TWIN FALLS, Idaho — The sun was unrelenting, the air dry and dusty, and the land flat and vast.
Here, 72 years earlier, my paternal great-grandparents, Masahei and Chiyo Watanabe, and their four youngest children were taken from Seattle and kept during World War II. About 510 miles southeast of Coeur d’Alene and 620 miles southeast of Seattle, I walked the ruins and restoration of the Minidoka National Historic Site in June 2014.
My family was among the nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans forced from their homes and livelihoods in 1942.
Masahei and Chiyo emigrated to the U.S. about six years before the turn of the century, and decades before two world wars. They were operators of several hotel businesses throughout Seattle, just down the hill from where I later went to college at Seattle University. So-called alien land laws prevented immigrants from owning property.
They had committed no crimes, no treason. But people of the same ethnicity and country of birth had bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, and President Franklin Roosevelt decreed it a matter of national security to put persons of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast into internment camps built in remote areas.
I recently viewed some paintings and mixed-media pieces depicting an Everett artist’s family’s experiences during internment. Their experiences paralleled what happened to my own relatives and stirred my memories of the visit to Minidoka and what my family endured.
A few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 required people of at least 1/16th Japanese heritage living in California, Oregon and Washington to leave and report for military supervision. They could bring only what they could carry.
When they were first ordered to leave their homes and report to the daftly named Camp Harmony, the Watanabe family was given an identification number: 11755. My grandfather, William Hiroshi Watanabe, was 11755C.
They were taken to assembly centers, such as Camp Harmony at the reworked fairgrounds in Puyallup. From there, the nearly 120,000 people — Japanese immigrants and American citizens alike — were moved to internment camps, then called relocation centers, in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.
It was called relocation, but it was imprisonment without due process. They were fed, clothed, educated, housed and could work, in a basic definition of the words. But they could not leave of their own accord, were not paid full or equal compensation for their labor, lived in barracks that lacked insulation and lost much of what they had accumulated before December 1941.
My grandfather never moved into the Minidoka center with his parents and four siblings. He chose to work on farms in Idaho and Montana. That way he could get some money for himself and his family, even if it meant being apart from them.
He bore the weight of his and his family’s experiences in those years for the rest of his life, largely in silence. It wasn’t until decades later that he spoke about that era.
“When I first started talking about going on the pilgrimage with him, he wasn’t really into it,” Dale Watanabe, my uncle, said. “He kept saying he didn’t remember because he wasn’t there … It wasn’t until we were actually there and he saw some of the buildings that he said, ‘I remember this.’ That was the space he had to wait.”
Grandpa Watanabe died in December 2011, and with him, the opportunity to hear more about his life outside and after, but never free from, the experience of internment.
The Minidoka Pilgrimage, a procession of people in charter buses and personal cars from Bellevue to the site in southern Idaho, was an opportunity to experience living history in 2014, to hear from some of the last remaining people who were in the internment camps. My Uncle Dale is a treasurer on the all-volunteer planning committee.
We walked through the mostly empty area of rocks, shrubs and a few buildings, remnants of the 34,000 acres and some 600 buildings managed by the War Relocation Authority there. After internment ended, the buildings and plots of land were allocated to veterans or salvaged by locals. Only a handful of structures remain where the 13,078 people in the custody of the Minidoka War Relocation Authority Center lived between September 1942 and October 1945.
In 2014, a guard tower was reconstructed. It stands now as it did then: a sentinel to denote that this was not a summer camp or something built for the safety of the people inside. As one man who was in the internment camp remarked during the pilgrimage, the guns were pointed inward.
A way to remember
Scenes about the internment experience are striking and familiar in the artists-of-the-year exhibit by Chris and Jan Hopkins at the Schack Art Center in Everett. The husband and wife spent the past five years on the works shown in “Americans Interned,” about the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
The show is a remembrance of history, both large and small. Chris Hopkins has brought cultural stories to life as art, such as his Tuskegee Airmen and Native American paintings. The more intimate history is embedded in Jan Hopkins’ works, where her family’s stories are woven into the fabric, sometimes literally.
Jan Hopkins’ parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, like my forebears, were detained at Camp Harmony, before being transferred to Minidoka.
Chris Hopkins said he admired their endurance and perseverance, but knew that time to record their stories was running short.
“When their health started failing, we figured we’d better get started,” he said.
Jan created several mixed media and interactive works. Many are based on her family’s memories. One piece is a cedarbark-paper-wood creation adorned in Mexican-styling with hand-stitched lettering and a mirror revealing a Japanese face. It’s based on her cousin’s story of working at Fort Lewis and having her boss falsify her ethnicity by changing her mother’s last name on her birth certificate to avoid persecution and relocation.
