Reporter's notebook: Lessons of my father in Trump's America

Reflecting on life in a WWII prison camp
Reflecting on life in a WWII prison camp

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Reflecting on life in a WWII prison camp 02:25

Story highlights

  • Writer says her parents never wanted to talk about "the camp days" when she was a child
  • She eventually learned they were among 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned during WWII

(CNN)I couldn't have been more than 9 years old the first time I heard about "the camp days."

My mother brought it up. We always ate dinner together, even if it was just 30 minutes, a consistent habit of my 1970s family in Santa Ana, California. My father, a gardener who worked in southern Orange County, always ate the fastest, but waited until I and my three siblings finished recounting our school days to him and my mother.
"What camp?" I don't recall which of us asked, but we all wanted to know.
    "Ah, forget it," my father said. He waved his hand, as if trying to push the memory away. "It was tough. You kids don't know how lucky you are."
    They didn't give "the camp days" a place, a time or the courtesy of a detailed explanation to us as children. I wouldn't learn about the camps' place in history until high school, when my US history class put my parents' imprisonment into a brief paragraph in a textbook.
    Japanese internment, I would learn, involved 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two thirds of them US citizens. They were ordered into 10 isolated War Relocation Centers by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Anyone who had 1/16th Japanese ancestry was ordered into a camp.
    Traci Tamura and her parents, Hideo and Alice Tamura.
    My parents were two of the 120,000. They were just barely teenagers, both born and raised in Southern California. They were uprooted and sent off to camps in Poston, Arizona, and Tule Lake in Northern California for years. They continued to avoid delving into their internment until I became an adult. I would later learn that everyone in my family in 1942, more than a dozen relatives, lost their homes, their farms and all their possessions.
    Except for "one suitcase," my elderly father told me recently, the guise of my childhood long faded, as I questioned him as the journalist I am today. "We got the word when we were in high school to go home. Then they told us to hurry up and you gotta go and pack whatever you can. We dropped everything on the farm."
    My father, Hideo Tamura, was 90 when I insisted we talk about the camps. Even as an elderly man, his body remained stocky, with a face weathered from decades in the sun and hands toughened by the earth he worked. I still think of him as the ebullient man who coached my basketball team and sat through every single softball game. My 89-year-old mother, Alice, remains crystallized in my memory as the ever-present, stay-at-home mom who painstakingly sewed my Betsy Ross colonial dress when I sang a solo in the Bicentennial choir show.
    As a child, there was no question in my mind, they loved their country and wanted us to feel the same. So I struggled to place my all-American parents into this page in American history, a period they wanted to shelter us from.
    "It's inside of me," my father told me, the decades still trying to bury those years of injustice. "I'll never get rid of it."
    I've learned that's a common sentiment among the Japanese-Americans who lived through the prison camps. They may have forgiven, but haven't forgotten that sense of betrayal of their civil rights.

    Lessons of Pearl Harbor

    For the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we sat down with Joyce Nakamura-Okazaki, 82, and Pat Sakamoto, 72. We met them at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, interviewing them in front of restored barracks from one of the camps, now part of a powerful exhibit. For these two women, Pearl Harbor remains a horrific attack by the Japanese that claimed the lives of fellow Americans.
    It also marks the moment that sent their country down the path to deny them their civil liberties, merely based on their race.
    "We had Japanese ancestry. That was our crime," says Nakamura-Okazaki, who recalls having to leave her dolls behind as her parents were rounded up in April 1942. She was 7 years old. "We were all citizens. We didn't have any rights. Our freedoms were taken away. We could not leave the camp. We were told if we went close to the barbed wire fence, you would be shot."
    "Don't call this an internment camp," says Nakamura-Okazaki. "This was a prison camp or incarceration camp. 'Internment' is a euphemistic word promoted by the government to whitewash and make it seem more gentle."
    Traci Tamura's mom's ID from Tule Lake prison camp in 1945.
    The brutality of the Japanese camps forever altered Sakamoto's life. Sakamoto was born at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where her parents and toddler sister were imprisoned during the war. Sakamoto's father, born in the United States, refused to sign a loyalty pledge to his country that was forcing him into a camp. Sakamoto's father was deported to Japan, a country he had never visited.
    "I never met my father," says Sakamoto.
    Sakamoto believes the fear and discrimination that tore her family apart is repeating itself in 2016. To Muslims, Latinos and marginalized minorities, Sakamoto says, "The same thing that happened to us can happen to you. You need to be vigilant. You need to do whatever you can. You have to fight for your civil rights."
    The place where we met Sakamoto and Nakamura-Okazaki, the Japanese American National Museum, also issued a statement, saying, "We will not stand by as they (politicians and others in public) cite the unlawful incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII as 'precedent' to create a registry for Muslim Americans or target any ethnic group for incarceration."
    Things will be different for Sakamoto's generation, she says, saying she stands in solidarity with Muslims and undocumented immigrants, should their civil liberties be infringed by the government. "I will stand up to them."

    Lessons of my family

    My father was drafted by the US military after the Japanese were released from the camps. World War II was over, but he served in the Army and was honorably discharged, becoming a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. My parents met in Southern California on a blind date in 1952, eventually marrying and raising four children.
    Corporal Hideo Tamura, U.S. Army. He was part of the 36th Infantry Div.
    We all went to college as my parents insisted, because they never had the opportunity for higher education. My siblings and I all live comfortable, middle-class lives, products of my parents. My parents preferred to keep the history of "the camp days" hidden as best they could, hoping to shelter us from the country's betrayal and their hardships.
    My father passed away September 5, 2015, taking with him the biggest heart and smile I've ever known. I try to follow his lessons of being kind to others and making my family the center of my life. I am forever thankful for having him as the strongest figure in my life.
    But I defy him in one way.
    Unlike his efforts to forget history, I align myself with Pat Sakamoto and Joyce Nakamura-Okazaki. We must recall history to inform us in today's political climate. In times of crisis, deep conflict and even deeper political divisions, America cannot forget the foundations of this country. We once turned our backs on my parents and 120,000 others, because we feared an entire race, regardless of their birthright or civil rights.
    On this 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I ask you to remember the veterans who were injured or lost their lives fighting for this country. And I ask you to remember and protect the very freedoms we all share as Americans.