Hi there,

If you think Democracy Now!’s reporting is a critical line of defense against war, climate catastrophe and authoritarianism, please make your donation of $10 or more right now. Today, a generous donor will DOUBLE your donation, which means it’ll go 2x as far to support our independent journalism. Democracy Now! is funded by you, and that’s why we’re counting on your donation to keep us going strong. Please give today. Every dollar makes a difference—in fact, gets doubled! Thank you so much.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Japanese Americans Were Jailed at Ft. Sill During WWII. Now Trump Wants to Cage Migrant Kids There

Web ExclusiveJune 28, 2019
Media Options

As ongoing chaos enveloped immigration jails along the southern border last weekend, five Japanese-American elders who are survivors of U.S. internment camps demonstrated outside the Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma, where the Trump administration plans to indefinitely detain 1,400 immigrant and refugee children starting next month. Fort Sill was an internment camp for 700 Japanese-American men in 1942. It was also one of more than 70 sites where the U.S. government incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. We speak with Michael Ishii, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity. He helped organize Saturday’s protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill Army Base. Ishii speaks out about the action and his own life story.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue to look at the dramatic scene that unfolded Saturday, when five Japanese-American elders, who are survivors of U.S. internment camps, what they call concentration camps, incarceration camps, engaged in civil disobedience outside the Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma, where the Trump administration plans to indefinitely detain 1,400 migrant children, starting next month. Fort Sill was an internment camp for 700 Japanese-American men in 1942. It was one of more than 70 sites where the U.S. government incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, including one of 14 U.S. Army bases.

Still with us is Michael Ishii, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, who helped organize Saturday’s protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill Army Base.

Michael, describe for us the scene at Fort Sill.

MICHAEL ISHII: Well, we had issued a press release saying that we would do a press conference at Fort Sill before the actual protest, which was at a nearby park. And just the afternoon before the actual scheduled press conference, we received notification in writing that our request was being denied.

So, on Friday evening, all of the survivors—you know, this was an emergency mobilization of our community. We sent out the word, and survivors and descendants were sent from different community organizations, different communities from around the country, and showed up Friday night. So we had to then speak to them and say, “We’re being denied our request to have you speak.” And really, I’m a descendant, so as—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a descendant of Japanese Americans interned, incarcerated.

MICHAEL ISHII: Yes. My mother and her whole family were in the camps. So, I was there to help basically support the voices of camp survivors to speak out in defense of children who are going to be brought to Fort Sill.

So, they arrive, and we have to have this group conversation on Friday night. And I basically said to them, along with my co-leaders, Satsuki Ina, who is a survivor herself, and Nancy Ukai, who’s the other co-leader—we walked them through a scenario. We said, “If you show up at Fort Sill tomorrow, and we go with you, there is a possibility, a very real possibility, that you are going to be arrested. This is now becoming a civil disobedience action.”

And all of the elders, they just looked straight at us, and with this very focused, calm demeanor, they just said, “Well, let’s do it then.” And I remember thinking in that moment, we’re witnessing a historic action right now, because I don’t believe, in the history of our community, that there has been a unified civil disobedience by Japanese-American concentration camp survivors. So we had to walk them through the details of what would happen. I said to them, “You may be in jail all weekend. You may be in jail until Monday. We may not be able to talk to you. We would hope there would be no violence against you.”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the ACLU was with you organizing this.

MICHAEL ISHII: They were. They were. But they were not on the site at that moment. So, we were waiting ’til the next morning to have a meeting with them. And we did have a short meeting. But we walked them through all of the details. And, you know, these are like 89-year-old little old ladies.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of Fort Sill in Japanese-American history. Talk about the—this prison camp.

MICHAEL ISHII: Sure. Well, there’s a whole context, and we’re sort of part of this historical pattern of what we see as forced removal, detention, indefinite detention, and separation of families. So, you have the Apache Nation, who was forcibly removed from the Southwest, brought to Fort Sill as prisoners of war in 1894. Geronimo and his band who were among them. Geronimo died there in 1909. Then you have Japanese Americans brought there during World War II.

Now, technically, we don’t like to use the word “internment,” because internment refers to indefinite detention for enemy aliens, but most of the people of my community who were incarcerated were American citizens. However, with Fort Sill, these were 700 Japanese-American men, or Japanese community men. They were not citizens, because they’d been denied citizenship. They were not allowed to naturalize.

So they were rounded up in the days right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The FBI came into our community. Does this ring present? Right? This is like ICE. So, they came into our community. They did nighttime raids. They took away all of the elders of the community. If you were a language teacher, if you ran a prefecture association, if you were part of a community organization of any kind, and you were a man, you were taken away to Department of Justice camps or military bases, just like Fort Sill. So, over 700 men were brought there, and 90 Buddhist priests were brought to Fort Sill, including the gentleman that Tom Ikeda of Densho, what we saw on the tape—he interviewed that man’s son.

So, Kanesaburo Oshima was murdered there. He was brought there in the roundups during World War II. This is a man who had 11 children. And I went and I researched a little bit about him. This was a hard-working guy. And he also helped people with their naturalization and visa papers. Because of that, he was rounded up. And the stress and duress of being taken away from his family, separated, and then being taken to numerous—and he was moved around to different military bases—he started to mentally break. At one point, I read that they were being transported on a train, and he tried to bite his tongue off. And the fellow prisoners stopped him, you know. But this is what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, is this the man who just tried to climb the barbed-wire fence?

