Magazine Feature

'We were still the enemy'

Kenji Ima recalls life in America's World War II prison camps. His daughter works with a Seattle-based educational theater company to share his story.
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Illustration by PJ Loughran

The American government incarcerated Kim Ima's father when he was 4 years old, despite the fact that he was an American citizen who had not committed any crime. Kenji Ima was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans locked away in America's concentration camps during World War II simply because of his ancestry.

"Imagine what it would be like," Kim Ima says as she introduces the play she is about to perform to a history class at the Bronx High School for Writing and the Creative Arts. Black, Hispanic and Arab American students, jammed in a semi-circle of chairs in a worn classroom, nod and furrow their brows as they are quickly transported back to 1940s America.

Kim Ima is one of several actors working for Living Voices, a Seattle theater company that puts performers in classrooms and corporate offices, inviting audiences to view history from the perspective of a character who experienced significant historical events.

On this day in the Bronx, dressed in a knee-length plaid jumper, hair pinned back in school-girl fashion, Kim Ima clutches a book to her chest and begins. She is performing Within the Silence, the story of Japanese American incarceration through the eyes of a young girl named Emiko Yamada. The story centers on the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, where her father spent three years. It was, Kenji Ima says, the defining event in his life.

"For many of us, it's marked on the calendar the way A.D. is marked on the calendar," he explained. "There's life before and life after the camp."


North of Eden

Police officer research a man luggage

Kenji Ima remembers boarding a Greyhound bus on an overcast Seattle day in the spring of 1942 for the ride to "Camp Harmony" in Puyallup. There, thousands of Japanese Americans were temporarily housed in horse stalls and other crude quarters at the Washington State Fairgrounds. A 24-hour trip to the southern Idaho desert followed -- in hot, stuffy trains with the windows shut and curtains drawn for "security" reasons.

Kenji Ima's parents were troubled but silent. Indeed, most Japanese Americans quietly complied with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order, believing they were demonstrating their loyalty to the United States. Dissenters often were shunned within the Japanese American community.

"At that point, it was not a question of right and wrong," Kenji Ima explains. "It was more of a survival attitude."

Kenji Ima, his parents, brother, grandparents and uncles stepped off the train in south-central Idaho, six miles north of Eden. There, they entered a sprawling complex of tar-paper-and-plank barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Lung-punishing dust storms and 104-degree summer days soon became 21-below-zero winter days. Relentless wind penetrated the cheap walls of their crowded barracks. When coal supplies ran low, Minidoka's 9,000-plus residents burned sagebrush in potbellied stoves.

"As a child, you didn't have anything to compare it to," Kenji Ima says. "You didn't know what you were doing there and what was going to happen next. It was simply there, and it was scary."

Minidoka residents tried to normalize life with baseball teams, musical groups, holiday events and a camp newspaper. Children attended school while their parents labored around the camp or in nearby farmers' fields. When the Army came recruiting, Minidoka fielded 1,000 volunteers for the 442nd regimental combat team, a legendary fighting force that suffered staggering casualties and remains one of the most decorated military units in U.S. history.

Minidoka also published a yearbook in 1943 called The Interlude. It is filled with group photos and snapshots detailing daily life in the camp. The Minidoka yearbook contains a description of imprisonment written by the federal government's camp director, H.L. Stafford, who was white:


Racism and Greed

Many people -- politicians, journalists and business leaders -- called for the roundup of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. They spread rumors that Japanese Americans aided in the attack and would continue to work as enemy spies and saboteurs. After investigating, the FBI concluded such claims were fiction.

Still, war-time security became the excuse for mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans. It was far from the sole reason. Vicious and violent anti-Japanese sentiment dated back to the recruitment of Asian workers to provide cheap labor for agriculture, railroads, fish canneries, timber and other industries in the 1800s. Asians were prohibited from owning land or gaining citizenship, and any American woman who married one of these so-called "aliens" lost her United States citizenship.

