NARRATION: Much of the 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric was marked by anxiety about who we consider “American.”
And especially who we do not.
The thing is, these anxieties are nothing new. This is a debate that goes as far back as America itself. Talk of establishing registries, banning immigration, and even rounding up individuals of certain racial or religious backgrounds has firm precedent in American history.
One example is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It’s an ugly part of American history that people barely learn about in school — if at all.
Another thing we don’t often learn?
Multiracial Japanese Americans were also sent to live in the camps.
About 700, actually.
Today on “Other: Mixed Race in America,” we’re going to be talking about one example of how our country has always struggled to define what it means to be American.
It’s a constant debate that we pass on from generation to generation.
We’ll hear from someone who, because of her mixed-race heritage, found herself caught in the middle of the Japanese American internment debacle.
But first, some context.
WILLIAMS: My name is Duncan Williams, and I’m the director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.
NARRATION: Williams told me that to understand the Japanese internment story, you first have to understand the history of anti-Japanese sentiment in America that had been building during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Williams pointed to anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for people of different races to marry.
These are the laws that the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia invalidated.
But during the prewar years, they were still very much in force.
WILLIAMS: By the time these laws came into being, the rhetoric of what they called Yellow Peril, this kind of idea of states being overrun by a new migrant group called Asian Americans, had come to a fever pitch in the media, among politicians. But the biggest fear was that they might actually get married to white Americans and become integrated in that way.
NARRATION: So fast forward to December 7, 1941.
“A date which will live in infamy.”
The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, which leads to the United States’ entry into World War II.
Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, which designated much of the West Coast as part of a defense command zone.
This cleared the way for the immediate internment of the about 110,000 Japanese Americans living in that area.
WILLIAMS: At a certain point, they just determined that someone with 1/16th Japanese blood, or Japanese heritage, would be categorized as Japanese, and therefore needed to go into camps. It wasn’t as if there was more than three generations of Japanese Americans in the continental United States or Hawaii, so by saying 1/16, as a policy, it just meant anybody, because it was trying to cover anybody up to four generations up.
NARRATION: Ultimately, that ended up being about 700 people. Mostly children, but some adults as well.
Signs were posted in towns up and down the West Coast saying that all persons of Japanese heritage needed to report at such-and-such place by such-and-such time.
Camps were established from Southern California up to Northern Washington state. People sort of began to establish lives there. Children went to schools, and adults worked, though for wages way lower than they had made outside the camps. Small communities sprung up.
But accounts of camp experiences for multiracial Japanese Americans suggest it was doubly difficult to find their footing among what was now a racially homogenous population.
WILLIAMS: I think mixed-race aspects of the incarceration suggest that there’s a kind of doubling of some of these feelings of exclusion, and a time when Japanese Americans and their loyalty to the United States, their sense of belonging to the United States was questioned, and mixed-race children found themselves kind of questioned from multiple quarters.
NARRATION: So here we are in 2017.
WILLIAMS: If we think about that long history and the internment as the endpoint of that, there are some worrying concerns in our current political climate, in which there’s a lot of rhetoric of building walls on borders and of families.
What’s very concerning about our current situation is unfortunately eerily similar to what happened right before the internment.
NARRATION: I decided to try and find someone who had actually been through all of this. Virginia Matsuoka is an 85-year-old woman living in San Francisco, and she has an amazing knack for remembering details.
Quick clarification: Her name is Virginia, but you’ll also hear her referred to as Ginny and Ginger. Oh, and her maiden name was Matsuyama; some kids would call her “Mots.”
I’ll refer to her as Ginny, because that’s how she introduced herself to me.
Anyway, Ginny is the youngest of eight, and the daughter of a Japanese martial arts instructor and a white American farm woman. She grew up in Sonoma, California, on a produce farm.
In April of 1942, when she was 10 years old, Ginny was sent to a camp called the Tanforan Assembly Center, with two of her brothers.
She still remembers what it was like — and the effect it had on her.
GINNY: Well, I grew up on a produce farm. It wasn’t too big of one, it was only 22 acres. I look back at it and I really had a good, secure life as a 10-year-old.
NARRATION: Ginny said she remembered generally feeling accepted in her small town, despite her mixed racial background.
GINNY: In Sonoma, our family was pretty well-known because of the produce garden. It was Broadway Gardens.
NARRATION: She did remember a couple of incidents, though.
GINNY: One boy called me a Jap. He said, “Mots, you’re a Jap and your family started the war.” And I came home and I was really upset, And my mother said, “Girlie you’re just not too smart, are you?” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “You go back and next time he says that to you, you tell him you’re not a Jap, you’re a half-Jap.” And I egged him on the next day, stupid me, I went back to school and I egged him on, and he finally came out and said, “Oh go away, you Jap.” And I said, “Uh-uh, I’m not a Jap.” And he says, “Mots, you know you are, what’s the matter with you?” I said, “Uh-uh, I’m a half-Jap.” And he looked like, the expression on his face was like a dog that had been bitten by a flea for the first time. He says, “You’re crazy.” Later on, I got to thinking, I said, “You know, Mama, that really didn’t make any sense.” She said, “It worked, didn’t it?”
