Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending nearly 120,000 Japanese and U.S. citizens to internment camps around the United States. One was former Baltimore Sun reporter Gene Oishi, then 8 years old.
Gene Oishi grew up in Guadalupe, Calif., his life split between two cultures: Japanese and American. He and his friends spoke Japanese and English. They went to see both Japanese movies and Hollywood movies at the local theater. Every year his family celebrated the Emperor’s birthday, shouting “Bonsai!”
His bi-cultural existence was threatened by the looming onset of war. He remembers his mother reading about the possibility in a Japanese magazine she had sent from abroad.
“I recall my mother whispered to herself, ‘I hope it never happens.’ I said ‘What?’”
She evaded for a minute before admitting that she was afraid a war would soon break out between Japan and America.
To a Japanese-American kid like Oishi, the prospect was “absolute horror.”
“The world was split apart for me,” he said.
“‘Get ‘Em Out—And Quickly,’ Californians Say of Japs,” ran a headline in The Baltimore Sun on March 16, 1942. Japanese people, it seemed, were situated all around areas of strategic military importance. It could just be coincidence, the paper acknowledged. But a grand Japanese conspiracy seemed more likely, given the anti-Japanese hysteria of the time.
One of those persons deemed a threat was Gene Oishi’s father, a farmer who’d come to America in 1903, trying to make some money. “He was something of a big shot in the Japanese community,” Oishi said. His status made him a threat in the eyes of the FBI, which kept a close eye on him.
He was arrested at 2 a.m. on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack.
Later investigations have shown that the U.S. lacked any intelligence of Japanese espionage. There was no reason to believe that Oishi’s father, or any of the 120,000 Japanese people sent to internment camps during World War II, posed a threat to the United States. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged it was a mistake; survivors were paid $20,000 in reparations to help compensate for their financial losses decades earlier.
“That’s what war does to people’s thinking,” Oishi, 83, said over the phone from his home in Mount Washington.
A few months later came internment. “We used to call it ‘the evacuation,’” Oishi said. “That sort of sounds like it was being done for our own good.”
The family sold their belongings. The piano. The washing machine. They bought hiking boots and backpacks and duffel bags. Internees were limited to what the could carry; at home, the children practiced with the backpacks, testing their abilities. Oishi’s brother brought an illicit radio. Dentists brought medical equipment, and others brought tools that would eventually prove useful in the camps.
Oishi was 8 when he got to his first camp, 9 when they got to the permanent camp where he and his mother spent the next three years. (His father eventually was released from prison and allowed to join the family).
Oishi only later realized that the adults of his parents’ generation believed they were being sent to extermination camps, not internment camps – that they would be left in the desert to die.
“Their children, the American citizens thought no, such a thing couldn’t happen in America,” Oishi said. “We had learned about the Constitution and what a good country this is.”
“When I think about it, I must have sensed my mother’s fear.” Her hair – once shiny, raven black – turned white, seemingly overnight to her young son. Oishi thinks perhaps in reality, she just stopped dyeing it at the camp.
At the camp, each family had one room to live in. It was barely furnished, but internees made furniture with lumber found on the grounds. “Some very nice furniture was made,” he recalls.
“After everything settled down, the biggest problem was boredom,” he said. And, for a time, hunger. Food was scarce for the first year of internment, until the older American citizens were allowed to leave, so long as they pledged allegiance to the United States. Many volunteered for the Army after that. Others were drafted.
“If you ask a lot of people of my generation they will say as I said: ‘The camp wasn’t so bad, I had a good time there,’” Oishi said. “By the middle of the second year, we were growing our own food. The desert where we went could be very beautiful and the school was organized so they had sporting events — we played football and baseball. I don’t recall learning much.”
“When it stopped being fun was when the war ended and we were supposed to go back to our homes,” he said. There had been reports of people shooting at Japanese people in their homes. “I think we were very much worried about how we would be received. … That was a very scary time when the war ended and the camps were closed and they gave us each $25,” he said.
When his family returned home from the desert, vagrants had taken it over. There was food rotting, and a dead cat being eaten by maggots.
“The toilets were filthy, there were dried feces under the bathtub,” Oishi said. “It took us the whole summer to clean up the house, to paint it and make it livable.” His parents, once prosperous, had no source of income and pleaded for work with a labor gang.
Oishi eventually went to college and became a reporter, working for The Baltimore Sun. His writing brought him back in touch with an experience he’d long left buried.
In the 1980s, he took a month off from The Sun to write a freelance story for National Geographic about his experience in the internment camp. Oishi said National Geographic wanted a feel-good, happy story about the plucky Japanese immigrants who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
“They wanted this story of the model minority,” Oishi said. “The more people I talked to, the more I sort of explored my own feelings. I just couldn’t write this happy story.” He gave them what he felt was a more honest story.
National Geographic, in turn, chose not to publish the piece but paid Oishi $4,000. (The story eventually ran in The New York Times).
He eventually set out to write about his experiences in the camp. “I didn’t want it to be a pity book,” he said. “There’s much more to the Japanese experience. The more I got into writing about history, I slowly understood how many wells of pain that resided in me at one point.”
Oishi was having back pain on Sunday, but said he became so engrossed telling his story he forgot it was hurting.