Pearl Harbor stirs mixed emotions Japanese here remember war and interment.

December 03, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Patrick and Lily Okura were married 50 years ago this past October. The Bethesda couple celebrated with a big bash attended by more than 100 guests.

And yet, for the Okuras, the anniversary celebration was bittersweet.

In fact, they say, each happy anniversary carries the sad reminder that, two months after their wedding, the Japanese attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The surprise bombing brought the United States into the Second World War. It also led to the American government's internment of the Okuras and nearly 120,000 other West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry -- three-fourths of them native-born U.S. citizens -- on the suspicion that they were potential fifth-column spies for Japan.

However, both during and after the war, U.S. intelligence could find no evidence that Japanese-Americans spied on their homeland. And in 1983, a congressional commission on the internment program issued a 467-page report titled "Personal Justice Denied."

The report spoke of "a grave injustice . . . to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry," which resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

Lily Okura, 72, has seen many of the recent Pearl Harbor commemorations in the newspapers and magazines and on TV. They bring back "bad memories," she says. "It's too bad we have to relive all this again.

"I know it was a hard time for the country at large, but it was also hard for us Japanese-Americans to be put in those camps," says Okura, who was interned with her husband at a camp in Santa Anita, Calif. "We were loyal citizens, too, and we were just as shocked as anyone that Japan would attack a U.S. base. And we certainly never dreamed that Americans would be rounded up and put behind barbed wire."

Patrick Okura worked for the Los Angeles civil service commission, but after Pearl Harbor, the city's mayor forced him to resign because of his Japanese ancestry, Lily Okura says.

Bess Yano, 75, spent more than two years in an internment facility in Poston, Ariz., the largest of the 10 camps. "The government called them 'camps'; [internees] called it 'prison,' " says the California native, now a Baltimore resident.

Yano has followed some of the Pearl Harbor anniversary coverage and calls it "justified."

But, she adds, "It wasn't justified to stick us in those camps. If we were illegal aliens, I could maybe see it. But we were bona fide U.S. citizens, born here and raised here."

Gene Oishi, also of Baltimore, was 8 years old when he and his family were interned at a camp in Gila River, Ariz. He recalls how U.S. propaganda during the war portrayed the Japanese as "sub-human and ape-like."

Now, he says, he is "apprehensive" that the Pearl Harbor commemorations may rekindle those old racial stereotypes.

"I saw the war with Japan as a racial conflict, while the European war was more of an ideological fight," says Oishi, a communications specialist with the Maryland State Teachers Association. "I think people viewed the Japanese, more than the other Axis members, as cruel and cunning and wanting to conquer the world. I have fears that we're resurrecting those images for the economic conflicts we're now having with Japan, especially as we start to mark all these World War II anniversaries."

Oishi, previously a Sun reporter who also served as press secretary for former Gov. Harry Hughes, wrote an essay about Japanese-American identity for the Nov. 25 issue of Newsweek magazine.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, he says in describing the piece, Asian-Americans were "taught not to consider themselves as being able to assimilate to American society. It was still very much a white man's country. Asians were not thought to be made of the material out of which Americans could be made."

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s helped change that, Oishi says, adding, "There's nothing incompatible about being both Japanese and American. We should be allowed to feel a kinship to Japan and not be ashamed of it. Of course, that wasn't the case during the war and for years after it. Many Japanese-Americans were dealing with guilt and even some self-hate."

Mary Sugiyama, a former internee who lives in Towson, says she has been too busy to pay much attention to the Pearl Harbor commemorations. She explains that her time is taken up by various activities, including a class she teaches in Japanese flower-arranging. "Friendship through flowers," she calls her 0` craft.

"There's no time to be bitter," she says. "I believe it's more important to look forward than to live in the past."

Sugiyama expects to receive a check next year from the U.S. government as part of a redress program for the approximately 50,000 living ex-internees. In the late 1980s, Congress passed a bill that will give $20,000 to every living survivor of the camps.

"The money covers only a fraction of the material things we lost during the war, and then there's our freedom, which you can't put a price on," Sugiyama says. "But it's better late than never. I never really thought I'd see any money in my lifetime."

Oishi also expects a payment next year.

Yano and her late husband, also a former internee, received their money before he died recently.

When the Okuras received their $40,000, they used it to form a foundation to help Asian-American students in the field of human services.

"We thought that was a future-looking thing to do with the money," Lily Okura says. "My husband and I are people who try not to worry about the past. We're the types who just try to go on with life."

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