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'There's still prejudice': Survivors of WWII Japanese internment gather in Salt Lake City

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Kathy Saito Yuille was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II and lived there for her first two years of life.

"My family didn't talk about it, they talked very little about it," she recalled Wednesday.

"My parents were first generation, they were young first generation. And I'm a second generation, but a lot of my friends were third generation. But regardless, the culture was such with the Japanese that they really never — and this is important, too — they really didn't speak harshly about what had happened to them. And I remember talking to my parents, and there are two words that the Japanese use a lot," Yuille said.

Those phrases translate into "it can't be helped" and "to endure and to persevere."

"Those two words encompasses the culture and the feeling of the people who were put in these camps," she said.

Yuille met with others who had stayed in internment camps at the Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple on Wednesday as a judge from California stopped in Utah with two 48-star American flags he's taking across the country for survivors to sign.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Johnny Cepeda Gogo originally got involved helping another judge with outreach to Japanese internment survivors several years ago. When he became a judge himself, Gogo continued to help with outreach and education along with his colleague, whose parents were interned during the war.

"And I just thought to myself, 'How can I get more people involved in this process, in this educational event?' And that's when I thought about obtaining a 48-star flag, which represents the World War II era, which also represents the years when these prison camps were in effect," he explained.

The internment of Japanese immigrants and citizens started soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted fear about national security. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the military to "evacuate all persons deemed a threat" from the West Coast to internment centers further inland. More than 110,000 people were sent to those camps despite "no charges of disloyalty against any of these citizens," according to the National Archives. Many of their homes and possessions were claimed by others, and they had no way "by which they could appeal their loss of property and personal liberty."

Gogo has sought to gather those who were interned at some of the 10 major camps — one of which was in Utah, the Topaz War Relocation Center in Millard County — and smaller camps established during the war. He's asked them to each sign a flag "as a way for them to honor their sacrifice, honor their memories and their family members' memories that also were in the camps but are no longer with us today, and also honor their courage for having to go through this really wrongful incarceration."

One flag displayed Wednesday has already been filled with signatures and will go to the San Jose Japanese American Museum. Gogo hopes to donate a second flag to the National Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles.

Retired Utah Judge Raymond S. Uno, 90, entered the Heart Mountain internment camp around age 12. His dad died about nine months after his family entered the camp due to coronary thrombosis, a blood clot in the heart.

"My dad passed away, and it was kind of an unusual circumstance. And my mother was a homekeeper, so she had really no ability, kind of, to take care of the family. But because my dad passed away, she had to do whatever she could to take care of the family," Uno recalled.

"We kind of had a hard time, because we had myself, the youngest, my sister and my brother. And she had to kind of take any kind of a job she could get, so she took a job as a cook and a housekeeper at a Methodist woman's home," he said.

Boys couldn't stay at the home, so he needed to find a place to live. He ended up working at age 15 on the railroads in the Nevada desert.

Jeanette Mitari Misaka, left, and Yoshiko Mayeda Uno look at photographs from World War II concentration camps such as Heart Mountain and Topaz at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple on Wednesday.
Jeanette Mitari Misaka, left, and Yoshiko Mayeda Uno look at photographs from World War II concentration camps such as Heart Mountain and Topaz at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple on Wednesday.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Yuille said she remembers asking her mother about the family's time in the Heart Mountain camp. Her mom would respond by explaining that "war is a terrible thing," and that terrible things were also happening to American soldiers at that time.

"So that was kind of their philosophy. That kind of helped them to endure and to persevere at a time when it was a terrible time," Yuille said.

"It was probably painful, they wanted to look forward rather than to look back. They were thinking about their children and making a life for them, so once they were out of camp, they focused on the future, because otherwise, it was painful," she said.

Many Japanese immigrants during that time lost their farms and businesses. After originally immigrating to America and learning English at night school, Yuille's dad ran a business in Oakland, California, before the internment.

"And they wanted to be citizens, but of course at that time they couldn't become citizens. And the horrible thing about this is that the people that were incarcerated, four-fifths were American citizens. They were the children of these, like my brothers, my siblings, my sister, they were born here, but they were incarcerated," Yuille said.

She described the chance to gather to sign a flag as "another time for healing."

"It's a time when I think the voices are being finally — by some but not all — being heard. There was a reparation, but there's now still prejudice; and some of the things that are happening now with Asians being attacked for no other reason, it doesn't make any sense. So this puts a focus on these people who were incarcerated were U.S. citizens, they fought for their country," Yuille said.

Shirley Ann Higuchi, Yuille's niece and chairwoman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, said: "I think the event sort of symbolizes what happened to young Japanese-American children during World War II. I mean, many of the incarcerees were only 10, 11, 12 years old, they didn't know what was going on. So regrouping together in 2021 to share this experience allows us to remember what happened in 1942."