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A project collects the names of those detained at Japanese internment camps in WWII

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Weeks after Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the first step in removing Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast of the United States. What followed was something we now see as an assault on human rights and dignity - 125,000 naturalized Japanese Americans and Americans born in the U.S. of Japanese ancestry forcibly moved to internment camps, never having been convicted of any crimes or offered any means to appeal. Now the names of those interned during World War II are part of the Ireicho project, or the Sacred Book of Names. It's a yearlong exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

FORD KURAMOTO: I think it's important historically and important to me personally to have the book and to have each of us make our marks. It's a very important emotional experience.

MARTIN: That was Ford Kuramoto. He and his wife, Frances, were joined by their family as the Kuramotos visited the exhibition to see their own names printed among the other tens of thousands - the name in English printed with a small Japanese stamp.

FRANCES KURAMOTO: You know, the thing that moved me the most is going from the oldest to my name, which was towards the very end. And you span through all those names and you think, oh, my God, all those people were there incarcerated.

MARTIN: Frances Kuramoto, who was known as Frances Namimatsu before she was married, finds her name located near the end of the book with the help of the creator of the Ireicho project, Duncan Williams.

DUNCAN WILLIAMS: Let's go to the next name for the family, which is the other camp survivor with us today, Frances Sumio Namimatsu. Frances, can you tell me where you were born?

FRANCES KURAMOTO: I was born at Gila River.

WILLIAMS: If you could come and find your name and put the stamp underneath the first letter of your name.

MARTIN: Frances is referring to Arizona's Gila River internment camp, where she was born after her family was relocated from their Northern California home. Her husband, Ford, was 3 years old when he and his family were relocated from their home in Los Angeles. They were forced to leave behind a family business and were sent to the Manzanar internment camp in the California desert.

FORD KURAMOTO: Well, it brings back memories of being a toddler at Manzanar and the barracks and the barbed wire fences and the guards. I didn't realize, of course, being a child, what the situation was. But I felt we were being kept like a prisoner, and we had to be really careful.

FRANCES KURAMOTO: But as I recall, you told me that there was a certain amount of freedom because it was an enclosed, guarded area. So you were allowed to walk freely.

FORD KURAMOTO: Oh, yes. Of course, that was, you know, within the barbed wire fences in the World War II tar paper barracks that we lived in. You know, I could wander around all I wanted to, but there's basically nowhere to go. There were - I don't remember there being very many other children. And, you know, there weren't any recreational opportunities like playgrounds or anything like that. It was just dirt barracks and the barbed wire fences and the military guards with guns up in the towers. That was life.

MARTIN: The Kuramotos, along with siblings, children and extended family who made the pilgrimage, were there to honor all the interned members of their family and to be present for the precious moments and family history being acknowledged.

FORD KURAMOTO: I'm glad that my family members who were present got a chance to see the book and the names and the exhibits so they have a better sense of what Frances and I went through, what my parents went through, my grandparents went through. And that experience doesn't get lost. I mean, it's, you know, part of history and the more people understand what happened, I think the better off we all are.

FRANCES KURAMOTO: You know, Ford and I are both in our 80s, and we are rapidly forgetting what went on. And I grew up not ever knowing what was really going on or what happened because my parents never, ever, ever talked about it. And I can understand why my father - the one thing he did talk about was how much he hated being there. They had amazing spirit to continue on despite being uprooted and lifted - taken away from everything that they had and they knew and trying to engender that sense of the wrong that was done. But I just don't want my kids to not know what it was like and what it must have been like for them. My - I'm talking about our parents and other generations that actually went through that experience and lived it. It is so important to make sure that our families and our children and our children's children know what happened.

MARTIN: The Kuramotos' son Jack accompanied his parents to take part in marking the names of his parents and other family members he's never met.

JACK KURAMOTO: I was going to stamp it 'cause I have the same name. You know, it's sort of like passing the torch to another generation. Also, it's part of passing the heritage along.

MARTIN: Keeping family stories alive so the world never forgets.

FRANCES KURAMOTO: This can never happen again. And we see instances of attacks on people of color in the United States. And it's particularly horrifying to me because of what happened to our families, just because you're a Japanese American. So I just can't even imagine this happening again, but we must do whatever we can to stop it from ever happening again. And that's why I think this Ireicho and the sharing of family histories and stories is really, really important to pass it on to our children and to anyone else who will listen.

MARTIN: That was Frances and Ford Kuramoto. They were kind enough to allow us to accompany them as they memorialized their families in the Ireicho project. That's an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where all 125,000 names of World War II interned Japanese Americans is on display. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.