My Father’s Lost Concentration Camp (Pt. 1 of 2)

In April of this year, I was asked by Southern California Public Radio to do a presentation about my family as part of their new series called, Unheard LA. The following is the video from my talk, followed by my original speech (broken into two parts). Please note, the text is from the original draft of the speech, so at points is considerably different than the actual talk I gave.

CHAPTER 1: My hero

My father’s name was Walter Sakai. He was my hero. I know a lot of people say that about their dad’s, and I’m sure they mean it, but I had a special relationship with him. You see, he had a stroke when I was born that left him unable to work. Because of it, he took care of me and we got to be very close.

The one part of him that I never understood was what happened to him when he was in “camp.”

CHAPTER 2: My understanding of what happened

“Camp” is shorthand in Japanese American for the “internment camp” or more accurately, “concentration camp.” I know people always freak out when they hear that word. This is no disrespect to what happened in Europe, because those were much worse, those were death camps. What happened here is the picture book definition of a concentration camp. In fact, the people in government originally called it a concentration camp. Calling it an internment camp is a euphemism. Another euphemism from that time is “relocation” instead of what it really was an “incarceration.”

One of the earliest memories I have of my father was him trying to make sense of what happened to him when he was a child. Time, sickness, and age had worn down his memory until he had only three left of his time in camp.

  1. His dad worked for the “Japanese government” and that’s why they were taken.
  2. That they had been in the Tule Lake, Northern California camp.
  3. That the food was really bad.

No one else in the family seemed to remember much more. When I asked my uncle, the oldest child in my father’s family, he told me they were in Topaz, Utah. And my aunt, my dad’s older sister, said they were Crystal City, Texas. My aunt also remembered a swimming pool at Crystal City! A swimming pool? In a concentration camp? What’s unusual about all of this was that most Hawaiian Japanese were not taken to the camps. So why them?

The one thing everyone said was that neither of my grandparents wanted to discuss what happened and that my grandmother would have a visceral reaction when she thought about her time in “camp.”

CHAPTER 3: Trying to find his story

Just because my father wasn’t sure what happened to him, didn’t mean “camp” didn’t keep popping up in our lives.

In 1988, my father received his twenty thousand dollars and an official apology from the government. I remember how much it meant to him when he got it. It was vindication that what happened was wrong.

A few years after that, my father took me to the Japanese American National Museum, which was relatively new when we went. I only remember one thing from the trip, my father looking up his father (my grandfather) in the library. The records indicated that my grandfather was a mechanic. My father didn’t like that! He said he wasn’t a mechanic and we left.

I didn’t see this at the time but my father was yearning to find out answers as to what happened and why.

CHAPTER 4: My path to the story

It wasn’t until I started working at the Japanese American National Museum in my mid-twenties that I started to ask questions about what happened. Being around Japanese American history and culture as well as people who had been in camp, I suddenly needed to know my family’s story. Everyone who knew—including my father—had passed away or didn’t remember much, so I started to do research. I wrote to the National Archives, Dept. of Justice, and the FBI…

CHAPTER 5: The story

… and this is the story I found…  I hope this puts my father’s soul to rest.

My grandfather was a NISEI, a second generation, or in other words an American citizen.

My father had been right, my grandfather worked for the Japanese government. He was a clerk in the consulate’s office in Honolulu which was the equivalent of working for the Taliban in New York City right before 9/11. Not a great place for him to have been.

The FBI believed my grandfather was pro-Japanese with anti-American sentiment, more “old-time Japanese” than anything else.

My grandfather was taken by the FBI and sent to Sand Island in Hawaii. He was accused of three things:

1. In 1937, he and another consulate official took a camera from a naval intelligence officer who was taking a picture of a Japanese ship.

2. During a hearing, he admitted seeing other consulate officials acting suspiciously and did not report it to the proper authorities.

3.  And probably most damming, he was paid to burn paperwork on August 1, 1941.

The charges were vacated but the government considered him so much of a danger thhat he could not be released. So, they sent him (and my family) to the camps on the mainland.

