Saving Japanese American History

Times Staff Writer

Daisy Uyeda Satoda, who spent her high school years at the Topaz internment camp in Utah, now spends her days rushing to chronicle her experience and that of her classmates before the memories slip away.

“We’ve been losing so many members” of the Topaz High School class of 1945, Uyeda Satoda said. “That’s why we want to get things into print.”

Sixty years have passed since the U.S. government banished 120,000 people of Japanese descent to camps. Survivors will gather in Los Angeles this week to ponder ways of ensuring that history does not forget them.

The former internees and their supporters have used books, movies and museums to chronicle their story, both for future generations of Japanese Americans and for the broader public.


But one of the most potent tools for recounting the events is vanishing: living survivors. Officials at the Japanese American National Museum, who are organizing the weekend gathering of survivors from all 10 camps, have scaled back attendance estimates from 800 people to 650.

“Health considerations and the passing of so many former inmates has definitely affected the event,” said Chris Komai, a museum spokesman.

Time is also bearing down on officials of Densho, a Seattle-based group compiling a digital archive of videotaped interviews of camp survivors. They will showcase their work at the gathering.

“A number of people in our archives have passed away,” said Patricia Kiyono of Densho, a Japanese term that means to pass on to the next generation. “So that is an impetus for us to continue our work.”

This year includes the museum’s 10th anniversary and the 60th anniversary of the date, Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation from the West Coast of all people of Japanese ancestry.

Museum officials don’t know how many survivors are still alive.

A count taken after the U.S. government formally apologized and offered to redress some of the economic losses suffered by those who were interned found nearly 80,000 living survivors. But that was in 1988.

A reunion of survivors and spouses of the Manzanar camp attracted 800 people in 1980. Another this year drew 200.


“We can surmise and write all the books we want but we did not survive the camp experience,” said Patricia Wolfe, treasurer of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a group dedicated to recounting the experience of the Japanese Americans held at the Heart Mountain internment camp. “For these people to tell their grandchildren and other generations what it was like to live in 17-degrees-below-zero weather, you need their actual oral history.”

Survivors will share some of their experiences at the gathering Friday through Sunday at the Japanese American National Museum and Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Other workshops will focus on ways to preserve their stories and the camps that spawned them.

The need for the gathering is clear to Babe Karasawa, who was in a camp in Poston, Ariz., with his family.

Now a volunteer at the museum in Little Tokyo, Karasawa regularly encounters tours of schoolchildren who have never heard of the internment. He also comes across adults who are aware of the internment, but possess little knowledge of what it entailed.


“We find people who are really shocked by what they learn,” Karasawa said.

Karasawa and Uyeda Satoda plan to attend.

Karasawa is helping to plan a panel of former internees who will read excerpts from their 1981 testimony before a congressional panel that considered redress and reparations for Japanese Americans.

Uyeda Satoda will connect with former classmates to work on the book they are writing about their high school experience at the Topaz camp.


Including lessons on the internment in school curriculums for today’s students will be the topic of several workshops.

In California, state academic standards cover the internment. But in Washington state, individual districts decide whether to do so.

Densho, the Seattle group, offers lessons on its Web site, in addition to access to its archives. The hope is that the lessons will wind up in classrooms.

“We’re not just preserving the materials,” Kiyono said. “We’re working hard to ensure they are taught in schools, with a larger focus placed on civil liberties and the constitutional issues that surround the internment.”


Teaching survivors and their offspring the meanings of seemingly mundane objects -- ranging from immigration documents to wooden sculptures crafted during the camp years -- is the aim of a workshop titled “How Objects Speak: Telling History Through Artifacts.”

“They don’t necessarily mean anything in and of themselves, but they do put a human face on larger events,” said Sojin Kim, an associate curator at the Japanese American National Museum.

Enticing younger generations of Japanese Americans to carry on the legacy of the internment is a key thrust of the summit.

“Hopefully the sansei [third-generation Japanese Americans] and the yonsei [fourth-generation] will continue to tell the story,” said Eddy Kurushima, who spent time at the Jerome internment camp in Arkansas before entering the service. “But after that, I don’t know what will happen.”