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Kay Matsuoka Describes the Journey to Gila River, Arizona, Incarceration Camp

Kay Matsuoka is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American born in 1917 in Moneta, California. She grew up working on family’s strawberry farm, and attended Japanese language school where she learned Japanese dancing and singing. She was popular and excelled in high school, but was prevented by the Parent Teacher Association from giving the commencement address because of her ethnicity. After attending dress design school, she opened a dressmaking shop at the age of twenty-one. A Japanese matchmaker introduced her to her husband. They married soon after the declaration of war against Japan in anticipation of being incarcerated. In this interview excerpt, Matsuoka describes the journey to Gila River incarceration camp in Arizona and the conditions there. Her husband contracted tuberculosis shortly after their arrival. She resettled in Fresno, California.

Listen to Audio:

AI: And then, what were your instructions for that day? What did you do that day that you recall?

KM: For, you mean after we got into camp?

AI: No, when you actually left town to go to camp.

KM: Oh, well we, we all most of the central California people left in Sanger. And then when we got there, our neighbors or our friends would take us up to there. And then we would all line up according to our numbers and districts, and then they would put us on this train. And then we all got seated and left there. I, really wouldn’t know how much time because we reached L.A. at dusk. So it must’ve been about early in the afternoon. And I wanted, before we left L.A., because I was raised in L.A, I wanted to see, get a last glimpse of L.A. So they had all these shades pulled down on this train and I was looking. Then the MPs told me right away, “Keep that curtain down.” I said, “Well, I only wanted to have a little peek at what L.A. looked like, 'cause I may not be able to come back.” He said, “No. Orders are orders,” he said. So, you know, even on the train, we felt like we were really constantly watched. Like a prisoner. I never was a prisoner, but I felt like a prisoner. [Laughs]

AI: Did you recall any conversation on the train?

KM: No. Really, you know, it was, it wasn’t a hilarious affair. I mean most of the people were sober and quiet. 'Course the little ones were crying. But as far as I remember with our bunch, we just sat in an orderly fashion and they told us not to move. We just sat there except for going to the bathroom, only time.

AI: That must’ve been a long train trip.

KM: Yeah. It was a long. And then finally when, they said we got to Arizona, and we had to transfer to a bus that would take us into the camp. Well it was barren land. You know, just cactus, cactus, sand, cactus. And I thought, “How far in are we gonna go?” It felt like it was even longer than the train ride itself. I mean that’s the way it felt, 'cause we were on a jeep and different kind of a vehicle that the army used. And then finally it stopped and there was a barbed wire all around. And then we can see, way far, we can see this barracks, just row after row, and then MP tower. And so we were all put into the gate. And well really, just like these movies when they go to jail. It was just like that.

AI: What was your reaction?

KM: Well, you couldn’t even cry ‘cause you had to go. But, and then, you know I never thought, “How could they do this to us when we were citizens?” They put us all in one bunch. And yet we wouldn’t dare separate from our parents. It was really a mixed emotion. But I never, I never became bitter. I often wonder. Maybe I was too naive, I don’t know. [Laughs] I just, just followed the government’s order. And again, my parents said, “We should, because we owe it to America, ’cause all the freedom that we got living, and we made our living here and education here.” So they kept trying to instill into us that we owed it to be obedient.

AI: To America?

KM: Yeah. So we never thought of rebelling or, you know, 'cause there were a few that did rebel, you know, as, you can hear different history.

AI: Right.

KM: But it was a forlorn, desolate trip into camp. That’s all I can say. [Laughs]

AI: Had you known, did you know that you were going to Arizona?

KM: Yeah, they told us it was, yeah.

AI: And that was the Gila River camp?

KM: Yeah, Gila, uh-huh.

AI: So then...

KM: And from what I hear, Gila was one of the better camps, too. But, you know the hot water system wasn’t put up yet. And then we didn’t, the barracks were all in one, no division. And there’s four families to a barrack, sometime, so first two could be a relative, and next two could be total stranger, which it was. But we soon got acquainted.

AI: So in one barrack it was you and Jack and...

KM: One barrack was me and Jack, and his father and mother, and his sister and husband, and two of our nieces. I mean our nephews. So see, all of us was in that one. And the only means that we had was, if we were lucky to bring an extra bedspread, we put it up. But it wasn’t soundproof or anything. And we were just married one month, and you can imagine, that was our honeymoon.

AI: Right. And you were all in this one big...

KM: Yeah, in one room.

AI: ...room. And what about your parents? Where did they...

KM: They were, my parents, and my sister and my brother were not married, so they were in one barrack. So they were all right.

AI: Boy.

KM: But, after we got settled and everything started going, we were separated, after Jack got sick. That’s when we got separated.

Source: Kay Matsuoka, interview, December 29–30, 1999, Seattle, Washington. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewer: Alice Ito, segment 19, denshovh-mkay-01 (accessed October 14, 2009).