History's Lessons

Gail Y Okawa's family research uncovered the history of Japanese internment in New Mexico

Gail Y Okawa, professor of English at Youngstown State University in Ohio, was born in Hawaii during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thousands of Japanese living in America and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and the Department of Justice, and placed in internment camps around the country, ostensibly to deter any anti-American activity among the "enemies." Of course, very few of the Japanese interned had committed any crime at all, much less a conspiracy against America.

Okawa found out in her teens that her grandfather, Reverend Tamasaku Watanabe, had been interned at the Santa Fe Internment Camp, which housed 4,555 men from 1942 to 1946 in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood; the site is now marked by a boulder at Frank S Ortiz Park. While researching her grandfather, Okawa discovered an endless maze of cultural, social and political history around Japanese internment. She has made it her mission to research Japanese internment and urge America to learn from past mistakes. She is currently working on a book-length study titled "More Than a Mugshot: Hawai'i Japanese Immigrants in World War II US Department of Justice Internment."

Okawa's essay on her family research appears in the Museum of New Mexico Press book Telling New Mexico: A New History, a collection of essays at the core of the exhibition at the new New Mexico History Museum. In advance of Okawa's lecture this week, part of the museum's Telling New Mexico inaugural lecture series, SFR presents an excerpt from Okawa's essay, "Finding American World War II Internment in Santa Fe: Voices through Time" and an interview with the author.

Finding American World War II Internment in Santa Fe: Voices through Time

By Gail Y Okawa

When I was in high school in Honolulu, I first learned from a neighbor that [my] grandfather had been imprisoned in an American internment camp on the mainland during World War II. My family had never talked about it, and neither did he. I was shaken and ran home to question my parents; I remember them confirming the fact of his internment and saying only that “he came back a changed man.” It seemed to be a closed subject at that point and I don’t remember pursuing it. He died of cancer in 1968 while I was away from home, teaching college in Virginia.

Many years later, in the 1990s, my mother shared some letters that her father had written to her from addresses in Lordsburg and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Most were on light blue government aerograms printed with English, German, Italian, and Japanese imperatives—“do not write here! nicht hier schreiben! non scrivete qui! kaku nakare”—and stamped with “Detained Alien Enemy Mail examined by (censor’s initials) U.S.I. & N.S. [United States Immigration and Naturalization Service].” In some cases, “Prisoner of War Mail” had been crossed out and “Internee Mail” written in its place, to me an interesting confusion and conflation of terms and people. In all, there were eight letters from the Lordsburg Internment Camp and twenty-seven from the Santa Fe Detention Station, later called the Santa Fe Alien Internment Camp, according to return addresses.

The first time I read these letters, I realized that my grandfather wasn’t at all absent from my childhood. He approved of my Japanese middle name, Yukie, commenting in his halting English that “the sound is very nice as for a girl’s name” (February 1, 1943). After receiving no mail from Sumi, my mother, for several weeks, he wrote: “I am worried about your health and baby Yukie and all your family members. Please write to me how you are getting along.” I also learned how involved he was in my earliest years through his comments on my baby pictures: “I do not hear Yukie’s voice, but I get used to see her picture [on] my desk. Her innocent face attracts me from the bottom of my heart. Now in my old age I feel I could understand more why Jesus loved a small child” (May 26, 1943).

A few months later he began referring to me by my English name: “Gail is very happy to grow nicely day by day. I have now received eleven of her pictures. They show a good process of her growth” (October 2, 1943). When I was about eighteen months old he wrote: “Your writing of Gail is very interesting because I can see how lovely she is growing day by day. I hope she will grow without any mishap” (June 27, 1944). And a year later he commented in Japanese on two more snapshots: “Gail has really grown, hasn’t she? Just like the photo of Sumi taken in Stockton, Gail looks exactly like Sumi when you were little. I’m happy to know that she will be going to kindergarten in September” (June 6, 1945). As caring as he became to me through these letters, I wondered why he would have been arrested. What was he charged with? Where was he imprisoned? By whom? What kind of life did he lead in those facilities? Who were his friends and associates? What kinds of dilemmas did he face, and how did he face them?