MICHAEL ISHII: Yes. So, he’s inside Fort Sill. OK? And—oh, and they’re living outside in tents, because they’re not—in tents, just just like what’s happening now. So, you know, this is also what they did to the Native people. They made them live outside in the elements through the seasons. We were there. It was a hundred degrees when we were there.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday.

MICHAEL ISHII: And in the winter, it can get very cold. So this man was living outside in a tent. And he broke. And he ran for the fence. He was able to scale the first fence. And all of the other prisoners ran to the guards and said, “Please, please, don’t shoot him. He’s not a danger. He can’t get far. There’s nowhere for him to go. He’s just—he’s broken.” And according to the account, he actually stopped, and he started to turn around. It was at that point a guard went up to him, shot him in the base of the spine, shot him in the head and killed him.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the issue of what these places, these prison camps, what many called concentration camps, for Japanese and Japanese Americans were called in World War II. Again, the Japanese Americans went to Fort Sill because the Trump administration plans to put 1,400 migrant children at this base in Oklahoma. Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz was there on Saturday for the protest and interviewed some of the Japanese-American elders. This is Satsuki Ina, who was born at the Tule Lake internment camp, where her parents were sent for protesting their unjust incarceration during World War II. Satsuki Ina was also held at the Crystal City camp. She’s now 75 years old and a psychotherapist, an expert on the long-term impact of collective and historic trauma.

SATSUKI INA: My name is Satsuki Ina. I am a former child prisoner. I was born at the Tule Lake segregation camp during World War II. We’re here today to educate people about what happened to us during World War II, innocent people who were incarcerated with indeterminate detention, separated from our families and charged with being a risk to national security, potential criminals, spies, saboteurs. And after decades, it was determined that it was all propaganda to justify removing us on basis of race and political—the failure of political leadership.

So, we’re here to remind people that America has done this before in the past, and that when we disappeared, there was nobody standing up for us. We want to make sure that we’re here as a community who understands and where the child incarceration resonates as a tragedy in our own lives. And we want to stop it from happening anymore.

RENÉE FELTZ: You were very careful with your language; you didn’t use the word “internment.” You used the word “incarceration.” You have gone on, after more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, to study the impact of the trauma that they faced. Can you talk about your work and what you’ve discovered?

SATSUKI INA: One of the things that the government did was to use euphemistic language to distort the degree to which we were incarcerated, the conditions of it, and use language like “relocation center,” “evacuation.” We’re wanting to use the true language. We were held in concentration camps. The actual definition is prisoners who are confined based on national, political or ethnic characteristics. So, we weren’t evacuated, and we weren’t relocated. We were arrested and detained in prisons, for some of us, up to six years.

RENÉE FELTZ: You’ve studied this working with survivors of the camps and looking at what you’ve called trauma. Can you describe your work and what you found?

SATSUKI INA: Sure. So, trauma, basically, is defined as a circumstance that overwhelms the coping capacity of the individual. Chronic trauma, like captivity trauma, can have long-lasting effects, particularly on children, because the threat level that the person experiences produces certain chemicals in the brain that alters the nervous system after a chronic state of being in a place of threat. So, I’m really concerned. We have dealt with life-long consequences of our own incarceration as children.

RENÉE FELTZ: Specifically children.

SATSUKI INA: Children, yes, and because the children have the developing brain. And when they are under threat, there are physiological changes to the brain as a result of that. And people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression. And the recent research shows that people who have chronic states of trauma also have a very difficult time forming meaningful attachments.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Satsuki Ina at Fort Sill, where she and her brother, Kiyoshi Ina, and other Japanese-American elders went this past weekend to protest a new internment, to new imprisonment, of over 1,400 migrant children at Fort Sill. At least that’s what the Trump administration is promising. Satsuki Ina is a psychotherapist who deals with—the leading expert on the psychological trauma of this imprisonment during World War II. I want to turn now to Kiyoshi Ina, who is 76 years old, was born in the camp in Topaz, Utah. Very clear they call these “concentration camps.” He was born before he and his family were moved to camps in Tule Lake, California, and Crystal City, Texas. Kiyoshi told Democracy Now! his childhood was one of barbed wire and soldiers carrying weapons.

KIYOSHI INA: My name’s Kiyoshi Ina. I live in Concord, California. I was born in Topaz, Utah, an American concentration camp, on December 3rd, 1942. I spent the first four-and-a-half years of my childhood behind barbed wires, barbed-wire fence, guard towers with armed guards, with machine guns pointed inwards toward us, in Topaz, Utah; Tule Lake, California; and Crystal City, Texas.

My father was taken away from us for months for speaking out against the government, from the American government, for our treatment. He was born in San Francisco, California. And, yes, he was an American citizen. As a former child imprisoned in an American concentration camp, I’m here today to protest the plans to use Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a detention center for immigrant children. And they’re repeating history, and that’s why I’m here.

RENÉE FELTZ: Thank you. Can you read what your T-shirt says that you’ve worn today?

KIYOSHI INA: Well, on the back of my T-shirt, you could see it says, “Born in American concentration camp,” with my birthdate and my birthplace. And on the front, it says, “No! No! Never again!” It should never happen again to any kind of people, regardless of race, creed or religion.

RENÉE FELTZ: You have a poster here. Is this yourself as a child in one of the camps?

KIYOSHI INA: Yes. This is a photo of me at Tule Lake, California. Tule Lake, California. This is about 1944. I was about a year and a half. And the pants that I’m wearing is my mom—my mother made it from a blanket, because we didn’t have access to clothing and stuff, so she made a lot of my clothes.

