New exhibit at Angel Island features WWII experiences of Japanese immigrants incarcerated by the Department of Justice

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The “Taken From Their Families” exhibit at the Angel Island Immigration Station Mess Hall. photo by Russell Nauman/AIISF

The “Taken From Their Families” exhibit at the Angel Island Immigration Station Mess Hall.
photo by Russell Nauman/AIISF

Angel Island State Park and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation recently opened a new permanent exhibit in the World War II mess hall on the island, “Taken From their Families: Japanese American Incarceration on Angel Island During World War II.” It tells the story of the internment of 700 Japanese immigrants who were held on the island in 1942 by the Department of Justice and U.S. Army; approximately 600 from Hawai‘i and 100 from the West Coast.

The exhibit features stories of men who were forcibly taken from their families in the early days of World War II and details the routes they took throughout the country after several days on Angel Island. Many were separated from their families for the duration of the war, though some families from Hawai‘i voluntarily rejoined their family patriarchs in War Relocation Authority camps such as Jerome, Ark., or the Department of Justice family camp in Crystal City, Texas. Many from the West Coast rejoined their families in WRA camps after lengthy delays.

Also included are family photographs, images of writings the inmates left behind on the barracks walls documented by San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan, and poetry and other writings they wrote about their brief stays on Angel Island. A specially commissioned video will combine reminiscences of Nisei whose fathers were taken away, with animation.

The FBI had surveilled many leaders in the Japanese American community for many months before the start of World War II, developing custodial detention lists for those considered “enemy aliens” — non-citizen immigrants from Japan, Germany and Italy. Unlike their European counterparts, the Japanese immigrants could not have become citizens even if they wanted to, due to the Naturalization Act of 1790, which said only “free white persons” could become naturalized, confirmed by the Ozawa v. U.S. decision of 1922.

Immediately after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and in the days that followed, thousands of Japanese immigrant Buddhist, Shinto and Konko ministers; journalists; martial arts practitioners; photographers; and community leaders were arrested throughout Hawai‘i and the West Coast. While most of those in Hawai‘i were incarcerated in the islands in locations like Kilauea Military Camp near Hilo and Honouliuli west of Honolulu, close to 600 were sent to the U.S. continent. Angel Island, and later Sharp Park near Pacifica, were the first stops on the continent for the Japanese from Hawai‘i and a transfer location for those from the West Coast. They were later incarcerated in places like Missoula, Mont., Livingston, La. and Lordsburg and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Historian Tetsuden Kashima estimates that more than 17,000 Japanese immigrants and those forcibly taken from Latin America were under the control of the Department of Justice during World War II.

The AIISF has been researching this topic for nearly 10 years, aided by funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program. Sources include original documents from the National Archives and accounts by inmates from Hawai‘i that describe their experiences on Angel Island. Hilo resident George Hoshida created hundreds of drawings of fellow inmates and a rare illustration of Angel Island, now housed within the Japanese American National Museum’s collections, including the drawing that accompanies this article.

Early research for this project has been displayed at Nichi Bei Foundation pilgrimages to the island since 2014, and along with other media coverage, resulted in descendants of several former inmates coming forward to share their family stories.

One is Bay Area resident Mark Shigenaga, who was able to learn about ancestors who were arrested in Honolulu and brought through Angel Island on their way to other camps. The National Archives in College Park, Md. stores the FBI files of both Shigenaga brothers, with excerpts included in the exhibit. Shigenaga notes, “the first Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage in 2014 catalyzed an exploration of my grandfather Kakuro and his brother Shigeo’s wartime incarceration. Before the pilgrimage, our family had a vague understanding of their experiences, largely because these Issei fathers rarely talked about their time in camp. But AIISF’s research, together with the writings of Furuya, Soga, Saiki and Okawa, helped our family both gain a deeper insight and appreciation into their wartime experiences and their post-war changes in life perspectives.”

The exhibit is located in the former Mess Hall building where the inmates ate their meals. They were housed on the second floor of the adjoining barracks, which housed hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Asia and Europe between 1910 and 1940. The exhibit includes stories about “double angels” such as Chokichi Satow who immigrated through Angel Island before 1940 and were also incarcerated there during World War II.

Casey Dexter-Lee, AISP park interpreter, noted, “The Mess Hall was built during World War II and connects visitors to the period of history the new exhibit reflects on and the people who were held on the island. Angel Island’s layered history can sometimes cause confusion to park visitors. Twenty years ago many visitors arrived at the park asking about the Japanese internment camp, when they were actually seeking the immigration station with Chinese poetry on the walls. Now visitors often ask to see the immigration station and when they arrive at the site they will learn about immigration detention as well as the less known WWII stories told in ‘Taken From Their Families.’”

Ed Tepporn, executive director of AIISF, noted, “The history of racist immigration policies that led to over 500,000 immigrants being processed and detained at Angel Island from 1910-1940 are important to remember. The history of forced incarceration of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is also important to remember. At AIISF, we believe that it is important that our nation remembers and reflects upon these historical injustices. This is how we can continue to build solidarity across diverse communities. Together we can create a future where all communities feel safe and welcome.”

Tepporn noted, “Nothing can fully replace a visit to the Angel Island Immigration Station and seeing the new ‘Taken From Their Families’ exhibit in person. But for those who might not have the opportunity to visit in the near future, we have created a virtual exhibit based on the permanent exhibit installed on Angel Island. You can view it at https://www.aiisf.org/taken.” It includes a list of all the known inmates who were detained at Angel Island and links to resources and books that are available. AIISF is still searching for written accounts by those from the West Coast who spent time on Angel Island during World War II. If you know of any, please contact us at info@aiisf.org.”

The Nichi Bei Foundation is hoping conditions will allow for its fifth Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage on Oct. 1, 2022, at which time people can see the exhibit along with speakers and other exhibits. Until that time, the exhibit is available for in-person viewing whenever the adjoining immigration station barracks are open, currently Wednesdays through Sundays. For information about visiting the Immigration Station, go to aiisf.org/planyourvisit/.

Grant Din was lead researcher and co-curator with Casey Dexter-Lee, Ed Tepporn and Russell Nauman of “Taken From Their Families.”

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