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Yasutaro Soga, Japanese Internee
By Lauren Gray*
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This momentous and shocking event propelled the United States into the Second World War as America joined the Allied forces in the fight against the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. To the Japanese civilians who lived in Hawaii and on the West Coast of the United States, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a four-year ordeal in which they were involuntarily incarcerated, separated from family and friends, and robbed of their livelihoods and possessions.
Yasutaro Soga observed the attack on Pearl Harbor from his second story bedroom window. Later that evening, Soga was arrested in his home by the U.S. military police. For several days, Soga was held incommunicado without charge, without council, and without cause for his arrest.
Soga’s experience for the remaining four years of the war, and the experiences of several thousand other Japanese-American peoples in the United States, was the result of one of the United States most contentious and reprehensible orders. In an era of hysteria and fear, over 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens were forcibly incarcerated in internment camps across the country.
Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1873, Yasutaro Soga was a first-generation immigrant to the United States. He came to Hawaii in February of 1896. Although Soga attended both Tokyo Law School and Tokyo School of Medical Chemistry, his first employment in Hawaii was as manager of a local grocery. He moved quickly into journalism, and in 1899 he became involved with the Pacific Commercial Advertiser and the Hawai’i Shimpo as a Japanese-English translator. It was this involvement with journalism that later led to his arrest after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the United States military found this behavior suspicious and subversive.
Soga married Sei Tanizawa in 1911. During this time, Soga also helped found the Soga also helped found the Choon Shisha (Sound of the Sea Tanka Club). Tanka poetry, a well-respected and difficult poetic form, was favored by Soga, and he published his own anthology under the pen name Keisho, entitled “Keisho Kashu.” During his incarceration, Soga and other internees occupied themselves with writing Tanka poetry.
Many a friend
Who is incarcerated
Summer is passing by.
As Soga became more involved in the literary circles of Hawaii, and as his time at the newspaper progressed, Soga became more involved with American social and political commentary. Although generally moderate in his editorials and articles, Soga penned a handful of articles that criticized American policies which were later cited and used against Soga in his hearing after his December 7th arrest. Many other Japanese individuals were also arrested because of their involvement with the Japanese community in Hawaii.
After his arrest, Soga was shipped to the Sand Island, Hawaii camp. He was interned at Sand Island for eight months, after which he was shipped, by boat, over to the United States mainland. Upon arrival, he was interned briefly at Angel Island, California, and then at the Lordsburg and Santa Fe camps in New Mexico.
Soga remained at the Lordsburg camp from August, 1942 to June, 1943. Unlike the Lordsburg camp, the Santa Fe camp was reserved strictly for men, usually those who were considered to be troublemakers. It consisted mainly of men influential in their communities.
Soga, in his memoir that he wrote after the war, confessed that I “never found internee life tedious.” The internees occupied themselves with gardening, apple picking, drawing and writing. Soga took the initiative and exported a few articles to the Hawai’i Times about his experience on Sand Island and his trip to the mainland.
Soga was cognizant of the cultural differences between the internees and the people of New Mexico. In Soga’s reflections on the Santa Fe camp, he remarked that: “Spanish language newspapers are available, but Mexicans generally do not read newspapers or listen to the radio. Like the Indians, they are skilled in native craftwork, but one cannot detect any modern cultural influence. I do not think I am guilty of overstatement if I say that they lack any knowledge of modern sanitary practices.”
Although quarters were cramped, Soga and the other internees retained their traditional hygienic practices. The food given to the internees at the camps was vastly different from their traditional Japanese diets. Lamb was a constant, and the internees were rarely given fresh fruit or vegetables because of disorganization in the shipping process and lack of availability. Despite the lack of variety, Soga remained in good health during his internment, with a slight vitamin deficiency his only ailment.
Physically separated from American and Japanese society, the internees were able to retain some traditional connections. During Soga’s stay at the Santa Fe camp, the Japanese Red Cross sent “luxury goods” to the internees. “We received 3,294 casks of shoyu, 158 casks of miso, 23 boxes of medicine, 6 boxes containing musical instruments, and 5 boxes of books,” Soga wrote in his memoir.
Soga remained at the Santa Fe camp for a little over two years. He returned to Hawaii in November of 1945, although the war had officially ended in August of that year. He rejoined his wife and family, and after his departure from the ship, “spent the next few days in a happy dream.” Soga compiled his memoir in November of 1948, comprised of articles he had written for the Hawai’i Times immediately following his internment. Soga and his wife became naturalized citizens in 1952. Soga passed away on March 7, 1957, at the age of 83.
In 1989, President Ronald Reagan signed an appropriation bill that formally recognized the wrongful incarceration of Japanese-Americans during wartime. The bill also included reparations to be made to individuals who were incarcerated during the war, with $20,000 to be awarded to each.
Blame for these events cannot be placed solely on an individual, on the military, or even on the United States government, but on an era of fear, hysteria, and underlying racism that emerged because of two world wars in less than half a century. Such devastation upon the human psyche caused a reaction against a people whose only defense was in a system that no longer considered them worthy of their civil liberties. Japanese incarceration is an instance in American history when justice and democracy failed, when fear outweighed morality, and so simple a thing as due process was denied an entire collection of people, many of whom had pledged their loyalty and allegiance to the same country that incarcerated them.
* Lauren Gray is a New Mexico History Scholarship recipient.