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Tuesday, Mar 11 2014 06:51 PM

Bakersfield man: 'realistic resignation' as Japanese-American during WWII

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ken Nishiyama spent some of his childhood living in a Japanese internment camp during World War II in Utah. He later went on to a career serving in the United States Air Force.

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    By Provided photo

    Ken Nishiyama in his Air Force uniform. Nishiyama spent part of his childhood during World War II in a Japanese internment camp in Utah.

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    By Provided photo

    Ken and Mary Nishiyama.

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    By Provided photo

    Topaz internment camp during WWII in Utah where Ken Nishiyama spent part of his childhood.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ken Nishiyama holds one of several signs he made 20 years ago to use during talks to school children and adults about internment in the Japanese internment camp in Utah where he lived part of his childhood.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ken Nishiyama

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ken Nishiyama shows some of the old photos he has used over the years from the Japanese internment camp he lived in during World War II in Utah as a youngster.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ken Nishiyama has written down several recommendations he tries to teach young people including these several phrases. At 8 years old he moved from Oakland, Calif., to a Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The note of alarm in the older man's voice was unmistakable, even to the ears of an innocent 8-year-old boy.

"My uncle burst into the room," remembers Bakersfield resident Ken Nishiyama.

Related Info

Ken Nishiyama will give a presentation on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, including his own experiences as an internee, beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, at Shafter Airport. Sponsored by the Minter Field Air Museum, the program will be presented at the museum's hangar just north of the museum.

For details, contact Dean Craun at 654-9159.

"He said, 'The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.'"

More than seven decades have passed since Nishiyama first heard those words. It was Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, and the lives of the Nishiyama family -- and tens of thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry -- would be forever changed by the news and world-altering events that would follow.

Nishiyama, now 80, would go on to serve 29 years in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. He retired in 1984 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

But during World War II, he and his family -- his parents and two brothers -- lived for four months in a manure-scented horse stable at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno before being moved by train to a one-room barracks in Topaz, Utah made from pineboard and tar paper and heated by a single coal stove. They would be locked away like prisoners of war for three years at that primitive camp.

"I don't want to give the impression that I'm griping about it," Nishiyama says. "It was a bad thing that happened to us, but bad turns to good sometimes."

Most Japanese-Americans followed the principle of shikata ga nai, Nishiyama recalls. It is a sense of acceptance, a philosophy of realistic resignation in response to a situation that cannot be helped.

For two generations after the war, he said, the camps were rarely spoken of.

It wasn't until the early 1990s, when Nishiyama was working as a substitute teacher in Wyoming, that he was approached by a fellow educator and asked if he knew anything about the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

He knew, all right.

The retired Air Force aviator made his first formal presentation before a group of students in 1993. Later he added more than a dozen handmade placards depicting the 10 internment camps that were built to house more than 110,000 Japanese. They included Manzanar in the Owens Valley, Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Topaz, Nishiyama's home until summer 1945.

For two decades, Nishiyama has hauled his low-tech visual aids to school assemblies and service-club luncheons in hopes of educating Americans about an unpleasant chapter of their own history.

"In my talk, I always say I'm thankful to be an American," he says.

But his patriotism -- made more than apparent by his military service -- doesn't mean he minces words. He doesn't pretend the forced relocation of loyal Americans was anything other than a terrible stain upon the history of the nation he loves.

And he calls the camps what they were, he says: concentration camps.

Nishiyama grew up in Oakland, where his father was a nurseryman. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the family was given 72 hours to sell its belongings or otherwise get ready for deportation to the interior.

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, set the stage for their treatment. "A Jap is a Jap... it makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not," DeWitt reportedly said leading up to the relocation order.

Voluntary relocation was tried first. But residents and authorities in the interior states did not welcome the refugees.

According to the book, "The Pride of Prejudice," by Leonard J. Arrington, resolutions protesting the resettlement of the Japanese in the Salt Lake area "unless properly supervised" were adopted by units of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and similar groups in early 1942.

When the Nishiyamas left their home, they were limited to what luggage they could carry.

At the camp in Utah, the young boy was forced to abandon his privacy.

The five of us lived in one room," Nishiyama remembers.

The latrines were centrally located. Ten toilets lined up one way, 10 more back-to-back, with no partitions.

He still remembers searching desperately for a toilet away from others. Eventually he would have to overcome his embarrassment.

"There were lots of older guys reading a newspaper, smoking a cigarette. You do what you have to do," he said.

Eventually, young Japanese-American men were given the chance to enlist in the Army. Two of Nishiyama's uncles served in Italy with the highly decorated 442nd Infantry. One did not come home.

"The 442nd was the most highly decorated unit of its size," Nishiyama says.

It was, and continues to be, a source of pride for many of his generation. And tacit proof that the internment was not only an injustice, but an injustice that imprisoned the very individuals who helped America beat back the scourge of the Axis powers.

Despite it all, Nishiyama considers himself fortunate. Marriage, family, service to country, a life well-lived. These are the rewards Nishiyama says are part of the American Dream, a dream he has realized, despite the nightmare of forced relocation.

But his father's nursery business was no more when the family returned to the Bay Area after the war. Hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings and property were lost to Japanese internees during their time away.

The good that came from the bad, Nishiyama says, was that Americans of Japanese heritage were forced to more quickly assimilate into American society, he said.

"It was one of the gates that opened up for us," he said. He understands that others may not agree.

Many years ago, Nishiyama returned to Topaz with his mother for a visit.

"Topaz was named for a mountain," he said, which seemed to cast its shadow across the ramshackle camp.

"The silhouette of that mountain stuck with me for 50 years. When I went back, there it was. Exactly the same."

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