Reporting a story about WWII incarceration, I learned about my own family’s hidden history
The picture looks much older than the 1940s.
My great-grandmother sits on the rough-hewn steps of a barrack with my dad, just a baby, on her lap. In the photo she is looking down, and looks weary. The photo looks like it could have been from a Western town in the 1800s.
I don’t know precisely where the photo was taken — was it their barrack or someone else’s? But I do know it was taken at the Granada Relocation Center, known as Camp Amache, near Granada, Colorado, in World War II.
My dad, Anthony Hideki Ishisaka, was born in Camp Amache in May 1944, and lived with his immediate family and grandparents, all in one room, some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war. Two thirds of those incarcerated, like my dad, were U.S. citizens.
Over the past few months, as I was reporting our A1 Revisited project looking back on The Seattle Times coverage of the Japanese American incarceration, I have had a lot of time to reflect on my family’s experience — as well as all that I still don’t know and likely will never know.
I think because he was so young in camp, my dad didn’t talk with me much about our family’s incarceration. Though I was deeply aware it happened and keenly conscious of its injustice, it also seemed like too painful an experience to ask much about.
Stories would emerge when we would look at family heirlooms, like a beautiful wooden vase made during incarceration out of scrap wood. But now that he has passed on, many questions remain unanswered.
Though thankfully, due to the decades of diligent effort by Japanese American history preservation organization Densho, I was able to learn more about my family’s incarceration experience.
In the 1983 oral history book, “Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer,” editor Eileen Sunada Sarasohn included pages and pages of first-person history from my grandfather, Roy Wataru Ishisaka, about life before, during and after our family’s incarceration. The book is available online thanks to a partnership between Densho and the Internet Archive.
In the oral history, my grandfather talked about the injustice of incarceration, saying, “ … I believe that America revealed the worst part of its political system to the whole world during the war. Though the Japanese obediently followed the orders, the government did something which was against its own Constitution. It really is a shame. There supposedly is no way possible to evacuate citizens of the USA and place them in camps without due process of law. It was one of the most shameful acts in American history. But I did not lose pride as a Japanese.”
He also talked about the “terrible” conditions in the Merced Assembly Center in California, where they were initially incarcerated. He described how a diet of mutton and beef tongue left an epidemic of diarrhea among the prisoners, an epidemic that overwhelmed the medical staff. After about four months at Merced, they were shipped by train to Granada, where they found themselves in a camp of unfinished barracks, which meant families had to be split up — a heartbreak for them that they challenged the camp administration on at the time.
Later he described making fishing nets out of onion sacks sewed together and weighed down with rocks, and other incarcerated people catching turtles and rattlesnakes for food.
“Oh, camp life was very difficult and also very interesting,” my grandfather said in the oral history. “We had to make a sewage plant there, and it looked like a swimming pool.” The Denver Post then reported that the prisoners had built a hundred-thousand-dollar swimming pool. “It was really hilarious,” my grandfather said. “We told them to come and see the pool, and the newspaper had to write a retraction. They were really looking for something to use against us.”
I can’t ask my dad about the impacts of incarceration on him and our family or about these bits of history, but thanks to this oral history, I was able to fill in some of the missing pieces.
Another way I was able to fill in some gaps was through numerous interviews for the A1 Revisited story. One of the most powerful moments in reporting the story was talking with Seattle poet and author Larry Matsuda.
Like my dad, Matsuda was also born in camp — in his case, Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho, in 1945.
Like my dad, Matsuda’s life has followed the North Star of social and racial justice. An accomplished poet, author and educator, his writings capture the pain, loss and psychological impact of the incarceration experience.
In one poem, called “War on Terror: Border Crossing,” Matsuda writes in part:
“ … I carry my own fence.
Barbed wire encircles me always.
Determined not to follow my parents’ path
into clinical depression or a bleeding ulcer —
my shins are raked by the steel teeth
of my unwilled confinements.
Wearing this yellow skin, I am unable
to walk freely in my own country.
But I learn, border by border,
to leap safely in sudden movements
leaving no remnants snagged on the wire.”
Matsuda told me about a psychiatrist friend who asks new patients, “Were there any traumatic events that happened to your grandparents?” Because, he said, traumatic events travel through three generations. I have thought a lot about that since.
How does the trauma of incarceration manifest in me? Is it in my persistent anxiety? In my deep fear of uncertainty and change? I do not know but the theory resonates. And what of people and communities where the trauma began many generations ago, but is re-inflicted with every passing year? How do they heal and when do you start the three-generation accounting?
Such are the questions facing a country that has so many communities bearing the bruises and invisible — and sometimes visible — scars of racial exclusion and injustice since its inception.
Like the photo of my great-grandmother, there are still many incomplete pictures we have of our country’s history. Some we still have time to fill in. And fill in we must, to paint a more accurate picture of the legacy of our history.