The Pioneers Who Came East

WINNER: 1983 Unity Award in Media for Public Affairs / Social Issues Reporting

IN WORLD WAR II, JAPANESE AMERICANS FROM THE WEST COAST WERE INTERNED IN 10 ISOLATED CAMPS.  SOME WERE ALLOWED TO LEAVE—IF THEY FOUND JOBS IN A COMMUNITY THAT WOULD ACCEPT THEM.  FOR MANY, CHICAGO WAS THE DESTINATION

By Delia O’Hara / Chicago Magazine

In May 1943, the provost at the University of California at Berkeley received a letter from a former student who had moved to Chicago.  “I still can’t get used to the dirtiness, smoke, soot in this city,” he wrote, “but it sure is good to be free again.”

The student was a young American citizen of Japanese descent who had spent more than two years in a desolate internment camp because his government had determined that he and 112,000 other Japanese aliens and citizens were a threat to the security of the nation on the Pacific Coast during World War II.

Chicago was one of the first areas to accept Japanese Americans after the U.S. government decided in 1942 that those interned could leave the camps if they found employment away from the West Coast.  There were jobs in Chicago and, although the new arrivals encountered some discrimination here, it was mild compared to what they had seen on the West Coast before the war and elsewhere during internment.  Chicago’s Japanese-American population swelled from fewer than 400 in 1940 to more than 15,000 in 1946.  Many went back when the Pacific Coast states opened up to them again, however, and today’s 8,000 Japanese Americans represent a small minority in a city with huge ethnic concentrations.  There is no part of town they are really identified with—Edgewater on the North Side comes as close as any.  Statistically, they are better educated, have higher incomes and commit fewer crimes than many other groups in Chicago.

Those first settlers who came here in the mid-1940s with $25 in government relocation money are nearing retirement age now.  For the most part, they recovered from—indeed, triumphed over—the calamity of their imprisonment.  However, they will hasten to say that not all of them have done well financially, that all of their losses will never be totaled, and that the hardships and tragedies worked by the internment will never be fully recounted.

 *

In February 1942, about two months after the Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which directed the relocation of all Japanese Americans from the three West Coast states.  At that time, 90 percent of the country’s Japanese-descended population lived in those states, and 60 percent of them were American citizens.  Although enemy aliens had been interned in previous wars, Roosevelt’s order set in motion an unprecedented action against American citizens whose ancestry linked them to an enemy.  The internment was the last major episode in some 50 years of anti-Asian activity undertaken on a national scale by West Coast special-interest groups and Congressional delegations—activity that had led to prohibiting Asians from becoming naturalized citizens or from owning land, and to the limitation of immigration from Asian countries.

 The Issei, literally “the first generation,” Japanese immigrants, had an average age of 55 in 1941; their children, the Nisei, “the second generation,” averaged 20 years.

Earl Warren, then attorney general of California, later the liberal chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, favored the internment and warned darkly that the reason there had been no sabotage in California in the two months since Pearl Harbor was that the Japanese Americans were saving their perfidy for a more critical time.  (There never was any act of sabotage proved against a Japanese American during the course of the war.)  Warren also voiced a sentiment popular on the West Coast when he argued for the removal of the Nisei along with their parents because they were of military age and therefore more likely to take up arms for Japan.

There was little opposition to relocation.  The American Friends (the Quakers), the Socialist Party, a few other groups and one city official—the mayor of Tacoma—spoke out against the establishment of the camps, to no avail.

The Japanese community was then in chaos.  All of its male leaders had been taken away by the FBI in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor—kendo teachers, church pastors, language teachers, officers in organizations.  A curfew was instituted that made it difficult and in some cases impossible to conduct business; certain areas were declared off-limits to Japanese.

Then, in March, the relocation began.  Since the camps were not yet ready, the dispirited internees were first taken to “assembly centers” which all had been used to house animals—the Santa Anita racetrack, for example, outside Los Angeles, and the Pacific International Live Stock facility in Portland.

