Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp Survivor

Our first impulse when looking back on some particularly ugly event in history is to shake our heads and say, "Man, those people were nuts!" We tend to do that even when the history was fairly recent and the event took place right where we're standing.

So, while it's easy to look at something like the internment of the Japanese during World War II and lump it in with the Salem witch hunts in the category of "Weird Things People Did In Olden Times," you have to remember some of the people involved are still around. You can ask them about it!

We did. Kiyo Sato was an 18-year-old Japanese-American living in Sacramento when the war broke out and the government decided she and her family couldn't be trusted.

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5
Pearl Harbor Happened, And Then The FBI Showed Up At Their Front Door

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUS Navy

The change happened overnight. The bombing of Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 7, 1941, and suddenly Kiyo's classmates -- and basically the entire country -- were treating her like a bear rooting around in their picnic. Literally, by 1942: "There was even a Japanese hunting license issued by the military," says Kiyo. "Can you imagine? I have an original copy of that." There were actually a lot of those novelty "licenses" issued by all manner of groups, each somehow more racist than the last:

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorAuthentic History

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorAuthentic History
Imagine going to high school with kids who have this in their pocket. And they think you're the "snake."

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Overnight, Kiyo became an awkward teen in a country full of people who suddenly thought she might be The Enemy. "The only time you felt safe was when you were in your own home, and even then you felt like the FBI could be peeking in through your vines. And they would pop in at any time."

The FBI found themselves in charge of making sure people like Kiyo and her family -- who were farmers -- weren't somehow planning on bringing down democracy from within. "Three of them came into our house. ... They just barged in anywhere and ransacked the whole place." They were looking for radios and any other equipment that might've been used to signal the Japanese military.

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It's important to recognize that, right alongside being Nazi-fighting badasses, the Greatest Generation panicked at the thought that a bunch of their fellow citizens might be sleeper agents. Of course, that's a fear we've outgrown by n-

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorReal Clear Politics

Oh, right.

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On Jan. 14, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- probably the one person most responsible for the U.S. not joining Germany, Spain, Romania, Hungary, and Italy in Fascism -- decided it'd be fine to throw every Japanese person in America into a camp. He signed Presidential Proclamation 2537, destining Kiyo and her family to a form of imprisonment.

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"I didn't understand; I was born in Sacramento, and I said, 'I'm an American citizen. I have my constitutional rights.' Until the very last minute, I thought our president would reverse this decision and bring us home. It's when the train started to move that my whole life sort of ended. My dreams, my hopes were all gone."

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorDepartment of the Interior

Continuing the trend of train travel being the most depressing mode of transport for all of WWII.

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The argument in favor goes something like this: "Well, Japan did have spies in the country planning sabotage, so internment was justified! It was the only way to be sure!" But aside from the fact that "lock them up just in case" has never been a valid solution for any problem in the history of humankind, it's important to understand that the original idea behind internment was not "Lock up all the Japanese people until we can suss out the bad ones." Here's General John DeWitt, the army guy in charge of "evacuating" Japanese-American citizens:

The Japanese race is an enemy race, and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become "Americanized," the racial strains are undiluted. There are indications that these [Japanese-Americans] are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorU.S. House Committee on Armed Services

"Thankfully, the internet hasn't been invented yet, so comparisons between what I'm saying and what Hitler is saying aren't available yet."

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It's also important to note that the internment camps were hugely profitable for some people. Lots of these people owned very valuable farm land in California; after internment, a total of $72 million in land suddenly shot onto the market, at way below its fair price because the owners were, y'know, being shipped away. Observers at the time noted that a lot of the popular support behind Proclamation 2537 came from organizations of farmers. This is one of those constants of human society: Find somebody demanding rights be taken way from some group in the name of safety, and you'll find someone looking to parlay that into a nice payday (these days they can usually count on a book deal, if nothing else).

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4
What The Hell Do You Pack For An Internment Camp, Anyway?

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Archives

"On evacuation day, when I got out of bed, my father immediately took all the blankets off of my bed and spread it out on the living room floor and then started to hide all sorts of things into our bedrolls. I almost said, 'Dad, you know the searches are so stringent' ... but I knew my father was a wise man. And he proceeded to hide all these things."

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorDepartment of Interior
"No room in there for hopes and dreams; we're going to have to leave those behind."

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He began tossing together buckets, gardening tools, seeds, nails -- the basic implements you'd need to grow your own food. It sounds tragically naive, but when Kiyo travels the country giving talks to young people, she asks them to put themselves in her father's place. "I often ask, 'Well what would they take?' ... No one has ever, out of the thousands of students we speak to, no one has ever guessed what my father hid," she says. But Kiyo's dad knew what he was doing, and somehow The Man didn't notice any of his contraband tools. "Luckily, somehow, all the baggage got loaded into the freight car. And got through," she says.

