May K. Sasaki Describes the Minidoka, Idaho, Incarceration Camp
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May K. Sasaki Describes the Minidoka, Idaho, Incarceration Camp

May K. Sasaki is a Nisei (2nd generation) Japanese American. She was born Kimiko May Nakamura in 1937 in Seattle. Her parents ran a small grocery store in Nihonmachi (Japantown). She had just turned six years old when Japanese Americans were ordered to leave military zones declared on the West Coast in spring 1942. She was incarcerated with her family at the Washington state fairgrounds at Puyallup, named “Camp Harmony” Assembly Center. After living in a converted animal stall for several months, the family was moved to the Minidoka incarceration camp, located in the high desert of south Idaho. Sasaki resettled in Seattle. In these interview excerpts, she discusses her childhood memories of the camps and experiencing shame and loss of Japanese American identity as a result of incarceration. Along with other former detainees, Sasaki received a presidential apology and partial reparations in the 1980s for being incarcerated without due process of law, solely on the basis of her Japanese ancestry.

Listen to Audio:

LH: So you arrived at Puyallup. And when you entered, do you recall any of the way it looked?

MS: Well, you know, it was a former fairgrounds, which I had never been there before, so I didn’t know. But the one thing I remembered was the animal smells, you know, that’s how fairs are. You have your animal smells. I remember that. That was very different for me, and then the living quarters, of course, were some of the stalls and some of the buildings. But we had one of the row of stalls and so therefore the smells were greater there. And I remember that there were cots and, for some reason, some kind of mattress. It wasn’t the kind of mattress I was used to but, and then army blankets. And then we had the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. And each stall is yea big, and there weren’t ceilings. They did not come to the top, so the walls, excuse me, didn’t come to the ceiling. So you could see all the way across. If you climbed up on something high, you could see all the way to the other end, and voice traveled all the way through.

LH: So you’re all there together with your mother, your father, your two brothers, and yourself. And in a barrack?

MS: Yes, we had one. [Laughs] It wasn’t even a barrack — it was a stall. It literally was a stall. And they told us it was temporary, so they just had to get us all assembled there so that they’ll know which camps we’re going to. So we had an idea that this was temporary and that’s where we’re supposed to get ready for this. So part of that was inoculations; we all had to have a series of shots.

LH: Now, what was that to prevent?

MS: Diphtheria and small pox and you name it. But I remember having at least three or four because my arms were just sore and then there were scabs. You know, these black scabs that came out. [Laughs] And I remember feeling like that must be how cows and animals feel like. Because we were all lined up, and we had to have a couple shots at a time, 'cause they couldn’t, we couldn’t keep coming back. So I remember having two shots and then being very ill for at least... I felt ill about it, and a sore arm.

LH: I can imagine that’s a pretty vivid memory for a six-year-old.

MS: I remember those things that were kind of painful, and that definitely was a painful time.

LH: Do you recall — is there any other memory that sort of sticks out in your mind about that time?

MS: Well, one of the things I thought were kind of strange was that we had the barbed wire fencing all around the fairgrounds. And there was a road that passed by close to the fairgrounds. And there were, they would bring busloads of non-Japanese people, and they would actually let 'em off and let them look at us like we were, you know, like we were caged animals. And I used to remember, “Why are they doing that?” But they actually came and looked at us while we were behind barbed wire fencing there. That was a little bit weird for me. I just remember we used to do gyrations. [Laughs]

LH: That’s the first mention I’ve heard of these tour buses.

MS: Yeah. Well, they were either tour buses or buses that happened to stop by ‘cause we were right along the main drag. And they actually let the people off and let ’em look at us and they’d go back. And I could hear them saying some things, you know, not quite understanding but just knowing that they were looking at us. So we must have been some kind of attraction for this group to come and look at us.

LH: And they were up against the barbed wire, looking in?

MS: Well, they didn’t come too close to us 'cause we were near the wire and I think they were a little bit worried about what we might do.

LH: Were there ever any warnings from your parents about the barbed wire or the guards?

MS: Only that to obey whatever they told us to do. Only that. They didn’t... I just... I have to say, I don’t remember feeling threatened by them. Halfway just wondering why they were there and why they had guns. Because I couldn’t imagine any of us doing anything. Of course, you know, I’m so young. Maybe the older folks might have been threatening to them, but I never felt, as a child, but everything is from a child, six-year-old’s perspective.

LH: About how long were you at “Camp Harmony”?

MS: I think we were there for a few months. We weren’t there for over that time. And then when my parents told us that we’re going to be moving again, because I was wondering why they were getting the things all ready again. And I said, “Oh, where are we going?” Well, we’re gonna... they said far away 'cause I wouldn’t know where Minidoka was. So they said, “Far away,” and enough so that we’d have to take a train to go there.

Source: May K. Sasaki, interview, October 28, 1997, Seattle, Washington. From the Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewers: Lori Hoshino, Alice Ito, segments 14 and 15. Video, denshovh-smay-01–0014 (accessed October 14, 2009).