Mother, Sons Overcame Internment, Postwar Racism


They were a fighting family.

She gave five of her sons to the nation’s fight against fascism, but the loneliest battle Haruye Masaoka fought was the struggle against home-front racism that she took to the California Supreme Court.

In 1942, the national grief over the Sullivan family’s loss of all five sons on the same cruiser at the battle of Guadalcanal prompted Congress to forbid siblings from serving in the same unit. But one year later, five of Masaoka’s six sons jumped at the chance to prove their patriotism.

For them, the Sullivan rule did not hold; they weren’t allowed in regular military units. But they could join the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And so, side by side, they signed up.


Their mother was born Haruye Goto in southern Japan in 1889. In 1905 she left Japan with her parents for San Francisco, to meet and wed Eijiro Masaoka, 11 years her senior, in an arranged marriage.

The couple moved to Riverside and then to the California heartland of Fresno, where they toiled in the fields for vegetable farmers and had the first of their eight children.

In 1913 the California Legislature passed a law forbidding the Japanese-born to own property. Weary of working land that could never belong to them, the Masaokas in 1916 borrowed money and bought--sight unseen--a piece of land in Utah, then packed up and moved there.

The land was untillable; it lay in the bed of the Great Salt Lake. With a defiant kind of hope, the Masaokas looked for new opportunities to support themselves and pay their debts, and found it in a produce and fish market in Salt Lake City.

By 1924 they had three fish and produce markets. But one night, Eijiro’s broken, bloodied body was found on the side of the Salt Lake road. The hit-and-run driver who killed him was never identified.

At 35, Haruye Masaoka was left with eight children, little money and a lot of debts. Plus, she barely spoke English and her children barely spoke Japanese. Friends encouraged her to let her six boys be adopted or at least live temporarily with other families. She refused.

The widow, her brood and the three little stores managed nicely until the Depression hit. Refusing to declare bankruptcy, Masaoka insisted on paying off her debts, a few dollars at a time. She considered these “debts of honor.”

A tiny woman with a backbone of steel, she salvaged what she could from the business, packed up her children, some of whom by then were teenagers, and headed back to Southern California.

Settling in the Sawtelle area of West Los Angeles, she and her family started over again and opened a fruit and vegetable stand on Wilshire Boulevard.

But when the United States declared war on Japan in December 1941, the Masaoka family was uprooted from its home and shipped to Manzanar--a word meaning apple orchard--a dusty, inhospitable internment camp on the bleak edge of the Owens Valley. This time the family lost its home and business not to economic conditions but to anti-Japanese war fervor, and was sent to live in a crowded tar-paper shack, where the cold was chilling and the heat intense.

In camp she watched her fellow internees fracture into factions. Some argued that they had no obligation to obey a country that had treated them so badly. Others said that by following the nation’s wartime rules, inside the camp and out, they would show themselves to be patriotic Americans.

Masaoka’s son Mike lived outside the camp because he was national secretary for the Japanese American Citizen League, which worked with the U.S. government. As liaison to the camps, he urged internees to cooperate with the government. But some saw him as a symbol of betrayal, a man who colluded with government officials rather than striking out at them.

When riots broke out over these issues and the arrest of an internee, Masaoka watched military police fatally shoot two young men and wound several others. Their shirts with blood-stained bullet holes seared her consciousness for the rest of her life.

Through Pentagon connections, Mike Masaoka began to organize the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans formed by the Army. The 100th Infantry Battalion had been organized when about 1,300 Hawaii Nisei demanded that they get an opportunity to prove their patriotism.

Their enthusiastic training so impressed the Army brass that the 442nd was formed. It would become the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.

Because of anti-Japanese prejudice, all who volunteered were still under a cloud of suspicion and distrust. Mike was the first to join, followed by four of his brothers: Ben and Hank volunteered from farms in Idaho and Nebraska, Tad from behind barbed-wire fences at Manzanar. Ike, who had already been in the Army before the war, transferred to the 442nd. Joe, the eldest at 34, was the only brother not in uniform. He stayed behind at Manzanar to care for their mother.

(After the war, Haruye Masaoka would be cited in the Congressional Record for having “five sons in combat simultaneously.”)

Before the war ended, Masaoka lost the second of her six sons. Ben was missing in action. His body was later found buried in Italy and was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery. Three of her other sons were wounded, Ike so severely that he was ailing the rest of his life.

When the battles overseas were finally over, the battle on the home front was just beginning.

Masaoka returned to Los Angeles and settled in with her children, moving from house to house every few months. Despite her sacrifices, she was still barred by state law from owning land, and by federal law from becoming a U.S. citizen.

To challenge the state law, she used the $250 government benefit from Ben’s death to buy a piece of land in Pasadena. The land was bought legally, in the name of her U.S.-born children, but when it became clear that she would be the owner, the purchase was derailed.

With the help of her son Mike, by now a lobbyist for Japanese American civil rights interests, she filed a lawsuit. Other cases filed by Japanese Americans persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Alien Land Law for its impact on U.S. citizens, and the Masaoka case prompted the California Supreme Court to rule in March 1950 that the law also violated the 14th Amendment rights of the foreign-born mother and her U.S.-born children.

Masaoka took the $250 from the aborted real estate deal and established the first postwar memorial college scholarship for Japanese American students. It still exists.

But Masaoka and others like her were still barred from becoming citizens. Her son Mike, energized by the victory over the Alien Land Law, took up the citizenship question.

In 1952, Haruye Masaoka watched with a mother’s pride as Congress, in a historic vote, passed the McCarren-Walter Act, which allowed Asian immigrants to become U.S. citizens. It was through her son’s lobbying that after a half-century of living in the United States, and losing one son to its war, she could now become a naturalized citizen, which she did.

She died in 1978, at age 93, at a Japanese retirement home in Boyle Heights. She was buried in the family plot at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, next to her husband and two of her sons.