College Apology Spotlights Lessons of Injustice

By Guest Contributor September 15, 2010 10:59

Joe and Amy Haratani

By Deanna Maurer
and Suzy Hopkins

A few months ago Joe and Amy Haratani, seated next to 26 empty chairs, were stunned to find themselves receiving a standing ovation from a Modesto Junior College graduation crowd.

The thunderous applause was part appreciation, part apology. It came 68 years after Joe and Amy’s late sister, Nobu, were imprisoned by the U.S. government. In all, about 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals were reclassified as “enemy aliens” in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Through the California Nisei College Diploma Project, MJC tried to find students whose educations had been disrupted by forced relocation to internment camps. It was an attempt “to right a grievous wrong when these individuals were pulled from their daily lives and forced into camps,” said Ken White, acting college president at the time of the ceremony.

As the empty chairs poignantly showed, it was a difficult search. Only nine of the former students were still living, the Haratanis were told; only they attended. Joe Haratani, 86, a native Californian who fought with World War II’s most decorated Army unit, was “amazed” that anyone cared or even remembered. He was given an honorary degree; Amy accepted for Nobu, who died in 2006. For Amy, 84, also interned in the camps, the ceremony was a touching moment in striking contrast to treatment decades earlier.

In the fall of 1941, Joe was 18, an MJC freshman living with a couple who owned a local business, doing yard work and babysitting to pay for school. The son of a minister, he had grown up in Livingston, 25 miles away, and planned to be a chemical engineer.

NobuYamasaki, 19 and in her second year studying business, was beautiful, funny and popular, her sister recalls. The daughter of a Modesto farmer, she worked as a “schoolgirl,” as au pairs were then called, to pay for college.

Joe had not yet met Amy and Nobu, but their lives would be forever changed and ultimately entwined after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Joe was so upset by news of the attack that the couple he lived with suggested he go see a movie, to take his mind off it. Later he realized they wanted him out of the house to discuss whether to evict him.

“I wasn’t angry with them when they told me I had to leave,” he recalls. “I understood what they were up against … I had dealt with racism before and I knew it could hurt their business.”

Nobu Yamasaki

Joe moved into an apartment with another young second-generation Japanese American, or “Nisei.” In January 1942, he began his second semester at MJC. In April, the rumors started. Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals, already forbidden to travel more than five miles from home, might be sent to internment camps as a matter of national security.

By May, signs appeared on telephone poles everywhere. Joe would have to leave college and, with his family and neighbors, move to a temporary camp at the Merced fairgrounds. Within days, taking only what they could carry, they crowded onto Army trucks for the trip to Merced.

Joe was furious at being denied not only his education but his freedom. After arriving at the Merced camp, his anger faded as reality set in. He couldn’t change his situation, he figured, so he had better accept it. His family was fortunate in not having to sleep in the horse stalls, as some did.

Although they would not meet until several years later, Joe and his future wife were among the 4,600 internees at the Merced camp, along with Amy’s parents and five sisters. The communal bathroom, Amy recalls, was a long wooden trough with plank seating, holes at center, flushed periodically with buckets of water dumped from one end.  “Everybody had to forget privacy.”

She recalls Nobu’s response to internment: Her sister was upset, but didn’t say much. For Amy, four years younger, internment amounted to “kind of an interesting adventure” marred by an overriding, undeserved sense of guilt and shame.

“In fact, a school friend of mine came from our hometown of Modesto to visit me at the Merced camp. I was so ashamed, I could hardly even talk with her, couldn’t look her in the eye. She was walking around free and I was in prison – I had done nothing wrong, but was locked up,” recounts Amy.

“Years later, I was starting at MJC when we met on campus, and she kept insisting she had visited me in Merced – I had no recollection of that visit at all. As the years passed, little by little, it came back to me that she had visited, after all. I just couldn’t stand to remember it until it was further behind me.”

In September 1942, the Merced internees were moved to Amache, a permanent camp in southeastern Colorado flanked by guard towers. The camp held about 7,300 internees in military barracks with brick floors. Scorpions came up through the sandy cracks, Joe recalls.

Windstorms on the treeless plains left “dust an inch thick on our beds,” says Amy. Each room had a potbelly stove and a ration of coal. Joe remembers being lucky to get a Navy peacoat, but even it was insufficient for temperatures that could dip to 20 below.

“We’d get icicles in our nostrils walking to school,” recalls Amy, who was not issued a coat and had yet to meet Joe.  “Coming from California, we didn’t have the kind of clothes that could keep us warm in that climate.”

Whereas in Merced the main meal was Spam, in Amache it was cow’s tongue and rice.

Several months after arriving, Joe was handed a questionnaire: “Do you swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution?” and “Do you foreswear any allegiance to the Emperor of Japan?”

“If you answered ‘yes, yes,’ you became a volunteer for active military service,” says Joe. “If you answered ‘no, no,’ you would stay in prison. The older men in our group were angry and could not see serving in defense of the country that had taken away their homes and businesses, locked them up. They did not think we should go. Because I wanted to get out of the camp, I answered ‘yes, yes,’ and was inducted into the Army.”

In April 1943, after eight months at Amache, Joe became a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Nisei who lived by the motto “Go for Broke.” After training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, Joe fought in Italy and France with the 442nd, which became the most decorated combat regiment in U.S. Army history. The unit, 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers strong at any given time, suffered high casualties.

The transition from U.S. prisoner to U.S. soldier came quickly, Joe recalls, thanks to the group’s intense focus and drive. Two-thirds of the unit’s soldiers were from Hawaii, whose Japanese American residents by virtue of sheer numbers and economic considerations were spared internment.

“They were so gung-ho, and that spirit really carried over to all of us,” says Joe. “I remember one of my buddies saying, ‘Joe, I’ll never be taken prisoner, I’ll die first.’ That made an impression on me.”

Joe counts a Bronze Star among medals earned through his military service, which ended in January 1946. After the war, Joe went back to his parents’ house in Livingston; a local Caucasian businesswoman had overseen a number of ranches for the interned owners until their return. They were fortunate. It was more common for people to find their land taken over by others who refused to give it back.

Joe returned to his studies at MJC, where he finally met Amy. Like Nobu, she left Amache after about a year, allowed to study and work on the East Coast because she had a sponsor.

Joe and Amy married within two years. Amy worked as a schoolteacher and librarian, while Joe earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford and a master’s in sanitary engineering from UC Berkeley. They raised sons Guy, Richard and Saji while living in

Amache/Colorado State Archives photo

Bolivia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, during Joe’s career with what’s now known as the U.S. Agency for International Development. Lured by his love of fishing, the Haratanis retired to Tuolumne County 38 years ago.

Joe never dwelled on his experiences as a U.S. prisoner. After the life-and-death reality of combat, “my feelings about the camp just faded away.” He believes that few people even know what Japanese Americans experienced in the 1940s, that it is a sad yet largely forgotten chapter in U.S. history.

But then again, a crowd stood and cheered for two people who represented 26, and thousands more.

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor September 15, 2010 10:59
Write a comment

No Comments

No Comments Yet

Let me tell you a sad story. There are no comments yet, but yours can be the first!

Write a comment
View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*