Opinion | I Know What Incarceration Does to Families. It Happened to Mine.


When the family first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 on the radio, they dismissed it as the work of a few fanatics. But that evening, several F.B.I. men came to their house and took my grandfather away. He and dozens of other Japanese-American businessmen and community leaders in the Bay Area had been deemed “enemy aliens,” and he was sent to an army internment camp in Montana.

In the following weeks and months, the fear-mongering grew, and officials increasingly took to using racist epithets. “A Jap is a Jap,” said Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the commander of the Western Command and the Fourth Army, in February of 1942. “The Japanese race is an enemy race,” he wrote, “and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of American citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy shrugged off questions about the legality of the situation, writing “the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which authorized the forced removal of residents of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast, an 8 p.m. curfew was imposed on Japanese residents there and they were ordered to turn over all “contraband,” including firearms, cameras, radios and binoculars. My mother handed over her Brownie camera to the local police. In April, they were designated Family Number 13453, and given 10 days to pack up and vacate the house where they had lived for a decade and a half.

They were allowed to take only what they could carry. Everything else had to be sold, thrown out, given to friends, or put in storage — including the piano and the rest of the furniture, books, records, paintings, rugs, linens, plates and glasses, silverware, boxes of family letters, photographs and old Valentine and Christmas cards, and all the knickknacks and bits of yarn and fabric that my grandmother, a devout hoarder, had saved during her more than 25 years in America. The three of them (my grandfather was still in the internment camp in Montana) practiced trying to walk with the two suitcases they were each allowed to take. They had to give away their collie, Laddie, who, my mother later learned, died weeks after they left him.