My Father’s Lost Concentration Camp (Pt. 2 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.

Be sure to read, Part 1. 

CHAPTER 5: The story (cont.)

The “camp” my family was sent to was in Topaz, Utah.

Now imagine: People going from sunny and WARM Hawaii to the high deserts of Utah—where in the winter there was a snow on the ground and in the summer it was often over 100 degrees. They couldn’t have been prepared for that.

It is important not only to know where they were but why. In 1943, America needed soldiers and people to help the war effort. And there were 120,000 Japanese Americans sitting idly in these “camps.” But the problem was that the government couldn’t tell the “good” Japanese Americans versus the “bad” Japanese Americans. So, they created a loyalty questionnaire.

The two most important questions were questions 27-28.

There were only two possible answers to these questions. Yes, Yes and No, No. Answering one of them no, meant you were answering them both no. These two questions literally divided my community and its effects can still be felt today.

So why did people answer yes-yes? It’s pretty simple actually. They were loyal and willing to prove it. And they had no allegiances to any other country. The No-Nos were a bit more complicated. Some said, take me out of camp, take me out of this prison, I’m willing to answer yes, until then: No. And they believed Question 28 was a trick question, because the basic underlying assumption was that you had allegiances to another country.

How did my grandfather answer these questions? No Question 27 and No to Question 28.

Here are my grandfather’s words on why he answered the way he did:

  1. As an American citizen, he was insulted.
  2. He thought if he answered yes-yes, he and his family would be released on the mainland where they had no friends and family and into communities where anti-Japanese sentiment prevailed.
  3. If they were going to be deported anyway – as my grandfather believed – a ‘yes’ answer would not look good.

And, because of his answer, they were sent to Tule Lake.

…where all the “bad” Japanese were sent.

In 1944, the US government passed a law that allowed American born citizens to renounce their citizenship voluntarily during wartime. The bill was designed to pave the way for the mass deportation of Japanese Americans after the war.

It was under this law that my grandfather (and other Japanese Americans like him) renounced his citizenship. He said he did this because he was convinced that Japanese Americans were going to be deported to Japan and it’s better to be first rather than last in line. Secondly, there were pro-Japanese factions in camps that threatened him and his family if he didn’t renounce his citizenship.

Once Tule Lake closed, they were sent to Crystal City, Texas.

This camp was for an “enemy aliens” and had to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, meaning better food and shelter than the “regular camps”. And when I looked into it, there was a swimming pool in Crystal City

After the war, my grandfather and other Japanese Americans realized renouncing their citizenship was a mistake. They worked with Wayne Collins, a wonderful lawyer from San Francisco, who said, “You can no more resign your citizenship in a time of war than you can resign from the human race.” He argued their renunciations had been the result of the unlawful detention and the terrible conditions in Tule Lake and not their decision.

My grandfather argued he was an American by birth. His rights had been violated. But he wanted to remain in the country.

After much hand wringing, my grandfather and his family were allowed to stay…

… they were given $25 dollars each and one way tickets back to Hawaii. Their citizenship was returned to them 10 years later.

I don’t look at my grandfather’s story through rose-colored glasses. There are many disturbing things about his story. In fact, the first time I read it I thought he was a spy. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I was born. I have so many questions I wish I could ask him. The most important being, did he know about Pearl Harbor.

But even without those answers, I no longer believe he was a spy. He just got caught in a wave of hysteria and was making the decisions he thought was best for him and his family. Blaming my grandfather also takes blame away from the government, who incarcerated 120,000 based entirely on their ethnicity.

Now that I know the story, I use every opportunity to pass the story to my son.

CHAPTER 6: Passing the story

It started with a trip to Manzanar when he was four.

But this was not just a one-time thing. Every time we pass places where Japanese Americans were incarcerated here in Southern California, I make sure to remind him. So that includes Santa Anita Race track, Griffith Park, Pomona Fair Grounds, and Tuna Canyon. I tell him, “this is where they locked up our people.”

This is my life’s work, to share the story of my family and others who were locked up. In fact, I constantly tell my son that we, as decadents of people who were locked up in these “camps,” have a moral responsibility to make sure that it never happens again to anyone ever. And I share it with all of you in the hopes we don’t let history repeat itself again.

Follow me on Twitter @ksakai1.

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.

7th Annual Fred Korematsu Day Of Civil Liberties And The Constitution – 1/29/17 is partnering with the Fred T. Korematsu Institute to #NeverForget 75th Anniversary of #9066 – the Executive Order that led to the mass incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. 

When Japanese American Incarceration during WWII was cited as a precedent for a proposed Muslim registry, it became immediately clear that this upcoming Fred Korematsu Day program would be substantially more important.