The ten camps were in the most isolated and forlorn parts of the country.  The internees lived in wooden barracks with tarpaper covering that had been partitioned into spaces perhaps 20 feet square, one per family.  Where heat was needed, potbelly stoves provided it.  Private conversations were impossible.  There was no furniture provided except beds, and internees stuffed their own mattresses with straw.  Eating and bathing facilities were in common.  Outside the barbed-wire compounds, tanks and armed guards patrolled.

Mitsuko Tokimoto, now of Chicago, spent more than a year in the Poston, Arizona, camp.  “There were three camps, really,” she says.  “We called them Poston, Roast ‘em and Toast ‘em.  The whole place was infested with scorpions and sidewinders.  Every morning, first thing, we’d smack the heels of our shoes to knock out what was in there.  Sometimes in the mess hall little whirlwinds—little dust devils—came up between the floorboards and covered everything, the food included.”

Internees could work, and all incidentals beyond food came out of their salaries.  Tokimoto made $10 a month weaving camouflage nets for the war effort—“green and gold for the jungle, orange and gold for the desert”—and later, $16 a month as a secretary.

One of the imperatives in the public outcry for internment was that the Japanese Americans not be “coddled.”  When the Japanese military seemed to gain ground in the Pacific, or when Japanese atrocities were reported, the press and the mail to Congress cried out for harsh measures against the internees.  The perception that most of them were American citizens seemed to be wholly missing.

*

Late in 1942, young Nisei men, who had been barred from military service, were given the opportunity to enlist.  Many did so, joining Japanese Americans from Hawaii in two racially segregated infantry units.  One of them, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, received more military decorations that any other outfit in the war.

A few months later, other internees began leaving the camps for good, too, but not to serve in the military.  Certain conditions had to be met:  They had to have a job promised them; they had to keep the government informed of changes in address; there had to be a reasonable chance that the community they were moving to would accept them.

Henry Ushijima, now of Park Ridge, was permitted by the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency that operated the camps, to leave his camp and come to Chicago to search out jobs for internees.

Ushijima went to a number of the mail-order catalogue houses, including A.C. McClurg Co., where he met with the personnel manager.  Ushijima recalls: “He said, ‘You speak pretty good English.  You don’t even have an accent.’  I said, ‘Thank you very much. I’ve been here all my life.”  He asked me if Japanese Americans would be trustworthy, and I told him that if he’d just take the chance, he wouldn’t be sorry.”

What Ushijima didn’t know was that McClurg and other companies in Chicago were losing workers to the draft so quickly that they were desperate for help.  With a commitment for jobs in hand, he went back to organize the first contingent of 21 men and their families.  After two or three weeks, the personnel manager at McClurg told Ushijima, “Those people you sent me are terrific.  Send 50 more!”

Ultimately, Ushijima’s family and four other relatives settled in Park Ridge.  Their landlady was happy to rent an apartment to them, but the neighbors circulated petitions to have them evicted.  The Park Ridge city attorney came to their home one Saturday morning to show them the petitions.  Then, as Ushijima watched, he ripped them up and threw them into the wastebasket.  “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” the attorney said with disgust.

Bill Hohri of Chicago, a computer programmer, left camp soon after he graduated from high school and joined his brother, who was at Wheaton College.  For the first several years, he says, it was very difficult to find housing:  “There was a lot of discrimination—there still is, although certainly not as bad.  We could live on the South Side—Oakland, Kenwood, Hyde Park—and in parts of Lincoln Park and the Near North Side.  You had to be very systematic to find a place, and then it was usually substandard.  People doubled up, tripled up—I knew a family that slept in shifts!”

Harold Flitcraft’s family, which had been Quaker for generations, were well established in Oak Park.  Still, their wartime status as conscientious objectors had strained their relations with their neighbors, and things got worse when his parents took in a Japanese-American family.  “People didn’t distinguish between American-born and Japanese-born,” Flitcraft said.  “Getting jobs was very difficult, too.  The man who stayed with my parents was a chemist, but he couldn’t get any closer to that than working as a drugstore clerk.”

