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Historical Events

Captive on the U.S. Mainland: Oral Histories of Hawai‘i-born Nisei

Four men stand outside the door to their incarceration camp room.

Mr. Tanaka, Interviewee Mr. Nakamura (front); Mr. Uyeda and Mr. Ono (back), Poston Relocation Camp, Block 14, 1942. (Photo courtesy Charles Nakamura.)

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, there were over 3,000 Japanese American students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in California, Washington, and Oregon. Among these students were some from Hawai‘i, including men and women seeking not only bachelor’s degrees but advanced degrees for which training was not available in the islands.

“Medicine is an applied art. The Pre-med program at PUC [Pacific Union College], I felt, was well designed to acquire basic knowledge and skill in languages, mathematics, the different sciences—such as biology, chemistry, et cetera—history, social studies, and so forth. Emphasis was not just in acquiring knowledge, but wisdom to use them. Also, principles of morality, the transcendent purpose of serving God and humanity. ” —Charles Yamashiro

In addition to college students, there were some Hawai‘i-born Japanese Americans who were living with relatives, completing their high school education, studying at vocational schools, or working on the West Coast. In 1942, these Hawai‘i-born young adults, along with other persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, were incarcerated in various camps by Executive Order 9066.

“That was the order, so we had to comply. We couldn’t do anything else. You can go with only what you could carry, and you couldn’t carry very much. So people were trying to get rid of all their furniture, or big household things. People came around, trying to bargain with them. For instance, [they] could get a refrigerator for probably a dollar. Of course, there were friends or family that said, ‘We’ll take care of your things, and we’ll store it for you.’ ” —Tetsui Watanabe

“We [Alice and her friends, the Dahl family] were kissing each other [good-bye] on the cheek [through] the [barbed]-wire fence, and [Grandmother Dahl] wanted to come see me, too. So the obaachan [grandmother] was putting her face on the barbed-wire fence and she was trying to give me a kiss. I saw the [Walerga Assembly Center] guard just shaking his head, “Chee, this is not right,” you know, kind of look he gave us. So he turned away most of the time.” —Alice Watanabe

COH’s recently completed project, Captive on the U.S. Mainland: Oral Histories of Hawai‘i-born Nisei, focuses on ten of these individuals. The interviewees shared their observations and reflections about prewar life in Hawai‘i and on the West Coast, incarceration in assembly and war relocation centers, release from confinement, and postwar lives.

“They said all the niseis and others [leaving the camps] who wanted to find jobs, if they went to Chicago, they’ll find jobs. . . . So there was a Danish guy—he was a driver for this rich man—and he said, ‘Well, they’re citizens just like us.’ So he kind of backed us up, and we were able to stay at this apartment for a while. This guy liked to keep his apartment warm, so he always stoked the furnace and had a lot of heat over there. So we stayed there about two years, I think, until the war ended. You know, that was the best part: coming home [to Hawai‘i].” —Masayoshi Wakai

The project was funded by a Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior.

Link to audioLily Hatanaka talks about the difference between her incarceration experience and that of other incarcerees. (.wav sound file, 864K).



The following is a list of individuals interviewed for this oral history project and their assembly centers/incarceration camps.



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