Coming this Sunday is the 7th Annual Fred Korematsu Day Of Civil Liberties And The Constitution, being held:

  • 2025 BROADWAY
  • OAKLAND, CA, 94612

I’ve attended almost every, if not all, Fred Korematsu Day celebrations since its inception. This year’s theme is:

Continue reading “7th Annual Fred Korematsu Day Of Civil Liberties And The Constitution – 1/29/17”

Amanda Nguyen and the Federal Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights

Given the fact that 62,759,366 Americans just voted for a misogynist to take the highest office in our land, the work of courageous individuals such as Amanda Nguyen are more important today than ever before.

Nguyen was assaulted in college and her rape kit was removed and almost destroyed. There’s a limit to how long a rape kit can be kept in Massachusetts, where she went to college, unlike in states like California and Texas, where kits are not destroyed.

Her activism has led to an official Federal Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights, the first time the term “sexual assault survivor” has been used in federal law.

President Obama signed this into law on October 7, 2016.

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.

Continue reading “Teen’s death inspires a new law and an Asian American Studies Endowment”

Former Top Clinton Fundraiser Norman Hsu Says ‘I Was Greedy’

When I first started blogging for 8Asians back in 2007, I started to learn more about Asian Americans in the political realm, including fundraisers such as Norman Hsu (since convicted in 2009 and imprisoned), and even blogged about him a few times as more details became available regarding his criminal charges.

Hsu was convicted in Ponzi scheme, and recently granted the Wall Street Journal his first prison interview about politics and denying that he broke campaign-finance laws:

Norman_Hsu“The 64-year-old Mr. Hsu, who admits he ran a fraudulent investment scheme, is a reminder of the risks that campaigns take in relying on big donors who round up money from others. Such “bundlers” need influence or money to tap vast networks of donors and acquaintances, and most do so within the law. But on occasion, such fundraising techniques come back to embarrass campaigns—though usually to a smaller degree. … It is illegal for supporters to give more than $2,700 to a candidate for a primary or general election. But it is legal to bundle money from friends, family and colleagues and channel it to candidates, which can reap rewards ranging from hard-to-get restaurant reservations to ambassadorships.”

Hsu seems pretty adamant that he didn’t break any campaign laws, but did mix his business interests with his interest and involvement in politics. His campaign finance violations represent 52 months of his 292-month sentence.

Hsu is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier Asian American 1996 campaign donation scandals by Charlie Trie, Johnny Chung, John Huang and James Riady, Maria Hsia, and Ted Sioeng. These series of fundraising scandals is often noted for turning off Asian Americans, especially the older first wave of immigrants from the 1960s, to participate or contribute to campaigns.

Defining American Citizenship: The Story of Wong Kim Ark


As a child growing up in America, I thought of myself as not-American. In America, I was Taiwanese, I was Chinese, I was Asian. Though I pledged my allegiance to the American flag alongside my classmates of various ethnic and heritage backgrounds, the concept that I had to be White to be American had seeped into my conciousness from popular media, from society, from Americans.

Ironically, I was most American when I was not in America. In Taiwan, my heritage country, my chopsticks would get taken away and I was always offered milk and hamburgers because that’s what American kids eat. It seems that a fish knows most that it’s a fish when it is out of water.

[Image from Documented Rights]

That was definitely also the case for Wong Kim Ark. Not only did leaving America make him an American, it forced the United States of America to define and defend what it means to be an American citizen.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

On May 6, 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which made it so that “the coming of the Chinese laborers to the United States be…hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come…to remain within the United States.” In other words, this act made it so that no new Chinese people were allowed here in the United States. This act was a product of anti-Chinese sentiment during that time period due to anger and resentment over Chinese laborers being willing to work for lower wages and taking jobs. It was also a product of just general racism towards the Chinese in America.

The Chinese Exclusion Act also included a deportation order, that “any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the President of the United States, and at the cost of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commission of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.” Due to a general lack of documentation and record keeping at the time, this made it possible for people of Chinese descent to be targeted and deported.

Further, the Chinese Exclusion Act also made a clear stand on whether the Chinese could become citizens, “that hereafter no State Court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citzenship; and all lawas in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.” This was an unequivocal block to citizenship for anyone from China. But did it apply to those people of Chinese descent who were born here in America?
Continue reading “Defining American Citizenship: The Story of Wong Kim Ark”

Asians Behaving Badly: Serial Podcast – The Murder of Hae Min Lee

hae min lee Recently a friend of mine recommended Serial Podcast to me. The first season of Serial aired last fall 2014 and ended up one of the most popular podcasts in America. The series investigates a murder of a young teenage girl back in 1999 Baltimore, Maryland, and her ex-boyfriend was charged and found guilty of her murder, sentenced to life.

