Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

When Americans were treated as traitors

by Don Kazak

While World War II affected the Palo Alto area in many ways, no group of people were as affected or hurt by the war as local nisei, or Japanese-Americans. They were American-born and American-educated, whose citizenship supposedly gave them the same rights as all other Americans. But they were taken from their homes and placed in internment camps under military guard for the duration of the war.

By the time the war was over and they returned to Palo Alto, many families had lost everything--homes, wealth, possessions. Banks wouldn't give them credit, some stores wouldn't sell to them, some restaurants wouldn't serve them, many employers wouldn't hire them.

Kiyo Doi of Palo Alto was a young woman studying in Japan just before the war broke out. Becoming educated in Japan was a common practice in those days to retain what is a rich cultural heritage, Doi said in an interview in 1989.

A graduate of Palo Alto High School, Doi said the American consulate warned her and others that war might break out and she was lucky enough to take "the last boat back" to America. Many other nisei were trapped in Japan for the duration of the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, signed an executive order for the internment of all persons of Japanese lineage, aliens and citizens alike. Doi's family, like the others, had only a week or two to prepare for their departure. They were allowed to take only two suitcases, leaving everything else behind at the farm they lived on in south Palo Alto.

Like many other local families, her family first went to Tanforan race track (now Tanforan Park Shopping Center), where they were housed in the stables, before they were shipped to Topaz, Utah, one of 10 relocation camps.

The camps were all in desolate, inhospitable locations. Topaz was called the Valley of Salt because of alkali soil that frustrated the efforts of Mormons to settle the area, according to one historian.

For Doi, like many other young nisei, camp life was not so bad, going to Japanese school and American school every day and learning crafts. "We made little flowers and ornaments and my father made carvings out of rocks," she said.

Doi said her family was happy that they were together and not separated. But "we never thought of the hardship our parents went through, working on a farm to raise all those vegetables that were ready to harvest" and leaving it behind.

After the war, Doi and her family returned to Palo Alto and to a post-war atmosphere of anti-Japanese sentiment. "We did run across not being waited on in restaurants," she said. "I had expected things like that to happen, and I didn't take it personally. After all, you have to carry on, you can't hold a grudge."

Doi and her husband, Ralph, fit a classic nisei pattern. Farmers before the war, many couldn't lease land to farm anymore and couldn't find other jobs, so many of the women, like Kiyo Doi, became domestics, and many of the men, like her husband, became gardeners.

Floyd Kumagai was 10 years old when the war broke out and his family was interned at Tule Lake. His family owned land in Palo Alto but was sharecropping land in East Palo Alto at the time. His father resisted pressures to sell his land before internment.

Kumagai, a Palo Alto resident, said camp life wasn't bad for a boy who had a lot of other children to play with. But Tule Lake was also one of the most notorious of the camps, under heavy military guard, where many of the more outspoken nisei were placed. Kumagai said he remembered tanks coming into the barracks area and tear gas being used to break up gatherings of camp members.

Kumagai, a graduate of Palo Alto High School and San Jose State University, said his family was luckier than others because they still owned land in Palo Alto. But they had nothing else when they returned in 1946. "It was rough," he said. "We had no house to live in. Three families lived in a garage of a friend," the man who took care of his father's land during the war.

The Kumagai family also underwent something else that was common in the post-war days. Nisei were not very welcome in the United States, and they were even less welcome in Japan. Kumagai's uncle went to Japan after the war, he said, splitting the family. "Half went back and half remained," he said, but they eventually came back.