NVC Newsletter

Speaker Series: Judy Kusakabe

by Wendi Coombs
March 2016, Volume 66, Issue 3

Judy Kusakabe stands in front of the Speaker Series audience, which includes her extended family and classmates from Garfield High School.  Surrounding Judy are pictures, articles and artifacts of the Japanese American experience. Judy begins her talk by explaining her unique background that brought her to be an NVC speaker.

Judy has long been interested in the stories of the injustices faced by the Issei and Nisei, and was compelled to tell the story of the Japanese American incarcerations after hearing discriminating remarks by students at the junior high school where she worked.  During February’s speaker series event, Judy modeled the following lesson she shares with fourth graders.  Through experiences of her family and friends, Judy paints a detailed picture of life for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Judy’s lesson begins with a history of Japanese immigration, but quickly moves to 1942 when Japanese Americans were put in prison camps for “no other reason than that they were of Japanese ancestry”.  Before the war, Judy’s father and mother lived in Seattle where life was good for the couple.  Then, everything changed.  Pearl Harbor was bombed and the government set a curfew of 9:00 PM for Japanese Americans.   Everyone was scared and many politicians quickly turned against the Japanese. The FBI went into homes of prominent Japanese and confiscated binoculars, radios, pictures, letters and weapons.  Many men in these homes were taken away to prison camps including the father of Judy’s friend. The family was not to see their father for three years.

Judy then introduces Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, to her student audiences.  She explains that this order exiled three generations of Japanese Americans from most of Washington, Oregon, California and the southern part of Arizona to prison camps.  The families could only take what they could carry.  Judy pauses the story at this point to ask the fourth graders what they would carry, and shows them the cumbersome suitcases that the Japanese Americans used. She tells the story of her stepmother, Mitsue, who tried desperately to find a home for her dog, Chubby.   A kind woman took in Chubby and throughout camp kept the dog close to Mitsue’s heart by sharing Chubby’s experiences through letters.

Judy’s family was first taken to an "assembly center" (temporary detention facility) in Puyallup, where hastily made wooden shacks (barracks) housed the families. Only thin wood walls separated families.  Cracks in the wood planks used for flooring opened the way for dandelions growing in the dirt below.  Rooms were sparse- only filled with a potbelly stove, one light, and metal cots to support the mattresses that family members had to fill with straw from outside.   Judy emphasizes to the fourth graders that families lost privacy and a sense of the family unit.  All camp residents ate together in a mess hall and showered together in one area.   As she holds up a wood plank with six holes, Judy explains that these were the toilet seats.   Barbed wire surrounded the camp and guards were positioned with guns atop watchtowers.

From Puyallup, Judy’s family was sent to a more permanent camp in Minidoka, Idaho, a desert on volcanic ash.  When it rained, the ground turned to thick mud, making it difficult to walk.  When dry, the dust filled the air and often it was necessary to cover your mouth to breathe. Families stuffed walls with newspapers to keep the dust out.  Although the living quarters were very similar to Puyallup, the weather was more severe.  Winters were very cold and summers very hot. A searchlight swept over camp at night making it nearly impossible to sleep.

Judy also recounts the story of the young men who were recruited from the camps to fight for the United States in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion.  These men joined soldiers from Hawaii.  Initially, the union did not prove amicable.  It took a visit to the camps from a group of Hawaiian solders to build bridges between the two groups.

After three years, the camps closed and the Japanese were allowed to move back home.  Judy explains to her fourth grade audience that the transition was not easy and Japanese families still faced much prejudice and discrimination.  As they did throughout their time in camp, the Japanese strived to live by two enduring terms, “Shikata ga nai” (it cannot be helped) and “Gaman” (enduring the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience).

Judy ends all of her lessons by distributing origami cranes to each student.  She gives one crane to each student as a reminder of the Japanese American story.  Judy hands out a second crane and asks the students to give the crane to someone they want to be kind to. This last crane symbolizes the heart of Judy’s lessons.  “Hate is destructive and narrows your world. Seek good in all people.” Her message: Be kind, be understanding.   Judy shares her lesson with a passion -- the passion to tell a story that both defines her and has far-reaching applications in facilitating understanding and empathy among students.