Growing up in Chicago, Anna Takada’s father prevented her from asking her grandfather about his experience in internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Takada said her father had been punished when he was young for asking about the sensitive topic, which created a generational silence.
But when she was 10 or 11 years old, Takada’s grandfather shared that he was interned at a camp in Arcadia, California, and then moved to the Granada War Relocation Center in Colorado.
Today, Japanese-Americans in Chicago such as Takada are working on an ambitious project, with funding from the federal government, to preserve their community’s history so that events such as the internment camps aren’t forgotten.
“The more I learn about the roots of the community and how there was such a push by the government for Japanese-Americans to assimilate, the more I realize part of my own experiences stem from that,” Takada said.
Takada and others are collecting and digitizing the oral histories of local Japanese Americans’ pre- and post-World War II experiences and their migration to Chicago. They’re doing the work with a $252,000 grant from the National Park Service to the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC) and the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.
The project will digitize oral histories that were recorded in the 1970s on VHS tapes, reel-to-reel audio, and cassette tapes. The recordings are on 24,000 feet of tape, according to JASC.
Project workers also will record new oral histories with Japanese-Americans in Chicago. The goal is to create two multimedia online exhibits and a curriculum for schools in the Chicago area.
Kioto Aoki is digitizing the older tapes and she thinks it’s important to archive those mediums because they have disappeared or have become outdated.
“It’s a kind of different thinking process and working process,” Aoki said. “It’s slowing down and actually thinking about how you want to make these works.”
Japanese-Americans began settling in Chicago during the 1890s, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The city’s Japanese-American population jumped from roughly 300 during the 1920s to almost 20,000 after World War II. Today, it’s about 24,000 people, according to the Pew Research Center.
JASC and the historical society want to highlight the lingering impact the internment camps had on Japanese American families who settled in Chicago.
Jean Mishima, who lived in an Arizona internment camp when she was a little girl, is creating the curriculum on the camps for middle schools and high schools in the Chicago area. Mishima said she didn’t understand that she was living in an internment camp at the time, when she was 6 years old.
“I have some memories of the camp, but I didn’t realize I was incarcerated until I was an adult because my family never talked about it,” Mishima recalled.
The U.S. government relocated Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast because of what it called “wartime necessity” after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Japanese people had to leave their homes and lives behind and move to makeshift camps.
Mishima’s family left California for a camp in the Arizona desert and, after the war, moved to Chicago. She said some Japanese-Americans kept quiet about their time at internment camps, not even discussing it with family members.
“They didn’t talk about it to the children because they were ashamed,” Mishima said. “Although they didn’t do anything wrong, they were arrested and incarcerated.”
The ‘break up’ of Japanese-American families
People held in the camps that proved their loyalty to the U.S. and had a sponsor were able to leave camps if they were willing to move to the Midwest or East Coast. That’s how some Japanese-Americans came to Chicago.
Mishima recalled seeing advertisements welcoming Japanese families to the city.
“The idea behind this was basically to try to break up the Japanese-American communities along the West Coast. And to … ‘assimilate’ them into American society,” Takada said.
In some ways the government’s plan worked.
When Mishima’s mom moved to Chicago and opened a cleaning store, she had to improve her fluency in English, something she hadn’t done in California. The need to assimilate in the Windy City caused the family to stop speaking Japanese.
“They didn’t have time to dwell on what happened. They just had to concentrate on survival,” Mishima said.
JASC was founded in 1946 to help Japanese-Americans resettle in Chicago after the war. The historical society was founded in 1992 to preserve the history of the Japanese-American community in the city.
Takada believes the history of Japanese-Americans’ internment has been ignored.
“It’s about dynamics of power and oppression. Whoever is kind of writing the history can control it,” Takada said. “I think in a lot of ways, it was a strategic move by the government. They were fighting fascism abroad; they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that a lot of these things were happening within the U.S. as well.”
Ryan Yokota, director of the Development and Legacy Center at JASC, said he hopes the archives project will empower all Americans to recognize and disrupt discrimination against any ethnic group.
“I think our story is the story of America,” he said. “In terms of difficulties that immigrants face coming to the U.S., the challenges that people endure in the face of systematic racism, and also the kinds of challenges people face when they are targeted and perceived as being enemy aliens.”