A Family’s Story About Land Lost (But Saved) During Executive Order 9066
Kristen Nemoto Jay
On Feb. 19, 2022, Thomas Yoshioka will be 101 years young. There’s not much to his secret, he says. He simply states that his parents lived long — one of them into their mid 90s — and that he uses a pedal cycle almost every day to keep fit. Other than that, he shrugs at the initial look of surprise that most people give him and his son Jim Yoshioka — Thomas’s caretaker — who’s usually always by his side.
“We’re probably going to do a Zoom call with relatives and some cake to celebrate,” said Jim behind his face mask during the cover shoot for The Hawai‘i Herald. “Our family will be happy to see him.”
The pandemic and thousands of miles have separated Thomas from his roots back in San Jose, California, but he finds living on O‘ahu with his son, since July 2021, “very pleasant.”
“[My family and I] joke that Dad spent his first 100 years in California and his next 100 will be in Hawai‘i,” said Jim with a smile.
Though it’s apparent that Thomas has lived a long life, the experiences that he and his family have endured seem to belong to someone who has lived much longer. The Hawai‘i Herald learned of the Yoshioka family story while on assignment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s John Young Museum of Art. On display that fall 2021 were prints of Dorothea Lange’s War Relocation Authority assignment, which were raw stills that captured the life of Americans who were captives under government authority due to their Japanese ancestry. Jim — an event coordinator at UH Mānoa — had learned of the display through on-campus news and wanted to bring his father to the exhibit. When asked at that time if they had any connections to the pictures that they saw on display, Jim shared his family’s unique ties to the Japanese internment camps and how generous acts of kindness for both sides of his family at that time helped save them from losing everything.
Thomas’s memory of the time period may be slightly fogged but he’ll probably never forget that he shares his birthday with a poignant time in U.S. history. That Feb. 19 marks 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the removal of American residents of Japanese ancestry from their deeply rooted homes to dusty barracks behind barbed wire fences. Eighty years filled with stories of hardship and resiliency for so many Americans, which resulted in lives forever altered, some lost, and an apology and a miniscule amount of reparations that came 40 years too late. So much time has passed and yet 80 years later there is still work to be done. The coined term #StopAsianHate still had to be reminded and become viral in 2021 to increase awareness of the uptick in hate crimes against Asians Americans.
Though they were hesitant at first to be interviewed, mostly because Jim said his dad doesn’t like the “fuss,” the Yoshioka’s agreed to share their family’s story of a strong and supportive community that rallied behind them and many other Japanese American families in hopes to inspire others to work through their differences and “recognize our common humanity.”
This is their story.
The Escape and Internment
On Feb. 19, 1942, Thomas turned 21 years old. He was the son of Magoichi and Tsuru Yoshioka, who were ground crop farmers in San Jose, California. His parents came from Hiroshima, Japan, in hopes of pursuing a better life for themselves. A typical “American dream” story, familiar to many people and families at that time, where hard work is rewarded no matter who you were or where you were from. Those American ideals and values were crushed when the United States was bombed by Japan’s empire and thrust into the second World War. Anger and prejudices were taken out on Japanese Americans. The final affirmation that not everyone could call themselves an American at that time was on the same day as Thomas’s birthday, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all those of Japanese ancestry living within the western region of the United States be sent to an internment camp.
“We didn’t want our parents to have to go to the camps,” said Thomas during a Zoom call with The Hawai‘i Herald a few weeks prior to the photo shoot. His parents were of retirement age and the family feared that they wouldn’t do well there. Soon after Executive Order 9066 was issued, Harry Yoshioka, Thomas’s older brother and the second oldest sibling, took the family car and drove east to scout another place of residence where the family could live. Once they decided on land south of Murray, Utah, Harry drove back to help pack up his siblings and whatever belongings could fit in their car, before heading back. Jim said the family then had their parents take a train to where they were so that they could avoid the long car ride. After they lived in Utah for a bit, then Fort Collins, Colorado thereafter, they decided to move to a farming community north of Denver. Their new residence, 1,200 miles from home, is where they lived and worked, unsure of when they would or could return.
