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Tosh Yasutake and Mitsuye May Yamada Discuss Tosh’s Decision to Join U.S. Army and Visiting Their Father at a U.S. Department of Justice Incarceration Camp

Tosh Yasutake is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American born in 1922 in Seattle. His sister Mitsuye May (Yasutake) Yamada is a Nisei born in Japan in 1923. Their father, Jack Kaichiro Yasutake, was employed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as an interpreter for twenty years. On December 7, 1941, the father was arrested and interned as an enemy alien at a Department of Justice camp, along with other Issei (first generation) community leaders. Tosh attended the University of Washington before being removed from Seattle with his mother, May, and two brothers in spring 1942. The family was held at Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington, and then the Minidoka, Idaho, incarceration camp. Tosh worked as a hospital attendant and laboratory technician in Minidoka. In the first interview excerpt with Tosh, he explains his decision to volunteer for the U.S. Army in March 1943. In the second excerpt, Tosh and May recount how they received permission to travel from Minidoka to visit their father at U.S. Department of Justice internment camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico, before Tosh reports for duty. While serving as a medic with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Tosh was wounded during combat in southern France in 1944. May left Minidoka to attend college in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1944, their mother and younger brother joined their father at the Crystal City, Texas, internment camp.

Listen to Audio:

[Excerpt 1]

TI: Well, eventually the government decided to form a segregated army unit, the 442. And they went to the camps and they asked for volunteers from the camps. What was your reaction when that happened?

TY: Well, I thought, that’s really great. But then at the time it happened I thought it was — I was very happy to hear that.

TI: Why were you happy to hear that?

TY: Well, because we were given — if you wanted to go in the army volunteer another — before, we were not, even if you wanted to go we couldn’t go. So now, at least we were given a chance to go into the army. But then later, the more I thought of it, the more uncertain I was because, because of the fact that actually they were asking volunteers for, to form a segregated Japanese American unit and the more I thought of it the more upset I got. And I thought that if they were going to volunteer or even be drafted in the army, they ought to just assimilate us among the hakujin [Caucasian] troops and not have a segregated unit. And so many of the friends and working in the hospital had already volunteered, but I didn’t until the very last day because of that. I was holding out, hoping that they’d say that they would assimilate us to, if we wanted to we could go to some other units. But they didn’t say that. And finally in desperation, the last day I decided that maybe if I did volunteer that it might help my dad get released a little earlier. So I did volunteer. And I volunteered and then I didn’t have nerve enough to tell my mother so I asked a good friend of ours who was the Episcopal minister in the camp, Dr. Joe (Katagawa), if he would go and tell my mother for me. [Laughs] I didn’t have the guts to tell her myself. So we went over there and told her and understandably, she was sort of shocked and upset and then it didn’t take her long to just accept the fact that I was going.

TI: Now, why would your mother be upset?

TY: Well, going in the army, the first thing you thought, well, you probably — well, usual thing about how mother will get upset when somebody go into the army. I think that having to lose their son in the war was a very upsetting thought but when I explained to her that one of the main reasons that I did this was because I thought it would help Dad, and I think that kind of calmed her a little bit, after she thought about that.

[Excerpt 2]

AI: So when you got to Lordsburg itself, to where the camp was, what happened there?

MY: Well, we got to the gate and we told them who we were — I think we must have had permission to visit Dad. 'Cause they had already — we must have written.

TY: Yeah, I think we did.

MY: Yeah, that we were coming. And —

TY: They had, they had a visitors —

MY: Compound, yeah.

TY: — room.

MY: Yeah. And the lieutenant or somebody who was there was very, they were very familiar with my father because he apparently was in very friendly terms with them. And so they said, “Oh, Jack will come in a minute.” So we sat there and waited. And we were talking about that, my dad was always, he was short, but he was very round. He was always quite — well, he wasn’t really heavy, but he had a big stomach, and very light skin. He had a very — 'cause he was a office worker — he had very, very pretty hands, I remember. And that somebody said, “Oh, here comes Jack.” And I looked out, and I just saw this old, wizened man who was, very ruddy complexion, very skinny old man walking towards us. And I, I kept looking behind him, because he just, it didn’t look like my dad at all. Through those months he had aged quite a bit. And then we sat down and talked. I don’t remember how long it was that we visited.

TY: I don’t, I don’t remember how long it was, but it must have been an hour or two.

MY: Uh-huh.

TY: At the beginning, he was just talking about superficial things.

MY: Well, he asked how Mom was doing, and we told him of the family and so forth.

TY: And then you told him you’re gonna major in English.

MY: We never talked about your going to the army.

TY: No. Not a word was mentioned of that.

MY: That was one thing that I remember, was we went there because Tosh was going overseas, right? Or going into the army. And I kind of remember that we just simply —

TY: We sort of...

MY: — avoided the topic. And then he asked us, asked me what I was going to — and I said, “We’ll I’m planning to, I’ve been writing letters to, planning to go to college.” And he said, “What are you going to major in?” I said, “I’m going to major in English.” And he said, “Oh, well that was just fine in high school, but in college you have to prepare for something. You have to have a career.” And I remember at that point, we kind of looked at each other, and I thought, is he, what’s the matter with him? Who worries about careers at this point? [Laughs] I mean, you know, or even about — he was seeing, thinking about the future, right? And we were thinking, “What future?”

TY: Right now, yeah.

MY: Yeah. I mean, there is no fut—, we just really didn’t think that there was a future for us at all. But, and, “Beyond getting, going to college, what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with your education? So you can’t major in English because that’s just, that’s a nothing job.” And Mike was going to, and then I said, “Well, Mike is planning to major in philosophy.” [Laughs]

TY: Philosophy. [Laughs]

MY: And then he said, “Well in my college days, we called philosophy ‘foolosophy.’” [Laughs] Doesn’t that sound like Dad? And so we were, he was kind of bantering in this manner, and we’re going, “Gosh, he’s, he doesn’t seem to be in touch with reality in any way.” It was very, kind of unreal, the whole conversation was very odd — to me, I just felt like, gosh. He was just exactly the same way that he was before.

TY: Yeah, yeah.

MY: As if he hadn’t thought about anything except just continue, life continuing all as it was when we were in Seattle.

AI: Whereas in reality, here he was incarcerated, in this Department of Justice camp, with prisoners of war. And here you were, you had, were also in camp.

MY: And he was always quite a storyteller. So he was, if it was a story, “Oh yeah, I wrote letters with, there was a lot of Southern soldiers here, and they were illiterate, they can’t even read or write English. And so they would come to me and I’d write, they’d want to write to their mother, and so I’d write letters in English for their mothers.” And we kind of thought that, kind of the irony of this prisoner of war writing letters for a soldier, for his guard, or something. And then he was talking about how — he hadn’t been elected to —

TY: I don’t think he had, yeah.

MY: Well, I think that when we were in — we heard in camp that my dad, our dad had been elected to be governor of Lordsburg, or something. It was not mayor, it was governor of Lordsburg. And when my mother heard that, she was furious. [Laughs] I remember she was saying, “What’s the matter with him? How stupid of him, baka, baka. The reason why he’s there is because he was — ” and she had this expression, a “busybody,” deshabate, bakari iru ga. “He’s always minding everybody else’s business.” And so, and she was just ranting and raving about how Dad should just have kept to himself.

TY: Yeah, he should have kept low profile.

MY: Exactly, yeah. And that she thought he hadn’t learned, hadn’t he learned anything from this? But that was the kind of person he was. And when we saw him, it just looked like he hadn’t changed at all. And it felt as though, and I think we didn’t bring up going in, because we didn’t want to bring anything up that would worry him. And, but he didn’t seem to have any worry in his mind.

Jeni Y: When you were talking about this conversation earlier and you were saying that the conversation was really lighthearted, but you had the sense that he had some underlying fears, or that he really —

MY: Well, I don’t know if we were projecting it, or what.

TY: Well, I think it was mutual, really. That we didn’t want to —

MY: Yeah, he didn’t, and he didn’t want to worry us.

TY: Yeah, 'cause he didn’t want to worry us, and we didn’t want to worry him, and so I think he was, it was a mutual thing.

MY: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure it was in your mind. On your mind.

TY: Yeah, yeah. And that’s why we didn’t bring anything about the army or anything like that, yeah.

MY: Why you volunteered, or, he didn’t ask him, “Why did you volunteer?”

TY: Yeah, I wanted to tell him, but I decided not to.

MY: Oh, really?

TY: Yeah.

MY: So it was very, a very surreal moment, when we were talking. It was like we had just lifted ourselves right out of Seattle, and wiped out everything that happened after December 7th, and we just carried on as if nothing had happened. And I don’t know. Psychologically this is what happens to people when, totally denial. We weren’t actually in denial, we were very aware.

TY: Yeah, definitely, yes. That’s true.

AI: And was your father aware that you were going into the army?

MY: Oh, yeah, he knew why we were coming.

TY: He knew why we were coming, but we just didn’t bring this up. And he didn’t bring it up, and we didn’t bring it up, and we —

MY: Did you ever discuss that after the war, after Dad came back? About that period with him?

TY: No, I never did. That’s really... come to think of it, I haven’t. I should have.

Source: Excerpt 1: Tosh Yasutake, interview, November 14, 2002; Excerpt 2: Mitsuye May Yamada, Joe Yasutake, Tosh Yasutake, interview, October 8–9, 2002; Seattle, Washington. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Excerpt 1: interviewers: Alice Ito and Tom Ikeda, segment 8, denshovh-ytosh-01; excerpt 2: interviewers: Alice Ito and Jeni Yamada, segment 77, denshovh-ymitsuye_g-01 (accessed October 14, 2009).