Growing Up in a Japanese Detainment Camp Turned This 90-Year-Old Into a Black Lives Matter Activist

Chizu Omori, as-told-to Eleni N. Gage
·5 min read
Photo credit: Alex Williamson
Photo credit: Alex Williamson

From Oprah Magazine

I didn’t speak English until I started kindergarten—I remember pulling the teacher’s skirt when I wanted her to come look at something. My father was a Japanese immigrant; my mother was born in the U.S. but educated in Japan. In my early childhood we moved around farms in Southern California, growing things like strawberries and tomatoes. In those days, Japanese people who were noncitizens, like my dad, weren’t allowed to own land or lease farms for longer than three years.

I was 11 when World War II broke out. Although at school I heard things like “dirty Japs,” those comments were directed toward the enemy army, not toward me personally. But right after Pearl Harbor, there were roundups of some older Japanese men. When the order for families to move to the camps was posted at the community schoolhouse, my parents destroyed all the Japanese goods in our home and burned our old letters and books.

We took a train to the detainment camp at Poston, Arizona. It was so hot—115 degrees. That first summer was just unbearable. And the camp was so raw, still being constructed. They’d bulldozed that desert land and plunked down flimsy barracks. It was just dust, dust, dust, and when it rained, mud, mud, mud. Each was divided into four rooms, five bodies to a room with a light bulb hanging from a cord, metal cots, and canvas bags you filled with straw for mattresses. Meals were announced by clanging gongs; we would all get in line and go into the mess hall. The latrines were in the middle of the blocks—we’d sometimes have to line up to use those, too.

The family structure began to break down because you didn’t have to eat with your parents in the mess halls. The kids my age all sat together—a whole new social order was coming about. It took a while for school to get organized, so that first summer we had nothing but time on our hands. Boys formed gangs, and girls did too, since we were freed from chores and out from under parental rule. When school finally started, they used empty bedrooms as classrooms, and it took a year before we had blackboards or enough chairs. There were no typewriters—the typing class practiced on circles they’d drawn on paper to create keys.

There were two different groups of people in the camps: the Issei, the older generation who were not citizens, and the younger group, American born and educated. Prisoners ran the camps under the supervision of the War Relocation Authority, but the government wouldn’t allow the Issei to hold any positions of authority. You can imagine how the old folks felt: They had literally lost their life’s work, and then to come into a camp and be stripped of any possibility of power—there was tremendous internal conflict. Here are these older men saying things like, “If America’s so great and you’re so American, why are you stuck here?”

Eventually, my parents decided they didn’t want to stay in the United States. They signed repatriation papers for my father to return to Japan, which meant the whole family would. I was 13 and very clear that I was American. I had a big fight with my folks. My father happened to be an easygoing, nice guy. But I observed a lot of men who were drunks running their families with an iron hand. In the camps they became even more bitter and angry. I thought, Who wants to live in a country where men have so much power?

We never did go back to Japan. The war ended when I was 15, and we were able to leave the camp, settling on a goldfish farm where my father found work. A year later, my mother died suddenly of bleeding ulcers, and I went to do my last year of high school in L.A., where I worked for a family, doing the dishes and babysitting the kids. After my mother’s death, we never spoke of the camps again.

I attended Berkeley in the early ’50s, during the Red Scare, and I married a Caucasian. We were both lefties, active in the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam, pro-feminism. Internment was something the Japanese community didn’t want to talk about. But being involved with Black civil rights made me think about what had happened to us. I became active in fighting for redress, lobbying for Japanese Americans to be compensated for the time they spent in the camps, and I was named a plaintiff in the class action suit seeking reparations. It went all the way to the Supreme Court before the case was declared moot; we had several parallel initiatives going on at the same time, and before the court case ended, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving each surviving internee $20,000.

I place our experience into the history of racism in this country, part of a continuum from the very beginning. What happened to us as kids is happening to migrant children right now. I’m very active in Tsuru for Solidarity, a group of Japanese Americans protesting the migrant detention centers and the way asylum seekers are being treated.

I’m happy that I’m still healthy enough to stay engaged. My sister and I go to a particular street corner every Friday to do a vigil, and I hold this sign that says yellow power for black lives matter. I don’t knit and I don’t crochet; I don’t do crossword puzzles. I’m a political activist, and I always will be.

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