Jeff Manes: Japanese heritage led to internment camp
December 7, 2012 1:50PM
Mineko Hirata, 89, formerly of Lowell and now living in Crown Point, was born in California, but spent more than two years in an internment camp during World War II. | Provided photo
Updated: January 10, 2013 6:10AM
“... As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except for Negroes.’ When the know-nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty ... where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
— Abraham Lincoln,
Aug. 24, 1855
Mineko Hirata will turn 90 in September. When she was 20, her family moved from Stockton, Calif., to a desolate former Indian reservation in Arizona. Her father had been a prosperous truck farmer in California, but had to give it up.
You see, Hirata’s parents were born in Japan and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they, like 110,000 others — 75 percent of whom were American citizens — were forced to live in internment camps.
Today, Mineko Hirata lives in Crown Point. Her sister-in-law, Chiyo Hirata, sat in on our conversation. Chiyo, born in San Francisco, was about 13 when her family was relocated to a camp in Wyoming.
“Jeff, this is such a beautiful place; I’m so glad I made the right decision to sell my house in Lowell and move here to Wittenberg Village,” Hirata began. “I get coupons for 30 free meals per month; you’ll have to have dinner with me after our talk.”
I really couldn’t do that, Mineko. I’ll take you out for lunch some other time. Were you born in California?
“Yes, I saw on TV not too long ago where Stockton is going bankrupt.”
When did your parents emigrate from Japan?
“I believe my father arrived in California in 1918, my mother in 1921. My parents didn’t understand the language and didn’t really know about this country. I think about that; that really took a lot of nerve.”
Were you raised a Buddhist?
“Yes, I still attend the Buddhist Church in Chicago.”
“If you want to go with me this Sunday, let me know. We’re having more and more non-Japanese people come to our church.
“You would enjoy Obon; it’s a Buddhist holiday. It’s like a festival. Buddhism is more a way of life. They don’t tell you can’t do this or that; it isn’t that kind of a religion.”
The Stockton you knew as a girl?
“It was a rural area back then. My father raised vegetables for the canneries.”
John Steinbeck wrote a novel called “Cannery Row,” but I think that took place in Monterey, Calif.
“I just watched ‘Of Mice and Men’ the other day. It reminded me of those poor people who were called ‘Okies’ and ‘Arkies’ by some.
“They came to my uncle’s field before the war. It was just like in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Their cars and trucks had suitcases hanging from them. There were children and their mothers; the whole family would come. They wanted to work out in the field; they would pitch tents. I felt so sorry for those families.”
What kinds of vegetables did your father and uncle raise?
“Carrots, beets, tomatoes ... . I believe Del Monte and Heinz were two of the companies he sold to.
“A field man came to our farm from a cannery that had just been built not too far from where we lived; he talked my father into growing pear-shaped tomatoes. They were supposed to be good for making paste. My father never had seen a pear-shaped tomato.”
Did your dad glean a good crop of pear-shaped tomatoes?
“They were hanging off the vines everywhere. The frost came very late that season, so my father made a lot of money that year. But the war stopped all that.”
Would you care to talk about how the bombing of Pearl Harbor affected your life?
“We had a lot of Caucasian people wanting to buy our car. They stopped making cars during the war.”
What happened after your family members had to sell most of their worldly possessions?
“We were taken to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds; they had made a barracks out of it. They called it an ‘assembly center.’
“We were not allowed to take anything more than we could carry in our two hands. We went there in April 1942.”
How long were you there?
“Until July; then, they put us on a special train in the middle of the night.”
Bound for one of the internment camps?
“Yes. If a scheduled train came by, we had to sidetrack. They made us draw the curtains while we were sidetracked. They didn’t want the general public to know what was being done to us.”
What was going through your mind while on the train?
“We wondered where we were going and what was going to happen to us. There was no fighting or rioting. We did what we were told.
“To assuage our fears or to make an attempt at explaining the situation, our parents would repeat the phrase, ‘Shikata ga nai.’ ”
“It cannot be helped.”
“There was barbed wire all around the perimeter, and armed guards in towers.”
“There were no partitions in the bathrooms — very little privacy.”
“At first, they fed us Spam every day. We eventually grew our own vegetables. My father worked in the mess hall; he requested rice.
“He said, ‘Bring us some rice; we don’t want all this bread and flour.’ They brought us rice.
“The physicians among us tended to the sick. We were very self-sufficient.”
How long were you in the internment camp?
“A little more than two years. I got out in August of ’44. Each head of the family was given $75.
“My father had locked up the farm equipment and furniture before we were taken to the assembly center, but somebody broke the lock and ransacked the place while we were being held at the camp. We relocated in Cleveland.”
What happened then?
“For many years, my parents were denied citizenship by law. Once my father was able to become an American citizen, he was an old man. He didn’t bother. He said, ‘They waited until now to allow me to become an American — forget it.’ ”
Didn’t Japanese people who were sent to the camps end up getting paid close to $20,000?
“Yes, during the 1980s. My father was already dead.”
Mineko, I’m sure you’re familiar with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“Yes, it was made up entirely of Hawaiians and Japanese-Americans, once our government started drafting us. They rescued ‘The Lost Battalion’ and remain the most decorated infantry division in the history of the U.S. Army.”
The 442nd lost 216 men, plus more than 865 wounded to save those 211 men from Texas.
Mineko’s brother, Kenny Hirata, is pretty much retired these days. He is a well-respected businessman in Lowell. He’s also a Korean War veteran.
David, the son of Chiyo and Kenny, runs the body shop today.
Kenny was a world-class drag racer in his day. David is now behind the wheel of the dragster. The Hiratas travel nationwide to watch their son compete. Recently, they attended a race at the county fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif.
Chiyo told me she kept thinking to herself why the name Pomona sounded so familiar. Finally, it dawned on her. It had been nearly 70 years.
To be sure, she asked one of the locals if the fairgrounds had been an assembly center for Japanese-Americans during the war.
The lady simply said, “This is where it was.”
I still scratch my head as to why Americans with German or Italian surnames seemingly weren’t herded off to internment camps, in frequency or numbers, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II.
I have my suspicions.
And, I believe Honest Abe might have nailed it in his speech on Aug. 24, 1855.