I came to know that Reverend Watanabe was one of nearly nine hundred Japanese immigrants, or Issei, in Hawaii who experienced a fate still relatively unknown to the general American public. On August 10, 1936, more than five years before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a memo to his chief of operations stating that “every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”

In his 1980 master’s thesis, Paul Clark noted that the first camp was being constructed in New Mexico at Fort Stanton as early as January 1941. On December 7, 1941, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)—using such previously prepared lists—seized and separately imprisoned nearly eight thousand Japanese resident aliens from the continent and the then territories of Hawaii and Alaska. Tetsuden Kashima (2003) gives a total of 17,477 persons of Japanese ancestry eventually imprisoned by the Justice Department. In February 1942 came the better-known mass removal of 120,000 American-born Japanese and their immigrant parents from the West Coast, ordered by FDR’s Executive Order 9066 on February 19. The ten resulting prison camps, such as those at Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho, and Amache-Granada in Colorado, were established and overseen by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) created under that order. The WRA and DOJ incarcerations differed in their histories, administrations, prisoners, and treatment of prisoners (see Kashima 2003).

Like my grandfather, those imprisoned from Hawaii were predominantly male immigrants, heads of households, and community leaders who in most cases were detained for reasons no more substantial than that they were Japanese. Although many were long-time residents of the United States, as Japanese immigrants they were designated “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” on the basis of their race, by discriminatory naturalization laws in the 1920s and then, on the basis of the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, labeled “alien enemies” when hostilities broke out between the United States and their country of origin. Plans for their imprisonment were premeditated and covert, founded upon long and complex surveillance operations. All were exiled from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. In all, the Justice Department oversaw thirteen camps, and 4,555 of the Japanese internees passed through or were imprisoned in Santa Fe, New Mexico, over the course of the war.

Excerpted from Gail Y Okawa’s essay, “Finding American World War II Internment in Santa Fe: Voices through Time” in Telling New Mexico: A New History, edited by Marta Weigle and published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009.

Discovery’s Journey
Gail Y Okawa discusses investigating the past.

By Charlotte Jusinski

SFR: How much of the Santa Fe Internment Camp and internment in general has been documented?
GYO: I started out at the New Mexico State Archives. I spent some time there and gathered bits of information. There wasn’t a lot. Around the same period, I started doing research in Washington, DC, and College Park, Md.—that’s when I found five files on my grandfather.

It seems like they gathered a lot of info on him. Did you get the impression they were focusing on him specifically?
No, no. There were files that were very thick. His files were moderately thick. It just depended on the person. The interesting thing, really, is that he was an English speaker. He did not speak perfect English, but he did speak English, and he was confident enough to speak in English. [The Department of Justice] intake was basically an interrogation. Because he spoke English and because he was a Christian minister, as opposed to a Buddhist minister, the board members seemed to feel that they had a corner on the market. They questioned him rather rigorously—questioning his faith, how he as a minister felt about who should win, questioning his ethics and asking questions that were irrelevant. I was looking for some kind of horrible thing that he had done to be locked up, and really he hadn’t done anything. I wouldn’t say they were looking at him more closely, except for the fact that they questioned him as a Christian.

Telling New Mexico Inaugural Lecture Series

“Exile from Paradise, Internment in New Mexico: My Grandfather’s Journey”

2 pm Sunday, March 28

New Mexico History Museum Auditorium
113 Lincoln Ave.

What is the difference between a Department of Justice and a War Relocation Authority camp?
The WRA camps were a result of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 [in 1942], which established the West Coast as a high-security area. It justified the development of the War Relocation Authority, which oversaw the evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast. That could be justified as reactionary; this is a reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

How did that differ from the DOJ's treatment of the Japanese?
You can't justify the DOJ imprisonment as reactionary. It was premeditated. There's great evidence for it being premeditated because it goes all the way back to 1936, when FDR wrote a memo saying that we should keep a list of local Japanese so that they would be put in concentration camps in the event of trouble. He used the term 'concentration camp.' The DOJ kept tabs on people who were considered aliens and they were also looking for people who were leaders.

What was it, precisely, that was going on in the '30s in Hawaii?
George Patton, who later became General Patton, was in Hawaii from 1935 to 1937, and he devised a hostage plan. Now, this is way before Pearl Harbor. And he's talking about a hostage plan in relation to the Japanese. And he had a list—my grandfather wasn't on that list, but he had a list of people who should be picked up as leaders and they would be held as hostages for trade of some sort. Apparently that plan got scrapped, but it morphed into this other thing where the DOJ had a list called the ABC List [which my grandfather was on].

What happened once there was this aforementioned 'trouble'—aka, the attack on Pearl Harbor?
[The DOJ] was picking up those people on Dec. 7 [the day Pearl Harbor was attacked], which means that it was premeditated.

