Search form

Donate Today

Play Video

Borders & Heritage

A Sobering Legacy: Survivors of Japanese-American Prison Camps Reflect

More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps during World War II. Seventy-five years later, the ripples of that history are still felt.

July 7, 2017

Kay Sakai Nakao looks out at the shore from the back porch of her Bainbridge Island  home. She has lived nearly all of her 97 years on the island — excluding the years during World War II when her family, along with the rest of the Japanese families on Bainbridge, became the first of the Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps. Seventy-five years later, for Nakao, the memories of that difficult period remain vivid.

“What we went through, nobody should have to go through that,” Nakao says.

“When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was or what it was or anything,” she says. “We were just country bumpkins on the farm.”

On February 19, 1942 — two months after Japanese forces attacked U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones. The order led to the forced incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, who were forcefully removed from their homes and sent to 10 concentration camps across the western United States.

When the order was signed, Nakao’s family was part of a close-knit community of Japanese immigrant farmers on Bainbridge.

“The Japanese immigration story is really similar to other immigration stories in America,” says Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to preserving the oral histories and photo archives from the period of incarceration of Japanese American families. “They came for a better life.”

“My dad left Japan in 1914 and landed in Canada,” Nakao says. “Then he came into the United States and got a job [before settling on Bainbridge and starting his own farm].”

The first Japanese immigrants came to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s to work in lumber mills, railroads, and canneries. By the time of World War II, Japanese immigrants had been in America for over half a century — putting down roots, working and raising their families here.

“Two-thirds of these individuals [who were incarcerated] were U.S. citizens,” Ikeda says. “They did nothing wrong. The only criteria [that was applied] under Executive Order 9066 was one: Were they of Japanese ancestry?; and two: Were they in an exclusion zone?” he says.

Words Matter: Densho and historians have adopted the term ‘incarceration’ in place of ‘internment’ out of belief that the former is a truer representation of the experience of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in concentration camps for over three years, two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens.

Feature image: Kay Sakai Nakao with her son Bill at the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island, WA.

This story includes music tracks by Seattle-based artist Paul Kikuchi from his album Bat of No Bird Island, which was inspired by the memoir and 78 rpm record collection of his father Zenkichi Kikuch.

Kay Takai Nakao - Bainbridge Island Resident

Kay Sakai Nakao was born and raised on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. She was 22 years old when her family and all other Japanese American families on the island were incarcerated.

Executive Order 9066

The presidential order never mentioned Japanese Americans specifically.

It allowed the military to designate any area in the United States as an ‘exclusion zone’ from which any persons deemed a threat could be excluded.

“It was cleverly written,” Ikeda says.

The military command designated America’s West Coast as an exclusion area and then ordered all people of Japanese descent to be excluded, or removed, from that area. Ikeda’s own grandparents were incarcerated along with all of their children, including Ikeda’s father.

At the time, the West Coast had the densest concentration of people with Japanese descent. “But it was also considered a very sensitive region just because of proximity to Japan,” says Karen Yoshitomi, daughter of former internees and the executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington (JCCCW).

Nakao remembers the uncertainty her family faced when they were ordered to leave Bainbridge.

“We were never told where we were going, how long we were going to be gone,” she says. “Even after we arrived at Manzanar camp, there was nobody to tell us, ‘This is Manzanar, this is where you’re going to live.’ Nothing. ”

“[The camp] was one square mile, 10,000 internees, wired fencing all around, seven watchtowers, soldiers with machine guns,” she says.

Men, women and children were kept as prisoners inside the camps. Soldiers with machine guns served as a warning that “if you dared to go outside the barbed wire fence, you [would] be shot,” Nakao says.

Records from History: Music Collections of Early Japanese-American Immigrants

A collection of old Japanese 78 RPM records, donated by local community members in the Seattle area, offers a window into the musical interests of early Japanese-American immigrants. The collection is housed at JCCCW and local artist Paul Kikuchi is working to catalogue and digitize the collection.


Manzanar concentration camp in California was one of 10 camps in the United States where Japanese-American families were imprisoned without due process after being forced from their homes along the West Coast.

