Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps

by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald

Published by NewSage Press

240 pages, 2005

Buy it online


Mary Matsuda was a "carefree" high-school student living on Vashon Island, in northwestern Washington's Puget Sound, when Japanese bombers launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. That incident finally drew the United States into World War II and convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that, for national-security reasons, thousands of Japanese-American families should be evacuated from the West Coast to internment camps in the country's interior. In May 1942, Mary and her family -- her parents, Heisuke and Mitsuno Matsuda (who had lived in the States since 1898 and 1922, respectively), and her elder brother, Yoneichi -- were sent south by train to Pinedale Assembly Center, a hastily constructed facility outside of Fresno, California, and then transferred a month and a half later to the "permanent" Tule Lake Internment Camp, near Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For then 17-year-old Mary, this dislocation was harrowing -- but so was the betrayal she felt at being imprisoned as a potential "threat" in the only land she'd ever known as home. "Am I Japanese? Or am I American? ... From my earliest memories," she writes in her new memoir, Looking Like the Enemy, "I had been both. I grew up playing hopscotch and jacks, learning kendo and ikebana. I studied U.S. history at school and Japanese on Saturday. For breakfast I ate scrambled eggs and mochi. Dinner could include fried chicken and sushi. I always felt that I was Japanese-American and I belonged in America, that I was part of the group. Before December 7, 1941, it never occurred to me that I was not." It wasn't until the fall of 1945 -- after her brother was drafted into the U.S. Army, after the atomic-bomb destructions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after she had endured the corrosive effects of racism and moves to two more relocation camps, and after the war's end -- that Mary and her family were allowed to return to their berry farm on Vashon Island.

Yet so painful were the wounds of her internment, delivered at such a vulnerable point in her young life, that Mary Matsuda (later to become Mary Matsuda Gruenewald) was unable to speak of her experiences for decades. Not even her three children, growing up, knew much about her time in the camps, where she had had to depend upon her father's consistent strength, her mother's enduring warmth and Yoneichi's companionship to get her through. Only now, at age 80, and with the encouragement of a writers' group, has this Seattle-dwelling Nisei and retired nurse managed to break her silence with the publication of her first book.

January's excerpt finds Mary and her family being moved, in July 1942, from Pinedale to the Tule Lake encampment. There she'll endure withering heat and "unpredictable dust storms," look for answers to her plight, and find a brief psychological escape in an evening dance with a young friend.

[Glossary note: The term Issei here refers to Japanese who immigrated to and settled in the United States. Nisei are the American-born second-generation children of the Issei.]




The Last Dance in the Searchlight

The train ride out of Pinedale, though stressful, was at least a break from the monotonous routine of one and a half months in the camp. The old train cars were musty, dirty and creaky, just like the last train. As before, the windows were smoked and we could not look at the passing landscape. How I wished we could have seen signs of normal life.

Rocking back and forth on the decrepit seats, we were lost in our thoughts. Papa-san sat erect most of the time, occasionally leaning his head against the headrest while he intermittently sighed deeply and stared into space. Periodically his eyes glazed over and a frown creased his forehead. I imagined, He is feeling the loss of all he and Mama-san have worked so hard to establish. I turned away, unable to tolerate his loss on top of my own.

When I looked across at Mama-san she nodded her head and smiled as though to reassure me, yet I could see the sadness in her eyes. At times she sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her lips pressed tightly together, as she discreetly looked around at those who rode with her to the next unknown destination.

Papa-san, Mama-san, and I remained seated most of the time, but Yoneichi moved about the train car talking with people. When he came back to sit with us, his foot jiggled nervously up and down. Others dozed or looked about with dull eyes. We were all preoccupied with questions of the future.

My periodic trips to the restroom took me past several families from Vashon huddled together in somber silence. The Aoyama family sat with bowed heads. Mrs. Aoyama, one of Mama-san's closest friends from home, nodded to me each time I passed. The Ohashis and their three boys sat together looking grim and preoccupied. I raised my hand slightly and tried to smile at Ardith Kumamoto sitting with her parents and her three sisters. Ardith was a petite, pretty girl with big, dark eyes and long eyelashes. She and I had become good friends because we used to perform Japanese dances together back home. From the time she was in the fifth grade and I was in the fourth grade, we went weekly to Mrs. Nakamura's Japanese dance class. We would practice for performances in Japanese community events. It was the only time I could dress up and wear a touch of lipstick.

