Saturday, August 1, 2009


Japanese, idiomatic, translated as:

It can’t be helped” or alternatively, “nothing can be done.” In the common speech of modern Japanese, it is the equivalent of “It is how it is.”

The word is an echo of times past, a word that described the feelings of many after December 7, 1941. It was enunciated by the Nisei and the Isei people of the West Coast of the United States in their language. Yet it also described the feelings of their neighbors of all ethnicities.

The country was in one afternoon clearly, irrevocably, and violently at war with Japan. There was confusion, panic, a sense of moral outrage that another nation could do this to us, and yet there it was. It had happened. We had to fight back in everyway we knew how.


When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that lazy Sunday morning, some of the fighter aircraft knew they might not be able to return to their carriers. They had been instructed to proceed to a small uninhabited island and wait for a submarine to pick them up. The island was Niihau, and what happened thereafter is known as the Niihau Incident. As told after the war, only two damaged Zero fighters ran low on fuel after being damaged in an engagement with the few American aircraft that managed to get airborne. The pilots went to Niihau. When they circled the island they learned of the first failure of Japanese intelligence. The island was quite inhabited. One of the pilots radioed that he would not land but would return to Pearl, find a suitable target into which he would crash his plane. Yet a minute later, he inexplicably flew nose down into the ocean. Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi, decided that he would land and reach the submarine he believed was there waiting for him.

As he passed over the island again, he found it was better prepared for war than Oahu had been since the level areas in the pastures and other places that looked suitable for a landing were purposely strewn with boulders and other debris. He finally found a small flat area near a house and crashed his plane there.

The islanders, who at this point knew nothing of the Pear Harbor attack, were amazed to see this sleek plane with the red bullseye painted on it’s side as it passed over the island. Niihau was one of many kapu, or forbidden islands in the chain. They were private, owned usually, as was the case here, by an absentee landlord to which they had been given by a previous Hawaiian Monarch. The man who lived nearest pulled the pilot from the wreck and in schoolboy English, Nishikaichi, asked if he was Japanese since to him he appeared to be. He was not although there was several ethnic Japanese living on Niihau. Remarkably the man took him to his house and his wife made him breakfast. Nishikaichi thought that a landing party would be there for him soon from the submarine, so gave little thought to what he said, or did. The villagers even gave him a luau.


The rest of his stay there is a confusing one. He told his story to one of the Japanese residents and his wife, who for reasons of their own did not tell the other islanders all of what he had said. The landlord, restricted from travelling to the island by the military was eventually brought to the island when the residents went to get him after learning that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and they had in their midst one of those who had done it. The submarine had been in the area but had long ago been ordered to Oahu to sink any American relief ships that might try to enter Pearl Harbor. Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi would not be saved. He died in a colossal confusion, one version of which can be found at niihau-incident.htm. There is a monument in his hometown in Japan which is inscribed with what are said to be a version of the events and he is described as having “died in battle.”

The importance of the affair is disputed. What makes it noteworthy at all is that it is thought by some that a naval intelligence report forwarded to the Pentagon regarding the incident stating that the “likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan” was one of the driving forces behind the decision to establish Military Areas in the United States. The imprisonment of more than 200,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast for the duration of the war followed.


Strange things happened in this time of confusion and panic. Choices were made. Ralph Lazo went with his Nisei friends when they signed up to be taken to the internment camp. They were his schoolmates. They were members of the same social club that had a baseball team that they all played on and if they were leaving, he was going with them. Ralph was of Irish American and Mexican heritage, but the authorities just assumed, in those chaotic days, that he was another of “them.” he was sent to Manzanar in the Owens Valley of California. His friends were sent to a camp at Heart Mountain Wyoming. Undaunted, Ralph became the star pitcher for the high school team in the camp, the “Manzaknights” and was on of the graduates of the Manzanar High School, which existed long enough to graduate a class in 1942,’43 and ‘44.