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Kiyo doesn't have great memories of being evacuated (probably no one has ever had good memories of being evacuated). "When the train left ... I tell you, that was the end for me ... I just broke down and cried. I just could not stop crying. ... The parents were sitting in the back saying ... a common phrase; it means that certain things you can't do anything about, so we just have to accept that and do the best we can."

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorAP via The Atlantic
Note: They're talking about doing their best to accept this.

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The memory that stings her the most was being brought a helping of sushi, courtesy of another passenger. "One of the ladies had probably stayed up all night to fix sushi. Can you imagine? One of those inari sushis we used to take to picnics. Somebody brought me one of those, and I tell you, I still tear up when I think about the women, mothers, parents ... who did all these things in order to make this very difficult time a little bit easier."

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Kiyo was first sent to a place called Pinedale Assembly Center. Well, hey, that sounds almost friendly, like a community center where they hold yoga classes and raucous games of bingo! It looked like this:

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Parks Service

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Kiyo recalls being assured this was a "reception center," even though "there were all these guard towers and machine guns around us."

3
They Basically Just Dropped Them Off In The Desert

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Archives

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So let's for a moment grant the "Internment was necessary!" side as much benefit of the doubt as we possibly can. Let's assume for the moment that the government was only concerned about national security, that it absolutely did care about the human rights of these American citizens, and absolutely wanted to make sure the innocent were treated as well as possible while preventing them from taking a break from farm work to sabotage the Battle of Midway. In that scenario, what would you imagine the living accommodations would be like? Again: These are citizens who broke no laws and were not, individually, even accused of having done so.

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Well, here's what Kiyo's dwelling at the "reception center" looked like:

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUtah Department of Heritage and Arts
Home sweet home.

"Black tar paper buildings," she says. "You go out the door and don't know which one is yours." Kiyo recalls being issued a metal cot. "That was it. All of us in this one room. There was a lightbulb from the ceiling." But, no, this isn't a prison camp, and you'll enrage people by calling it a "concentration camp." It's an internment camp! You know, as a precaution!

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Most of the other internees who smuggled stuff in had chosen rice, dehydrated soup, Jell-O -- foodstuffs. Kiyo's dad's decision to bring tools wound up proving a brilliant idea. "My father pounded nails all around for our wet towels. But people were coming in, asking, 'Where did you get that hammer and nails?' And so my father just shared what he had and eventually ran out of nails. ... [He] had even hid a roll of wire, so he cut the wire into nails."

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Archives
"Don't suppose you hid an air-conditioner in there?"

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Regardless of what bits of civilization the internees could build for themselves, it was hard to forget that they were stuck in the middle of nowhere surrounded by armed guards. "I was scared of them, way up there in the tower, eight of them around Pinedale assembly center. There were two guards up top each tower with bayonets and a machine gun between them. 'We're going to put you there for your own protection,' they said. And we said, 'But why is that machine gun pointing at us?'" This would be about when those "Jap hunting licenses" would go from tasteless to ominous.

Soon, Kiyo and her family were moved to their final location: the Poston War Relocation Center, which looked like this (and was in the desert of Arizona, so imagine it being 134 degrees):

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Archives
This picture was in color, but they melted away

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Kiyo was initially excited when she heard the camp was located on an Indian Reservation. She imagined it as a place "where they have rivers to fish on and land to hunt on," because even in an internment camp she was willing to assume the best of the U.S government. Nope, just sagebrush and sand and brutal heat.

2
Getting Out Meant Going To War

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUS Army

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The food at the camp was, unsurprisingly, generally canned, terrible, and often in short supply. Fortunately, dozens of inmates had thought to bring seeds and went to work (remember, they were farmers; this was one way they knew to take back control of their lives). "They began planting seeds in the barracks in the 120- to 130-degree heat. And they got cans from the mess hall ... and water from the outside faucet; can you imagine? And then they made things grow, and pretty soon there were even zinnias and morning glory covering black tar paper buildings. And then eventually acres were cultivated, right at the edge of camp."

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUS Army
"Well, general, Ian Malcolm did warn us ..."

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Meanwhile, Kiyo's dad really went to town on the whole "making his new home livable" thing. "Nothing went to waste! Scrap wood was like gold. Every piece of scrap that was left became ... all kinds of sculptures, especially birds. And my father made a chair, and he also made a little cabinet, kind of like a file cabinet, out of scrap wood, which is a treasure to me; I have that. That's where he kept his important papers."