One time Ardith's father took us for a ride in their black, shiny touring car with the top folded down. In the 1930s, cars were still a novelty on the island, and getting a ride was a real treat. Ardith and I giggled as we sat together in the back seat anticipating our ride. First Mr. Kumamoto adjusted the levers on the steering column that controlled the fuel and ignition. Then he walked around to the front, rested his left hand on top of the radiator, and grasped the crank with his right. He gave it a brisk, firm turn, then another. After several cranks the motor took hold, belched, sputtered, and shook as Mr. Kumamoto sprang into the driver's seat. Black smoke spewed out the tail pipe then gradually changed to white as he readjusted the levers. The motor settled down into a rhythmic clatter and the car began to move forward in low gear. Releasing the hand lever and removing his foot from the pedal, the car shifted into high gear. The car leapt forward amid our cheers and we sat back to enjoy the wind on our faces. What an incredible sense of freedom! Ardith and I raised our arms and cheered wildly.

Seeing my neighbors' faces on the train took me to thoughts of Vashon and home. How I missed the island lush with evergreens, surrounded by the pristine waters of Puget Sound. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, imagining the crisp, clean air of Vashon. How I longed for a drink of pure, cool water from our well. How innocent I had been in that peaceful environment with the warm and satisfying relationships of neighbors, friends, and classmates. But in the midst of my reverie, no matter how hard I tried, I could not shake the dread. We are going to a "permanent" camp. Does permanent mean we will be "permanently dead?" If so, how, when and where?

It was fortunate that I had not heard about the concentration camps in Europe and the murdering of millions of Jews by the Nazis. While in fact we had it much better than the Jews in Nazi Germany, if I had known of their plight, I might have gone over the edge. Fear of being shot or killed was never far from my consciousness. I felt compelled to stay close to Mama-san, Papa-san, and Yoneichi, and always to be on the same train.

The tension in the air heightened abruptly when the locomotive blew its whistle and slowed to a stop. We had been riding for about a day and a half. I crossed my legs and tightened my arms about my body. This must be it, I whispered to myself.

A soldier suddenly appeared at the end of the car. "Okay, everybody off," he barked. People slowly got out of their seats, grabbed their luggage, and began filing out one by one. I followed those ahead of me to the doorway, then stopped as I glanced out the door. This camp was gigantic. I was overwhelmed. The soldier at the bottom of the stairway shouted at me, "Come on! Come on! Move ahead! Keep moving!" He rotated his forearm in continuous circles, as if that would force me to move faster.

What's going to happen to us here? I wondered. I felt sick to my stomach and my chest tightened as I looked at a blur of black barracks separated by huge bare spaces. Later I found out that the purpose of the wide, bare ground was to create firebreaks between the flimsy wooden barracks. The firebreaks divided the camp into seven wards. Most of the wards were made up of nine blocks; each block had fourteen barracks. There were sixty-four blocks altogether. With approximately 260 men, women, and children per block we had a population of over 18,000 people at this new internment camp. I had no idea there were so many Japanese people living in America.

We had arrived at Tule Lake Internment Camp, located twenty-six miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Despite its name I never saw a lake anywhere near the internment camp. Like Pinedale Assembly Center, this camp was encircled with a high, chain-link fence topped by three rows of barbed wire, all slanted inward. Soldiers with machine guns watched us from tall watchtowers located strategically around the perimeter. These lookouts were equipped with large mounted searchlights that continuously swept 360 degrees at night. The vast expanse of dreary, regimented, black tar-papered barracks were like the ones we had just left, only this camp looked ten times bigger and I felt one hundred times smaller.

My head whirled as my eyes tried to take in the scene. A momentary wish flashed through my mind. This is just a bad dream. I will wake up back home. It took Mama-san's gentle nudge from behind and her soft voice saying, "Let's go find where we will be staying," to make me realize this was not a nightmare. I stepped down from the train. Just then three young Japanese men walked by, raised their right fists, and yelled, "Tenno Heika Banzai -- Long live His Majesty the Emperor." In the midst of so much noise and tension, I barely noticed them nor had any inkling of what this signified for the future. People were milling all around us, shouting orders and flailing their arms as we piled up near the train. It was hot and dusty without any breeze to relieve the stifling confusion.

We were ordered to climb into waiting army trucks. A Nisei man drove us to our "space" which was 7404 C (block 74, barrack 4, apartment C) in the northwestern corner of the camp. The barracks here were similar to those at the Pinedale Assembly Center: 120 feet long, divided into varying sized "apartments," which were nothing more than rectangular rooms with openings above the seven-foot walls. These open spaces extended the full length of the barrack. Any sound made in any one of the living cubicles could be heard throughout the barrack.