RENÉE FELTZ: Can you describe the impact of this incarceration on yourself and your family?

KIYOSHI INA: You know, I was a child. I have no memories of me being there. And the only—see, my mother kept a very good diary. And then, after she passed, we found her diary and letters that she and my dad had corresponded to each other when he was taken away from us. So, all the memory I have is in their letters of how they felt and where they were and the fear they had at what was going to happen to them, because they renounced their citizenship and were—the plan was to go back to Japan, because the way the government treated us. So, when we were growing up, we spoke nothing but Japanese. And then my mother telegrammed her relatives in Japan, and they wrote back and says, “Don’t come. Children are starving. There’s no food. There’s no jobs. So you have a better chance just staying where you are imprisoned.”

RENÉE FELTZ: Can you describe the impact that you recall from what your mom has shared with you of all of this on them specifically, on your mother and on your father?

KIYOSHI INA: You know, growing up, they never talked about it. You know, when they talked about camp, we didn’t know what kind of camp they were talking about. You know, we thought maybe it was a fun place or something. But, you know, I know more after they passed than I did at that point in time. And same with all my friends. All their parents kept it quiet, because they were very ashamed of what happened to them, and they didn’t want to cause any trauma to the kids growing up.

So, you know, as a group, when we first—you know, we had a safe haven, where all the Japanese-American kids were, in this Japanese community in San Francisco. And, you know, we all went to church. We were all in the same Boy Scout troop, basketball. And so, even at that time, when we meet each other, it’s, “Hey, what camp were you from?” You know, they would say, you know, Tule Lake or Topaz or something. But we really—even my friends don’t really know, because their parents never talked about it. They were protecting us.

RENÉE FELTZ: You’re here today as part of an effort to keep the memory of what happened to you and your family alive. Why do you think that’s important, as we see the U.S. government preparing to bring children again to Fort Sill, migrant children in a camp?

KIYOSHI INA: Well, they’re repeating history. You know, they gathered us, and they put us in these camps without any due process of law. You know, they took away our civil liberties. And that’s what’s happening today to these young, young children that are being—that are planned to be in Fort Sill. And I’m against that. I mean, they’re repeating history, and that’s not right. So, I stand firm on trying to stop the situation that’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kiyoshi Ina, 76 years old now, together with his younger sister, Satsuki, who’s now 75. She’s a leading psychotherapist on the trauma experienced by Japanese and Japanese Americans in World War II who were incarcerated at these prison camps, what they call concentration camps, throughout the United States. We are still with Mike Ishii, whose family was incarcerated. He’s too young to have been at this time. He’s co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, helped organize Saturday’s protest at Fort Sill. Democracy Now!s Renée Feltz and Hany Massoud were there interviewing these elders talking about their experience. So, he’s throwing out a lot of places that people, young people especially, might not be familiar with—Tule Lake, California; Crystal City, Texas; Topaz, Utah. What are these places? Explain the geography of the prisons.

MICHAEL ISHII: Sure. So, there were 10 major concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II that were run by the War Relocation Authority. This is what most people who are aware of this history understand as the Japanese-American concentration camps. However, before people were taken to those camps, our community was taken to sort of temporary relocation centers, often closer to the communities that they lived in. So, my family lived in Seattle. They were taken to Camp Harmony at the Puyallup fairgrounds, which was the western Washington state fairgrounds. That was a temporary holding center, while these 10 major camps were being built in the inland areas of mostly Western states, but some some of them were in like Arkansas, etc.

In addition to those 10 major camps, there were also Department of Justice camps and in military bases like Fort Sill, where our community was taken. Now, those Department of Justice camps were often where the FBI rounded up community elders prior to the mass forced removal, like immediately following Pearl Harbor bombing, and they rounded up our elders, and they took them to these camps, such as Fort Sill. Now, Satsuki and Kiyoshi are talking about their history. Kiyoshi was born in one of the major camps, Topaz.


MICHAEL ISHII: Yes. And their father resisted because, contrary to popular belief that, you know, we were quiet about going, we were not quiet about going. And there were many families who resisted this. And for resisting and speaking out, these families were taken from the other camps, and they were sent to the Tule Lake segregation center. And that was a different level of security. There were tanks there. All of these camps—

AMY GOODMAN: Where is Tule Lake in California?

MICHAEL ISHII: That’s in—it’s in northeast—it’s in the northeastern corner of California. It’s in the upland high desert plateau.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the resisters, the people who said no to this mass roundup, they were given particularly harsh treatment.

MICHAEL ISHII: They were. At that camp, there was a stockade, that’s—I have visited that place. And so, within a concentration camp, there’s a stockade. And so, within the camp, there was unrest. There were strikes. There were marches. And so, they started pulling young men out and putting them in the stockade. And, you know, we see this, you know, overcrowding, like they’re putting these asylum seekers in El Paso in basically cages, you know, under freeways and locking people up. If you look at the documentation at Tule Lake, what you see is like the same situation, where a prison, a little concrete prison, that was supposed to hold less than 25 people, has like over a hundred men smashed inside. And if you look at the graffiti on the walls, they would write things like “Show me the way to go home.” That’s still on the wall written there.