To be continued…

Follow me on Twitter @ksakai1.

8Books Review: “Adventures in Asian Art” by Susan DiCicco

I’ve been a member of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco since before their move to the old public library in SF.  It’s been a membership I’ve enjoyed greatly, and something that I happily share with my daughter.  She’s now 11, and getting to be a bit old for this latest book review, “Adventures in Asian Art: An Afternoon at the Museum” by Sue DiCicco.  This book is probably best suited for kids ages 3 to 10.

The book walks through 53 exhibits that a child might see in a visit of the Asian Art Museum (which houses over 18,000 artifacts) and would make a great companion piece for a child’s first visit.  The collection of art described by the book covers a wide range of countries, including China, Japan, Korea, India, and more.

The book also includes more a little more detail on each of the featured pieces of art at the beginning and end of the book, so the more curious children (or even adults) can find out the date, size (important because many of the pieces are not drawn to scale in the book), description, location and name of the actual piece.

The inclusion of the “Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros” is a nice touch, since it ties in nicely with the Asian Art Museum’s own “Rhino Club“, an additional optional membership for members’ kids to get invited to special events and programs just for children.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting the Asian Art Museum in SF, and instead are planning a visit to say the Asian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, this book will give a first time child visitor a nice glimpse of what to expect and how to use their imagination when they see a piece of art at the museum.

Princeton University Files Suit to Block Release of Admissions Files

Like a number of other Ivy League and other colleges, Princeton University has been sued by organizations charging that Princeton has been discriminating against Asians.  Even Princeton’s own professors have pointed out discrepancies in test scores between white and Asian applicants in the past.  While Princeton was cleared in the case, Students for Fair Admissions has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Princeton materials in the case.  Princeton has filed suit to block the request, citing trade secret law.

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Sticks and Stones and Asian Last Names

“Stick and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me”
– A Children’s Rhyme

After The Wife and I got married, she said that she would change her last name.    She had a Filipino last name that didn’t look at all Asian – a person with that same last name could easily be white.  I told her that I didn’t really care and that she didn’t need to change her name.  Turns out that having Asian last name can have an impact.  NPR reports here that a Canadian study has shown that resumes with Asian last names sent to Canadian employers received fewer call backs than those with non-Asian names.

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Graphic Novel: 442; first 6 chapters have been released for free

The first six chapters of my new graphic novel “442” have been released for free on the comic reading app “Stela Unlimited”.

Written by Phinny Kiyomuraa and myself, and illustrated (in beautiful watercolor) by Robert Sato, “442” is based on one of World War II’s most compelling and important stories. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the U.S. Army’s Japanese American segregated fighting regiment. The 442nd would become the most decorated unit of the War, and the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in American history. Even with their families confined behind barbed wire in American concentration camps, these soldiers fought to rescue a Texas battalion lost behind enemy lines. A fictionalized account based on the actual events, “442” follows young Japanese Americans soldiers as they suffer prejudice, internment and terrible casualties in their battle to rescue the Lost Battalion.

“442” releases on a historic weekend. Sunday, February 19th, is known in the Japanese American community as the “Day of Remembrance” and marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 which authorized the imprisonment of up to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, around two thirds of whom were American citizens.

Here is a sample of some of Rob’s amazing artwork:

I sat down with my collaborators and asked them a few questions:

Phinny, how did you get involved in 442?

I’m a playwright and TV writer from Long Beach, CA. My dad and all of his side of the family were sent to the camps when he was two-years-old. I eventually ended up writing a TV pilot set in an Internment Camp, called, wait for it — INTERNMENT. Super creative title. But it’s a concept that I’m very excited about — mixing a personal love for early/mid 20th-century playwriting (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter) with the not-all-that-often-discussed history of the camps. The pilot ended up getting a reading at the Japanese American National Museum which is where I met Koji. He and I talked about the 442, and, specifically the battle to save the Lost Battalion and decided to start working together, first on a movie of this story, and, later, on this graphic novel for Stēla.

