The Silence That Won’t Go Away

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the novel "Why She Left Us."

When I was in college, I briefly dated a young man who made me promise not to tell his father that I was half-Japanese. His father was a veteran of World War II, one of the thousands who answered the call “Remember Pearl Harbor.” This man, who was in his 60s when I met him, had been injured in the Pacific theater by the “Japs” and could not be asked to make a distinction between that enemy and me.

For this man, Dec. 7, 1941, was truly the “date that will live in infamy.” But for members of my Japanese American family, it was only the beginning of an infamous series of events that would strip them of their homes, livelihoods and self-esteem. In the days and months after Pearl Harbor, the United States found itself as unable to distinguish between its Japanese American citizens and the Japanese war machine as my erstwhile boyfriend’s father. The chain of events that began with Pearl Harbor still lives in me, though I was not born until 18 years after the end of the war.

When the Japanese strike force fanned out over Oahu, one of the people watching was my great uncle, a young Japanese American soldier in basic training at Schofield Barracks. Although his rifle was taken away from him in the early days after the attack, his right to fight for America was reinstated, and he went on to become the youngest member of one of the most decorated U.S. battalions in the war, the 100th Battalion. He was a platoon leader, the man who led the first bayonet charge in Italy and who was the subject of numerous newspaper and TV stories.


His brother--my grandfather, who lived on the mainland at the time--was declared a potential threat to his country and imprisoned in an internment camp in the desolate prairie of southeastern Colorado.

My grandfather was not alone. Just a week after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the secretary of the Navy told the press that the attack was surely the result of “fifth column” activity, and, although no evidence of such sabotage was ever found, the U.S. turned on its Japanese American citizens. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s blessing, 120,000 people were swept off the Pacific Coast and held in 10 camps in the interior of the United States. Although the official reason was “military necessity,” the more honest explanation offered by the western defense commander who oversaw the evacuation was “A Jap is a Jap.”

This part of my family’s history is a blank. Like many Japanese American citizens, my grandparents do not talk about their internment, and my mother, who was only 5 when the war ended, does not remember her years behind barbed wire. In 1992, I made a pilgrimage to Amache, the camp that held my family, hoping to map the shrouded path that they traveled in the years immediately after Pearl Harbor. But all that remained was a small graveyard, a monument and a few concrete footprints where the barracks used to be. The camp, like the past, had become memory.

In my family, we remember only the productive things that happened during the war: My grandmother eventually left camp to teach Japanese to American soldiers; my grandfather to finish school. My grandmother’s brothers were also released after a year or two to fight for their country. One became a code cracker and translator for the top-secret MIS unit in the Pacific; another joined the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team shortly after it sustained more than 800 casualties to rescue 200 Texans in the famous Battle of the Lost Battalion.

I think of all the soldiers in my family when I think of Pearl Harbor. I grieve for the 1,102 crewmen who are entombed on the floor of the ocean in the USS Arizona, and I wonder whatever happened to the “unidentified 10-year-old Japanese girl with the mangled left leg and shock” whom I read about in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, and the other Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Caucasian and Portuguese people who were injured or killed in the streets and seas of Oahu that morning. But I also mourn the wounds in my family, made by all the things we do not talk about. Like the bitter ending for the young man at the Schofield Barracks: my great uncle, the war hero, who was buried without his Japanese American family around him because the U.S. government, which he fought and died for, would not let them fly from Denver to Hawaii to attend his funeral.

During a recent visit to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, I spoke with a woman who had made her one pilgrimage back to Amache with her family. Since I was last there, a group of high school students from the nearby town of Granada had staked the camp site and identified each residential block, so she and her granddaughter were able to search the prairie for the exact place where she had lived. Standing beside that empty plot of land, those years rose up around her, and she could not step past the sign. She turned her back on it, as her granddaughter ran onto the marked ground. *