St. Louis Park resident Jim Kirihara said he knew he did not have the same status as white Americans even before the United States government interned him and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans.
“I knew I was a second-class citizen even though I was born there on the West Coast,” said Kirihara, who lived with his family in Oakland, California, when the U.S. ordered Japanese-American residents on the West Coast to report to internment camps during World War II.
“They passed laws that Asians could not marry white people, and it was on the books,” said Kirihara, 91. “At an early age, I knew we were second-class regardless of whether we were citizens or not.”
He and other Japanese-American Minnesotans who were sent to internment camps plan to attend “The Japanese American Incarceration: Could It Happen Again?” a day of remembrance program 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul.
Although he had traveled to Japan on a steamer as a 10-year-old to visit relatives, Kirihara mainly knew his California surroundings as a boy. His parents, who as immigrants from Japan could not become citizens at the time, ran a small mom-and-pop grocery store when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 Feb. 19, 1942. His parents had bought the store with income his father made repairing shoes and his mother earned from sewing, Kirihara said.
Roosevelt’s order authorized the mandatory evacuation and internment of individuals of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.
“When 1942 rolled around, they had to just quit buying and shut down,” Kirihara said.
Japanese-Americans in his area who could read newspapers first “got wind that something was going on,” Kirihara said.
Then they saw signs posted ordering “a responsible member of each family” of Japanese ancestry in designated areas to report to a Civil Control Station for further instructions.
“We knew something was going to change,” he said.
Kirihara’s family sold the store’s refrigerators and canned goods.
“We let our landlord know we wouldn’t be able to rent any more,” Kirihara said. “We lived in the back of the store. We had to store an automobile because we didn’t know what the time table was going to be. They had to assign you all these different numbers – serial numbers. You had to check in.”
The family had to turn in shortwave radios, he recalled.
“I don’t know what was wrong with listening, but that was the edict,” he said. “We never got anything back.”
Life at internment camps
The government sent his family to the Tanforan horse race track in San Bruno, California, along with about 8,000 other residents of Japanese ancestry in the area.
The government did not have enough barracks and thus assigned he, his younger brother and his parents to live in a two-room horse stable for about a half a year.
“They gave you a mattress cover filled with straw,” Kirihara said.
While the camp had a weekly talent show, card games and comedy from a Japanese-American comedian, the race track also featured “soldiers and guard towers and everything else,” Kirihara said.
And they couldn’t leave.
“There’s not much you can do in a place like that,” he said.
He noted his draft card at the time contained an enemy alien classification despite his birth in the United States.
The government sent his family to the Central Utah Relocation Center, also known as Topaz.
“Named for a nearby mountain, Topaz was in the middle of an area charitably described as a ‘barren, sand-choked wasteland,’” a description by the J. Willard Marriott Library at The University of Utah states.
Kirihara said, “They wouldn’t even tell you where you’re going. They put you on a train. I remember one time we were going over water. Some people guessed it was (the Great) Salt Lake.”
After they arrived at camp in Utah, Kirihara recalled, “There were soldiers. We were under barbed wire – just like a concentration camp. I was there when a man was chasing a dog, and he got killed. In Topaz. I was there when he was killed. There was nothing anybody could do about it.”
He said some of the soldiers at the camp appeared to be “stir-crazy.”
The Topaz Museum’s website states, “On April 11, 1943, James Wakasa, age 63, was shot by a guard when he was standing near the southwest section of the fence. After an outcry from the camp population, guarding procedures changed.”
Military recruiters visited to see if any of the interned individuals who qualified would volunteer to serve in the Army.
“While we were in a concentration camp,” Kirihara said incredulously. “It took a lot of guts, I’ll tell you what, to have recruiters come in. It was just unbelievable.”
The Topaz Museum website states 105 volunteers did leave the camp for active duty, though.
Kirihara would later join the Army himself after he was drafted to serve during the Korean War in 1950. His name appears with others Japanese-Americans “who served their country despite the fact that almost all were incarcerated at Topaz,” according to a marker titled “All Gave Some – Some Gave All” at the site of the camp.
The marker includes a map of the Topaz camp, including the location of barbed wire, guard towers and a military police headquarters.
Kirihara received a high school diploma at the camp after the government built schools a few months after the family arrived in Utah.
Release to Minnesota
A Caucasian agronomist at the camp helped Kirihara leave in 1943 after the parents of the worker’s wife in Minnesota agreed to sponsor him. He was 18 at the time.
“In 1943 residents with sponsors were encouraged to leave the camps and move farther inland,” the Topaz Museum website explains.
Once he had moved to Minneapolis, Kirihara took mechanics classes at Dunwoody Institute, attended the Minnesota School of Business and became an accountant. He would go on to work in management at ThermoKing for 27 years.
His parents left Topaz in 1944 and joined him in Minnesota.
“We were lucky we were able to buy a house in those days in south Minneapolis,” Kirihara said. “It was a mixed area – black people, white people. Nobody objected.”
While in the Army, he met his late wife, Shigeko Kirihara, during a trip to Chicago with another Army serviceman. She and her family had been incarcerated in the Tule Lake internment camp in northern California, designated for prisoners deemed to be disloyal to the United States as a result of a questionnaire or who had caused disturbances at other camps, according to the Topaz Museum and the J. Willard Marriott Library.
After his time in the Army, where the service took advantage of his skills as an accountant, Kirihara returned to his life in Minnesota. He has been a St. Louis Park resident since 1953.
Reflecting on Roosevelt’s executive order, Kirihara said, “What are you going to do when you know the government can do whatever they please with your life? There’s nothing you can do, but go to Canada. A lot of guys did. It reinforced my thought about being a second-class citizen. You’re born into a nationality, and there’s nothing you can do.”
After leaving the Utah camp, Kirihara indicated he knew he would not return to the West Coast.
“One thing I was certain of – I would start life over again,” Kirihara said. “It’s a decision as to what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I just took a chance and went to business school.”
He and Shigeko, who died in 2010, raised two sons and a daughter in Minnesota. He has six grandchildren, all of whom received good educations, he said.
“I made the right choice to come to Minnesota,” Kirihara said. “I sure don’t regret coming to Minnesota after all that we went through.”
Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to provide redress for violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights of people interned during World War II. Two years later, President George H.W. Bush provided a formal apology and the compensation of $20,000 authorized in the act to each interned citizen or legal permanent resident who was still alive.
During an interview, Kirihara displayed a document signed by President H.W. Bush in 1990.
“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals,” states Bush’s letter. “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
The letter goes on to state that by enacting a law providing restitution and a sincere apology, “your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice.”
The letter concludes, “You and your family have our best wishes for the future.”
Of the Civil Liberties Act, Kirihara remarked, “We had a leg to stand on because of the politics and discrimination of moving out 120,000 people. I’m just telling you the truth of what happened to us.”
The Minnesota History Center event commemorating the anniversary of the executive order features a live readers’ theater performance and the drumming group Kogen Taiko. There is no cost to attend, but organizers have asked attendees to register by calling 651-259-3015 or visiting mnhs.org/calendar.
Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]