Surviving Heart Mountain

Illustration of Yoshito Kawahara
Illustration by Brittany Olson

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Yoshito Kawahara, PhD’79, and his family—because they were of Japanese descent—were forced from their homes and imprisoned by the U.S. government. He was just an infant.

“The camp [my family was assigned to] was in Heart Mountain, Wyo. I went to visit one summer 25 years ago. I was wilting because it was so hot,” Kawahara shares. “After walking around the [site], my clothes had burrs and barbs from all the thorny wild plants. It was not a hospitable place to be.”

Kawahara and his family were incarcerated in Wyoming for three years.

“For the incarcerated Japanese American families, life had many traumas other than making a life in a desolate part of the U.S. There was the rejection by our own government, the memory of having lost so much of our life and property before the camps, and the traumatic effects of having untold numbers of former neighbors hating us when we were not the enemy,” he says.

Here Kawahara describes his family’s imprisonment—and discusses what life as an Asian American has been like since World War II.

Can you share your experience of being forced from your home and imprisoned?

Yoshito Kawahara: Many people do not know about this traumatic event in American history. After Pearl Harbor, we were informed that we had 48 hours to settle our affairs and prepare to be moved out of our homes. We could only take that which we could carry. Many Japanese American families had to sell almost everything they owned for pennies on the dollar.

We were first transported to the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Arcadia, Calif., and then to the camp at Heart Mountain. I was a complete burden to my parents since I was less than a year old. I developed asthma and bronchitis at a young age, and it may have started in the assembly center since all the families had to stay in horse stalls where there was a long accumulation of waste products and hay. This was how it was always described to me: As if the horses were moved out and the families were moved in.

Families stayed in the assembly center for three to seven months before taking the train ride to their camps. [On the train,] all the shades were drawn so there was little light and a lot of fear.

The American concentration camps had barbed wire around them with guard towers at the corners. The living quarters were tar-paper barracks, which offered minimal protection from the harsh elements in the areas where the camps were established. In the beginning, the toilet facilities had no stalls and no privacy.

While we were incarcerated, my uncle was drafted to fight for the U.S. as an American soldier. Despite the contradictions, he and other Japanese American soldiers wanted to show their loyalty to the U.S. He was assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regiment which was a segregated unit of Japanese American soldiers. The 442nd was said to be the most decorated regiment in the U.S. Army.

My grandparents came to the U.S. in 1880 and both of my parents were born in California. They were loyal and law-abiding American citizens who were treated as dangerous criminals or traitors by their own country. The main reason for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans was the racist belief that “once a Japanese, always a Japanese.” There was also the racist belief that Japanese Americans would always be blindly loyal to the Emperor of Japan. This belief was so pervasive that when Emperor Hirohito died in the 1980s, I had colleagues offer their condolences. When I said that I had never been to Japan and had no ties to the Emperor, they seemed to be shocked at the revelation.

Yoshito Kawahara poses for family photo
Yoshito Kawahara, PhD’79, far right, was awarded the Distinguished Asian/Pacific American Alumni Award by the IU Alumni Association in 2007. Photo courtesy of Yoshito Kawahara.

Some people use the term “internment camp” while others, like yourself, use the term “concentration camp.” Can you explain why?

YK: First, let me say that there is an obvious difference between the Nazi death camps and [these] American concentration camps. In the Nazi death camps, millions of Jewish people were imprisoned and put to death. The American concentration camps were nothing close to that, but it was a terrible violation of the constitutional rights of 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, most of whom were American citizens.

To me, and some others who empathize with the trauma of the camp experience, the terms “internment camp” and “relocation center” are innocuous terms that do not communicate the stresses of the incarcerees nor the racism of those who lobbied for the camps. There are some people who prefer innocuous terms. My guess is that it’s because these terms do not stigmatize the U.S. government for doing such a terrible misdeed. It should [also] be mentioned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly used the term concentration camps.

Once you were released from the camp in 1945, where did you go?

YK: First, we lived in tenement housing in downtown Los Angeles near the remnants of Japantown. We moved a number of times until my parents could afford to buy a house in West Los Angeles near the UCLA campus.

Row of toilets in Manzanar barracks replica
There were a total of 10 camps across the U.S. that housed Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Today, those who visit Manzanar National Historic Site in California can tour a replica of the barracks. “The photo of public toilets is not the most appealing of subject matter, but it does show the lack of privacy when doing ‘private’ activities,” Kawahara says. Courtesy photo.

When you were attending IU, did it feel like an inclusive environment? How would you describe your time here?

YK: When I was a grad student at IU, I felt that it was an inclusive environment. Many years after I graduated and received my Ph.D. from Indiana University, I learned how unique my situation was at that time. I found out that I was the first Asian American to earn a Ph.D. in the psychology program at IU, [which was founded in 1888].

As an adult, what has your experience as a Japanese American been like?

YK: My experience has had many high points and only a few low points. My low points usually involve negative encounters with a racist individual, for example, an angry-faced clerk refusing to give me information about an auto part or showing up at an apartment that has a rental available and being told that they don’t rent to people like me. I could be in denial, but the interactions with good, supportive people far outweigh the bad interactions.

This article is part of our Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month series, Honoring the History of Our Asian American Alumni.

Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.