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Mako Nakagawa Recalls the Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1981

Mako Nakagawa is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American born in 1937 in Seattle. With her mother and sisters, she was incarcerated at Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington, and Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho. Her father was arrested and interned separately from the family for several years. In 1944, the family was reunited at the Crystal City, Texas, internment camp for enemy aliens and their families. In postwar years, Nakagawa became a teacher, principal, and multicultural educator. In this interview excerpt, Nakagawa recounts how in 1981 she helped her father testify at the federal congressional hearings held by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The CWRIC heard from 750 witnesses in cities around the country and gathered documentary evidence proving that the mass removal and incarceration were not based on military necessity, but rather were motivated by race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.

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MN: My father lived with me that year and my husband, my then husband, was involved in JACL [Japanese American Citizens League]. I think that was the year before he was the president. And so then I knew that they wanted some more Issei speakers and so then I asked my father, “Would you like to contribute and be a speaker?” I was really kind of surprised that my father said yes, he would. For one, he was so deaf it was hard to get across to him, but he definitely wanted to contribute so I sat down there, and I tried to write his testimony for him and it was hard. I had no idea what the commissioners wanted. What kind of — do you want facts, figures? What do they want? I didn’t know what they wanted. My father was so deaf that it was hard to question him. Then he was so old that sometimes the stories would talk about when he was eight years old. I said, “No, no, dad. Not that story.” And it was a tough time in my father’s life so when you’re trying write testimony on something that was hurtful to my father, that was hard to write so...

LH: How old was he at the time?

MN: He was eighty-seven years old and that was really, really important because he knew next year he was going to have his eighty-eighth birthday, and he was much more interested, really, in who he’s going to invite to his birthday party. He says, “Is Mr. Yamamoto still alive?” And we say, “Yeah, Dad. He’s still alive.” And he says, “Oh, good. I invite him to a birthday party.” He was really, really interested in his birthday party, but he says no, he thinks it’s right that he make testimony. So I wrote his testimony for him and it was real hard. And then the night before we were supposed to go to Seattle Community College that he was supposed give his testimony, I thought, “Oh, my.” I’m reading in the newspapers that some of the people are just getting so choked up, they’re blubbering and I said, “Oh, no. Mako, you’re not going to blow it. You’re not going to blow it.” So I took his written testimony and I sat here and I tried to read it, and it was really hard for me to contain myself.

LH: And why is that?

MN: Oh, you’re talking about pain with my father, and I’m going to share this in the open public place? It’s hard especially when my father is talking about his kids calling him forty years ago. So it’s really hard and I says can I do it without blubbering tomorrow? So I tried reading it out loud by myself in this living room, and I think I may not be able to do it. It’s too tough. This is too close to home. I mean, I got to the point where I could talk in front of the groups, but this is too close. This is my father. So the next day I was wondering if I’m going to make it, and I drove him up there and helped him up — did I tell you this already? — I helped him up the stairs and we put all the microphones and the old folks sitting down and since my father was so deaf, I had this signal worked out, 1–2-3 on the shoulder like that, and that meant, “Go ahead, dad, say what you want to say, and then when you’re finished, I will translate what you said and I will read your testimony. You got that, dad?” He said, “I got that.” So he’ll sit down and I waited until all the people were settled down, and I put the microphone right here close to his mouth, and I gave him the signal. And he says, “Shall I start now?” real loud in Japanese and everybody starts to laugh. And I, oh dear. And then he says, “I’m going to be eighty-eight next year,” and I don’t think the commissioners understood the significance of that. And, “I got eight grandkids.” He said, “I came to America in 1913.” He says some of these things and so then I took over the mike, and I translated what he said, and I started reading his testimony. And I got to the point where it was very emotional for me and I thought can I make it? Can I make it? But I contained myself. I got tight. I could hear my voice getting real tight, but I made it. And I got all the way through the end of the testimony and when I finished I go, “Whew, I made it.” I was so happy.

And then this man next to my father was shaking up and down, and I looked at him, and I said there is somebody more nervous than me. And then he started giving his testimony and I wasn’t listening, but it was in Japanese so the commissioners couldn’t understand what he is saying. And he’s saying that his daughter got so ill that the camp infirmary could not deal with the severity of her illness, and she had to be put into a hospital outside of camp. And then the hospital sends word from somebody from the family should come to the hospital, and I’m thinking oh, no. He has to ask permission to the camp authority to go outside the camp, and I says he is going to be denied permission to go. And I said, “Oh, I don’t want to hear this. I’m going to just — I don’t want to hear this. I can’t deal with it. I’m emotionally tight right now, and I don’t want to hear this right now especially in front of the folks.” And then he said he was given permission to go, so I go, whoa. I’m really feeling relieved, yeah. And he said but because he was a prisoner, he had to be escorted by security guard, and he had to come up with a per diem cost of that security guard. And he very simply said, “I did not have the money. I did not go and my daughter died.” And I just couldn’t hold back the tears anymore so I just, I said, “Okay, go ahead and cry. Go ahead and cry. No one is looking at you, Mako, just kind of move a little toward the back of the stage like this.” And I started counting, “Mary had a little lamb.” I tried to say anything. I just wanted to get off that stage so badly. If I could have puff away smoke, I would have gone, and I said, “Just breathe in, breathe out.” And then the aide to the commissioner — I knew him a little bit 'cause I was helping out there — he stands up and he walks clean in back of the commissioner and he walks across the stage, and he hands me something underneath the podium. So I look and it’s a whole wad of Kleenex [Laughs] and I figure oh, gee. I guess I am not fooling anybody. I was so sad and I don’t know. I would presume at this day this man probably is dead, but to think that this old man has to go all the way to his grave knowing that nobody was there to hang onto his daughter’s hand, I guess that’s just, that’s just sits with me. It still sits with me. I want to give this man fifty bucks today and say go visit your daughter. Don’t let her die by herself. If you talk about injustice stories, that’s the one that gets to me. That one still gets to me. There’s lots and lots of stories like that. You pick one out that just gets to you, and I guess that one there because of the emotional times and knowing that the commissioners there don’t know what the guy is saying, and I’m sitting there crying and can’t hold it back. That was hard. That was real hard.

Source: Mako Nakagawa, interview, May 27, 1998, Seattle, Washington. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewer: Lori Hoshino, segment 28, denshovh-nmako-01 (accessed October 14, 2009).