NARRATION: She remembers the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was playing football with her dad and brothers.
GINNY: Well, I had come home from Sunday school and we were playing tag football, and if I whined and cried enough, they’d let me play. Our mother came out of the house and she said, “Louie, you’ve gotta get back to camp as soon as possible because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.”
NARRATION: Louie was her older brother, who was in the Army at the time.
GINNY: We all kind of looked at each other and said, “What’s Mama talking about?” And I remember my father came up behind me there, and he was even playing, he had his suit pants and white shirt on, and everything and he was out there playing tag football with everybody. But he came up, he put his arm around me and he said, “This is so bad, Ginger. This is bad.” They gave him 36 hours to leave California.
NARRATION: Her father taught martial arts to law enforcement in the area, so they set him up with a job in Colorado so he wouldn’t have to go to the camps.
Still, he wouldn’t be reunited with his family until after the war.
It wasn’t until April that the orders to relocate reached her town. But when they came, they came quickly.
GINNY: I was in school on a Friday; Sunday morning, I was in camp.
We stayed in a barracks-like thing, just like everybody else. And I remember walking into it and looking around and thinking, “Gee, where do we hang our clothes?” But they had those little metal hooks that you screw into the wall, and that was our living quarters. They had one double bed and one single bed. And that’s where we stayed.
NARRATION: She went to camp with her brothers, George, who everybody called Boy, and Alvin, who had a terrible cough at the time. Their mother, who was white, stayed behind at home to work on the farm.
The children were alone, except for each other.
On one of the first nights in the camp —
GINNY: And he just couldn’t stop coughing. And I shared the — he had the cot, the single cot, at one side of the room, and my brother Boy and I, we shared the double bed. And I remember saying to Alvin to stop coughing. And he said — he said, “I can’t.” And I said, “Well why don’t you go home then?” And he says, “They won’t let me.” And he was under the blankets and he was crying.
NARRATION: She said she was grateful to have had her brothers with her, because the other children weren’t particularly nice to them.
GINNY: Well, I didn’t meet too many children; they didn’t really want to play with me, I think. Because I would look different to them. But they didn’t bother me in any way, but they just didn’t play with me.
NARRATION: Because she was so young, her mother petitioned the government to let her and Alvin come home after about two months.
At 14, Boy was too old to be petitioned for. He would have to stay behind.
GINNY: Children, they have sometimes a short memory. Because as soon as I saw my cats and dogs and everything, I knew I was back home. And I asked my mother, “Can I go to school early tomorrow?” Because this was on a Sunday that we came home. And she said, “What?” And I said, “I’d like to surprise everybody. I could go to the classroom and sit in the seat and surprise them.” She said, “Well if you want to, girlie.”
At our grammar school, we had about 16 stairs to climb, and at the top of the stairs was my fifth grade. And you walked right into that room, and then to leave the room, you used the back door, there was a second door. So when my brother drove me to the grammar school, I stayed outside until I heard the first bell ring, then I ran upstairs to my classroom and I sat. And I was so happy, my seat had not been touched. It was still the same as I left it.
And I sat in the seat and then I heard the bell ring and I could hear them coming up the stairs. By the time they got near the top of the stairs, I thought my heart was going to burst through my chest. And then all of a sudden, I panicked. I thought, “Wait a minute. What if they don’t want me? What if they tell me to go away?” So um, I started to get up and I ran for the door. I was crying; I wanted my mother. And I got outside the classroom and I heard, “Virginia! Virginia, is that you? Mots, are you back?” And I heard, “Miss Cooper, Virginia’s back.” And the next thing I felt was hugs and kisses. That was the most beautiful day of my life, I think. It was — I didn’t need a dictionary to describe friendship because I lived it, I had it that day. And — yeah. They were really great.
And when everyone was in the classroom and they were seated, she said, “Virginia?” And I said, “Yes, Miss Cooper?” “Get to your seat.” And then I knew I was back home. I was back in school.
I realized now more than ever, there are questions that, oh boy, I would love to have asked my father. But I did ask him how he felt about being separated from the family and uprooted like he was and everything, and he said, “You know, Ginger, this was my country. I came here, they gave me the opportunity to make a name for myself, and then the war came along, so you do things that you’ve got to do.”
NARRATION: Ginny could only remember feeling bitter about the internment once.
GINNY: I remember I was drying a dish and I put it down on a table and I said, “Boy, this stupid country.” And I got a slap up the side of my head. Not a hard one, one to let me know don’t say that. I said, “Why did you do that?” And my mother said, “You know, girlie, it’s not the country. America is one of the most beautiful countries you could be in. It’s some of the people that think they know how to run a country.”
Learn more about the other episodes here:
- Race is more than just black and white. This new podcast explores some of that middle ground.
- Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person
- What happens to your cultural heritage when you marry someone of a different race?
- The long history and legacy of passing in America
- The debate over who counts as ‘American’ is nothing new. Just ask this woman who was put in an internment camp when she was 10.
- ‘That’s my story’: Heidi Durrow on why stories about multiracial identity just aren’t niche offerings
- How Ruth Ozeki renamed herself