The Berkeley Remix Season 8, Episode 2:”‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration”

In this episode, we explore the history, legacy, and contested memory of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. 

This graphic illustration depicts a large wave and guard tower behind barbed wire with text above that reads, "Episode 2: A Place Like This"
The Berkeley Remix Season 8 Podcast Image for “Episode 2: A Place Like This.”

Incarceration represented a loss of livelihoods, property, and freedom, as well as a disruption—cultural and geographic—in the Japanese American community that continued long after World War II. While some descendants heard family stories about incarceration, others encountered only silence about these past traumas. This silence was reinforced by a society and education system which denied that incarceration occurred or used euphemisms to describe what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II. Over the years, Japanese Americans have worked to reclaim the narrative of this past and engage with the nuances of terminology in order to tell their own stories about the personal and community impacts of incarceration. 

In season 8 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we are highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of two World War II-era sites of incarceration: Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. This four-part series includes clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. Using healing as a throughline, these life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

This season features interview clips from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. This episode includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Additional archival audio from the US Office of War Information and the Internet Archive. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Narration by Devin Katayama. Newsreel audio clip “Japanese Relocation” from the U.S. Office of War Information, ca. 1943, courtesy of Prelinger Archives. Newsreel audio clip “August 14, 1945, Newsreel V-J Day” from the Internet Archive. Original theme music by Paul Burnett. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Album artwork by Emily Ehlen. A special thanks to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.




PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: “‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration”

Newsreel from the 1940s: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds of them American citizens, one-third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous; most were loyal. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them—citizens and aliens alike—would have to move.”

Jean Hibino: What would you carry? If everybody had two things they could carry, what would you put into a duffel bag? And what if you had a baby, and that’s one of the things that you’re carrying? How do you figure out the other thing? What is important to you? And you have no idea where you’re going, what kind of weather it’s going to be.

Theme song fades in.

Devin Katayam: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center was founded in 1953, and records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. You’re listening to our eighth season, “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration.” I’m your host, Devin Katayama. 

This season on The Berkeley Remix, we’re highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of World War II-era sites of incarceration at Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. In this four-part series, you’ll hear clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. These life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members have passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

As a heads up, generational names for Japanese Americans are going to be important in this series. Issei refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Nisei are the second generation, Sansei the third, Yonsei the fourth, and Gosei the fifth. Just think about counting to five in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go.

This is episode 2, “‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration” 

Theme song fades out.

Katayama: Executive Order 9066 changed life for Japanese Americans. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942. It authorized the forced removal of Japanese American civilians from their homes on the West Coast. The federal government incarcerated Japanese Americans first in regional assembly centers before sending them to prison camps for the duration of the war. We’re talking about more than 120,000 people—or roughly the population of Topeka, Kansas. 

Hibino: The US government was very careful about choosing how they wanted to describe the unconstitutional [laughs] removal of 120,000 people, uh, by just saying it was for their own safety, of military necessity: “It was a relocation. It was an evacuation for their own safety.” But we know better. 

Katayama: That’s Jean Hibino, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated in Topaz. Nancy Ukai, a Sansei whose family was also imprisoned in Topaz, says she remembers the stories her mother shared about this time. 

Nancy Ukai: The immigrants couldn’t buy land; they couldn’t naturalize; they couldn’t vote, so they didn’t have a political voice. My grandfather used to say, “You know, we’re going to all be sent to camp.” And my mother said, “Oh no. You might be, but I’m a citizen.” And he said, “Yeah well, you’ll see.” And she said later when, of course, everybody was rounded up and sent to the camps, he said, “See?”

Katayama: When the looming threat of incarceration became a reality, it caused significant disruption in people’s lives. Jean talks about the impact it had on her family. 

Hibino: So my mom always tells the story about selling everything they own to the junkman—was it thirty-five bucks or something? Refrigerator, stove, furnishings, store goods, everything was sold. They knew that there was going to be a short amount of time where things had to be done. Businesses, affairs had to be put in order, including the dog, which was so sad! Oh my God, their poor dog, they had to get—ah—get rid of. And I think there was an actual story where the dog came back after they gave it to the junkman, that the dog wandered back home, and we’re all crying when we heard that story. 

