On a Spring day in 1942, with young peaches clinging to the trees, and fields of strawberries on the verge of picking, Jimi Yamaichi and his family were uprooted from their San Jose farm — and forced into a long journey that delivered them finally to a tarpaper barrack near the Oregon border where they would spend four years.
“All of a sudden,” Yamaichi, 94, recently remembered, “you lose everything you have and put away like that.”
The Yamaichis were among 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast ordered into internment camps as a result of executive order 9066, which turns 75 this Sunday.
The order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt cleared the way for the government to banish what they believed were potential enemy sympathizers to concentration camps scattered across the nation. The order also targeted German-Americans and Italian-Americans.
“We never been to Japan,” Yamaichi said, “but they said you’re loyal to Japan.”
Yamaichi said the era’s racially charged climate reminds him of current times, specifically President Trump’s proposed controversial order attempt to block immigration from a list of Muslim countries.
“The climate right now is almost the same as when we were first exposed to all that,” said Jimi’s wife Eiko Yamaichi, whose family was shuttled between half a dozen internment camps during World War II. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, or religion or anything — you should never be put into a camp like that.”
Jimi Yamaichi remembered the summons for his family’s evacuation came from a notice nailed to a telephone pole near the family’s twenty acre farm in San Jose’s Blossom Hill neighborhood. The family was ordered to show up at the San Jose State University gymnasium for evacuation orders.
“That’s when we lost our identity as a person,” Yamaichi said, “our family number was the thing — like our family number was 32420.”
Unlike many Japanese-Americans who lost homes, businesses and possessions — the Yamaichi’s farm was saved by a family friend who volunteered to watch over the land while the family was away. Yamaichi remembered the family piled all its possessions into a single room before shipping out.
The Yamaichis spent four years in the Tule Lake encampment where a population of 19,000 internees was surrounded by twenty-eight guard towers and guarded by up to 2000 soldiers. The family’s barrack consisted of a twenty by twenty room with a stove and tarpaper walls that could barely muster a defense to the area’s fierce winters.
Eiko Yamaichi’s family was evacuated from Seattle and had spent time in camps in Fresno, Tule Lake, Arkansas and Arizona by the time the war ended.
“It was quite a shock to us,” Yamaichi said, “wondering why the government would spend so much money to send us all the way down there.”
She recalled as a teenager taking the rambling, unscripted journey in stride. Her parents, she said, bore the brunt of the worry.
“You know, I think the parents had it harder than we did,” Eiko Yamaichi said. “They were in the prime of their life in their thirties, forties — here they uprooted not knowing what the future was going to be.”
Seventy-five years later, she said the shame and anger had finally sunk in.
“We lost our liberty, right?” Yamaichi said. “Lost citizenship and the right to vote, all our liberty was taken away and we were confined.”
When the war ended, internees returned to the fabric of the country to try and rebuild lives — many starting over from nothing.
“They give you $25 and a one-way ticket to whatever destination you’re going,” said Jimi Yamaichi.
A few years after their release from the camps, Jimi and Eiko met and married, settling in San Jose. Though their journeys were similar, they barely spoke of the camps and the dismantling of their young lives.
But that changed some years ago when the couple took part in a reunion gathering of former internees at the site of the Tule Lake encampment. That’s when the responsibility of sharing their experience began to weigh on them.
“That’s when I think both of us realized, aha, we need to get this information out,” said Eiko Yamaichi, ”because so many who don’t know about what happened.”
Jimi Yamaichi went on to help found and build the Japanese-American Museum of San Jose, which includes a replica of the spartan barrack his family lived in at Tule Lake. On a recent day he stood inside the small wooden room, its ceiling beams visible above. The bunks were covered in thin army blankets. He said at one winter, his camp ran out of blankets and began to make them out of military coats.
A window in the replica barrack was framed with an image of a guard tower which Yamaichi said was burned into his memory. He recalled that every sound and smell, from a baby crying to a roasting hot dog, quickly dispersed among the individual barracks — enjoining the families in every way beyond their cataclysmic uprooting.
“This is how we lived for four years,” Yamaichi said glancing around the room. “You wonder how we survived all this.”