Mary Kamidoi speaks on Japanese internment, preserving A/PIA history

Wednesday, January 22, 2020 - 10:20pm

Mary Kamidoi recalls memories of her childhood at Rohwer internment camp and her experience with anti-Japanese and anti-Asian discrimination at Haven Hall Tuesday morning.

Mary Kamidoi recalls memories of her childhood at Rohwer internment camp and her experience with anti-Japanese and anti-Asian discrimination at Haven Hall Tuesday morning. Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

Mary Kamidoi, former treasurer of the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit chapter, spoke in Haven Hall Wednesday morning in association with American Culture 301: “A/PIA in the Civil Rights Movement.” 

During the event, Kamidoi recalled her childhood, memories of life in internment camps and the anti-Japanese and anti-Asian discrimination she endured upon her arrival in Michigan.

Kamidoi was born in Stockton, California into a family of farmers. She said her memory of her childhood started with the Pearl Harbor bombing and the panic that spread within her community after the event, alongside news about internment camps.

“When we got the news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, my parents had no idea what was going to happen to them,” Kamidoi said. “The first thing they were worried about is, ‘What is going to happen to my children?’ By April we were told we are going to be put in a camp.”

Kamidoi and her family were first put in horse stables, where she said the living conditions were unbearable and caused widespread illness. 

“It is hard to believe the description of the conditions of a horse stable, harder to believe they let people live in it,” Kamidoi said. “So many people were getting ill, simply because of the smell of the horse stables and the filth we had to live with, that they decided to build permanent camps.”

After the U.S. government finished building permanent internment campsites, Kamidoi and her family were relocated to an isolated site in Rowher, Arkansas.

“Our camp is just barracks,” Kamidoi said. “And these camps are built in the most desolate places possible, there was no way that we can leave the camp on foot, we couldn’t have gotten anywhere.” 

Kamidoi said in addition to the poor living conditions, the distrust and dehumanization within the camp made things worse.

“You always have a number, not a name, nobody cared about your name,” Kamidoi said. “And the first thing all the parents told the kids is that you don’t know your neighbors, you don’t know who’s living next to you, so don’t go run to them and don’t tell them anything personal.” 

LSA sophomore Brian Tran, who is currently taking AMCULT 301, found Kamidoi’s description of the living conditions in the internment camp shocking yet familiar.

“The housing situation in the horse stables kind of reminded me of more situations that are happening today,” Tran said. 

“Especially on the southern border with the immigration crisis.”

Despite the hardships, Kamidoi said she still considers herself lucky since anyone who showed disfavor or disapproval of the government would have their entire family sent back to Japan, regardless of their citizenship. 

“There was a questionnaire we had to fill out,” Kamidoi said. “And there were two questions, 25 and 26, if you didn’t answer those in favor of the government, you are put on a boat and you are sent back to Japan, whether you were born there or not.”

Ron Aramaki, adjunct professor of American Culture, told The Daily that internment camps invalidated the identity and national pride of Japanese Americans solely on the basis of their nationality. 

“We have the assumptions that whoever we are, we are Americans,” Aramaki said. “Regardless of what we look like, skin color, race or religion. But in World War II that didn’t matter at all. In other words, the Supreme Court decided that even though when you are an American, it was your nationality, your race that made the difference, that determined that you will be the enemy.”

Roland Hwang, lecturer in the department of American Culture who is currently teaching AMCULT 301, told The Daily he believes this practice of antagonizing and vilifying certain groups has been a long-existing part of American society. He said it has become especially prominent in light of today’s immigration crisis and the growing fear of terrorism, extremism and hate crimes. 

“We hope from this lecture people can draw some analogies to today about who’s being called the enemy race or religion, to see how people are being mistreated today and put into camps,” Hwang said.

Tran said contemporary America seems to be repeating the ugly part of its own history, which is a dangerous trend that needs to be addressed. 

“History is kind of repeating itself,” Tran said. “And we learned in class that Japanese Americans are the first ones to stand up against that trend because they have already been through that.”

After WWII, Kamidoi and her family moved out of the internment camp to a farm on Missouri, where she said she faced discrimination and suspicion. She recalled a time she was on a school bus and was targeted by members of her class about her race.

“One day they had white paper planes with red dots drawn on them, and they threw them at us,” Kamidoi said. “I was mad and I was thinking, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And I looked at the bus driver and I thought, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’”

Kamidoi said even people who did not actively express hate or discrimination were often reluctant or too afraid to help.

“I convinced myself, after all, that the bus driver didn’t do anything because he was afraid,” Kamidoi said. “I had to believe that he didn’t help us because he was afraid himself.”

Kamidoi then moved to Michigan with her siblings and ended up getting recruited by the Ford Motor Company with her sister, where they were again confronted with discrimination. Kamidoi stood up for herself and her sister in front of management and, to her surprise, gained support in her pursuit of fair treatment.

“I thought to myself that I came here to do a good job, and I’m not going anywhere,” Kamidoi said. “People were following me around every time I get to my desk, so I went into this room and I asked if this is the policy. They supported me and they said we are going to take care of this, so before I even left the room they had a secretary send out a memo saying that Ford will not tolerate this kind of discrimination.”

Kamidoi then discussed the redress she received from the government, which included monetary compensation of $20,000 and an apology letter from former President George H.W. Bush. Kamidoi said she experienced jealousy and accusation from co-workers regarding the redress, but decided to stand her ground.

“The news about the redress came out, and the editorial page was just all nasty remarks,” Kamidoi said. “So at work, they would ask me if I think I deserve it, and I will say I do because I lived in a camp and when I was little my parents lost everything they worked so hard for. They will say something like, ‘But you people started the war,’ and I will just say, ‘What people are you talking about?’”

Because of her experience, Kamidoi said she made it her mission to speak openly about internment camps to young people in order to spread awareness. 

“More and more people were asking me questions about it, and I feel like it’s time to tell the truth,” Kamidoi said. “There is another lady in the Detroit area who wanted to tell her story but she didn’t know how, so she asked me how did I do it. I said that number one, I am a tough old lady, and number two, I think it is only fair for these students to know the truth.”

LSA student Luke Bromberg talked about how he hopes through the preservation and sharing of history, people can become more compassionate. 

“There’s a lot people (who) had to suffer back in the day,” Bromberg said. “So it is very possible one person will say, ‘Oh, my group suffered a lot,’ but then they look at a different group and they will say, ‘Oh, they actually suffered a lot more,’ so people will be more sympathetic with each other.”

Daily Staff Reporter Jialin Zhang can be reached at jialinzh@umich.edu