Katayama: People had a matter of days to pack up their things and organize their lives before reporting to assembly centers. They could only take what they could carry. And they had to make some pretty heart-wrenching decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Here’s Nancy again, sharing her mother’s memories of those uncertain days.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. Sound of door opening.

Ukai: When they were all packing to go, she said my grandfather packed up this box very carefully, and she thought it was, oh, treats or tools, she didn’t know. And she said when they got to camp, they opened it up and it was filled with eucalyptus leaves. And she said, “You fool, why did you waste this precious space on this?” He told her, “I thought we may never go back to Berkeley,” and he loved the fragrance of the Eucalyptus leaves, and they reminded him of the Berkeley that he loved. And so she said, “I wished I had directed my anger at the US government and not my father…who didn’t know if he’d ever go back to this place that he loved so much.” 

Soundbed: sound of door closing.Instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Bruce Embrey, a Sansei whose mother was incarcerated in Manzanar in California, heard stories about the sale of his family’s store in the Los Angeles area. 

Bruce Embrey: I have the receipt, actually, for the sale of the store, and they kept it. They sold it for half of what they paid for it. They got about 50 percent. What was remarkable to me was that there was very little resentment about it. You know, you lose an asset to somebody, you, you generally are kind of upset, right? I mean, I, I know everybody says, “Oh, it’s amazing how they’re not bitter.” Yeah well, close the door and get into a family discussion and see how bitter people really are. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Life in Manzanar and Topaz was a difficult adjustment for many. To this day, descendants of the camps have visceral memories of the stories their families told about what it was like to be incarcerated in the desert, far from the lives they once knew. Here’s Bruce Embrey again sharing his grandmother’s first impressions of Manzanar.

Embrey: My grandmother was convinced that this was a desolate area, I mean, it was bulldozed, there was nothing around but barracks. And that while you had these majestic mountains in the back, apple orchard—this is, you know, the quote she said, “It’s a place like this. They brought us to a place like this: beautiful on the one hand, desolate on the other.” And she was convinced they were brought there to be shot. She thought they were being removed to a far-flung area, meaning far from a large metropolitan area like Los Angeles, essentially to be either worked to death or, or, or killed. That was her framework. And so she cried every day until she finally got it together, and came back and said, “No, we’ve got to survive this crap.”

Katayama: For many of the incarcerated Issei and Nisei, survival in camp meant trying to create some semblance of a normal life. They built schools, grew gardens, and honed crafts like woodworking and photography. Susan Kitazawa, a Sansei, recalls that her grandfather did this while incarcerated at Manzanar.  

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Kitazawa: It’s like my grandfather, who had a nursery, being able to be in charge of the victory garden. It was like, Oh, I get to use my best skills, even though I’m locked up.

Katayama: Ruth Sasaki, a Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Topaz, remembers learning about her mother’s role in creating an education system while in camp. 

Ruth Sasaki: They called a meeting of all the college graduates, you know, among the internees and organized preschools for the kids. And so my mom was teaching preschool in Tanforan. And then when they were transferred to Topaz, they did the same thing. They organized a preschool system. So from ’43 to ’45, she was the supervisor of Topaz preschools.

Katayama: Alan Miyatake, a Sansei, heard many stories about his grandfather, Toyo Miyatake. Many people know Toyo today as the official camp photographer of Manzanar. But he didn’t start out that way. Toyo originally smuggled a camera into camp with him. In fact, Alan’s father remembers when Toyo first showed him the camera.

Alan Miyatake: The way my father told the story was that one day in camp, he took him aside and opened up his suitcase and said, “Look what I have.” 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in.   

Miyatake: It terrified my father, because, you know, he thought, Wait a minute, I know that’s not legal. So he explained it to my dad that, you know, “I’m going to make a camera and I’m going to photograph this injustice, in hoping that it would never happen again.”And he started, you know, making a camera. So he mounted a lens onto a drainpipe, onto the male part of the drainpipe, and then the female end of the drainpipe was mounted to the box. So that was the focusing device that made the camera operate.

Katayama: But Toyo’s photography didn’t go completely unnoticed by the camp administration in Manzanar.

