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'They rounded us up like sheep and stripped our rights': Japanese-American recalls boyhood in US internment camp

'They rounded us up like sheep and stripped our rights': Japanese-American recalls boyhood in US internment camp

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on August 29, 2015.

By Jessie Lau and Robin Fall

Riki Shimogaki was 11 years old when him and his family were forced to abandon their home in Bellevue, Washington, and sent to an internment camp in California.

Shimogaki was one of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans shipped away and incarcerated into camps across the country following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.

Launching the US into the second world war, the attack sparked suspicion and distrust towards Japanese-Americans, and the government ordered their mass evacuation and detainment in 1942. Many suffered and lost everything they had prior to their incarceration.

“We had no hearing or nothing. They just rounded us up like a bunch of sheep and said ‘you have no rights,’” said Shimogaki, now 84. “We lost all our rights as an American citizen.”

Born and raised in Washington, Shimogaki is a second-generation Japanese American citizen and grew up with three brothers and one sister. After coming to the US, his parents worked as gardeners, growing vegetables like peas, celery and tomatoes for sale in local markets - and eventually entering the rhubarb business. His family was just becoming financially stable before the US entered the war, and had just bought a brand new car and a tractor.

Shimogaki recalls being at home when he received news of their relocation. The family was put onto a train with armed guards and sent to California where they were held at Pinedale Assembly Centre for two months before being relocated to Tule Lake Unit for nine months. Each member of the family was allowed one suitcase. Nothing else.

There were roughly 17 assembly centres or temporary camps and 10 permanent internment camps used to hold Japanese-Americans. Internment camps were built in remote environments like deserts and swamps in several states including Arkansas, Wyoming and Arizona. They were guarded with barbed wire and armed military personnel who were instructed to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

At Tule Lake, Shimogaki remembers hearing about a sentry firing at a detainee who crawled over the fence to retrieve a ball during a game of softball. “That was the story that was all around,” he said.

Families lived in designated barracks that provided little to no privacy, took their meals in mess halls, and bathed and did their laundry in communal spaces. There were schools in the camps, and adults were assigned various jobs like carpentry and cleaning. Detainees hung bed sheets to separate the rooms to create personal space.

“In our barracks we had no [heating]. If we got cold we’d go to the laundry room to keep warm,” Shimogaki said.

The last internment camp shut down in 1946, and the US government later paid US$1.6 billion in reparations to those who were detained and their heirs.

Shimogaki’s family had always intended to return to Washington after their internment. But like many Japanese-Americans at the time, Shimogaki’s family stored their belongings in their local community hall, which was later ransacked. They lost everything, and decided to move to Wyoming upon their release.

“All they said was: when the war is over, we’ll go back. But that never did take place,” Shimogaki said. “We lost everything we had. There was nothing really to go back to.”

The family was never able to regain what they had lost financially, but Shimogaki went on to serve in the US air force during the Korean war in 1950. Still living in Wyoming, he’s now retired and happily married to his wife of 61 years.

“I look back on it now and it kind of halfway makes me angry,” Shimogaki said. He added that this period of history is something that people should remember and try to understand. “Hopefully this will never happen again.”

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