During WWII, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 in response to prejudiced fears that Japanese Americans were spies.
I’m probably one of a few children’s book bloggers whose family was forced into internment camps during WWII for being Japanese American. Let me tell you about my family’s story:
My mother was born in San Francisco’s Japantown. After school every day, she would go, on roller skates, from her high school to Japanese school to study the language and arts like ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, stopping on the way in a Japanese convenience store for a snack like senbei, Japanese rice crackers.
She, like all Japanese Americans (and the Chinese who immigrated before them in large numbers), was subject to racism which included special laws meant to limit their economic success. For example, Japanese Americans like herself were not allowed to work for the government as civil servants. Even if she aced the government civil service exam, she would never be hired. Japanese immigrants were, by law, not allowed to own property in the United States, even if they could afford to buy a home for themselves and their families. The Asian Exclusion Act, part of the Immigration Act of 1924, completely excluded immigrants from Asia.
The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia. from Historian
When soldiers showed up on her doorstep, giving her family just two days to pack up one suitcase each, leaving all their belongings behind; this didn’t happen overnight. A whole series of events happened leading up to this first.
Dr. Seuss was a racist.
Japanese Americans were dehumanized. In the media and through entertainment like movies, musicals, and books, Asians were dehumanized. Dr. Seuss played his part in creating popular political cartoons against the Asian American population. Propaganda to sway the American people into indifference played a huge role. Just like in Nazi Germany.
Eliminating Japanese Americans competitors was the real reason for Internment camps. Japanese Americans were resented for their work ethic and what little economic success they achieved. Make no mistake, rounding up Japanese Americans and packing them off to concentration was an orchestrated effort by local prominent businessmen to eliminate competition. One such family was the Knott Family of Knott’s Berry Farm who targeted local Japanese tenant strawberry farmers.
Japanese Americans’ Bank Accounts Were Frozen. They had two days to pack up one suitcase per person and were told they were being moved “for their own safety.” Of course, their concentration camps were walled with barbed wire, and the guns from the watchtowers pointed in towards them.
My family spent WWII living in a tent. Instead of relocating to their assigned concentration internment camp, they moved to a remote part of Utah where they had relatives who were farmers. They worked the land, living in a camping tent for four years. Because life was hard, they joked that living in an internment camp would be easier. My uncle joined the military as part of the 442nd Regiment.
Our family crest is the second to the left on the first row.
Unfortunately, the American government was testing nuclear weapons underground not too far from where they lived. My mother and her siblings all eventually got cancer. Her siblings died; my mother is a breast cancer survivor. And here’s the greatest irony of all. My Japanese side of the family is from Hiroshima.
Of Daimyo noble descent, they lost their land — basically a township — during Japan’s Meiji Revolution. The roots of this shift in power were due to America’s Admiral Perry who forced Japan open to foreigners.
And, of course, there was the nuclear devastation from the bomb. My mother visited Pearl Harbor twice in her lifetime. The first was on behalf of her brother to receive recognition for his bravery during WWII as part of the 442nd regiment. She went again with me as part of a family vacation a few years ago. When I was in business school, I spent a summer in Japan working for a Japanese company. We visited Hiroshima; I met my relatives, and we saw the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
In many ways, my mom lived WWII. Born an American citizen, she was forced to relocate for being of Japanese descent. Her family’s financial distress stretches back to Admiral Perry whose interference resulted in seismic changes in the Japanese government, removing them from their source of financial stability, and causing them to lose ancestral land, which included sacred family burial grounds. To earn money to buy these lands back, they immigrated to the United States. And their ancestral land was one of two locations where the devastation was wrought by nuclear bombs.
Now, in 2016 there is a threat to Muslims to be placed in similar concentration internment camps. What can we learn from our own history? Racism. Economics. Complicity. It is up to every decent human being in America to stop this if this dark chapter of American history isn’t to repeat itself.
Japanese Internment was not about American safety. It was about racism and economics. The Japanese and Chinese immigrants worked harder and cheaper and white competitors resented losing business to them. Internment camp was the perfect way to eliminate competition.
Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II regardless of citizenship.
In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu’s individual rights and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.
During the case, General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence by keeping from the Court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence indicating that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines.
As for my mother, as soon as WWII ended, she took the Civil Servant exam and got a job as a civil servant because the laws changed. She bought her family including her aging parents a duplex to live near the Los Angeles Airport. It was too painful to go back to San Francisco I suspect. Her old apartment in San Francisco was torn down to make way for new development. We drove by it when we took her to visit many years later. In the rubble was a samurai sword, with a crest of her family (second from the top left in the crests above), that they hid between the walls in the hurried days when they were forced to leave. No weapons were allowed. It was a symbol of their past and now it’s gone forever.
