Japanese-American internment survivor recalls life during WWII

Japanese-American internment survivor recalls life during WWII

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Sachiko Tokubo recollects prejudice, confusion

Editor-in-Chief Alexander Rurik, ‘19, chose to interview Japanese internment survivor Sachiko Tokubo in light of the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This is the first of three articles showcasing the stories of those affected by prejudice following the Japanese attack, Dec. 7, 1941.

Alexander Rurik | The Feather Online

Alexander Rurik, ’19, with Japanese-American internment camp survivor Sachiko Tokubo. Takubo was five years old when she and her family were sent to Gila River Japanese Relocation Center and was nine when they left.

During World War II (WWII), many minority groups living in the U.S. were affected by war-time hysteria, experiencing prejudice and hostility. For Japanese-Americans, this bad blood heightened after the Japanese bombed the United States Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

This attack sent the west into a state of paranoia. The United States government feared any person of Japanese descent might conspire with the government overseas, so President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

This act forced more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast into government internment camps.

Sachiko Tokubo was merely five-years-old when she and her family were assigned to one of these relocation centers.

“When the war broke out we were living in Compton and my father was a truck farmer,” Tokubo said. “He was a first-generation Issei and was not allowed to buy land because he was not an American citizen. Just before Pearl Harbor, we used to see airplanes mock fighting over Compton and we didn’t think anything of it.”

We didn’t even know why we were there. That was the question because a lot of us had never even seen our parents’ country. When we would ask, ‘why are we here?’ they wouldn’t even answer us because they didn’t know. — Sachiko Tokubo

Numerous Japanese internment camps were located in the deserts of California and Arizona, while a few occupied Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. Japanese-Americans were first taken to distribution centers before sent to specific camps.

“We had to drop everything,” Tokubo said. “All we could do was pack up our one bag and my father was able to get rid of some stuff before we got on the train and were relocated to Fresno. There at the Fresno Fairgrounds, we stayed in the horse stalls. I guess they were afraid of us because they covered the windows of the train when we left Fresno so we couldn’t see where we were going.’

“We were relocated to Gila Arizona Relocation Camp,” Tokubo continued. “I was just a kid, so being only five years old was a ball because there was nothing but kids there. We didn’t know what was going on or anything about the war because we were just kids. The ones really affected were my parents. My mother worked in the mess hall and my father was a farmer so they sent him out in the fields to grow things.”

Japanese internment camps were spread across the western US. Tokubo spent four years in Gila River, 1942-1946, where temperatures normally exceeded 100 degrees and dust storms were frequent problems.

Life in internment camps was not easy. Entire families lived in miniature barracks in close quarters to other families, meal portions were small with little variation and bathhouses and bathrooms were public.

“There were schools and we played a lot, especially baseball,” Tokubo said. “Winters over there in Arizona were very dusty. It’s a desert and there’s nothing out there. The first year we were surrounded by fences and guns were pointed at us, but where are you going to run? Eventually, they eased up. A lot of artists would go out into the desert and pick up dry wood and different things and make artifacts out of them.”

Loyal Japanese-Americans and immigrants felt confused and angry with the order to place them in relocation centers.

“We didn’t even know why we were there, “ Tokubo said. “That was the question because a lot of us had never even seen our parents’ country. When we would ask, ‘why are we here?,’ they wouldn’t even answer us because they didn’t know. People like the professors and other higher-ups were even imprisoned. The guards became friendly with us because we weren’t doing anything dangerous. We didn’t do anything to cause them to dislike us.”

However, hardship did not end for Tokubo when released from the Gila River War Relocation Center. Her family had nothing to return to since they were only permitted to take one bag to camp and owned no land.

“When we left the camp, we initially were able to stay with a Portuguese family my mother knew,” Tokubo said. “They let us stay in their barn in Kingsburg and we had the best milk from their cow. Eventually, we came to a home in Fowler and there we were able to start school because I was in the 5th grade. It was hard coming back and being called ‘Japs’. It used to hurt me a lot, but then I just realized it was because they were ignorant.

Alexander Rurik | The Feather Online

Many Japenese-Americans were angry that their civil rights were violated when forced into relocation centers. 

“We didn’t own any land so my father rented a piece of land, bought half a barrack and partitioned it into three bedrooms,” Tokubo continued. “Eventually my parents were able to buy a piece of land. Most of the Japanese people worked their tails off. We were never on welfare or had any handouts and that’s one thing I think the Japanese people are proud of.”

She went on to explain the phrase “shikata ga nai,” which translates to “that’s the way it is” or “it cannot be helped.” She explained this is the expression many of the Japanese-Americans adopted in relation to the internment camps and hostility against them.

Tokubo worked as a hairdresser for 50+ years. She currently resides in Fresno, CA, and has two sons.

For more related articles, read Kawashima recalls internment camp experience. For more articles regarding Veterans Day, check out WWII veteran George Poplin shares story, inspires others and PROMO: 98th Annual Fresno Veterans Day Parade, Nov. 11.

This author can be reached via twitter @alexrurik23 and via email: Alexander Rurik.

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By |2017-12-22T18:29:51+00:00November 11th, 2017|Features|2 Comments

About the Author:

Alexander Rurik
In addition to visiting all MLB ballparks, senior Alexander Rurik holds a goal to hike in every US National Park. With a lifelong desire to explore the natural world and help others, he plans to pursue a degree in biology and work in biotechnology. Now in his fourth year of The Feather Online and second as editor, Alex hopes to carry on the legacy left by those before him. He maintains a 4.0+ G.P.A, serves as ASB president and has earned four All-League honors between soccer and tennis. Alex welcomes any and all challengers in a game of ping-pong and is always looking to play spikeball. {@alexrurik23} {alexrurik23@gmail.com}


  1. Mariana Fikse
    Mariana Fikse November 12, 2017 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    Great article Alex! These are stories that need to be told.

  2. scott November 13, 2017 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Well told story of Sachiko. To know our history is important, then, hopefully it won’t be repeated.

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