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Interview with Mary Tamaki Murakami

What Makes an American?

Found In: human & civil rights

Mary Murakami had to leave junior high school when she and her family joined the WWII exodus of Japanese Americans forcibly relocated from their homes to armed U.S. internment camps.

The retired microbiologist and medical technologist speaks to schools and organizations across the country to ensure this painful episode in our country’s history never happens again. NEA talks with Murakami about lessons learned.

How fast did life change for you and your family the day after Pearl Harbor?

Life changed very drastically for us the very same day Japan attacked the U.S. My family lived in San Francisco at the edge of Japan Town. That evening, we looked out of the window of our third floor apartment and saw armed soldiers in the street surrounding us. My father explained to the children that life was going to be very difficult from then on.

What happened after you were blockaded?

Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, allowed local military commanders to exclude all people of Japanese ancestry from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona, except for those in internment camps. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders.

Two months later, Executive Order 9066 was posted on our neighborhood telephone poles, telling us we were going to have to leave our homes. Curfew notices went up and we were only allowed to travel a certain distance from our neighborhood, which made it impossible for my father to get to work and the children to school.

How frightened were you and your siblings?

We were anxious. So much was happening. We saw these men going through Japan Town buying whole housefuls of furniture at very low prices. One man brought a customer into our flat and right in front of us sold our piano for the same amount he had paid us for seven rooms of furniture.

How did your parents prepare the children in the middle of the chaos?

They were worried about a rumor that adults would be put in one camp and children in another. My parents took all of us to a photo studio to have photos made, then sat us down and told us our family history. We were one of the last families to be taken in what looked like school buses to a temporary camp at the Tanforan race track in San Bruno. Fortunately all the horse stalls were full by then and we were put in a barracks.

There were no formal classes, but educated internees decided to put up signs telling various grade levels to report to different areas for classes. Four months later we were piled into old trains with soldiers in every compartment and sent to Camp Topaz in Utah.

What was life like at Camp Topaz?

It was a shock when we got off the trains and saw guard towers with armed soldiers and barbed wire fencing completely surrounding the barracks. My parents and brother were put in one small room and my sisters and I in another. The rooms were just big enough for cots and a pot- bellied stove. It was a tough life, especially for my parents.

Within six months of our arrival, we had to fill out loyalty questionnaires. Some young men volunteered for the army to prove their loyalty to America. My older brother was drafted out of Camp Topaz and sent to Europe to fight while his family remained behind.

Did you have a school at the camp?

We had two elementary schools and a junior-senior high school. Most of the teachers came from outside and were White. A few of them were very dedicated but that was rare. I remember chemistry class being held in the laundry room. Our instructor didn’t have much equipment to work with. When I completed 12th grade, they told me there weren’t enough academic courses and they wanted me to start 9th grade over.

How did you feel when you were finally able to leave?

By the winter of 1944, the U.S. realized the war was coming to an end and decided to reopen California to Japanese Americans. I applied to the University of California, Berkeley, where I earned a degree in public health microbiology and worked for my room and board. My parents and younger brothers and sisters joined me when the camp closed, and I left school for a while to help take care of them. After the war was the most difficult time. That’s when you really felt discriminated against.

Even more so than in the internment camps?

At least in the camps they clothed you and fed you. None of the returnees could find jobs except for day work. Our homes were gone, our belongings had been sold or destroyed, and Japanese immigrants who had not been born in the U.S. were not allowed to own property.

What’s the most important life lesson you learned from your experience?

It taught me you could persevere through anything. It taught my whole family what you treasured most might not be there the next day. It taught us to pursue education no matter the circumstance. And it taught us to be aware of when people are being discriminated against, especially after 9-11. That’s why Japanese-American organizations are reaching out to Muslim communities when we hear about discrimination and why it's important to tell our story. Democracy is so fragile.