Jim’s mother, Kiyoko Asai, who was 13 at the time of the executive order announcement, had a different experience. She and her family — which included her father Seiichi, mother Shizuka, brothers Hideo, Yoshio, Hiroshi, Kiyoshi and his wife Shizuye (Susie) and their daughter Miye — were sent from their tight-knit farming community of Cortez, California to the Granada War Relocation Center, known to its survivors as “Camp Amache,” located in southeast Colorado. Kiyoshi, the eldest sibling, had his own space with his family, but Kiyoko, her parents and three other brothers lived in a cramped space no bigger than a living room. Although her father, and brother Kiyoshi, used scrap wood to turn some of the beds into bunk beds so that they could have more room to walk, it was still close quarters. Other than a pot bellied stove to provide warmth during the cold winters, not much else was given to their family and other families that lived within Camp Amache. Winters were bitter cold and there were dust storms everywhere. Privacy was nonexistent as everyone had to share a common bathroom space with no doors, and for Kiyoko, being a teenager at the time, her changing body and new living arrangements were hard adjustments to make.
“Being sent to camp made her feel small,” said Jim as he read through notes he wrote back in 2012 when he last asked his mother what life was like for her at Camp Amache. “She also said, since the walls within the barracks didn’t go all the way up, you could hear everyone so you really had to be quiet in order to not disturb others.”
Snippets of normalcy were found in Kiyoko’s friends that she had made prior and during her time in camp. Her father and brother continued to do carpentry and repair work and got paid $20 a month while Hideo found work in the camp hospital. They also grew watermelon and tomatoes in the back of the barracks during the summer season. And because their neighbors, friends and mostly the entire Cortez community were of Japanese ancestry — and also sent to Camp Amache — the Asai family felt, in a way, some comfort while far away from home.
However there was still barbed wire fences that kept them from leaving; a constant reminder that they were deemed un-American, despite the fact that people like her brother Hiroshi Asai volunteered and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They were still prisoners of war and, according to Jim’s notes — even though he emphasizes that his mother and the rest of the Asai family didn’t like to focus on the negative aspects of their time in camp — it was still “not a nice place to live.”
When the Yoshioka family left their farm in San Jose for Utah then Colorado, they could only take what they could carry.
“We didn’t have much,” said Thomas. The rest of their belongings, which included their expensive farm equipment, had to stay back at the farm. Thankfully, the Yoshioka’s had leased their land from a very generous owner named Frederick De Meza. “Mr. De Meza,” as he’s affectionately called by the Yoshioka’s, agreed to not only hold on to their farm equipment when they escaped California, but also held on to the land that was leased. So for three years of staying away, unsure of what the future would hold, De Meza held on to everything for them. When the Yoshioka family returned, De Meza leased the land back and returned their equipment.
“He was good,” said Thomas, nodding his head, recalling a memory he had as a boy when De Meza who, while milking a cow, once playfully held up one of the cow’s teats and proceeded to squirt him.
“At that time, most Japanese farmers were not able to own any land,” said Jim. “Luckily, because of the kindness of Mr. De Meza and his family, we could start over again.”
The Yoshioka’s then “paid it forward” by providing their farm as a stopping point for Japanese American families returning to San Jose who were recently released from internment camps and needed a temporary place to stay to plan their next move. The Yoshioka brothers were then able to save and borrow enough money to buy their own piece of land in west San Jose and later south San Jose, where Jim grew up and has memories of their family’s cherry orchards and chrysanthemum nursery.
“I remember you watering the chrysanthemums,” said Jim as he turned to smile at his dad. “I remember you putting up the black cloth, putting it up to shorten the growing time and then all my aunts would help with cutting and wrapping them up. I helped [sort] the cherries … Yeah, it was a whole family enterprise.”
Thanks to De Meza, the Yoshioka family was able to pick up where they left off unlike thousands of other Japanese American families who had to completely start over. Jim said he remembers De Meza as the “nice gentleman” who was at their table every New Year’s. He was the family’s honored guest up until he passed sometime in the 1970s.
