Category Archives: Japanese Internment

Japanese Internment: Thomas Shoji Takemura and Camp Harmony

Interview and Project By Susan Stout; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“You know you tell people we were interned, we were in a concentration camp…they really don’t know until you get behind that barbed wire fence and you’re enclosed and you can’t get out…they take that freedom from you.” — Thomas Shoji Takemura.

Thomas Shoji Takemura was born in Fife, Washington in 1920. He was a Nisei, a first generation Japanese born in the United States.

In 1942, at the age of 22, Takemura was interned at the Puyallup Assembly Center, also known as Camp Harmony.

Japanese-Americans registering at Camp Harmony. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries.

In this oral history interview, Takemura explains how, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were labeled enemy aliens, unfit for military service.

“I was reclassified by the Draft Board from I-A to 4-C, enemy alien unfit for military service. That shocked me more than anything because after all you know you’re taught throughout grade school and high school that the United States Constitution was there for you to be protected by it and if you were born and raised here, you’re a citizen of the United States. And then you are informed that you are an enemy alien unfit for military service. Alien is a person without citizenship of this country. So  my rights were taken away.”

Takemura describes the difficult living and working conditions of Camp Harmony. At the camp, he explained, there was little to no furniture for families to live with and most people slept on the floor or a straw pile with a mattress cover.  What internees could bring with them to the camps was limited as well.

“What we could bring was whatever you could carry. That was the instructions given to those of us who were being interned. So if you were lucky to carry enough blankets, you had enough blankets; but you had to use that blanket as a partition from the other family. So these were the burden of difficulty that we had to face.”

Takemura eventually obtained a release to work at a U & I factory processing sugar beets in Chinook, Montana.

About a year after Japanese interment,  the U.S. military decided to allow Japanese Americans to serve in the military. Having been drafted by the army, Takemura served in WWII.

Later in his life, Takemura worked for New York Life Insurance Company and became an active community volunteer. He volunteered at local schools to inform students about his internment and the Japanese experience during and after World War II.

Takemura was awarded the JACL Sapphire Service Award and The Henry Ohye Flying Race and Riverside PTA Golden Acorn Award.

He died at the age of 77 in Tacoma.

View the complete oral history project: Oral history interview with Thomas Shoji Takemura by Susan Stout.

Nihongo Gakko: Tacoma’s Japanese Language School

Interviews and Project By Brenda Sonnier; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“It was through the Japanese Language School that we learned how to respect our parents, our elders, and how to behave in public … but [our principal] always stressed our allegiance is supposed to be American.”  Yoshiko Sugiyama, former Japanese Language School student.

A group of students and faculty outside the Tacoma Japanese Language School, May 22, 1927. Photo from University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

In 1911, the Tacoma Japanese Association opened Nihongo Gakko, a Japanese Language School in Tacoma, Washington. Every weekday, after attending public school, Japanese-American students would attend Nihongo Gakko.

From left to right: sisters Yoshiko, Tadaye, and Kimi.

In this oral history project, UWT student Brenda Sonnier interviews former Japanese Language School students Sadako Hirose, Tadaye (Teddy) Kawasaki, and Teddy’s sisters Yoshiko Sugiyama and Kimi Tanbara.

Nihongo Gakko had nearly 300 students in attendance, including Sadako, Teddy’s, Yoshiko, and Kimi.

Students would attend Nihongo Gakko after public school every day to learn about Japanese culture, art, language, and history.

In their interview Sadako, Teddy, and her sisters, reflect on their time at the Japanese Language School and learning Japanese calligraphy, grammar, and gardening.

“In the summer we had a victory garden on the side of the building [and] every classroom had a garden” explained Teddy.

The sisters also discussed their principle Masato Yamasaki and his wife Kuni Yamasaki, who they remembered as being passionate and dedicated to teaching their students.

“They didn’t get much pay, but they enjoyed it!” Sadako said. “They were dedicated people,” Teddy added.

Additionally, Teddy and her sisters explain the changes they witnessed in Tacoma and Nihongo Gakko’s transition into the official registration location for Tacoma’s Japanese community and their relocation to internment camps in 1942.