Miyatake: As the story goes within our family, that in order to kind of cover himself, Ralph Merritt, the director, he made up this rule. Once he said, “Yeah, go ahead and take pictures, but you can’t snap the shutter.” And I’m, I’m guessing that if he ever got caught, you know, and if it went to higher authorities, at least Ralph Merritt could say, “Well, he wasn’t the one that snapped the shutter.” 

Katayama: Eventually, Ralph Merritt gave Toyo permission to take photographs as the official camp photographer, as long as he had supervision. It was a camp rule that he needed to be accompanied by someone who was not Japanese American, like the wife of a camp worker, when he would take photographs there. This underscored his lack of autonomy, both as a professional photographer and a prisoner with restricted freedoms.  

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Despite the fact that many Japanese Americans were able to create lives for themselves inside the prison camps, the indignities of incarceration were never far from their minds. Even Japanese American service members fighting on behalf of the United States and democracy abroad had families who were incarcerated at home. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz.

Michael Yoshii: My father’s brother, he was already part of the military when the war broke out. And then he got assigned to the 442nd in the process of it. 

Katayama: That’s the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The 442nd is the most decorated regiment in US military history. Its daring feats, like the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in Italy, have made the 442nd the stuff of legend. But this unit was also segregated within the US military. 

Yoshii: My father and his parents went to Tanforan initially. His brother was wounded in the war in Europe and had his arm, uh, blown off. And he kind of had to go to a hospital and then do some recovery. He had a prosthetic arm put on. That was like a lifelong injury from the war. You know, my grandparents were really upset about that. I think he was able to come back and visit them in Topaz on one of his return trips. 

Katayama: And it wasn’t just the indignities of losing livelihoods, property, and their freedom that haunted Japanese Americans incarcerated in these camps. There was also the constant threat of harm and death. Here’s Masako Takahashi, a Sansei born in Topaz, reflecting on this tension. 

Masako Takahashi: My family and all those other people lived under the constant threat of murder. I mean, whatever baseball games or arts and crafts they were practicing, there were armed guards pointing guns at them at all times.

Katayama: And she means this literally. All the prison camps featured tall guard towers with  armed guards and searchlights. The guard towers stuck out in otherwise isolated landscapes. 

M. Takahashi: So no wonder they were tense. 

Katayama: This tension permeated Manzanar, too. In December 1942, internal political divisions with the camp’s federal administrators, and within the Japanese American community, culminated in a violent uprising at Manzanar. Hans Goto, a Sansei whose father was a doctor and working in Manzanar’s hospital, remembers hearing about this.

Hans Goto: There was a riot in the camp. I think approximately 2,000 people came out for this riot. They were shouting, they were chanting, they were very angry. The details aren’t really clear. But suddenly the military police opened fire, which they weren’t supposed to do. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Goto: So two people were instantly killed and nine people were wounded, and that sort of dispersed the crowd. They brought the people into the infirmary, where my father was, and the whole staff was, was on duty at that time.The people who were killed and the people who rioted, were they shot from the front, or were they shot from the side and back? And the controversy was: if they were shot from the front, that means they were charging the guards. And if they’re shot from the side and back, that meant they weren’t charging the guards. The military held an inquiry within a few days of the actual event. They highly encouraged my dad, according to him, to report that they were all shot from the front. Because he was also the physician coroner. He said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And they said, “Well, you have to do this.” And he goes, “Uh, no, they, they were shot from the side.”

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: The Manzanar Uprising had far-reaching consequences. Within two months, the US government required all incarcerees at all ten federal prison camps to complete a “loyalty questionnaire.” This questionnaire was administered in part to identify and remove so-called “troublemakers” from the camps. Beyond the irony of a loyalty survey for people unjustly imprisoned by their own government, the questionnaire language was confusing and led to further problems. For example, Question 27 asked Nisei incarcerees if they would be willing to serve on combat duty wherever they were assigned. Question 28 asked individuals if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the US and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Many incarcerees answered “no” and “no” to those two questions. And as a result, they were labeled “no-no boys” and ultimately confined at the high security Tule Lake Segregation Center, deep into rugged Northern California. The Manzanar Uprising also had consequences for Dr. Goto.