The story behind Kiyoko’s family returning to their farmland in Cortez is just as fascinating. The Asai family actually owned their farmland, as did many other Japanese American families within Cortez, before they left to Camp Amache. The colony’s founder, Kyutaro Abiko, an “energetic idealist,” according to the book “Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California” by Dr. Valerie J. Matsumoto, was also a village peddler, banker, newspaper publisher, businessman and immigrant leader. Abiko created three farming communities — one of which was Cortez — where tract of land were sold to Japanese immigrants who moved to the San Joaquin Valley in California. Though the state law at that time barred Japanese immigrants from owning land, Abiko and his constituents found a loophole and put the pieces of the land in the name of the Issei’s children, the Nisei, who were born American citizens. The Issei then created a corporation under their Nisei minor, served as an officer of the corporation, then when the Nisei became of age to own the land, the corporation that was created under their name was dissolved.
“It’s quite incredible,” said Jim regarding his mother’s family’s history in Cortez. He then shares that while his mother and her family were interned, they, and the entire Cortez community, actually had tenants on their land, a board of trustees, an advisory board and an operations manager who helped manage the farm while they were gone. Jim was moved to learn that some of those who helped “look after” the Cortez farmlands were nearby neighbors and friends who were “sympathetic” to what was happening to the Japanese American community. A reminder that not all citizens agreed with the internment of Japanese Americans.
“So many from that community survived and were able to prosper because they had that community support to come back to,” said Jim, as he holds up the book by Dr. Matsumoto, who interviewed and referenced the Asai family, among many, in her research. “It was still hard and still tough but because they had that kind of support from the community, it was easier to transition … And since people were all in this collective, they were all working together. It was in numbers and their organization and the community’s cultural strength that got them through the horrible times.”
Jim says his and his family’s life after the war was “very fortunate” compared to many others. Thomas obtained his bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Denver, which, if he were interned, would not have been possible. He met Kiyoko in the late 1950s while on a blind date in San Francisco. Thomas’s friend, who was dating Kiyoko’s friend at the time, set them up on a double date. “And that is all it took,” said Jim. They were married in 1957 and had their two sons, Glenn then Jim. When Thomas wasn’t working as an accountant, he was in agriculture. His last job was as an accountant for the Evergreen School District until he retired. Kiyoko was a typist clerk, housewife and then an office aide at two local elementary schools. She passed away in 2014.
Jim was in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme from 1990 to 1993 and then came to O‘ahu in 1994 for graduate school in, what is now, the Second Language Studies program at UH Mānoa. He’s been here ever since and after discussions with his father and brother, they decided it was best for Thomas to live with him due to the pandemic and his increasing age.
Their family’s story, though very fortunate compared to thousands of other families who were forced to start over after the internment camps, was not without tragedy.
Thomas’s brother George, the eldest in the family who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was robbed, kidnapped then murdered soon after he returned home from the war. Three criminals saw the amount of cash he had on hand one day when he went to deliver the family’s produce to the market and kidnapped him. He was missing for a week until he was found bludgeoned to death in Stockton, California. The Pacific Citizen, a Los Angeles based newspaper dedicated to sharing Asian Pacific American news, reported that one of them was sent to the gas chamber while the other went to prison for life. George Yoshioka was 33 years old.
When the United States countered Japan with the bombing of Hiroshima, Jim said his mother’s favorite aunt in Japan, Auntie Kiyomi, died in her husband’s arms after the atomic bomb’s blast caused shards of glass to pierce her body.
“It was war,” said Jim as he shakes his head. “It was a horrible time for everyone.”
He hopes his family’s story about good people and communities rallying together for the sake of the greater good will be one that will be remembered and used as an example of persevering for and aiding one’s neighbor during times of great need.
In commemoration of this year’s 80th anniversary since Executive Order 9066 was enacted, the Yoshioka family would like us to remember that we all have stories to tell and learn from. It’s from those stories we grow, learn how to better understand each other and see our common humanity.
“Maybe our experience will get people to consider the consequences,” said Thomas at the end of the interview.
“Yes,” said Jim as he looks at his father and nods his head. “We have so many riffs right now in this world and it didn’t used to be that way. I hope that by hearing people’s stories and learning about their experiences, and just trying to be good people … Hopefully that will make a difference to make things better.”