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Japanese-American scholar reflects on impact of WWII internment camps 80 years on

Kyoko Norma Nozaki looks at a childhood family photo while in front of a Buddhist altar at her home in the city of Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)
A trunk, which Kyoko Nozaki's father Tsutomu Tanigawa and the rest of her family brought to interment camps during World War II is seen at her home in the city of Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Nov. 19, 2021. The family name and number assigned to them as detainees are written on its side. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

KYOTO -- 21504. Kyoko Norma Nozaki, 82, professor emeritus of Kyoto Sangyo University, pointed at the five digits on a black trunk and said, "This number was assigned to my family." She was referring to when, around 80 years ago during World War II, the United States government forcibly sent over 120,000 Japanese Americans mostly living on the West Coast to internment camps.

    People of Japanese descent were deemed "enemy aliens" and rounded up after the Imperial Japanese Navy's December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii led to the U.S. joining the war. Nozaki was among them. The trunk, which her father bought hurriedly and stuffed with the few belongings the family could bring to the camps, remains in her Kyoto home's study. In mid-November, the Mainichi Shimbun sat with Nozaki to reflect on the family's experiences when their fate was affected immensely by their two home countries.

    Nozaki's parents were second-generation Japanese Americans running California strawberry farms. She was just 2 when the war between Japan and the U.S. began, and has no memory of its onset. After the war she came to Japan with her parents and older brother, and moved back to the U.S. on her own in her third year of high school. "What camp were you in?" At first, she couldn't even comprehend the meaning of this question so frequently traded between Japanese Americans at the time.

    Kyoko Nozaki, bottom left, and her father Tsutomu Tanigawa, upper right, in a 1940 family photo taken in the United States, as seen in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

    She later based herself in Japan, and in the 1970s began studying Japanese-American literature. Through repeated interviews with authors and other individuals, she started feeling more strongly that she wanted to know about her own roots. It set her on a journey to trace the history of her family.

    On Dec. 8, 1941, (Dec. 7 local time in Hawaii), the imperial Japanese military launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday in Hawaii and the rest of America, and Nozaki's father Tsutomu Tanigawa, who died in 2011 aged 101, went out to see a movie. The rural area the family lived in lacked access to information and the then 32-year-old Tsutomu, who saw himself as an American, did not fear for his safety. But in February 1942, an executive order authorizing the forcible evacuation of Japanese Americans was issued, and the social climate changed drastically. Her family was sent to an internment camp in faraway Utah. They set off without time to harvest the farm's ripened strawberries, and left behind furniture.

    The next year, U.S. government questionnaires arrived at the internment camps. Each contained several dozen questions, including two presenting a tough choice for second-generation Japanese Americans. One asked whether the respondent would be willing to serve in the U.S. military, the other if an individual would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance or obedience to the Emperor of Japan.

    Nozaki's father answered "No" to both while leaving a note on the questionnaire that he does not intend to go against the United States. Nozaki's grandparents, first-generation immigrants that came to the U.S. mainland after working in a Hawaii sugarcane field, had returned to their hometown in Fukuoka Prefecture before the war. Nozaki's father was apparently worried about what might happen to his family in Japan if it got out that he had renounced allegiance to the country.

    Nozaki and her family were moved to a more tightly-controlled isolation shelter, and the family was separated when Tsutomu was sent alone to a detention camp housing mainly people considered especially disruptive. They would finally reunite aboard a ship headed for Japan, four months after the war. While Nozaki's father loved the United States, he did not intend to live there again. His anger did not dissipate toward the two loyalty questions and the U.S. government's attempts to get individuals to obey it by depriving them of their jobs and homes. He repeatedly said after the war that the questionnaire should have been conducted before people were put in internment camps.

    A letter of apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II signed by former President George H. W. Bush is seen in this photo taken in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

    In 1988, the U.S. government offered an official apology admitting the forcible detention of Japanese Americans was a form of racial discrimination. In 1992, Nozaki also received redress checks and a letter of apology signed by then U.S. President George H. W. Bush. "It's important the government owned up and said 'serious injustices were done.' We reached this point following a long history," Nozaki said.

    On 9/11, Nozaki was in Los Angeles for work. Out with friends, she saw what appeared to be expressions of patriotism, including American flags outside many homes and several vehicles with bumper stickers reading, "I was at Pearl Harbor." Against such a backdrop, movements to ostracize residents with roots in the Middle East occurred, and during this post-9/11 period, it was Asian Americans who raised their voices in protest.

    During the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have endured verbal and physical attacks based on groundless prejudice. Discrimination and racism has no end, and Nozaki feels the importance to reflect again on the history of U.S. internment of Japanese Americans.

    A replica of a 1942 poster notifying the forcible relocation of people of Japanese ancestry in the United States is seen in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

    "Completely ordinary people were deprived of freedom, solely because of their race and nationality. This story is not limited to the past," Nozaki said.

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Tokyo City News Department)

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