Rob, what about you?

My grandfather was in the 442. He was drafted while imprisoned in the Jerome, Arkansas camp, and fought in Europe while his parents and 4 siblings remained incarcerated, putting his life on the line for a the country that had kicked his family out of their home, stripped them of what they had worked for over the course of their lives as well as all of their personal freedoms and their American citizenship. This story feels like it’s in my bones. I grew up with it shaping a major part of my world view. How could it not? I feel perhaps I’ve taken it for granted until recently that the overall history of the Japanese American experience was known and understood by the general culture.

And Rob, why was this project so important to you?

I took this job illustrating the comic in the hope that I could help in any small way to keep telling the important and complex story of Japanese American Internment, but had no idea at the start how urgently important this part of history would feel right now. Over the course of making it, I’ve been disturbed to find how many people who I know and meet who have either never heard of Internment, or have a dim, unformed idea of what it was, why it happened, and what it means. Adding to a general sense of alarm are several articles and opinions expressed in the media that have shown that there remains in our culture both a deep ignorance of Japanese American Internment, an outright denial of historical facts, and a dismissal of its lessons, painting it as irrelevant to current events. Or worse, cynical attempts to distort its history to justify current government policy.

My goal is always for my illustrations to be good, that they help tell a story as well as possible, but in this strange period where history and the lessons it can teach seem to be slipping away either through neglect or deliberate attack, I hope that our work on “442” can help to provide further context, discussion, and help keep alive the incredible story of what happened when my grandfather and up to 120,000 other human beings, in the name of national security, were swept up in the tide of war and racist hysteria. It’s a profoundly American epic.

Phinny, what about you? Why was this project important to you?

I think the goal, generally, is to get this amazing true story out into the American consciousness. As a TV writer and screenwriter, and formerly as an actor, of Asian American heritage, it’s hard not get a little annoyed at how few stories are told about the Asian American experience in this country. There are unbelievably gripping, funny, and sad stories aching to be told. This, we think, is one of them.

For more information about Rob’s grandfather, be sure to check out these amazing links:

To check out the first six chapters or to find out more about Stela go to:

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Why I March


Note: The following was written as a letter to students, and they were assigned to write a response essay to agree, disagree, or qualify the positions presented in this position paper.

On Saturday, January 21st, 2017, I will be in Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, to participate in the Women’s March. Their mission is to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights”. The March follows the nonviolent principles of Dr. King. The Women’s March is inclusive and allows anyone who believes that women’s rights are human rights to participate.

As stated above, the Women’s March’s key message is that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. The history of our country and of human civilizations around the world has been tragically fraught with discrimination, oppression, and violent abuse of women in every imaginable way. When one person is mistreated or disrespected, that lowers the respect for all people, because if someone else can be devalued and hurt, the same can be done to you. Women make up over half of the human population on the planet, so the mistreatment of women is the mistreatment of half the human population, and since women’s rights are human rights, it opens up the doors to the mistreatment and devaluing of all people. We have to treat others the way we want to be treated, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the way we treat others paves the way for how we can and will be treated. If we don’t stand up for equal rights and respect for everyone, then, male or female, we all lose. So the Women’s March is a march for the rights of everyone, girls and boys, women and men.
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8Books Review: “The Year of the Rooster” by Oliver Chin

roosterA number of years ago I stumbled upon a series of children’s books, subtitled “Tales from the Chinese Zodiac“. There was a book for the Chinese New Year, and I eagerly bought the one for the Year of the Snake, glad to find something to help my then 3 year old daughter appreciate the coming Chinese New Year.

Fast forward to 2017 and the last of the series has come out, to celebrate the Year of the Rooster, a full dozen years after my own daughter was born in the last year of the Rooster, 2005. With a complete set of 12 published, you can now find a children’s book for every year/sign in the Chinese Zodiac.