When we got to our twenty-foot by twenty-foot space, I remarked to my family, "Look, the room is smaller but we don't have to share it with anyone else. That's good." Our parents silently nodded. Looking at the pot-bellied stove Yoneichi commented, "Must get cold here." That winter the doorknob would get so cold our fingers would stick to it. We would be plagued by the subfreezing temperatures, scarcely protected by the flimsy barrack walls.

The central part of the camp had already been occupied by Japanese-Americans who came first -- mostly from Sacramento, California. Those of us from Washington and Oregon were sent either to the northwestern section of the camp or the southeastern part. This would become significant later. I would quickly realize that I felt more comfortable spending time in our own area with those from the Northwest and especially from Vashon.

Once again we fell quickly to the task of setting up "home." Papa-san and Yoneichi went to find ticking and straw for our mattresses. Mama-san and I looked around our living space, wondering what we could do to make it ours. There were the familiar army cots and blankets for each of us. Aside from the stove and the light bulb screwed into a ceramic socket on the end of a cord hanging from the ceiling, the room was bare. It was just a space waiting for whatever drama was to be played out.

Mama-san said as she pointed, "Let's line up the cots along this wall away from the window. In case the wind blows the dust in as it did in Pinedale, it won't be as bad when we're asleep."

"Okay. This time we can put our stuff wherever we want to." I was glad we didn't have to share our space with another family. It didn't take long to set up our few personal things out of our suitcases.

My initial shock at seeing the camp for the first time gave way to depression as reality set in. We were going to be here for awhile, perhaps forever for all I knew. The drab surroundings and familiar still air of
the hot evening crushed whatever small hopes I may have had after leaving Pinedale.

There was a notice posted in our "apartment" that gave the name of the block manager of our barracks, what his duties would be, and his office location. The note asked us to come to his office to identify ourselves and to sign up for various jobs.

After we had taken time to look around the camp and had gone to the block manager's office, we came home to compare notes. The camp layout was similar to Pinedale. Yoneichi announced proudly, "Mr. Mayeda from Vashon is going to be the chief cook in our mess hall. I asked him if I could be his assistant and learn how to cook. He agreed, so now I've got a job. I'll get paid sixteen dollars a month." He looked pleased to have a job.

Professional people like doctors, lawyers, dentists, and chief cooks were paid at the highest rate of nineteen dollars a month. Semi-skilled workers received sixteen dollars and unskilled laborers twelve dollars per month. Papa-san and Mama-san signed up as janitors for the school that was to be set up and they would each be paid twelve dollars a month. I signed up as a waitress at twelve dollars a month to serve breakfasts and dinners during the school year, and all meals during the summer. It looked like I couldn't qualify for anything else. Since I had only worked on the farm to help my family and did not receive an allowance, twelve dollars a month didn't sound too bad to me, especially given what everyone else was receiving.

While Papa-san waited to begin work as a janitor he signed up with the road crew and was active every day. Yoneichi was busy learning to cook, and Mama-san and I helped clean up in the mess hall after each meal. Each of us found ways to fill our time.

Because of the highly structured way of life in camp there was nothing specific for most people to do. Many drifted about aimlessly. If they were back at their homes they would have been working from dawn to dusk at their farms, greenhouses, hotels, or restaurants. In camp there were many tasks such as garbage collection, fire station watches, and block manager work, but all of these were quickly assigned. Later, the need for adult education classes, arts and crafts, and other creative outlets would become obvious. For now, the overwhelming social problem was simply that there was nothing to do.

The Isseis in particular had a powerful work ethic that made them successful in their careers back home. Many had not taken a proper vacation in years or even in decades. The initial weeks at the internment camp with the idle hours were a welcome relief. But before long they discovered that time had to be filled with what used to be considered trivial or unimportant, such as sitting around and talking, doing needlework for hours, going to the laundry room or mess hall, or just standing around complaining.

Some of the people found time to enjoy conversations with those who came from the same location. I noticed Mrs. Kumamoto and Mrs. Shimada from Vashon often sat in the shade of their barrack knitting and talking together. Ardith's mother was quite a seamstress. She would do a variety of needlework while she conversed with her neighbors. However, many people suffered from boredom, bewilderment, and depression. Our stress came from not having enough to do.

Papa-san was an adaptable man. He met others in the block and before long he was part of an older men's group who played go, a Japanese board game. Two players alternately placed flat, round, black or white stones on the board. The strategy is to trap the other player within a given area by surrounding the opponent's stones with one's own. Whenever a game was going on, observers stood close to the players and watched in rapt silence. Papa-san played with other men from Vashon, such as Mr. Yamamoto and Mr. Watanabe, and anyone else willing to challenge him.

