(by Miyoko Sakatani)
My mother was born in 1913 in Hiroshima, Japan, deep in the countryside, on a rice farm. She had never traveled outside of the farm, but when she was 17 years old, she was forced to leave her home and come to America to marry a man she had never met. That man, my father, was from a neighboring farm, and the arrangements were made between the families. My mother told me how she cried and cried on the horse and buggy ride to the train station.
My father had emigrated to America two years prior, and was working as a farmer, earning a meager living. I’m not sure he was ready to be a husband or a father, but the marriage lasted for over 40 years until his passing. The cultural tradition of arranged marriages often evolves into an enduring love with mutual respect and understanding.
Soon after arriving in America, my mother got pregnant, and by 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, she had four young children. My parents were just starting to see some stable income from a small produce business. But they, along with 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry on the West coast, were forcibly removed from their homes and placed into internment camps. They lost everything except what they could carry.
They were first assembled at the Pomona Fairgrounds and Racetrack where they lived for about five months until the camps were built. My family lived in a horse stall and slept on beds made of hay. Finally, with each family assigned a serial number tagged on their clothing and belongings, they boarded a train for a three-day journey. They did not know where they were going, and the shades were drawn as they passed through towns.
They ended up at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Relocation Camp, in a barren desert with bitter cold winters, scorching summers, and relentless sand storms. The entire compound was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed tower guards, with soldiers holding rifles and machine guns pointed into the camp. Six people lived in one room, with only steel-framed beds, a potbelly stove for heat, and a single light bulb. There was no indoor plumbing, no cooking facilities, and they waited in long lines for every meal in noisy mess halls. Finally they were allowed to take over the kitchen and started preparing Japanese style food.
My mother’s biggest challenge was making life in the small barracks as homey as possible and keeping the family unit together. She would say to my oldest sister, “Sachiko, issho ni tabenakucha ikenaiyo! You must eat with the family.” But my sister would run off to eat with her friends, and my father would go eat with the other men in camp. My brother was born in camp, and since no cameras were allowed, there were no photographs of his early years. This was heartbreaking for my mother. "Shikata ga nai," she said. “It cannot be helped."
Every morning, with hand over heart, the internees gathered around the flag pole, led by the Japanese Boy Scouts of America, and recited the pledge of allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.” Within a year of internment, the Japanese turned camp life into a thriving community with schools, churches, baseball and football teams, camp bands and dances, cultural arts and traditional festivals. Some of the farmers had secretly brought it in seeds, so soon flowers began to flourish, and later they built an irrigation canal and cultivated an abundance of fruits and vegetables.