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Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices

October 04, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They were not death camps. But freedom, pride and dreams died a thousand times in California, in Colorado, in Arizona and in Wyoming, in the sprawling makeshift camps to which Japanese-Americans were herded shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Imprisoned by their own country for fear that they could be spies who would aid the Japanese, 120,000 men, women and children--two-thirds of them American citizens--were neither formally accused nor convicted of anything. They were simply incarcerated for the duration of the war, their farms and their livelihoods lost.

Across the barbed wire that kept these forced settlers separate from their neighbors sprang a friendship between two Boy Scouts, one a self-described chubby, pimply Caucasian, the other an animated Japanese-American.

Supporting Bill

It was a friendship that lasted long after the war. Today those two former scouts--Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose) and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.)--are supporting the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, a bill that would officially apologize and pay $20,000 tax-free in reparation to each former Japanese-American internee still alive, estimated to be about half of the original 120,000. Because of the bill's $1.25-billion price tag, a White House official said advisers would recommend that President Reagan veto the bill, which has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate soon.

The bill's main sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Ha.), who, along with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Ha.), was wounded during World War II while fighting with the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Northern Italy. Matsunaga's father, a Shinto Buddhist priest, was arrested in Hawaii the day after the Pearl Harbor attack but was later released because of the high respect for the 442nd, a unit of Japanese Americans that became one of the most highly decorated in the history of American fighting forces. Inouye lost his right arm in a battle in Northern Italy.

Unlike other bills that are decided after a flurry of special-interest lobbying and political bargaining, votes for and against restitution are being wrenched straight from the heart.

Stories from the camps are surfacing, some for the first time, as members of Congress share their personal, often poignant, experiences.

First Time He Saw Father Cry

Kay Mineta had lived in the United States for 39 years when his native country bombed Pearl Harbor. The 53-year-old insurance agent, his wife, Kane, and their five children had just come home from services at the Methodist church when the radio screamed the news. Mineta, a leader in San Jose's Japanese community, went into his office off the porch and closed the doors as frightened neighbors began to rush over, wondering what it would mean. For 10-year-old Norman, the youngest, it was the first time he saw his father cry.

Norman and his close friend, Joyce Hirano, used to crawl under the hedge that separated their houses to visit each other. But on that day, Rep. Mineta recalled, she ran over "yelling, screaming and crying that the FBI was there to take her father away." Joyce's father was the executive director of the Japanese Association of San Jose.

"My dad went over there right away. But by the time he had gotten there, Mr. Hirano had already been whisked away. It was a long time, something like eight months, before the Hirano family ever found out what happened to Mr. Hirano. He was in Crystal City, Tex."

'Oh, My God, My Life Is Over'

It had been a wonderful time in the life of Yasuji Matsui. Born in San Francisco in 1916, he had been able to marry the woman of his choice rather than take a "picture bride," as his parents and in-laws had done in the marriages that were arranged by their families. Yasuji and his American-born wife, Alice, had a 6-month-old baby, Robert, and a thriving produce business in Sacramento.

Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Matsui received a notice telling him the family was to be evacuated. It also specified, said his son, now a five-term Sacramento Democrat, "to make sure you take forks, spoons, one set of plates for each individual, and, I think, blankets, and sundry items like toothbrushes.

"My dad told me: 'I just didn't know what to do. I was told I had 72 hours to pack everything, whatever I could carry. I thought, "Oh, my God, my life is over." I've got this child and this business and I don't know what to do.' "

'People Came In From Everywhere'

Like all 10-year-old boys of that time, Alan Simpson listened to the progress of the war on the radio, re-creating the great battle scenes in his imagination. He had a map of Europe on the wall in his room to plot with red pegs the Axis power victories and with blue pegs the battles won by "the good guys." Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a strange thing happened in Simpson's little home town of Cody, Wyo.

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