The interment policy was the choice of the military to control the “yellow peril,” and possible enemies amongst us. Americans were frightened, confused, and panicked. The “Japs” had to be contained or bombs would soon fall on Los Angeles. Indeed, there is a man I know now who lived through those times on the West Coast who still believes it was right. “It couldn’t be helped,” he says to me now, “nothing else could have been done.”


For the Nisei, Japanese who were citizens, it was the worst of times. For the Isei, who were Japanese aliens living here but not citizens it was worse. Initially they were all taken from their homes and businesses and placed at racetracks and stadiums to wait. They were encouraged to move east at first, to just leave. Some did and spent the war in the Midwest or East in relative peace. Most could not because their money and homes had been seized. When the government realized that most had no place to go they needed a plan. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which established Military Areas in the United States and the removal of any person who might threaten the war effort and permitted the internment camps--called by even President Roosevelt “concentration camps”--to be established and they were shipped there, each with a tag affixed to their clothing with the number of their family. By November 1942 the “relocation” was complete. A loyalty oath was asked of all internees and one question asked if they swore allegiance to the United States and only the United States. The Isei were torn, if the said yes, they denied their Japanese citizenship, if they said no they were considered traitors. Most said no. They were sent to a camp at Tule Lake California which had a higher degree of security, a worse climate, and worse living conditions.

The Japanese found varying degrees of comfort at each camp. At Manzanar, they found barracks that had been hastily built by a cadre of Japanese “volunteers” who preceded them there made of wood and tarpaper that leaked wind, rain, cold air, and an arid climate which was alien to them. On the first night there, they were given a sack and told to fill it with straw for their bed. Some of the younger ones protested the treatment, but the elders counseled patience. Shikataganai, they said, it can’t be helped, and there is nothing to be done. In the hierarchical society they were used to, this carried great weight and most accepted that this was how it would be. They settled into life in the camp. They started a newspaper, baseball teams, built gardens in the arid land, sacrificing their own water supplies to water them. They built a cemetery, furniture from scrapes of packing crates and ate in dining halls. There were 10,000 of them on 500 acres with no privacy, sharing rooms, and showers without regard to sex. They did not thrive. They endured the worst conditions of their lives. By September of 1942, 10,000 Japanese were living in 504 barracks in 36 “blocks” at Manzanar. Each block had 14 barracks of four rooms each. Any combination of four people occupied one room of 20x25 feet. A lamp, oil stove, four cots, and blankets were the only furnishing provided. They made the rest.


By 1943, some of the younger men and women from the camps were permitted to join others who had been in the Army when the war broke out. Many of the men were sent to Europe to fight the Germans in the Italian campaign. They fought bravely in a segregated unit, the now famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, as part of the 100th Infantry Battalion which was made up of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard. They were known as the “Purple Heart” regiment for the number of wounds and casualties as well as the medals awarded. Thus, there was the incongruous sight of a blue or gold star hanging on the barracks of a family living behind barbed wire surrounded by guard towers who had either a son or daughter in the military, or one who had died for his country.

One received the Medal of Honor, the highest Military decoration America can bestow on a member if the military. It is, by criteria, given only for an act that a rational person would not find acceptable as a lawful direct order from a superior, yet saves the lives of others. Pfc. Sadao S. Munemori, whose mother and siblings were suffering the cold, heat, and indifference of their fellow citizens inside the barbed wire at Manzanar, performed such an act. He purposely jumped on a live grenade and was credited with saving his entire Platoon.


In 1944, the court challenge to their detention, brought on behalf of the internees, had made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court held, in a decision as convoluted as any they had handed down up to that time, that the government had the Constitutional authority to evacuate citizens based solely on national ancestry while separately ruling that loyal citizens cannot be held against their will. The detainees remained in the camps.

