Anna Nakagawa loved going to her grandparents’ house. The house was large, with lots of room inside and out. There was a room full of books, a grand piano, a room with a huge TV, and even a room of her very own, where she stayed every time she came over. And of course her grandparents were wonderful. With her being the only girl grandchild, they treated her like a princess. So once a month she stayed at their house for a day or two. Today was the Monday of spring break. She was going to spend a leisurely week here, doing nothing.
There was a small downside to staying with her grandparents. Whenever Anna came over, she had to visit her great-grandmother, Rose. She did love her grandmother, but Anna always felt awkward and uncomfortable around her. It also was kind of depressing to see her now, since she often had medical problems and sometimes forgot things.
* * *
“We’re here!” Grandma said as they drove into the garage. Anna popped out of the car, grabbed her suitcase, and ran in.
“We should visit Grandmother Rose before lunch,” Grandma suggested, after Anna was settled.
“Do we have to go right now?” asked Anna, wanting to relax and read.
“Anna, there will be plenty of time to relax later. Besides, Grandmother Rose just moved to a new nursing home. It would really cheer her up if you visited her.”
“Oh, all right,” Anna sighed. She grabbed the first book in her suitcase and headed back out the door.
Anna glanced at the book she brought as they drove to the nursing home. The book was called A Brief History of World War II. Anna had already started it, and it was very interesting. There were tales of bravery in Europe, in Africa, in the Pacific, and even in America. Stories of prisoners of war, submarine captains, army nurses, air force captains, Jewish refugees, and patriotic children on the home front all were in this book.
“Here we are!” Grandma said, interrupting her thoughts.
The nursing home was big and open. Anna and Grandma signed their names in the guest book and then hurried down halls filled with nurses, elderly people, and guests. They stopped in front of room 302, which had a sign that said EMILY ROSE SEO in gold letters. Grandma knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said a frail, yet loud and confident voice. Inside, Grandmother Rose was sitting at the kitchen table, eating grapes and doing a puzzle of a cat by a pond.
“Hello, Anna dear! Hello, Mary! How are you two today? Sit down! Would you like some grapes? Or perhaps some water?” Grandmother Rose seemed to bubble with joy.
“I’ll have a few grapes,” Anna meekly responded, sitting down on a rocking chair by a closet and a bed. She set her book on a small side table. Grandma sat down at the kitchen table.
“That’s a nice puzzle, Rose. Where did you get it?” Grandma asked.
“My sister Louisa sent it. We used to do puzzles together when I was little.”
There were a few moments of silence while Grandmother Rose worked on the puzzle and Grandma checked the small refrigerator. Finally, Grandma spoke.
“Why don’t you two stay here while I talk to the nurse about your medication.” An odd silence followed as both women looked at the girl, waiting for an answer.
“All right,” Anna finally responded.
Grandma knew Anna was very uncomfortable, but she thought leaving the two alone would do them good.
* * *
After Grandma left, Anna walked over to the tall bookcase, lined with photos, postcards, trinkets, maps, ancient books, and a quaint collection of spoons. Anna looked at them all, but she was especially drawn to one black-and-white photo.
The photo was of a girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, with a cheerful expression, but you could see that she was tired and worn out. Her eyes were dark with a sort of mysterious air, but the happy expression overpowered them. She had very curly black hair and wore a long coat with a skirt that barely stuck out underneath. The girl had large boots on, which was fitting since the ground looked very muddy, and she stood next to a long, shed-like building. The background resembled some sort of farm. The photo was turning brown with age, and the frame looked as old as the photo.
Anna studied the photo a long time and then asked, “Is that you?”
Rose smiled. “Yes, that’s me, when I was twelve years old.”
“Are you at a farm or something?”
“No, that’s at Camp Minidoka.”
“Minidoka was one of the camps where they interned Japanese Americans. It’s in Idaho.”
“Oh.” Anna really had no idea what she was talking about, but she kept quiet. After a few quiet minutes she asked, “Why were you there?”
“Do you mean you’ve never heard of the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II? Isn’t it even mentioned in that book you have?”
“Oh yeah, once my mom told me you went to some prison camp.”
“Well, would you like to hear about it?”
“Uh, sure, I guess.”
“Well, Anna, it’s a long story. My father was a Nisei, but my mother was an Issei. They met in Portland, married in Portland, and settled in Portland.”
“What’s a Nee-say, and what’s an Eesay?” Anna asked, curiously.
“An Issei is someone who was born in Japan but has immigrated to America. A Nisei is the child of an Issei, an American citizen. We were pretty well-to-do. Nisei were generally treated better than Issei, since they were thought to be more ‘American.’ Issei weren’t able to become citizens or own land, so even though my mom had come to America at age four, she did not have very many rights. Still, we got along pretty well. We even went to a public school. There was some prejudice, though.
“In 1939 World War II started, and some people started disliking Japanese people. But it wasn’t really bad until 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Everyone started hating Japan, even many Nikkei, like me. But Caucasians hated the Nikkei themselves.”
“What’s a Nikkei?” Anna asked.
“A Nikkei is a Japanese American.”
“Didn’t people hate Germans and Italians? We were fighting against them, too.”
“Yes, but Nikkei were treated worse, for three reasons. First, Japanese are easier to tell apart than Germans and Italians. Germans and Italians looked just like the average white American. Second, before the war, Nikkei were often treated similar to African Americans at the time. So this gave people an excuse to bully us. Third, the Japanese actually attacked America. But I’m not giving the people who hated us an excuse. We were Americans, not Japanese.
“I had some Caucasian friends. After Pearl Harbor, only one would talk to me. She was a real friend, and she offered me a lot of support. But mostly I hung out with other Nikkei. It was partially because, well, who else would we play with? It was also for defense.”
“Defense!?” Anna interrupted.
“Yes, defense. Nikkei boys often would get beat up and then get blamed for starting the fight. Girls suffered constant teasing and prejudice. Even some teachers excluded us.
“In January, the FBI searched houses, including ours. They didn’t find anything suspicious, but my friend’s father was arrested because they had some books that were in Japanese. Then we were told by the government to move eastward. Some people I knew did, and they suffered a lot more prejudice than on the West Coast. Some returned to the west. My father didn’t want to. In February, though, they told us to stay on the West Coast and not go more than five miles from our home. We couldn’t be out at night. The FBI was watching us.
“On February 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and every Nikkei in Western California, Oregon, most of Washington, and part of Arizona had to go to relocation centers, away from any towns and surrounded by barbed wire. They were really prisoner-of-war camps.
“We first went to an assembly center, and the one in Portland was a Livestock Exposition before it became the assembly center. We stayed in a horse stall. We then were sent to Minidoka Relocation Center. We had to stay in a room in a long barrack, with only a thin wall separating us from our neighbors. There was a big public bathroom with no privacy, and we all ate in a big room. We couldn’t go near the barbed-wire fences, in fact, in some camps they shot people who got near the fence. Sometimes, people from nearby towns would watch us from the fence. They had never seen a real Japanese person. It was so humiliating, people I know thinking that I was an enemy.
“I was angry at America. I hated America. I wanted to go somewhere better, but where was that? I didn’t eat much, I had trouble sleeping, and I got depressed. I would sit and sulk all day. I knew someone who had a nervous breakdown. My mom didn’t want that to happen to me, so I went to school.
“That picture is of me in 1942. As you can see, Minidoka was very muddy. I’m in front of the building we stayed in.”
Just then Grandma walked in. “Hi, ladies. It’s almost time for your lunch, Rose.”
“Wow, that was fast!” Anna commented.
“If you call twenty minutes fast, then yes, that was fast,” Grandma responded. “Anyway, we better go so Grandmother can have lunch.”
Anna walked over and hugged Grandmother Rose. “Bye. That was a very interesting story,” she whispered.
“Goodbye, Anna dear. I’m glad you liked my story or, should I say, my life.”
Grandma smiled as she watched them. She knew she did a good thing, leaving them alone. She hugged Grandmother and then they left.
* * *
On the car ride home, Anna was silent. She thought about Grandmother’s story. It was so unfair! She couldn’t believe that anything like that happened in America.
Once they got home, Anna looked through A Brief History of World War II. There was no mention of the internment camps. At first Anna got very upset, but then she knew what to do.
The next day Anna asked Grandma to take her to see Grandmother Rose. Grandma agreed. On the way out, Anna grabbed a pencil and notepad. Because history is worth preserving.