When Dennis Kato was growing up in the 1960s in Cincinnati, Ohio, a momentous piece of his family’s history — America’s incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II — was wrapped in silence, even by his parents who had actually lived in the internment camps.
“Like many of the Japanese who came out of the camps, they really didn’t want to talk about it,” says Kato, 72, who managed restaurants all over the country and now lives in Lutz, Florida. “It wasn’t a taboo subject, but it certainly wasn’t brought up. If I were to ask a question, they might answer it — one short answer — but it really wasn’t discussed.”
For years, even Kato paid little mind to the history, although his wife, Janet, who is white and had never heard of the internment camps until they married, tried unsuccessfully to get his parents to discuss it. Now, partly at her urging, Kato has dedicated himself to researching and sharing his family’s history in hopes it will never be repeated.
He created and moderates a Facebook page, Beyond Barbed Wire, where people can share information about the camps and Japanese American history. He teaches classes about the internment and speaks to groups. His wife and their three daughters collaborated on a children’s book, Finding Moon Rabbit, about a young girl’s experience in one of the camps.
For Kato’s family, like many others, life changed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Two months later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing that “any or all persons” could be evacuated from areas deemed militarily significant. In March, Public Proclamation No. 4 authorized the forced evacuation and detention of Japanese American residents from the West Coast with only 48 hours’ notice, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Over the next six months, about 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry — including about 70,000 American citizens — had to quickly sell or abandon homes and businesses and go under penalty of law to “assembly centers” created at places like racetracks and fairgrounds. Eventually, evacuees were moved to 10 “relocation centers” in six Western states and Arkansas, managed by the newly created War Relocation Authority: Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Tule Lake and Manzanar in California, Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Amache (also called Granada) in Colorado, Minidoka in Idaho, and Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas, according to the archives. Americans of German and Italian descent were also interned, although in far fewer numbers.
Both sides of Kato’s family were caught in the sweep in California. His parents, both 20, met at the Merced Assembly Center, about 100 miles east of San Jose, California, where about 4,000 internees lived at a time in around 200 barracks built on the fairground’s racetrack. Eventually both families were moved to the Granada Relocation Center, also called Amache after its postal designation.
Evacuees were held under guard, and life in the camps, built in isolated and sometimes barren areas, was harsh — frigid in winter, muddy in spring and bug-ridden in summer. At its peak, over 7,000 people lived at Amache in tar-paper-roofed Army-style barracks that offered little privacy. As in all camps, families shared bathroom facilities and ate in mess halls. Detainees had schools, churches, sports teams, social activities and medical care. But it was far different from their previous lives. Kato’s uncle, for example, was 17 and spoke no Japanese.
“He told me once he was in the communal block shower and there were a number of older Japanese talking,” says Kato. “He didn’t understand what they were saying and just kept nodding his head and saying ‘hai,’ Japanese for ‘yes.’ But he shouldn’t have agreed so readily, as one of the guys decked him because he nodded his head in agreement to something he shouldn’t have.”
Kato’s family history reflects the complicated times, particularly the divide between some first-generation Japanese immigrants and their children who were American citizens. His mother’s family stayed in Amache for most of the war. His father’s family, however, was divided by the request of Kato’s grandfather to be expatriated to Japan. Everyone in the family, except Kato’s father — who had enlisted in the U.S. Army — was transferred to Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, where the government held people it considered troublemakers. That included those who sought expatriation, fought the draft or did not answer a 1943 loyalty questionnaire either because of resistance or confusion. Kato’s grandfather’s family, except for his father, were repatriated to Japan in 1946.
Meanwhile, Kato’s father, an American citizen, joined the 442nd U.S. Army Regimental Combat Team, formed of Japanese Americans, which became the most decorated unit of World War II, according to the archives. His father — Kato’s grandfather — disowned him when he found out.
“In the Japanese culture, that’s very serious when you disown somebody, because the family is so tight. That is a huge, huge step to take,” Kato says. “And my father, even in spite of that, he said, ‘No, I’m going to go in.’ He told me that my grandfather’s hair literally turned white overnight from rage.”
Importance of remembering history
The rift in the family wasn’t reconciled until the mid-1950s, when Kato’s grandfather returned to the States, Kato says.
Kato’s father was wounded in Italy but eventually married Kato’s mother in Cincinnati, where her family had moved to find jobs. Kato grew up there but heard little about the camps. In his high school Advanced Placement history class, for example, the internment was barely mentioned.
“I don’t remember [the teacher] ever talking about it more than two minutes,” he says.
Attitudes began to change in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when more camp survivors started going public with their stories, Kato says. “They started to come out of their shell and say, ‘Hey, wait, let’s talk about this issue ... We went to prison and our property was taken,’ ” he says. That led to what he calls a “renaissance” of memory and disclosure that resulted in reparations for Japanese Americans in 1988 and an apology from the U.S. government. Kato’s father received $20,000 because he was a citizen; his mother, who was born in Japan and therefore prevented by law from becoming a citizen until 1953, received nothing.
The history of the camps is now available through websites; social media sites like Kato’s Facebook page; books and graphic novels; films; and even a Broadway musical, Allegiance, based on the experiences of Star Trek actor George Takei, who was interned with his family at Rohwer and Tule Lake. Some former camps, now managed by the National Park Service or nonprofits, are not only open for tours but host organized “pilgrimages” featuring educational programs and meetups of evacuees and descendants. The Japanese American National Museum, in Los Angeles, which features a reconstructed barracks from Heart Mountain, welcomed up to 80,000 visitors in 2019, pre-pandemic.
Kato says he is always learning based on his own research and what people post on his Facebook page. He’s taught classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which is associated with college and universities, including UCLA. In May, he’ll speak at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati.
“I want to get the message out there so people understand that this happened and to prevent it from happening in the future,” Kato says. “Because the constitutionality and the legality of the incarceration of the Japanese is still viable today. And the U.S. government, if they so desire, can, for the sake of national security and military necessity, isolate and imprison any group that they want to.”
His family’s history offers context for current anti-Asian sentiment, he says. “Whatever the reason, being Asian never connects with people as being an American; it never connects.”
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Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.