Mitusko Tokimoto thought she had solved both her job and housing requirements by taking a job as a maid.  “I was working for a family up on Hollywood, which was out in the sticks at the time, and very exclusive.  Another girl from the camps worked for a wonderful family across the street.  They had a dishwasher because the husband had started out washing dishes and he said none of his help would ever have to do that.  He was a furrier, and for Christmas he gave her a beaver coat.  I, on the other hand, had to work from 5 a.m. until midnight, with every other Sunday off, and my family took all my ration stamps so I couldn’t buy any extra food.  I worked for them for two months; then I said, Enough of being an indentured servant.”

*

For the young people coming out of the camps, it was important but often difficult to meet other Nisei.  By 1945 the fact that Chicago was a good place to meet Nisei of the opposite sex drew nearly as many people here as did the good job market.

Tokimoto, who now works for The Milwaukee Road, says, “Whenever we saw someone Japanese, we’d say, ‘Hello, Hello, what camp are you from?’  After a while, we had a group we went around with.  My late husband and I met through that group.”

Some Nisei were able to go to college well before the war was over, but any schools that had war contracts with the government were closed to them.  One young Nisei, a doctoral candidate in physics at Berkeley who tried to transfer to the University of Chicago in 1942, was turned down in spite of a fistful of prestigious recommendations because she would be working in the very department that was consumed with the Manhattan Project, which led to the first atom bomb.  The military authorities barred even humanities students from these campuses.  Richard McKeon, who was dean of the humanities division of the University of Chicago at the time, recalls: “None of the deans could see any need for excluding Japanese American—even the dean of the physical science department—but the army insisted on it.”

The discrimination did not evaporate with the signing of the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri in September of 1945.  Bill Hohri remembers that for Japanese Americans it was a long time before a college degree could be expected to lead to a good job.  “When I graduated from the U. of C., I would up taking a clerical job with a company that hired Japanese Americans.  That was the way it worked,” he says.

Hohri credits the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 for going a long way to change that situation.  “I was working for the American Hospital Association at the time, and suddenly I was appointed director of the data processing division.  They needed people of color and I was not white.  I was qualified,” he said, “but I was stunned.”

One Nisei notes that his generation in Chicago has demonstrated a strong entrepreneurial bent.  “The early discrimination made any real career advance in a company so hard,” he says, “that it was easier for many of us just to go out and make our own opportunities.”

Many of the Nisei who remain in Chicago will say that the ill wind of internment had a bit of good in it, in that it blew them here.  “We’ve had a chance to find out that there was more to this country than the narrow world we knew on the West Coast,” says Noboru Honda of Lincolnwood.

They tend to agree that the biggest problem Japanese Americans have as a group is the same one they had 40 years ago.  Says Chiye Tomihiro of Chicago, “We are identified with our ancestral country in a way that just baffles us.  When the redress for internees was being discussed in the press earlier this year, I kept reading letters to the editor saying, ‘Isn’t it enough that their auto imports have wrecked our economy?’ What do auto imports have to do with us?”

The Nisei are convinced that the more Americans know about what happened to them during World War II, the better off everyone will be.  To that end, Sam Ozaki served on the Chicago Board of Education steering committee that put together the “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” study guide used by high-school teachers who want their students to know more about the internment than the three paragraphs that typically show up in history books.

Japanese Americans have been closely schooled in the terrible lesson that vigilance is the price of freedom.  Still, Tomihiro says, “it’s hard to keep people organized and cohesive.  They get comfortable, and then they forget.”

In any case, says Noboru Honda, “Chicagoans don’t have to rely on any West Coast  Congressmen for their opinion of Japanese Americans anymore.  They know us firsthand now.  They can make up their own minds about us.”

The internment had a profound effect on the lives of many Japanese Americans who now live in Chicago.  Here are some of their stories.