Beyond beautifying their own camps, the internees fought relentlessly to prove they were, well, American. Kiyo's older brother, along with many other Japanese-Americans, joined the Army. He wound up in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a primarily Japanese-American unit that became the most decorated unit in American military history. Twenty-one members of the unit won the Medal of Honor, which ... holy shit. There's actually not much else to say about that.

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUS Army
Yes, these guys were fighting and dying in France while their families were locked in camps for being untrustworthy.

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By the end, Kiyo and five of her brothers wound up serving in the American military. She was able to get out of the camp and into a job by filling out "this crazy questionnaire." The questionnaire she's talking about was the "Statement Of U.S. Citizenship Of Japanese-American Ancestry." Two questions on it in particular were designed to catch disloyal citizens in a trap:

Question #27:
Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?

Question #28:
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorNational Archives
"Do you pinkie swear to not not unswear all non-allegiance to Satan?"

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Here's what's tricky about that: Half or more of the interned population were in their 40s, 50s, or older. So simply saying, "No, I'm not really willing to serve in combat duty" would've marked them out as disloyal citizens, in spite of the fact that no one expects fucking 50-year-olds to sign up for combat duty. Because of those questions, Kiyo recalls that -- despite their children actively serving in the armed forces -- many Japanese-American parents were not allowed to become citizens. "It split up families," she says.

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1
The Fight Didn't End With The War

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorAmerican Society of Landscape Architects

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Kiyo maintained her citizenship, served during the war, and went on to live about the most American life any of us could hope to live. She became a nurse, worked hard, and lived to see the day when President Clinton finally officially apologized for the whole "interning American citizens" thing.

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorWhite House
Signed by his assistant, Riu Ciufou.

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So that's nice. Then, four years ago, the Smithsonian contacted Kiyo with some news: "They put us, my daughter and I, into this sterile cubicle and gave us white gloves and then brought in this tray of documents." These documents turned out to be letters that Kiyo, her brothers, and other children from Poston had written to their favorite teacher, Mrs. Cox. It was only then that she'd learned that "the military intelligence officer had come all the way [to her school] and confiscated 50 letters that her students had written her from camp." You know, to make sure they didn't involve ... secret codes, or something?

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Well, that's a bit soul-crushing. But it gets worse, starting with this awful son of a bitch:

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorUS Army
Feel free to give him a salute. The one-fingered kind.

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That's General John DeWitt, the guy from before who thought Japanese people were like a stealth Voltron waiting to assemble and destroy America. He wrote a book in 1942 arguing that locking up all the Japanese people they could find had been a swell idea. Kiyo came across this book recently, and against every human instinct of self-preservation, she read it:

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"It told of what a great job he had done. It was a 'humane and compassionate work.' And so I read his descriptions, of having modern facilities and medical clinics, for heaven's sakes, and doctors and nurses on the trains heading to the camps. ... All I saw were two guards on either side of my coach standing attention with bayonets."

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This book, an official government report on the "evacuation" of Japanese citizens from the West Coast, is so unbelievably racist that 1940s American military officers ordered every copy of it burned. A few copies survived, obviously, and Kiyo wound up with one. Since she's not a fan of burning books, she kept it, and even wrote an Amazon review (here):

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorAmazon

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You'll note the only other review gave the book a high score, because it's praising the internment. Yeah, that sentiment has come back in a big way, for a specific reason. For example, you have pundits like Michelle Malkin, who has made defending internment something of a terrible personal crusade.

Why Modern America Scares Me: By An Internment Camp SurvivorRegnery Publishing
And a very profitable one.

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Note the subtitle: "The Case For 'Racial Profiling' In World War II And The War On Terror." Emphasis ours, because those last five words are the key -- many defenders of Japanese internment are using it as a platform to suggest we do something similar with Muslims. None of this stuff, including the "ban Muslim immigration" talk from Donald Trump, has escaped Kiyo's notice. "[General DeWitt] said, 'Once a Jap, always a Jap,' and the whole country listened to him, even Roosevelt ... [and] 120,000 of us were put away. And it's the same thing rearing its ugly head, as far as I'm concerned. And I would have thought that by now I would not have even had to think about it, but here I am, 93 years old and having to worry about it."

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It would be interesting if we could zap ourselves 50 years into the future and see how the internment of the Japanese is written about. To see if the revisionists were eventually successful in rewriting it as a necessary, even humane, measure that for all we know saved a bunch of lives. They're a minority now, sure, but before long all of the survivors like Kiyo will be gone, and maybe the lessons we learned will go with them. And the impulse to exclude, lock up, or kill an entire category of people "just in case"? That shit isn't going anywhere.

Kiyo Sato has written a wonderful book about her experiences, and you can find it here. Robert Evans also has a book coming out, about how sex, drugs and rock-n'roll built civilization. You can buy A Brief History of Vice now!

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