Japanese Americans who rebuilt lives in the suburbs reflect on Pearl Harbor trauma, legacy
Like many Americans who lived through the experience of Pearl Harbor, Jean Mishima remembers the chaotic aftermath of the attack as if it happened yesterday.
But it affected her life differently than it did other Americans, in ways she would understand only later.
Barely 6 years old at the time, Mishima didn't realize until much later the gravity of what happened 80 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan pummeled the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack killed 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 Navy ships, including eight battleships.
She now reflects on how that infamous day altered the futures of her family and those of thousands of people of Japanese descent who were uprooted and incarcerated in the months after the attack.
Tuesday will mark the 80th anniversary of a date that has, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously predicted at the time, lived "in infamy." The shock and terror of the attacks prompted Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, resulting in the relocation and imprisonment of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, mostly American citizens, from the West Coast.
Mishima's parents had to give up their vegetable farm in Downey, California. They, along with her grandparents from Fresno, California, were moved to Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona in July 1942. They were imprisoned there for two years before relocating to the Chicago area.
"I didn't even realize I was interned until I was an adult because ... my family never talked about it," said Mishima, 85, of Glenview, now president of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.
Gila River was among 10 "internment camps" that operated from 1942 to 1945 in remote parts of California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas. All but one closed by the end of 1945.
Mishima said her parents and many Japanese people of their generation didn't initially talk about what happened then "because they felt a sense of shame" being rounded up like criminals.
She now tries to educate people about that dark chapter in American history so that people don't forget and so it never happens again.
This March 23, 1942, photo shows the first arrivals at the Japanese evacuee community established in Owens Valley in Manzanar, California. Suburban Japanese Americans reflect on their families' experiences at several of the camps on the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
- Associated Press
Chicago and suburbs
Mishima's family became part of an influx of roughly 20,000 new residents whose arrival made Chicago the largest hub for displaced Japanese people in the nation. At the time, Chicago had fewer than 300 Japanese Americans living here.
By 1943, the War Relocation Authority began letting out detainees from the camps due to worker shortages as World War II raged on.
Demand for domestic labor and factory workers to support the war production effort brought thousands of Black families from the South and Japanese families released from the camps to this region.
"Chicago had a lot of need for war industry jobs, and so it was pretty easy for people to find employment (here)," said Lisa Doi, president of the Chicago Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Doi's extended family came over in that wave. A fourth-generation Japanese American, Doi, 30, grew up in Evanston. She did her University of Chicago master's thesis on postwar resettlement in the Chicago area, mapping Japanese Americans' migration patterns within the city and suburbs.
Most resettled families initially found a home in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. After the war ended and the West Coast reopened, many families moved back to California. But a large population remained in the region, migrating in the decades that followed to neighborhoods on the North Side and eventually to the suburbs starting around 1965.
A majority of the Japanese population now lives in Cook County and suburban Cook County, including Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village where Japanese corporations and businesses have brought in new waves of immigrants from Japan, Doi said.
Postwar Japanese Americans became more integrated into the culture and communities where they lived and worked to avoid standing out, but in that process, they lost much of their own culture, language and heritage, Doi said.
"The idea (of resettlement) was very much that Japanese Americans should try to assimilate into middle-class white communities as much as possible," Doi said. "That was also an incentive for people who had just experienced this really disruptive and sort of violent experience based on their ethnicity."
It also prompted the creation of several cultural and community organizations, such as the Japanese American Citizens League whose Chicago chapter was established in 1945, working to preserve Japanese American history and heritage, Doi said.
The Japanese American Service Committee is one such group, formed in 1946 by those who survived the camps as a resource for families being resettled in the area. Now, the group's focus is expansion of its cultural and community programs.
CEO Michael Takada was inspired to take up the mantle of service after his family's experience in the camps.
Takada, 65, remembers his father was an "all-American" high school senior in Los Angeles when Pearl Harbor happened.
"He was a Boy Scout," Takada said. "His family went to a Christian church. They were active in their communities. He played sports. He felt like he was part of America."
The family had to sell everything they owned of value for a pittance -- car, washing machine, refrigerator -- before being sent to the Amache camp in southeastern Colorado with whatever they could carry in two suitcases each, Takada said.
Takada's father got work releases from camp to make some money for their survival, but the experience left him scarred.
"It impacted my father so severely that (we) were never able to talk about it," Takada said.
It wasn't until April 2010 when his father returned with family members to walk the grounds of what remained of the Amache Relocation Center that he finally found peace to speak about it.
Some Japanese Americans see parallels between what they experienced after Pearl Harbor and how Muslim Americans were treated after Sept. 11, 2001, or the hate targeted against Chinese and Asian Americans now with the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's really important that we remember what happened to Japanese Americans so it doesn't happen with any other group," said Jane Kaihatsu of Park Ridge.
Kaihatsu, 64, lives in the house where she grew up since 1965, tending to her 93-year-old mother, Rose, who was detained at the Gila River camp with other family members for three years.
Rose was 13 years old at the time and the youngest of three girls. Her parents emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s. The family lived in Berkeley, California, where her father owned a small grocery store, which they had to give up. Rose's middle sister Yuri, or Lily, was allowed to leave the camp early to seek domestic work in Chicago and later brought the rest of the family here after it closed.
Kaihatsu said her father, Omar, was 16 years old when imprisoned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming and later was drafted into the Army to fight in the war.
"It was terribly ironic that they were fighting for freedom while their own families are behind barbed wire in a country of which they were citizens," said Kaihatsu, a 1975 graduate of Maine South High School in Park Ridge. "What happened to my parents and grandparents generation was completely outrageous."
Though Japanese Americans who were incarcerated unjustly received reparations and an apology from the U.S. government years later, the damage done to families in terms of generational trauma and lost generational wealth remains to this day, Kaihatsu said.
Where to find Japanese American historyDuring World War II, nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent from the West Coast were detained in prison camps in several states for three years before being dispersed across the country. The Japanese American Service Committee's Legacy Center maintains a collection of their oral-history interviews about the incarceration and later resettlement of about 20,000 people in the Chicago area. Where available, transcriptions have been included.
To hear their stories, visit digitalcollections.jasc-chicago.org/omeka/gallery.
Resources on Japanese American history in Chicago area
• "Resettlement in Chicago," research by Dr. Ellen D. Wu, Densho Encyclopedia, encyclopedia.densho.org/Resettlement_in_Chicago.
• "Uprooted," an interactive, multimedia, multigenerational digital exhibit produced by Katherine Nagasawa for the Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center. There are three family stories you can follow. Each story begins on the West Coast, follows a detainee through their incarceration experience and ends in Chicago where they resettled afterward. uprooted.jasc-chicago.org.
• "Reckoning," the second of our two interactive digital exhibits by Nagasawa for the JASC Legacy Center. It covers the Japanese American redress movement that eventually resulted in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. reckoning.jasc-chicago.org.
• The language used to describe forced detention of Japanese Americans has evolved over the years from "internment" to "incarceration." Find out how and why here, densho.org/terminology.
Source: Japanese American Service Committee