To fill my time after my daily waitress job, I got out the little radio I had brought from home and listened to a program called the "Voice of Prophecy." It was a conservative fundamentalist Christian program that I thought could help me find some answers to my desperate questions: Where does it say that Jesus is the Savior? What do I have to do to be saved from this terrible place? I needed comfort, direction, and hope but all I heard on the "Voice of Prophecy" were words. The words gave me no hope that this would all end soon, but I kept listening carefully, red-lining passages in my Bible that were particularly meaningful. There must be some answers somewhere, I told myself.

I knew my parents were deeply spiritual people [both of them devout Methodists]. I wished I were too. I searched the Bible but I couldn't find the key to help me. I will just have to keep looking, I decided. My parents didn't object to my listening to the sermons but I think Mama-san saw my preoccupation with the Bible and my isolation from others as unhealthy. On more than one occasion she urged me, "Mary-san, let's go outside into the sunshine and go for a walk. I think it will be better for us to get out and see what is out there. We might find something interesting and meet people."

I longed for the sunny days of spring on Vashon when the fog disappeared in the warmth of the bright sunshine. I imagined the pink and white fragrant carnations along the sides of our farmhouse. Honeybees were hard at work, birds were busily flying around, twittering as they caught insects to bring to their hungry babies huddled in nests. I thought about the quiet evenings, so still I could hear an ambitious woodpecker hammering into a distant tree. I especially missed our green lawn where I could lie down after a day's work and watch fluffy white clouds float across the blue sky, resembling horses, flowers, buildings, or a palace. I missed my classmates at school and my friends in the church, too.

Tule Lake Internment Camp was plagued with unpredictable dust storms that came and went as if the desert were throwing a furious tantrum. Then just as suddenly they would stop, leaving us gasping for breath as we ran for shelter. Covering our faces with handkerchiefs or some clothing was essential. The slightest breeze would pick up the dirt and swirl it around the barracks, chasing us as we scrambled for cover.

* * *

After we had been in Tule Lake for a few weeks, I learned that my dance instructor, Mrs. Nakamura, had been asked to present a program at an upcoming outdoor event. She was well known in Seattle as an instructor and player of the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument. These programs were the first attempts to relieve the monotony of internment by using the talents of the community. Mama-san was pleased that Ardith and I were selected to perform, and so was I, although I didn't say anything since Mama-san often advised me to be modest at all times. Dancing was something I knew how to do and I could do it with Ardith. It was a great honor, but I wasn't sure about dancing in front of a large and unfamiliar audience.

Ardith and I practiced together diligently. We followed Mrs. Nakamura's instructions precisely as she strummed on the shamisen. Listening and dancing to the rhythm of the music, I escaped from the dreariness and fear of the camp. I was carried back to our teacher's spacious living room on Vashon where Ardith and I had practiced together. The room provided an atmosphere of beauty and serenity.

As we danced to the music traditionally played in a minor key, I had a vision of a pensive person walking beside a gentle stream trickling over rocks. The water followed the bends in the river, finally flowing into a serene pool. The music and the movements took me to a peaceful place where the two cultures unified for a brief time. I felt whole -- Japanese by heritage and American by birth.

Ardith and I moved our bodies slowly and gracefully making each step with the bend of the knees. Each head, arm, and hand movement, each turn of the body flowed together into the next position. We practiced until Mrs. Nakamura felt confident in our movements. I was delighted to have her approval.

The evening of our performance finally arrived. Several ladies helped us put on our beautiful kimonos that Mrs. Nakamura borrowed from some families who had brought them to camp. Ardith's had red, purple, and gold leaves on a beige background with a red obi interwoven with silver threads. Mine was a dark blue kimono with soft, simple patterns in gray. My obi was also red with silver threads.

Getting dressed in kimonos is a lengthy, complicated process. I was prepared to stand for quite awhile as the ladies helped me into each successive garment. As they tugged and pulled the sashes snugly around me, I noticed beads of perspiration on their foreheads and upper lips.

First came the short-sleeved undershirt tied at the waist, followed by the under robe, which is long and visible only at the neck like the collar of a shirt. Next we put on the kimono, which is heavy and long. It must be folded up and tied with a cord to hold it in place. This was followed by a wide long obi, which the women wound tightly around my waist several times, making it impossible to take a deep breath or take long, bold steps. Then they tied the obi into a special knot on my back and held it in place with various cords and clasps. With white tabi -- Japanese socks -- and geta -- wooden clogs on our feet, and red lipstick, we were ready. Mama-san gave me her last-minute advice, "This is an opportunity to represent the Vashon Japanese community, so do your very best."

