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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

On The Internment of My Grandfather

Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

I remember the exact moment that I connected internment with my family. I was in elementary school, and we had learned all about the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in social studies. Later that week, I was at my grandparents’ house for a family dinner, and I was reciting all these things I had learned at school, talking mostly, as I had been taught, about how great FDR was. My grandfather’s sister, an ex-nun we called Auntie Auntie, said, “You know he interned the Japanese, right?”

Over 100,000 people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were forced to leave their homes and jobs, get on trains, and live crammed into hastily erected sheds that weren’t suited to the weather. Their language was banned in the camps. Their children’s schooling was interrupted and subpar. The food made them sick and the hospitals were understaffed. And while they were suffering, they were asked if they would swear an unqualified allegiance to the United States. They were asked if they would serve in America’s military.

All of this was done on the order of a president hallowed by liberals. At the urging of the man who would become the most famous liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren who was at that time the Attorney General of California. It happened to my family, and none of it is anything to casually invoke as an example of something our nation should do again.

My grandfather, Bill Yamamoto, is 89 now. He was fifteen when he was interned and was seventeen when he left the camp for the army. My grandfather came out of camp, as he puts it, and managed to go to college and get a good, stable job with the federal government, where he worked for most of his life.

My grandfather married my grandmother, who was also interned at a different camp and with whom I share a first initial and only rarely the grace and strength she displays every day. (Last year, she broke her hip and refused painkillers because she didn’t like the dreams they gave her. She did ask for umeboshi, a salt-cured Japanese plum. She also recommends it for morning sickness.) They have three daughters, my mother being the oldest. They have seven grandchildren, who have all reached adulthood as healthy, relatively happy adults. Just last month, they got to watch one of their grandchildren get married.

Week before last, they watched Donald Trump get elected president. Last week, Carl Higbie, the head of Trump-supporting PAC Great America and a Trump surrogate cited internment as a precedent supporting the president-elect’s proposed registry for Muslims. “We did it during World War II with the Japanese,” he said. He added later, “I’m just saying there is precedent for it.”

My grandfather’s response was, “He’s crazy.”

My grandfather’s family bears many scars. My great-grandfather moved to the United States in the hopes of finding a job and making enough money to eventually return to Japan. But when he got back to Japan, he was persecuted there for being a Catholic. So he emigrated back to the United States in order to freely practice his religion. All of his children would be born in California, as American citizens, thanks, of course to the principle of birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the 14th Amendment. It guarantees that anyone naturalized or born in the United States enjoys all the same rights as any other citizen. It’s been upheld by the Supreme Court as far back as 1898, and it is the reason my grandparents, my mother, and I are Americans. Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, has spoken out against birthright citizenship.

After Pearl Harbor and the increase of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, my great-grandfather was targeted by the FBI. He was never charged with anything or put on trial. But one night, a group from the FBI came to their small house. The FBI parked at a neighbor’s place, and came into my grandfather’s house through all three doors. My great-grandfather was taken into custody from the bathroom, where he had been on the toilet. Other agents searched the house, while my great-grandmother instructed my grandfather and his two sisters to watch them.

Bill Yamamoto as a kid, surrounded by his family, at home in Turlock, CA. All photos courtesy Bill Yamamoto.
Bill Yamamoto as a kid, surrounded by his family, at home in Turlock, CA. All photos courtesy Bill Yamamoto.

“I think they picked on the leaders of the community,” my grandfather told me when I asked why. “My dad and another man, a good friend, they were sort of leaders in the Japanese community. My dad used to write articles for the Japanese paper. He did some other things. He was one of the few men, the few men, few Issei [the Japanese name for Japanese immigrants], who wrote and spoke English. So he was sort of a leader of the community so they came to his house.”

“They had records of us—or of the Issei not kids like me—but of adults. That’s when I really learned to dislike the FBI.”

My grandfather lived inland, so the evacuation order came later for him than it did my grandmother, living in Los Angeles. Her family left their store and went to Stockton, California, thinking that maybe moving away from the coasts and big cities would prevent their internment. According to my grandmother, they also went to Modesto to stay with family friends hoping that, if internment came, they’d at least be put in camps with people they knew.

