A Glimpse into the Japanese Internment Camps: Recollections of Dorothy Ikuko Amatatsu-Watanabe

Original version in Nostalgia Magazine, March 2010
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Perhaps my first inkling of the Japanese Internment Camps occurred when I was a boy. As a youngster, I occasionally visited my Uncle Minnie and Aunt Sarah who lived in San Jose. New to San Jose, Minnie bought a home in 1944; a small, comfortable house on 21st Avenue along the Coyote Creek. In the back of their place there was a vegetable garden and a steep slope, tangled with brush which led to the water below. One day while exploring beyond the garden, I came across an unusual find. There were dishes with Japanese symbols and old bottles. My cousins and I later spent endless hours excavating where numerous artifacts were found. The items weren’t necessary trash and they included a bronze shrine, a letter opener, toys, and Japanese art pieces. All of it was interesting to me and little did I understand how these artifacts came to be deposited here.
Some 30 years before, Minnie, with a chunk of his life’s savings, purchased the home from a realtor. In discussing the purchase with an aunt, I learned that the house belonged to a Japanese family and that they were called to task. During the Japanese internment relocation in 1942, the family was forced to move. Upon moving in, my aunt recalled that paper lanterns adorned each bedroom.
With little time to react, tens of thousands of Japanese families were forced to leave their homes. Japanese who were lucky enough to sell, got a little for their homes, businesses, and possessions. Many more lost nearly everything as they were forcibly relocated to one of ten internment camps around the country. I now realize that in an urgent scramble, the Japanese family who owned the house before my uncle were burying or tossing their non-critical possessions over the bank, likely preparing for a quick sell of their home. Kitchen utensils, decorations, and other items had to go quickly. There is no doubt that some Japanese families hid their possessions and treasures with the hopes of returning some day to retrieve them. While adventurous at the time, those archeological digs behind Uncle Minnie’s garden haunt me now.
Following the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hurled forth an order that would leave a lurid, indelible mark on American history. Infamously known as Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt’s proclamation altered the lives of 120,000 Japanese people by ripping them from their homes and placing them in concentration camps, less drastically known as “Internment Camps.” People of Japanese heritage living in the western portions of Washington, Oregon, and California, in proximity to “military zones” were relocated far and away from their homes. Seventy percent of these Japanese people were American citizens. Spokane was outside of the evacuation zone and many Japanese people fled there.
Ikuko “Dorothy” Amatatsu Watanabe
More recently, I was able to synthesize a greater understanding by interviewing Ikuko “Dorothy” Amatatsu Watanabe who was interned at Manzanar and Minidoka. These concentration camps were located in California and Idaho respectively. Complete with photographs, letters, and telegrams, Dorothy offered a remarkable oral history-a critical time in her life as a senior in high school-and of a historical blemish that altered the lives of her family and other Japanese on the West Coast. As a good student, Dorothy was anticipating some great things. She had a scholarship at Washington State College in Home Economics which she was going to pursue after high school.
Many Japanese who endured these U.S. concentration camps are reserved about the ordeal and silent in discussing their experiences. On the other hand, Dorothy has spent countless hours talking to school children, historians, and others about her experiences. In vivid detail, she is able to describe her childhood, family, the time surrounding March 30, 1942, and her time in the concentration camps.
Born on August 13, 1923, Dorothy was the youngest of four daughters. Like her sisters, Elsie, Kay and Rose, Dorothy was given an American name along with her Japanese one. While the two older girls were born in Seattle, the younger two were born on Bainbridge Island.
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Dorothy and her older sister, Rose. 1928.
Dorothy and her sisters were American citizens, and like their parents, they were loyal and devoted to America. Dorothy’s parents, Yoshiaki and Taka Amatatsu, however, were not citizens until much later in life when they were allowed to apply for citizenship.
