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When the War Came to Me
December 20, 1941
I don’t understand what’s going on. Everything’s changed so quickly I’m having trouble keeping up with it. Before December 7, 1941, the war was nothing but headlines in the newspaper and hushed conversations between the adults after dinner. I mean, of course the war bothered me, my dad was fighting in it. I miss him every day. But him and the battle was somewhere far, far away. Though now, suddenly, the war was here, in Seattle. I was feeling it every day.
“Japs bomb Pearl Harbor” the newspapers read. And just like that, practically overnight, everything changed. I was no longer “Yuki”, I was “a Jap.” The friends who used to invite me to their houses after school suddenly were giving me funny looks and going out of their ways to avoid me. Their parents, who at first had me over for dinner almost every other night and talked to me as if I was their daughter, now eyed me like I’d just grown a second head or something. And that was just when they saw me, which after the bombing, was not often at all.
And then suddenly Mom was overly vigilant with my brother Hideki and I. Make sure to try your very best in school. Always say please and thank you. Don’t interrupt anyone ever. Always say ma’am and sir whenever you talk to an adult. Don’t get into trouble, please, please, you need to behave yourselves more than anyone.
“Why us?” I asked her, “What about all the kids at school? Today this boy, Rupert, he put a thumbtack under the teacher's desk and-”
“Rupert’s different.” Mom was strangely harsh, “You two need to be on your best behavior.” Her seriousness scared us, and even though Hideki and I still didn’t really get it, we left it at that.
And then something weirder happened. A few days ago my best friend, Akiko came to school crying. She said the night before, men in official looking coats and badges had taken her dad away in the middle of the night. “FBI,” they’d said, and her Mom couldn’t say no to them for some reason. And just like that, they took her dad away. I don’t know how exactly how the FBI found her dad, or why they wanted him. But it didn’t matter. They got him.
Yesterday, our Buddhist priest was taken away too. When I asked why, Mom said the government wanted leaders. I can’t stop thinking about what she said. Before dad joined the army, he was the head of his company. If he wasn’t fighting in the war … would the FBI would have taken him away too?
April 24 1942,
They appeared over night. The posters, I mean. They were everywhere. On every lamppost, street corner- everywhere. On the way home after school, Hideki squinted at one of the signs that was hung on a telephone pole. He was a year older than me, and a much better reader,
“Instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry.” He read aloud and his eyes got wide, “Mom and Dad are from Japan! That’s us!”
“Keep reading!” I insisted. Hideki tried, but the lettering was too small and complex for him to make out. We ended up giving up and going home.
When we got to the house Mom was at the kitchen counter, drinking a glass of wine. She’d been doing that a lot more often ever since Dad went off to fight, but today, she looked especially troubled. Her eyes looked like she’d been crying, but when she saw us, she immediately forced a smile and got up.
“Guess what kids,” she said. “We’re going on a vacation!” My brother and I exchanged glances,
“What?” I said. “Where?” Mom didn’t answer,
“We need to start packing.” She said bluntly. “We only have a few days.”
“Where are we going?” Mom’s shoulders sagged,
“I-I don’t know.” She forced another smile, “But hey- don’t worry. It’ll be fun.We’re riding on a train … it’ll be like an adventure” That perked my brother and I right up.
“Oh boy, oh boy!” Hideki shouted, “An adventure!” I grinned, just as excited. I’d never been on a train before either. And we never traveled. That was why I found it strange the way Mom’s smile looked so fake. She poured herself another glass of wine and downed it in just a few gulps. And then she went for more. I stared at her. To be drinking that much, she must have been really missing dad. Maybe she was sad dad wasn’t here to go on vacation with us. Or maybe- just maybe it had something to do with those “Instructions to all Japanese” posters.
Excited but confused,
April 28, 1942,
Today we finished packing. We had to cram all our stuff into tiny suitcases. There was so much I had to leave behind it was unbearable. Mom only allowed us one toy. But my favorite toy was my bike and there was no way that thing was fitting in the suitcase. So I had to settle with one of the Hina dolls I was given last girl’s day.
“Only take what you can carry.” Mom had ordered. Most of our suitcases were filled with sheets and blankets and toiletries and pillows. There was hardly room for anything else.
“What kind of vacation are we going on?” I wrinkled my nose, “Shouldn’t hotels have sheets and pillows?” Mom didn’t respond and shoved three tubes of toothpaste into the top flap of her suitcase.
“Three tubes?”Hideki frowned, “How long exactly are we going to be gone?”
“I don’t know!” Mom snapped. Her harshness made Hideki flinch.
“Where are we going again?” I pried. Mom closed her eyes and let out a long, long sigh.
“I said.” She snapped, “I. Don’t. Know!”
After we packed Mom ordered us to bring everything we couldn’t bring with us- and there was a lot of it- into the basement.
“Don’t leave anything behind.” Mom cautioned.
“Why?” I asked.
“A family is going to move in when we’re gone.” My jaw dropped,
“The Robinson family,” She said.
“Do we know them?” I asked.
“No.” I gasped,
“Wait, what? Strangers are going to live here?”
“You should be grateful!” Mom was strangely harsh. “At least someone will be watching the house when we’re gone.” I got a funny feeling in my stomach,
“But why? How long will we be gone!”
“I don’t know.”She said miserably, and suddenly, she collapsed back onto her chair and began to sob. I’d only seen Mom cry once before, and that was when dad left to join the army.
“I don’t think this vacation we’re going on is a good one.” Hideki whispered in my ear as Mom collected herself, wiped her tears, and went back to packing. I shook my head,
“I don’t think so either.”
Worried and troubled,
April 29, 1942
“Camp Harmony.” That's the name of the place we were brought to. Except I thought the word “harmony” meant good things. And the camp we were sent to was full of anything but that.
When we got to the train station, it was packed. There were Japanese families just like ours lugging suitcases, dressed from head to toe in layers after layers of clothes. Everyone had tags on them. Everyone looked kind of worried and anxious. It seemed like they didn’t know where we were going either. When it was time to board the trains,instead of calling us by our family names as we boarded the train, they called us by our numbers.
Hideki and I were pretty excited about getting onto the train. We fought over the window seat, and squealed with delight as the train started moving. But after a while, it got boring. The tracks were bumpy and there were times when I felt breakfast coming up the other way. It was so, so crowded in there. Babies cried. Old men snored. It smelled like sweat. The seats were hard. Hideki somehow fell asleep and started drooling all over my lap.
And then, finally, we got to where the soldiers were taking us. Camp Harmony. They called it. and as I looked around at our surroundings, I almost wished we were back in the train,
“What kind of vacation is this?” I blurted.
The truth was, Camp Harmony was anything but harmonious. It was a fairground. Well, a fairground that once was. Puyallup fair they called it. The little rooms the soldiers called “barracks” were actually a big line of horse stalls. Horse stalls!
Mom, who was hardly ever shaken by anything, let out a huge gasp when she saw our new living space. All the other families looked just as horrified. They were murmuring to each other, shaking their heads. Some where just too shocked to speak. Even though all the hay and horse stuff had been taken out, it still reeked of animals. There was nothing but a single hanging bulb in each little, stall, and some metal cots. No running water. No sewage. Just empty rooms and a wretched smell.
“I feel like a cow sleeping in here.” I whispered to Hideki that night as we went to bed on the hay-stuffed plastic bags we had to use as mattresses.
“Yea.” He whispered back, “Me too.”
Tired and Cold,
August 8th, 1942,
Today, the soldiers told us to pack up everything, because we were leaving. We didn’t know where we were going, but no one asked any questions. We were just glad to be getting out of Camp Harmony. Hideki and I contemplated running away a few times, but when we presented the idea to Mom, she just shook her head. Despite the horrid conditions the soldier were keeping us in, no one had had protested or tried to run away.
