Kakuro Shigenaga, aged 47, photographed and fingerprinted in an identification card. He was among the men who spent time on Angel Island before being sent to a number of inland internment camps. (Courtesy of the Shigenaga family)
Off the coast of Tiburon, jutting out of the San Francisco Bay, is Angel Island. Accessible only by a ferry, it’s a large, hilly state park that offers sweeping views and miles of hiking trails. But it’s most famous for something less picturesque: its history as an immigration processing and detention center during the early 20th century.
I grew up in the Bay Area and visited the island with my class in middle school. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the discrimination Chinese immigrants faced on Angel Island from 1910-1940. They were subjected to interrogations and invasive medical exams. Some were detained for months, or even years, in the crowded barracks. The poignant poems carved by Chinese immigrants onto the walls of Angel Island’s Immigration Station are still visible to visitors today.
Recently, a Bay Curious listener mused about another part of the island’s past — something I hadn’t heard of before: “I wonder about Angel Island and the history of Japanese internment camps.”
As a Chinese American, learning about the island’s immigration history had felt personally important, but this listener’s question about Japanese internees made me contemplate if I truly understood the full extent of Asian American history on the island.
FBI Deems Those With Cultural Ties to Japan as 'Enemy Aliens'
Until very recently, Angel Island’s Japanese internment history eluded even the island’s park rangers and tour guides. I met with Grant Din, a researcher and former volunteer with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, who is virtually the only expert on the topic.
Through a National Park Service grant, Din spent about five years digging into Angel Island’s role in the internment of Japanese people during World War II. Many are already familiar with this dark chapter of American history, which remains to this day one of the most egregious examples of large-scale, federally sanctioned racial profiling.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. government arrested and detained more than 110,000 U.S. residents and citizens of Japanese descent along the West Coast. Authorized through Executive Order 9066, the decision was deemed a necessary precaution in case any people with Japanese ancestry living in the United States were secretly colluding with Japan’s war efforts.
Japanese civilians, including families with young children, were uprooted from their homes and businesses. They were relocated to internment camps in remote areas throughout the U.S. Close to two-thirds of them were American-born and thus legal U.S. citizens.
And then, there was the group that Din researched: another category of Japanese internees who had secretly been under close scrutiny by the Department of Justice and FBI for months, even years before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
About 17,000 Japanese issei immigrants (first generation residents born in Japan) were suspected of “subversive activities” and deemed the most “dangerous” threat to American security. The U.S. government called them “enemy aliens.”
After digging through national archives and researching historical accounts, Din compiled a database of these internees. About 700 West Coast Japanese residents, mostly from Hawaii, were briefly interned on Angel Island beginning in February 1942. The island was one of several temporary locations — another Bay Area location includes Sharp Park in Pacifica — where internees stayed for a week or so until being relocated to more permanent camps throughout the U.S.
The U.S. government was suspicious of this group of people because of their perceived ties to Japan or Japanese culture. The FBI tracked their movements, collected intel from informants and kept secret dossiers. Some of these individuals were community leaders, Buddhist and Shinto ministers or members of kendo and other martial arts clubs. Others had contributed to organizations deemed “pro-Japan” by the U.S. government or worked in Japanese consulates.
Or sometimes, Din discovered, it was simply their hobbies: “I found that just the fact that one photographer had photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a dam near Fresno under construction, was enough for them to label him a potential spy.”
In his research findings, Din adds: “I didn't find any concrete examples of any sabotage by any Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans.”
Diary Entries Lead to Internment on Angel Island
One of these “enemy aliens” was a 46-year-old Japanese immigrant named Kakuro Shigenaga. A father of four young children and a salesman at a general store in Maui, Shigenaga was arrested by the FBI on Jan. 7, 1942.
Kakuro’s grandson, San Rafael resident Mark Shigenaga, discovered that both his grandfather and great uncle had passed through Angel Island while digging into his family history.
A month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the FBI seized Kakuro’s diary during a sweep when Kakuro happened to be visiting his brother, Shigeo Shigenaga, in Honolulu. The FBI claimed the diary’s entries contained anti-American and pro-Japanese writings. They became the centerpiece of Kakuro’s hearing, in which he was interrogated about his potential allegiance to Japan.
