really don’t want to talk about it. We just want to get along.”
Hood River was a particularly hard place for Japanese-Americans to come back to after the war, in part because they owned a lot of orchard land, and many white landowners wanted that land for themselves.
Tamura explains, “There were six almost full-page ads that discouraged Japanese from returning (to Hood River after the war). One of the titles was ‘Japs Not Wanted in Hood River.’ There were signatures of more than 1800 residents who purportedly did not want them to return.”
Nakata remembers similar anger towards the Japanese when his family returned to Portland. He attended James John Elementary School in St. Johns:
“My teacher, very clearly, from day one, hated me. And she made it very, very hard. I was seated in the back of the room at a table, not at a desk. Everything that happened in that room — whether it was anything that was spilled, dust, garbage, erasing the blackboard — 27 students but I was always called on to do that.”
There were stores, movie theaters and restaurants where his family wasn’t welcome. Another incident stood out for him.
“I remember our family going out to Rose City Cemetery on Fremont Street, and upon arrival, I remember, something was wrong,” Nakata said. “A couple of families were already there, and the ladies present were on their knees, weeping. And I discovered when I entered the cemetery grounds that all of the tombstones, they were all toppled, demolished. We had an older brother that was buried there. We couldn’t find the location of his tombstone.”
But both Tamura and Nakata mentioned the people in the community who supported Japanese-Americans, despite the social pressure to show animosity toward them.
“Mrs. Moore, even though she walked with a cane, collected grocery lists from my grandparents and others, and shopped for them because they weren’t allowed to shop. Many of the stores, especially on the Heights, had signs that said, ‘Japs Not Wanted.’ … So she really became a pillar in the community, and she had the courage to step forward and support Japanese-Americans.”
Nakata remembers the visitors that came to visit his family while they were being held in the livestock grounds.
“We were taught by Catholic nuns at a grade school in Japantown before the war. When we were incarcerated … they came out to see us. Good people. Catholic nuns — we were talking across the barbed wire. And the people that actually knew Japanese before the war, they stayed with us because they knew us.
Those people who sided with Japanese-Americans were often ostracized for their actions, including R.J. McIsaac, who ran a shop in Parkdale.
Tamura said McIsaac “allowed Japanese-Americans to come. In fact, he even had Japanese produce for them. People put ‘Jap lover’ signs on his window. So definitely those who stood up suffered personal and commercial repercussions. But they did so simply because they believed in the rights of Japanese-Americans. They believed that they were honest, honorable citizens. That took an inordinate amount of courage to have so much conviction that you’re able to speak and to take action.”
To hear the full conversation with Linda Tamura and George Nakata, listen to the audio player at the top of the page.