 

Thomas Masuda

Thomas Masuda was a 36-year-old lawyer in Seattle when the war broke out, and one of his clients happened to be the government of Japan.  Masuda was arrested on Dec. 7, 1941, and held in the county jail for 5 ½ months as an unregistered enemy alien.  But Masuda was an American citizen.  He had not registered as an agent of a foreign government, as required by federal law, because he had a paper from the U.S. State Dept. that exempted him from such registration.

Nonetheless, Masuda’s case was tried.  He was acquitted by a jury, and he and his wife, Kay, went to the Poston camp in Arizona.  For more than a year, Masuda worked on the camp’s legal staff, earning a salary of $19 a month, the maximum an internee could earn, helping others in the camp try to sort out the legal affairs they had been forced to leave in disarray.

Many of the internees had entrusted their property to Caucasian friends and associates, and their experiences were diverse.  Some returned to find everything intact; others found that their “friends” had stolen or destroyed their possessions.  Many others lost property because they couldn’t keep up the payments.

Masuda came to Chicago in 1943 because several of his Japanese clients had  preceded him.  “I just followed my practice,” he says.  He and his wife first settled in Hyde Park, but the better housing in that neighborhood was not open to them 30 years ago, he said, so eventually they moved north.

The 77-year-old attorney professes to harbor no bitterness about his internment.  “It couldn’t be helped,” he says, smiling gently.

As before the war, much of Masuda’s business today is done with Japanese banks and other firms, and with the Japanese government.  And, as before the war, he is not registered as an agent of a foreign government.  He has, again, a paper from the U.S. State Dept. that exempts him from registering.  Asked how much faith he has in that document after his wartime experience, Masuda permits himself a broad grin.  “It’s no good at all,” he says cheerfully.

The Reverend Gyomay Kubos 

The Reverend Gyomay Kubose is what is known as a Kibei—American-born but Japanese-educated.  A San Francisco native, raised partly in Japan, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley before returning to Japan to study for the Buddhist priesthood.

Kubose, who was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, speaks excellent but accented English.  In 1944, he left his wife and two small children with relatives at the Poston camp and came to Chicago to found the bilingual independent Buddhist church, which became the social center and safe harbor for the young Nisei and their parents, who were still a bit leery of gathering in groups.

In 1945, the New York-based Social Action Group offered to pay Kubose’s expenses for a year while he toured the camps to tell Japanese Americans about conditions in the Midwest.  He also credits Dr. Preston Bradley, a Unitarian minister well known for his radio broadcasts, with spreading good will for the former internees in Chicago.

In 1957, Kubose moved his church from its Hyde Park site, which was being demolished, to its present home in Uptown, at 1151 W. Leland Ave.  Kubose’s church was quite progressive n the 1940s and ‘50s, he says; later, other Buddhist churches liberalized their practices as well.

“I was out here on my own; I wasn’t answerable to a bishop,” he says.  “The main reason, though, was that the Nisei who came to Chicago were the adventurous ones, the ones who said, ‘Let’s not sit here in camp.  Let’s go see what’s out there.’  They were very progressive people.”

Asked whether their faith helped sustain Buddhist internees, Kubose said that he believes it did.

“Buddhists don’t pray, you know, but we believe in a philosophy of yin and yang, of cause and consequence.  While bad things may happen to you, it is important not to respond in a way that would contribute more evil to the world.  It’s a little like the Christian response of turning the other cheek.”

Like many of the Nisei, Kubose is philosophical about the internment.  “It’s yin and yang, yin and yang,” he says.  “One thing happens, and somewhere, sometime, something else happens as a result.  We were interned, which was bad, and as a result we came to Chicago, which was good.  It’s yin and yang, you see.  If it weren’t for World War II, you and I would never have met.”

Tom Teraji

Tom Teraji came to Chicago with the first trainload of internees from the Manzanar camp in California.  He arrived in January 1943, with no overcoat, and it was weeks before he could afford to buy one.

