Richard Matsuishi, shown outside his home in Sun City on Feb. 24, 2022. was incarcerated at the Poston War Relocation Center in Parker when he was 4 years old. (Photo by Alex Gould/Cronkite News)
SUN CITY – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, setting in motion the incarceration of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.
Eighty years later, Richard Matsuishi wants America to know about this stain on U.S. history so that such imprisonments will never take place again.
EO 9066 authorized the secretary of war to use his discretion to remove and relocate all people deemed a threat to national security to “relocation centers.”
Matsuishi was just 4 when he and his family were forced from their California home and sent to the Poston War Relocation Center near Parker, which is along the Colorado River in western Arizona.
“It was a sad chapter in the history of the United States and probably the worst decision that was ever made by the United States Supreme Court – declaring that Executive Order 9066 was constitutional,” said Matsuishi, who now lives in Sun City.
Nowhere did the order explicitly say “Japanese” people were the target – and some European refugees were incarcerated on the East Coast – but it was clear when the War Relocation Authority was founded a month later.
The authority “formulated and executed a program for removal, relocation, maintenance and supervision . . . of persons (principally of Japanese ancestry)” across 10 interior relocation centers in the U.S., according to the National Archives.
Two of the 10 facilities were in Arizona: the Poston center and the Gila River War Relocation Center southeast of Phoenix.
The confinement camps had schools, farmland and work facilities, though jobs only offered meager pay.
Life at Poston was “pretty harsh” Matsuishi said. The confinement camps were surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards who were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to escape. The Japanese Americans incarcerated there tried to establish a sense of community by forming schools, police forces, churches and more. Matsuishi spoke to Cronkite News at his home in Sun City on Feb. 24, 2022. Read audio transcript.
Living conditions and amenities were spartan. Matsuishi recounts having a cyst lanced at a medical facility that was barely more than a clean barrack. This photo shows the hospital barracks of an unidentified U.S. confinement camp. Read audio transcript.
Each of the barracks were divided among as many as five families. The barracks had one light bulb and an oil-burning stove that provided heat, but there was no air-conditioning or evaporative coolers. In this undated photograph, Eizo Nishi reads a bedtime story to her 4-year-old daughter at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Read audio transcript.
People at the confinement camps ate in mess halls similar to those on military bases, and they were required to eat in shifts. In this undated photo, a Japanese American family eats in a mess hall in one of 10 confinement camps built by the United States during World War II. Read audio transcript.
The U.S. government released propaganda videos that showed smiling Japanese Americans boarding buses to go to the confinement camps. While working for the War Relocation Authority, documentarian Dorothea Lange photographed Japanese Americans leaving their homes and living in the camps. This undated photo of students was taken at the Raphael Weill Public School in San Francisco. Read audio transcript.
Despite the harsh, forced conditions, incarcerated Japanese Americans attempted to create a community behind the wire, building outdoor stages, baseball fields and other facilities. Read audio transcript.
Two-thirds of those incarcerated under EO 9066 were U.S. citizens forced to relocate by their government because of their Japanese heritage.
“They claimed that the Japanese Americans are doing their patriotic duty for the war effort by voluntarily assembling and going to these camps,” said Karen Leong, an associate professor of women and gender studies and Asian Pacific American studies at Arizona State University.
Most of the people who were incarcerated at the camps have died, but those who remain are dedicated to ensuring something like this never happens again.
Japanese Americans were finally allowed to return to their homes beginning in 1945, with the last camp closing in March 1946, according to History.com, but some found their houses and belongings had been sold for “failure to pay taxes,” and many continued to face discrimination.
In 1988, President Ronald Regan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided the remaining camp survivors a written apology and $20,000 in restitution.
Life at Poston War Relocation Center
I went in there when I was 4 years old, and I stayed there for three and a half years, so my experience is one of a child in the camp, and being a child I didn’t know much about what was going on. I just did what my parents had to do, and so actually I had a good time because I had kids of my own age and we played together, went to school together and we actually, I had a fairly good time there because I didn’t know what was going on.
Life, medical care ‘pretty spartan’
Life was pretty spartan. I remember things that happened in the camp, and they were pretty harsh. If you want to know an experience I had, I hit myself in the groin and I got a cyst, and so they were going to have to operate to lance that cyst to ease the pain or ease the pressure. So we went to the hospital, and the hospital is a clean barrack – y’know – its a barracks that they built and it was clean, it was nice, as clean as it could be, and I go in there and there’s myself and this young teenager, and he was in a sling with his buttocks showing, and I said, y’know, ‘What are they gonna do?” The doctor comes in, they go over and apparently he had a hemorrhoid and they were gonna lance it, and so they went ahead and do it. He started screaming, screaming bloody murder and I said ‘Wow, I’m next,’ y’know. So after they get done, they put me on a table, and they have a nurse holding my legs and my arms, and they proceed to lance the abscess. I didn’t feel anything because the pressure was there. I learned later on that the teenager was screaming because he had no anesthesia.
One lightbulb and an oil-burning stove
The rooms were very spartan. Each barrack was about maybe 20 by 100, and they were divided into about four or five families and ours was a larger family: myself, my brother and sister and my parents. So we got almost a 20-by-20 barrack, and we got one lightbulb that was the light and one oil burning stove in the center and that was the heat, and there was nothing for cooling. Can you imagine the summer time in Parker, Arizona, how hot it was?
Our mess hall burned down’ at confinement camp
I also remember we had to eat in mess halls sorta like the Army. Y’know, mess halls? And we would go in shifts because there weren’t enough seats in there to seat the whole block. And the block were about 10 barracks to a block, and so we had to go in shifts. And our barracks – our mess hall burned down, so we had to walk like a mile or so to another mess hall to eat.
120,000 Japanese Americans taken to confinement camps
What was hoisted on the people of Japanese ancestry was done by their own government, and, as you know, the 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, 70% were citizens of the United States. So what recourse do you have when the government that you’re supposed to be protected by hoisted this on you?
‘Sad chapter in the history of the United States’
It was a sad chapter in the history of the United States and probably the worst decision that was ever made by the United States Supreme Court, declaring that Executive Order 9066 was constitutional even though Attorney (General Francis) Biddle at the time indicated that it was unconstitutional. President (Franklin) Roosevelt went ahead and instituted or applied Executive Order 9066.