Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > Uncategorised > USA: ‘Fear and Confusion’: A Tale of Internment

USA: ‘Fear and Confusion’: A Tale of Internment

An interview with Marielle Tsukamoto, a survivor of the U.S. camps.

Wednesday 20 July 2022, by siawi3


‘Fear and Confusion’: A Tale of Internment

An interview with Marielle Tsukamoto, a survivor of the U.S. camps.

by Jake Whitney

May 2, 2022 9:00 AM

Screen Shot 2022-05-02 at 8.57.47 AM.png
Wikimedia Commons

An image from the Jerome Relocation Center in Denson, Arkansas.

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Most were U.S. citizens, and following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were moved for “security reasons” to ten barbed-wire camps across the country.

The internment of Japanese Americans remains one of the great tragedies in our nation’s history, and one on which we need to shed more light.

Marielle Tsukamoto was just five years old when she and her family—berry farmers in Florin, California—were moved to the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Now eighty-five, Marielle agreed to speak with The Progressive about their experience. Her story highlights not only the injustice of the camps and the resilience of the survivors, but also the courage of a bystander who refused to look the other way: a man named Bob Fletcher, one of history’s little-known heroes.

We laughed because the rationale for sending us to Jerome was our own protection, so we asked the guards: “If you’re protecting us, why are you pointing the guns at us?”

A California agricultural inspector who worked with Japanese Americans, Fletcher quit his job to maintain the farms of three interned families, including the Tsukamotos, and help prevent their property from being seized. Despite their incarceration, the families were forced to continue to pay the mortgage and taxes on their farms, which would otherwise have been auctioned off. Fletcher not only worked the farms but saved money for the families, all while enduring the fury of the local community—at one point, even being shot at.

Q: Many Americans still don’t know much about the camps. Let’s start from the beginning. Did government officials take you away, or were you told to report somewhere?

Marielle Tsukamoto: There were posters that told us where to go. For the first stage, we were sent to what they called an “assembly center” in Fresno. I remember getting up early and was told to get my grandmother. She was in the garden crying because she believed she wouldn’t come back alive. A friend of my dad’s took us to the Elk Grove train station.

Q: You were just a kid being forced into a barbed-wire camp. It must have been terrifying.

Tsukamoto: There was a lot of fear and confusion. I was with my cousins and we were all on the train crying. Nobody knew anything. Were we going to get killed? Were we going to be slaves? We were hungry, we were hot, we wanted to go home. We didn’t even get to bring our dogs.

Q: What was your family told about why you were being moved to a camp?

Tsukamoto: That it was for our own safety. And to be honest, it didn’t seem safe at home. The newspapers were filled with stories about the “yellow peril”—the “Japs” were going to invade and the “Japs” in California would help them. A lot of people were convinced by these stories in the Hearst and McClatchy newspapers and they generated a lot of anger toward us.

Q: What was Fresno like?

Tsukamoto: It was a fairground and we slept in a parking lot. Others had to stay in animal barns and stalls at racetracks. The facilities were primitive and people got food poisoning. It was just terrible.

Q: What did they tell you was going to happen to your house and belongings?

Tsukamoto: Only that we had to make arrangements. That’s why my dad asked Bob Fletcher to take care of Mr. Nitta’s place and Mr. Okomoto’s place and if Bob had time, if he could take care of our grape vines. Bob agreed so we wouldn’t lose everything.

Q: That’s a big ask. What did your dad offer Bob in return?

Tsukamoto: He told Bob he could live in any of the houses and keep all the profits. There was a lot of theft on other farms. Tractor parts were stolen. If you couldn’t sell your car and you left it, it was usually stolen or stripped. Some homes were robbed and burned; 85 percent of the [Japanese-owned] property around Sacramento was lost. But Bob paid our taxes and mortgage and maintained the place.

Q: Did he keep all of the profits?

Tsukamoto: He only kept half. We didn’t expect anything back, but he saved money for us.

Q: After Fresno, you were sent to the Jerome camp in Arkansas. Take me through a typical day there.

