By Balerie Reinke
It’s 2018. At the U.S. southern border, children are being detained and confined in what has been described as a “tent city.” For Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, who was a child incarcerated at Manzanar and Minidoka during World War II, the news takes her back in time. “When I read about children placed in such conditions apart from their mothers, I feel so sad and also so very angry,” she said. “At least we were kept together with our mothers.”
As anyone who has visited Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American Exclusion Memorial or the Historical Museum knows, our bucolic island was “ground zero” for Executive Order 9066, the first place in the country it was enforced. President Franklin Roosevelt’s mandate targeted nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans—including 45 Bainbridge Island families—who were summarily detained then imprisoned in “camps” under the rationale of protecting American interests during the war.
The Kitamotos, Bainbridge residents since 1909, were caught up in the sweep. Kodama was 7 years old when her father, a traveling salesman, was arrested by the FBI—“probably because he owned a rifle and short wave radio”—and, a few months later, her entire family. Her mother and three siblings, all younger than Kodama, were forced from their home. They eventually ended up behind barbed wire fences, under the watch of armed guards in towers at the American concentration camp Manzanar.
“I used to tell my experience of the incarceration from a child’s point of view, mostly telling the ‘fun’ stories,” said Kodama, “I have come to realize that in this way I was trying not to criticize the government and was being a good American citizen. This is not a just or fair interpretation because the first and second generations suffered so much.”
She continued. “My good memories are a testament to my mother who never complained during this time, at least not within my hearing. I now talk of the injustice and how fear and racial prejudice can influence leaders and citizenry alike to make unjust decisions and rules.”
Bainbridge Historical Museum has also revised how it frames the ordeal. Katy Curtis, educational outreach coordinator, widely circulates the “Power of Words Handbook” written by the Japanese American Citizens League in 2011 as a corrective to the euphemistic language that the government used to sanitize its actions.
The handbook notes that “forced removal, incarceration and concentration camp” are all more accurate than their official counterparts, “evacuation, internment and relocation camp.”
Kodama’s memories of her own incarceration were brought into sharp focus when she visited Manzanar as an adult with the “Only What We Can Carry” project, a collaboration between the Bainbridge Historical Museum and EduCulture, a local nonprofit which aims to augment school curriculum on the exclusion experience. To that end, OWWCC organizes delegations of camp survivors and Bainbridge Island school district educators to experience Manzanar together.
Kodama was a member of the inaugural 2009 delegation. “I was stunned to see majestic mountains as a backdrop of the site,” she said. “All I remembered as a 7-year-old was the heat, sand storms, warnings of rattlesnakes, scorpions and ticks, and unfamiliar food such as canned spinach and Vienna sausages.”
Deep friendships and loyalties were formed among the children in spite of, or maybe because of, the grim circumstances. Seven seventh-grade girls, casual friends on Bainbridge Island, bonded deeply at Manzanar. They started doing everything together—eating, attending church, concerts, and classes. Someone who noticed how inseparable they were dubbed them “the 7-Ups.” Their friendship has been immortalized in an art installation at Sonja Sakai Intermediate School.
Today only three of the 7-Ups are still living: Lillian Sakuma Aoyama, Toshiko “Toshi” Yukawa Sunohara, and Yuriko “Yuri” Kojima. In fact, Bainbridge Island’s children of Manzanar and Minidoka are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
When they have a chance to reunite, there’s an unmistakable camaraderie between the friends. “I think that the warmth between all of these survivors goes beyond just being together with family and friends,” said Clarence Moriwaki, whose great uncle was at Minidoka.
President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC), Moriwaki points to “a deep bond from their shared experience and memories of being forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated behind barbed wire by the country that they love.”
That underlying seriousness can feel like a moral imperative. Said Kodama, “The political climate of today makes me feel strongly that this story of the imprisonment of people of Japanese descent during World War II must be told to prevent the same from happening again to any others.”
Her words echo the motto of the island’s Memorial: Nidoto Nai Yoni. “Let it not happen again.”