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My Family's Experience with Japanese American Incarceration

My Japanese identity has always been something I have never been able to quite grasp. Being raised in rural Illinois, my family members were the only other Japanese people I spent time with. The movie Mulan was the biggest exposure I had to Asian culture or characters. I vividly remember the day I found out I was Asian - at 7 or so years old I looked in the mirror and thought “do I really look like those people?” Though I am Japanese I was raised almost exclusively within white American culture, a culture in which I myself was the “other.” Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month gets me thinking about what would have been different in mine and my family’s path had racism and incarceration not been part of our story.

On February 19th, 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This Executive Order authorized the forced incarceration of all people deemed a threat to national security, particularly from the west coast of the United States. This, of course, targeted Japanese Americans. My grandparents were among those people.

My grandmother was 16 when she and her family were forced out of their homes. She, her three younger siblings, and two parents lived in a horse stall for two months while barracks were being built for more permanent shelter. When the time came to move to their incarceration camp her mother, my great grandmother - Fuku Itashiki, was separated from the family. She was moved to a separate, more high security facility under suspicion of being a Japanese spy. The fact that my great grandmother was a teacher who was fluent in both Japanese and English and had recently visited family in Japan raised the suspicions of the American government. They suspected that her ability to use both languages would make her a candidate for espionage. My grandmother did not know that this would be the last time she’d see her mom. A year after moving to the incarceration camp, my family received a letter stating that Fuku Itashiki had died, my great aunt Mary Ann says she died of a broken heart. My family was told at the time that heart failure was the cause of death, however, her death certificate says it was a brain aneurysm. I would be remissed if I did not express my doubts about the circumstances of her death.

Great Aunt Mary Ann, center right, reciting the pledge, photographed by Dorothea Lange days before Executive Order 9006

Three years later, when she was 19, my grandmother was released from the incarceration camp. Her family relocated to Chicago, as they had lost everything and racism on the west coast was still very present. This experience no doubt contributed to her and my grandfather’s decision not to pass their heritage down to their children. My grandfather, Hariyuki Tomita, went by Harold, and it was not until recently that I learned his Japanese name. Though they spoke Japanese at home they did not pass the language down to my father, thus down to me. I do not place any blame on my grandparents for this decision, they grew up in a time when being Japanese was not only shameful, but dangerous. Eventually the United States government passed the Civil Liberties act of 1988 that acknowledged the injustices of Japanese incarceration and each person who was incarcerated was paid reparations.

The ties I have to my Japanese heritage are not held in language, customs, or traditions, these things did not survive WWII. I have a few family stories and a Japanese recipe book that somehow made its way to me from my grandma, and this will have to be enough.

Grasping Water, Johannah Tomita Martin, 2023

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