Born in Japan, Dorothy’s parents had a prearranged marriage. Her father was attending medical school in Japan when the Russo-Japanese war broke out. Drafted as a medic, Yoshiaki would not return to medical school after the war, but instead, immigrated to Seattle in 1913. His bride, Taka, who received her college education in Japan, served as a math teacher at the Bailey Gatzert Elementary School in Seattle where many Japanese students attended. Both Yoshiaki and Taka were of Samurai ancestry. In fact, Dorothy showed me a picture of her grandfather dressed in a traditional Samurai outfit. He was a Shinto priest.
When Dorothy was six years old, the family received word that Taka’s father was gravely ill. Both Dorothy and her mother took a freighter back to Japan.
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Dorothy with her mother, grandmother, grandfather and cousins during a visit to Japan. This was the first of several visits that Dorothy made to Japan.
During their six month stay, Taka’s father miraculously regained his health. There is little doubt that the reuniting of father, daughter, and grand daughter has something to do with the healing process. An old photograph in Dorothy’s collection shows her as a cute little girl at her Bainbridge home. Still another photograph shows Dorothy with her mother, grandmother, grandfather, and cousins during that trip to Japan.
Finding meaningful employment in Seattle was a tough prospect for Yoshiaki as many prejudices against the Japanese existed, both before and after the war. Working as a janitor for Seattle General Hospital, Yoshiaki was ready for a venue change when their friends, the Sakuma family, invited them to help start a strawberry farm on Bainbridge Island in about 1918. A fairly short distance across the water from Seattle, the family first rented a home. Later they purchased a home with the title in the name of their oldest daughter. Dorothy remembers the family working the farm. Prior to the strawberry farm, the Amatatsu’s had never cultivated food. Dorothy recalled that there was a learning curve in the early days, especially with a family of girls. Since 1915, the Sakuma family has continued raising berries and they are a major producer in Washington State, now in the Burlington area.
Dorothy explained that many Japanese families who were not citizens could not purchase homes. Instead, they enlisted the help of straw buyers who were citizens. Sometimes those straw purchasers were sons or daughters, friends, or others. Essentially, many Japanese families owned homes but the title was held in someone else’s name. After several years of imprisonment in the internment camps, countless families returned to find that their homes and possessions had been sold, taken, or were simply gone. Some properties were bulldozed. Upon their return, Japanese from the camps had to begin afresh; many found new places to live; still others in despair moved back to Japan.
Teddy was the Amatatsu’s family dog. He was a Miniature Fox Terrier who lived on the strawberry farm. Remarkably smart and loyal, Teddy loved his owners and they adored him. On his five-acre farm, Teddy frolicked and watched over the family.
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Dorothy Amatatsu and Teddy at their strawberry farm.
Life on the ranch was established and good. Affectionately, Teddy cuddled each night between Dorothy and her sisters, and enjoyed taking baths just like the rest of the family. But on March 30, 1942, all of this was to drastically change… again. Even before that, Teddy knew that something was wrong because Yoshiaki had been had been forcibly taken away-far away
Just days before throughout Bainbridge Island, posters were tacked up on walls and street posts. Dorothy recalled that the demands placed on the Japanese people were ominous and clear.
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Demand poster tacked up around Bainbridge Island.
Signed by J.L. DeWitt, Lieutenant General of the U.S. Army, these posters had bold declarations that read: “Instructions to all JAPANESE living on Bainbridge Island… The following instructions must be observed…” In her scrapbook, Dorothy showed me one of the posters. She explained that the Japanese had only a week to prepare for the move. To make matters worse, a curfew was imposed and all arrangements could only be made during the daylight hours-a difficult task. DeWitt seemingly had no sympathies for the Japanese Americans being sent away. He was quoted as saying, “A Jap is a Jap.”
Since Dorothy’s father was a community leader who helped others translate letters in English and Japanese, he was singled out shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack and sent to an alien detention prison in Seattle. Dorothy remembers visiting him while he was behind bars. From there he was further separated from the family and sent to North Dakota and New Mexico.
Dorothy described her father as an adventurous, gentle, and caring man who loved his family. In fact, when he was 87, Dorothy recalled that her father visited her in California. With heartfelt sympathies and tears, he apologized that he had nothing to give her; that he was not as successful as his brothers; that he had lost his wealth and had nothing.