I knew the premise of the story when I started listening to it, but it wasn’t until I completely finished the first episode that I realized that in this wildly popular real-life murder mystery series, the murdered teenage girl and her convicted ex-boyfriend were actually both Americans of Asian descent.

Hae Min Lee was a popular senior girl at Woodlawn High School, part of the lacrosse team, manager of the wrestling team, and a top student at the school’s magnet program. As you can probably guess from her name, she is of Korean descent, likely second generation as her mother speaks little to no English. When she didn’t show up to pick up her little cousin from school one Friday afternoon, the search was on for her as a missing person, and sadly, her body was found six weeks later at a park in a shallow grave.

Continue reading “Asians Behaving Badly: Serial Podcast – The Murder of Hae Min Lee”

Residents Sue City of Fullerton for Shutting Asian Americans Out of Electoral Process


The ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA), the Law Office of Robert Rubin, and Sidley Austin, LLP sued the City of Fullerton today for violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Jonathan Paik, a representative of Fullerton’s sizeable Asian American population, alleging that the city’s current at-large system for electing city council members denies large segments of the community— especially Asian Americans — a voice in how their city is governed.

“We are asking the city of Fullerton to implement elections that make sure that all communities, including the Asian American community, have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and that the city council is responsive to the needs of all Fullerton residents,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the Orange County and Inland Empire offices of the ACLU SoCal. “No one wins when some residents are shut out of government.”

The CVRA prevents cities from imposing at-large elections that deny minority communities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of elections. Under Fullerton’s at-large election system, all five city council members are elected by every voter in the city, regardless of where the candidate and voter live, resulting in members who are unaccountable to many communities they purport to represent.

District elections, like those recently adopted in Anaheim, however, would require each of the council members to live in the district they represent and be elected by voters in that district, providing all voting residents, especially minorities, with government representatives that are responsive to their concerns.

Fullerton has a population of just over 135,100, according to the U.S. Census, making it one of the largest cities in California to use at-large elections. Korean Americans make up nearly 12% of the population, while Chinese, Filipino, and South Asian Americans each make up around 3% of the city’s population.

“Almost one in four eligible voters in Fullerton is Asian American, yet despite their sizeable numbers, no Asian American currently serves on the city council,” said Deanna Kitamura, senior staff attorney at Advancing Justice – LA. “Asian American candidates, who have run for office and enjoyed widespread support from the Asian American community, have been consistently defeated under the at-large voting system, denying the community meaningful and fair representation in the city.”

“Asian American voters long to participate in Fullerton’s city government, but the current at-large system prevents that by diluting our power at the ballot box,” said Jonathan Paik, the plaintiff and Fullerton resident. “We join with other voices in our community in calling for a change that provides all residents in this city an opportunity to have a seat at the table.”

Robert Rubin, longtime civil rights attorney who has been involved in most of the CVRA cases, said the “the current discriminatory election system only discourages voting and undermines democracy.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles is the nation’s largest Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) legal and civil rights organization and serves more than 15,000 individuals and organizations every year. Founded in 1983 as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Advancing Justice – LA’s mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society. Through direct legal services, impact litigation, policy analysis and advocacy, leadership development and capacity building, Advancing Justice – LA seeks to serve the most vulnerable members of the AANHPI community while also building a strong AANHPI voice for civil rights and social justice.

Vince Chhabria to be First Indian American Federal Judge in California

8A-2014-03-14-VinceChhabriaAccording to an article on March 6, 2014 in The Times of India:

WASHINGTON: Indian-American attorney Vince Chhabria, who has represented San Francisco in defence of its health insurance law, adoption rights of same-sex couples and other major cases, has won Senate confirmation for a federal judgeship.

Chhabria, 44, who presently serves as the deputy attorney of San Francisco City, will become California’s first federal judge of South Asian descent and one of only a few South Asian federal judges across the US.

The Senate vote on Wednesday was 58-41, with four Republicans joining Democrats in approving President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chhabria.

A University of California Berkeley Law School graduate, he fills the last of three vacancies on the Bay Area’s 14-member US District Court.

Born to Indian parents, who are Mumbai natives, Chhabria is currently visiting family in India.

“I am thrilled to begin this new chapter of my career in public service, and to set up shop down the hall from my greatest mentor, Judge Charles Breyer,” he said in a press statement.

“While I had high expectations when I started here nine years ago, I never dreamed I would be lucky enough to work on so many exciting cases, for so many dynamic clients, with so many dedicated and high-calibre public lawyers.”

Chhabria also thanked the members of the South Asian legal community saying: “The fact that I have been confirmed while travelling in India with my family makes this an especially proud moment for me.” [full story]

Photo credit: UCSC News