Tsukamoto: We got up, ate breakfast, and then did the same thing day after day. Usually six people stayed in a room, but my aunt Nami was quarantined with tuberculosis so we were given two rooms. Many of the adults got jobs and were paid almost nothing. For the kids, they eventually organized a kindergarten. My class was an empty room. We sang songs and were taught lessons probably by a volunteer who didn’t have a teaching credential.

Q: How did the guards treat you?

Tsukamoto: Some were stern and treated us like prisoners; others were empathetic. We laughed because the rationale for sending us to Jerome was our own protection, so we asked the guards: “If you’re protecting us, why are you pointing the guns at us?”

Q: What is a legacy of the camps that many people wouldn’t know?

Tsukamoto: They created a power change that fractured the family unit. High school kids had more power and freedom in the camps. When they were home in Florin, they had to work on the farm—get up in the morning, work the fields on Saturdays, do schoolwork. In camp, they didn’t have those responsibilities. The adults who only spoke Japanese no longer had power—because all meetings had to be held in English. So the older Japanese who had been the community leaders were cast aside. It broke part of what was Japanese culture, and in some families the break was permanent.

Screen Shot 2022-05-02 at 8.58.05 AM.png
Charles E. Mace via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Closing of the Jerome Relocation Center, Denson, Arkansas.

Q: Jerome was the first of the internment camps to close in 1944. Were you able to go home even though the war was still on?

Tsukamoto: No. We had to be sponsored out or we’d be sent to another camp. One of my aunts got the Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to sponsor us, so we ended up there. The Jerome camp was turned into a German POW camp. Listen to this: When we arrived at Jerome in 1942, my father and his friends, who were bored and wanted to work, offered to volunteer with local farmers. But when the camp director approached them, the farmers said, “We don’t want the Japs.” Yet some of the German prisoners worked the farms and got paid—and some of them even lived with local families.

Q: So the local farmers would not take Japanese American volunteers but took German POWs, and paid them?

Tsukamoto: Yes, they would not take American citizens who offered to do this work for free, and yet they took German prisoners of war.

Q: How did you survive in Kalamazoo?

Tsukamoto: A member of the church that sponsored us owned a bakery—the Peter Pan bakery—and he hired my uncle, dad, grandfather, and aunt. But the owner didn’t want the community to know he had hired Japanese people, so my family had to work night shifts. The church helped us get a house to rent.

Q: What was school like there?

Tsukamoto: It was awful. I was the only person of Japanese ancestry and I would run home because the kids called me “Jap.” Some days I refused to go. Then we moved to a new house and the school was farther away, so I couldn’t run home. But some of the older kids in the neighborhood escorted me to school so I felt safer.

Q: How long were you in Kalamazoo?

Tsukamoto: Two-and-a-half years—from December 1943 to June 1945.

Q: Tell me about your return home.

Tsukamoto: When we finally arrived my dad was worried because he had heard that some returning Japanese had been threatened, so when we pulled into the driveway, my father made sure it was after dark and he turned off the headlights. [This way] nobody would know we’d come home. But Bob was expecting us. He was remarried to Theresa, just a wonderful person. They had fixed up a one-room house that was on the property so we could move back into the main house.

Q: Do you recall the moment you saw Bob?

Tsukamoto: Oh yeah, Bob and Theresa were there to greet us. Theresa had dinner waiting. They were just so welcoming.

Q: What was Bob like?

Tsukamoto: He was a quiet man, not one of these jovial people. He kind of reminded me of Gary Cooper. He was six-foot-two, lean, he looked like a cowboy. He was a man who didn’t say much but always did what he thought was right.

Q: Bob died in 2013 at age 101. What would you say to him if he were still alive?

Tsukamoto: Well, “thank you” is not adequate for what he did for us. So I would say this: "Bob, my dad told you that you would face criticism and even threats for helping us. But you helped anyway. Afterward, you refused to talk about these incidents, reluctant to identify those who made threats. This showed how selfless you were, not wanting people to be concerned about what happened to you. Speaking for my family, as well as for the Okamotos and Nittas, with love: Thank you, Bob.”

Jake Whitney is a journalist based in New York. In addition to The Progressive, his work has appeared in The New Republic, The Daily Beast, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.