WW II Internees Break Their Long Silence


They and their families were uprooted from their homes, to spend the next three years under armed guard in desolate deserts.

Now, more than four decades later, Sugi Kiriyama and Mamoru Eto are among the first to get a national apology for the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, and, for the first time, they are telling their stories.

Kiriyama, who turns 101 next month, and Eto, 107, were among the nine surviving internees who went to Washington last month to personally receive $20,000 checks and an apology letter signed by President Bush.

The Washington ceremony marked the start of the redress payments, mandated by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, to about 65,000 internees who were alive when the law was passed, or their heirs. The payments will be made over the next three years.


Kiriyama, a longtime resident of West Los Angeles, now lives in a Mar Vista convalescent home. Eto, who lived in Pasadena for many years, is now in a nursing home near Boyle Heights.

Neither speaks much English. Kiriyama’s son, George, served as translator during her interview. Eto was assisted by his daughter, Helen.

Sugi Kiriyama

Sugi Kiriyama and her husband, Hisataro, came to the United States in 1913 seeking opportunity. They left their oldest son with relatives in Japan.


They found work on farms in California’s Central Valley. She cooked for crews of Japanese field hands, making miso soup and boiling 100 pounds of rice at a time in steel vats. She earned $45 a month, she recently recalled in Japanese that her youngest son, George, 59, translated.

After an unsuccessful venture of running a coffee shop in Fresno, the Kiriyamas returned to farm work. In the late ‘20s, they moved to Hollywood and then in 1931 to the Sawtelle area of West Los Angeles.

While her husband did gardening work, Sugi Kiriyama worked near home, tending plants at Adachi Nursery and doing housework at Kobayakawa Boarding House.

When World War II broke out, Kiriyama fretted about her son in Japan and worried “because we had no status.” Japanese immigrants were barred from becoming citizens under the 1924 Exclusion Act, which was in effect until 1952.

George Kiriyama, then 11, was going to Sawtelle Boulevard School (later renamed after Principal Nora Sterry) and, after school, to the Sawtelle Institute of Japan for Japanese lessons. He recalls the name-calling and the hurt that started the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

One boy at school “said I started the war, that I had bombed Pearl Harbor,” said George, a nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, who now lives in Torrance. “He couldn’t distinguish Japan from Japanese-Americans.”

Almost immediately there was a 10 p.m. curfew for Japanese residents. Those wanting to go more than five miles from home needed a pass.

Then came President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order in February, 1942, that gave the Army carte blanche to relocate or intern anyone thought to pose a threat of espionage or sabotage. Army officials responded by rounding up 120,000 Japanese on the West Coast. About two-thirds were nisei-- U.S.-born and therefore U.S. citizens.


The internees were allowed to take to camp only what they could carry--which sparked a furious casting-off of possessions.

“A lot of stuff we burned” in a pit in the back yard, George said. “Anything that was Japanese, we felt was counted against (us).”

Sugi Kiriyama cried when she had to sell the polished mahogany piano on which she had just paid the final installment. The piano, bought for $450 for her daughter’s lessons, was sold for $75. The family savings account in the Yokohama Specie Bank was frozen.

On April 27, 1942, they were bused to Manzanar, in the Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Recently, Kiriyama ticked off with her bony fingers what they packed: rice, sugar, a gallon of soy sauce, three pounds of coffee, clothes, a few utensils, two prized scrolls of calligraphy from Japan, some family photos.

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first of 10 barrack-and-barbed-wire camps thrown up in bleak inland areas of California and as far east as Arkansas. Its square-mile plot held more than 10,000 people.

The new home for the seven Kiriyamas was a room 25 by 20 feet--Block 16, Building 6, Unit 6. “All the barracks looked exactly alike, so a lot of people got lost” in the beginning, George said.

The wooden barracks were set atop concrete blocks, and dust whirled up between the floorboards. Within a couple of weeks, the straw-stuffed mattresses were flat. The oil stove was so cold that “you couldn’t cook an egg on (it),’ George said.

George went to school, played softball, learned judo and kendo. The latter sports were “organized right away,” he said, “because there were a lot of instructors.”


And there were the armed guards in watchtowers who cursed and insulted them: “J-A-P, S-O-B,” George spelled, declining to say the words.

But to this day, Sugi Kiriyama, a devotee of the Buddhist-based Seicho-no-Ie religion, does not complain.

“They fed me every day. I’m thankful for that,” she said, bowing her head, her hands folded in prayer. She worked in the camp kitchen, earning $16 a month. She learned shigin, a style of Japanese poetry that is sung.

George shrugged. “She’s not one to cry about things. She’s not a complainer.”

After a year, a loyalty oath was devised so that Japanese-Americans could display their patriotism and join the U.S. Army. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all- nisei unit formed at the urging of some Japanese-Americans, became the most decorated unit in American history.

Internees were asked two questions: Were they were willing to serve in the armed forces? Would they vow allegiance to the United States and renounce any to the emperor of Japan?

Most said yes. But Hisataro Kiriyama and some of the other issei-- Japanese-born immigrants--did not. Ineligible for U.S. citizenship, they reasoned that if they took the oath, they would have no country.

“He answered no, no” to the questions, George said of his father. “The reason is: ‘I am a Japanese, I cannot become an American citizen. How can I give my loyalty to America when I cannot even become a citizen?’ ”

So the Kiriyama family was moved to Tule Lake, a camp just south of the Oregon border that had been set aside for the “no-no boys” and their families--about 22,000 people in all--and those who wanted to return to Japan.

Released from Tule Lake on Christmas Eve, 1945, the Kiriyamas returned to Sawtelle. Sugi Kiriyama resumed her work at the boarding house.

Later, she got jobs as a domestic, and didn’t quit working until she was 82. She joined shigin performance groups, continuing the hobby she had picked up in camp.

She wanted her children to be Americans. At Tule Lake, George had transferred from the regular school to Japanese school, where everything was taught in Japanese, because his father planned to take him back to Japan.

But when the time came at the end of the war, Sugi defied her husband for the first time and said, “Absolutely no.” Hisataro went alone to Japan in early 1946, where the oldest Kiriyama boy still lived.

“She never went back to see her oldest son,” George said. “She wanted to, but wanted to bring us up here. (She decided that) being American would be much more important than being Japanese.”

A federal commission concluded in 1983 that the internment was the result of race prejudice, war hysteria and failed political leadership.

Sugi Kiriyama said simply that she was interned “because of the war and because I was not an American citizen.”

Asked if the internment was wrong, she replied: “At least I went with my friends to camp. I felt secure because I went with my friends.”

She never discussed internment. “I think it’s mental block,” George said.

“It’s that old Japanese concept of ‘It can’t be helped. Just make the best of it . . . shikata ga nai. ' " That and gambare , or perseverance, became the coping mechanisms for camp, George said.

That’s where the generations differ. “There’s no resentment or bitterness--not at her age,’ George said of his mother. It was the nisei and sansei, the second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans, who launched the campaign for redress a decade ago. They “feel they deserve the $20,000 and the apology,” said George, who is to get his own payment in two years.

“We know it was wrong,” he said. “They were scared. And they were Japanese aliens, and we were born here.”

A footnote: Sugi Kiriyama never applied for U.S. citizenship. She has never gone on a pilgrimage to Manzanar. George has gone four times.

Mamoru Eto

Mamoru Eto is 107. He lives at the Minami Keiro Nursing Home, near Lincoln Park northeast of downtown Los Angeles, where the residents eat Japanese meals, are entertained with Japanese songs and are cared for by a mostly Japanese staff.

Like Eto, many of the other residents were interned during the war and have received their apologies and reparations checks. But Eto has the distinction of being the first among them--in fact, the first in the country--to be paid.

Born into a samurai family, Eto won medals in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and taught physical education at a missionary school before heading to America in 1919, intending to study at a school in Massachusetts.

Eto planned to go back to Japan after a few years and become a professor. But when he arrived in San Francisco, he was moved by seeing impoverished railroad laborers who had come to the United States planning to make money and return to their homelands, but who ended up gambling their earnings away every night.

Then and there, he recalled, he decided to be a minister.

He worked on a farm, preached on the side, and sent for his wife, Kura, and his 3-year-old daughter, Hitoko, who now goes by the name of Helen. The Etos eventually had 10 children and settled in Pasadena.

Kura took care of the children while Eto supported the family through gardening jobs. On weekends, he delivered sermons at the First Japanese Nazarene Church, which he established “in our living room,” said Helen, 75, who served as interpreter for the interview.

Kura Eto returned to Japan in 1936 because of illness and died there during World War II. At the start of the war, Helen and two other adult Eto children decided to leave the West Coast on their own, which the government briefly allowed as an alternative to internment.

This policy was soon abandoned “because of the opposition of the authorities and citizens of the interior states into which these people desired to move,” then-Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson said.