Goto: The next day he was relieved of all his duties. He was the head physician.

Katayama: After refusing to sign the death records of the young Japanese Americans who were shot and killed at Manzanar, Dr. Goto and his family were sent to Topaz. But they also witnessed deadly violence in the Utah desert. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Ukai: Wakasa was murdered on April 11, 1943, at 7:30 at night. He was shot through the heart. He fell on his knees. He fell on his back. He died instantly. The bullet went through his heart and also pierced his spine.

Katayama: James Hatsuaki Wakasa, a 63-year-old Issei man, was days away from leaving Topaz for another camp, when he was killed by a camp sentry. He was shot from a guard tower, 300 yards away. The military took his body and then spun a false narrative about Wakasa’s death. Masako Takahashi recalls Wakasa’s tragic murder.

M. Takahashi: He was four days away—he already had a pass to leave camp, four days away. And of course he wasn’t trying to flee. That adds to the sorrow.

Katayama: The story of James Wakasa’s murder has been told many times over the years by survivors and descendants of Topaz. Everyone knew about it. Everyone had some kind of connection to it. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: But not everyone tells the same version of the tragedy. Patrick Hayashi, a Nisei who was born at Topaz, and Nancy Ukai, remember hearing this story many times as children. This incident profoundly shaped their families’ incarceration experiences. 

Ukai: That is just burned into my childhood memory. 

Patrick Hayashi: My mom told me an old deaf man, Mr. Wakasa, was walking his adopted, stray dog around the perimeter of the camp—and he would do that every afternoon. His dog got caught in the barbed wire fence, and Mr. Wakasa went to save him and release him. 

Ukai: And I just remember to this day my mother’s emotion and anger, and saying, “They didn’t have to kill him. He was deaf.” Well, he wasn’t deaf. That was one of the rumors, which I think the government probably created to, you know, rationalize his murder.

Hayashi: The sentry ordered him to back away from the fence, but because he was deaf, he couldn’t do it, and so the sentry shot and killed him. 

Ukai: He was accused of escaping through the fence, and it was in the national papers, and that never got corrected.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Remember Dr. Goto, Hans’s Father? When he and his family were sent to Topaz after the uprising at Manzanar, he became the physician and coroner at Topaz. In a twist of fate, it was Dr. Goto who signed the death certificate for James Wakasa.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Newsreel from the 1940s with instrumental music: “America waited out World War II’s last tense hours. At the White House, President Truman, State Secretary Byrnes, and Cordell Hull stood by for the momentous surrender message from the Japanese. Radiomen, sound and camera crews, and worldwide newsreels kept vigil with Washington reporters. Then, after tantalizing hours of rumors and guesses, came the President’s historic announcement, August 14, 1945.”

Katayama: After several years of incarceration, on December 18, 1944, Americans learned that the US government approved the closure of all the camps by the end of 1945. However, the last camp didn’t actually shutter until March 1946—nine months after the war against Japan in Asia ended. This sudden change left Japanese Americans struggling to plan for the future. Remember, many of them had either sold or lost their homes and businesses before being forcibly removed from their communities, so they didn’t have much to return to.

Mitchell Higa: A big part of it was my dad’s parents’ business taken away when they went to camp, and then coming out of camp penniless. And then having to go through the humiliation of going on government assistance, coming out of camp broke. No prospects, no money, no father.

Kitazawa: My father’s parents were, um, working their very, very small family flower nursery in San José at the time. And my father told us that for his father, even though he wasn’t happy about being taken away from his home and his nursery, that he was able to sell the family nursery and business to people at the Quaker Meeting House in San José, where he was a weekend custodian. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Kitazawa: So they bought the place on paper for a dollar and they held it for them until they came back home again, which was really fortunate that they had that connection to people in the white community, and didn’t lose their land or have to sell it super cheap.

Katayama: That was Mitchell Higa, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, and Susan Kitazawa. Here’s Alan Miyatake again. 

Miyatake: I always pictured that they just came back to Boyle Heights and moved into their house. But later on, I found out that because of a, a lease that was set up, that Bobby, my uncle, told me, “Oh no, no, we, we had to live across the street for a while, because there were still people living in our house.”

