Local history

Local history
Living history: Lily Hatanaka shares her memories for oral history project.
Image: Mitchell Kuga

What grandma taught

Memories of internment during WWII

Local history / Lily Hatanaka still remembers the taunt her classmates chanted as she walked to San Diego High School the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:

“You dirty yellow Japs. You dirty yellow Japs,” Hatanaka says, her voice dropping to a low, robotic drone. “All the way to the campus.” The next day, her principal, Dr. Aseltine, held a special assembly.

“He reminded everyone that we have about 60 Japanese Americans, and they are Americans and they are to be respected and treated like Americans,” she says.

She also remembers a moment she shared with her grandfather during their incarceration at Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.

“He had planted sweet peas and they had just started to grow,” says Hatanaka, 85, as she stirs a cup of coffee in her Kamoku Street apartment. “He looked at me and smiled and I thought, never in my life have I seen such a beautiful smile. It was so peaceful and so calm and he was so glad that he could share that moment with me.”

Hatanaka’s story is one of six recorded for the University of Hawaii Center for Oral History’s ongoing project, Captive on the U.S. Mainland: Oral Histories of Hawaii-born Nisei. The project seeks to disrupt the misconception that World War II confinement was limited to only prominent, established Hawaii Japanese and their families. Instead, the interviews illuminate the life stories of transplanted Hawaii Japanese, most of them students attending colleges in California, who were also incarcerated.

In September of 1941, Hatanaka, a Maui native, moved to San Diego at the age of 16 to start her senior year of high school, with hopes of establishing residency and attending the University of California Berkeley to study nursing. None of those hopes came true. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, a day Hatanaka spent tossing a football to her cousins outside of the San Diego Zoo, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

In May, Hatanaka, along with her aunt, uncle and grandfather, with whom she lived, were incarcerated at Poston, the largest of the 10 relocation centers. The way Hatanaka describes it, her 10-month stay at Poston was like summer camp.

“I was so excited,” she says. “I said, ‘This is living history. I can’t miss anything’… I think most people must have thought it was like the Holocaust. And it wasn’t.”

Instead, her days were spent singing in a ‘ukulele trio with friends, fishing at a nearby river where a man once tried to escape on an elaborately constructed raft (“He was maybe 10 minutes down the river before the FBI got him”) and cheering on her camp’s baseball team. Little moments, like the choir’s Christmas concert in which she sang, stay preserved in Hatanaka’s mind.

“That Hallelujah choir against that Arizona sky, those stars so bright you could almost pluck them out of the sky. Oh it was just wonderful,” she says. “We ended with a sevenfold Amen. And when that last Amen faded you just felt like you touched God. It was just so beautiful.”

Hatanaka is quick to point out that her experience as a transplanted college student was markedly different from the experiences of mainland Japanese who lost their property, jobs and livelihoods.

“Those Californians, I admire them so much. For all their losses, they just put it behind them and just dug in and started all over again. Everyone was busy doing something. Nobody sulked,” says Hatanaka, who retired from Kaiser High School as a social studies teacher in 1976. “My family was safe on Maui and that was the main thing. Once I realized they were safe the adventure became real to me. I didn’t have to worry.”

Other subjects interviewed for the project, who, at the time, were all in their late teens or early 20s and had recently moved to the mainland, expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s different than what mainland Japanese lost in many cases…In terms of belongings, you basically had whatever would fit in your suitcase. You didn’t lose your house,” says Michi Kodama-Nishimoto, the Center for Oral History’s research coordinator. However, she says, “There’s a certain poignancy to this situation because you have these young people basically trying to achieve the American dream, right? Go away to get a better job, or go away to get training and while they’re chasing the American dream, things get stopped by the American government.”

The project, expected to be completed in 2011, has posed considerable challenges for Kodama-Nishimoto and her husband, Warren Nishimoto, director of the Oral History Center. Finding subjects–they’ve found eight and are searching for two more–has required sifting through university databases and old newspapers. A few candidates were unwilling to speak and some, now in their 80s and 90s, simply couldn’t remember what happened. One woman they interviewed, Alice Watanabe, a nursing student who met and got married to her husband at Tule Lake War Relocation Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after her second interview. The Nishimotos assumed that she wouldn’t be able or willing to finish, but Watanabe insisted.

“In all the years that we’ve done interviews–we both started in 1979–we have never interviewed someone so close to death. Never,” says Kodama-Nishimoto. “[This project] really reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a diminishing resource.”

They finished the third and final interview with Watanabe in December. “At the end of the interview, we always ask them to reflect on their life and she said, ‘I taught my kids and grandkids how to live. And now I’m going to teach them how to die,’” says Nishimoto. “Those were her last words in the interview.” Two weeks later, Watanabe died. She was 89.

For Hatanaka, sharing her story felt liberating. “It was something I think I needed,” she says. “My family never asked me questions because I think they felt very guilty. They just couldn’t ask. I always felt like I was a part of a living history. And we cannot bury it. We have to tell it and everyone in America should know about it.”

When asked how she’s able to remember the tiniest details of her past so vividly, Hatanaka smiles. “That’s what grandpa taught me,” she says.