Leaving Nihonmachi (Japantown) and returning to the Hunt Hotel

Across the Puget Sound from the island, in Seattle, Shokichi Tokita, was growing up in the Nihonmachi (Japantown) neighborhood in the area now known as the International District. Tokita was eight years old when his siblings and Japanese immigrant parents were forced to leave their home to be incarcerated, like all other Japanese American families living on the West Coast. Now, visiting the JCCCW building, the site of the historic Hunt Hotel that served as temporary housing for Japanese families after the war ended and prison camps were closed, Tokita recalls the painful experience of incarceration.

“It’s a lot of anger because of what happened,” says Tokita, whose father was painter Kamekichi Tokita. “Everything was taken away from us. Even though my mother and father were not citizens — they weren't allowed to be [due to immigration laws that denied citizenship to Japanese immigrants] — all the children were citizens, born and raised in the United States,” Tokita says.

The Tokita family was sent to Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. The parents and eight children were assigned to one-room section of a hastily built barrack. “Some of the people had to stay in horse stalls,” Tokita says. The incarceration of Japanese Americans lasted more than three years.

Despite the government’s treatment of his family, like many other Japanese men who went through internment, Tokita went on to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Shokichi Tokita’s father was painter Kamekichi Tokita, who kept a diary of his family’s experience during incarceration. It was published along with his artwork by University of Washington Press, Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita.

Shokichi Tokita with his mother and sister. Tokita grew up in the Japantown neighborhood of Seattle, WA.
Shokichi Tokita with his mother and sister. Tokita grew up in the Japantown neighborhood of Seattle, WA.

Nihonmachi (Japantown) neighborhood in Seattle before World War II. Photo courtesy Densho.

“My first career was in the air force,” Tokita says. “Once in a while, we had to get up and [speak] about what our backgrounds were. And my opening sentence was, ‘I was a P.O.W. of the United States of America in a concentration camp,’” he says.

An exhibit on a wall of JCCCW commemorates the Hunt Hotel, the name given to the building when the language school was turned into temporary housing for families returning to Seattle after incarceration.

“‘Temporary’ being 14 years,” Yoshitomi says. Having lost their homes, businesses and jobs, the families had limited options, many remaining in the cramped rooms of the Hunt Hotel for years. Tokita’s family lived there for two years before they were able to move out.

Shokichi Tokita in Seattle, WA
Shokitchi Tokita was 8 years old when his family was incarcerated. They were sent to Minidoka concentration camp.

Shokichi Tokita with his son Kurt at the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Washington.

Lessons from the past, hope for the future

From her porch, Nakao smiles with pride as she surveys her garden — lush-green vegetation that glimmers in the warmth of the island sun.

“I always tell people, Bainbridge Island is such a wonderful place,” she says.

At JCCCW, Yoshitomi reflects on what the past can teach us.

“I think we lost sight of the principles upon which we were built as a nation — this whole idea of immigration and being a place of opportunity, equality and that we value diversity," she says. "We have an obligation to make sure that [what happened to the Japanese Americans] doesn’t happen to anyone again.”

President Ronald Reagan apologizes for a ‘grave wrong’

In 1988, more than 40 years after the last incarceration camp closed, President Ronald Reagan offered an official apology for a “grave wrong” done to Japanese Americans “based solely on race.” Following the signing of the Civil Liberties Act — which provided monetary restitution to each of the surviving internees — Reagan said, “Here we admit a wrong. Here, we re-affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”


Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

There are 2 comments

Read Comments Hide Comments

Thank you for your story about the Japanese American Internment Camps during World War II. I remember learning about this in college and thinking that I should've learned about this earlier.....that all public schools should be required to teach it. Please keep immigrants' stories alive by posting and broadcasting stories like this.

Hi Alison - Thank you for taking the time to write. Glad that you found the story valuable. And yes, we are continuing to produce local stories of immigrant experiences in our region as part of our Borders & Heritage series. Look for them right here on our site and on TV on Fridays at 4:50pm. -Laila