Incarcerated as children, Japanese Americans share the hardships … – Hawaiipublicradio

World War II brought martial law to Hawaiʻi — and hardship to many Japanese Americans who were put in concentration camps on the continent because of their ethnicity.
Many families voluntarily left Hawaiʻi to join their loved ones at those camps. That experience not only upended lives but also changed them.
As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, we’d like to share the voices of some affected by that experience. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan introduces firsthand accounts from Grace Sugita Hawley, Bert Nakano, Toshio Moritsugu and June Hoshida.
Grace Sugita Hawley, born in 1931, and her family left Hawai‘i to be reunited with her father, who had first been incarcerated at Sand Island before being relocated to Jerome, Arkansas, and finally to Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.
After the war, her family settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. They encountered Japanese American soldiers who trained as translators and interpreters at nearby Fort Snelling, which housed the Military Intelligence Service Language School from 1944-1946. She eventually returned permanently to Honolulu.
Hawley: They knew the war was ending, but they were closing the camps before the war ended, and they were trying to get people resettled in the Midwestern states. We went to St. Paul because we had to settle down somewhere. We couldn’t go home. My father didn’t get approval to go home, and he had to wait for Washington, D.C. to give approval. So his friend, who lived in Minneapolis, had a restaurant there, and he said, “Why don’t you go to St. Paul and open a restaurant?” So he said, “Okay.” It turned out that there was this Japanese family selling a restaurant, and so that’s the one he was buying. So this friend put us up, it was so nice of him. We got there, we stayed in Minneapolis until we were ready to move into St. Paul. And then we had to stay in a hostel. That’s what they did in those days, when they were getting people to resettle outside, they put up hostels. They did quite well at the restaurant. Because there was Fort Snelling there, outside of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and they would come in a bus. And the guys would come out and they’d just want to eat Japanese food.
Interviewer Megan Asaka: All the Nisei soldiers?
Hawley: Uh-huh. So it was a good way to kill some time, you know, until we could go back.
Other former inmates would also encounter Japanese American soldiers during their return to the islands. Bert Nakano, born in 1928, and his family had been incarcerated at the Jerome concentration camp. His story highlights the paradox of incarcerating Japanese Americans for their perceived threat to national security during the war while utilizing Japanese American soldiers who were part of the most decorated American military units in history. 
Nakano: When we went back to Hawaiʻi, the government sent us back on a troop ship. And can you imagine, we going back with the heroes of World War II, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, on the boat going back to the island together with us, who were in concentration camp in the United States. I mean, this irony, you can’t imagine. And the 442 boys used to ask us, “What (were you guys) doing in the mainland?” “We were in concentration camp.” “What? They put you there? For what?” And you know, they were surprised and when we hit Honolulu, we can hear the band going and all the people, the dignitaries out there waiting for the 442 returning vets, so they told us, “You guys stay in the hole.” And then after the 442 disembarked they said, “Now you can come up.” And when we came up there was nobody on the dock except our relatives.
A nisei born in 1925 in He‘eia on Oʻahu, Toshio Moritsugu grew up in a village called Fish Camp. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, his father was picked up and detained by the FBI at the Sand Island internment camp. He reflects upon the impact of the war on his family.
Moritsugu: The Territorial Department of Social Service realized that we could not make a living, you know, a family of eight children and my mother. So quite often a worker came over and asked whether we needed help. My mother was really strong, she felt embarrassed even getting a penny from the territory. So she said she can manage.
Interviewer Tom Ikeda: What was your reaction when the war ended?
Moritsugu: I thought to myself, “I’m glad that it’s over now, the whole family can get together.” Then as to the injustice done to our family, there was one reservation I had was the health of my father. My father was a very energetic, healthy person. I don’t recall a single day when he was sick. And when he returned, I sensed that he was not that healthy. He was worried, he was reserved and he did not have the energy that I had seen in him before. His health declined. He had to get into a hospital, lost conscious and then passed away. That was the thing that I had no answer for. Was it this internment that did it? Because he died in 1951 at the age of 62, which I thought was rather young for a energetic person.
Upon their return to Hawai‘i, many former inmates and their families struggled to fit in after years on the mainland. June Hoshida’s family had spent the war with her father in Jerome and Gila River concentration camps in Arkansas and Arizona. She remembers the difficulties after coming back home.
Hoshida: First thing I wanted was chazuke and koko, is what we say. You know, takuan and chazuke. So I ate that. It was so good, but my stomach wasn’t big enough for it and it wasn’t ready for it, so I ran out of the kitchen over to the back side and vomited everything out. Oh, I felt so bad. I was “haolified.” I spoke good English, my cousins made fun of me. They would call me upstairs to their living quarters and say, “Ay, go say something. Go say something.” So I would say, “What do you want me to say?” and then they would start laughing, you see. And my sister thinks that they were amused just because I spoke like a kotonk, but they weren’t making fun of me. I figured they were making fun of me because I’m 9 years old.
The interviews are part of the Densho Visual History Collection. The Densho Digital Repository, a multi-partner initiative of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, contains oral history interviews, photographs, documents, and other materials relating to the Japanese American experience. Additional information on the project is available at
This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.
This segment aired on The Conversation on Dec. 22, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.


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