Day of Remembrance: Japanese internment camps through the eyes of a survivor

Jack Hasegawa talks about his personal life in a Japanese internment camp during the end of WWII on the Day of Remembrance on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Konover Auditorium of the Thomas J. Dodd Center. (Daily Campus/Jason Jiang)

Jack Hasegawa was born in a prison. Both his parents were Japanese-Americans, and were interned by the United States government following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Now, nearly 70 years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the order to imprison hundreds of thousands of Japanese and Japanese-Americans for years, Hasegawa spoke of his experiences in the camps to an audience of students and professors in the Thomas J. Dodd Center.

Hasegawa's visit was part of the annual Day of Remembrance, held by the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute along with the Asian American Cultural Center to share the longstanding effects of the imprisonment on the over 100,000 civilians in camps during WWII.

“I’m kind of an emotional guy, so I sometimes have a little trouble when I talk about this topic in particular because it reminds me of all the things that happened in my life,” said Hasegawa, former executive director of the 4H Education Center in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Hasegawa said relaying experiences of internment can be difficult and cited actor George Takei’s Broadway musical “Allegiance” as one unusual but no less real expression of the emotions surrounding the internment camps.

There are lots of different ways to talk about the internment, because it was something that happened to us in a very sudden way.
— Jack Hasegawa

“There are lots of different ways to talk about the internment, because it was something that happened to us in a very sudden way,” Hasegawa said. “George Takei, who’s been here at [the University of Connecticut], recently tried to talk about it in a musical of all things. I’ve never thought about it as a musical, but he brings up what it means for a community to be erased from the West coast and put in prison.”

Hasegawa urged the attendees to not look at the internment camps as an old piece of history, but as an event that parallels the rhetoric of several presidential candidates today.

“You shouldn’t think about this as history. You’ve heard [Donald] Trump talk about banning Muslims, and you can hear that he means they should be sequestered,” Hasegawa said. “Ted Cruz thinks we ought to carpet bomb all those towns that harbor ISIS fighters, so that those people can feel the pain that that brings…Underneath all that, is that racism and fear that’s being fanned up, and it’s not different from what happened after Pearl Harbor. Don’t think of this as history. Think of it as prophecy.”

Highlighting the stark difference in the way that Germans and Italians in the United States were treated compared to the Japanese during World War II, Hasegawa explained that the former groups spent just a few weeks in internment camps, compared to years for Japanese-Americans.

“In the spring, the president issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered all foreign aliens, including Germans and Italians, could be arrested. Germans were imprisoned briefly, and Italians were released almost immediately,” Hasegawa said. “They were released within a week or two, but the Japanese were left there.”

Hasegawa highlighted the difficult choices that families had to make when they were given instructions to bring “only what they could carry,” and the uncertain future that those families faced.

“Our family was one of the families that went directly to an internment camp. The instructions said ‘bring only what you can carry, and if you don’t have transport, let us know.’ If you didn’t have transportation, an army truck, with soldiers and rifles would show up,” Hasegawa said. “You didn’t know if you were going to be taken somewhere or if you were going to be killed.”

The suddenness of the orders to report to evacuation centers left many unable to adequately prepare and forced them to abandon property and land that, in some cases, they owned for decades.

“On the train, they blacked out the windows, so the people didn’t know where they were going,” Hasegawa said. “One day, you’re a regular citizen on your farm. My family owned our farm since 1911, and literally the next day you’re told to get on a train, and then you wake up the next morning. Living in a desert in a shack.”

Those in the camp quickly learned that the guards were not there to protect them, but to keep them penned in, Hasegawa explained.

“The fence became a kind of social place. You want to meet somebody? ‘Let’s meet by the fence,’” Hasegawa said. “The machine guns were not pointed out to protect them, but pointed in. The guards were looking into the camp, and the machine guns were pointed at the camp.”

In the camps, there was little information about the world outside the camp, including how the war was going, Hasegawa said. Hasegawa went on to explain the difficulty some people had in reintegrating into society after they were released.

One day, you’re a regular citizen on your farm. My family owned our farm since 1911, and literally the next day you’re told to get on a train, and then you wake up the next morning. Living in a desert in a shack.
— Jack Hasegawa

“We didn’t have things like radios, and everything that came into the camp was censored. You’d get letters from friends outside the camp and whole parts of it were cut out,” Hasegawa said. “But did you want to go back? Your friends, what did they say when you left? Were they part of the crowds yelling at you on your way out of town?”

Racism and prejudice toward Japanese-Americans existed before and after the war, Hasegawa explained, while adding a personal account of facing hate crimes during a school trip out of town.

“As we were walking back, a group of guys followed us,” Hasegawa said. “As we were driving out of town, they shot at us through the windows. That was about par for the course, and this was fifteen years after the war.”  

Students commented that the event was informative, and that it was interesting to learn about a piece of American history that’s not often taught in schools.

“I thought it was really informative, just because in school you don’t talk about this or a lot of the things America did wrong,” Diana Daniel, a fourth semester biological sciences major, said. “I thought it was really awesome getting that firsthand perspective…it helps you have some Asian American pride to know that they endured all this and still came out strong.”

“It makes a big impact hearing it from someone who actually experienced it,” Chandni Patel, a fourth semester biological sciences major, added.

Hasegawa delivered a chilling message about the lessons of the internment camps, suggesting that the same thing could happen to Muslims or other foreigners today.

“You don’t think that war might trump the constitution? You don’t think it could happen to your Muslim friends, or your Mexican friends? When people get afraid, watch out,” Hasegawa said.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.