The 22-year-old, whose training was in recreational leadership, had a job with the YMCA here.  After living in a hostel sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, Teraji moved to a hostel in Hyde Park, with 13 other young men from the camps.  YMCA administrators encouraged him to go to George Williams College, and to major in physical education, which he did, eventually getting a master’s degree in group work and administration.

In 1946, Teraji participated in an organized effort by the Nisei to break down job discrimination.  He applied for a job with the Chicago Board of Education, which at the time employed no Japanese American, and was turned down.

“We had a few go-rounds, the board and I.  I made some threats I couldn’t carry out,” he says.  “The upshot of it was that I got a job as a substitute teacher at Marshall High School.”

Today, Teraji is an official of the board of education, in charge of determining the use of school facilities.  As such, he is one of the most visible of the Chicago Nisei.

He and his wife, Lily, met at a dance he organized as recreational director at a settlement house for the internees back in the postwar years.  They have four children, of whom he is very proud.

Teraji’s 27-year-old son Alan, a trust attorney at the American National Bank in the Loop, reflected recently on his father’s generation in relation to his own.

“In the camps,” Alan said, “the Nisei were presumed guilty of treason.  They were forced to abandon their culture and ancestral language, yet they were pretty philosophical, and I think they continue to be.  The Sansei are more aggressive, not as reserved.  If we see a wrong, we are likely to protest it more vocally.  We’re more Americanized, I guess.  We tend to think of our tradition as being rooted in the Old West, where you fight things out to a finish.  It makes great movies, but when you think about it, that’s not always the best way.

“The Nisei were trained by their Japanese parents to think things out,” he continued, “and they have an emotional discipline that helped them get through this.  The culture teaches that anger never solves anything.”

Alan Teraji has followed his father onto the board of the Japanese-American Service Committee, an outgrowth of the old “settlers’ committee” of the late ‘40s.  He will help oversee, for example, the operation of Heiwa Terrace, a federally subsidized, predominantly Japanese American senior citizens’ residence the elder Teraji was instrumental in getting built.  And, he says, he will continue to fight for reparations when the Nisei can no longer do it themselves.

What does the son think of his father?

“He is a strong, rational individual generally in control of his feelings and thoughts.  His experience has saddened him somewhat, I think, weakened his faith in his country and his fellow man, but it hasn’t made him bitter,” Alan says.

Tom Teraji’s experience seems to have made him, if anything, more compassionate.  “I see these young Hispanics sometimes, shivering on the street corners, maybe in just a light jacket in the middle of winter,” Teraji says.  “I think, Gee, a new arrival from a warm climate.  No money yet for a topcoat, and my heart goes out to them.”

Chiye Tomihiro

Chiye Tomihiro’s family spent most of the war in a camp at Minidoka, Idaho; Chiye herself was there only one year.

Tomihiro’s father had been trained as a lawyer, but because he couldn’t become a citizen, he had never practiced law.  His real estate business in Portland had been ruined in the Depression, and he had just been getting back on his feet in 1941.  He was 60 years old when he came to Chicago, with no job references and few marketable skills.  Still, he and his wife managed to support their family.

While Tomihiro went to college, the family lived in a one-room apartment near Huron and LaSalle streets. “There was a kitchen but no sink.  We washed dishes in a little sink in the hall.  The bathroom was in the basement, shared by five families,” she recalls.

Tomihiro’s father lived to see the restrictive Asian alien laws abolished, but he died before he could be naturalized.  “It was very painful for my mother to see that he never had a chance to regain his pride.  It’s also painful for her to be dependent on her children,” she says.

Tomihiro, who worked for years at the Arts Club of Chicago and is now a self-employed accountant, said that she never considered going back to the West Coast.

“They didn’t want me 40 years ago, and I don’t go where I’m not wanted,” she says.  “Anyway, when I go to California, the people who moved back are so nostalgic about Chicago and the Midwest!  We have had opportunities—socially and culturally—that we didn’t have out there.  Coming here broadened our horizons.”

Sam Sato

Sam Sato was 14 in 1941, the only adopted son of the Sato family.  His mother was ill with tuberculosis, and when Japanese Americans were evacuated from Portland, Oregon, she stayed behind.  So did his father, who also had a mild case of the disease and wanted to be with her.