They were taken to another site just down the road from the main segregation center, where prisoners of war from Italy and Germany were also being held. And those Japanese-American men were subjected to psychological torture. They were stripped down in the middle of winter, brought out blindfolded and stood out in the cold and put up on a firing line, and rifles pointed at them. And then they would say, “We’re going to shoot you now.” And then they’d pull the triggers, and there was no bullets. So, it was that kind of torture that they were doing.

And the prisoners of war from Italy and Germany were celebrated as sons of Tule Lake. So they were given weekend furloughs, and they rode on parade floats on the 4th of July parade in the local town. They would come back with pies and cookies, and they were hosted on the weekends by families in the local town, while our community was incarcerated there.

AMY GOODMAN: And your family in Puyallup, Washington.

MICHAEL ISHII: Yes, who then went to Minidoka camp.

AMY GOODMAN: And where was Minidoka camp?

MICHAEL ISHII: That was in Hunt, Idaho. Again—

AMY GOODMAN: How did they choose these places?

MICHAEL ISHII: They’re the most desolate, forsaken areas, often—guess what—on Native American lands, reservations. So, yeah, you know, so these are the places that the United States government decided were undesirable lands.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to hear from Paul Tomita. Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz interviewed him at Fort Sill. But if you can describe what happened to your family, not only in detention at Minidoka, in Idaho, but what happened to your great-uncle and your great-aunt in upstate New York, in Oneida County?

MICHAEL ISHII: My mother and her parents, my grandfather, they were in Minidoka. And my grandfather, he had gone blind, so he would sit and listen to the radio. And he hears on the national news that a Japanese-American family in upstate New York has been massacred. A World War I veteran has entered their home, and he has shot them. So, he knows—

AMY GOODMAN: And this is in the midst of World War II.

MICHAEL ISHII: Correct. He’s sitting in a concentration camp, and he’s hearing the news of his—and he figures it out. They don’t say the name, but he knows it has to be his family. They’re the only ones in that part of New York.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this World War I veteran, who had a bar in town, goes to your great-uncle and aunt’s house, where your great-uncle’s mother also lived, and their two children live, their two boys, and opened fire—opens fire on the family, killing your great-uncle, critically wounding your great-aunt and her mother-in-law. And the boys, one ran away, and one was at school.

MICHAEL ISHII: Yes. So, the younger son, Yonei, was mentally disabled, and he fled into the woods when his family was shot. They found him in the—the neighbors found him in the woods. The other son was at school. It was Christmas time, and they’re having the Christmas Eve pageant. And the priest comes and pulls him out of the school and takes him to the hospital, because they think his mother is going to die also. It ends up she survived. She and her mother-in-law actually somehow survived that. Yonei was traumatized for the rest of his life. He ended up in an institution.

AMY GOODMAN: The one who ran away.

MICHAEL ISHII: Mm-hmm. When I was a teenager, Kei, who was my great-aunt—she was the one that survived—she came to live with my grandmother in Seattle, so I knew her quite well. And you could see the scar where the bullet went through her neck, and she had difficulty speaking and talking. She was this tiny little Japanese lady. And she told the story of what happened to her. And I remember very clearly, she looks at me, and she says, “And I told him I forgive him.” When I was speaking to her, in the course of that conversation—I interviewed her over several weeks about her story—her neighbor called and said, “You know, there is justice in this world, because even though he never served a day in prison, you outlived him.”

AMY GOODMAN: And we went looking for the newspapers talking about the story, found a Syracuse paper that talked about how the prosecutor tried to convene a jury. They spent days. Because there was so much prejudice against Japanese and Japanese Americans, they couldn’t find an impartial jury. They finally put some group together. But the prosecutors convinced that the murderer, who admitted what he did, would be acquitted. And so he did a plea bargain. And this guy served what? Like a 5-to-10-year suspended sentence. And he went up to your aunt, eventually, and asked for her forgiveness.

MICHAEL ISHII: That’s correct. You know, what we see here, in World War II, with that story, my community, my family, is a parallel to what’s going on in the present. There is a systemic white supremacy and racism in this country. This country is built on the exploitation and enslavement of people from Africa, and stolen lands and attempted genocide of indigenous people here. And so, we have this culture of violence and supremacy and domination. We saw that at the Fort Sill press conference when that MP came out. He’s—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Fort Sill news conference that the elders decided they were going to have, no matter what, even though Fort Sill said, “You can’t hold this news conference here.” The elders came on Saturday. A couple hundred people were there as they said no to 1,400 migrant children about to be placed there, and talked about their own history, what this means. And the MP comes out to try to push them away.

MICHAEL ISHII: He implies that we’re not intelligent, that we can’t understand him. He was physically intimidating. I’m not sure if it comes across as strong on the film as it does in person. But he was really angry, and he was big, and he was right up in the faces. He’s leering over these, you know, 4-foot-8, 89-year-old camp survivors.

And the amazing thing about that is, you know, in that moment, I’m observing this, and I’m thinking this is such a clear example of the history of this country, where white superiority, violence and domination thinks it can overpower people and bully them. And, you know, there’s a failure of our political leadership and judiciary in World War II, and we’re seeing that right now. But what we’re also seeing is that people like the elders of my community, who were incarcerated as children in concentration camps, they speak truth to power now. They’re standing up. You know, Chizu Omori, 89 years old; her sister Emiko, just a couple years younger; Satsuki Ina and her brother; Paul Tomita; Nikiyou know cheesy or more. Eighty nine years years old her sister Emiko just a couple of years younger Satsuki Ina and her brother Paul to meet a Nikki Louis—they’re all in their like seventies and eighties. And these people are standing there as a man is trying to intimidate them. And what I saw happen there was this incredible resolve.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to a clip.