The latest book, The Year of the Roosteris written by Oliver Chin, who also authored the other 11 Tales from the Chinese Zodiac books. This book is illustrated by Juan Calle.

My daughter was excited to read the latest Year of the Rooster installment, even though at 12 she’s a little older than the target audience, which is probably anywhere from 3 to 9 years of age. As with the prior books in the series, the main character (the Rooster in this case), goes on an adventure with a human sidekick, Ying.

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8Books Review: “Bad Girls Throughout History” by Ann Shen

9781452153933Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen is the book you need right now, a walk through a diverse array of bad ass women across time and across continents. Subtitled “100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World,” this beautifully illustrated volume contains short profiles of women you know — Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday — and women you probably don’t — Khutulan, Junko Tabei. Each is entertainingly and accessibly written.

I speak only for myself when I say that on November 9, I needed this book. A reminder of stories told and untold of women who have been breaking barriers and rules since Lilith in the Garden of Eden. And it’s the kind of book I want for young girls (and adult girls like me) looking for inspiration and encouragement. It’s a reminder of why it’s important to think and live outside the lines.

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White Flight from Asian Neighborhoods and Schools

1280px-johns_creek_high_schoolWhile many white liberals declare themselves strong advocates of diversity, in her essay “Ghosts of White People Past: Witnessing White Flight From an Asian Ethnoburb,” Anjali Enjeti says that for many of them, that advocacy ends when a certain percentage of those diverse people live by them.   We have written about Asian ethnoburbs and about white flight from them, but what really surprised me is that the ethnoburb that she talks about wasn’t in Cupertino, Irvine, or the San Gabriel Valley but is in the suburbs of Atlanta Georgia.   While I think that Enjeti misses a number of points, she makes many pointedly accurate observations about white fragility and the limits of racial progress in the United States.

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8Books Review: “We Gon’ Be Alright” by Jeff Chang

WeGonAuthor of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and Who We Be, Jeff Chang’s latest book We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation is an incisive series of essays looking at race in America. Drawing on recent events, including Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, and #oscarssowhite, Chang outlines a contemporary crisis around issues of race, division, and a repeating cycle that needs to be halt. We Gon’ Be Alright is, at its heart, a call to action. But it is also a call for thoughtfulness and an understanding of how we got to where we are. If Who We Be took that history and went deep into it, this latest series of essays takes the current moment and draws it out to explain where we are, the conversations we are having, and the ones we should be having.

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Teen’s death inspires a new law and an Asian American Studies Endowment

crash3Conflict with a child can be painful to deal with for any parent – for an Asian American parent, when the conflict stems around one’s ethnic Asian background, it can be extra painful.  If that child’s life is cut short by a drunk driver before that conflict is resolved, the pain must be unimaginable.  Paul Li was put into that situation.  But instead of retreating from the world, he did two things to try to ensure that other parents would be spared the pain that his family suffered.

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National Science Foundation Funds Extensive Research Survey on Asian Americans

TaekuLee_2014-750The National Science Foundation has decided to fund an extensive research survey on Asian Americans.  The survey project, lead by Political Science Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan of UC Riverside, Law Professor Taeku Lee of UC Berkeley (shown here), Sociology Professor Jennifer Lee of UC Irvine, and American Studies Professor Janelle Wong of the University of Maryland, will expand on the National Asian American Survey.  This study aims to differentiate its data from other surveys by getting statistically significant samples from each of the six largest Asian American ethnic groups, with at least 400 interviews from each group, conducted in at least 11 languages.  Along with attitudes on various subjects, data on finance, health, and other areas will be collected.

I was curious as to how these professors got a grant from the National Science Foundation, an organization that I usually associate with technology and not political science.  Their grant award summary argues that since Asian Americans make a disproportionately large number of skilled STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer, and Mathematics) workers, understanding them and the barriers facing them will be critical to ensuring the economic competitiveness of the United States.  I think that is a valid argument, and it is gratifying to see the award as a recognition of the impact of Asian Americans.

The project will produce a dataset for public release in June 2017.