Yeah, they didn't make those lists in a couple of hours.
Yes. Also, I found this fascinating as I was doing the research: Really, Congress didn't declare war until Dec. 8, so they were picking them up before we were technically at war with Japan. That's further evidence of the premeditation.

You mention in the essay that 9.11, and the fear of impending racism against Middle Easterners, was a sort of catalyst for your research. Can you speak on that?
Some [of the racial reactions] are paranoia. Some of it, you can give people the excuse that they're afraid. But I think there's a great deal of outright racism that also goes along with this. [The 9.11 attacks] happened days before I had to submit [my research sabbatical proposal], so I'd already conceived of the proposal, but the urgency became clear and the parallels were frightening. I thought, 'OK, I have to do this because it is essential for people to understand the effects that these kinds of hysterical responses have on the people who are unjustly affected.' That became a really important motivation for me.

So the project kind of went from a research-based one to social and historical stewardship almost.
As I started to expand my research base from my grandfather to the hundreds of other men who were from Hawaii who were affected and started interviewing families, I began to realize that this was not only a social-political project, but it was an important community project. I needed to do this for my own community. It's the reason I can't stop. My responsibility has gone from recording something that happened in the past to helping people to understand in the present something about their own history.

How has the history of internment affected the contemporary Japanese-American consciousness?
Most Americans know about the WRA imprisonment partly because all West Coast Japanese were interned. They were all rounded up and put in camps. But then in Hawaii you have a different kind of experience; there were 130,000 or 160,000 Japanese, both immigrants and American citizens, in Hawaii at the time that Pearl Harbor was bombed. They were seen as being essential to the economy. What happened with these 700, 800 men was seen in a different way because not everybody was rounded up. They were a select group. Many people in Hawaii, even among the Japanese, didn't know that there were people who were taken. And in cases where they did know, sometimes there was suspicion: 'Why were they taken? Maybe there was a good reason. Maybe he did something wrong.' So it was divisive within the Japanese community in Hawaii. I think, because there's not as much knowledge of the Hawaii people, there's much more interest in having that story told.

What is the Hawaiian attitude like today?
In some cases, it's a very latent consciousness; for Hawaiian people, some may have put it completely aside. In my experience, I found out about my grandfather's being interned when I was in high school. But when I went home to ask my parents about it and they only responded very briefly, I knew that I wasn't supposed to ask more questions. I just shelved it. At that time, kids were not supposed to ask those pressing questions. It wasn't until decades
later that I started to think about this as being something that I wanted to pursue. The more concrete information that I got, once my mother started bringing out his letters and stuff like that, that was motivation to find out more.

As far as lasting feelings go, how do you think the WRA camps affect contemporary people?
The WRA experience is, in many ways, more immediate—it was more pervasive [than the Hawaiian experience]. And it was unifying, in many ways. I served on a [Japanese-American] board in Seattle for a nursing home, and I had not been in a camp—and I didn't feel I had an identity that linked up with a lot of people because I had not been interned.

What were the camps themselves like?
Some of the circumstances could have been similar to Guantanamo Bay. At the beginning, especially, there were beatings, people were put in isolation, there were pretty serious forms of torture. Some people were killed. There were people who went berserk or got too close to the wire and got shot. The people who were affected were very badly scarred by these things, but many tried to make the best of it and managed to recover in different ways with their dignity. I think they suffered, but they didn't necessarily want to show how they suffered.

What do you think your grandfather's experience was like?
The DOJ camps were primarily men who didn't talk much when they came out, so there isn't a lot of information that has flowed from the original source. But what's so interesting about the DOJ camps was that you had some of the strongest people and the brightest minds there. In many ways, it was the Japanese intelligencia; they were the poets and the scholars and the clergy. All these real thinkers. One man said something about it being a 'cultural heaven' to have all these people in one place. In terms of my grandfather being a minister, I think he must have found it quite satisfying. I have no particular evidence, but my guess is that he at least could continue doing his job. He continued his ministry.

[Some internees] tried to make the best of the situation; they saw themselves as being fortunate that they could see the country. They were that optimistic—there were many people that were very unhappy about the whole thing, but there were some that thought 'there's nothing you can do about it, so look at the bright side.' Some of them saw that they were able to see the country that they never would have been able to see. So in that sense, I think they were very pragmatic as well.  SFR

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