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Dorothy’s father, Yoshiaki Amatatsu in 1971.
By this time, his wife Taka was in a nursing home and Yoshiaki was traveling alone. He felt stripped of his life and dignity, especially when he compared himself to others. Dorothy assured him that he had, indeed, offered the best gift of all to their family-the gospel.
Dorothy’s mother, Taka, was a pleasant, loving, and Christian woman. She tended to be strict like a disciplined teacher, but always had the best intentions for her daughters.
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Dorothy’s mother, Taka Amatatsu on the farm.
Dorothy explained that Taka instilled in her daughters the meaning of sincerity and responsibility. She taught her daughters to be kind and truthful, and not to say things unless they were accurate.
Interestingly, the imprisonment of the Japanese on Bainbridge Island was the first of this mammoth effort. In fact it would be used as a model for all the other “evacuations” that would occur in Washington, Oregon, and California. Each family member was allowed to take two suitcases which included blankets, clothing, toiletries, and eating utensils. Dorothy recalled that two suitcases did not hold much and that they were small and did not have wheels like they do today.
Fortunately, during the mad scramble, Dorothy’s oldest sister was able to secure a trusted Filipino man named Mike Corpus, to watch over the house and strawberry farm. Taka knew very little English and making such arrangements herself would have been impossible. That year the strawberry crop was exceptional… but the Amatatsu family would not see any of those profits.
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A high school picture of Dorothy.
And besides the strawberries, Dorothy was finishing her senior year of high school where she served as the class treasurer. Because of the curfew and bad timing, Dorothy, along with 13 other Japanese seniors were unable to attend the Senior Sneak and the Senior Ball at Bainbridge High School. Principal Roy Dennis made a plea to the army requesting special permission for Dorothy and her Japanese classmates to attend the Senior Ball-the request was denied.
Enforced by the military, 276 Japanese arrived at the Anderson Ferry Dock on Bainbridge Island on March 30, 1042. Dorothy and her family knew them all. Trucks were used to take the Japanese and their luggage from their homes and to the dock. The Anderson Dock is a short distance from what is now the Winslow Ferry Terminal. Dorothy remembered that an armed soldier was assigned to each Japanese family. Caucasian friends, neighbors, soldiers, classmates and others wept as their Japanese counterparts were being gathered and hauled away. Many of those relationships had been forged over the course of decades and all of it seemed ruthless and unfair. Caucasians tried to encourage their Japanese friends by saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be right back home in no time.” With staunch dedication to America, the Japanese cooperated with the demands while Caucasians looked on in horror. The people referred to the event as, “Shikataganai,” interpreted as, “It can’t be helped.” The ferry left at 11:20 a.m. on this gloomy Monday morning.
Once ferried to Seattle, Dorothy and the others were placed on a train destined for an unknown location. Shades on the passenger windows were pulled down tight and none of the Japanese prisoners were told where they were going. Since it was April 1, during the journey, Dorothy rationalized that all of this must be some kind of an April Fools joke-except nothing about it was funny.
To Manzanar
Three days later, Dorothy arrived at a place called Manzanar which is located in California at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. Manzanar is 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles in a dusty, cold, desolate area complete with sagebrush and abundant nothingness.
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The desolate Manzanar Concentration Camp.
Once they arrived, the Japanese were issued aviation goggles, a pea coat, and a tin cup. Later, Dorothy and the others would rudely discover why the goggles and pea coats were issued.
Manzanar was one of ten permanent centers where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. Although tenderly referred to as “Internment Camps,” Manzanar, like the others, were truly Concentration Camps. This variety of semantic alteration, borrowed from earthquake evacuation terminology, was commonly used in the imprisonment of the Japanese. Other flowery terms such as “Reception Centers,” “Relocation Centers,” and “Evacuees” were also used to put a soft touch on these Constitutional violations.
