NVC Newsletter

Speaker Series: Lori Matsukawa

by Wendi Coombs
October 2018, Volume 68, Issue 9

The 2018-2019 Speaker Series launched with a presentation by Lori Matsukawa, King 5 news anchor and longtime supporter of the Seattle Japanese American community. In 2017, Lori examined the World War II Japanese American incarceration experience through a multipart series titled "Prisoners in Their Own Land" which aired on King 5 the week of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Lori shared parts of this special as well as her experience creating the series.

Lori’s presentation at the NVC center began with a viewing of “Trials After the War," part two of the series. Lori reminded the audience that this part of the experience was often the most painful and is often glossed over when retelling the story of the concentration camps. Families returned from incarceration to a country still filled with prejudice. Some, like Shokichi Tokita, could only find housing in the Seattle Japanese Language School. The residents called the school the “Hunt Hotel” since most of the residents came from the Minidoka camp, also named "Hunt," in Idaho. Classrooms became apartments, seemingly similar to the rooms at Minidoka.      

However, Shokichi reminded the viewers of the significant differences between the two. At “Hunt Hotel," there was no sagebrush, no canal to fish in, no rattlesnakes and no ticks. Most importantly, unlike camp, they had the freedom to go anywhere they wanted to go. Significant in the Hotel was a painting of an empty chair. This empty chair represented the three individuals who committed suicide during their stay at Hunt Hotel, a symbol of the challenging time that these returnees faced.

The showing of “Trials After the War” also reminded us that the Japanese American community had allies. Ray Sononmaan, owner of a dry-cleaning business, was one of those who withstood harsh criticism and loss of business as he supported his Japanese American neighbors. His belief that the “internment” was unjust drove him to watch over Frank Natsuhara’s family farm supply business while they were interned.

After showing this video, Lori read the script to “Warriors and Resisters," part three in the series. Beyond the struggles of acclimating into an often hostile community, this episode details the division Japanese Americans faced within their own community. This division came as a result of differing responses to Question 27 (“Will you volunteer for combat?”) and especially Question 28 from the War Relocation Authority's Application for Leave Clearance. Question 28 asked Nisei men in concentration camps to pledge unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan.         

Those who answered “Yes, Yes” became part of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion or part of the Military Intelligence Service. Many of these Nisei, such as Sus Ito and local Seattle veterans Shiro Kashino and Ray Fujiwara, were part of major battles such as the Rescue of the Lost Battalion and the liberation of Dachau.

Meanwhile, back in the concentration camps, many draft age incarcerees protested, resenting that they should have to prove their loyalty while their families were incarcerated. They felt that replying “Yes” to Question 28, meant they were acknowledging that they once pledged allegiance to the Emperor. Men like Frank Yamasaki were tried as draft resisters and sent to federal prison. The Japanese American community became divided. Many scorned the “No-No Boys" and did not acknowledge the courage that it took to protest.

Seattle journalist Frank Abe documented that there were only two accepted responses to the incarceration of the Japanese Americans. One was “Go for Broke," Hawaiian pidgin for “give 110 percent,” and the other, “shikataganai," was a passive resignation of one’s circumstances. Abe explained that, during this time of war, there wasn’t room for a third reality – resistance in the face of oppression. Yet, in the end, years later, many who occupied prison cells as well as those who died on the battlefields were recognized by the U.S. government.

After reading the script, Lori noted her initial hesitation to share the "Warriors and Resisters" story. The passing of time had allowed for the divisions to ease, but Lori also knew that those feelings of betrayal were strong. Yet, she felt the story was a significant part of the incarceration and needed to be told.          

“Yes, people did protest, people did know that it was unconstitutional, and they went to prison because they did,” she said.

During the Question and Answer segment of the event, Lori noted that, unlike Japanese Americans during World War II, we have many ways to express our political beliefs. We, as Americans, do not have to stand and hold a protest sign to voice our concerns about the current political environment. We can also make an impact through education, especially education of America’s youth. When asked how best to learn about the incarceration experience, Lori answered that it is important to learn directly from those involved or affected by the World War II incarceration.

Today, many in the Japanese American community are channeling what they experienced and what they know into protecting others. What happened 75 years ago was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Having once been victims of discriminatory policies, Japanese Americans are acutely aware of what it means to be targets of hatred and prejudice. As Japanese Americans, we can honor the past by using our voice to advocate for others.          

Finally, Lori acknowledged her desire to archive this significant part of U.S. history. She wanted to be sure that, before she left King 5, she had shared how the incarceration affected the Seattle Japanese American community and how the lessons learned from the incarceration continue to reverberate in our lives today. She considers “Prisoners in Their Own Land” to be the crowning achievement in her career as a journalist here in Seattle.          

We thank Lori for her time, knowledge and commitment to sharing about the Japanese American experience!