Chris Hopkins painted Norman Rockwell-esque scenes. Some are subtle, such as a mother holding her baby while people are loaded onto trains with packed bags. Others are bold, perhaps none quite so as a boy wearing a Yankees cap, holding a bat and mitt, and standing in front of a wall marked with the words “NO JAPS WANTED.”
The mother and baby could have been my great-grandmother and grandfather. The “NO JAPS WANTED” boy looks like he was modeled after one of my North Everett Little League magnetic photos with curling edges, still on my mother’s refrigerator.
Or it could have been my grandfather, who played baseball as a child and as a young man and loved watching the Mariners, even in their worst years.
Jan Hopkins’ and my family were both sent to Minidoka, in southern Idaho. She also had family at Tule Lake, California, and Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Her mother was allowed to work as a nanny in Chicago. Her father worked for farmers near the camp.
My grandfather toiled at a beet farm, stooped over and baking in the sun, slicing the tops off the root vegetables. That was a life difficult to imagine for me, an Everett-born-and-raised kid who hated raking leaves and mowing the lawn.
When he could, my grandfather would visit his family at Minidoka. Near the end of his life, he told two of my uncles that he would be harassed and exhaustively questioned by soldiers at the entrance. They wanted to know why he wasn’t inside the camp already.
“He said it happened every time he went there and visited,” my Uncle Bif Brigman said.
The things they carried
During the visit in 2014, some who lived at Minidoka spoke of being young children who’d only considered it as camp. They talked about going to school, playing near the river, having pets and always having friends around.
My grandmother lived in Montana and was outside of the exclusion zone of the West Coast states. Growing up, I never heard my grandfather speak about internment. For a middle school project, I recorded my grandparents speaking about their lives during World War II. Neither spoke about racism, or feeling set apart, or being told they were losing their homes and could only take with them what they could carry. Learning all of that came later. Not speaking about it was a way to keep the burden from the next generations and was a means of coping by not revisiting the sorrow.
“When you hear how painful it is for some people, it’s like, why would you want to relive that?” Dale Watanabe said of some people’s reluctance to go back to Minidoka.
That’s similar to Jan Hopkins, whose family also was at Minidoka. She said her parents did not discuss their time there until after President Ronald Reagan in 1988 signed the Civil Liberties Act, which paid $20,000 to anyone who was in the internment camps and still alive then.
“I thought a lot about that, the fear that they were holding on to,” Jan Hopkins said. They were afraid the government could imprison them again.
Jan Hopkins’ father often said he was thankful for internment. That’s where he met her mother, whom she said “was a different class” than her father, implying that their coupling may not have happened otherwise. Her mother remembered taking her prized violin with her, one that is still in the family’s possession and can be spotted throughout their artworks.
My grandmother’s birth father, Nobuichi (aka Harry) Nakashima, was a professional actor before internment at Minidoka. One of his most prized possessions was a trunk with his costumes and outfits, left in the possession of the United States Armed Forces. They lost it, and he spent years corresponding with them in an attempt to get the trunk back. He never did.
Like the rest of the Greatest Generation, people who lived in the internment camps are aging and dying. Their stories are an important piece of American history and even more vital to their families.
My grandparents’ reluctance to discuss the experience of internment always felt odd. It made sense after hearing about the guilt and shame many people talked about during my trip to Minidoka.
Many of the survivors were big believers in an “it is what it is” attitude toward life. In Japanese, there is a saying: shikata ga nai, which translates to “It cannot be helped” or “Nothing can be done about it.”
It’ll be up to the visitors to decide what they see when they peer into the eyes painted by Chris, or what they think when they read Jan’s hand-stitched lettering: “With liberty and justice for all” with the “all” crossed out by “no japs” in cursive.
“It happened here, and it happened to Americans,” Dale Watanabe said. “It didn’t matter if you were a U.S. citizen or not. All that mattered is that you looked like the enemy.”
When I see the Hopkins’ paintings, lettering and interactive works, I think of my immigrant family. I think of their ability to live through displacement and incarceration, losing all their assets. I think of Grandpa Watanabe’s quiet resolve not to dwell or let that define him or his family’s future. I think of his oft-said simple iteration of shikata ga nai: “That’s life.”
About the writer
Herald social media producer Ben Watanabe, 31, was born and raised in Everett. He attended Everett schools and graduated from Seattle University. His paternal family is of Japanese descent, and his grandfather’s family spent three years at an internment camp in Idaho during World War II.
If you go
What: “Americans Interned,” a collaboration by Everett artists Chris and Jan Hopkins about her family’s World War II-era experiences, is the current exhibit in the main gallery of the Schack Art Center.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., Sunday, June 14 to Sept. 1.
Where: 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett.