Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Spirit Raised Up Interned Japanese Americans
Spirit Raised Up Interned Japanese Americans
By Fred Dickey Jan. 9, 2017
There’s a core belief of Zen Buddhism that shapes Japanese responses when bad — really bad — things happen. It’s called gaman, and it guides believers to respond to suffering with forbearance and dignity.
Westerners might call that stoicism, after the ancient Greeks. Close, but it’s more than that. Stoicism is acceptance of what the gods want. Gaman is patience with what the world demands.
(I’m sure a half-dozen scholars who study 500-page books on Eastern religions are already sputtering their fine points.)
Patience and forbearance were required on Feb. 19, 1942 with a decree that made the government bend a knee to hysteria. It was Executive Order 9066 that interned about 120,000 U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent on the West Coast. It was sold as protection against sabotage and spying.
Takeo “Tak” Sugimoto was there, and was swept away.
The press generally supported the decree with heavy black headlines and go-along coverage. However, many citizens found it disquieting. Some didn’t turn their backs on their Asian friends, including residents of Tak’s hometown of Encinitas. He doesn’t recall a single unkind word, and that may be why he still makes his home there.
Tak is 89. He is a quiet, small person who walks with a cane, but does so resolutely, as a man certain of his path. His words are clear and brief; his thoughts, careful.
He’s a successful retired pharmacist, a former business owner with a doctorate from the University of Southern California and the father of five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The gaman doctrine is still part of his makeup. He cocoons bad experience with a wrapping of quietude. His memories are forgiving.
In his youth, Encinitas was two or three thousand residents surrounded by scrub brush in remote North County. When invited to our house in Cardiff, Tak was offered directions. Not needed, he said. “I know the area. I hunted rabbits up there as a kid.”
I told him, bring your gun. I saw one run under a bush yesterday.
He took a seat in front of my computer and viewed some black and white photographs. They were by the great Dorothea Lange, and were of the removal of the “victims” — a fair word — of the internment order. (anchoreditions.com/blog/dorothea-lange-censored-photographs)
Tak looked at the old photos, which showed little girls clinging to dolls as though giving protection, kids pledging allegiance to the flag, men with suitcases and haunted eyes contemplating loss of career and property, and women holding babies while awaiting the train that would take them — where?
He stared impassively. “I know these scenes.” What he thought more deeply, he didn’t share.
Tak was 14 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He had no idea where that was, and he had only a vague notion of Hawaii. But he remembers his mother, Yoshie, turning quiet at the news as she went about her chores of running a home in the absence of a hospitalized husband.
Tak says, “She knew it was bad. We kids didn’t know how bad it would be for us, but she did. She sensed it.”
Dec. 7, 1941 was on the radio and somewhere far away, but what happened on subsequent days to them was real and right outside the door.
We got up in the morning and went out to the fields, and all of sudden all these black automobiles came: FBI, immigration and local police.
“They got out and plucked a lot of men right out of the field, put them in cars and took them away. The men didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to their families,” Tak says.
Where did they take them?
“Who knows. I never saw most of them again. I found out that the government had a dossier on all the immigrants.”
His father was in Mercy Hospital in San Diego at the time of Pearl Harbor, suffering from tuberculosis. Tak says Japanese considered TB particularly loathsome, so none of their traditional clergy would call on him. But local Christians did.
His father told his family members that henceforth, they would be Christian. Tak was baptized at Black’s Beach.
After Dec. 7, his father was transferred from Mercy to the L.A. area and the rest of the family lost touch with him after its relocation. Late in the war, when his older brother was drafted into the Army, he asked for a pass to visit his father in California. It was denied because the West Coast was still off-limits, even for a Nisei (born in the U.S.) like him in uniform.
The family was told of the father’s death in 1944, and his ashes (it was presumed) were mailed to them in a package.
The Lange photos are in accord with Tak’s memories of the time of departure and internment. Seen through her lens, the Japanese-Americans at the time were almost passive, lining up quietly when told to. That’s gaman.
However, Tak says there was also a mood of trusting. They believed that these United States, in which they were born or had chosen to live, would not abuse them or cause them danger, wherever they were taken. They were, after all, loyal Americans.
If the irony of that was apparent to those in charge, it didn’t prevent the trains being loaded and departing on time in early April 1942.
“When the call came to leave for the camps, my mother, as always, was reassuring: ‘Things will work out,’ she said.”
“She also told us, ‘Don't be bitter because bitterness will kill you.’”
Tak says prewar, there were about 13 Japanese-American families from Del Mar to south Carlsbad. All were farmers, he recalls. They leased land on which to grow their crops. The machinery and large equipment belonged to them, and when they had to leave, they couldn’t just abandon it in the fields. Opportunistic buyers lurked watchfully in the weeds like coyotes, eager to “take it off their hands.”