And now, with the threat to round up those who are Muslim and put them in concentration camps? No. No a million times. We have to be the ones to stop it. We can not let Muslim Americans become dehumanized. We have to stand up for them.
p.s. Related book lists for kids:
p.p.s. More internment stories:
Japanese American Internment Books for Kids
A Fish for Jimmy: Inspired by One Family’s Experience in a Japanese American Internment Camp by Katie Yamasaki
When Taro’s father is taken away for being Japanese American, he and his mother and younger brother are forced into a Japanese Internment camp. Taro’s younger brother won’t eat; he misses the food at home including fresh vegetables and fish. His father told Taro that he must help take care of Jimmy and this weighs heavy on him. Taro cuts a fence and sneaks out of the camp to catch fresh fish in a stream near a mountain with his bare hands. Finally, Jimmy eats. This is the true story of Katie Yamasaki’s family. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice series) by L
This series celebrates real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. This is Fred’s story of standing up for justice by refusing to go to Japanese Internment camps for simply being of Japanese descent. He went to jail for resisting and his courage made the United States a fairer place for all Americans. [ages 10 and up]
Fred Korematsu: All American Hero by A
Using a comic book format, this book tells the story of Fred Korematsu, a mild-mannered ordinary welder working in a shipyard who fights for justice during WWII. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
So Far From the Sea by Eve Bunting
Laura Iwaski and her family visit her grandfather’s grave at the Manzanar War Relocation Center where he died during internment. Both her parents were relocated though at different camps. Her father was a little boy when this happened and this marks the last time they will visit before moving to Boston. Their final visit sums up the attitude of most Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate: a terrible thing that happened to them. But, as Dad says, “Sometimes, in the end, there is no right or wrong. It is just a thing that happened long years ago. A thing that cannot be changed.” [picture book, ages 8-12]
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
Ken Mochizuki’s family was interned at Minidoka Internment camp in Idaho, and this is the story based on true events, of how they used baseball to cope. The little boy in the story is small for his age but preserves to become an excellent player. The story continues post-internment and things are not better. Luckily, the boy’s skill in baseball helps to bring everyone together. This is the author’s first picture book. [picture book, ages 8-12]
The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida, illustrated by Allen Say
I read this story a long time ago and remembered that it was a particularly sad story of internment that I couldn’t bring myself to read to my girls. The little Japanese girl is given a bracelet by her American friend that she brings to internment camp that gets lost. [picture book, ages 8-12]
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai
A bi-lingual (Japanese/English) story about the author’s grandmother who was interned at Topaz and really did grow 8-foot sunflowers in the desert. A stoic story about coping with internment. This is the author’s first book. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
I just discovered this on Marissa Moss’s website. As a boy, Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura dreams of playing professional baseball, but everyone tells him he is too small. Yet he grows up to be a successful player, playing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig! When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, Zeni and his family are sent to one of ten internment camps where more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry are imprisoned without trials. Zeni brings the game of baseball to the camp, along with a sense of hope. This true story, set in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, introduces children to a little-discussed part of American history through Marissa Moss’s rich text and Yuko Shimizu’s beautiful illustrations. The book includes author and illustrator notes, archival photographs, and a bibliography. [nonfiction picture book, ages 6 and up]
Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling
When Aki Munemitsu and her family are forced into internment camp in Arizona, their banker helps them rent their asparagus farm to the Mendez family who has a daughter, Sylvia, around the same age as Aki. The Westminster School District doesn’t let Sylvia into the all-white schools though her lighter-skinned cousins are allowed to enroll. The family sued. Mendez vs. Westminster School District is the landmark desegregation case before Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, et al.
In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.
They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.
This is the book that I gave to all three of my children. It’s the true story of actor and activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. His story is interlaced with background and stories of others involved and it gives a very clear picture of what life was like in internment camp. George’s antics as a young boy provide some comic relief. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
10-year-old Manami tries to sneak her dog into internment camp when her family is separated during WWII due to anti-Japanese American laws enacted. She and her parents and grandfather must leave Bainbridge Island in Washington for a dreary camp in the desert of California. They lose everything they own, save for a suitcase they can carry. Manami loses even more; her voice is gone from the trauma and she doesn’t speak after her dog is taken away. The riot in Manzanar is not well known in U.S. history, and this chapter book gives back some of the humanity taken away from the Japanese Americans who were forced into concentration camps for simply looking like the enemy. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Dust of Eden: A Novel by Mariko Nagai
I’ve read many picture books at the Japanese American internment (my mother was one such person forced to relocate during WWII) but Nagai’s novel in verse is the first to really make me feel and understand the racism that my mother, who was born in San Francisco’s Japantown, faced. (And it makes my blood boil.)
