Surviving Topaz and Santo Tomás

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

The physical suffering of the American detainees, most agree, was greater than their Japanese American counterparts. Psychologically, also widely acknowledged, the impact was the reverse.

Both groups suffered similar deprivations in the early months, and many of these were discussed in the previous post. Privacy was absent. Food was sufficient but not especially appetizing. Insects and vermin were a plague. Weather added to the discomforts of rustic accommodations. If anything, conditions at Topaz and other relocation centers improved. Infrastructure was upgraded and, according to Miné Okubo, the rules became “much less rigid.” [Okubo 202] Topaz had a bureaucracy and a growing, $2 trillion economy behind it. [] Santo Tomás was an afterthought for the Japanese military and by 1944 an unqualified burden. Providing for the Manila internees did not register as a priority when the Emperor’s warriors needed calories. Twice daily meals of stew, roll, tea, and banana gave way to a small palmful of rice once a day, at best. The internees withered to nothing.

Both Japanese and Manilan Americans felt anger and resentment toward their captors, but of a qualitatively different kind. At Santo Tomás, American anger was directed against an enemy. At Topaz (and the other nine camps), its object was the government they had once viewed as their own. Both groups learned to quash these feelings to varying degrees. The Manilans recognized their dependence on the good will of the Commandant and presented themselves accordingly. The Topazians were no less inclined to accommodate to their new life. Older Issei, first generation Japanese American immigrants, were more likely to submit obediently, even ingratiatingly, to their captors. They were driven by deep cultural mores of stoic acceptance.

Their Nisei, second generation, children heard this message clearly in the words their parents used most often: gaman, “patience” or “endurance;” fuben, “inconvenient,”  nasake-nai, “cold-hearted” or “unfeeling.” But the most common refrain of all: Shikata ga nai, “It can’t be helped.” [Harth 23, 32]

In January, 1943, Roosevelt issued another order that would profoundly affect Japanese Americans. He announced the creation of an all Japanese American combat unit to be filled with recruits who formally declared loyalty to the United States. All males over age 16 were to register by taking a survey. Question 28 stirred up both passions and controversy: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign power or organization?” [Okubo 175] The wording was tweaked even after the questionnaire went into circulation, but the contradictions inherent were never resolved. By renouncing their Japanese citizenship, Issei were officially declaring themselves stateless persons. (There was no “path to citizenship” for them in the United States.) Nisei–many of them–could only have resented the assumption that their loyalty was divided. Weren’t they American citizens?

Those who could not or would not affirm their loyalty were sent to the designated “Segregation Center” at Tule Lake, formerly one of the ten relocation camps. Carl Mydans’s first assignment for Life after escaping Santo Tomas and the Shanghai “Civil Assembly Center” was Tule Lake. (In fact, most of the 13,000 detainees at Tule Lake were not “disloyals” at all. Many were family members who relocated to the northern California camp to stay with their parent or sibling who answered “no” on Question 28. Six thousand were from the original Tule Lake internees who simply could not bear to relocate and opted to stay. [Fortune 61-62]) As a former internee himself, Mydans empathized with the prisoners, as he rightly called them, and remarked on the obvious ironies, especially in his interview with Yoshitaka Nakai. “I am an American like everyone else born in this country,” said Nakai. “And I would fight and die for this country like any other American. But because my eyes are different and my parents come from Japan, everybody looks at me and treats me as though I’m disloyal. And now–I am disloyal. How do you like that?” [C. Mydans 124-125]

Issei and Nisei were not the only designations for Japanese Americans. A third group made an outsize impact on the internment communities. Kibei were Japanese Americans born in the United States but educated in Japan. Their ties to the mother country were strong and their loyalty to it stronger, even, than their parents’. If the Isseis’ impulse was to accommodate their captors and the Niseis’ to hold onto American culture all the more tightly, the Kibeis’ was to resist. They were over-represented in both “riots” that occurred in relocation centers, the first following the Harry Ueno controversy at Manzanar, the second stemming from the James Wakasa incident at Topaz.

A Nisei didn’t have to be an outright accommodationist to resent Kibei agitation. Mild-mannered Miné Okubo appeared miffed when she wrote that “anti-administration rabble-rousers skillfully fanned the misunderstandings” in Topaz. [Okubo 176] John Tateishi believed the contradictions of their situation bred infighting: “Instead of directing our anger and hurt at the government, we directed it against ourselves and in some cases caused emotional chasms that can never be bridged.” That last clause intimates at a lasting pain that he confirms in the next sentence: “I don’t know if any of us children of the camps understood how profoundly the wound cut into the psyches of the Issei and Nisei generations or how unforgiving brother would be to brother when it was all over.” [Harth 137] The distrust lingered for a generation and more.

