MARCH 2006: Home
The Stolen Years: Part Two Print
Written by Tom Griffin   
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The Stolen Years: Part Two
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Aware that the defendant had already spent five months in jail, the judge handed down a sentence of 30 days for the curfew violation and 30 days for the exclusion order violation, to be served consecutively. But Gordon asked for more time. He heard from his jail buddies that if he wanted to be assigned to a road gang, he would need at least 90 days. And by this point, confined to a jail with no fresh air or exercise for five months, he was going a little stir crazy. The judge laughed but agreed to the request. Both sentences were expanded to 90 days, to be served concurrently (at the same time).

That day, everyone seemed pleased with the sentencing, but the switch from consecutive to concurrent sentences would backfire when Hirabayashi’s case reached the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Hirabayashi returned to the King County Jail while his case was on appeal. By February 1943, the judge decided enough was enough. He called Walters into his chambers and said, “We ought to get your boy out. He’s been in there too long,” Walters later told Hirabayashi.

By that time, the civilian War Relocation Authority had taken over the camps from the military. Its policy was to allow “loyal” Japanese American families to leave the camps under certain circumstances, such as having a job and a sponsor outside the exclusion zone. The Friends Service Committee offered Hirabayashi a job in Spokane to help resettle families coming out of the camps. He could be free, pending his appeal, as long as he didn’t enter the restricted zone. He agreed, setting off for a new life east of the mountains.

Shortly after arriving in Spokane, Hirabayashi heard some remarkable news about a fellow UW student. “From Oberlin comes the news that Kenji Okuda is the new student body prexy,” he wrote to a friend. “Things have a way of happening in a hurry. … Ken went through a lot of hell, but he stayed on the beam and I guess that is noticeable to others. That was truly good news to have.”

That a Japanese American male recently released from the internment camps would be elected student president was national news. Time magazine wrote, “A typical evacuated Nisei student is Oberlin College’s lanky, 20-year-old, bespectacled Kenji Okuda. … Hustled into a Colorado relocation project (his parents are still there) after Pearl Harbor, he was released early this year. At Oberlin, Kenji heeled the college paper, made a hit, became student-council president.”

It sounded like a remarkable American success story. But Okuda’s arrival at Oberlin took nine months, during which he was scrutinized for anti-American attitudes.

UW Assistant Dean O’Brien, a graduate of Oberlin, kept track of Okuda. As an unpaid member of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, O’Brien pushed through some of the paperwork necessary to get a transfer. So did the YWCA’s Ruth Haines. The council later estimated that it took 25 letters to various government authorities and universities to process one Nisei student transfer.

At last, in January 1943, Okuda arrived at Oberlin. The contrasts were almost overwhelming. College life was “so damn unreal” compared to the “starkness of camp life,” he wrote to his friend Higano. He didn’t expect that a few months later, he would become student president, but as soon as he arrived, he became active in the student government and things quickly fell into place. Looking back, he now says the main reason for his victory was that he “was the only male running for office, and military men [stationed] on campus were not allowed to vote.” But others felt that, at least in part, the Oberlin students cast their ballots as a sympathy vote.

Okuda was one of many former UW students now leaving the camps for other universities. Sueko Sumioka, housed in the Minidoka camp, had help from Schmoe to get into the University of Cincinnati. “When they found out I was Japanese, I was quite a novelty,” she recalls. No one knew anything about the West Coast internment camps. Her new friends had a quick rationalization for the uprooting. “They did that to protect you. White people might come and lynch you,” they told her.

Cincinnati was just a way station. Her goal was to resettle in Chicago, where an in-law had a café on the south side near the University of Chicago. By 1944 she had transferred there. Although the café served American food, it always had rice as a side dish. “A lot of Japanese would come to eat there. If they couldn’t afford it, my in-law would often give them a free meal.”

At the café, she met a wounded war veteran—Shiego Sumioka—who was from Seattle’s Japanese American community. “We got married in Chicago in 1944,” she recalls. “I had to go back to the camps and get my mother and father out for the ceremony.”

Back on the West Coast, O’Brien was keeping tabs on Toru Sakahara, who had to drop out of the UW law school right after Pearl Harbor. With O’Brien’s help, Sakahara got accepted to law schools at Columbia and the University of Utah. Newly married, he didn’t have much money. So after about two months inside the Minidoka camp, he and his wife set off for Salt Lake City.

Ruby Inouye Shu, another former UW student at Minidoka, was also ready to leave. At the UW she was a pre-med student, despite the barriers against both women and Asians in the profession. The student relocation council looked for any openings for her to continue her studies. They found a spot for her at the University of Texas.

Before she left Minidoka, her father had a long talk with her. She was one of six children, but now he was giving her his bank book. “I was in shock,” she later recalls. “I thought this was all the money he had. I have to say that it made me want to follow through on my goals. I had to keep going.”

George Mukasa also left Minidoka, but not for a university. Like thousands of other Nisei men, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army while held in an internment camp. “Many of my classmates were drafted, but I volunteered.” At first he thought he would be assigned to the famous 442nd battalion—the most decorated unit in World War II. But after Japanese language training, he was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters, following the general as he made his way from Australia to Japan. While Mukasa survived the war, 13 Japanese American students from the UW gave their lives in defense of their country.

Hirabayashi’s case was moving through the courts quickly—too quickly, he felt. “Our team was feeling that in a couple of years, some of the hysteria may be reduced so that there’s a better chance for an objective review of the constitutional issues,” he said.

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