Recently in July I visited the Amache (formally known as Granada) internment camp in Granada, Colo., along with 12 other family members. We represented three generations (Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei) coming from multiple cities (Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco). Three people in our group were former internees — including both my parents and my uncle. Although for most of us it was our first visit to an internment camp, my parents and uncle had not been back to an internment camp since they left as young children more than 65 years ago. We didn’t know what to expect, except that it would be quite a learning experience, something we all wanted. And what better way than to do it than with family.
Granada is not an easy-to-access destination. In fact, my flight from San Francisco to Denver was much shorter than the four-and-a-half hour drive from Denver to Granada, which is located in the southeast corner of Colorado. We were fortunate to meet with Professor Bonnie Clark, who invited us to visit the Amache camp and gave us a personal tour. Professor Clark is an associate professor at the University of Denver (DU) and curator of archaeology at the DU Museum of Anthropology (DUMA). Her archaeology work at the Amache camp is truly amazing, as her students assist her in the archaeology excavations to find artifacts of what camp life was like, as well as piece together what the internees did during their time and how they may have felt during their difficult incarceration. Some of her findings included:
• Women’s role: Although food was only supposed to be eaten in the mess hall, she found cooking utensils and supplies in the barrack areas, indicating that women wanted to prepare food for their family, even if it was only reheating gohan (rice) from the mess hall. Despite their restricted living conditions, they still wanted to be the nurturers of their family.
• Lack of privacy: Internees had to wash their clothes in a public area washroom. Multiple buttons were found along areas of camp far away from the public area, indicating that some internees were embarrassed, and so they preferred to wash their clothes in private. The buttons were lost while internees used a washboard to scrub their clothes.
• Farming expertise: Professor Clark excavated various sections of the camp. She will have soil samples examined to learn how the internees were able to grow fertile crops out of barren soil. During one excavation of a garden, Professor Clark found eggshells in the soil, which may have come from the mess halls or chicken farm, and proves that internees made efforts to cultivate the soil. Since the internees were from California, there were some farmers among the group who were extremely knowledgeable about farming. The internees even generously gave some of their successful crops to the guards in the guard towers.
Since Professor Clark had a map of all the Amache barrack numbers, we were able to visit the barrack my family was in: 10H. There are no buildings left, only the foundation. However, Professor Clark showed us the indentations of where doorways once stood, so we could envision the individual barracks for each family (which were quite small — essentially smaller than my living room).
My grandmother, Haruko Tademaru, is a Nisei who was incarcerated in the Amache camp with her husband Harry in October 1942, along with her Issei mother and five other siblings. Since you could only bring into camp what you could carry, all my grandmother could carry was her 2-year-old son Roy, and my mother Helen, who was only 1 at the time. My grandmother had to take care of two very young children while living in camp, had a third child born in camp, and was pregnant with her fourth child when she left.
Visiting Amache for the first time along with my 16-month-old son — who was the same age as my mother was during her incarceration — made me reflect on how much easier our lives are today. We visited the Amache camp in air-conditioned cars, wearing SPF 70 sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats. We brought out golf umbrellas to stay in the shade because it was so hot. I couldn’t even imagine how the internees endured waiting in long lines (to use the bathroom, to go eat in the mess hall — there was a line for everything, we were told), the intense heat (it was 95 degrees), the dust (which we heard was everywhere back then with very little vegetation), and even the air was even harder to breathe due to the higher elevation than the moderate San Francisco climate I am used to.
My grandmother is now 91 years old living in Chicago, and has not discussed her camp experience. Her dream as a child was to attend college, and she was one of the Japanese American high school valedictorians featured in Joyce Hirohata and Paul T. Hirohata’s book, “Nisei Voices.” While my grandmother was not able to attend college due to the Amache incarceration and starting a family — who lost everything they owned — she and her husband moved to Chicago after they left camp and were able to send three of their children to college. Her oldest child Roy died at age 14 due to meningitis. These are the things that we must remember — all the sacrifices that our Issei and Nisei made for us so we, the younger generations, can live a better life.
I encourage all of you to visit an internment camp if you have not already. It was a humbling experience. We think our lives are difficult if someone cuts us off on the drive to work in the morning. In today’s world of wanting a brand new iPhone or a fancy new car, it was a humbling experience to realize what our ancestors went through. I asked my mother what her thoughts were after visiting Amache, since she does not have any recollections as a baby. “Now I understand how much my mother suffered in camp,” she said. This is true of all 120,000 internees, and something that we must pass on to future generations.
The forced internment had a severe impact affecting our Japanese American community and all the individuals and families who were interned, and to some extent still affects us today. What was formerly many thriving Japantowns throughout the state of California, there are only three Japantowns left in the U.S. today: San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. As our Issei have already passed away, and our Nisei and Sansei who were interned are also now passing away, it is important that we honor our ancestors and those internees who are still alive, surviving a difficult period and passing along Japanese values such as shikata ga nai (“it can’t be helped”) and gaman (“bearing the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience”).
While the forced incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II was wrong, it is our responsibility to pass along the values, culture and traditions that our ancestors have taught us, and share the stories of what our ancestors endured to keep their legacy alive.
To my grandmother and all of those who were interned, domo arigato gozaimashita.
Gail Tanaka is founder and president of Cherry Blossom Alumnae, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.