The Santo Tomás captives were not immune from infighting, either. Shelley Mydans’s fiction sheds light on the kind of internal tussles that took place in this inchoate society. Inequities of power and resources provoked resentment. Slacking stirred animosities. Rumors fomented mistrust. In The Open City we see the Committee become a lightning rod of grievance for those who feel their interests are not represented. (What else is new under the sun?) Lance Diamond irritates the Committee by selling his cot, moved into a dark, unused stairwell, for couples to fulfill their sexual desires. Everyone wants to know the identity of the army combatants hiding out in their midst. They’re willing to spread false information on the off chance that they get credit for a big scoop.

Nor were Topazian captives immune from the attraction and pitfalls of rumors. The basic human need for information was stymied, so they rushed to fill the gap. Though accusations of rabble-rousing or of appeasement, false and otherwise, made the rounds and tore at the community fabric, the rumors were not always sinister. Okubo warmly recalled “plenty of laughter in sharing discomforts, creating imaginative rumors and stories, and daydreaming wishful hopes.” [Okubo ix]

But Okubo was even more visual than verbal. It was the scenes she witnessed, full of “humor and pathos,” that prompted her to make her sketches. [Okubo 53] More than two hundred drawings became the basis for her celebrated book, Citizen 13660. The artist drew herself into every one of those drawings, underscoring the deeply personal nature of the work. The last one shows Okubo at the side of a vehicle which will take her away from the detention center she has called home for a year and a half. She is looking back at the residents who do not yet have the courage, the will, or the means of leaving. (They may do so as long as they do not go back to their lives in California.) At that moment, Okubo says, “I relived momentarily the sorrows and joys of my whole evacuation experience….” [Okubo 209]

It comes as a bit of a shock to read of “joys” in the context of an internment camp. Yet from October, 1942, to January, 1944, Topaz was Okubo’s home, its residents her neighbors and extended family. We can assume that she was not alone in holding such a seemingly heretical sentiment. Those Nisei who survived Topaz, or Manzanar, or whatever other camp, with their esteem more or less in tact must have understood, at some unconscious level, that the internment experience had become a part of them. They could no more extricate it from their identity than they could pluck out an eyeball. They were stuck with it. For good and for bad.


After pledging loyalty and passing the appropriate background check, Japanese American internees could apply to relocate outside the camps beginning in the spring of 1943. After removing them from society, the federal government now had a stake in reintegrating Issei, Nisei, and Kibei citizens and aliens. At least, on its own terms. No more Little Tokyos would be tolerated. (Of course, in establishing the relocation centers the government had created the ne plus ultra of segregation and non-integration. The ironies never cease.) Nisei were encouraged to apply to universities. Seasonal workers were sought to relieve the farm labor shortage. The Army offered its 442nd Regiment for Japanese Americans, as well as opportunities in defense plants and, most crucially, in the intelligence department.

Issei had lost their property and their youth. They could not resume their businesses, nor were they inclined to return to wage labor. The camps provided three squares and security. The Issei saw no reason to go anywhere. As Fortune magazine remarked, in their 1944 feature that included Okubo drawings, “He is a courageous father who dares to start a new life with these responsibilities when, at the center, food, shelter, education, medical care, $16 a month, and clothing are provided.” [Fortune 66] Many Issei and their families chose to remain prisoners months beyond the time they were, technically speaking, free to leave, as early as spring 1943. A year later,17,000 (mostly) Nisei had chosen to leave the camps. That still left 100,000 behind in the Manzanars and Topazes of America. (In the end, the government would have to force the last of the internees out of the camps. It would close the last detention center in March, 1946, seven months after the end of the war.)

The Manilan American internees experienced much the same fear of the outside. Shelley and Carl Mydans jumped at the chance to relocate to Shanghai but could convince few of their friends to go with them. These internees were unwilling to trade the devil they knew for one they didn’t. Mydans called it a “psychosis” in his memoir of twenty years later,” which made the world “outside the fence into a frightening unknown and drawing prisoners closer and closer together for comfort and security.” In their degraded state, these previously strong, independent Americans, were too fearful to make a bold move toward freedom. [C. Mydans 82-83]

They stayed in Santo Tomás. And they suffered.

In late 1944, Carl Mydans returned to the Philippines, embedded (as we would say today) with an invasion unit assigned to liberate Santo Tomás. Mydans barely recognized the men and women he had lived so closely with for eight months. One former comrade, he tells us, “was a skeleton stretched with skin.” His legs and arms were “thinned to the bone,” his legs and ankles “swollen with beriberi into clublike appendages.” [C. Mydans 199] Almost four hundred internees had not survived long enough for rescue. (The death rate at Santo Tomás was three and a half times greater than for Japanese Americans at the ten internment camps.)

The survivors would struggle to regain their health, and they would be haunted by the memories of incarceration. But they had the advantage over their counterparts in the States by having an ennobling narrative in which to place themselves. They had held out under extreme duress and provided inspiration for the determined “return” of MacArthur and his forces–not to mention the hopes of an entire nation. Santo Tomás was a chapter in the wider saga of Bataan and Corregidor, a story that begins in perfidy but ends in redemption. After visiting Tule Lake Segregation Center, Santo Tomás survivor Carl Mydans realized that for all the hardships he and his fellow inmates endured, they had an intangible the Japanese American internees did not: “a deep and comforting conviction that we were part of the great national emergency and that we were all playing a part both toward victory and our own salvation.” [Mydans 124]

Japanese American internees had no uplifting narrative in which to place themselves. There was no final triumph to wash away the shame and guilt. For Issei there was no “old life” to pick up where they had left off, nor even a home to return to. They felt no eagerness to leave the camps.

Nisei, while not unaffected by mixed emotions, were yet eager to get on with their lives and more hopeful of what the world (America) held for them. They led the way out of the camps and back into society. Greater Chicago was the most popular destination. New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona were the next most common destinations (though Arizona turned out to be notoriously unwelcoming).

Those who relocated (the same term was used for the other side of the “evacuation” experience) were supplied with railroad fare, $3 a day in travel expenses, and $25 in cash with which to start their new lives. As eager as they were to get on with their lives, these Nisei knew a world of prejudice and hatred awaited them “outside the fence.” Some were surprised at what they found. “We can eat in any restaurant,” one wrote back to the camps. “I attract very little attention on the train,” wrote another. [Fortune 64] Such was Mitsuye Yamada‘s experience—at first. In the dorms at the University of Cincinnati Yamada was “just one of the girls” and felt “almost a teenager again.” Then while walking down the street, she was spat upon by an angry passerby who reminded her that she was still a “dirty Jap.” [Harth 39, 42] Even among the friends Yamada there were awkward moments. When asked about her experiences, she heard herself say more than once, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” (Emiko Omori captured the sentiment memorably in her 1999 documentary, Rabbit in the Moon: “It wasn’t bad enough.”) Conflicting emotions settled into shame when a Jewish friend (so many of her friends were Jewish) said something to the effect of, Well, at least YOU weren’t gassed or anything. [Harth 40, 49]

Postwar, no matter how successful or filled with reconstructed family joys, would always be clouded by memories of the camps. The survivors would always be haunted by a sense of betrayal and “scarred by feelings of shame and inferiority.” [Harth 191] Fifty years after leaving Manzanar, John Tateishi’s childhood memories still had the power to stir “the feeling of isolation and abandonment” as if he were right back in the desert surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by guards in watchtowers. [Harth 130] Few spoke of their memories. Kodomo no tame, they said: “for the sake of the children.” [Harth 36] Those children, thoroughly assimilated, grew up ignorant of their parents’ childhood trauma and their country’s Constitutional betrayal. Yet, by the 1980s, the fact of Japanese American internment had entered the national dialogue. Gerald Ford formally rescinded FDR’s Executive Order 9066 in 1976.  Manzanar was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and National Historic Site in 1992. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting each surviving internee $20,000. Amid this activity in the public square, third generation Japanese, Sansei, started to ask questions. They became politically aware.

Political awakening helped dispel the silence and the shame. Political action helped build self-confidence and a more positive narrative. In a survey given in the 1990s, most Sansei responded that their family’s historical experience helped sensitize them to other forms of injustice in the world. Nisei Sue Kunitomi Embrey turned her Manzanar experience into the focus of her life, working for three decades to get Manzanar preserved and classified a National Historic Site, to convince Congress to pass a reparations bill. Said Kunitomi, “I have reaped benefits I never expected.” [Harth 184] Among them: meeting “extraordinary people,” participating in “wondrous events,” traveling widely, receiving recognition, and being invited to dine in the White House. Manzanar was an integral part of who Embrey was, and she would do nothing to deny that part of herself. Nor would she accept that the wrong her country committed go unacknowledged, unaccounted for, or un-righted.

This view makes sense within the context of Asian philosophy, in which good and bad are bound together, like the black and white paisleys in a yin-yang circle. American complacency led to a Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor and their capture of the Philippines. These offenses led to both a thirst for vengeance–facile and impulsive–but also a determination to stand up for justice–patient, concerted, and nationwide. The latter freed 3,000 mostly American internees from three years’ captivity and established the independence for a former colony. The former led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of innocents, the denial of their rights as Americans, and a stain on the national image.

The good and the bad all balled up together. That is the reality of our past, and best kept in mind when we shift our gaze, like Okubo at the end of her book, toward the future.


Hartendorp, A.V.H. The Santo Tomás Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1964.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave: 2001.

“Issei, Nisei, Kibei.” Fortune, April 1944, in Hynes, Samuel, et al. Reporting World War II, Part II. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Mydans, Carl. More than Meets the Eye. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Mydans, Shelley Smith. The Open City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1945.

Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1983 (1946).

Wikipedia: “Internment of Japanese Americans,” “Manzanar,” “Santo Tomas Internment Center,” “Topaz Relocation Center,” ” Tule Lake National Monument


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