Young Sam’s natural brother soon enlisted in the armed forces.  Separated from the others he knew by a bureaucratic snafu, Sam wound up in Tule Lake, 15 years old, alone, quartered in the bachelors’ area with men up to 30 years his senior.

When Sato’s mother died, he took the train under guard back to the coast for her funeral.  He, his guard, and his father were the only mourners; some paper blossoms a woman had made in camp were the only flowers.

Sato picked sugar beets a couple of summers—internees could get passes to work as farm laborers in some states—and then got a job through the War Relocation Authority, washing dishes at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.  He stayed at a boarding house that had been set up for young men coming out of the camps on North Sheridan Road.

At the war’s end, he was drafted into the medical corps, and after serving his two years, he came back to Chicago.

“When I ran out of money, which didn’t take too long, I got a job as a typewriter mechanic,” Sato says.  “I didn’t know anything about repairing typewriters, but I learned.  Eventually, I was hired away by a company that needed its own repairman.  Along the way somewhere, I got interested in computers, and 12 years ago I started my own computer service bureau.”

Sato met his wife, Betty, who was interned at Gila, Ariz., at a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house.  On a recent evening, in their comfortable Lombard home, decorated here and there with Japanese prints and porcelain, the Satos talked about why they had stayed in Chicago.

“The people are friendlier here than I remember them on the West Coast, and I think the business opportunities are better, too,” Sam says.

Their 18-year-old son John came in weary from his part-time job as a shoe salesman and cajoled his mother into making him a late-evening snack.  As he watched the pair disappear into the kitchen, Sam said, “I can’t help comparing my life as a teen-ager to his.  A young boy shouldn’t have to live the way I did.  What kind of threat was I to the national security?  It just makes me so sad to think of it.”

Merry Omori

In August of 1945, as the camps were finally being emptied out, Merry Omori’s family, with a dozen members, took the train to jobs as laborers at a farm in Centerville, Pa.

“While we were on the train, they announced that the war was over.  Everybody else went wild.  We couldn’t celebrate, because we were afraid.  All those years in the camp, we were just trying to hide, to disappear into our seats, so we wouldn’t be so conspicuous—so Japanese,” Omori says.

Omori was 12 at the start of the war, the daughter of a prosperous tenant farmer near Sacramento.  In December 1941 her mother died under mysterious circumstances in the country hospital, after being refused admittance to two other hospitals.  Soon after her mother’s death, Omori had been interned with her father, grandfather, nine brothers and sisters, and eventually a stepmother in the Tule Lake camp in eastern California.

After a season in Pennsylvania, Omori’s family moved to Cleveland, where the 13 of them lived in a tiny apartment.  After several months her stepmother left, and her father followed.

“At one point,” Omori says, “I was in charge of my two sisters, who were in the first and second grades, with about $17 a week to feed the whole family.  I fried cabbage and potatoes; that’s all I knew how to cook.  My father had bought me two ‘dresses’ for school—one of them was a housecoat.  Do you know how painful that is for a teen-ager?

“Finally, I came to Chicago, to train as a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital.  Sometimes I would be so tired from working and going to school that I would fall asleep in class.  Once I failed a test, and they told me that I was the first Japanese American ever to be accepted at the school, and how I did would determine whether they let any more in.”

She later got degrees from Northwestern and Loyola universities, and began a career teaching and consulting in medical nursing.

Omori, whose husband, John, is an optometrist, is angry about the internment, and says that there have been suicides and mental illness among former internees.

“Just because the damage isn’t always obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” she says.  Omori and her husband have no children.  “I wouldn’t bring children into a world like this,” she says.  “I am very bitter about what happened to my family.  Very bitter indeed.”

