Memories of Japanese American Incarceration, Across Generations

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Generations of the Masumoto family gathered in Selma, CA in 2017 for a memorial service. Yoshi Masumoto Yamagiwa (center) is holding a photo of her brother, George Masumoto, who was killed fighting for the U.S. in World War 2, while his family was incarcerated in a prison camp for Japanese Americans in Gila River, Arizona.  (Courtesy Masumoto Family)

For Japanese Americans across California, Feb. 19 marks the Day of Remembrance, the solemn anniversary of the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in prison camps across the U.S.

As the Japanese Americans who experienced imprisonment get older, a California project wants to preserve their memories of what happened, while it's still possible.

The Yonsei Memory Project, based in Fresno, is an intergenerational effort to capture family stories of World War II and beyond — and the diversity of the Japanese American experience in the Central Valley.

Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a proclamation to make Feb. 19 an official Day of Remembrance, calling the executive order "a decision motivated by discrimination and xenophobia" and "a betrayal of our most sacred values as a nation that we must never repeat."

On this day in 2020, shortly before COVID-19 lockdowns began, Yonsei Memory Project organizers collaborated with StoryCorps to record conversations between family members and friends across generations.

These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Gary Tsudama and Yutaka Yamamoto

Yutaka Yamamoto (left) and Gary Tsudama (right) have been friends since 1951. Both men were sent to incarceration camps as children during World War II. (Courtesy of StoryCorps)

Lifelong friends Gary Tsudama, 95, and Yutaka Yamamoto, 88, on memories of the days after Japanese Americans were ordered to leave their homes:

Gary: My dad came over from Hiroshima when he was 16 years old. He came into the city of Stockton and opened up a grocery store. When the war broke out, we were given the notice of one week to clean up our business, so my dad went around Stockton to find us some grocer who'd buy the stock that was in the store. He found a man to buy it for 60 cents on the dollar. My dad had to agree to it, and then he waited and waited for them to come pick it up. [The] day before we had to leave, he came and gave my dad 15 cents on the dollar. And my dad had no way to get out of it, so he took it.

Yutaka: At that time, nobody said we were Japanese. They used the nickname 'Jap.' That was one of the things that, to this day, I have never forgotten. It’s very painful to hear people call you a 'Jap.' I remember that was a big shock. I remember going to school. I was in the fourth grade then, and I told my teacher, who was a Caucasian, I wouldn't be coming to school from tomorrow. And her only reply was, "Oh." No, not goodbye or nothing.

Harumi Sasaki

Nadine Takeuchi with her mother Harumi Sasaki. Harumi was born in California, but her family returned to Japan during World War II, and witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima from the nearby countryside where they lived. (Courtesy of StoryCorps)

Harumi Sasaki, 88, telling her daughter, Nadine Takeuchi, about watching the bombing of Hiroshima, from a cave in the mountains:

Nadine: I know you were born in El Centro, California, but you never said what it was like. What did your parents do in El Centro?

Harumi: Picked strawberries. It was real hot. We played outside, and no shoes.

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Nadine: How old were you when you moved to Japan?

Harumi: 4 or 5 years old.

Nadine: So as you were growing up, World War II was going on. [You were living in the countryside.] So what happened right before they dropped the bomb? Do you remember? Did you hear airplanes?

Harumi: Everybody was scared and hiding [in the cave]. A little later, we couldn't hear the noise. So we thought, oh, OK. And then, the bomb came out, boom!

Nadine: You heard a big boom! Did you see it? What did it look like?

Harumi: Smoke, like a mushroom cloud. People are running into our village, little ones, adults, skin hanging, burned.

Nadine: [After the war] I remember you had a hard time getting back to California. Even though you were a United States citizen, and so was Dad. Why?

Harumi: Because they think we were a spy.

Nadine: Part of the reason was because Dad was in the camps and answered the questionnaire. He said he would not serve in the army and he would not be loyal to the United States because he was mad [about the treatment of Japanese Americans].

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The Masumoto Family

Nikiko Masumoto (pictured right), with her grandmother Carol and younger brother Korio in 2020. Carol met their grandfather as a teenager in an incarceration camp in Gila River, Arizona. (Courtey of the Masumoto Family)

Nikiko Masumoto, peach farmer, author, queer activist and co-founder of the Yonsei Memory Project:

Nikiko: I’m Yonsei, which means fourth-generation Japanese American. My great grandparents immigrated from Japan. [We're] this tipping point generation, because in most of our families, we're the last generation to know personally the survivors of World War II and incarceration camps. Storytelling implores us to listen deeply. I think when we're able to develop our skills of listening deeply, we can bear witness to each other's pain and then, in turn, we can no longer become vectors of violence. We keep on trying to invite people in to listen. Because I think once someone's story touches your heart, it transforms you in a way that you can no longer hate them. My wish is that we can continue to do those brave acts of deep listening.

Carol Masumoto, Nikiko's grandmother, on lessons for the next generation

Nikiko: What do you want me and my generation to remember about camp, and after camp?

Carol: It was a bad thing. My brother got wounded and died [in the war]. I mean, here we were in camp and then they died for our country.

Nikiko: Hopefully we'll learn as a human population to be better to one another.

Carol: The younger generation is a lot more understanding, I noticed. Of course, there are more mixed-race people. You get a lot of good understanding, so we all get close to each other.

Marcy and David Mas Masumoto standing in a vineyard shortly after they became engaged in the early 80s (left) and in 2020 (right). (Courtesy of the Masumoto Family)

Marcy and Mas Masumoto (Nikiko’s parents) on the challenges of navigating racism against Japanese Americans in Marcy's German American family

Marcy: [My father's] formative years were during World War II. He carried some very, very strong biases against Japanese, in particular, stemming from the war. The fact that you were Japanese American, he could not separate that. After about 30 years [of our marriage], on the outside, he seemed to be much more accepting. I'm not sure if actually he ever really was on the inside.

Mas: I think he represented a lot of America, especially during the war, when 'these people were aliens and foreigners.’ Suddenly we were the enemy, based on how you looked. That led up to internment and Japanese American relocation during World War II. Your understanding of that story, that legacy part of our family history, and that part of me — when you could grasp that, understand it, it was love.

Yuriko Uno Kaku

Yuriko Uno Kaku with her grandson, Karl Kaku, and granddaughter-in-law, Sasha Khokha. (Courtesy of StoryCorps)

The California Report's Sasha Khokha also participated in an interview with her own grandmother-in-law. Yuriko Uno Kaku, 97, spoke with Khokha and Karl Kaku about living through the war in Japan as a Japanese American

Yuriko: I was born in Oakland, grew up in Alameda until I was 9 years old. My dad was a good painter, did lots of watercolor. He painted this picture of Lake Merritt in 1914. Back then, there were no homes on the hills, it was wide open space.

A watercolor painting of Oakland's Lake Merritt, circa 1914, by Yuriko Uno Kaku's father, Masamichi Uno. (Sasha Khoka/KQED)

Sasha: Your family went back to live in Japan when you were 9, and when you were a young woman, the war broke out.

Yuriko: Born in the United States, [the Japanese government] thought we were the enemy. They came to check on us, the [Japanese equivalent of the] FBI. We just hid that we had anything to do with America.

Sasha: Did you stop speaking English during that time?

Yuriko: Yes, we did.

Sasha: At the same time that your family was trying to hide your Americanness in Tokyo, your family back here in California, incarcerated in the camps all around the country, were trying to prove their Americanness.

Yuriko: Yeah, my cousin Edison Uno did a big job with the Japanese American Citizens League [to help launch efforts to get reparations] for Japanese Americans.