How WWII San Diego's Japanese deportees rebuilt their lives

Mission Beach pool refused to let Nikki swim

Poston internment camp, 1942 — painted by intern on cardboard.
  • Poston internment camp, 1942 — painted by intern on cardboard.
  • Tom Tanaka



In the Japanese-American community, Nikki refers to a person “with any discernable degree of Japanese ancestry living in the United States.” Part of the term’s appeal, writes Donald Estes, is that it facilitates the identification of both “Japanese” and “Americans of Japanese ancestry,” rather than using the “incorrect and confusing” term “Japanese” to refer to both groups.

The attack on Pearl Harbor — December 7, 1941 — not only drew the United States into war, “within six months [it] resulted in the detention of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry” by the U.S. government. World War II “cuts a ragged swath across the fabric of Japanese-American experience, dividing it into ‘before the war,’ ‘camp,’ and ‘after camp.’ ”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the relocation when he signed Executive Order #9066. Many questioned it at the time. Lieutenant Commander Kenneth D. Ringle, of the Office of Navy Intelligence, contended that there was a small number of “dangerous” Nikki, all of whom were not only well known to the FBI and ONI, they were already detained. J. Edgar Hoover made a similar claim.

Even though many questioned the decision’s abuse of civil rights—and human morality — the military contended that all Nikki on the West Coast “represented an immediate and serious threat to the United States.” And on April 1, 1942, General John L. De Witt issued Civilian Exclusion Order #4.

Donald Estes, San Diego City College professor and specialist on Japanese-Americans in San Diego, comments: “In what can be, at best, called a creative use of the English language, the army’s pronouncement read: ‘all persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the designated area [all of San Diego county south of Del Mar] by 12:00 noon, Wednesday, April 8, 1942.’ This particular group of American citizens had, by military fiat, become ‘non-aliens.’ ” San Diego’s Nikki community was forced to “relocate,” first, to the Santa Anita Race Track — where they lived on the track’s infield in tarpaper and wood barracks (some even lived in the stables), surrounded by armed guards, barbed wire, and searchlights — and later to camps in Poston, Arizona.

The Nikki experienced racism before: movie theaters segregated Nikki from the “rest of the audience” in the 1920s and ’30s: the Mission Beach pool refused to let Nikki swim. But along with the humiliation of relocation, banks froze Nikki accounts. Auto and life insurance companies canceled policies. The FBI seized their fishing boats, from San Francisco to San Diego, thus depriving them of a livelihood.

The evacuation order stipulated that the Nikki could take with them only what they could carry. “What could not be stored with friends or sold was simply left.”

Along with no privacy and deplorable facilities, a major contention among the internees was whether or not they should cooperate with the government during the relocation. “This stress,” Estes says, “inevitably resulted in major rifts and conflicts within the community.” One result was the growth of self-government at Santa Anita and the other “assembly centers.” Volunteer representatives met and concluded that “an internee-based system of self-government” was best for all concerned. “For the Issi”-— the first or immigrant generation of Japanese in the U.S.—“it was an ironic twist of fate that their first active participation in a democratic government took place behind barbed wire.”

Phase two of the internment program sent Nikki to permanent holding facilities, built by the army, and located inland. “There were ten of these centers which, with the exception of Jerome, Arkansas, were scattered throughout the Western United States. Without exception, all of these camps were built in isolated, desolate locations. These were places where, as one internee put it, no one else wanted to live.”


I. Leaving the city of everlasting Spring / I am buried in the snow of Montana / in the North Country / You in San Diego, I in Montana / The path of my dream / is frozen.

— Kyuji Aizumi, "Thinking of My Family from this Place of Exile"

  1. Fusa Tsumagari and her family were on the first train out of San Diego. She remembered how the military police made everyone pull down the shades for the trip. No one liked it, since they would not be able to see where they were going, but it turned out to be a good idea. The train was stoned as it steamed north.
  2. When either the quality and quantity of the food at Santa Anita dropped below acceptable levels, the internee residents often placed the blame on the assembly center's Caucasian mess stewards and cooks. Early in their confinement, rumors circulated that some cooks were stealing the fresh meat and offering it for sale on the growing Los Angeles black market, which had come in to existence with the advent of wartime rationing.
  3. During the first state-wide blackout in mid-January 1942, Dr. Roy Tanaka spoke to a patient on the phone in Japanese. The next morning two FBI agents escorted him to their headquarters at Sixth and Broadway. Harold Nathan, special agent in charge, abruptly demanded, "What's the big idea of speaking Japanese on the phone during a blackout?" Dr. Tanaka replied, "I'm an American of Japanese descent and my practice depends on being able to speak Japanese." Special agent Nathan replied, "If I were you, I wouldn't use your rights as an American citizen just now."
  4. To this day, the Supreme Court continues to hold to the belief that the internment was a constitutional application of the President's war powers, making it possible for a similar style of imprisonment to be perpetuated in the future on any class of citizens by the government of the United States.

San Diego Nikki went to Camp Three at Poston, 25 miles from Parker, Arizona, at the end of a long dirt road. Buses kept the shades drawn so the internees could have no sense of where they were. When the first group arrived, the camp was not completed.

When finally built, the barracks were 20-by-100 feet and made of tarpaper (a single thickness) and pine: “ill-equipped to keep out the fierce desert heat during the day and the bone-chilling cold at night.”

The camp management controlled all news from the outside, and maps of Arizona were forbidden. Although the Nikki built libraries and founded organizations — boy and girl scouts, for example — and a school system and bootlegged liquor, Estes cautions: “It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that the Nikki happily settled down and accepted their status at Poston, or the other facilities.... The internment placed harsh social, political, and economic constraints upon all segments of-the community.”

And although there was dissension, “a majority of the internees concentrated on meeting the day-to-day challenges implicit in their institutional existence and on the reestablishment of their shattered communities. For many of those behind the barbed wire, any action involving the deeper intellectual issues raised by the internment, like the massive violation of human rights embodied in the whole relocation episode, simply had to wait on the exigencies of surviving, both physically and mentally, the conditions imposed upon them by their government.”

On Tuesday, December 17, 1944, the army’s Western Defense Command rescinded the order for relocation of Nikki. They could go home. Initially, many were afraid to return to San Diego, fearing violence. The Poston administration set a deadline: all had to leave camp by June 23, 1945.

“The reception of the Nikki returning to their prewar homes varied. Some had made arrangements with friends to care for their property and belongings prior to evacuation. Many, however, lost almost everything. During the internment, many had stored their household belongings at the San Diego Buddhist Temple. In 1943, portions of the temple were ravaged by a fire that authorities believed was caused by arson....

“After the war, the former residents of the camps were scattered throughout San Diego County, coming together only for community events or activities involving the churches, temple, or other group functions. When Moto Asakawa was asked why he thought the Nikki community in San Diego did not develop along its prewar lines, he laughed and said, offhandedly, I guess we just didn’t want to make it so easy for them to round us all up the next time.’ ”

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