… I would change my hair color into a honey
blond that changes into lighter
shades of almost white during the summer,
just like Jamie’s. If I could change
my name, if I could change my parents,
I could change my life. I would be an American.
But I already am.
Nagai’s haunting novel in verse chronicles the Mina Tagawa’s family after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Her father is held in prison without charges, her grandfather suffers in stoic silence, her older brother’s anger, and her mom’s graceful pride not to let racism destroy them. They are forced from Seattle to Camp Harmony and then to Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, losing three years of their lives and much, much more.
More on Minidoka Relocation Center.
During WWII, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 in response to prejudiced fears that Japanese Americans were spies.
In 1988 when most internees were dead, the U.S. Government paid reparations to the surviving internees. My mother used hers to buy a Lexus which she drove until she could no longer operate a car.
You may not have heard of civil rights hero, Fred T. Korematsu.
In 1942, at the age of 23, he refused to go to the government’s incarceration camps for Japanese Americans. After he was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order, he appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.
In 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration.
With this new evidence, a pro-bono legal team that included the Asian Law Caucus re-opened Korematsu’s 40-year-old case on the basis of government misconduct. On November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco. It was a pivotal moment in civil rights history. From Korematsu Institute
Dust of Eden forces us to remember what happened and one hopes it will not happen again to anyone, but that’s only if we truly learn from our mistakes.
A Jar of Dreams by Yoshiko Uchida
11-year-old Rinko lives in Berkeley, California during the Great Depression and life isn’t easy, especially when you are Japanese American because she encounters prejudice almost daily. When her family opens a small laundry, their local competitor, a well-known bigot, and bully threatens them. Things change when her Aunt Waka comes to visit from Japan, and she helps to convince them to chase their dreams, even if it seems improbable that they will be given the same opportunities as non-Asians. Despite the prejudice that her family faces, Rinko learns to take pride in her Japanese self.
A Jar of Dreams is an accurate portrait of what life was like for Japanese immigrants pre- WWII, but it also details the determination, hard work, and strong familial bonds that propelled them to succeed. [chapter book, ages 10-14]
This book list is from Books Kids Love. All of these books are out of print except for Weedflower. You can probably get them from your public library though.
The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp by Barry Denenberg
“Ben spent his twelfth and thirteenth years in a Japanese internment camp at desolate Mirror Lake, even though he was born in America, had never been to Japan, and could speak few Japanese words. He records his experiences and emotions in this fictional journal. At the camp, residents lived like prisoners, with barbed wire and armed guards everywhere. He writes about the sadness and frustrations of life in the camp, but also about some positive things, like playing on the camp baseball team. Historical notes and photographs are provided at the end. As with many books in this popular series, this title will help personalize this important event in American history.” [historical fiction chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp by Michael Cooper
“Loaded with haunting photographs and quotes from former residents (which were published in their newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press), this nonfiction title describes and provides photographs of the Manzanar Internment Camp and the living conditions and daily lives of the Japanese Americans who were interned there.” [nonfiction picture book, ages 9 and up]
I Am An American by Jerry Stanley
“The Japanese-American experience during WWII is illustrated in this sad tale of one of America’s darkest times. Focusing on what happened to one high-school boy, the author relates Shi Nomura’s experiences to the main events of the bombing, war panic, removals to camps, return to their devastated homes, and the official government apology.” [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida
“The powerful memoir of a girl consigned to a concentration camp–by the US government. Yoshiko felt like a normal American girl living a normal American life, until Pearl Harbor. After that, her family and others were rounded up and sent to an internment camp in the desert, along with tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans who had no civil rights and no ability to protest the act. Uchida’s treatment of this difficult period in US history is age-appropriate and handled with care.” [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata
“Sumiko and her Japanese-American family are sent to an internment camp in the Arizona desert where they live in dusty military barracks. The camp is on an Indian reservation, and her budding friendship with a young Mohave boy depicts the joys and problems of an inter-racial friendship and foreshadows of futures of these populations afterward.” [chapter book, ages 12 and up]
Thank you for this recommendation from Ruth Barshaw:
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Falkner
Families were separated based on their ethnicity as in this Japanese Internment story in which half Japanese Koji Miyamoto is sent to internment camp while a white mother is allowed to stay in San Francisco. Being half white at camp is just as difficult as being half Japanese in California. This is a true story based on Matt’s aunt’s life. [graphic novel, ages 10 and up]
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao
A touching story about Japanese American children who corresponded with their beloved librarian while they were imprisoned in World War II internment camps.