SATSUKI INA: They’re wanting to remove us. We’ve been removed too many times. If that’s what it comes to—

MILITARY POLICE OFFICER KEYES: What don’t you people understand?

SATSUKI INA: —we will stay here and—

MILITARY POLICE OFFICER KEYES: What don’t you people understand?

UNIDENTIFIED: We understand the whole history of this country, and we aren’t going to let it happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a clip of the Fort Sill MP coming out to try to push the Japanese-American elders away. Finally, Mike, if you can talk about what happened to the community after? After World War II, how were they released? They go back. Do they have their land? Do they have their businesses? Do they have their homes.

MICHAEL ISHII: Well, that’s a complex story in itself. But let me just try to paraphrase it. So, people could get releases from the camp after a certain point. My own family was sponsored by Saint Mary’s Academy, which was the girls’ school at Notre Dame. My grandmother was a maid there, and she worked there and was able to bring her three daughters, including the youngest daughter, who was born in the camp, and she was mentally disabled because of probably oxygen deprivation in her birth, because the medical care was so bad there. So, my aunt brings her three daughters to Notre Dame, and then they were separated—once again, separation of families—from my grandfather and his parents, who remained at the camp, because the grandparents are too old to travel. For years, they were separated. Finally, my family gets reunited, eventually, in Seattle.

But people returned often to not find their homes there anymore, or their farms were stolen. They returned to incredible violence towards them. My own family tried to move into a working-class neighborhood in SeaTac, Seattle. They spray-painted “Kill the Japs” in front of her house. They shot out our windows. They used to wait for my mother to leave for work, and then they—or, they would wait for my father to leave for work, and then they would call my mother, and they would say, “Jap bitch, we’re gonna come kill you now.” So, police cars would park in front of our house at night for protection. And the white supremacist neighbors were having meetings to try to drive us out.

This is—this is like after World War II, but it’s very familiar, because what we’re seeing is a re-emergence of this kind of uncensored, bold hate and racism, that’s being flamed by the current administration. And my community is deeply alarmed, and the survivors, in particular, are standing up now, because it looks to us like history is repeating itself.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the government apology? When did that come? And what kind of reparations were promised?

MICHAEL ISHII: Well, after a very long and protracted battle, there was a bill that was—the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed during the Reagan administration. It was a feat of unimaginable skill to get that passed. So, individuals were granted a personal apology. They were given a very token reparation of $20,000, and a Civil Liberties Education Fund was created for education. I don’t believe it was fully funded for its duration, but it was created.

One group was left out. It was the Japanese Latin Americans, who were forcibly removed from their countries because the United States government was basically coercing the governments of South America to cooperate with them. Those Japanese Latin Americans, especially from Peru, were brought to the United States. They were often brought to camps such as Crystal City, where we went in March to protest. We did a pilgrimage back to that camp, and then we went to the Dilley detention site, the South Texas Family Residential Center. And that’s where our project, Tsuru for Solidarity, was born, because at that camp there were a lot of Japanese Latin Americans and Japanese Americans, including Satsuki and Kiyoshi’s families. And they—

AMY GOODMAN: But explain. What do you mean they were brought from Latin America into the camps?

MICHAEL ISHII: Yeah. So they were brought through New Orleans, and they were kidnapped, basically. As soon as they arrived, they were charged with illegal immigration. That same law is being used at the border today to charge these children and mostly mothers trying to seek asylum. They were then brought to Department of Justice camps such as Crystal City. And then, the U.S. government’s plan for them was to use them in prisoner of war exchanges with Japan, along with people who had resisted from Tule Lake, who were saying—like Kiyoshi explained in the segment, his family was so disgusted, they wanted to repatriate to Japan and denounce their American citizenship. So, that was all going on in that period.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve got nearly 1,800 Japanese residents of Peru. You’ve got 250 Japanese from Panama, a number of Japanese residents from Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador and other places. And they’re forcibly brought from those Latin American countries to the United States to be put in these prisons during World War II. Why?

MICHAEL ISHII: The U.S. government had a plan to use these people in prisoner of war exchange with Japan. So, these are—these are people being used as political collateral. It was illegal. And eventually, I believe it was the Spanish Embassy intervened and said, “You can’t do that. First of all, who you’re”—well, and then they were also bringing the resisters from Tule Lake, who were saying, like Kiyoshi said in the segment, his family decided to repatriate. If they were going to be treated this way, they wanted to repatriate. So then they were going to be used for prisoner of war exchange, until the Spanish Embassy said, “You can’t use American citizens to trade for U.S. soldiers.”

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at BBC. Of the 2,200 Latin Americans of Japanese descent to be interned in the U.S., 800 were sent to Japan as part of prisoner exchanges. And after World War II ended, another 1,000 were deported to Japan, after their Latin American home countries refused to take them back.


AMY GOODMAN: This is after the U.S. demanded these Latin American countries send them to the United States.

MICHAEL ISHII: That’s correct. So now these people become stateless. And their home country—there was, you know, quite a bit of racism against them back in their home countries, as well. So, a lot of them ended up at Crystal City, and that camp stayed open longer than any of the other camps, because they had these folks, and they didn’t know what to do with them. So they started deporting them. And some of them were brought to New Jersey to the Seabrook community, which was a company, like a frozen food factory, that said, “Oh, we’ll take them.” So, they came, and they became workers in the factory there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about the apology to Japanese Americans for this very shameful period, this shameful history of the United States, and reparations?

