July 27, 2012

Japanese internee during World War II recounts young life inside Minidoka camp

Posted in 2012 Minidoka Pilgrimage, Japanese American Incarceration, Minidoka Pilgrimage tagged , , , , , , , at 11:04 am by minidokapilgrimage


Japanese internee during World War II recounts young life inside Minidoka camp

Nakagawa 3 Yosh Nakagawa

July 02, 2012 2:00 am  •  By Tetona Dunlap tdunlap@magicvalley.com

MINIDOKA • Yosh Nakagawa was 11 when he thought he was going on his first vacation.

“I thought, ‘How great, we are going on a trip,’” Nakagawa, 80, said from his home in Washington. “I was a child and you never want to break a child’s dream. I learned as I grew that I was wrong.”

Nakagawa’s family lived in Seattle when the U.S. government sent a letter saying they had two weeks to vacate their home. The boy was one of more than 9,000 people of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were American citizens, removed from their homes and sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center outside of Hunt.

“They evicted us. We were homeless, we had no place to go,” Nakagawa said.

Following the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to leave their homes, jobs and lives behind and move to one of 10 relocation centers in the U.S.

“I was a terrorist at 11 or 12 years old,” Nakagawa said. “That shouldn’t happen to anyone. America is greater than that.”

Nakagawa remembers when he realized they weren’t on vacation. There were barbed wire fences everywhere, and he was told that if he wandered into an area he was not supposed to go he would be shot.

“A child learns fear very quickly,” he said. “If your skin color was white I was afraid.”

‘Free from Our Captivity’

While growing up inside the walls of the camp, Nakagawa worked as a paper boy making a few pennies a day. He attended middle school inside the camp and was baptized in the original First Baptist Church of Twin Falls in 1945. The Nakagawa family had attended the Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle, which was closed.

First Baptist Church of Twin Falls was one of few churches in the area that allowed people from the internment camp to worship, Nakagawa said; “It was one of the churches where we could be free from our captivity.”

Nakagawa’s little sister was 8 when they arrived at the camp, but she was too young to remember much. “We grew up in two different worlds,” he said.

In 1944, Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066. The last internment camp was closed in 1945.

The Nakagawa family returned to Seattle forever changed. Nakagawa’s mother, once owner of a corner grocery store, worked inside the homes of wealthy families cooking and cleaning. The family lived in a church sanctuary until they got on their feet again. The Nakagawas also stopped speaking Japanese so their children would grow up speaking English.

In 1952, Nakagawa’s parents became citizens, and they voted in every election.

“You don’t know the joy my parents had to go and vote,” Nakagawa said.

‘The Magic Valley Invites Us’

Today Nakagawa lives in Mercer Island just outside Seattle. For much of his life he was involved in the sports world and helped run a sporting equipment store in the Seattle area. He said he met several sports stars through his work, including Billie Jean King and Jackie Robinson.

He has one son and two daughters. One of his daughters, a teacher, often has her father talk to her fourth-grade class about his life inside the internment camp.

“Isn’t that ironic? That was the grade I was in when I was interned,” he said.

On June 23, Nakagawa returned again to the home of his youth, along with others who make the pilgrimage each year to the site of their imprisonment.

Nakagawa has made this trek before, he said, and never returns with an ounce of hate.

“My returning is simply this: We did not want to go there, the Magic Valley invites us and we want to go,” Nakagawa said. “It took a tragedy to show the awesomeness of America.”

Nakagawa also makes a point to visit the First Baptist Church of Twin Falls when he is in the area. He was a guest speaker June 24.

“I’m there to tell a simple story — I was there,” Nakagawa said.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeff Cooper, met Nakagawa last year while attending a Baptist conference in Puerto Rico. Though Nakagawa spoke informally at the church years ago, Cooper was so impressed with Nakagawa’s story that he personally invited him.

“It’s such a tremendous story,” Cooper said. “He holds no ill will or regret. He is coming to represent the 120,000 nikkei who were interned … he’s a great man, very humble.”

Nakagawa shares the story of his childhood because he said it is a tale that does not belong to him.

“It’s not a Japanese-American story. It’s an American story of history.”

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