How did you and your family end up in Oregon?

My grandparents on both sides of my family were immigrants from Japan, and they ended up settling in HoodRiver. I’m a third-generation Japanese-American.

photo by Joshua Meador


You had family members who were interned during World War II?

Yes, all of my grandparents and my mother, and aunts and uncles.Hood River was in the demilitarized zone. Along the West Coast, from the western part of Washington, Oregon, California, and the southern part of Arizona, Japanese-Americans were moved inland. The government felt it wasn’t safe.


You also had family member who fought for the United States during World War II.

My father, within ten days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he volunteered for the Army. He felt that as an American citizen, it was his duty to protect his country. And that’s where the irony is, those Japanese-American men serving our country while their families were incarcerated.


When did the internment first hit your radar personally?

When I was a young adult, because I hadn’t really learned about this in school. I learned about World War II, but still, I didn’t understand how my family had lived or how my family had experienced the war.

It was my uncle who had encouraged me to interview my grandmother. Because my maternal grandmother spoke only Japanese, my mother agreed to be the translator. After a bit, Grandma said, “I’m done,” and I said, “No, no, we need to talk more,” and she said, “Nope.” There is a saying in Japanese, and it’s something like “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” I think she was worried that I would write about her life, write articles and books, and then she would be highlighted.

I ended up going to the Hood River library sitting in the basement looking at the old issues of the Hood River News and Hood River Sun and Hood River Glacier, and that’s where—sitting in the basement looking at these full page ads that say “Japs are not wanted inHood River,” I was absolutely stunned. I had no clue. My parents had not talked about it. My teachers had not talked about it. I was a young adult. I was teaching at Pacific University at that time.


Is that when you decided to study this full time?


photo by Joshua Meador

There was a lot of turmoil for me in terms of wondering, did I miss something as I was growing up? Why didn’t my family talk about this? Why didn’t my teachers or my textbooks include this? That is what really caused my inquiry into the story, and what I realized was that to honor my grandmother and not highlight her story, then I would find lots of nails.

At that time, I was at Pacific University under a new, enterprising dean who approved my sabbatical request he probably never should have approved, because I didn’t have a background in Japan, in World War II, in Japanese-American history. My parents took me around to meet issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants. That’s how I spent the year, interviewing, drafting, writing, reading, and learning stuff, and that resulted in my book, The Hood River Issei

What were these camps like?

More difficult were the assembly centers, because they were temporary. There were dust storms. Families lived in confined quarters with no privacy. There was one room with a potbelly stove and a light bulb on top. There was no furniture, so families often made desks and chairs out of scrap plywood. It was communal living. They went to the bathroom together. Mom used to say she would get up really early to use the bathroom, take a shower and brush her teeth because she wanted privacy.

They were surrounded by barbed-wire and armed guards.


Why do we need to look back on this horrific chapter in American history?

We don’t always recognize the brave people. The courageous people who really examined the situation, and looked at the negatives and positives, and the kind of information that was coming out and said, “Wait a minute, these are citizens.”

Having courage to examine all sides of an issue and to become informed about what happened and to think carefully about what one can do, and then to speak out when there are inequities is important. There were people who were courageous citizens who did that, who got little or no recognition.

Unfortunately there are so many areas where we’re just not treating people fairly. We need to think about our actions and our consequences. 

What is being done to apologize to those harmed by internment, or to expose this piece of American history?

I think we can never say thank you enough. I will say, on another level, and it’s a bit controversial, but we mentioned those who serve valiantly and bravely in the military, and there were some who spoke out against the service because they didn’t believe their country was serving their families well. I know it’s difficult for some who served, thinking this might be—I think there’s some truth about their actions.

I believe it’s important to examine all parts of the story and to recognize the contributions and the service of all.

Is it possible and healthy to move past this part of the country’s story?

It would be nice if we could take negative experiences in our history and slough them off and forget about them because we’re moving ahead. That would be productive if we learned from all those mistakes, but we haven’t seemed to yet.


Are there other Oregon histories we are not giving their due?

Absolutely. African Americans in Oregon, the Native Americans and what we have done to them in this country, the Latino population and the Southeast Asian population.

We are such a potpourri. One angst I have is we tend to talk about the Oregon Trail that moved Westward, but in fact there were other trails to Oregon, including the one that came across the Pacific Ocean.

I think we’re doing a better job, but definitely, there is so much more.


Mike Werbach
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