Topaz Museum board member’s lecture looks at Japanese American lives behind barbed wire
More than 11,000 Japanese Americans from the San Francisco Bay area were processed in the Topaz internment camp just outside of Delta between Sept. 11, 1942, and Oct. 31, 1945, during World War II, and Rick Okabe wants to tell their stories.
“These are stories about first- and second-generation immigrants from Japan who came to this country like every first-generation immigrant from other countries to find better lives for their families,” he said.
Okabe, a board member of the Topaz Museum in Delta, will talk about the daily life in the camp, which was located 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, in an Aug. 13 Zoom lecture facilitated by the Park City Museum. The public can make a reservation to join the lecture by emailing email@example.com.
“I will talk about the reasons why Japanese Americans were put in these camps, and I feel those stories are relevant today,” Okabe said.
The lecture, which will also be a general presentation about the 10 internment camps that were spread out across the United States, is highlighted by the exhibit “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” that is on display at the Park City Museum until Oct. 4
Okabe will discuss the effect of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to live in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, had on individuals and families.
“The internees were only allowed two suitcases and some bedding, just what they could carry,” he said. “If they owned houses, businesses, cars or pets, they had to get rid of them, and because the general populations knew the Japanese Americans had to relocate quickly, they were offered an average of 10 cents on the dollar for their possessions. Millions of dollars of property were lost in a matter of a month or two.”
All of the camps were located in deserts and other remote places, and some hadn’t been constructed at the time Roosevelt signed the order, according to Okabe.
“It took about six or eight months to build them, so the internees were held in assembly centers, which were usually horse racing tracks and local fairgrounds where the horse stalls were converted into housing,” he said.
The conditions of the finished camps were marginally better than the horse stalls, Okabe said.
All of the camps, particularly Topaz, got extremely dusty and hot during the summer, and cold wind would cut through the gaps in the walls of these hastily built barracks during the winter, he said.
“There was no privacy, and even the latrines had no toilet stalls,” Okabe said. “So internees, who came from the San Francisco Bay area, had some adjusting to do in terms of living conditions both weather wise and physically.”
Internees found employment as farmers, teachers, cooks and clerks in the camps, and were paid minimal wages, according to Okabe.
While secretaries pulled in $14 a month, other more specialized professionals such as teachers and doctors brought in between $16 and $20, he said.
“There was also a need for harvesting the crops in the fields outside of the camps, so some internees were let out on a temporary basis to do that,” he said. “Some even found jobs in Delta.”
Those who made more than $21 a month were often charged rent for their beds and barracks in Topaz, according to the Topaz Museum.
“There is a story about a young man who worked at the local newspaper office, and I don’t know how much he was paid, but apparently he was paid more than what the camp paid, so he was charged rent,” Okabe said.
In a move that added insult to injury, the U.S. government also required interned Japanese American males to register for the draft on their 17th birthdays.
“The war is going on and there was a shortage of young men who had volunteered for the military, so the government looked to the camps,” Okabe said.
The requirement created conflicts.
“Some men wanted to fight to show how loyal they were, and others asked why they should serve a country that had stripped away their constitutional rights and detained them and their families behind barbed wire,” Okabe said. “For years, even after the war, that rift existed in various Japanese American communities. And it took nearly a generation to heal that wound.”
Okabe said his lecture also addresses the echoes of the Japanese American internment camps in the United States today.
“The reason the 120,000 people were stripped of their constitutional rights, placed behind barbed wire, and guarded by soldiers with rifles was because they looked different,” he said. “There are immigrants who are coming to this country today to make a better life just like my parents and grandparents, and they are also being detained in camps. In fact, one in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where migrants are currently being held, was the site of one of the Japanese internment camps. And there have been former Japanese American internees who have traveled to Fort Sill to protest the fact that it is happening again.”
Okabe, who wasn’t born during the time his parents and grandparents were interred, first heard about the camps while he was growing up in Chicago.
“I never heard my parents express any anger or ill-will against the government for what it had been done to them, although I’m sure it affected them in many ways we don’t realize,” he said. “Instead, when they would have friends over for dinner or to play bridge, I would hear them talk about people who were in camp barrack 25 and other old friendships.”
Okabe first thought the camps were like summer camps, but that perception changed as he did his own research while growing up.
“I did get upset on behalf of my family,” he said. “I’m a product of the 1960s when all the civil rights protests were going on, and while I can’t say that I was out marching for my parents in any way, the way I try to protest is by doing these talks for as many people who want to listen.”
The goal for Okabe is to tell his family’s story.
“My parents, who were from Seattle, were relocated to Tule Lake camp in California, but were able to get out early because my father got a job offer in Chicago,” he said. “They were in their mid-20s and had to start their lives over with nothing to their name to become an all-American family. I feel I owe it to them.”
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