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‘The war was an excuse to get rid of us’: Internment camp survivor speaks at Malibu United Methodist Church
June Aochi Yamashiro Berk was 12 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the deportation and incarceration of Japanese Americans with Executive Order 9066, issued Feb. 19, 1942.
Signs went up in her quiet Los Angeles neighborhood ordering all residents with more than one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry to report to the government. Berk and her family and all of their Japanese American neighbors were given two weeks to dispose of everything they owned, and were taken to detention centers, where they were held for months before being sent to internment camps.
Berk’s family was sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack, the largest detainment center in the U.S., where they were held for six months. Most families were housed in temporary barracks, but some had to make do with smelly, drafty horse stables. There were few comforts — mattresses were made of straw-filled sacks, families were crowded into single rooms — and there was no privacy. It’s still difficult for Berk to talk about her family’s internment, but she says she feels compelled to share her story because she is concerned it could happen again, this time to Muslim Americans.
“It’s the same rhetoric I am hearing today,” Berk told an audience at Malibu United Methodist Church on Jan. 29. “Until now, I used to say it wasn’t so bad, we lived through it.
“Now I’m shocked with what is going on today. We can’t let this happen again. I want to tell this story today because it is inhuman to separate families.”
Berk’s son, Ron Yamashiro, a member of the MUMC congregation, has encouraged his mother to speak out. He arranged the event at the church and turned it into a celebration of Japanese American culture, with a performance by the San Fernando Valley Taiko Drummers, and the guest presence of Phil Shigekuni and Mae Kakehashi, who also survived internment, but the tone of the event was somber.
Berk’s parents immigrated to Northern California from Japan in 1898. Her father worked on the railroad, then moved south to become a gardener.
“He walked up and down Sunset and Hollywood boulevards knocking on the doors of the houses that lined the streets, saying ‘cut your lawn for 50 cents,’” Berk recalled. She remembered him as a proud man who lost everything in the Depression and was just becoming successful again when the war started.
“There was tremendous hatred growing,” Berk said. “The war was an excuse to get rid of us.”
Japanese American families, stunned by the news, had impossible choices to make. Berk explained that businesses had to be liquidated, non Japanese family members, friends, property, even pets, were left behind.
“We had two weeks to get rid of everything,” Berk said. “We were allowed to take only two suitcases. Everything left behind was destroyed.
“What if the sign went up on Pacific Coast Highway today?” she asked. “All my children and grandchildren would have to go. What if they did this to people of Irish descent, French descent? The executive order is still on the books.”
Berk said that, no matter how bad the conditions were, her parents never complained.
“My mother never cried,” she said. “Not even when my brother enlisted to fight in the war. She tried to make our lives as normal as possible so we wouldn’t be afraid, but we were shown every day what can happen to people who don’t have a voice. I may look like the enemy but I am not the enemy.”
“Roosevelt called them concentration camps,” Berk said, adding that the use of the term in the Japanese American community has led to dialogue with the Anti-Defamation League. “It was determined that the Nazis had death camps because they tortured, starved, killed. We had prisons — curfew was at 10 p.m., search lights followed you so you couldn’t even go to the bathroom at night, but at least we were with our parents.”
Berk’s family was eventually sent to an internment camp in rural Arkansas.
“After three-and-a-half years, we were released and given $25 and a train ticket,” Berk said.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during World War II. The legislation included a formal apology.
“When President Reagan issued the apology, I was driving on the 405 freeway going home from work and I burst into tears because my mother and father weren’t alive to hear the apology,” Berk said. “If one person’s rights are trampled, all are diminished.”
Sharing a snapshot in local history
Malibu’s Takahashi family among those who were sent to Manzanar
Signs stating that all Japanese Americans must report to the government for internment really were posted on Pacific Coast Highway, and one Malibu family had their lives uprooted because of the executive order issued by Roosevelt.
The Takahashi family, who farmed flowers in what is now Malibu’s Civic Center area, were sent to Manzanar.
A photo shot by Francis Stewart, a government War Relocation Authority photographer, and now in the collection of the National Archives shows Masaro Takahashi, 19, one of the Takahashi’s six children, at the relocation center. The family spent three years at Manzanar.
In a quote that appears on the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument website, Masaro’s sister, former Malibu resident Amy Takahashi Ioki, wrote: “As a -year-old I didn’t realize the injustice fully, but in time we learned how our rights as citizens were ignored. Thanks to the strength and resilience of our Issei [Japanese immigrant] parents, we were able to survive.”