Fumiko Hayashida dies at 103; among first Japanese American internees

In a photo that became a symbol of a painful chapter in U.S. history, Fumiko Hayashida holds her sleeping daughter in March 1942 as they waited to be sent to an internment camp.
(Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection / Museum of History and Industry)

The woman’s name was unknown, but the picture of her cradling a sleeping baby girl came to symbolize a troubling chapter in American history.

Fumiko Hayashida, a 31-year-old Japanese American from Bainbridge Island, Wash., was photographed in March 1942 waiting for a ferry to the mainland, the first leg of a journey that would end behind barbed wire. She and her daughter were labeled like suitcases, with large ID tags hanging from strings tied to their bulky coats.

Hayashida was among the first group of Japanese Americans forced from their homes by federal authorities and shipped to distant internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was unaware that her exile had been recorded by a photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper.

Decades later, the image of the mother and her child was widely circulated in campaigns pressing the federal government to make amends for the wartime incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast. In her 80s, Hayashida stepped into the spotlight to tell the story behind the heart-rending photo, which was reproduced on fliers and shown in traveling Smithsonian exhibitions.


“She was nobody and yet she was everybody,” Natalie Ong, the baby captured in the iconic photo, said Friday about her mother, who died of natural causes Nov. 2 in Seattle. She was 103.

At 95, Hayashida testified in Washington, D.C., before a House subcommittee, urging lawmakers to never forget the injustice that was done to loyal citizens during World War II. Her testimony is part of a 2009 documentary, “Fumiko Hayashida: The Woman Behind the Symbol,” directed by Lucy Ostrander.

Born on Jan. 21, 1911, Hayashida was the fourth of nine children of Japanese immigrants who grew strawberries on Bainbridge Island. She was sent to live in Japan for part of her childhood, returning to the United States in 1923 when she was 12. She graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1933.

In 1938 she married Saburo Hayashida, a fellow second-generation Japanese American. They began farming berries and within a few years started a family.

On Dec. 7, 1941, they were at home reading the Sunday paper when they heard the news that Japanese bombers had struck Pearl Harbor.

Hayashida remembered feeling disbelief — and anger.

“I wondered to myself: What is wrong with Japan?” she said in her remarks to the House subcommittee in 2006. “I was so mad at Japan. I thought that Japan must know that they can’t win a war against America. ... I knew that we were a much stronger country.”

But her emotions quickly shifted to fear. “I realized,” she said, “that I now had the face of the enemy.”

Three months after the attack, the U.S. Army arrived on Bainbridge Island to begin carrying out President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass internment.

The very first group of Japanese Americans removed under the order were 227 Bainbridge residents, including the Hayashida family. They had only six days to find caretakers for their property and settle their affairs.

On March 30, the soldiers loaded them into trucks bound for the ferry. Allowed to pack only one suitcase, Hayashida wore several layers of clothes and saved the suitcase for flannel that she planned to cut into diapers for her 14-month-old daughter, Natalie, and the baby who would be born at their first camp, Manzanar. She also had a son, Neal, who was 3.

Her husband is not pictured in the photo. She is wearing a stylish hat and clutching a stuffed toy while holding her little girl. Her face betrays little emotion, but she said later that she was thinking about the uncertain future and fearing for her children.

She decided to heed her husband’s advice to calm down. “That’s all he said,” she recalled in the Kitsap Sun of Bremerton, Wash., in 2011. “Trust the government. They won’t hurt us.”

She took the first train ride of her life, from Seattle to California’s Owens Valley, where the Manzanar camp was still under construction. Families were crammed into tight quarters with tar paper walls. There were no walls in the lavatories.

“It was so humiliating that some people would wait until late at night to use the latrines and surround themselves with cardboard boxes,” Hayashida recalled in her testimony.

Five months after arriving, she gave birth to her third child, Leonard.

Besides her daughter and son Neal, she is survived by a sister, Midori Yamasaki, of Japan; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1983 and son Leonard in 2006.

She spent a year at Manzanar before voluntarily moving to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho to be closer to relatives and friends from the Seattle area.

When she and her family returned to Bainbridge Island in 1945, they found the farm in poor shape. “We were lucky to have a home to come back to,” she told the International Examiner in 2009. After struggling for several years, they moved in 1951 to Seattle, where her husband had found steadier work as a machinist for Boeing and she worked part-time for an import company while raising their children.

The redress movement, which culminated in 1988 with President Reagan’s formal apology on behalf of the government (and later brought payments of $20,000 for each survivor of the camps) eventually drew her out of her quiet life.

When the Smithsonian decided to include the famous photograph in a 1993 show, “Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women 1885-1990,” an artist involved in the exhibit decided to find out who the woman in the picture was.

“She was just a photograph. A lot of people didn’t realize she was still alive,” said Hiro, a visual and performance artist in Alexandria, Va., who goes by a single name. After a few phone calls, she found Hayashida in Seattle in 1993 and arranged a series of public appearances for her in conjunction with the Smithsonian show.

“She said, ‘I’m just an ordinary farmer’s daughter.’ She was very humble about the whole thing. But she was fearless,” Hiro said. “She didn’t hesitate to talk about the experiences she had.”

Hayashida lived independently until after she turned 100, in 2011. That year she attended the dedication of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Wall, a memorial built on the site of the ferry landing where she had made a sorrowful departure seven decades earlier.

That year she also returned to Manzanar for the first time.

“The first thing she said was it didn’t look anything like it did then. And she had some tears,” her daughter said. “She said, ‘I had three kids under five.’ That’s what she remembered.”

Twitter: @ewooLATimes