SHAFAQNA – When Alyce Sugiyama hears U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump provoke fear and anger over Syrian refugees, Muslim-Americans and immigrants in general, the 90-year-old Sonoma County native recalls the four years she spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Sugiyama, who was 16 years old in 1942, said she remembers reading a poster ordering the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry to camps. She recalls later going to the Santa Rosa train station and traveling in a train car with all the shades pulled down. And after a brief stay at a temporary camp in Merced, she remembers arriving at Camp Amache in southeast Colorado.
There were the soldiers with guns, guard towers, fences, cramped rooms with thin walls in barracks and community toilets that consisted of a long wooden bench with several holes in it. Sugiyama, who was born in Healdsburg but spent most of her life in Petaluma, said it was a confusing time for her.
As a youth, she always thought that people went to jail for doing something wrong.
“What did 120,000 people do to land in this situation?” Sugiyama said Thursday, sitting in the dining room of her Petaluma home. “What did we do wrong, 120,000 of us?”
Local Japanese-Americans who lived through that dark period in American history say today’s intolerance against immigrants and Muslim-Americans is laced with the same bigotry and xenophobia. Talk of building walls, mass deportations and creating a Muslim database is frightening for those who remember living behind barbed wire as children.
“We don’t think it’s right because of what happened to us,” said Alyce’s sister-in-law, Marie Sugiyama, who was 6 when she was sent with her family to Camp Amache.
Today marks the 74th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of executive order 9066, which authorized the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry, including about 77,000 American citizens, from the West Coast to internment camps because the U.S. was at war with Japan. The date is commemorated across the country as the Day of Remembrance.
About 800 Japanese-Americans and immigrants were taken from their homes in Sonoma County.
Their loyalty was questioned by the American government, even though some of them were ultimately drafted into the U.S. military.
Alyce’s husband, Harry Sugiyama, was drafted in 1944, while he was living at Camp Amache with his family. Harry, who along with his wife and sister Marie was active in the Sonoma County chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, JACL, died two years ago.
As part of JACL’s speakers bureau, the Sugiyamas often visit local schools to speak to students about their experiences. They show photos of Japanese-American children in cattle cars, of long rows of barracks that resembled large chicken houses.
Marie Sugiyama, 80, a longtime educator and former North Bay League commissioner, said she remembers the justification for the camps.
“They told us they were doing it for our protection and I said, how come the guns are pointing in instead of out,” she said.
Jon Watabe, 78, of Bodega Bay was only 5 years old when he and his mother and father were forced to leave Redwood City and sent to Topaz Camp in Utah, which housed about 8,000 Japanese-Americans. Watabe, who also visits local school classrooms to tell his story, said he remembers tar-paper shacks surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers.
In 1943, Watabe’s father volunteered for the 442 Regimental Combat Team and fought in Italy and France “to show that we were loyal Americans,” his son said in an email.
“My mother made ends meet by working as fruit picker and part-time English and sewing teacher,” Watabe said.
“I attended kindergarten, first and second grade taught by interned teachers. My mother and other relatives would make our clothes, toys from scrap materials and read constantly with me,” he said.
Watabe said his family left the camp in 1945 and returned to his grandfather’s house, which was “saved” and rented out by the Bank of Berkeley. But many evacuees, he said, lost their homes and businesses and had to start their lives all over again from scratch.
Watabe said the Day of Remembrance is an effort to remind people what can happen when fear and anger take hold in public discourse.
“Hopefully this will not happen to another group,” he said. “They’re talking about the Muslims the way they talked about the Japanese. Frankly, we’re just hoping that we’re the last group this ever happens to. We feel it’s important to remember what happened so we can prevent it from happening again.”