MICHAEL ISHII: The apology was given in 1988. The Japanese Latin Americans were left out of that. There was lawsuits. There was continued negotiation. There was a very paltry, really pathetic attempt at an apology by the government, to kind of give them a small reparation and to make this issue go away.

AMY GOODMAN: And when we talk about reparations, you’re talking about money.

MICHAEL ISHII: Yes. Most people were—most surviving people—so, a lot of these people were dead already. So they were not—their families were not going to receive reparations. The living survivors received $20,000 as a token reparation. The Japanese Latin Americans were offered $5,000. And most of them said, “This is unacceptable. Give us a formal, real apology. Give us reparations.” And so, to this date, the United States government will not. These people have not received justice.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with Paul Tomita. Paul Tomita, a Japanese American, held in prison camps in Idaho and Washington state, interviewed by Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz.

PAUL TOMITA: My name is Paul Tomita. I’m originally—I was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1939. This card is what they call the citizen’s indefinite leave card. In other words, you had to pass security at the individual camps and to get out of the camps. You just can’t say, “Well, you know, I don’t like it here. I’m leaving.” So, what this is, is, on July 4th, Independence Day, of 1943, I left with my family out of Minidoka.

And that’s Idaho, beautiful southern Idaho in the high desert, hotter than hell. And the dust blew all the time. My father, from the day—from day one, when we got there, my father attempted to to get us out of there, because I had severe asthma. And what am I allergic to? Dust. So I was supposed to die there.

And so, what happened was, it took my father 11 months to secure a job outside, because unless you had a written offer of a job, you stayed there. That’s why the majority of the people in my camp, in Minidoka, Idaho, they stayed there for the duration. So, my father got a job after 11 months. In guess what agency. OSS, Secret Service, which is now CIA. And so, he passed. One minute, you know, he’s this American-born Nisei, born in California, but can’t be trusted so they throw us all in this camp. And 11 months later, he passes the highest security, and he works for Secret Service.

So, this is the actual card, or blown up, of—that every person who gets out, children and adults, had to have to get out. And as you can tell here, it says—this is the camp, Minidoka. They spell my middle name wrong, which is usual. And we were first—oh, on July 4th, Independence Day, 1943. At that time, I was between 4 and 5 years old. And we were authorized to go to Denver, Colorado, for paper processing, and then we went on, on a train, to Washington D.C. We lived in Arlington, Virginia, for the last two years of the war. We were lucky. We only spent a total of 16 months in prisons.

And by the way, it was a concentration camp. You know, it wasn’t a relocation, you know, all those nice little cute words they use, because it was a concentration camp. So—but, again, we had to have this to get out.

RENÉE FELTZ: It was a situation where you and your family were incarcerated. You have to have permission to leave.

PAUL TOMITA: Yes. We had to get permission to do anything there. They told us when to eat. They told us, if—if we had the nerve to say, “Wait a minute. You know, I have some rights. You can’t do this to me”—if you did that, then you probably, your family, you and your family, would be transferred to a more, quote, “secured” situation, which is Tule Lake. Tule Lake, in 1943, became a segregation center. All those who were the, quote, “troublemakers” were sent there. So, in other words, is that if they didn’t like—the white administration did not like what my father or my mother or I said, they could ship us off to Tule Lake.

So, but again, my father was—you know, he didn’t want me to die, of course. And so he tried like hell to get me out. And, you know, 77, 76 years later, I’m still here. So I guess it was OK, you know. But again, we were lucky. My grandma, who lived with us and was in the same barracks as we were, what happened was, she came to California, San Francisco, in 1907 with her husband from Japan. What happened was, she was not allowed—because she was Asian, she was not allowed to become a naturalized citizen in America, as it was with the Chinese before us. So, what happened here was—and by the way, she was bilingual. She could speak English, and she could read and write English, too. But that was not good enough. So she ended up staying. They would not let her go with us to Washington, D.C. So she stayed in the same camp for an additional two-and-a-half years. She did not get out of Minidoka until October of 1945. And the reason is, they don’t let aliens out. You know, if you don’t have—if you’re not an American citizen, you don’t leave the camps. This is why our camp in Minidoka, only 40% got out before the war. Sixty percent were there for the duration. So you’re talking three, four years.

RENÉE FELTZ: You’ve used the word “incarceration,” and you mention your family—


RENÉE FELTZ: —extended family, was there.


RENÉE FELTZ: The Trump administration has talked about putting immigrants together as families—


RENÉE FELTZ: —in two detention centers. This was previously done by President Obama.


RENÉE FELTZ: They say that it helps keep families together, instead of separating children from their parents. Your response?

PAUL TOMITA: Then why are they separating the children from their parents. You know, no offense, but, you know, he says a lot of [bleep], OK? And the thing here was, so, how come we have a separation? Kids are being separated from their parents. I don’t care what he says. All I know is what’s happening, OK? And that what’s happening is children are being separated from their parents. At least in our situation, you know, 77 years ago, they didn’t do that. But now, here, it’s cruel. You know, it’s inhuman. Who would—what mind would come up with the idea that, “Hey, let’s punish these people, who want to come to America and do the [bleep] jobs that we don’t want to do”? OK? You know, “And let’s separate them. Let’s make them hurt.” By the way, in 1942, there were some politicians who said that about us. “Let’s make them suffer. Let’s make them hurt.” They really—you know, politicians, you know, congressmen, they actually said that. And here we go again. Yes, 77 years has passed, but it’s the same old [bleep].