The notice that internment had come to my grandfather’s home in Turlock, California came when the military police put up posters all over town with instructions to “All persons of Japanese ancestry.” My grandfather and few friends went around ripping them down. “That was our achievement,” he said. Another time he told me this story, he explained, “It was the only thing we could think to do.” He doesn’t have it anymore, but for a while, he kept one. He does still have a copy of Executive Order 9066, the document signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt which authorized internment.

Even at fifteen, my grandfather knew things were wrong. He knew his mother was worried because there was talk that citizens, which more often than not meant people’s children, would be separated from non-citizens, the parents who were legally barred, because of their race, from becoming naturalized citizens.

My grandfather also noticed that what the government said and how they acted didn’t match up. “When we went into camp, when the train stopped at the camp, we got out, and there were guards there to protect us, they said. The military was there to protect us,” he told me. “They had rifles. Except they were facing us, rather than the people on the outside. So they weren’t guarding us, they were making sure we didn’t run away.”

Two years into his internment, my grandfather was eligible to volunteer to join the army and leave the camp. I asked him if he ever hesitated to fight for the country that had stripped his family of their property and put them in a camp hundreds of miles from home. “You know there was a definite feeling of that among a lot of people. I don’t think I was smart enough to figure that out,” he answered. “I know there was a lot of confrontation in other camps between people saying ‘Don’t go in’ and those saying, ‘We’re American citizens, we have to go in.’ That became a big issue.”

Bill Yamamoto at Amache, a camp in Grenada, CO, in 1944.
Bill Yamamoto at Amache, a camp in Grenada, CO, in 1944.

“There was a questionnaire that we had to fill out. And there were two questions on there. One had to do with loyalty and the other was something like ‘Would you be willing to serve in the armed forces?’ And then those who were “no, no” answers were given by people who fought the system and they were sent to Tule Lake Camp, a separate camp for what we used to call the “No No Boys.” And I was a Yes Yes because I wanted to get in to get some free schooling. So I signed up and went to school, military service was secondary.”

For my grandfather, confronting racism was less important than the security offered by getting an education and having a stable job. He passed that lesson onto my mother, who went to college and then law school, getting an even better job than he did. That allowed my parents to send me to one of the best private schools in California, which I attended, incidentally, with the current editor-in-chief of Breitbart.

The questionnaire my grandfather remembers was designed to test how American the internees were. There were 28 questions, but my grandfather remembers the two about loyalty. The questions he was talking about were:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

For my grandfather, and many others, the answers were easy. For others, it was much harder. For some Issei, it meant losing Japanese citizenship and, since it was believed that the Japanese were racially incapable of being Americans, they also had no chance of becoming Americans. A “yes” could make them stateless. Others answered “No” because the entirely justifiable impulse to civil disobedience against the government that had put them in camp. Still others thought that the wording of the question implied that they had, at one point, had loyalty to another country.

The war ended while my grandfather was still in army training. Eventually, he got a degree in economics from University of California, Berkeley on the G.I. Bill and a job with the Social Security Administration. An agency created by the Social Security Act, signed into law by the same president, Roosevelt, that had signed Executive Order 9066.

I asked my grandfather about that, about working for the government after internment. And he said that what he wanted most was security and stability, and nothing said that more than a government job. But one incident early in his career still sticks out.

“We were evaluated by our supervisors, what they called efficiency reports or efficiency reading or something like that,” he said. “And part of our job was to adjudicate claims, and develop claims, and to interview the people. And then my review was that there was ‘no adverse reaction from the public’ because of my race. I saved that evaluation because I thought it was so dumb. I still have that.”

The thing I noticed the most, asking my grandparents about this experience, was the sense of futility they obviously felt. They felt that there wasn’t anything real they could do, no outside allies, and no organization.

My grandfather said, “I know one particular family that came and said goodbye and all that stuff, and later we heard from other neighbors that they really didn’t want us to return.”

My grandmother said that there was a sense of wanting to prove they were good citizens, good Americans.

The Yamamoto family outside their home in Turlock, CA.
The Yamamoto family outside their home in Turlock, CA.

But, at the end of the day, my grandfather said that, back then, “No one tried to fight the system.” People acted out, like he did, by tearing down the posters, but my grandfather never participated in anything more potent than that. “I don’t think they had time to organize,” he said. “The Japanese American Citizens League tried to fight it, but they gave up.”

He’s not entirely right. The ACLU brought cases to the Supreme Court, hoping to get the order overturned, but they lost. The president of the Japanese American Citizens League, however, got the case that eventually ended detainment to the Supreme Court. But I can’t blame my grandparents, who were just teenagers at the time, for not knowing there was anywhere to turn.

A couple of years ago, my family gathered at my grandfather’s house for a Father’s Day dinner. We were on the dessert course, each of us with a slice of cheesecake in our hands, when he declared he’d saved a documentary for us all to watch. My grandfather, a man in his eighties who struggles with technology, had mastered his DVR so we could, as a family, watch a documentary on internment. As an interviewee explained how a father killed himself after internment because he racism barred him from finding a job and he wanted his family to have the insurance money, the cheesecake went uneaten.

My grandfather doesn’t talk about what he experienced in camp with overwhelming emotion or answer direct questions about how it felt. But internment looms large over his actions. He keeps a copy of the order. He has many, many books about it. A lot of his stories are about life “in camp.” He and my grandmother made pilgrimages back to camps when I was younger, and showed us a meticulously indexed photo album of the trip. “Here is where we lived, here is where I went to school,” he’d say, pointing to pictures.

My grandfather doesn’t talk about how it felt, how it affected him, except in broad terms. He talks about rights, Constitutional rights, and human rights. “People really don’t understand what happened,” he said when I asked if the way people talked about internment bothered him. “We were American citizens, not our parents, but we were. All my brothers and sisters, all the people our age, we were thrown into camp. And all our rights were taken away. That part of it does bother me.”

He won’t talk about how he suffered, but he will talk about his parents and my grandmother’s family. “The ones who really lost were people like Grandma’s parents,” he says, meaning his wife, my grandmother. “They had a store in Los Angeles, and when evacuation came, they loaded their belongings on a truck and then, thinking they’d avoid going to camp, they went up to Stockton.”

“You know what bothers me more?” he says. “Reagan gave everybody 20,000 dollars. It was a big deal. That was after everyone who suffered losses died. The people who suffered losses were like our parents. You know, like grandma’s parents and my parents. They were the ones who really suffered losses. And they were all dead. So they got no closure. No repayment for what they went through.”

One of the only times I have seen my grandfather actually get angry was last year, when he told me that a white man asked him why he should still be mad, he got $20,000.

My grandfather also denies that the experience has anything to do with his liberalism. “I think two of us, Aunt Lucy and I, were liberals from the very beginning,” he told me, describing him and his three siblings. “We had that tendency. My brother, he went to Stanford, so he was sort of conservative. He was pretty right wing. And my other sister became a nun, so she was obviously pretty conservative.”

“You know, Aunt Lucy, we went to Denver during World War II and she was in some demonstrations. She and a friend of hers, a white woman, went to protest against the discrimination against Blacks. “This is during the mid-forties, she was that type of person,” he said, fond and proud.

It does come out in his politics, though. He will admit, if pressed, that when he sees rights, any rights, get taken away, he can’t help but see parallels. One of his biggest problems with the last two presidential administrations is Guatanamo Bay detention camp. “When they wanted to put people in Guatanamo. They put people there without a trial. They put people in prison without a trial. I view that as something similar.”

When I asked if history could repeat itself, he brought it up again. “Certainly,” he said. “It’s happening now. Look at Guatanamo Bay. People in prison for years without trial.”

Like so many people, my grandfather sees the appointment of Steve Bannon as President-elect Trump’s chief strategist as a threat to the things my grandfather holds most dear: “He’s really frightening to me. He doesn’t believe in human rights.”

Despite all this, he believes America is resilient and that there is a path forward. He has faith in America, even though he’s not sure what could be done to stop internment from happening to others. He’s not a political scientist or a historian. He’s just someone who lived through internment. What Carl Higbie so casually offered up as justification on Fox News has never stopped affecting my family. It’s why my great aunt couldn’t let me talk about Roosevelt without telling me about internment. She didn’t snap, but she needed me to know.

Could it happen again? My grandfather has an answer. “Yeah, you know why? Because at the time we went to camp, we had the same Constitution.”

Katharine Trendacosta is a staff writer for io9 and Gizmodo. She is on twitter @k_trendacosta.