We will show them we are loyal Americans despite what they do to us. Many people have said. So not knowing what else to do, Hideki and I played along with it.
It took hours and hours in that hot, bumpy, dirty, smelly bus before we finally arrived to our new camp. When we got out of the bus, I was overwhelmed with a wave of heat and sand.
We were in the middle of a barren dessert. No trees, no plants, no nothing but these long, long dull looking buildings and a huge barbed-wire fence that closed everyone in.
There were huge guard towers on every corner of the fence. The soldiers said they were to protect the camp. But if that was so, then why were the machine guns pointed in the camp, and not out?
At first, Hideki and I had fun playing in the shade by the barracks. We played hide and seek with some of the other kids, until Mom scolded us that there could be rattlesnakes and scorpions where we were hiding. That stopped us in our tracks. After a while, a school was opened up, and Monday through friday, Hideki and I went. I had a lot of friends to play with. But other than that, camp absolutely sucks.
We all eat in this huge building called the mess hall. It’s set up cafeteria-style and we all have to slide our bowls along as some servers plopped disgusting looking mush onto our plates. The food smells nasty, and it looked more like something that should have been coming out the other end than going in.
“Come on!” Today Mom was trying to get me to eat, “Have some of the canned spinach! It'll make you big and strong, just like Popeye!” I managed to gulp down a few bites, but god, it was painful.
Ugh. I want my mom’s noodles and Tempura and Tonkatsu. But it’s either eat that disgusting mush or starve.
You know what else is awful? The privacy here. As in, I have absolutely none! Each family here gets one little room with a single lightbulb and some cots. The partitions between each family are ridiculously thin, you can hear everything that every other family does. Babies crying, people laughing, scolding, fighting, yelling….I’m going to go crazy.
I don’t even have the privacy to go to the bathroom! There are no toilets in the barracks, which means if you need to answer nature's call, you have to walk all the way out to the huge building where all the latrines are. There are no partitions between toilets. You have to do all your business in front of everyone. Same goes with bathing. It’s really uncomfortable, and Mom and a lot of the other women typically wait until midnight to take their baths so no one could see them.
Oh, I wish I was home right now. I hate it here. It’s so hot, and dusty, and the food absolutely sucks. School is crowded and boring and there's nothing to do. Sometimes I wish I could charge right through that fence. But then of course, the soldiers with the machine guns would stop me.
Hungry and Homesick,
June 31st, 1946
I know, I know, it’s been forever since I’ve written in you. A few times before I tried, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s no real news here at camp, other than little gossip and stuff like that. Plus my new friend, Dai, says diaries are for babies. But this news is just too big to keep inside.
We’re being released from camp! Finally! I can’t wait to go back home and see my house, my friends! I bet everyone misses me so much and when we get back, there’s going to be a big “Welcome Home” party. And guess what else? Dad, who after he finished his army job, was deported to a different camp, is coming home!! We’re going to meet him there! Hideki and I are so excited, and Mom can't believe it!
Happy, happy, happy!
August 10, 1964
Reading my last entry makes me cringe.
Seeing dad come home was nothing happy. When he got off the train her looked old and skinny and half-bald. Now he’s super suspicious of everything, and the tiniest things like a door slamming or a fork dropping make him flinch. Now he’s less of a dad who protects Hideki, Mom and I, and more of someone the three of us have to protect.
In fact the whole coming home itself was so, so different than I’d imagined. There were no welcome home banners. No parties. Nothing. When we came home, it was a silent, almost grim ordeal. My former friends now want nothing to do with me. I still get funny glances on the street. And the newspapers keep printing those headlines with the word Jap all bold and capitalized.
I’m treated like a criminal coming home from prison, but I still don’t quite understand what crime I committed. What have I done wrong? Maybe it was something I did when I was really little.What was it, why can’t I remember? Or maybe I didn’t do anything. Maybe my only problem was being born Japanese.
Wishing I could be like everyone else,