Katayama: But not everyone was able to return to their homes and communities. Some felt pressured to stay away from the West Coast, and others saw opportunities to begin anew in other parts of the United States. Here’s Ron Kuramoto, a Sansei whose mother was incarcerated at Manzanar.

Ron Kuramoto: What they were given when they were released was a bus ticket and $25 in cash per person.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Kuramoto: Those were the federal guidelines for releasing prisoners from, [laughs] you know, from federal prison, was to give them a bus ticket and $25 to wherever they went. They said, “So, many of the people, they were glad to be released, but they had nowhere to go.” Interestingly enough, that’s what led to a lot of the diaspora of Japanese Americans. 

Hibino: So we [laughs] ended up in this extremely small, white town in Connecticut, and I always thought I was white until I was about ten. When you left the camp, the War Relocation Authority had put out pamphlets that said to the Japanese, “It is advisable that you move as far away from California as you can. Stay away from other Japanese. Try to become even more American than, than [laughs] you think you are, than you already are.” They were just trying to say, “Try to assimilate, be white, and don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. Don’t stick out. Just quietly go about your business, even though this horribly unconstitutional thing has just happened to you and you’ve suffered all this trauma.” I think that is part of the reason why only half of the Japanese moved back to the West Coast after the war. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Hibino: My dad really took that to heart. And so he always told us he chose to never go back to California because of the racism and the horrible experiences his family suffered. And so we’re going to go up here, and we’re going to try to live the American dream and not so much talk about what happened to us in 1942. 

Katayama: That was Jean Hibino again. Some Japanese American students were able to leave camp during the war to attend college in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Carolyn Iyoya Irving, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, recounts her mother’s experience moving to New York State during the war while her parents remained in camp. 

Carolyn Iyoya Irving: The Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, really made a concerted effort to help kids in camp to go to college. And so I think they helped with the brokering of the government paperwork to find out which colleges would accept Japanese Americans from the camps. And so I think, by and large, most of them were East, because you were away from the West Coast. She ended up leaving for Vassar in, um, August of 1943 by herself, you know, on a train, saying goodbye to her parents behind barbed wire and heading out to Poughkeepsie.

Katayama: Moving away from their homes and centers of Japanese American culture led some to become isolated from the community. These moves have had a profound impact on intergenerational identity and belonging. Both survivors of incarceration and their descendants have had to live with the consequences of lives uprooted, torn apart during and after World War II. Here’s Masako Takahashi again.

M. Takahashi: My parents were super American. When I was young, they took my brother and me to Washington, D.C., to see the Lincoln Memorial; we went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to see the Liberty Bell; we went to Manhattan, New York City, to see the Statue of Liberty. These were like really iconic American institutions and parts of history. Those touchstones, they wanted to go see them for themselves, because that’s how they felt through the war and continued after the war. My Uncle Will went in the 442nd. These people wanted to prove their Americanness, even die for America.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Here’s Kimi Maru, a Sansei, whose family was incarcerated at Topaz.

Kimi Maru: You know, even my kids had friends growing up—they’re Yonsei, fourth generation—who didn’t know how to use chopsticks, because their families didn’t eat Japanese or Asian food. [laughs] And largely, I think that’s because of the camps, because they didn’t want to really relate to being Japanese. They wanted to prove their Americanness, how they thought about themselves, you know, and what it meant to be American, but not really understanding what it meant to be Japanese American. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Hayashi: I think trauma can be transmitted nonverbally. And because the silence among Japanese Americans, among everyone, is textured, different types of silence mean different things and convey different emotions, and I think that’s how I learned about the emotional tone of the camps and the devastation it had.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Vox pop:

Matsumura: My dad doesn’t talk about camp life, he’s very quiet about it.

M. Takahashi: Just generally speaking, it was horrible and shocking, but they, like many others, did not speak that much about camp experience.

Hayashi: I’m typical of third-generation Japanese Americans. We grew up hearing next to nothing about the camps.

Margret Mukai: You know, we were Japanese Americans. We were supposed to be quiet. 

Sasaki: She didn’t talk that much about the war or those experiences. 

Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Katayama: Incarceration was an agonizing experience for most Japanese Americans. It was difficult for many to talk about. The silence was about shame, it was about trauma, and it was about cultural influences that encouraged people not to dwell on the past. This meant that children of survivors rarely learned about incarceration firsthand. Here’s Lori Matsumura, a Sansei descendant of Manzanar. 

Lori Matsumura: My dad was so quiet, and so he didn’t discuss camp life unless we asked him or hounded him, he didn’t discuss it, which is unfortunate, because he’s gone now. Now I have so many questions I wish I would have brought up. Almost everyone’s gone now.

Katayama: Masako Takahashi remembers growing up with shame about incarceration.

M. Takahashi: As a child, I felt ashamed, because it seemed bad to be the children of people who the government wanted to lock up and called an enemy. I wasn’t proud to be Japanese or proud to have been born in a concentration camp or, you know—so I guess they were just trying to spare us feeling bad, so they just didn’t talk about it and looked forward.

Katayama: Peggy Takahashi is a Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Manzanar.

Peggy Takahashi: There’s a whole generation of Japanese people, probably my age and a little younger, whose parents made a conscious decision not to make the Japanese culture   prominent in their lives, um, because of what happened during the war.

Katayama: Peggy talks about how many people never learned about Japanese American culture or the history of incarceration in school. 

P. Takahashi: It wasn’t talked about at all. In our US history books in the 1970s, there was one—literally one paragraph—about the incarceration. Literally one paragraph. 

Goto: No. Not at all. Never heard about it. What’s ironic is—just, just for a little tidbit—is that one of my high school history teachers was a little kid in one of the camps. And he never mentioned it, ever, in history. And he taught US history. It was just a sign of the times. 

Katayama: That was Hans Goto again. Here’s Miko Charbonneau, a Yonsei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar.

Miko Charbonneau: Sometime in middle school, we were learning about the Holocaust, and our teacher, he was telling the whole class like, “Well, Jewish people were put in camps.”

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in.  

Charbonneau: And I was like, Wait, my grandmother was put in a camp. So I raised my hand and said, “My, my grandparents were put in a camp, but they were put in camp by America.” And there was like this awkward silence, because all the kids were confused and had never heard about it, and he clearly did not know what to say. And after this silence, all he said was, “Well, we didn’t kill people.” And so I really remember that, and it’s sort of maybe the first time I feel like my experience was disparaged or, or put down.

Katayama: If descendants learned about this history at all in school, it was often brushed off as something insignificant. Some teachers outright denied Japanese American incarceration ever happened. Here’s Susan Kitazawa.

Kitazawa: One time when I was in elementary school, we had to talk about our families or how our parents met, and so I said, “My parents met when they were locked up in the prison camp.” And the teacher got really mad at me and said, “You’re supposed to tell the truth. Don’t make things up.” And I said, “That really happened. And my parents told me that.” And the teacher said, “Nothing like that ever happened in the United States.” And she got really angry at me. And I felt really bad, because she thought not only that I was lying, but that my parents were lying to me. And so my mother said I could take the book to school and show her the book. And I showed her the book and she just brushed it off like, “Yeah, whatever. Things like that don’t happen in America.” And so from that experience, I learned to just kind of shut up about it.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: This pushback reinforced silence within the community. The language used to describe what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II is equally important in acknowledging this past. It impacts how people remember events, and even how they continue to teach this history in school. It’s become a sensitive topic for many descendants of incarceration. 

Here’s Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, and Ron Kuramoto again. 

Neuwalder: Yeah, I mean, I certainly grew up with “relocation,” not even “forced relocation,” “relocation” and “internment camps.” 

Kuramoto: There would be references that we could overhear about somebody they knew from “camp.” And that was kind of the euphemistic talk about that. 

Neuwalder: And of course, as a little kid I was like, “Camp,” summer camp! You know, like [laughs] it was confusing, um, because it was a camp, but you couldn’t leave. And it was a camp in the middle of the desert with your whole family and all these other families.

Kuramoto: And as kids, we thought this was maybe something like summer camp. And we thought, Wow, this is really cool, everybody went to the same summer camp. But they were there for four years, so [laughs] it was a long summer camp. 

