Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series looking at the “Uprooted” art exhibit, which will be unveiled at the Four Rivers Cultural Center Sept. 12.
ONTARIO—A traveling photography exhibit on its way to the Western Treasure Valley tells more than just the story of local internment camps during World War II.
For many, “Uprooted: Japanese-American Farm Labor Camps during World War II” tells a family history. The Takami family spent nearly two decades at the Nyssa labor camp.
The family patriarch, Yoshio “Sonny” Takami was the security police officer at the Nyssa camp, and he wouldn’t leave his fellow Japanese-Americans behind. Instead, his family stayed at the camp for many years after the camps were dissolved.
His daughter, Janet Takami Koda from Vale, lived at the camp until she was in the fifth grade. She has many memories of the place and can easily recall the stories she heard about how her family ended up there.
Those stories didn’t come from her family, however — at least, not at first.
“My parents never talked about [their experiences] at all,” she said.
She found out much of their story when President Ronald Reagan allotted reparation money to surviving internees through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
“When I brought paperwork home to sign, Mom [Mary] said, ‘You know you’re making me remember things I want to forget,’” Koda recalled.
Before President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, racial tensions had been heating up across the country.
“My mother said there was talk about Japan declaring war on the United States, and people were getting agitated. She came from the Gresham area near Portland and would go to town riding the bus. They would stop and ask about her ethnicity and said she couldn’t ride the bus,” Koda said.
Around the age of 19, her mother was told she could no longer attend the fashion university where she had been going to school. Many of Koda’s uncles, who went to Oregon State University, were asked to leave the college.
In the Yakima Valley, in Washington, Koda’s father’s family was in the middle of harvesting winter crops when the war broke out.
“When the order happened, they had to pack up and leave. Grandpa gave the family cow, car and horse to a German neighbor,” Koda said.
The neighbor had always been helpful to their family and had shown Koda’s grandmother how to use flour when she first arrived in America at the age of 16.
From there, they were taken to the Portland National Stockyard, Koda’s said. Eventually, her mother’s family ended up there, too.
“When the trucks with camo came in, people were told they could only take what they could carry. Mom said there were people lined up in the driveway honking their horns and saying, ‘Hurry up and get our of our house,’” Koda said.
“Their family of 10 was given a horse stall for a room. They didn’t even clean it out. They laid down cardboard and hung up sheets for privacy,” Koda said of her mother’s introduction to internment.
When 30 men were brought in from the assembly center in Portland to talk about working for Amalgamated Sugar, Koda’s father jumped at the opportunity to leave the stockyard behind.
Despite protests from his family, Takami left, saying it would be better than walking in circles in a horse stall all day long, she said. He ended up in a tent camp near Garrison Corner so he could help harvest sugar beets.
Koda’s mother eventually ended up at the Nyssa camp, too. That is where her parents met, Koda said.
In Nyssa, things were different than they had been in Portland. There were some improvements living there versus daily life in the city.
“Mom said in their Portland neighborhood they had to use a kerosene light. So the first time she had electricity was in the camp,” Koda said.
When German soldiers were removed from the old concentration camp, Japanese-American families were moved into barrack-like houses. American soldiers brought in pot-belly stoves, a piano for the mess hall and washing machines for the washhouse. They even had a theater trip once a week in Nyssa, a ladies club, and arts and crafts, which helped people occupy their free time, Koda said.
The camps were dissolved Dec. 18, 1944, after which time many interned families had nowhere else to go. Koda’s father would not leave the camp until he knew everyone finally had a place to go — a full 18 years later.
Takami was a crew boss and had no problem getting continued farm labor work. He eventually worked at the Onion and Potato Broker in Nyssa and the Muir-Robert Produce Co. in Vale.