When anti-Japanese feelings reached a public crescendo in early 1942, the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of California, as reported in the Saturday Evening Post, readily admitted it wanted "to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons."

Teaching Tolerance illustration Japanese Americans on a bus, Spring 1942, on a ride to "Camp Harmony"

"We might as well be honest," the association said. "It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man."

While he spared German Americans and Italian Americans similar mistreatment, President Roosevelt contemplated mass incarceration of Japanese Americans years before Pearl Harbor. In a 1936 memo to the chief of naval operations, Roosevelt suggested making "a special list of (Japanese Americans in Hawaii) who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble."

Roosevelt ignored voices of restraint. A secret study Roosevelt commissioned in the fall of 1941 assured him that Japanese Americans posed no threat. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported there was no national security justification for imprisoning large numbers of Japanese Americans. U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle lobbied Roosevelt not to take such a drastic and questionable step.

Despite such advice from his senior advisers, Roosevelt buckled to war-time hysteria, signing Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 12, 1942. That order effectively labeled Japanese Americans as enemy aliens, outlawed their presence in West Coast "security zones" and initiated the hasty construction of 10 prison camps in some of the most desolate places in the United States. The sweep that followed took children from orphanages and people who were as little as one-sixteenth Japanese.

Beguiled of their worldly goods and treasures, these folks were rushed away to the ramparts of incarceration to endure a shattered composure.

'We Were Still the Enemy'

In the summer of 1945, after more than three years in the prison camp, Kenji Ima and his friends returned home from Minidoka. Seeing the marble edifices of the King Street railroad station and the towering buildings of Seattle, "was like finding Oz," Kenji Ima remembers.

"But we were still the enemy," he said. "Our neighbor on Beacon Hill had a grocery store with a sign that said, 'No Japs Allowed.' Neighbors called me 'the Jap kid.' In school, you knew you'd better watch out."

Kenji Ima's grandmother discovered her Bainbridge Island farm stripped and abandoned by the man who leased it. This was typical. The Japanese American community collectively lost as much as $2 billion in homes, businesses and personal possessions, according to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens. Kenji Ima's parents were an exception, regaining their Seattle boarding hotel intact.

But the family didn't discuss what had happened. "My mother never talked to me about it," Kenji Ima says. He recalled his mother's stock reply whenever the topic came up: "It's something bad that happened, but it's best forgotten."

When Kim Ima was growing up, the Ima family occasionally mentioned her father's time "in camp." It was always called just "camp." Kim Ima prodded her father, a sociologist, for more details -- first in junior high when she was writing a research paper and again in college when she wrote a one-act play about her family's silence. She decided her father's reticence must mean he had few memories of Minidoka because he was there when he was a child.

When they attended a conference about the prison camps in California, Kenji Ima finally started talking to his daughter about the sadness he felt when he first saw Kim Ima perform Within the Silence five years ago.

"I had tears in my eyes," Kenji Ima says. "Every time I see the play, these feelings well up."

The Power of Language

During World War II, the government used vague and misleading terms to describe what was being done to people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Today, some historians and educators believe it is important to use terminology that more accurately reflects what actually happened. Examples of words to avoid include:

Internment generally refers to detaining "enemy aliens" when the nation is at war. Some two-thirds of the Japanese Americans locked up during World War II were U.S. citizens. Moreover, no one in the camps ever was ever accused or convicted of a crime. Incarceration or imprisonment are more accurate.

The federal government ordered virtually everyone of Japanese ancestry to leave the West Coast and arrested those who didn't comply, a process it labeled "evacuation." Forcible removal, exclusion or forced exodus is more accurate.

The federal government used this term to describe people of Japanese descent who were born in the United States. This disguised the fact that the government was locking up U.S. citizens without regard for their constitutional rights. Citizen is more accurate.