We arrived at the outdoor platform where a crowd had gathered to watch our performance. It felt almost unbearably hot in my heavy kimono in the still air of the darkening desert skies. Mrs. Nakamura, dressed in her muted colored kimono, stepped onto the stage and seated herself on a chair. Holding her shamisen on her lap, she smiled and nodded at us confidently.

As I approached the platform in my beautiful kimono my stomach fluttered but I was full of energy as if I had shrugged off the oppression of the environment. Ardith and I took our positions in the center of the stage and waited to begin our dance. In that moment I knew we brought hope to the audience, representing the beauty and value of our culture.

Suddenly the revolving searchlight from a nearby watchtower flashed across my face, blinding me momentarily. I dropped my eyes and froze. My legs felt heavy, my arms like stone. I struggled to regain my composure. Vulnerability and fragility exposed my old confusion: Am I Japanese or am I American in this barbed-wire camp, about to perform a Japanese dance? I was chilled to the bone in the hot desert air and sick to my stomach. Can I really do this?

As I waited for the cue to begin I told myself, Listen for the first stroke on the shamisen. Concentrate on each step. Remember what Mama-san said. I glanced out over the crowd in the direction towards Mama-san. She looked at me, smiled, and nodded her head.

On the third strum of the music I slowly turned my head to the right and raised my right hand higher than my left in front of my body. My hands opened like the wings of a crane. Bending my knees slightly, I slowly slid my right foot slightly ahead of my left. Forget everything else and move with the twang of the music, I told myself. I know the steps by heart. As if suspended in time and space, I numbly and automatically made each movement, slowly, slowly, step by step. Gradually the movements of my body and the rhythm and tone of the shamisen took over until I realized that Ardith and I were dancing, and dancing well together. Relief, self-confidence, and even some self-importance finally crept back in as I gained a sense of the appreciative audience. Now enjoy the dance. And I did. I had finally found my own place in this barren camp.

We had only been dancing a couple of minutes when suddenly, a blast of hot wind whipped up the fine dust, swirling it everywhere between the barracks and across the open spaces, especially at us on the exposed, elevated platform. It felt like a thousand bees were stinging our hands and faces. We could taste the dirt and grit, barely able to breathe.

Mrs. Nakamura stopped playing. We covered our noses and mouths, and scrambled off the platform in our beautiful kimonos. Everyone scattered like leaves before a giant blower. Ardith and I took cover behind the closest barrack. By then Ardith's hair, kimono, and obi were coated with fine dust. It clung to the bangs on her forehead, to her eyelids and eyelashes, and stuck to her lipstick. Tears ran down her dusty cheeks. When she brushed the tears aside the dust left a smudge across her cheek. I must have looked like a dust ball myself. Then the storm died down as abruptly as it had started. We ran back to our own barracks.

When I got home, dust had penetrated through the cracks in the loose-fitting window, under the door, and up through the floorboards. Like thick smoke that streamed out of a smoldering fire, it seeped through everything in its path, finding and filling every nook and cranny. It seemed as if God was speaking through the dust storm, creating in me a crisis of identity. It was as though God Himself was saying, "No." I wasn't accepted in the white community, but when I tried to be Japanese, I felt annihilated. I threw myself on my cot and sobbed. Mama-san sat down beside me, lifted me into her arms and silently rocked me back and forth, back and forth until my crying subsided.

Later we cleaned our apartment, then stuffed paper into every crack we could find but it didn't help. There was always dust everywhere -- the dark cloud that invaded every aspect of our life at the camp.

* * *

This was the last time Ardith and I danced together. Before the year was over, we would be separated forever. My family would be sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming and Ardith's family would go to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. Ardith's ultimate goal was to travel to the East Coast to be with Hanako, her older sister. Our letters flew back and forth for months. Then they stopped.

Months after our dance in the dust storm a letter came from Hanako telling me that Ardith had died from an unknown disease. When I read that, I rushed outdoors, stumbling and looking at the barbed-wire fence in the foreground. I raised my clenched fists into the air and shouted "Ardith" in anguish. A strong wind swooped down, picking up the fine dirt and sent it surging through the air, blinding me. I took cover behind the closest barrack and crumpled to the ground, sobbing.

Eyes closed, I pictured Ardith's large beautiful eyes, her black shiny hair against her clear, creamy skin. How beautiful and graceful she looked as she danced with me on the stage, I thought. I will never see her again. Our dance in the searchlight was Ardith's last, and in that moment I decided it would be my last dance, too. | May 2005


Excerpted with permission from Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps (NewSage Press, 2005). All rights reserved. Reprint of this material requires advance permission from the publisher, NewSage Press.

Copyright © 2005 by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald