What Lilly Kodama remembers most about March 29, 1942 was she was too excited to sleep.
The next day, her family and all other families of Japanese ancestry living on Bainbridge Island were to take the ferry to Seattle. Once in Seattle, they would travel by train to an unknown destination.
“My mother said it would be like a vacation,” Kodama said.
And for a 7-year-old girl who had never been on a train before, her excitement trumped fear — even when she saw soldiers carrying guns.
“Because the trip was overnight, our family got to sleep in a Pullman car,” Kodama recalled. “I remember arguing with my siblings about who got to sleep on the top bed.”
But Kay Nakao was more aware of what was happening. At 22, she had a good sense that she and the other 275 Bainbridge Island Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) weren’t going on a holiday.
“We were frantic,” the 92-year-old Bainbridge resident remembers. “In the beginning, the government said just the aliens were being sent away. Then we were told, ‘A Jap is a Jap’ and that everyone was going.”
EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066
Seventy years ago, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order designated certain areas as military zones and led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — regardless of whether they were United States citizens — for the duration of World War II.
On March 24, 1942 soldiers posted notices on Bainbridge Island, alerting residents that on March 30, 1942 all Nikkei would be evacuated.
For six days, Japanese-American families prepared for their departure. As one can imagine, six days wasn’t long to tie up loose ends before leaving for an indefinite amount of time. Because of the recent attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans were suspicious of all things Japanese-related and the families who were forced to evacuate destroyed items with ties to Japan.
“Anything pertaining to Japanese was burned, buried or thrown into the outhouse,” Nakao said.
It wasn’t until after the war, when Nakao returned to Bainbridge Island, that she discovered some relics her family forgot to destroy. In an upstairs bedroom, inside a trunk was a seashell corsage her grandmother had sent her, along with a doll dressed in a kimono.
“Usually I get so mad at myself for forgetting things,” Nakao said. “Not that time. That was one time I didn’t regret it.” (The belongings are now displayed at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School on Bainbridge Island.)
When the train arrived at its final destination, the 276 displaced people found themselves at the War Relocation Center in Manzanar, Calif, near the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Later, they were transferred to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.)
From the signing of Order 9066 in late February to their arrival in early April, rudimentary buildings were erected to house the Bainbridge Island internees — the first Japanese-Americans in the country to arrive at the camps.
The buildings were hastily constructed out of tarpaper and raw lumber. In the heat of the desert, the lumber would shrink, causing gaping holes. Often, the residents would wake in the morning, covered in sand.
“We were uprooted. Could only bring what we could carry. We didn’t know where we were going,” Nakao said.
Perhaps because of her young age at the time, Kodama doesn’t harbor any resentment about the internment.
“People have asked me, ‘Don’t you feel any bitterness?’ And until people asked me that, I never thought I should,” Kodama said. “Why don’t I, I wonder? Part of it is because of the culture of the Japanese.”
GAMAN: TO PERSEVERE
According to the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community website, the Japanese word “gaman” means patience and tolerance. The word is frequently used when talking about how Japanese-Americans handled the internment.
Growing up in eastern Washington, Clarence Moriwaki, who identifies himself as American-Japanese, wasn’t alive during World War II. Although he had relatives interned during the war, it wasn’t until he was a freshman at the University of Washington that he found out about the internment.
He remembers meeting up with other Japanese-American students at the undergraduate library and the question arose, “What camp did your parents go to?”“I’m thinking summer camp. So I said, ‘I’m a farmer’s kid. They didn’t have time to camp,’ ” Moriwaki said.
But the students weren’t discussing canoes and s’mores.
“They said, ‘Concentration camp, you moron.’ It was the first I had heard of it,” he recalled.
Over the Thanksgiving school break, Moriwaki asked his father about the internment. It was one of the first times he recalls his father pausing and being silent.
His father wasn’t interned during the war — the demarcation line in Washington was the Columbia River; those who lived east of it weren’t sent away — but he had relatives who were.
Moriwaki’s father used the word “gaman.” He believed it was his job as a parent to make his children’s life as good as possible and not to bear his pain or his shame. That was why he never discussed the camps with his son.
Similarly, parents played an important role in the internment camps. They tried to make life as normal as possible for their children. School dances were planned and sports teams were organized. Toys were crocheted. Crafts projects were organized.
AFTER THE WAR
When the war ended in 1945, many of the Bainbridge Island internees returned home to the island and were warmly greeted by the community. The Bainbridge Island Japanese-American community partially credits the kind reception to the owners of The Bainbridge Review, Walt and Milly Woodward. During the war, the Woodwards actively spoke out against the internment. They also hired correspondent reporters in the internment camps, which helped promote dialogue between the residents of Bainbridge Island and those who were sent away.
But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the Japanese community began to really talk about what happened during World War II.
“We kept it inside for a long time,” Nakao said.
In the late 1990s, the Japanese-American community of Bainbridge Island began to work on plans to acknowledge that Bainbridge Island was the first place Japanese-Americans where forced from their homes.
Now, a serene wall marks the area in Eagledale on Bainbridge Island where 276 people were loaded onto the ferry. The wall is 276 feet long— one foot for each person, along with each person’s name — and weaves along a gravel path overlooking the harbor.
The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is called Nidoto Nai Yoni, which translates to “Let it not happen again.”
So do they fear something similar could happen again? After Sept. 11, 2001, the thought went through Nakao’s mind.
“I thought, ‘Oh, brother!’ We have to talk more about the internment or it will happen to some other group,” she said.
Moriwaki, who served on the memorial planning committee, said the group spent eight months coming up with a name for the site.
“We didn’t want it to be about blame, shame or guilt,” he said. “Instead, we wanted a message of hope.”
Plans are in the works to commemorate the day 276 people were forced to leave Bainbridge Island. Check the website, www.bijac.org, for more details on the March 30 event.