In the transcript of his hearing, Kakuro expressed regret for writing sentiments that were perceived as anti-American. Through a Japanese translator, and without legal counsel, he insisted the writings were just a part of his daily, mindless exercise and that he was “earnestly desirous of peace” between Japan and the U.S.
In one critical round of questioning, Kakuro said he was not “for Japan,” but he also answered “no” when he was asked if he was against Japan.
“That answer may have gotten him interned. If he had said yes, it would have changed the fate of our whole family,” Mark said. He says his grandfather’s testimony reflects a radically honest assessment of what it meant to be a Japanese immigrant in the U.S. at that time.
“So here he was, this person that was born in Japan, who immigrated to Hawaii. And then having the country of where he was born start a war with his new home,” Mark said. “And I think a lot of Japanese at the time were conflicted that way. It's like, how could the country we were born from, where our ancestors are from, attack us?”
Kakuro was found to be “a subject of the Japanese empire” and “disloyal to the U.S.” He was among the first group of 172 Japanese Hawaiian immigrants who boarded the USS Ulysses Grant in late February 1942 headed for Angel Island.
Kakuro Shigenaga endured an uncomfortable 10-day sea voyage crammed into compartments below sea level. Author Patsy Saiki described the trip Kakuro and the other internees took as “days of humiliation and suffering” in a historical account of the journey.
"In all, about eight ships...formed a convoy which zigzagged its way to San Francisco. There were no portholes for they were below sea-level...What made the internees miserable was that they were locked, eight or ten in a room, for three hours at a time. At the end of three hours the door was unlocked and a guard escorted the men to a makeshift oil barrel latrine...It was continued days of humiliation and suffering...Transferred into small tugboats, they sailed ... to Angel Island, which housed the Quarantine Station. Some of the men had never seen San Francisco, and this glimpse of the city and its environs reminded them of the misty hills of Japan.
Upon arrival to Angel Island, Kakuro and the other men were photographed, fingerprinted and examined in the nude for "infectious diseases." Then they were each given two blankets and were told to go upstairs to rest.
"It was extremely crowded and the odors were pretty strong and just the fact that, you know, 150 to 200 people were in this room designed really to hold about 60 was pretty overwhelming," Din said. The room is 36 feet by 70 feet, and was lined with three tiered bunk beds. Men also slept on the floor.
Most stays on the island were short, as men were quickly moved to inland internment camps.
Kakuro stayed on Angel Island from March 1-9 in 1942, and for the next three years, he moved to five different camps across the country, including in New Mexico, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Tennessee before being released when the war ended.
Unlike other civilian internees, Kakuro and other “enemy alien” internees were separated from their families for the entire duration of their internment.
A Legacy of Not Belonging
Learning that his grandfather had been interned on Angel Island, just miles from where he lives now, was revelatory for Mark. “I take hikes on Angel Island! I had no idea that he was here, decades before I landed here,” he said.
Kakuro didn’t talk about his internment experience or the circumstances that led to his arrest when Mark was growing up. But discovering the way his grandfather navigated his cultural identity in the face of such high stakes added a new dimension to the man he remembers as a serious, yet gentle grandfather who he’d spend summers with as a child in Maui.
“The realization that my grandfather was on Angel Island sort of opens up this curiosity about what his experience was, not only Angel Island, but every other part of his experience and moving from camp to camp,” Mark said.
He says Kakuro urged his own kids to move off the island of Maui to the mainland to find new opportunities, despite the country’s imperfections.
“I think about how the war experience shaped the way we were brought up,” Mark said. “Basically to be as American as possible, as American and apple pie as possible.”
Today, anti-Asian verbal and physical attacks are taking place across the country as some people blame Asian Americans for the coronavirus pandemic. I think about how that longing to be perceived as simply American — not as foreigners, “enemy aliens” or pandemic starters — is a core part of the modern-day Asian American experience.
Perhaps the legacy of Angel Island isn’t only the important history it teaches us; it represents the persistent anxiety that many Asian Americans feel about belonging in America, and the high stakes of perpetually being perceived as “other.” It’s a feeling that’s lasted through generations, and it continues to inform how Asian Americans negotiate their identities today.
For more on Kakuro Shigenaga’s internment history, as well as profiles of other Japanese internees who stayed on Angel Island, check out Grant Din’s research here.
To search through Department of Justice case files of “enemy aliens” during World War II, visit the National Archives website where you can find documents including transcripts, FBI reports and other records.