When Dorothy, her mother, and three sisters arrived in Manzanar, they noted that this gated place was a series of shacks, lined up, and parallel to each other. Tar paper served as outer shells on the buildings. At first, there were missing windows in the shacks. Eight people were assigned to Dorothy’s room making for a crowded place. There were unfilled mattresses and each person was required to stuff their own beds with straw, otherwise known as “tick.”
By and large, Manzanar was a hellish, make-shift city with all the basics. Besides the shacks, it had a mess hall, clinic, and post office which were manned by the prisoners. It had a barber shop, beauty salon, and school rooms throughout the place. Workers were paid a pittance to conduct their jobs. Bearded and scruffy contractors milled around the place making the new tenants nervous. A common bathroom consisting of eight toilets and offering no privacy complicated the matter. Females enlisted the help of Japanese men and boys to safely escort them to the bathroom.
Manzanar was a wind swept and forsaken land complete with a dry terrain and mountains looming in the distance. When the cold wind blew, large amounts of sand and dirt would envelope the place and enter into shacks. With floors made of planks, Dorothy explained that fine particulate would enter in through the cracks thickly coating everything and everyone inside. Dorothy recalled sleeping in her shack and awakening the next morning partially buried in dirt that had blown in. Now Dorothy understood why the pea coats and aviation goggles were issued. In March 1942, there were 251 visits to Manzanar’s clinic. All but two were for respiratory ailments.
About two weeks after their arrival at Manzanar. Dorothy and her family were notified that Teddy Dog had died. Apparently, after the family’s departure, he stopped eating and could not reconcile the loneliness. While the Bainbridge prisoners were unable to bring their pets, the other detainees from California could. All of it was unfair and Teddy’s death haunts Dorothy to this day.
Supplied with a mess hall card, Dorothy and the others, at first, were offered food that was disgusting.
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Each person had a mess hall pass. This was Dorothy’s.
On the menu, prisoners were offered canned wieners, white rice, canned bread pudding, and canned spinach. Dorothy recalled thinking that the “spinach,” very likely, was sagebrush packed in a can. Prior to this time, she had never heard of canned spinach.
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People of all ages in line for one of the Manzanar mess halls.
Perhaps the food got better as food processing units were developed at the camp. Tofu and Shoyu, both made from soybeans, were later produced at Manzanar in substantial quantities. In fact, Manzanar was largely self-supported in nearly every aspect by the summer of 1942.
Like any city, Manzanar had an inner dark side too. There was infighting, gangs, and dissention between some groups. Dorothy recalled a riot or demonstration which took place on December 2, 1942 close to her barracks. During the uprising, many of the inhabitants were merely spectators but military police responded against all. Two young men were shot and killed by military police. One of them was shot in the back and at least ten others were wounded by bullet fire. Dorothy knew the boys who died and they were innocent bystanders.
Despite it all, the inhabitants of Manzanar were productive, organized, and mostly dedicated to making the situation the best they could. Socials, follies, dances, and games occurred. There was a makeshift tennis court and football fields too. Landscaping, complete with a rose garden and an outside theater were all part of the place.
Dorothy met her future husband while at Manzanar where both of them worked for $16 a month. Hideo (pronounced HeeDayo) was a truck driver and Dorothy worked in the personnel office. Hideo was incarcerated and sent to the camp when he was 21. After Manzanar, Hideo served in the military as an interpreter. When the war broke out, his listing was 4C or enemy alien. Later, when he entered the military he was listed 1A in the draft, a respectable rank.
To Minidoka
In March 1943 after the uprising, Dorothy and the rest of her family requested a transfer and, surprisingly, it was granted. Dorothy recalled that fellow Manzanar prisoners in her same block threw a farewell party for the women. It was a tearful departure and many friends offered the family blankets. Dorothy explained that their belongings had been picked up the previous day and it was extremely cold. Their new location would be Minidoka and it was located in south-central Idaho in Jerome County. This time, the train ride included open shades. A picture shows Dorothy, her sisters and mother on the steps of their Minidoka shack. At 3800 feet above sea level, Minidoka had seasonal temperatures that ranged between 30 degrees below zero and 104 degrees.
