Letters, Love and Literature


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IT WASN’T A PROUD MOMENT in American history. In February 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It required all West Coast residents of Japanese descent, whether American citizens or not, to live in concentration camps—euphemistically called “internment” camps —hidden in remote areas of California, Arizona, Arkansas, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

The evacuation in San Diego began on April 1, when Japanese residents were given barely a week to pack what they could carry on their backs and report to the train station. Many lost their businesses and homes. Cars, furniture and other possessions were either sold for a pittance or left behind. On April 7, 1942, hundreds of San Diegans, all Japanese, packed into the downtown Santa Fe depot to await deportation.

In the midst of this nightmare was a broken-hearted Clara Breed, the children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library, carrying a bag she had hurriedly stuffed with stamped, selfaddressed postcards, candy and books. Many of the children who frequented the library were waiting in the station with their families. Breed handed them the treats and books, pressing her postcards into the children’s hands.

“When you have time, write to me,” she told them. “If you need anything, just write and let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.

Ten-year-old Katherine Tasaki, one of Breed’s favorites, bravely held back tears as she said goodbye. Breed described the scene that day, as the train pulled out of the Santa Fe station, as “unforgettable. The station was packed, the platform overflowing, but there was no confusion; not a baby cried, not a voice was lifted in irritation or complaint. Only at the very last, when the procession filed slowly toward the train, did one old woman break down and sob uncontrollably.”

The story of what happened to those children and their families is known largely from the letters they exchanged with Breed and from a new book, Dear Miss Breed (Scholastic, $22.99) by Joanne Oppenheim, which chronicles the children’s lives during their internment and Breed’s courageous activism on their behalf. Breed received about 250 letters from San Diego children and, after she retired, gave her correspondence collection to Elizabeth Yamada (formerly Kikuchi), who lived in the Poston, Arizona, internment camp and whose letters were among those in the collection. Yamada wound up donating them to the Japanese American National Museum in Washington, D.C., where, by chance, Oppenheim found them.

In 2001, while helping organize Monticello High School’s 50-year reunion, Oppenheim decided to track down an old friend, Ellen Yukawa, who had come to the small Catskill Mountain town in 1945 straight from an internment camp in Arizona, although no one knew it.

“We just knew we had a new child in our class—and the first Japanese person many of us had ever met,” recalls Oppenheim. While perusing the Japanese American National Museum Web site looking for help finding her classmate, she saw a photo of Clara Breed and started reading some letters posted on-line. Oppenheim, a children’s book author, became fascinated with Breed’s story and at first envisioned a picture book about her. But the more she learned about the Japanese incarceration, she says, “the more I discovered how much I didn’t know.” A picture book would never do.

 Oppenheim read more than 200 of the letters Breed received from San Diego children, sorting them by people, topic, month and year. She traveled from New York City to San Diego’s downtown library and read through Breed’s personal papers, letters and a history of the San Diego Library, Turning the Pages, that Breed had written.

“Miss Breed felt a special attachment to the Japanese children, and she said as much—they were avidjapanese children in an internment camp readers, and they came to depend upon her,” says Oppenheim. At the time, the main library was at 13th and Island streets downtown, in the heart of the Japanese community.

One of those avid readers was Elizabeth Yamada, who remembers the library back then as “an oasis in the city.” Her father was a minister and book collector who read mostly theology but could also quote Shelley and Keats. Although Yamada was born in the United States and a citizen, her parents were only legal residents. Like all other Japanese immigrants to the USA at the time, they were not permitted to become naturalized.

The Yamada family was interned in Poston, but first sent to an “assembly center” in Santa Anita, where they lived in a converted horse stable at the racetrack. “My parents accepted it, so we children accepted it,” says Yamada. “The Japanese come from a culture that accepts hardships and indignities and respects authority.”

Yamada received several packages from Clara Breed. “I still remember the excitement of getting a package from her, from the outside world,” she says. “Every book represented hope.”

BREED SENT MORE THAN BOOKS TO THE CHILDREN. Oppenheim compiled a list of things the children requested and that Breed was able to send: fabric, thread, snaps, curlers, shower caps, shoe polish, yarn, pencils, notebooks, erasers and candy. She also guided the children from afar in their reading and introduced them to new authors. The letters sent to her by the younger children were generally positive.

“The idea was that they would prove their loyalty by going along with interment. There seemed to be this sense they would do whatever was required,” says Oppenheim. Only by talking to those same children now, as adults, was the author able to get a more complete story.

Margaret Ishino, for instance, 17 at the time of her internment, never told Clara Breed that she had to wash all of her baby brother’s diapers at the camp, or that she had created a crib for him out of a pig’s trough. Ishino never mentioned how the FBI came to her home in San Diego while her mother was in bed, having just given birth to a third child.

“They ripped the covers off this woman to see if she was hiding something,” says Oppenheim.

Yet some of the older children, like Tetsuzo “Ted” Hirasaki and Fusa Tsumagari, were honest and open in their letters, bitterly lamenting the loss of their freedom.

Breed protested the internment in articles for Horn Book Magazine and the Library Journal, as well as in letters to government officials. “I think it’s hard for us to understand today what courage she showed in taking the stand she did,” says Oppenheim.

Ben S. Segawa and his family were interned at Poston, and years later he met and married Katherine Tasaki—one of those Breed had said goodbye to at the train station—also a Poston internee. Segawa says his wife and Breed stayed in close contact during the years of interment and afterward, and that Breed had written “all kinds of letters to officials saying the internment was wrong. She could have been fired, but she didn’t stop.”

IT TOOK THE U.S. GOVERNMENT decades to acknowledge Japanese internment had been a mistake; in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it was a “military necessity” even for American citizens. The case before the court was that of Fred Korematsu, who in 1942 refused to report for internment and went into hiding. A few months later he was found and arrested; after his conviction he was sentenced to five years probation and immediately sent to an internment camp in Utah. The ACLU persuaded Korematsu to appeal his case to the Supreme Court, which then ruled against him.

young girls interned at Poston during the 1940'sIt wasn’t until 1980, when President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate Japanese internment (the executive order wasn’t rescinded till 1976), that the country began to examine the episode and how Japanese-Americans had been affected. Hearings were held throughout the country, with camp survivors testifying.

In 1982, Peter Irons, a constitutional law expert and political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, obtained documents proving Roosevelt’s government had suppressed, altered and destroyed evidence in the Korematsu case. Irons convinced Korematsu to file a petition asking the government to overturn his longstanding conviction. In 1983, the Justice Department did just that, but would not admit wrongdoing. Finally, in 1988, Congress formally apologized and granted personal compensation of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese prisoner.

Yet Oppenheim discovered during her research that most schoolchildren in America today don’t know much about Japanese internment. Considering the current political climate, where national security concerns have allowed Congress to curtail civil liberties, wiretap citizens and detain suspected terrorists without explanation, it is a part of our history that seems relevant.

“I am an American citizen, born and raised here, and at the time our government failed us; our constitution failed us.

It should never have happened,” says Segawa. “But could it happen again? I don’t even have to think about it. If conditions are right, yes.”

“That’s why the book isn’t just about Breed,” says Oppenheim, “but about all of us—to keep us mindful that history can repeat itself.”

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