Relocation Centers or Internment Camps
Both terms were used by the federal government to describe the 10 camps where more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were held without charges for three years during World War II. The camps were ringed with barbed wire and guard towers. Living conditions were harsh. President Franklin D. Roosevelt privately referred to such centers as concentration camps -- a term also used publicly in some business and political circles. Prison camp also is considered appropriate.

For more discussion and a comprehensive list of terms, has a Terminology and Glossary section.

Who among us is next?

Kim Ima closes her performance in the Bronx classroom by showing the students a page from the Minidoka yearbook that she's held throughout the play. "This is a picture of my father," she tells them. "Most of his childhood memories are from the camp."

She then reads the yearbook dedication, in which the Minidoka residents look forward with surprising optimism:

We have every confidence that this nation of ours will lead the way toward a post-war peace which will bring to all everlasting security based upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity which so many of our sons and brothers are fighting ... and dying ... to uphold.

May we dedicate this book to "the land of the free and the home of the brave," where the Star-Spangled Banner shall wave in triumph; to a truly free and democratic America, where men shall be judged by their actions, not their race, color or creed; to our homeland and the homeland of our children, the United States of America!

As applause breaks out, a young Arab American student in the back of the room says, "That was good." Her words are punctuated by a troubled sigh.

A surge of questions follows, framing the present-day parallels. One student asks, "Do you think [because of 9.11] they will put Middle Eastern people in camps?"

When that idea was raised on a radio show after the World Trade Center attacks, Kim Ima says, U.S Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, defended the 1942 incarceration of Japanese Americans. "Some (Japanese Americans) probably were intent on doing harm to us," Coble claimed, "just as some of these Arab Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us."

The historical echo is a reminder of the need to break the silence, Kim Ima says. She sees it as a mandate to discuss the nation's failures, to talk openly about America's concentration camps, about slavery, about other moments of national intolerance -- "to help us figure out how we want to treat each other," she says.

Her father agrees, though his view is more personal.

"I think that talking to Kim and seeing her shows is a way I am accepting the sadness and using the acceptance to live in the present, ever mindful that bad things happen to others," Kenji Ima says.

The post-9.11 bigotry suffered by Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and others is a painful reminder of the widespread hysteria that sent Kenji Ima to a prison camp 60 years earlier.

"That's why I'm so sensitive to the question of the Muslims," he adds. "I wonder who among them is like us."

'They Call Me a Terrorist'

Christi Cruz, an actress with Living Voices, often thinks about the letter she received from a California student who attended a performance of Within the Silence.

"Thanks for doing this show," the student wrote. "Maybe my friends will look at me differently. After September 11, they call me the daughter of Osama bin Laden; they call me a terrorist."

This reaction is typical for the plays that Living Voices offers on topics ranging from the Japanese American experience in World War II to contemporary struggles of Mexican American farm workers. The Seattle-based theater company's work receives moving reviews from teachers, federal judges, juvenile inmates and people who experienced the events portrayed.

Rachael and Michael McClinton founded Living Voices in 1991 to focus on major events in American history they "feel need a light shined on them," Michael McClinton says.

Their first play, Through the Eyes of a Friend, told the Anne Frank story. Rachael McClinton was their sole actor. But teachers started asking, "What's next?" And soon, McClinton says, "the program was leap-frogging around the country."

Living Voices produces a dramatic video that each performer interacts with during the play.

"We want the students to be able to engage that character in a discussion after the play," Rachael McClinton says. "Our actors aren't really learning a performance; they are learning a curriculum."

Scriptwriter Rachel Atkins typically spends six months to a year researching and writing a play. She then works with actors on the teaching aspects, including how to lead follow-up discussions.

"We emphasize that is it important to acknowledge different points of view about any subject," Atkins says. "We also want to create a safe environment for dialogue, where anyone is able to express their thoughts and be treated with respect."

In the end, "We're there to create a historical perspective with the idea that each person needs to look inside themselves and ask, 'Who could be scapegoated today?'" McClinton says. "History doesn't repeat itself. People repeat history."

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