Articles and Features

Japanese Americans silent no more, talk about internment

Japanese American Lillia Uri Matsuda (née Satow) was interned when she was a nursing student at Seattle University (SU) in 1942.

“They told us we had to go, we said yes, and we went,” she said. “We were raised to obey. All we heard was, ‘Obey your country! Be loyal citizens! Go to camp!’ And the camp was called Camp Harmony.”

Camp Harmony was the name commonly associated with the Puyallup Assembly Center, where Japanese Americans were first detained in 1942.

“The irony of that name,” Yosh Nakagawa said with a grimace.

Remembering a wrong

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Japanese to be relocated. This forever changed the lives of the Nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans.

“There was a soldier up there with a machine gun pointed at us, and I thought, this isn’t Camp Harmony. It’s a prison,” said Matsuda. “We were put into stalls, where they used to train horses — you can imagine the smell.”

On May 17, SU held a program entitled “Honoring Courage,” where Japanese American survivors of internment camps and their relatives shared their stories.

Among those students were John Edward Fujiwara, Ben Kayji Hara, Shigeko Hirai (née Iseri), Madeleine Uyehara (née Iwata), Colette Yoshiko Kawaguchi, Masuko Caroline Taniguchi  (née Kondo), June Sakaguchi  (née Koto), Joanne Misako Watanabe (née Oyabe), Dr. May Hornback (née Shiga), Mitsu Shoyama, Thomas Tamotsu Yamauchi, and Matsuda.

Nakagawa, who works for SU, was just a child when he was taken to the internment camp. “On March 30, 1942, the first group of Japanese Americans to be removed and incarcerated came from Bainbridge Island,” he said. “They were sent to a destination unknown to them. They were to bring with them what they could carry and what they could wear. Then, on April 24, 1942, in this neighborhood and on these telephone poles, went up an edict that pertained to the Japanese Americans of Executive Order 9066 [that] in about four or five days, they were able to start gathering families to be moved to the fairgrounds of Puyallup.”

Nakagawa grew up on what is now a part of the Seattle University campus. His parents owned a small grocery store on 11th and James Street before they were taken to the Puyallup Assembly Center. “We were then moved in the summer and early fall, taking a train to a remote area that we did not know about in southern Idaho,” said Nakagawa. “We were told, as we boarded the train, to draw the shades for they did not want us to know where we were going. We disembarked in the middle of the desert — not a train station.

“Though I was never told by my parents or by others, I am certain that in their minds, they thought they were going to be killed in the desert. We saw military trucks and buses coming to take us to the place called Minidoka. Their fear must have been great, but my parents never let us know and, to this day, I have never had the privilege of a mother or father talk about their experience. They lived and kept it within themselves. Culturally, I guess that was correct for them.”

Karen Korematsu, daughter of the late Fred Korematsu, also expressed a similar frustration. She found out about her father’s internment in high school — accidentally. Her brother Ken found out the same way four years later. Their parents had not thought to tell them. “You didn’t ask,” they said.

Because he was so young and largely sheltered from knowing the entirety of what was happening to them, Nakagawa said that his experience was likely very different from the older generation. He regrets that he couldn’t properly thank his parents for their sacrifice in protecting him from the burden of their fear and suffering, stating that by the time he realized this, “it was too late.”

Fred Korematsu

In the landmark case of Korematsu vs. United States, Fred Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, but the Supreme Court sided with the government, ruling that the order was constitutional.

Almost 40 years later, Korematsu’s felony conviction for evading internment was overturned and voided. However, the Supreme Court case precedent is still in effect, as its decision has not been overturned.

During the SU program, Karen Korematsu introduced “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights,” a documentary about her father co-produced by her brother Ken and filmmaker Eric Fournier, saying, “He felt that what he did was right and the government was wrong. … He knew that he had rights — he had learned about the constitution in high school.”

As the film screened, Karen Korematsu squeezed the hand of Professor Lorraine Bannai, one of the lawyers who had worked pro bono on her father’s case in 1983. Bannai is an associate director for SU’s School of Law, which is named after Fred Korematsu. Bannai was instrumental in the university’s program to award honorary degrees to its incarcerated Nisei students.

Making waves

“Growing up, kids called me a Jap and blamed me for Pearl Harbor,” said Korematsu. “It was something we always carried with us.” Her father was often refused service in restaurants.

Not only was her father treated like a pariah in the 1940s for evading internment and fighting for his rights in court, but the ill-feelings followed him when he appealed his case in 1983. “Everyone questioned him. ‘Why do you want to bring all that up again?’ ” said Karen Korematsu.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her father with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

“People were saying, ‘Fred doesn’t deserve this. It should be someone else.’ But he didn’t hold a grudge — he just sort of carried on.”

Karen Korematsu thinks that the Japanese American community then did not support her father partly because of jealousy and partly because he did not adhere to their cultural values. “There were those higher up in the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) that thought they deserved to get the award. [My father] never became a member. They didn’t support him. … He believed [internment] was unconstitutional, pure and simple. He didn’t follow the sheep, and there were those that thought that wasn’t a good reason to be honored.”

“It’s a part of Japanese culture,” she said, “to do the right thing and not to make waves — it’s ingrained in you growing up.”

Echoes of the past

“History tends to allow you to take time to see what really happened. I often wondered as I worked with the German and Italian American community, why they did not have the experience of incarceration,” said Nakagawa, skeptical of whether internment was really a military necessity.

Like Nakagawa, Fred Korematsu stressed the importance of education in continuing the legacy of those who were incarcerated. “He realized that in order for incarceration not to happen again, education was the key. He looked to his attorneys, like we do the students here, to safeguard our civil liberties,” said Karen Korematsu, drawing parallels between the Japanese American incarceration and 9/11, where military necessity was also used to justify racial discrimination and racial profiling.

“Then we used words like alien and non-alien. Now, it’s documented and undocumented,” she said.

Dale Watanabe, an international student adviser at Seattle University and the emcee for the program, pointed out, “Special registration is still required for Muslim students.”

Moving forward

During this year’s commencement on June 12, SU will award honorary degrees (nine posthumously) to 12 students who were unable to complete their studies.

Matsuda, with her husband, who was also interned and subsequently served as a soldier in France and Italy, sitting quietly by her side, said, “I speak for the other people, too, how grateful we all are for this honor. I’m very happy and I’m sure they are happy in their own way, but please pray for us sometimes.”

Karen Korematsu urged students to continue her father’s legacy by getting involved in supporting the Asian American community and sharing their stories. “You have the opportunity to learn from history, so you have ammunition to face tomorrow,” she said. “As my father would say, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up! Prejudice is ignorance, and we need to appreciate our differences, not be afraid of them. We all have that ability, responsibility, and privilege to challenge the government.’ ”  ♦

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Jean Wong can be reached at


About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.


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