Foundations for Writing

SCSU Site for English 191

Learning about Japanese American internment camps


I don’t usually post reflections in this blog; however, the St. Cloud Times’ article about the Smithsonian exhibit on Japanese Americans that I blogged about the other day got me to thinking about a personal memory—as has the continuing crisis at our southern border and the forced incarceration of immigrants.

When I was a freshman in high school, I needed to write a research paper and couldn’t come up with a topic. My history teacher suggested that I write about the Japanese internment camps populated after Pearl Harbor or about the Nisei (ethnic Japanese born in America to Japanese-born immigrants, Issei). I went home and asked my dad if he knew anything about this. He responded by going to get a book he owned that I’d never seen before—Yankee Samurai: The Secret Role of Nisei in America’s Pacific Victory—and showing me a picture of his best friend, Jerry (Jiro) Katayama, who was a decorated Nisei who served in Military Intelligence in Leyte (an island in the Phillipines) and Okinawa during World War II while his family was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in California. His family lost everything.

I knew Jerry really well: he played golf with my dad, ate dinner at our house often, and fell asleep on the couch watching TV with my dad. And I didn’t know anything about this aspect of his personal history or about the internment camps. It wasn’t in any of the history books. And although I don’t remember much about writing my paper, I remember that I was really angry when I wrote the paper and for some time after—not only angry that this had happened to Jerry and his family and in our country, but also angry that our history books didn’t talk at all about this. This is the first time I realized that history could be selective and that our country did things that were, to put it politely, wrong.

I do remember talking to my dad at that time about Jerry’s personal and military history. My dad was really proud of Jerry, who had given him the book and had, as a good friend, talked a lot about his experience. (My brother Bob also talked with Jerry about it after he finished his military service.) But I didn’t talk to Jerry about this: I was young and felt it was too private.

I have my own copy of the book with Jerry’s picture and have also found that Jerry (Jiro) is included in the Japanese American Service Committee (now JASC)’s Legacy Center Archives, where I found this picture and other images and documents about Jerry (

The group, located in Chicago, helped with resettling Japanese Americans after the war and has continued to preserve historical material from the Japanese American community in the area, making it available for research and educational activities. They also seek “to preserve and promote community heritage and common understanding of the Japanese American experience as an integral part of American history.”

Other groups and individuals clearly do this too; for instance, this history is the focus of the Smithsonian exhibit. As another example, George Takai talks a lot (on Twitter) about his family’s experience incarcerated in camps—in fact, has a recently published graphic novel about it—They Called Us Enemy—and also has responded frequently to current government actions on immigration, including that recent announcement that they planned to use a Japanese internment camp to house immigrants detained at the Mexican border. (This didn’t happen since the public uproar was really loud.) However, not everyone is so forthcoming about their own experiences. For instance, Roy Saigo, who was SCSU president from 2000-2007, wouldn’t talk about being incarcerated as a Japanese American when he was very young (5 or so). In fact, when I heard about this background, I was going to ask him about it and tell him about Jerry and was advised by several people in Administration not to do either.

I apologize for writing such a long posting. But last year I saw a map of relocation centers housing the immigrant children taken from their parents, and one of them is in Bartlett, IL, where my brother Jim lives. And a few weeks ago when my nephew moved from California to Texas with his wife and two children — all blondes, he reported that he was stopped in a long line by Homeland Security at the border between Southern California and Arizona and again at the border between Arizona and Texas. The ramifications of these government actions are more far reaching than is perhaps apparent.

In any case, I’d recommend going to see the Smithsonian exhibit at the Stearns History Museum if you can.

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