Enemy Alien: Uncovering Family History

Sherise Kimura reflects on an artifact as part of 10 x 10: Ten Objects, Ten Stories presented in conjunction with the Thacher Gallery exhibition Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps, August 21 – November 15, 2017.

Artist unknown. Cane. Circa 1942-1943Artist unknown. Cane. Circa 1942-1943, National Japanese American Historical Society, San Francisco, California.

On this beautiful wooden cane, the inscription reads in English, “In enemy alien camp, North America, New Mexico, Lordsburg.” The cane is a work of art, but it also served a useful purpose. I heard that many canes were made by older Issei, first generation Japanese immigrant men, to help with walking on the uneven terrain in the camps.

The “enemy alien” camp at Lordsburg has a special meaning to my family and me because my paternal grandfather, whom I never met, was among the Issei held at Lordsburg. Lordsburg was the U.S. Army camp that held the largest number of Issei, who at the time were not allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Later my grandfather was transferred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Santa Fe Camp and finally returned home to Hawai‘i in November 1945 after nearly three and a half years.

I only learned about this story of my grandfather about two years ago from a book my cousin, Colleen Kimura, wrote about her father. Because my father could offer very little information, I started doing my own research. I was surprised to find records for my grandfather in the National Archives WWII Alien Enemy Detention and Internment case files, which document the detainment and internment of suspected alien enemies under the Enemy Alien Control Program. In his files were his Alien Registration Form, a warrant for his arrest, camp behavior reports, and various administrative and procedural documents including correspondence about his possible parole to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp in Jerome, Arkansas, given that his two sons were U.S. soldiers in combat. Most revealing was the transcript of his hearing shortly after his arrest. I learned that his home had been searched as part of the raids after the attack on Pearl Harbor when martial law was imposed in Hawai‘i. Based on some spurious charges, he was declared an alien enemy and recommended for internment for the duration of the war. His family was not told when or where he was being sent.

My grandfather was 54 at the time and had lived in Hawai‘i for 35 years. He was a blacksmith for a living, worked on a pineapple plantation camp with his family, and was active in the local community.

Growing up in Hawai‘i, I heard few personal stories of internment or incarceration, most likely because Hawai‘i did not experience the same mass incarceration of Japanese Americans that had transpired on the mainland. Fewer than 2,000 people, or 1% of the Japanese population in Hawai‘i at that time, were incarcerated. This was largely due to the fact that the Japanese comprised over one third of the population of the Territory of Hawai‘i and their labor was essential to the economy. Interestingly, the memory of internment in Hawai‘i is finding greater public awareness in recent years, with the uncovering of the Hono‘uli‘uli internment camp, the largest of 17 camps in Hawai‘i.

Late in his life, my uncle reflected on his father’s internment and acknowledged the sorrow my grandfather must have felt when he returned to Hawai‘i at the end of the war while the nation celebrated. In 1956 my grandfather eventually left Hawai‘i and his family and returned to Japan, where he passed away two years later. According to my uncle, although he never spoke it, my grandfather felt he had no place in this country anymore–where he had lived most of life, where he had raised his family, where all five of his sons had served in the military⎯but where he had been treated like a criminal.

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