On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the relocation and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans. Two-thirds were citizens of the United States — children of Japanese immigrants who had been denied U.S. citizenship by a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Those who were imprisoned were eventually released after U.S. Major General Henry C. Pratt issued Public Proclamation No. 21, which declared that Japanese-American “evacuees” from the West Coast could return to their homes.
Skokie resident Jean Mishima was 6 years old when she was sent to an internment camp in Gila River, Arizona. She spent more than two years there with her entire family, and they all lived in a room that was 24 feet by 24 feet.
Mishima is now a co-organizer of Chicago’s Day of Remembrance. She spoke with Worldview host Jerome McDonnell and contributor Nari Safavi about her family’s experience.
Jerome McDonnell: You were a young woman when this happened. What was that like?
Jean Mishima: When President (Franklin) Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the FBI immediately started rounding up all your community leaders and searched homes for contrabands. President Roosevelt was persuaded that it was a military necessity to exclude all the Japanese-Americans off the Western part of California, Oregon and Washington state and certain parts of Arizona.
General (John) DeWitt, who was the Western commander, issued over 100 proclamations district by district, telling people where to report. They could only take what they can carry, so the government commandeered convention centers, fairgrounds, even race tracks to house these people. There were about 16 assembly centers with barbed wire fences around them, a watch tower with guards with guns pointed inwards.
McDonnell: That’s an amazing thing. Some of the people were not citizens of the U.S. There were many discriminatory laws against Asian-Americans before World War II.
Mishima: The Japanese could not become a naturalized American citizen until 1952. As the more permanent camps were established under the War Relocation Authorities, the 10 camps within the U.S., the internees were transferred there either by bus, trucks or trains, and my entire family and I were interned at Gila River.
Both of my parents were born in California and I’m the third generation. At Gila River, there were two camps in Arizona — Poston and Gila River. They were both on Indian reservations, so it was very hot, dusty. All these camps had barbed wire fences with watch tower with guns pointed inwards.
The one thing I remembered about the camp (when) I was 6 years old — rattlesnakes. I don’t know if it was the first day, but I remember standing on the ditch and this group of people were standing around and there was a rattlesnake. There were a lot of rattlesnakes, scorpions and Gila monsters.
There was absolutely no privacy. I remember the bathhouse. While the camps were built like army camps, each block had about 14 barracks, with a mess hall on one end and a recreation center in the other, and in the middle you had the women and men’s latrine and the laundry room. The only part you had water was at the mess hall or in the laundry room or latrine.
And the barracks were divided up proportionally. The five of us, we were assigned a room 24 by 24 with a potbelly stove. In the shower facilities, there was one big room with the shower heads taken out from the wall. My mother had my brother, my sister and I in this middle tub, and as I looked up around the room, I saw all these bare bottoms, because the ladies were all facing the wall for some sense of modesty. And in the mess hall, your family structure broke down because three meals a day you had to wait in line, and you know how kids are. The teenagers will go off and eat with their friends.
My father lost his self-respect and self-worth. He was a farmer. He was no longer the head of the household, and he did work as a cook in our mess hall in our block, and I think he earned about $19 a month. But my mother came out — we could move east if we found a sponsor — so my mother left camp around 1944. We were interned there around 1942. She came to Chicago, found an apartment at 55th and Blackstone, went back to camp and got the rest of us. This is her story.
So as I said, my father lost his self-respect and his self-worth. He did get a job at International Harvester but eventually he started drinking and gambling, so my mother actually divorced him and he went back to California. So now she raised the three children by herself.
Nari Safavi: I’m wondering, a person who has had the life experiences that you have had, what do you think about the predicament that we are in right now and the discourse that we are dealing with right now?
Mishima: To me it’s very very frightening. I think it’s very important to learn about history so we don’t repeat the negative parts, like the internment camps. Like after 9/11 there was this hysteria like with the Japanese, the Commission on the (Wartime) Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the report found that it was not a military necessity, but it was from war hysteria and race prejudice and poor political leadership.
And so the hysteria of 9/11 again was this “round up all your Muslims and put in some place,” and the Japanese American Citizens League said you can’t do that because you’re repeating history. So it’s very important to know our history and to make sure the negative part is not repeated again and to move forward.
There are a series of events taking place in Chicago this weekend to mark this moment in history.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.