And the reason I came here from the state of Washington, you know, is that I’m one of the few people who are still alive that were children then, because, you know, most of our people have died. You know, I mean, I was 3 years old when they took us away from Seattle, and I’m 80 years old, you know? And, you know, hey, I don’t care what Trump and his people say, I can see what I see. And what I see is a very similar situation, or at least attitude, is that, “Hey, we”—in fact, some of his backers says, “Hey, we did it. There was a precedent set, so we could do it again.” Uh, I beg your pardon? He forgot to mention that, eventually, after 46 years, they apologized in writing, and we received reparations. But that took 46 years. And if you were not alive when the law was passed in 1988, your family got nothing in 1990. So, the thing here is it’s the same old [bleep]. OK? And as long as I can speak and take a plane, wherever it is, I think it is my responsibility, because I’m one of the few people, I guess, who’s alive that actually experienced it, was actually there. And I think that I should—it is my responsibility to do it, you know?

RENÉE FELTZ: What do you think is most important for people to understand about what you endured? You do remember part of it. What can you describe?

PAUL TOMITA: Yes. I remember the Minidoka, bits and pieces. I remember the guards on the other side of the fence, you know, the U.S. Army guards with their guns, live bullets. I remember looking up at them. Of course, I was very short. I looked up at them, and they were nice guys. OK? But they had the right, that if they thought I was trying to escape, they could shoot me. Which they did.

RENÉE FELTZ: You were what age?

PAUL TOMITA: Between 3 and 4. They could, you know—but they have the U.S. Army sentries, those guys on the towers, the 30-foot watchtowers there, the guard towers. They had the right, if they thought any of us was trying to escape, they’d shoot us. They could shoot us. And there were shootings during the war in the different camps, the 10 main camps. And do you know how many of those soldiers were convicted? None. Zero. All he had to say was, “Gee, I thought Paul was trying to escape, this 3- or 4-year-old kid, that he was trying to dig underneath the fence and get away.” Of course, we were in the middle of the desert and in the middle of nowhere. I would have died from water deprivation before I even could get anywhere. But, no, they did. That, I remember.

I remember about the mess halls. I remember about—you know, Japanese are very family-oriented, OK? And we’re very private. And what happens, just all of a sudden, you’re in this mess hall. Everybody’s together, see. And you get in line, and you start, you know, going through the line. It’s like in college, you know, at the food service. Same kind of stuff. You go through there. But because of the situation, instead of sitting with your family, you sit with your friends. OK? And after a while, even the children realize, “Hey, my parents no longer have the power over me like back home in Seattle.” OK? And so, what happens, essentially, as time goes on, they separate into their own groups. And what the end result is, the disintegration of the family structure. And it destroyed a lot of the families, where after a while the teenage kids says, “I don’t have to listen to you. You know, look at you. You’re locked up like I am here in this camp. You can’t do nothing to me.” And they go off with their friends, and another just, you know, destroying of the family. And that.

I remember about, you know, the hospital. I was—as I told you before, I had asthma, severe. And I spent a lot of time in the hospital. So, you know, in those days, the treatment for asthma was a steamer, Vicks VapoRub, and you throw a towel over your head, and you—I sucked in the steam from there. That was the treatment. That was the only treatment. And also, too, in the hospital, there was less dust coming in the buildings, because the barracks that they built for us were—from the inside, you could see all the holes. You know? And where there’s a hole, the dust will get in. The floors that they laid there, it was green. When it shrank, it narrowed. Dust came from underneath. And so, dust—I remember my mom, she would—every night, she would go and get a newspaper. She would strip it. She would get a bucket of water, and she would try to plaster the holes. OK? Well, obviously, you know, gravity, and when it dries, it drops. And so, by morning, all of us—any part of your body that was exposed, there’s dust. You know, it was like talcum powder, up your nose, in your ears, in your eyes, in your mouth, you know? And that’s what we had to tolerate.

And, unfortunately, you know, for the majority, they tolerated at least twice as long as we did. Again, we were lucky. We got out. But again, my grandma, she was there for the duration, because she was a noncitizen, that, by the way, they wouldn’t let her become an American citizen.

RENÉE FELTZ: What do you have to say to people today about the conditions in some of the facilities where migrants are being held? We’ve heard of overcrowding, horrible, undercooked, rotten food in some of the facilities.

PAUL TOMITA: Yes, yes.

RENÉE FELTZ: Recently, government lawyers tried to argue that children did not have the right to toothbrushes and soap as part of safe and sanitary conditions.


RENÉE FELTZ: What’s your message regarding conditions, based on your experience?

PAUL TOMITA: It’s worse today than it was in 1942 for us. You know, at least they gave us soap and a toothbrush, you know. You know, they provided us that crappy food. That’s the reason why our farmers, which were the majority, we started growing our own food in the surroundings, to eat decent food that we like, you know, our own ethnic food. And in this situation, it’s a caged animal. You throw, you know, particles of something to them. But, I mean, their situation today, you know, hard to believe. Seventy-seven years have passed, and it’s worse today than it was in '42, those conditions. At least in what we had is, they had the confine. They had meals, crappy meals. They had all this stuff. But the thing here was, you know, they provided the Army—it was set up like an Army camp, and so we got Army stuff. OK? These situations, it's horrible. You know, it’s inhumane.