Katayama: But it was far from a summer camp. People have referred to the camps by different names over the years. Even the US government has changed its terminology. Here’s Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, a Gosei descendant of Manzanar and National Park Service Superintendent of the Hono’uli’uli National Historic Site, discussing this.

Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong: And the US government, you know, also used “concentration camp” during World War II, and eventually the terminology kind of transitioned.

M. Takahashi: It was first called a “concentration camp.” Later, after the discovery of Auschwitz and Dachau and so on, the words “concentration camp” had meanings that the government preferred not to be associated with, so they started calling it “internment camps” and “relocation.”

Katayama: That was Masako Takahashi again. The euphemistic language about incarceration that Ron referred to has long weighed on the minds of survivors and their descendants. Densho is a nonprofit organization founded in 1996, whose mission is to preserve and share history of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to promote equity and justice today. 

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Katayama: In its guide to terminology, Densho explains that “internment” refers to “the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of, quote, ‘enemy aliens’ in time of war.” In other words, Issei immigrants. Therefore, this terminology glosses over the fact that the federal government actually incarcerated American citizens of Japanese ancestry—Nisei children and young adults—without due process. More recently, in 2022, the Associated Press changed its style guide to embrace this distinction. This is why we’ve been using the word “incarceration” throughout this series. But others have advocated for even more changes in terminology. Here’s interviewer Roger Eardley-Pryor asking Masako Takahashi about her birth. You can hear how integral terminology is to her and her family’s incarceration experience.

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Roger Eardley-Pryor: Can you tell me the date of your birth and the location, please?

M. Takahashi: January 29, 1944, in Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah. My mother said it was a concentration camp.

Katayama: Here’s Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder again. 

Neuwalder: Linguistically they were concentration camps. They were places where people were concentrated, because of some ethnic cultural characteristics that were deemed to be abhorrent, and they were locked up as families. Um, I know there’s a lot of controversy, but I think, you know, there are lots of concentration camps around the world. To my mind, it’s about the removal of human rights and liberties of movement, and the literal concentration and segregation of one cultural group against their will.

Katayama: Jennifer is speaking about this from the perspective of her two identities. She is a descendant of a Japanese American mother incarcerated at Topaz, and of a family of ethnically German Jews who survived the Holocaust. 

Neuwalder: I think the term “concentration camp” has acquired very specific meanings to specific people. Um, but you know, maybe it will be reclaimed by the Japanese American community over time. 

Katayama: But not everyone agrees. 

Kuramoto: I don’t really hear many people refer to the incarceration camps, which is now the preferred terminology, as “concentration camps” anymore, other than maybe to describe some of the things that went on that are similar to that. But, uh, no, they were not mass extermination type of facilities, such as in the European experience. 

Katayama: That was Ron Kuramoto again. Indeed, language—and reclaiming language—is an important discussion, particularly in the Japanese American community. Here’s Patrick Hayashi again, recalling the conversations he had about this with Topaz survivors during a meeting with the Class of ’45. It’s a group of Japanese American students who attended high school behind barbed wire. 

Hayashi: The question was: what do you call Topaz? Some people wanted to call it a “concentration camp.” Everyone was in agreement that “internment camp” was just not proper, but you could call it a “confinement site,” something like that. They asked me what I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I thought it was up to them.

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Hayashi: In the end, they decided to call it a “concentration camp.” And I could see a complete transformation occur once they settled that issue. They became proud of their lives and proud at how they conducted themselves in the camps.

Katayama: Clearly, language matters. It’s not just words, it’s also about agency. Since the end of World War II, Japanese Americans have worked to reclaim the narrative of their incarceration experiences. This reclamation includes not only pushing for acknowledgment of this past, but also intergenerational conversations about the nuance of language and its implications. Without a doubt, each generation of descendants will need to begin this process for themselves. 

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Katayama: Thanks for listening to “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” and The Berkeley Remix. Join us next time for more on identity and belonging in the Japanese American community.

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Katayama: This episode features interviews from the Oral History Center’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, and includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Additional archival audio from the US Office of War Information and the Internet Archive. This episode was produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Thank you to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Devin Katayama. Thanks for listening, and I will talk to you next time!

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