In May 1942, a young Japanese America woman, Mary Tsukamoto, was faced with a terrible moral dilemma. Should she help her desperate people in the short run when that meant cooperating with the government when the government was going to commit a crime? Should she fight the government and in the process hurt the people she loved the most? Mary made her agonized decision when she had no idea of the long-term consequences.
Finally, on May 29, 1942, at the beginning of the U.S.’s entry into WWII, a train chugged through the night into the desert. The people Mary had tried to help were crammed into it. As it swayed back and forth, a mother cradled her feverish child in the women’s restroom where the small girl had been quarantined. The two-year-old’s face was red with measles. Outside the bathroom, a young woman’s back arched and groaned in labor. At the other end of the car, an elderly woman sobbed, holding onto the hand of her dying husband. Mary Tsukamoto’s five-year-old daughter jammed her face into her mother’s chest and cried.
The train full of people of Japanese heritage passed through the wastelands, beginning it’s trip to Jerome, Arkansas, where the families would be imprisoned for the remainder of World War II.
Subsistence Grape and Strawberry Farmers
Decades later, Mary Tsukamoto, leaned stiffly forward, tears rolling down her face, as she told me the story of the imprisonment of 1100 innocent Japanese heritage people. She was a small woman of sixty-six when I interviewed her in 1982. At the beginning of the war, her community of Florin, California was flourishing, despite being made up of poor grape and strawberry subsistence farmers.
But government officials panicked that people of Japanese heritage might spy for Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order committing Japanese background people, children as well as adults, to detention camps for the remainder of the war. This was despite the fact that no Japanese American ever committed an act of sabotage or spying.
Signs on Telephone Poles
Mary was a leader in the community as a young woman, and after signs went up on telephone poles informing people that they were about to be evacuated, the government asked Mary to help the people prepare to leave their homes. Mary was torn by the cruel request, but she had transportation and eventually tore around, helping the desperate people get to doctors and dentists, lawyers and banks. It was hopeless to fight the government during a war, she reasoned, and by assisting with the preparations, she could keep suffering to a minimum.
We Left Our Berries to Rot!
“On the last day, strawberries were red in the fields, in the peak of the season we left our berries to rot!” She told me, crying hard. “And many farmers depended on that crop to pay back debts they had borrowed in the stores and shipping companies. And some families had only two hours to get ready. The military came running over and said, ‘You’ve got to go today.’ And families were out in the fields, picking berries at the time. Some families were in the middle of their lunch, eating. How terrible those families must have felt, leaving their dishes and running! Food half eaten. . . So it’s a real sordid story.”
The Ugliness Came Out
Mary told me, “And when we arrived in Jerome [after the train trip], all the ugliness came out. We were herded together in terrible heat, and tar was dripping in from our barracks. So many feelings were hurt and some of us blamed us, and people were running around trying to come and tell me that it was my fault that families were split up. That I had betrayed them by helping with the evacuation. We were tearing at each other. When you get frightened, you do that. The ugliest part of us came out, and we were surprised that we were doing that to each other. We had been friends.”
Old Before They Should Have Been
Eventually, the families settled into the barracks and tried to survive. “But,” Mary continued, “the evacuation destroyed so many. Many people were broken; they never were the same. They just mentally lost their minds, and some committed suicide and some never came back. Many of them got sick when they were young. They were old before they should have been.”
Blood on her Hands
When the war was nearly over, most evacuees were released and settled in different parts of the country. Whites had burned much of the Japanese community in Florin. People who came back lived in chicken coops, but Mary and her family settled back on their farm which had been saved by their loving white neighbor.
Mary tried to rebuild her life but was tormented by the accusations that she had cooperated with the government. Was that true? What should she have done as a leader in the community? Should she have led others in a decision to fight back? Was her neighbors’ blood on her hands? In the meantime, she resumed her life as a teacher, emphasizing to the young people that the evacuation and internment had been terribly wrong. “Never again,” she told them. “We must never let this happen to another people.”
Eventually, the Japanese American Citizens League pressured Congress into forming a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians; in 1981 the commission held a series of hearings concerning the wartime experience. One of the hearings took place on August 12, 1981, at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. About 450 people were in the audience, and speakers were each given five minutes to state their views on the evacuation, recall memories of it, and make requests for redress. Mary was among them.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology that provided both compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. By then, many of the survivors were dead.
Could It Happen Again?
In the last part of our interviews, Mary said, “I teach children and they need the truth, because if they don’t have that, they don’t have anything. Then there’s nothing to be proud of, really, being an America. It makes me upset when people say it could never have happened in America, that they never heard about it and so it didn’t happen.
This is why I’ve been telling my children at Jan Ken Po Gakka [the school she founded], ‘It did happen and you learn what happened and tell everybody what happened so it can never happen to anybody else again.’ That’s my terrible fear; that we won’t speak up; that we’ll get old and die, and it will happen to somebody else.”
Contemporary Detention Centers
I never saw Mary again, although we kept in touch. I’ve thought of her repeatedly during the immigration crisis of 2019 when the Trump administration imprisoned asylum seeking immigrants, including children, in detention centers along the border between Mexico and the U.S. Many people protested against the government actions, calling the imprisonment of asylum seekers immoral and liking the detention centers to the internment camps in WWII.
No More! No More!
Former surviving Japan American inmates from one of the WWII detention centers, the Crystal City Department of Justice internment site, met and demonstrated with others at the present-day family detention center in Dilley, Texas. “No More” and “Never Again” their signs proclaimed.Satsuki Ina, who spearheaded the pilgrimage, stated that, “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane.”
Thus, Japanese Americans still struggled for justice; Mary’s call of “Never again,” was repeated; and it seemed like Mary’s spirit hovered over the demonstrations.
The Right Thing
Mary never knew if for sure if she had done the right thing during WWII, but she lived with her doubts and didn’t let them stop her. She continued to teach and organize throughout her life. Some young people hurled accusations of collaboration with the government at her and others who had helped with the evacuation. She felt these accusations deeply and struggled with them.
Certainly, her decision to prepare people for detention was the great moral dilemma of her life. But with full knowledge of her quandary, she struggled on. She didn’t let her doubts stop her from moral action later. As an old woman, I, too, have regrets and confusions about behaviors in my past, but they must not stop me. Despite my moral perplexities, I am called upon to act decisively in my final attempts to affect the world.