And to treat, you know—and I always say, “Hey, in these kinds of situations, why are all these people who are in these situations nonwhite?” Huh, is that a coincidence? No, I don’t think so. You know? Where have you heard where they had a concentration camp during World War II for the Germans and the Italians? By the way, it was our second war with Germany. Huh? Where’s that? You know?

Oh, I met a man whose grandfather was an Italian American in New York. He was arrested because he was a leader, you know, when we declared war against Italy, which was like right after Pearl Harbor. And he was arrested. But this man told me, “But you know what? My grandfather, he had the right for due process. He had the right to get an attorney, went to court, pleaded his case.” Of course he was innocent. OK? All he lost was a day or two of work.

All we lost was everything we had. We lost our homes. We lost our businesses. We lost our cars. We lost—we lost our animals. We had to leave our cats and dogs and birds and everything. We lost everything. This is why, at the end of the war, the old folks, you know, who had and lost everything, they had to kick them out of the camps, because you know why? Where are they going to go? They gave us—they gave you a one-way train ticket to anywhere and 25 bucks apiece, saying, “Lots of luck, Bubba. You know, bye.” And they kicked them out of the camp. But again, you know, these older folks have spent a lifetime acquiring a business, just like every other American. OK? Well, they took it away. And so, where are they going to go? They’re too old. Huh? They have no—no longer have their homes. They no longer have—they have already foreclosed, or somebody has taken their property. Or they go back to and look for their valuables in a warehouse, and they go back, they open the thing. It’s empty. Who are you going to sue? Huh?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Paul Tomita, interviewed by Democracy Now!'s Renée Feltz at Fort Sill in Oklahoma at the protest where Japanese elders went to the base to protest the Trump administration's plans to put 1,400 migrant children at Fort Sill Army Base in the coming weeks. Michael Ishii has been our guest, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity. Finally, can you explain what ”tsuru” means?

MICHAEL ISHII:Tsuru” is the word in Japanese for crane. And the crane, in our culture, is a creature of transformation. So, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, there was a young girl who was dying of radiation poisoning. And it was said in our culture that if you folded a thousand tsuru, you would have a wish for healing. Well, she tried to fold the thousand, and she died before she finished. So children from around Japan, and then eventually from around the world, sent cranes to Hiroshima in her memory. It became a symbol of healing, transformation, peace, nonviolence.

So, when we went to Texas to protest at the Dilley detention site in March, we called out—the Tsuru for Solidarity project was born. And we spoke and called out to our community across the country, and we said, “Fold cranes representing the 120,000 people of our community, their voices, that would speak out now and say we cannot incarcerate children in detention sites.” There are mass incarcerations happening right now at the rate or in the scope of World War II, when our people were incarcerated, has to stop. So, we asked for 10,000 cranes, and they sent 30,000 cranes. We hung them on the fence at Dilley. We took them to Fort Sill. You can see it in the tape; they were there. And they’ve become a symbol not only of our community speaking out, but now what they represent is solidarity with other communities.

So, we are actually building a movement here. It’s not just a Japanese-American movement. What it is, is—I believe it’s a social transformation and civil disobedience movement. What we saw at Fort Sill, I believe, was a spark that ignites a wildfire of moral authority conscience of my community. And everywhere we go, we connect to people, like people from the Native community who were incarcerated. We’re speaking to the African-American community, who have had separation of families. We’re connecting to immigrant rights communities and frontline communities. And what we recognize is that our community is not currently being targeted, but we can—we have full citizenship. We have rights in this country, and we’re going to assert them, and we’re going to stand up, and we’re going to speak out in defense of these children.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Ishii, I want to thank you so much for being with us, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, helped organize Saturday’s protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma. The little Japanese girl you’re talking about, the famous Sadako Sasaki, 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. For the next year, she folded those origami cranes, thousands of them, now picked up by people all over the world, a symbol of peace and an action against nuclear war.

MICHAEL ISHII: So, Amy, I just want to say that this is a movement that has inspired children. Many of these cranes are being folded by children in temples, in schools, in their families. And they’re writing hand messages on these cranes to the children that are being detained.

We’re going with Detention Watch Network in 2020 to Washington, D.C. We’re building a wide national coalition. We’re going to hang these cranes, and we’re going to hang butterflies, because that’s a symbol of the immigrant rights community, on the fence at the White House. We’re going to—and those cranes, 125,000 cranes, for each person who was incarcerated in our community, as well as the Japanese Latin Americans, who never received recognition or reparations. We’re going to fold butterflies for all of the detainees. Right now there’s like 80,000 people detained in the United States. That’s ridiculous. So, we’re coming to Washington. We’re organizing and in solidarity, Tsuru for Solidarity. We’re coming together. We’re going to do those actions there. We’re going to take the cranes and the butterflies to the Congress. We’re going to demand policy change, that these detention sites be closed, that you cannot incarcerate children anymore. And then what we’re going to do is we’re going to have a community—cross-cultural, multiple allied communities forum on healing the effects of detention and separation of families, that is a historical pattern in the United States and continues today.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks again, Mike. You make me think of 2012, the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of the first actions at the beginning of that convention—this was when President Obama was being renominated—were immigrant activists being arrested outside the doors of the DNC convention. And their symbol, butterflies. I asked one of the immigrants about to be arrested why butterflies, and she said, “Because butterflies know no borders. Butterflies are free.”

Michael Ishii is co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, again, helped organize Saturday’s protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma. To see our full coverage of that, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Silky Shah: Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition as Democrats Backslide on Biden’s Reform Vows

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation