Breaking the Long Silence : 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 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."

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