COLLEGE PARK – They lived within the narrow confines of a racetrack near San Bruno, Calif., surrounded by the sweat and stench of horses, abruptly exiled from their homes to become prisoners in their own country.
It was 1942, a few months after the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today, when Takashi Kariya, 17, and his family joined thousands of other Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans held captive at the Tanforan Assembly Center.
On Pearl Harbor Day, the United States takes time to honor American soldiers who died in the bombing attack. But it rarely makes note of the approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them United States citizens, interned in camps after Pearl Harbor.
They were designated “alien enemies,” and had no idea what would happen to them. They did not know whether they ever would see their homes, their neighbors and friends, or schoolmates again.
They were people like Kariya, now 86, and his future wife, Sachiko Nakamura, now 82.
At Tanforan, Kariya’s family fared better than others because they were assigned to newly-built barracks, as opposed to the stables most people inhabited.
“It was really awful (for them) because it smelled, and you knew that it was a horse stable,” Kariya said. “We were very fortunate.”
Robbed of all privacy, his family nevertheless clung to something positive — even if it was simply that their living conditions were tolerable.
In 1942, Nakamura, like her future husband, also moved to an assembly center that once housed livestock. The center’s roof was open to the elements.
“You could hear everything,” Nakamura said. “If a baby cried way on the other side of the building, you could hear it.”
Her journey wouldn’t end there. In August, the government moved her to the Minidoka internment camp, in Jerome County, Idaho.
“They loaded us into these long trains,” Nakamura said. “I felt like a piece of cattle. The toilets weren’t working, and they wouldn’t let us out to even get some fresh air (for two days).”
Kariya went on a similar journey. After five months at Tanforan, he and his family were moved to Topaz, a camp near the town of Delta, Utah.
“It was such a dirty, dusty place,” Kariya said. “Tar paper barracks, family of six in one room that was 20 by 24 feet.”
In Minidoka, Nakamura lost her name and became a number.
“We were given an identification number,” she said. “From then on, every time we had to identify ourselves, we gave our family identification number. I still remember it: 15097.”
Minidoka had a hospital, an administration building, a mess hall, schools, a library, warehouses and approximately 40 blocks of barracks, divided into units.
The end unit housed Nakamura and her parents. It was outfitted with three cots, one pot-bellied stove and one electric bulb.
They did not have mattresses. Instead, each person received a single large pillowcase that they stuffed with straw.
“It’s not much fun sleeping on straw,” Nakamura said.
At Minidoka, the authorities assigned each family a specific mess hall. But the Army did not make food a priority. Hominy, rotten fish and rice were standard fare.
In their respective camps, Nakamura and Kariya led different lives.
Nakamura, 13 when she arrived, attended the one-room school. They had no books, no paper, and no writing materials. The children’s attention waned.
“We played with the mud that was caught in our shoes,” she said. “We made mud balls, and we threw them at each other. Good recreation.”
Kariya finished his senior year of high school in the camp, and then became a fireman. Later, he worked as a mail truck driver, picking up camp mail in Delta.
In the winter, camp residents built their own ice rink.
“We could order things from Sears, so we ordered skates,” Kariya said. “We skated a lot. Not much else to do.”
For Nakamura, the end of internment came as abruptly as the beginning. On Aug. 15, 1945, authorities announced they were closing the camps. Detainees had to leave.
“We didn’t have a place to go. We couldn’t go back to Portland, because we had no home left there,” she said.
Her father traveled alone and found work in Des Moines with the help of Quakers. Nakamura and her mother followed.
Nakamura began attending high school again, keenly conscious of the changes.
“It was a strange feeling, going from an all black-haired Japanese student body to an all-white school,” she said.
Kariya spent less time in his camp than his future wife, approximately a year. He was allowed to leave, as long as he went east. He travelled to Cleveland.
Once his parents were allowed to return to California at the end of the war, he returned to help them grow flowers. He recalled almost no overt prejudice.
“I can only remember one time a guy called me a Jap,” he said. “I faced up to him and he backed down, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I wasn’t going to take that kind of stuff.”
Kariya attended junior college in California, and then went to Drake University in Iowa, where he met Nakamura.
While they were dating, doctors diagnosed Kariya with a heart defect, warning that it likely would kill him before he turned 50. He was 26 at the time. Having already endured so much, he had developed a certain level of fatalism that Nakamura shared.
“I thought, ‘What the heck,'” she said. “We just accepted the fact that things could happen. So now he’s 86 — it was worth it.”
“In the camps, there’s a word that they always said (in Japanese), ‘shikata ga nai,'” she said. “It means, ‘Accept what you have to accept.’ It was a good attitude.”
Editor’s Note: Mariko Hewer, a senior at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, is the granddaughter of Takashi Kariya and Sachiko Nakamura (who became Sachiko Kariya after marriage). The Kariyas live in Cincinnati, Ohio.