“Yip!” The sharp, insistent yapping of my dog Urashima drew me sluggishly upright the day the summons came.
“Betty,” my mother called to me from the kitchen, “quiet your dog, please!”
I responded with an unpromising grunt, flipping the page of my book. I was engrossed in Gone With the Wind, reading it for the seventh time, and resented any distractions.
“Betty Okubo, that means now!”
I slowly sat up, dragging my feet like a run-down windup toy as I walked to the door. Pulling Ura’s collar with one hand and groping for the mail with the other, I nodded a quick apology to the postman in case my dog had disturbed him. He gave me a glare that could crush stone and hurried down the sidewalk, as if our house was liable to explode at any moment.
Letting go of my terrier, I groped through the closet for the mail: a brand new Sears-Roebuck catalogue, the monthly electric bill, a notice that my library books were hereby overdue—and a printed envelope addressed to “The Okubo family.” Sucking in my breath, I opened it and prayed fervently that it didn’t hold bad news. But no notice of death, doom, or despair fell out, only a typewritten slip addressed “To whom it may concern.”
I ran through the house with the force of a full elephant stampede, screaming, “Mama! Mama!”
“What?” my mother asked in a tired voice as I frantically waved the paper in her face. She seized it from me and began to read, then sat down quickly as a look of shock crossed her face. “They don’t understand,” she murmured. “They will never understand.”
“What is it?” I asked eagerly. Wordlessly, she passed the paper to me. I read it slowly, carefully, drinking in every dire word like forbidden fruit.
1 May 1942
To whom it may concern:
All Americans of Japanese descent in Military Zone 41 must report for internment between the dates of May 1 and June 1. Please be at the First Methodist Church of Newark on May 7. You will be moved from there to an internment camp. Bring only as much as you can carry. Tardiness will not be tolerated.
In a flash, everything made sense: the cold looks people had given me in the six months since Pearl Harbor; the fear in my mother’s eyes when I ventured out alone at night; the suspicious glares I received when others discussed the war; what being in “Military Zone 41” really meant, other than the fact that we were prohibited from leaving. My parents had tried to make excuses for the government: it was wartime, after all; it wasn’t just us, it was Italians and Germans as well; even though we weren’t spies, others might be. They had refused to move away before it was too late.
“They just won’t understand,” Mama muttered again. I nodded in silent agreement. We were as American as the O’Neils, who lived next door, or the Smiths, who owned the local grocery. We celebrated the Fourth of July and had a picture of George Washington in our dining room. But our last name was Okubo, our hair was black and straight, and our eyes were slanted, and so we had to go.
“It’s not fair!” I burst out. “We’re as American as they are!” Mama had come over from Japan when she was eight. Dad was Nisei, born here. I’d never heard of Hirohito until I saw his name in a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. And yet we were being ordered away, just because our ancestors were Japanese.
“No, it’s not fair,” Mama agreed, “but neither is life.”
My parents made me go to school the next few days, although I didn’t want to. The allures of packing won out over the drab calls to learn the history, geography, and language of a country that no longer wanted me. “Who knows when you’ll see another school,” was my father’s only comment on the topic. “Enjoy this while you can.”
Every school day began with the Lord’s Prayer, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood dutifully with my hand over my heart for the latter, but balked at the words “with liberty and justice for all.” I had just received a painful example of American liberty and justice. With that thought in mind, I closed my mouth on the last phrase. Never, I swore to myself, never again would I say those six stalwart words. Never again would I believe in liberty and justice for all.
I gave tearful farewells to my friends and Ura, who had to stay behind. A less sorrowful good-bye was given to my school, which I was not overly mournful about deserting. Then, toting our three suitcases apiece, my family boarded the bus together, not knowing where we were traveling or what would happen when we reached our destination. The bus was deathly quiet except for the cries of a few babies and the mumbling of old women in Japanese. I propped Anne of Green Gables on my knee and began to read, trying to lose myself in the story as we traveled along a narrow road through a windswept desert.
The camp appeared suddenly before me, its barbed-wire fences a stark reminder of our coming imprisonment. “Barbed wire, Hana?” my father asked my mother nervously. “I don’t like the look of this.” None of us did. For the first time in years, I accepted my father’s hand as we stepped off the bus.
The first thing I saw was tar-paper barracks lined up in rows, as far as the eye could see. The second thing I saw was a girl about my age running breathlessly toward the slowing bus. Her black hair lay sleekly down her back and her dark eyes sparkled as she skidded to a stop, kicking up clouds of dirt. “I’m Asako,” she introduced herself, gasping. “And you’re Betty. You’re next to us. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad here. I take dance and play basketball and go to school . . .” I made a face “. . . and, well, the food’s awful, but that doesn’t matter so much. We’re down here. Come on!”
Bewildered by this girl’s seemingly boundless energy, I grasped my luggage like a lifeline and blindly followed her to a barrack. She flung open a door, did a tap-dance step, and announced, “Ta-da! Here it is!”
I was far from impressed. The room was spartan and tiny, holding a wood-burning stove, a rachitic table and chairs, and three army cots. My father set his baggage on a rickety wooden chair and pushed the beds up next to the wall so that we would have more room. Although he didn’t know it at the time, this gave me the added benefit of being able to whisper to Asako through the cracks in the wall at night.
“So,” Asako asked eagerly, “what do you think?”