In Encinitas, civic benefactor and wealthy landowner Paul Ecke came to their rescue and rented a large warehouse and offered it to the farmers to store their equipment and household goods for the duration — and for free, Tak says. The Sugimotos stored what they could and sold the rest cheap, really cheap.
The name Ecke is still prominent in Encinitas, but not more venerated than in the memories of those internees to whom that paterfamilias reached out.
Tak remembers a poignant but distressing moment as his train departed. All the internees had been told to bring only what they could carry in two suitcases, but some came loaded with excess baggage, not believing they would have to leave their hard-earned belongings behind.
Tak can still look back down the tracks as the train pulled out of the Oceanside station and see the heaped clothing and valuables stacked on the platform getting smaller in the distance. One has no doubt that new clothes were sported on Hill Street that weekend.
The train rolled on with windows closed and blinds drawn to — no one aboard had any idea. Soldiers with bayoneted rifles stood sentry at either end of each stifling car.
The crowded evacuees were finally disgorged amid the Arizona desert, with sand dunes stretching and shimmering in the heat.
Welcome to Poston, Ariz., with a population that quickly grew to 20,000 housed in raw-wood shacks thrown together like a chicken coop. Broiling in summer, freezing in winter.
The three adjacent camps were promptly named Roasten, Toastin and Dustin. Part of the complex was on an Indian reservation. The Indians would have nothing to do with it; perhaps tribal memory told them they’d seen this type of thing before.
If you’re looking for stories of brutality and inhumane conditions, Tak makes clear that he didn’t see it or hear about it in his camp.
The residents settled into a routine not dissimilar to the towns they left. It is indicative of the organization and self-regulation of the camp that the guards probably dozed in the Arizona heat.
Internees were taken advantage of, as you would expect. Pay was a pittance for jobs such as maintenance, teaching and health care. Everything was orderly, but the orderliness became punitive as it extended to fences and curfews and gates that closed at night — abuse that left no outward marks.
Tak, on the other hand, had a ball. No farm chores, just ball games, buddies all around and daily flirting with more girls than he’d meet in several years back home.
In January 1945, Tak acquired a sponsor to enable him to return and graduate at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas. The sponsor was a teacher at the school who took Tak into his Vista home, and they commuted to school together.
“When I rejoined my classmates at San Dieguito, the injustice was made personal for the first time because kids that I knew who had nothing, I mean absolutely nothing when we left, when I got back, they all had their own cars and were doing all these social things because they were working part-time (at wartime industries) and were drawing really good pay.
“When we left, my family was not rich, but we were not poor. We made a better than average living on the farm. But when we returned — nothing.”
However, in Encinitas, the same people who had been friendly to his family before the war were still friendly in the midst of it. The Sugimotos were remembered as neighbors of industry and respect.
There were incidents, of course, but not traumatic, except for one trip to downtown San Diego. There, he remembers staring at store windows and seeing scrawled graffiti: Japs this, and Japs that, and damn the Japs. It was the only time he looked around nervously.
In our entire interview, the only time I saw Tak show visible emotion was when he described walking to the stage to get his high school diploma that day in mid-1945. His voice broke as he described how the entire assemblage — students, teachers, parents — stood and applauded.
Almost three-quarters of a century later and an old man chokes up at a distant memory. How intense must have been the emotion that day?
The year after the war ended, Tak joined the Army and served in Korea and Japan.
He came back with a memory that never left.
After telling me his father was a fisherman before turning to farming, Tak relates his story. “One day (in Japan), I went to a lake and there was this old man renting skiffs to go out on the water. So we're talking, and he asks where I’m from. I says, ‘San Diego.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I used to be in San Diego.’ I says, ‘Oh?’ He says, ‘But I came back here before the war and I got trapped.’ I says, ‘Never went back?’ He says no, but then asks my name. I tell him, and he asks my dad’s name. I tell him, and he says, ‘I used to work for him as a fisherman.’”
I ask Tak if his five children show much interest in the internment.
“No, not much.”
How about grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
“No, not at all.”
His children’s kids and grandkids are all Eurasian and thoroughly American. So who has time for all that old stuff?
Thoroughly American. That’s exactly what Tak was long before they were born.
In retrospect, it’s understandable that society might act rashly in a time of panic. However, the “rash act” (internment) persisted for more than three years, long after eventual victory was apparent. That is less forgivable.
Clarence Darrow once said, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”
With all of today’s trivializing of the word “hate,” we need to protect its sting by avoiding overuse. Let’s save it for hating injustices like Executive Order 9066.
Issei, nisei and sansei Americans who were ensnared in hysteria’s trap fought back with dignity and faith that all would be made right by their fellow Americans when they came to their senses.
It never could be, not totally, but the quality of their citizenship, like that of Tak Sugimoto, shamed those who imprisoned them.
That very act of social grace did its part to make sure the injustice would never happen again.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]
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