Earlier this year, Oregon joined the nation in marking the 75th anniversary of the executive order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that led to the forced incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
Here in Portland, Japanese Americans and their allies gathered on the waterfront on Feb. 19 for a Day of Remembrance to honor those who were imprisoned, including 4,000 from Oregon, and to condemn the wartime hysteria that led to the disruption of so many lives of innocent people at internment camps across the United States.
Recently, I was privileged to be part of a multi-generational conversation with friends that brought together a camp internee, the daughter of a camp architect, and a family of four that visited camps in two western states.
Nancy (Komatsubara) Stephenson was 3 years old when she and several family members were sent from their home in Alaska to Camp Minidoka in south-central Idaho. A retired schoolteacher now living in Northeast Portland, she is married to John Stephenson, who was 4 years old when his dad, a Navy sailor, was killed during the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Alice (Hardesty) Suter was 5 years old when her parents took her and her brother on a summer vacation to Cody, Wyoming. Decades later, she would learn that her dad was one of the architects who designed and supervised construction of barracks at the Heart Mountain internment camp just outside Cody in northwestern Wyoming. Alice, a retired audiologist and freelance writer, is my neighbor, just two doors away on our quiet NE Portland street..
Aki Mori and his young family were headed to Yellowstone last year when he noticed a highway exit sign for Minidoka. He and his wife Katie and their two daughters wound up visiting both Minidoka and Heart Mountain, on opposite sides of the famed national park. Aki is a high school vice principal and lives in Beaverton.
Alone among the group, I have no connection to the camps. But through a series of coincidences this year and last, I learned a lot about the camps through each and every one of the aforementioned friends and neighbors.
It dawned on me that everyone might enjoy meeting each other and sharing their experiences. And so it was that we gathered a week ago at a favorite coffee shop in my neighborhood.
In July 2016, Aki and Midori, then 12, both wrote movingly about their experiences visiting the two camps in Idaho and Wyoming. I published their essays on my blog during the annual Voices of August guest blog project.
In November 2016, my wife Lori and I were among a group of six, including Nancy and John, who went to see a play about the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Seattle college student who challenged the wartime curfew targeting Japanese Americans. Afterward, Nancy lent me “Surviving Minidoka,” a beautifully written and illustrated book examining the legacy of Japanese American incarceration, and I wrote a glowing review just before the year ended.
Then, early this year, I learned that Alice was working on a magazine article about Heart Mountain that told of the warm welcome she received at a 2016 pilgrimage to the camp’s WW II Interpretive Center, an annual event that encourages visitors to learn more about the so-called “relocation center.”
In the process, I discovered that Alice had also written an article on the Hirabayashi play for Oregon ArtsWatch, about a month before Nancy, John and I had seen it. In researching the piece, Alice had interviewed the playwright, Jeanne Sakata, whose father and grandfather and other relatives were sent to an Arizona camp.
As for myself, I knew broad outlines but few details of this dark chapter in our nation’s history. I knew, for instance, that Portland had served as a processing center for West Coast internees. But I was ashamed to learn that the campus of San Jose State University, my alma mater, also served the same purpose.
I also learned that some internees were sent to Lordsburg, New Mexico, a godforsaken place on the Arizona-N.M. border that I had passed through many times while driving east from Tucson to visit my father and stepmother. Turns out that Nancy’s father was initially sent to Lordsburg as a suspected spy and only later transferred to Minidoka to join his wife and three daughters.
Sunday’s conversation, in a sunlit room in a covered patio, could not have gone better.
Everything unfolded organically. People introduced themselves to each other and, with no prompting from me, soon began talking earnestly about their varied experiences. As each person shared a memory or an observation, everyone else listened. No interruptions. No testy exchanges. Just a respectful carving out of space for each person to have their say.
Alice grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She said she didn’t know about her father’s role in designing internee housing until she was in her mid-30s. They never discussed the subject.
Because of her father’s work, Alice said she was nervous about how she would be received by camp survivors and their families at the Heart Mountain pilgrimage. She was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming people were, adding that she is still in contact with friends she made there.
Nancy grew up in Petersburg, a small fishing village near Juneau. When her father was arrested, authorities rounded up Nancy’s mom and her siblings and put them in the local jail because they had nowhere else for them. Imagine spending the night in jail when you’re 3 years old.
Nancy brought along a camp yearbook for us to see, but said she doesn’t have vivid memories of Minidoka. Flipping through the pages of photos and activities, my heart broke a little at the thought of immigrant and U.S.-born adults alike trying to convey a sense of normalcy during their captivity.
Midori asked Nancy if she was angry all these years later.
No, she replied.
“What I am really sad about is that I never talked to my parents at length about what happened,” Nancy said. ” I remember things like playing but not about guards with rifles at the gates or things like that. We were just little kids. We were too young to remember. I don’t feel real anger, just sorrow.”
Aki is from the Midwest. I met him several years ago when he submitted an op-ed piece to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section. I noticed in his bio that he had taught in the same school district in Union City, the working-class suburb where I grew up across the bay from San Francisco.
His wife Katie has a Union City connection, too. When she and her mother and sister immigrated from Taiwan, Katie was a 9th grade ESL student at James Logan High School, the same school that I would have attended had we had not moved to adjoining Fremont. Katie adapted quickly, went on to get a degree in biochemistry and worked for a tech company before becoming a stay-at-home mom.
Their children exhibited poise, manners and distinctly different personalities during our meet-up.
Midori, 13, is in the 8th grade. The more outgoing of the pair, Midori loves judo, plays the piano, and recently wrote about transitioning from female to male. (“What it means to have Pride.”)
Ayumi, 10, is in the 5th grade. She plays the violin, loves figure skating and, like her sibling, is a precocious writer.
Both said they appreciated the opportunity to learn about life in the internment camps with their parents. Midori, in particular, is interested broadly in World War II.
“I learned about (the camps) through my dad,” Midori said. “The least I can do is respect those who came before us.”
We broke off after 90 minutes, feeling as though we’d just scratched the surface and vowing to meet again. What a wonderful way it was to spend part of an afternoon with such gracious people all around the table, ages 10 to 80-ish.
Nancy wrote to thank me for bringing everyone together.
“I know John agrees with me in saying that it was a very enjoyable and heartwarming experience to talk with everyone. It was a privilege to meet such kind, thoughtful and intelligent young people as Midori and Ayumi. They have such a bright future ahead of them.”