“I can’t say that it’s nice, exactly,” I replied hesitantly, “but I suppose it shall have to do.”
Life in camp quickly settled into a grinding monotony. Asako and I began ninth grade, along with fifty others. Manzanar High School was unlike any other: filled with studious pupils, fervently learning the language and culture of a country that no longer wanted them. Asako’s best subject was math; everyone agreed that I was a good writer. We never mentioned life after Manzanar. I had no intention of remaining confined forever, yet existence outside of the barbed wire, beyond the guards, seemed surrealistic. I had not exchanged a word with my friends since the fateful day we said good-bye, over two years ago, and they rarely occupied my thoughts now. In the weeks following our departure, I took comfort in imagining what they were doing, feeling as if I was among them again. But as the year passed without a word between us, they played a smaller and smaller role in my dreams of life outside of the internment. I had already begun to forget their faces. “They’re just not a part of my life anymore,” I said to Asako when we compared memories of the outside world. “They have no idea what’s happening to me.”
Even as my memories slowly faded, I never stopped dreaming of freedom: dreaming of my home, where the wind didn’t whistle through the walls at night, where my bed was a fluffy mattress, not an army cot. I longed for a meal without the ubiquitous hunger that followed: a meal of apple pie, cheeseburgers, chocolate cake, and mint ice cream. I yearned for the war to be over so that we could return home at last. We gathered around the radio every night, following the progress of the war, wondering when we could return. As the Allies advanced through Europe, I finished tenth grade and began eleventh. It was an odd feeling, knowing that I might graduate from a school outside Manzanar—a school that I had barely attended.
The day that I began my eleventh-grade finals, class was stopped. I groaned and laid down my pencil; I had finally started to make progress on the American History essay, and didn’t wish to be interrupted. I took tests well once I began; it was beginning that was the problem. The rest of the class didn’t share my disappointment; a low murmur of talking began as the principal’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“Students,” Mr. Mitsuko began, “Germany has surrendered.” The class began to buzz like a zoo of infuriated flies. “The war in Europe is over.”
My heart started beating like a bass drum. Could we go home? The unspoken question hovered on the lips of every student in the room, as school was dismissed for the day. Would the government release us from this camouflaged prison? As the days crept by without a word of our liberation, we began to lose hope. The military island-hopping campaign was not ending the war in the Pacific; I began to think that I would celebrate my eighteenth birthday at Manzanar.
That last summer was long and scorchingly hot. The tar-paper barracks heated like ovens during the day and remained that way long into the night. I would lie in bed for hours, tossing and turning, the muggy air pressing on me as I unsuccessfully tried to sleep, listening to the rhythm of Asako’s gentle snoring through the wall. The heat stretched though July and into August. Asako and I lazed about on the faded wooden benches, watching the few remaining plants wilt. We often talked for hours, discussing memories from before Manzanar, reliving the taste of juicy watermelons and crisp, tangy strawberries—tastes that had become nothing more than a dim memory, filed with all of the other happy times before internment, happy times that we devoutly hoped to have again.
And then, one day, as I sat on the sun-blistered bench, Asako did not come. I waited for three hours, feeling my skin burning from the sun, reading The Grapes of Wrath and watching worriedly for my best friend.
Finally, just as I was about to move to one of the sparse patches of shade, I saw her running toward me, black hair flying behind her in the desert wind.
“We’ve bombed Hiroshima,” she called, her words drifting toward me. “My uncle is dead.”
The United States, she told me, had created the most terrible weapon that the world had ever seen and proceeded to drop it on one of the major Japanese cities in hopes of ending the war. Asako’s mother’s brother lived there; she had never met him.
As it had two months before, the question of freedom hovered on my lips. We knew the war could not go on much longer; Asako and I spent the ensuing week tensely waiting, hoping beyond hope for the news that the war had ended, but it continued to drag on. The dropping of another atomic bomb did not bring immediate surrender. We began to think that we would be imprisoned forever.
August 14, 1945, was a brilliantly clear day, the sun shining from a cloudless sky. Asako and I sipped weak lemonade and talked as the breeze ruffled our black hair. Suddenly, a bell began ringing insistently. People ran out of their barracks and into the dusty streets, hugging each other, crying.
“It’s over!” someone yelled for our benefit. “It’s finally over! They’ve surrendered! It’s over! We’re free!”
I had entertained naïve expectations of racing through the fence the moment that an American victory was proclaimed, only taking time to collect my few belongings before rushing out to freedom. Reality, as it so often is, was painfully different from my imagination. The release was not instant; it would be a week. A week was an infinitesimal amount of time considering how long I had been in Manzanar, and yet impossible to wait through. But the days finally passed, as days do, and my family and Asako’s family were standing before the gates of the camp, on our way to freedom.
“All ready to go?” my father asked me. I looked at Asako, and unbidden tears filled my eyes as I realized that I would probably never see her again. No one else would ever understand what it meant to lose four years of my life, the years when I should have been growing and laughing with my friends, not confined in a place I never should have been.
I had thought that when the gates of Manzanar closed behind me for the last time, I would be free. Now, as I stood watching the barbed wire drift slowly in the wind, I realized my mistake. I might have been released, but I still bore the scars. Manzanar had stolen four years from my life. My beliefs in equality had been shattered, my conception of American “liberty and justice” forever changed. The effects of internment would be with me forever. I might have left Manzanar, but I would never be truly free.