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WW II Internees Break Their Long Silence

November 25, 1990|BARBARA KOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They and their families were uprooted from their homes, to spend the next three years under armed guard in desolate deserts.

Now, more than four decades later, Sugi Kiriyama and Mamoru Eto are among the first to get a national apology for the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, and, for the first time, they are telling their stories.

Kiriyama, who turns 101 next month, and Eto, 107, were among the nine surviving internees who went to Washington last month to personally receive $20,000 checks and an apology letter signed by President Bush.

The Washington ceremony marked the start of the redress payments, mandated by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, to about 65,000 internees who were alive when the law was passed, or their heirs. The payments will be made over the next three years.

Kiriyama, a longtime resident of West Los Angeles, now lives in a Mar Vista convalescent home. Eto, who lived in Pasadena for many years, is now in a nursing home near Boyle Heights.

Neither speaks much English. Kiriyama's son, George, served as translator during her interview. Eto was assisted by his daughter, Helen.

Sugi Kiriyama

Sugi Kiriyama and her husband, Hisataro, came to the United States in 1913 seeking opportunity. They left their oldest son with relatives in Japan.

They found work on farms in California's Central Valley. She cooked for crews of Japanese field hands, making miso soup and boiling 100 pounds of rice at a time in steel vats. She earned $45 a month, she recently recalled in Japanese that her youngest son, George, 59, translated.

After an unsuccessful venture of running a coffee shop in Fresno, the Kiriyamas returned to farm work. In the late '20s, they moved to Hollywood and then in 1931 to the Sawtelle area of West Los Angeles.

While her husband did gardening work, Sugi Kiriyama worked near home, tending plants at Adachi Nursery and doing housework at Kobayakawa Boarding House.

When World War II broke out, Kiriyama fretted about her son in Japan and worried "because we had no status." Japanese immigrants were barred from becoming citizens under the 1924 Exclusion Act, which was in effect until 1952.

George Kiriyama, then 11, was going to Sawtelle Boulevard School (later renamed after Principal Nora Sterry) and, after school, to the Sawtelle Institute of Japan for Japanese lessons. He recalls the name-calling and the hurt that started the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

One boy at school "said I started the war, that I had bombed Pearl Harbor," said George, a nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, who now lives in Torrance. "He couldn't distinguish Japan from Japanese-Americans."

Almost immediately there was a 10 p.m. curfew for Japanese residents. Those wanting to go more than five miles from home needed a pass.

Then came President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order in February, 1942, that gave the Army carte blanche to relocate or intern anyone thought to pose a threat of espionage or sabotage. Army officials responded by rounding up 120,000 Japanese on the West Coast. About two-thirds were nisei-- U.S.-born and therefore U.S. citizens.

The internees were allowed to take to camp only what they could carry--which sparked a furious casting-off of possessions.

"A lot of stuff we burned" in a pit in the back yard, George said. "Anything that was Japanese, we felt was counted against (us)."

Sugi Kiriyama cried when she had to sell the polished mahogany piano on which she had just paid the final installment. The piano, bought for $450 for her daughter's lessons, was sold for $75. The family savings account in the Yokohama Specie Bank was frozen.

On April 27, 1942, they were bused to Manzanar, in the Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Recently, Kiriyama ticked off with her bony fingers what they packed: rice, sugar, a gallon of soy sauce, three pounds of coffee, clothes, a few utensils, two prized scrolls of calligraphy from Japan, some family photos.

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first of 10 barrack-and-barbed-wire camps thrown up in bleak inland areas of California and as far east as Arkansas. Its square-mile plot held more than 10,000 people.

The new home for the seven Kiriyamas was a room 25 by 20 feet--Block 16, Building 6, Unit 6. "All the barracks looked exactly alike, so a lot of people got lost" in the beginning, George said.

The wooden barracks were set atop concrete blocks, and dust whirled up between the floorboards. Within a couple of weeks, the straw-stuffed mattresses were flat. The oil stove was so cold that "you couldn't cook an egg on (it),' George said.

George went to school, played softball, learned judo and kendo. The latter sports were "organized right away," he said, "because there were a lot of instructors."

And there were the armed guards in watchtowers who cursed and insulted them: "J-A-P, S-O-B," George spelled, declining to say the words.

But to this day, Sugi Kiriyama, a devotee of the Buddhist-based Seicho-no-Ie religion, does not complain.

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