Considering that the government ripped her and her family from their home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 1942, and shipped them off in ferries and trains to a camp in a California desert, where they lived in barracks surrounded by armed sentries, Fumiko Hayashida spoke with remarkably little anger about the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“Were you angry?” she was asked in a 2007 interview.
“Well, no,” she said. “In a way, but you know you do your duty. If the President wants us to do it. …We didn’t like it but that’s okay. I think no use fighting the government.”
Hayashida, who died earlier this month at the age of 103, most likely wouldn’t have spoken much at all in interviews or before the U.S. Congress — but for a photograph that made her famous.
The internment Hayashida suffered is now considered one of the great injustices in American history. A commission in the 1980s reviewed a trove of documents from the era and established that the rationale for locking Japanese Americans up in isolated camps out West — the belief that they might collaborate with the enemy — was invented out of whole cloth. There were only rumors, not one ever substantiated, and fear. The U.S. Congress and President Ronald Reagan formally apologized in 1988 and agreed to pay reparations to survivors.
But in the months after Pearl Harbor, there was no shame, and the incarceration was no secret. Indeed, newspaper photographers were invited to snap pictures to reassure West Coast residents as authorities ordered Japanese American families out of their homes and off of their land.
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer was on hand as one of the first groups was hauled away from Bainbridge Island near Seattle in March 1942. Among his photos was one that would later serve as a haunting, iconic symbol of innocent Americans ripped from their moorings by executive order.
It showed a woman holding a child as her family waited in fear for a ferry that would take them to Seattle, where they would board a train that would take them to the Manzanar War Relocation Center east of Los Angeles.
The woman and child in the photo remained unknown until the 1990s, when Hayashida was tracked down by the Smithsonian Institution as researchers were assembling an exhibit.
Hayashida was one of the first to be “relocated” after Pearl Harbor, and was the oldest living survivor of 10 camps used to imprison Japanese Americans. Between the time she was identified and her death, Hayashida, like the photo, became a symbol.
“I was known as ‘Mystery Girl.’ ‘Mystery Lady,'” she said in an oral history interview in 2007. Her highest-profile appearance came in 2006, when Hayashida testified before a congressional committee considering legislation to build a memorial on Bainbridge Island to internees.
It was a role she assumed as a result of the photo, but not one she sought. Like so many Japanese Americans of her generation, she preferred to be quiet about the events of the war years despite being prodded by interviewers.
In the photo, she looks angry. But what she felt, she said, was fear — a familiar emotion after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. “My first reaction was of disbelief and anger,” she told the congressional committee. ” … My disgust soon changed to fear, for I realized that I now had the face of the enemy. I was very scared of what people might want to do to us. Rumors began to fly. Will we be arrested? Will angry people come and vandalize our homes, ruin our farms, or do us bodily harm?”
The angry vandals never appeared. But “the government started coming to our homes, looking through our possessions, confiscating some items and asking lots of questions,” Hayashida said. “Because some families wanted to show to the government people that they were patriotic Americans, they sadly destroyed many cherished and valuable family heirlooms and possessions some passed down from several generations — that looked too ‘Japanese.'”
Then, on six days notice, the Japanese American community on Bainbridge Island was informed they would be removed. “Nobody knew where we were going, how long we would be gone or if we could ever come back,” Hayashida said.
In addition to the daughter in her arms, she and her husband had a son, and she was pregnant. “On the morning of March 30, 1942,” she testified, “the Army trucks rounded us up with soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. We could only take what we could carry or wear, so we layered up our clothes and had to make hard choices on what items we could fit into a single suitcase.” Among the items she stashed away was a large cloth she could cut up into diapers.
The family was taken first to Manzanar, where they were housed in tar paper and pine barracks divided into four-to-six one-room apartments, each about 16 by 20 feet, with straw mattresses to sleep in and gang showers to bathe in, surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries. “It was so humiliating that some people would wait until late at night to use the latrines and surround themselves with cardboard boxes,” she testified.
Later, they were moved to Minidoka camp in Idaho before being released as the war wound down. “We returned to Bainbridge Island to find that we lost everything,” she said. “Our farm and strawberries were not well maintained and we had to start from scratch.” Her husband ultimately secured a job at Boeing in Seattle, and the family later moved there. A son born at Manzanar would go on to serve in Vietnam, where he was wounded. Her husband died in 1983.
K. Natalie Ong, the child in the photograph, finally asked about the camps when she was in the third grade. One day, Hayashida recalled in her oral history interview, “she came home from school … and asked us, ‘Did we? Did you go into camp, you know?’ That was the first child that asked because I have a lot of nieces and nephews who are older than her but they haven’t heard about it. Somehow she was the first one. Then we told her because of the war we had to leave home and she said, ‘Mommy, Daddy, you are American citizens. How come? That’s against the law.'”
Ong married and settled in Texas. Of her mother, she said: “She was nobody and yet she was everybody.”