Sam Ozaki 

Sam Ozaki, who is now principal of Taft High School in Chicago, was interned in Jerome, Ark.  “I was 19 or 20,” he recalls.  “Like many young people, I had a sense of adventure.  I had a sense, too, that if this was my country, I should be willing to defend it, that I must prove I’m as good an American as anyone else.  And then there was peer pressure.  Five of us joined (the army) together.  Not that many people enlisted from Jerome; we were more likely to hear, ‘Hey, they won’t take you in the Navy or the Air Force, and you can’t go to Officer Candidate School.  This is just a ploy by the government to make cannon fodder of you.’  But I had a couple of reasons of my own.  One was that my dad was in another camp, an FBI camp, and I thought if I volunteered they might let him rejoin the family.  But one of the most important reasons was to get the hell out of the concentration camp.”

Before the war’s end, all the people in the camps, regardless of age, sex or place of birth, were asked: Would they renounce allegiance to the government of Japan?  And would they go anywhere to serve in the U.S. military?

The right answers, of course, were “yes-yes.”  Men of military age who responded negatively to these questions, known as the “no-no boys,” were considered traitors.  No qualified answers were accepted.  Some of these people were imprisoned; others renounced their citizenship and moved to Japan after the war.

“I admire the guys who said ‘no-no,’ although I was angry with them at the time,” Ozaki says.  “They said, ‘This is my country.  If you’re going to keep me in a concentration camp, I’m not going to fight for you.’  There wasn’t much support for them at the time.  It took a lot of courage.”

Noboru Honda

In his Lincolnwood home, Noboru Honda took out a Japanese-English dictionary and sat down cross-legged on the floor to explain the concept of shikata-ga-nai, which he says is an important key to the attitude of many Nisei toward their internment.

“The word means something like, ‘It can’t be helped; you can’t change what has happened.’ Shikata-ga-nai helps to get on with working toward the highest goal possible, rather than being consumed with anger,” he said.

The 71-year-old Honda has had more than one occasion to invoke shikata-ga-nai.  His mother died while he was in high school in the little farming town of Biggs, Ca., near Sacramento.  He had to drop out of school, which he loved, to raise his younger sister and five younger brothers, including four-year twins.  He worked as a farm laborer until 1942.  Then, when the twins were 18 and he had been married for two months, he was taken away to Tule Lake.

Honda and his Hawaiian-born wife, Pat, came out of the camps in 1943 with a new resolve.  He had been a community leader at Tule Lake, involved in councils with people much better educated than he, and he had held his own.  He took a job as a laborer at a rose farm in Des Plaines but began trying to break into the insurance business, which, he reasoned, was one avenue of success open to a man in his 30s with a grammar-school education.

He made the rounds of the insurance companies but discovered that they would not hire Japanese Americans.  But Honda didn’t give up.  He explains his motivation: “I had put my brothers through school so they could be successful.  One is a dentist, another an architect; one is an engineer; one works for a large bindery.  My sister married a pharmacist.  It would have been too painful for me not to be able to feel on a par with other members of my family.  I had to succeed.”

One of the firms took him on, in April 1945, selling policies to Japanese-American families who were settling here.  Today this man of courtly mien has a flourishing agency on the Northwest Side of Chicago.  He is respected in the community and is exactly the sort of Japanese American who makes it seem that the internment couldn’t have done any real harm.

Yet Honda says that any individual Nisei’s present prosperity shouldn’t even enter into the discussion.  “There’s a moral issue.  There is the matter of emotional damage that you cannot measure.  There is also a legal issue.  Was there a legal wrong?  Yes, there was.  If there was a legal wrong, and there is a damage, shouldn’t there be a redress for that?” he asks.

Another issue is racism.  “I think people would have an entirely different attitude if this had happened to white Americans.  We look different, and to many people we are a mystery.  There is a dislike for things you don’t know.  Most people are too busy living their lives to look at the big picture, to consider right or wrong.  The decision is made frivolously, with an ‘It doesn’t concern me’ attitude,” Honda says.

“I want to see justice done, but not for the money.  To clear the record, to say the evacuation wasn’t necessary.  It was wrong.”

Chicago Magazine, 11/82