From The Children’s War:
“Write to Me is the story of one San Diego librarian, Clara Breed, who saw the injustice of incarcerating innocent people and whole families and tried to make it somewhat bearable for her young library patrons. Grady begins with the sad moment when young Katherine Tasaki has to return her books and relinquish her library card. Later, seeing the children she knew from the library off at the train station, Miss Breed gave out books and stamped postcards for the kids to write and let her know-how and where they are and if they needed anything.” [picture book, ages 6 and up]
“Though it is for a somewhat older child, with scaffolding teachers might want to pair this with I Am An American by Jerry Stanly, for a more rounded picture of Japanese American internment camps.
Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes
Review from Ms. YingLing Reads:
Yuki lives on a farm in California, and right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, things get bad. His father is taken away, and the family ends up at an internment camp after having to sell the farm. Despite this, Yuki and his friend Shig both feel that they should join the army, and end up training in the South and being deployed to Italy with the 442nd “Go For Broke” regiment. This group saw horrendous action and was involved in a lot of fighting. Yuki sees many of his comrades fall on the field of battle, and sees others gravely injured. He suffers wounds himself and also battles crippling pain in his feet due to having to remain in wet footwear in the cold. Eventually, a bullet and a collapsed lung send him home, where he faces prejudice in a Colorado barbershop and returns to his family in the internment camp. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson
Review by Ms. YingLing Reads:
Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Miraculously, she survived with minimal immediate wounds, as did her parents, three siblings, and an uncle. While they struggled with housing, food, and general survival for quite some time, the real problem was the after-effects of the radiation. Her brothers and uncle succumbed quickly, and cancer eventually took her sister and father as well. At the time of publication, however, Sachiko was still alive. She chose not to speak about her experiences until after the death of her mother in 1992.
This book tells her story in an informative and yet gripping way. The historical background of the war is explained in understandable ways and adds depth to the narrative. Period photos, ads, and other documents are all helpful in explaining the larger picture, and the bibliography will help students find other books on the topic.
This would be an excellent companion book to Kathleen Burkinshaw’s The Last Cherry Blossom and is best read after that book since it picks up near the end of that fictional title. At 112 pages, it is a perfect length, and I’m excited to have this title to offer to students who either are interested in this time period OR are being “forced” to read nonfiction for class. Both types of students will be pleased with this. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Hanako’s family spent WWII in an internment camp, lost their home family business, and cat, and decided after the war to return to the father’s family in Japan, on a farm near Hiroshima. The father hasn’t returned to Japan for almost 20 years, but his parents are thrilled to see everyone. They are tenant farmers, so are barely scratching out an existence in a post-war environment where food is scarce. Hanako and her brother arrive without even their meager luggage since it goes missing after they get off the ship from America. Their father manages to get a job translating for American troops, who often pay him in cigarettes and bacon grease, which can be traded for rice. The mother helps around the house and occasionally in the fields, where the grandparents work long, grueling hours planting, weeding, and removing bugs from crops. Hanako goes to a local school, but her Japanese is not very good and her long hair and clothing immediately brand her as an outsider. The family subsists on carrots and other plants, grasshopper, and tiny amounts of rice, some of which they get for trading the American butter and sugar the children are allotted. Hanako feels very sorry for a local boy who is barely clothed and missing an ear. His parents were killed in the atomic bomb, and he is caring for his sister, but he also badgers Hanako for food and even breaks into the house and steals rice the family needs. He certainly has it much worse than Hanako’s brother, who whines for peanut butter and “good food”, seemingly oblivious to the situation in which the family has found itself. Eventually, the parents realize that things are much worse in Japan. They want to go back to America but can’t, and work with a lawyer who is trying to put together a class action suit to repatriate them. This falls through, so the hard decision is made to send the children back to live with an aunt until the parents can return.” [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw
Review from The Children’s War:
The Last Cherry Blossom is a story of unfathomable loss, but also of hope, resilience, and survival. Paired with Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, both these stories should stand as a cautionary tale about war and the use of what we would now call weapons of mass destruction, and never forget that, as Burkinshaw reminds us in her Afterword, “the victims were all someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, or child.” It was true then and is still true today. [chapter book, ages 11 and up]
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by
Review from The Children’s War:
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is a emotionally, powerful story. It is a perfect book for introducing this difficult topic to young readers. There are no detailed graphic images described the war, the bomb or even to after effects, only an acknowledgment of these things. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Kiyo Sato: From a WWII Japanese Internment Camp to a Life of Service by Connie Goldsmith with Kiyo Sato
In this moving account of an American family forced to leave their home for a concentration camp because of their Japanese ancestry. Kiyo Sato, then a college student, recounts her family’s experience and how she uses this to educate others to promote inclusion and fight against racial injustice. [young adult nonfiction, ages 12 and up]
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p.s. 21 powerful photos show what life inside a Japanese internment camp was like here.
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.