Amemiya shares stories of living in internment camps, urges people to ‘keep a positive attitude’

By Katherine Klingseis,

Grace Aiko Obata Amemiya, now 91 years old, said she holds no bitterness toward the U.S. government — the government that forced her and her family, along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese heritage, to live in internment camps in the 1940s.

More than 70 years after her detention in the camps, Amemiya was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity on Friday, explaining how keeping a positive attitude helped her get through her times in the camps.

Amemiya began her speech by describing how the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 began no differently than most mornings. However, she said “that ordinary morning became a nightmare when the music stopped on the radio and the announcer reported that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.”

“On the West Coast, if you can believe, we immediately had blackouts with shades drawn and sirens blaring every time they felt something might be coming over to the United States,” Amemiya said.

Amemiya explained that people thought it was “too peaceful” and believed that the Japanese were “a menace, a yellow peril.”

Realizing that a picture of her in a bathing suit was on the projector screen behind her, Amemiya stopped her speech and began to laugh.

“That was quite a few years ago,” Amemiya said about the photo.

Amemiya then continued with her story, explaining that Japanese people living in California after Pearl Harbor had a curfew and could only travel five miles from their homes. The restrictions caused Amemiya, who was a nursing student at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, to move back home with her mother and four other siblings.

The U.S. government also made Japanese people in California turn in all firearms, radios, cameras and even long-bladed kitchen knives, Amemiya said. She said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

“It gave the military authority to remove all undesireables — aliens from Japan, American-born citizens like us because we were of Japanese lineage,” Amemiya said about the order.

Amemiya said many people forced to go to the camps did not put up a fight because the government told them that going to the camps was the only way to prove their loyalty. She said those who refused were sent to federal prison.

“We had to leave our homes, yes, but we had to dispose of everything we had: cars, things in the home, furniture and everything,” Amemiya said.

The Civilian Exclusion Order No. 5 was signed in April 1942, which required Japanese-Americans to register their families as an unit, Amemiya said.

“We were given these baggage tags with this number and we had to wear it on all our garments and everything we carried,” Amemiya said. “In other words, we weren’t a family name anymore, we were family 6051.”

Amemiya and her family packed up two suitcases with clothing, dishes, toiletries and anything else that they needed and could fit into their suitcases, and traveled to a temporary center on a county fairgrounds because the permanent camps were not completed.

Each family had a 20-by-20-foot living space at the camp, Amemiya said. She explained that there was little privacy and the families were even subjected to bed checks.

The detainees worked while they were at the camps, Amemiya said. She described how each person was paid $8, $12 or $16 a month.

“We tried to stay busy, but we were always, always apprehensive regarding our future,” Amemiya said.

Three months after living at the temporary camp, Amemiya and the other detainees were relocated to permanent camps, she said. Amemiya and her family traveled by train to a camp in Arizona.

“The shades were drawn on these trains for us not to see out or because the government didn’t want you to see us,” Amemiya said.

Amemiya said the camp was not complete in that the water and sanitation systems were still under construction. She also described how the camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and sentry towers with troops with machine guns pointed inward.

“They said the internment was for our protection,” Amemiya said. “And our next question was, we said, ‘If so, why were the guns pointed at us instead of outward?’”

In 1943, the men and women in the camps were asked to volunteer for military service to prove their loyalty to the country, Amemiya said. Amemiya’s two brothers, Ted and Ben, served in the military.

“My mother was ridiculed,” Amemiya said. “Bless my mom, I love her for this. She said, ‘They are loyal American citizens,’ and she loved them for that.”

On April 26, 1943, Amemiya and her family left the camp. Amemiya took a job in Wake Forest, Ill., with her former university roommate as a cook and housekeeper.

“We had made applications to several nursing schools, but many were still not open to us,” Amemiya said. “Some said the quota for our kind was filled for the year. Some said, ‘We would love to have you,’ but didn’t think the community was ready to accept us. Some said they didn’t think the patients would accept us.”

Eventually, Amemiya and her former roommate were accepted to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Rochester, Minn., in the cadet nurse corp program, which required the students to continue being nurses after graduation for as long as the war went on.

For the last six months of her training, Amemiya was stationed in an army hospital in Clinton, Iowa. Amemiya graduated in 1946 and rejoined her family in Cleveland, where she married Minoru Amemiya, whom she had met at the University of California.

Amemiya and her husband had two sons and remained married until his death in 2000. The family moved to Ames in 1960 when Minoru took a job at Iowa State. Amemiya has lived in Ames ever since.

Looking back, Amemiya said she realizes that she and the other Japanese-Americans were unjustly forced into internment camps. However, she said people should learn from the experience and make sure it never happens again.

“One has to keep a positive outlook and try to help others to understand what the government did to us and see that it never, never happens again to another loyal American citizen in the United States of America,” Amemiya said. “Keep a positive attitude and hopefully we all will become better, understanding citizens and will face the future with an open and caring heart and mind.”

Santos Nunez, director of Multicultural Student Affairs and 2012 National Conference on Race and Ethnicity participant, said after Amemiya had finished that people in the ISU community should learn from Amemiya’s example.

“One thing that has been made very clear to this day [is] that we cannot fix the past. The past is the past, but we can take a stand for justice and we have to,” Nunez said. “We have to change our culture. We have to change this culture of violence, this culture of fear, this culture of discrimination. It is within each of us to do that in our own way.”


(Posted originally on on March 3, 2012)

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