The war with Japan ended on August 14, 1945. By November 21st The Manzanar War Relocation Center was closed. They were free to go, where was now the only question. The government provided transportation for most by train and bus back to their former hometowns. When they arrived, many found that there businesses had been seized, as had their homes. They no longer belonged there. In three short years their lives had been altered forever. Nothing could be done they were told… Shikataganai again…yet they started over taking what work they could, becoming the gardeners for California houses, some smaller than they owned before they were internees. They survived and their children flourished and their Government, 43 years later, officially apologized and awarded each if the known 88,000 survivors $20,000 for the inconvenience.

Perhaps it was the policy. Perhaps it was their loyalty, but the irony was simply this: No Japanese American or Japanese alien living in the United States during World War II was ever arrested for, or charged with espionage.


The Manzanar War Relocation Center was established as a National Historical Site in 1992, and is maintained by the National Park Service. They are slowly reconstructing certain parts of the camp. The original Auditorium, used for many years as a warehouse to house county vehicles has been restored as an interpretative center. A dining hall and guard tower has been faithfully restored and a barracks is underway with the help of volunteers and donations from the public. This place, so haunting in its desolation will not soon be forgotten here on the wind swept floor of the Owens Valley.

On hot summer evening, or in the cold of the late fall, one can stand here and look at Mount Whitney in the distance and wonder what it would have been like to be here in that chaotic time when these people were feared only because they looked like the enemy. Two thirds of those held here against their will for the duration of the war were American citizens by birth. It is not hard to project those feelings today into this Age of Sacred Terror. Could it happen again? Could an entire ethnicity be questioned as to their loyalty?

Perhaps it could and perhaps not. It surely does not have to be as the elders decided.



  1. Strikes me as both sides being a bit "between a rock and a hard place." - and fear does not make for good choices. I have no doubt it could happen again, but I think there is more consideration and recognition of past wrongs that helps "us" resist.

    Hey, the link worked :)!

  2. Ann-

    "The Link worked" means what?? was it not working?

    Yes,no one came away was was it was...but it should never happen again...

  3. Oh, THAT link!!! sorry. Yes, I guess I just got lucky!

  4. Great bit of history! I have been to one of the interment camps on Mt. Lemmon just out side of Tucson, Az. I can not imagine living there.
    A sad time in our history, hopefully we will never
    repeat it.

    Wonderful post, Reamus!

  5. Troutay,

    Thank you. I do not imagine any of the camps--I have seen two--look like good vacation spots.

  6. A riveting read, Reamus (alliteration unintended).

    I had the honor to know a Japanese gentleman who was given 6 days to settle his affairs in Los Angeles before being shipped off to an internment camp in Arkansas. After the war he had to restart his life from zero in Chicago. When he would talk about his experience, it was always with that sense of Shikataganai – never bitterness.

    At our church on Father's Day this year, his adopted, genetically European son gave a moving sermon about him, called What is a Father?

    As the Greatest Generation passes on, it's good to honor them all.

  7. Semp,

    Would have been an honor to know him and to have heard his son. Yes, they all need to be remembered. I find it remarkable that they had the peace to have that attitude...not sure I would have.

  8. Very interesting post, Reamus. I had never heard of the Niihau Incident or of the segregated Japanese U.S. Army unit in WW2.

    It made me wonder what might have happened had Germany managed to mount an attack on U.S. soil. In the German-settled community where I live, many people still spoke German in the 1930's and 40's. Would they have been rounded up and held like the Japanese? We'll never know, of course.

  9. Farm Wife,

    I am not sure. There were so many ethnic Germans---many more than the Japanese--I find it hard to believe that rounding them up would have been feasible. There were a goodly number along the Atlantic seacoast tried for epionage--perhaps that is part of the irony here.

  10. Good post, Reamus. I have added a new word to my vocabulary. Wish I knew how to pronounce it...shee-ka-tahg-'n'-I, maybe (as in The Egg And I...and now I'm thinking of Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main).

    I also enjoyed reading "What Is A Father?" in Sempringham's comment. Thanks for the link, Semp.

  11. RWP,

    As in "niegh" the traditional pronunciation for words ending in "ai" in Japanese. It is a useful word.