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Dorothy in the center surrounded by her mother and sisters outside their Minidoka shack.
With a human capacity of 10,000, many of the Japanese (7,200) at Minidoka came from “Camp Harmony” in the Puyallup area. The Western Washington Fair Grounds was used as a temporary holding tank before they were taken to Minidoka. Much like Manzanar, Minidoka was a desolate area with sagebrush, mosquitoes, and dust storms.
Dorothy would stay at Minidoka for about ten weeks before being allowed to move to Chicago on a work release program. Being the youngest, it would have been customary for Dorothy to stay close to her mother. Taka, however, wanted Dorothy to get out and make something of her life. At different times, two of Dorothy’s sisters would also leave Minidoka to continue their lives. But Dorothy’s mother and sister, Rose would remain and later be reunited with Yoshiaki. During their separation, Yoshiaki was imprisoned in distant camps away from the family. Taka, Yoshiaki, and Rose left Minidoka in 1946 and returned to Bainbridge Island.
After The Camps
Once in Chicago, Dorothy worked at Traveler’s Aid, a governmental social service organization. She lived with the family of a Methodist minister who took her in like one of his own. Reverend Raymond Laury and his wife, Zella, had five daughters and all of them were friendly, loving people. Dorothy cooked for the family and had a secure place to live. She also continued her education. At that time, there weren’t many Japanese people in Chicago.
Hideo had left Manzanar and joined the service in 1944. He went to Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. After his military experience, he found himself in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Working in a leather processing plant, Hideo lost a finger in an industrial accident. Dorothy explained that Hideo was tired after traveling to visit her in Chicago. Upon his return and while at work he lost his concentration and finger. But this did not slow up the couple. Dorothy and Hideo were married in Chicago in July, 1945.
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Shortly after, Dorothy and Hideo would leave Chicago to move Hideo’s mother from Manzanar. To their surprise, the place had changed incredibly. There were rock and Japanese gardens, and lawns too. Huge quantities of vegetables were grown at Manzanar and it was still a self-sustaining place. In fact, agricultural produce was shipped from Manzanar to parts of Los Angeles and to Arizona. All of this, of course, was a testament to the people who were forced to live at Manzanar. At the time of their visit, the population was vastly depleted and contained mostly the elderly and very young school children.
Dorothy recalled that the Amatatsu family had a family reunion in Denver, Colorado, where her sisters had relocated. The occasion was memorable and, as fate would have it, this was the same day that the United States dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. That day was Monday, August 6, 1945.
Dorothy returned to Bainbridge Island for a time to work and help settle her parents. At this point, her parents were quite elderly and could not work. Many of the strawberry fields were no longer owned by Japanese and, instead, were operated by Filipino workers. Although the Island people were pleasant, the area was unkempt and changed. Dorothy commuted to Seattle each day and worked for the Federal Housing Department for a time.
Eventually, the couple settled in the Glendale and Pasadena areas where they a developed their lives and careers. Hideo received a chemistry degree from UCLA and became a successful chemist. He spent his career working for Aerojet Corporation and Beckman Instruments. Dorothy worked for the Treasury Department in Los Angeles before the couple began their family. Dorothy and Hideo had two boys who became highly educated and leaders in their disciplines. Dorothy recalls that discrimination and mean spirits were encountered from time to time, especially when finding housing- but over a long period, this has subsided. Dorothy and Hideo were married 63 years before his death in 2009.
All this time, Dorothy has kept her interment experiences fixed in her memory banks. She realizes the constitutional injustices that impacted her family and thousands of others. As a promoter of social justice and a conscientious person, Dorothy recounted her experiences to me as a matter of fact- the way it was. While most people in the same moccasins might harbor a longstanding grudge, there is no bitterness when conversing with Dorothy.
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Dorothy Amatatsu Watanabe smiles for the camera.
Her strong faith and a loving family has been a stabilizer. Out of Dorothy’s collective set of experiences, perhaps the most haunting has to do with Teddy… the little dog she never saw again.