Mamoru Eto and the other seven children were sent to the Tulare Assembly Center in Central California in the spring of 1942. There they lived in stables while more permanent camps were being built. After about five months, they were put on a train to the camp at Gila River, Ariz., where they would spend another two years.

Eto set out to make the best of the inhospitable conditions. The camp grounds were barren, so he dug up saplings from a nearby riverbank and replanted them near the barracks. To escape the heat, he dug a den in the crawl space under their quarters, put a desk and chair there, and used it as a study; other people marveled at his idea and dug out basements, too. He scoured the area for ironwood to carve into pencil holders and vase stands.

“He wasn’t one of those people who just sat and waited and moaned,” Helen said.

And, naturally, he started church services and a Sunday school at the 13,340-person camp, and wrote shigin poetry with religious themes.

Helen, who had settled in Salt Lake City, visited a few times. “It was horrible,” she said. “It was so hot” that she would wait until the sun went down to call on her friends in other barracks.

Eto’s son David, then 10, went to school, played baseball, basketball and other sports and invented games with his friends. “We rolled rocks down the hill, big boulders,” he recalled in a phone interview.

The boy found his father no longer the commanding disciplinarian he used to be, now that the War Relocation Authority was setting all the rules and schedules. "(The children) were pretty much on our own,” David said. But he added: “It was a pretty constrained environment. There (was) not a lot of trouble you (could) get into, as a 10-year-old.”

A year after they were evacuated, the internees were asked to take a loyalty oath: Would they pledge allegiance to the United States and forswear any allegiance to the emperor of Japan?

Even though he was a proud and decorated veteran of Japan’s war with Russia, and even though he was ineligible for U.S. citizenship under the 1924 Exclusion Act, Eto accepted the oath.

Answering no was inconceivable, he insisted.

“We came to America,” he said. “We’re not Japanese anymore; we’re American. Of course, I think about Japan, but when it comes to inochi (life) or defending (one’s country), that’s where I’d put my efforts--with America. . . . There’s no other way.”

“I never doubted” the U.S. government, Eto said.

In late 1944, having taken the oath and being too old for military service--he was 61--Eto was allowed to leave camp for Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, a frozen-food processing plant that needed workers. He took his two sons with him, while his daughters went to live with Helen in Salt Lake City. Eto ended up tending the gardens on magnate Charles Seabrook’s estate. He set up a Japanese church in New Jersey, obtained his U.S. citizenship, and returned to California nine years ago.

Eto said the idea of seeking redress never entered his mind, but when he first learned of the campaign to obtain it, he said: “I probably thought if they were giving us money, that was nice.”

In any event, Eto enjoys the attention he has received lately. With a grin, he displayed a clipping from the Nichi Bei Times, a Japanese-language newspaper published in San Francisco: “The First is 107, Mr. Eto.” (Although Eto was the first recipient, he is not the oldest. A Phoenix woman who is 108 was unable to make the trip to Washington.)

The usually steely preacher used to instruct daughter Helen: “Don’t cry. Go hide under your bed. Don’t ever let anyone see you cry.” But Helen said her father had tears in his eyes when he received his invitation to the Washington ceremony.

In the Justice Department’s Great Hall, he delivered the invocation in Japanese. Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh presented the apology and redress check, kneeling first to Eto in his wheelchair, then he gave checks to the other eight elderly internees.

“By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity, but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution and hence to its people,” the attorney general said.

“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past,” President Bush wrote to the internees. “But we can . . . recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

“It was joyful, happy,” Eto recalled of the ceremony. He was surprised to see the hall packed with an audience of about 200 people, including congressmen, senators, Japanese community leaders and reporters. “It felt as though I got to be known by a lot of people,” he added, smiling again.

Admitting a wrong doesn’t come easily for Eto, so he figures that it must have been agonizing for the government. As Helen says: “I’ve never heard him apologize to anyone.”

Until now, Eto had never talked much about the camp with the family, not even with Helen, a Santa Monica resident who visits him at the nursing home at least once a week.

He emphasizes that there were some good things about camp life--leisure time, for one.

“Before, I had to work to feed and shelter the family--and now the government took over that job,” he said.

What was worst, he said in a defiant voice, was being herded there at all.

He pounded the table with his hand. “Japanese are not the type of people you have to put (behind a fence). . . . It was absolutely uncalled for to be put in camp, inside the wire fence and with a soldier with a gun in a tower.”