From the Archive

[link to this page]

Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

Canned Milk and Forbidden Grapes: Childhood Memories of the Incarceration

Minidoka incarceration camp, 1942, denshopd-p128-00148.
"Things like that leave a very deep impression on a child. Never to be forgotten."
   -- Irene Najima

The life stories gathered by Densho over the last twelve years become more precious every year, as those with adult memories of the wartime incarceration pass away one by one. Interviewees who were very young when Pearl Harbor was attacked admit to having only vague memories of the move from home to fairgrounds or racetracks. And many of those memories are "received," planted by family stories and pictures or by later reading about the camps. Densho's wartime photos show toddlers and schoolchildren behaving as children would anywhere: laughing and playing, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings of barracks and barbed wire. Interviewees' own mental images from their early childhood remain out of focus, though their memories of discrimination still sting.

Some Densho interviewees share pleasant stories of their childhood before the war. Bob Sakata, for instance, fondly describes his diverse neighbors in the farming community near Almeda, California: "We had some wonderful neighbors…To the north of us was Mr. Lagorio, and to the south of us was Mr. Orsetti, both Italian truck farmers, and they were perfectionists, they were good… And then walking distance from us was a large dairy, and they were from Portuguese descent...We all respected each other, and when my mother passed away in 1934, I was six years old. And all the Caucasian neighbors would come and help. It was very close-knit, respected friends at that time."

Other Nisei do not forget incidents of latent and blatant rejection. Irene Najima tells how Japanese Americans in her hometown of Petaluma, California,"knew their place." If her father went into town, he tacitly understood that he was "not allowed in certain places, like restaurants or bars. So we just kept away." Irene remembers one frightening incident during a family outing when she was three years old:

We decided to go on an outing. And there was a beach near a river, bridge. We decided to go there, because they had sort of a playland area, but there again, we knew there was an understanding that we were not to mix. So we stayed in the background, we unpacked our lunch, put our little blanket right near the fence, which was adjacent to a bunch of gum grove trees, eucalyptus. And so we were having our lunch there, and a gentleman came. And to this day, his face, at three years old now, was as vivid to me as it is today. He was I'd say sixty. I don't know what authority he had, but he told us that we were still part of the beach area and he wanted us to move over the fence to the gum grove where there was no sand. I forget what we did, I don't know. But I know at that time, fear clutched my heart. Didn't understand at the age of three, but I knew something was wrong. And I think, I know so, things like that leave a very deep impression on a child. Never to be forgotten.

Once transplanted to the detention camps that each held tens of thousands of Issei and Nisei, Japanese American children were among their own. Everyone in school looked like them. Parents grappled with uncertain futures, but grade-schoolers were too young to understand their situation. While they still had to sort out their social order in the classroom, they knew one thing: the name-calling Caucasian bullies had disappeared.

Frank Kitamoto was three years old when his family was expelled from Bainbridge Island, Washington, and sent to Puyallup assembly center. Frank recalls very little but does have secondhand stories: "Every time an adult sees me that used to know me in concentration camp in Manzanar, they say, 'Oh, you're that little kid that used to hang onto your mother's dress all the time and was crying all the time. I felt really sorry for your mother.' So I must have just cried constantly while I was there. And it's not only, you know, one or two people that have said that, so I know this has gotta be true."

Like Frank, Carolyn Takeshita recalls very little of her years in detention camp, but she made a surprising connection in later years:

I had a younger brother that was three years younger, and he was an infant. So when we talk, he doesn't remember anything. And I don't remember a lot about camp except a few things. I always tell people this funny story about as an adult, I hated the smell of canned milk and I never knew why. But a lot of people use canned milk for their coffee. And when I would smell it, it would trigger, oh, I don't like canned milk. Then one time when we were talking and I was sharing some memories about camp, somebody served coffee and they had the canned milk and I said, "Oh no, I don't like canned milk. I don't like the smell of it." And they said, "Oh, why not?" And I said, "'Cause it reminds me of camp." And that was the first time that I drew a connection that I did kind of remember something, but it wasn't on a verbal level. It was more from an emotional reaction level.

Food figures prominently in accounts of the detention. As a boy confined at the Merced, California, assembly center, Bob Fuchigami was tempted by the scent of ripe grapes just out of reach.

Merced was like a prison camp, surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers manned by military. I'm sure they had rifles or machine guns or whatever, and they had the jeep patrol come around the perimeter of the camp, and they would come fairly often. At night the searchlights were there, and they crisscrossed the camp….Well, we moved there in May, and of course, by June, the grapes were ripening. The camp happened to be next to a vineyard. And when the grapes get ripe, there's a distinct smell, and I thought, "Gosh, it wouldn't take much to cross that little road beyond the fence to get the grapes." I mean, you could see them, you could smell them. I know several times I thought about crawling under the fence and just getting some grapes. But you're trying to time the lights because they weren't set into a standard pattern, so you couldn't judge where that light was gonna show the next point. And I figured, well, the lights were shining over there and they would be swinging over here and so forth, but I could never figure them out. And we were told, "You go beyond that fence, you're gonna get shot." So I guess I just didn't have enough courage to do that, and never tried to get those grapes.

Three years after the forced removal in spring 1942, government photos of Japanese American families leaving the camps to "resettle" in new cities look remarkably like the photos of their arrival. Dusty crowds of parents and children mill about suitcases and boxes with ID tags. Are people boarding or exiting the trains? In her interview, Kazue Yamamoto points out an unpleasant similarity between her family's accommodations at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, incarceration camp and their resettlement refuge in Spokane, Washington:

We had nothing to go back to in Wapato. You know, we never had, we never owned the land anyway. So my dad knew this Mr. Otsuki from, I think he probably knew him from the time he came to Seattle from Japan. And so Mr. Otsuki was here in Spokane, and I think he invited my dad to come to Spokane. We had no place else, nothing left in Wapato, so I think that's how we landed in Spokane, just through that one man…. We were one of the last ones to leave camp. That was almost closing time, we were there 'til the very end. I remember half of our barracks were empty when we left. So the other people had places to go, we didn't have anyplace to go except to come here….Mr. Otsuki knew Mr. Hirata, who owned the Clem Hotel, so we stayed there three months. And that's another one-room, five of us in one room.

Once released from camp, young Japanese Americans were no longer among thousands of children like them. As their parents struggled to start over financially in Midwestern cities, Japanese American youngsters were once again exposed to discrimination. Roy Ebihara left the Topaz, Utah, incarceration camp at the age of ten, still a first grader because of the gaps that the detention left in his education. Like other Nisei released from captivity, Roy was assigned an unavoidable role in the children's game of war. While his family passed as Chinese for the first year they lived in Cleveland, Roy's school mates were not convinced:

Oh, yeah. We had friends. You know, war was raging, and so we would play war. That was the kids' game, war. I was always the enemy, so it didn't matter. [Laughs] But yeah, the first few weeks, the kids at recess would say, always say, "What are you?" And I would say, "I'm Chinese." But not everybody accepted that fact. The kids, when they're little, it didn't matter, you look like the enemy. At the end of the school day, I had to run like hell to go home because they have little stones and they'd be throwing stones at us. But we survived.

To create a free archive user account, go to:

back to top

Copyright ©1997-2015 Densho. All Rights Reserved.