Last October, I received the Loft Literary Center’s Mirrors and Windows Fellowship, which is named for Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s crucial essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” (1990), which discusses the lack of diversity in books. The program, mentors writers of color to write books for children and young adults. My project is a middle-grade children’s book based on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up and Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is a children’s book about his fight against the mass incarceration, and Dear Miss Breed is an epistolary picture book about a California librarian, Clara Breed who corresponded with many of the children in the camps, advocating for them and condemning the mass incarcerating, and, much like the Loft fellowship, used literature to foster community and understanding toward Japanese-Americans.
I will use these two books as models to chronicle the history of Japanese-Americans with disabilities in the camps, and disabled soldiers. I hope to create a book for younger children on the subject and eventually chronicle Japanese-American disability history.
Over the last few years, I have been researching disability in Japanese-American history. When I was researching mixed-race Japanese-American history, I came across two Deaf Japanese-American women Hannah Takagi and Nancy Ikeda, who had been incarcerated in the camps as children, and had intermarried. I found them again, during my Oral History course in grad school when I discovered that UC Berkeley had a collection of oral histories, which included Takagi and Ikeda and Ronald Hirano, who had been a boy and had not been evacuated with the rest of his family. He had stayed with a Caucasian family friend so that he could continue attending the California School for the Deaf, a privilege not accorded to any other Deaf Japanese-American student and – as far as I am aware – no other Japanese-American student with a disability.
This was contrary to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) edict, which stipulated that:
“5. The following classes of persons of Japanese ancestry are hereby authorized to be temporarily exempted or deferred from future exclusion and evacuation upon furnishing satisfactory proof as provided in Proclamation No. 5, dated March 30, 1942:
(a) Patients in hospitals or confined elsewhere, and too ill or incapacitated to be removed therefrom without danger of life;
(b) Inmates of orphanages and the totally deaf, dumb or blind.”
But, according to a Manzanar Free Press article in July 1942, “There were many other children from other schools for handicapped children on the west coast. A list prepared by WRA shows that there were 14 public and two private schools with appropriate facilities; however, none allowed students to return during the war.
Unless someone was severely mentally handicapped, they were sent to the camps. There were approximately 2,000 persons over 65 years old, and 1,000 handicapped or infirm persons were incarcerated. The Hoshida family lived in Hilo, Hawaii. George was a Buddhist who was involved in temple activities and a community leader. He was arrested and transferred to numerous camps in Hawaii and the mainland through the war. Their youngest daughter Taeko who was mentally disabled was sent to the Big Island institution and died before her family returned home. His wife – who was pregnant at the time – and his daughters were also sent to several camps on the mainland. The family was finally reunited in Jerome in Arkansas. before being transferred a final time to Gila River.
As with the Hoshida family, Koichi and Tora Kurima had to leave their blind and mentally disabled son Toyoki behind when they were sent to Fresno assembly center. He only ate Japanese food, understood only Japanese and had never been separated from his family. He died a month later.
But the tragedies continued in the camps. In many cases, poor medical care and other problems lead to disability and death for adults and children. Yasuji and Alice Matsui and their son Robert, the future Congressmen were sent to Tule Lake in California. Alice contracted German measles in camp and as a result, their daughter Barbara was born blind. Barbara would go on to teach at Sacramento High School and Robert would become a Congressman, advocating for people with disabilities.
Fred and Mabel Ota were sent to Poston, in Arizona. Mabel was pregnant when they arrived, their baby due in May 1943. In late 1942, Fred received a job offer in New York and left Mabel in camp. He planned to return before the baby was born, but Mabel went into labor a month early. The only obstetrician in camp had collapsed from exhaustion, so Mabel was left mostly alone for twenty-eight hours. When the baby’s health began to deteriorate, the obstetrician resorted to using a local anesthetic and forceps to deliver, as there was no anesthesiologist. As a result of oxygen deprivation during birth, their daughter Madeline was born with mental disabilities and gan mal epilepsy. Mabel testified about her families difficulties during the Redress hearings.
George and Tama Tokuda met and married in Minidoka, Idaho. Soon after, Tama developed a kidney infection and was prescribed painkillers and a powerful antibiotic. Her son Floyd was born with a mental disability which the family attributes to the poor medical care, including the antibiotic.
Each Norihiro was fifteen when he and his parents and siblings arrived at Manzanar. His family was transferred to Tule Lake after being labeled “disloyal” where Eiichi contracted tuberculosis. He eventually lost his right leg and was on crutches during the annual pilgrimage at Manzanar in 2004.
At Gila River, John Fuyuumo recalled more than seventy years later, that “The guards in the watchtowers had their weapons pointed in the camp and anyone leaving without permission was shot…I remember there was a young boy who was mentally disabled and he managed to get through the fence and kept walking. The guards told him to stop and he wouldn’t, and they killed him.”
But not all stories were so heartbreaking. Most of the camps, created schools for children with disabilities, incorporating them into camp life, such as articles in the newspapers, parties, and other events. The school at Tule Lake in California, established in summer 1943 was named the Helen Keller School, at Hannah Takagi’s suggestion. Although the school closed within a month after Tule Lake was designated the segregation center for those deemed “disloyal,” and most of the children were left without a school. A few such as Hannah and Kazuko Momii were lucky enough to go to schools outside camp, but most, especially those with developmental disabilities had to abandon their education or continue with inadequate facilities and untrained teachers.
But elsewhere, in battlefields across Europe and the Pacific, soldiers lost eyesight, limbs, and their lives. Japanese-American men from across the country volunteered or were drafted, including those in the camps.Kenneth Otagaki, a Hawaii native was critically wounded at Cassino, Italy, while serving with the famous 100th Battalion, composed of soldiers of Japanese ancestry. He was one of eight volunteers who went forward in the snow to rescue two wounded men. Four men were killed and three, including Private Otagaki were seriously injured. “The blast mangled Otagaki’s right leg so badly it ultimately had to be amputated. It sheared two fingers off his right hand, irreparably damaged his eyesight, broke a bone in his right arm, chewed part of a rib out of his side, covered his body with wounds.” He studied animal husbandry at Iowa State College. Kazuo Mori, who, along with his family was incarcerated in Topaz, Utah and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In his final month of service, Mori was hit by a mortar shell became a quadriplegic but regained the use of his arms and hands.
Around 1944 or 1945, George Hatfield from Modesto had introduced a resolution barring Japanese-Americans from ever returning to to California. John F. Shelley, then a San Francisco union labor leader and senator, later major and Congressman, went to DeWitt General Hospital where some Japanese-American veterans – some with missing limbs – were being cared for. He brought them to the Senate chambers as the resolution was about to be brought up and said, “Gentlemen, I would like to have you hear a few words from some American war veterans, wounded American war veterans.”
The group, including men on crutches got up, telling their stories of the hostility they still encountered. When they were finished, the chamber applauded. Hatfield walked over to Shelley and said, “You win, Jack.” He withdrew his resolution.
Walter Oi, who lost his sight gradually until becoming blind in 1956, taught at various colleges and universities, winning many honors in economics, and for his public service and advocating for people with disabilities. HIs research was key in ending the draft in the 1970s.
During the Redress Hearings in the 1980s, to provide monetary compensation and a formal apology for the incarceration, Mabel Okada testified about how camp conditions affect her daughter. Hannah Takagi Holmes testified that she and other Deaf students and those with disabilities missed out on their education in the camps, and in many cases were so far behind that they did not return to school after the war, though some went on to college.