Survivor of WWII Japanese Internment Camps Feels Déjà Vu

Malibu United Methodist Church member Ron Yamashiro (left) with his mom June Aochi Yamashiro Berk, and audience members Phil Shigekuni and Mae Kakehashi.

While thousands of protesters gathered at Los Angeles International Airport last weekend and blocked traffic to denounce President Trump’s travel ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries, a group of about 100 at Malibu United Methodist Church got a real-world lesson on what can happen when a country’s fear and discrimination get carried away.

June Aochi Yamashiro Berk, mother of Malibu resident Ron Yamashiro, told the moving story of how, at age 10, she and her family spent four years in Japanese internment camps and detention stations, including one in LA County at the Santa Anita racetrack.

Berk’s parents came to the U.S. from Japan in 1898 with dreams of a better life. Her father worked on the railroads, then became a gardener in Los Angeles. Just when the family thought they were making headway toward the American Dream, he lost all his money in an oil scam and the Great Depression hit. 

Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the incarceration of Japanese-Americans by executive order. Western regional military commanders decided to round up all people with at least one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry from California and parts of Oregon, Washington and Arizona.  Nearly 130,000 were forcibly relocated into camps in 1942.

According to a 2007 exposé in Scientific American, documents were discovered that prove the U.S. Census Bureau gave the military confidential information on the whereabouts of Japanese-Americans. 

One Japanese-American citizen took his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1944 and lost (Korematsu v. United States). The court limited its decision to the order, and avoided the issue of whether the country was incarcerating U.S. citizens without due process.

Berk said that in order to start rounding up Japanese-Americans, notices were posted by the military on telephone poles in her Los Angeles neighborhood. 

“There was tremendous prejudice against the Japanese from the time they arrived in the U.S.,” Berk said, “and the war was just an excuse to get rid of us. It was the same rhetoric I hear today [about Muslims]. Some would say we went willingly to these camps — but if we didn’t, we’d be imprisoned.”

The posted signs gave Japanese-American families and individuals only two weeks to sell their homes, quit their jobs, find homes for their pets and get rid of all their belongings before being taken to one of the settlement camps. 

“Two suitcases and a few plates were all we could take,” Berk said. “We didn’t know how long we’d be gone and people had to make some very painful decisions.”

Berk observed that the term “camp” was a misnomer — it was really a prison. 

“We were behind barbed wire with armed guards and searchlights,” she described. The family was first taken to what is now Santa Anita racetrack, then called Tuna Canyon Detention Station. 

At Tuna Canyon, the Yamashiro family was assigned to a former horse stable as their living quarters. 

“The stench was severe, and we slept on mattresses filled with straw from the stable,” she recounted. “Any visitors had to stand 10 feet away from the barbed wire fence and speak English only — no Japanese; there were communal bathrooms with no privacy, and each girl was issued two dresses and one pair of shoes per year.”

The parents tried to set a good example for the children. 

“Most Japanese parents never complain or protest, or show they’re upset. So I never saw my father angry and I never saw my mother cry in the camp,” Berk recalled. “In camp, my mother sewed. They had the strength to carry on and be the best they could be under these horrible conditions and keep us children from being frightened.”

Phil Shigekuni, 83, an audience member and board member of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Citizens League, was also put in an internment camp as a child. 

“The worst part was feeling less than an American citizen, like an outsider,” he said. “It damaged my confidence and I never recovered from this experience. Neither the mayor, the California legislature or the national ACLU supported us — we didn’t have a friend. We were urged by our Japanese leaders to cooperate.”

“It’s a good example of how badly people can be treated in a country as great as ours,” Berk summarized. “With what’s going on today, we must protect those who need our protection.”

“Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station” is a special exhibit on display at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, until April 9, 2017.