Kimi explained that “they choose Japanese School mainly, not because of anything other than the fact that it was a good meeting place for the people…If it hadn’t been there it would have been the Church.”

Sadako, Teddy, Yoshiko, and Kimi were all initially sent to Pinedale Assembly Center, California, then later relocated to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming.

From left to right: Yoshiko, Sadako, and Tadaye.

Due to WWII and the internment of the Japanese community, Nihongo Gakko was closed and left abandoned.

In 1951, Teddy’s mother asked her to buy the school, so she did, explaining it was “for sentimental reasons.” The school was used mostly as storage.

Then, in 1993, Teddy sold the school to the University of Washington, Tacoma and due to excessive damage the building was demolished.

In order to commemorate and honor Nihongo Gakko and the Japanese community of Tacoma, UWT installed a Japanese Language School memorial sculpture and plaque along the Prairie Line Trail in 2014.

View the complete oral history Tacoma’s Nihon Go Gakko: Japanese Language School by Brenda Sonnier 

Why Internment? — Joseph Kosai and the Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II

Interview and Project By Arlene Mihara; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans.” — Joseph Kosai.

Joseph Kosai was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1934. He was a Nisei, a first generation Japanese born in the United States.

Just two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast. The executive order resulted in the relocation of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps across the United States.

Kosai, who was eight years old at the time, was transported with family members first, to an assembly center in Pinedale, California, then to Tule Lake, where Kosai’s extended family was dispersed and sent to different camps.

“As a child you don’t pay too much attention to the world or national events,” Kosai stated. “I do know that when the war started, my father worked in the sawmill. Also, he owned a hotel business, which my mother operated, here in Tacoma. Shortly after the war started, my father was taken by the FBI to Montana..It was May 10, 1942 when the posters went up. [Stating] the people from Tacoma had to leave [by] May 17 and May 18.”

Kosai, his mother, and younger sister were then sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, where they would remain until May 17, 1945. In total, Kosai and his family spent three years in American internment camps.

Kosai described the camps as small, cramped, and difficult. Many families were forced to share just one room with as many as 8 people. He also explained that the fences surrounding the camps are what made him feel like a prisoner.

“When you look at the fences in camp, if you want to keep someone out of your yard or some property, you’ll find that the fence goes up vertically but then at the top the barbed wire sticks out away from you to the outside. But in camp, it came in to keep us from going out.”

Residents of Block Seven, Minidoka Relocation Center, ID. 1943-1945. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The adjustment after internment was also difficult for Kosai and his family. His family had owned a hotel in Tacoma before the war, but due to the Alien Land Law his family lost the businesses while interned.

After the war Kosai’s family moved to Ontario, Oregon. Some Japanese-American citizens of were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in 1945, and the last camp closed in March 1946.

Kosai didn’t return to Washington State until he began college at the University of Washington, Seattle. After attending UW, Kosai served in the Army from 1956 to 1958, and completed his BS in Education with a major in mathematics at Eastern Oregon in 1959. During college, Kosai began to reflect on his time in internment camps and became actively involved in the civil rights movement. His desire to get involved grew after witnessing the segregation of blacks and whites in the South.

In 1964, Kosai became president of the Puyallup Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. As president, Kosai helped fight to repeal the Alien Land Law in the State of Washington — the law was finally repealed in 1966.

Kosai said that even after the war, Japanese-Americans faced constant racism and injustice.

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans. They still think that [because] we’re ethnically Japanese that we are citizens of Japan,” he continued.

Kosai went on to earn his Masters in Education in 1965 from the University of Puget Sound and began a teaching high school in Tacoma in 1959. He continued his career at Tacoma Community College in 1966, and after 23 years at TCC, retired in 1989.

Kosai received awards from the City of Tacoma, Municipal League of Tacoma, the Human Rights Commission, and the town of Takuma, Japan. He died in November of 2008 at the age of 74.

View the complete oral history project: Why Internment? The Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II by Arlene Mihara