Article, Author Interviews, Book Resources

Ken Mochizuki Interview Transcript

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Ken Mochizuki was interviewed by Scholastic students, parents, and teachers. Drawing on his extensive research and his own personal experiences as a Japanese American, he answered various questions about his books (Passage to Freedom and Baseball Saved Us) and World War II.

During our yearlong study of social injustice, amazingly begun on September 10, 2001, my seventh and eighth graders read both Passage to Freedom and Baseball Saved Us. Their positive response to human endurance and individual contributions in the face of great personal danger proved the immense value of your stories. Thank you for sharing so much with us.
And thank you for sharing these stories with others. On copies of Baseball I inscribe: “Attitude determines altitude!” On copies of Passage, I write: “One person can make a difference!”

Last week my video class and I attended a lecture given by the actor who played Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved Jews in Lithuania during World War II. This short film (Visas and Virtue) won an Academy Award (which the actor graciously allowed the students to hold). This actor said that he was working with an author on a screenplay about baseball in the internment camps. Is it you?
I know who you're talking about regarding the Sugihara story — Chris Tashima. No, it's not me who's working on the screenplay with him, although that's very interesting to hear. You're probably aware of my book, Baseball Saved Us, a fictional picture-book rendition of playing baseball in the camps. I am presently working on a musical version of it for the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Some Hollywood producers have also expressed interest in turning the story into a film, although nothing has happened yet. If you are interested in learning more about baseball in the camps, you might want to contact the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, or they must have a Web site. They have a traveling exhibit devoted to that subject. Interesting connection here: if you don't know already, I also wrote the picture book Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, which is about Consul Sugihara and his rescue of over 10,000 Polish Jews from the Holocaust.

Did baseball help people during World War II?
It did in that baseball provided a pleasant diversion from their daily situation. Japanese-American communities before World War II loved baseball, formed their own teams, and competed in often fierce rivalries. They had to form their own teams because sports were segregated then. After a couple of years passed in the camps, the camp teams played against community teams outside the camp. Some people have taken issue with the title of my book, Baseball Saved Us, saying that just playing baseball didn't save anybody from the camps situation. Of course it didn't! But for the protagonist in that book, it was a means of acquiring his own self-esteem and pride. And for his own family and others in the camp they were in - again, it provided a few hours of enjoyment in an otherwise bleak situation. If you're talking about baseball in all of America during World War II, yes, the sport provided that diversion, much as it does now after the events of September 11, 2001.

Are you working on any new books now?
Yes, I am just completing my first young adult novel, Beacon Hill Boys, which will be published this fall [2002] by Scholastic Press. The story centers on a Japanese-American high school student and his friends during spring of 1972 in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Essentially, it's about the main character's search for his own self-esteem and pride during a time when the “Asian-American” identity is born.

Your Author's Note says that as a print journalist you covered the decade-long campaign that eventually convinced the U.S. government that its imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was wrong. What did you do? Are you still involved politically?
I traveled around the U.S. in the early '80s, gathering testimony about the World War II incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent. It concluded that the World War II forced expulsion and incarceration was a result of war hysteria, race prejudice, and a failure of political leadership. This conclusion led to the U.S. Congress and President officially declaring that what the U.S. government did to those of Japanese descent during that time was wrong. I covered this subject — commonly known as “redress” — for a publication called the International Examiner in Seattle, WA. It is a newspaper that focuses on the issues of the Asian-American communities in the Pacific Northwest. I did just that — reported on the movement that began locally, expanded nationally, and ended with the bill's passage by Congress and signing by President Reagan. If I participated in this cause, it was by publicizing it through my journalistic work. As far as any political work now, I write the books that I do and travel around the country, giving presentations around my books and the subject that Americans of Asian/Pacific Islander descent have been a part of America for a long time. One of my presentations is on the history of Asian/Pacific Americans in the U.S. military (going back to the War of 1812). That I consider to be political involvement.

Our class is doing a mock trial about the use of Japanese internment camps. We would like to know if and how you think the internment camps protected the Japanese Americans living on the West Coast from racial violence and the interrogation of their families here and overseas? If Japanese Americans had not been sent to internment camps, would other Americans have accepted them sooner as American citizens?
That's a view that still prevails today — that the camps existed to protect those of Japanese descent from racially motivated violence. Our U.S. government has proven that false, stating that the camps occurred because of racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. In your mock-trial setting, you could bring in as a witness one of those who was actually at the camps. They would tell you that, if the camps were there for his or her own protection, then why were the machine guns in the towers pointed into the camp, instead of out? Why were searchlights sweeping into the camp at night, instead of out to spot those trying to attack the Japanese Americans inside? And if the camps were for protection, why wasn't it voluntary to be in one or not? Because Japanese Americans endured the camp experience, in some ways they were accepted sooner as American citizens. If it had not occurred, those of Japanese descent might have lived longer like they had before the war: living together in their own communities (because they were forced to — they couldn't live anywhere they wanted), still having more connections to the country of Japan, more generations still speaking Japanese. Due to the camps, when they were singled out just because they were of Japanese ancestry, that created an accelerated drive to be seen as more American. There was the famous World War II 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American U.S. Army unit that became one of the most decorated units in U.S. Army history. Their members' legendary exploits went a long way for those of Japanese descent to be accepted as Americans. Many in that unit volunteered out of the camps because they figured that they were in the camps because they were not seen as American. Fighting for America would change that. They did to a large extent. But even 'till today, some of Japanese descent are still not seen as being American. That happens to me often, when people assume I must be from Japan. I have never been there; my parents were born in Seattle and went through the camps — my grandparents were from Japan.

Have you ever been to an internment camp?
I have been to the former sites of the Minidoka camp in southern Idaho and Tule Lake in northeastern California. I am too young to have been in one during World War II.

What is your opinion on the conditions of internment camps?
Conditions were deplorable at best; especially the tarpaper barracks with no heat or running water. Most of those in these camps had to live in a desert, with extremes of hot and cold temperatures.

What was the food like in the internment camps?
Bad for those not used to it. Even for those used to a regular “American” diet, sometimes the food was hard to digest: mutton stew, liver, and then some more typical fare like pork and beans, wieners, potatoes. For the immigrant generation, used to more Japanese foods, these types of menus were hard to take. The camp living quarters were formed into “blocks,” with a mess hall as the center of the block. Cooks at some block mess halls were better than others, so their mess halls often had visitors from other blocks.

What was the living situation like in the internment camps (sleeping, bathrooms, etc.)?
Everything was communal, meaning everybody did everything together and waited in long lines to use facilities. The latrines, showers — all were done to accommodate a number of people at one time. Privacy was non-existent. You did everything in open view of others using the facility with you. Sleeping quarters were the same: a lot of people crammed into a barracks building, with thin walls or no walls often separating families. Sometimes sheets were hung up to form some semblance of private rooms. In most cases, everybody could hear everything everybody said.

Does that mean that all the facilities were co-ed? Men and women sharing sleeping quarters, bathrooms, etc.?
Sleeping quarters were co-ed, because they were assigned by families — one family had one room. Bathrooms were separated by gender, although there was no privacy, since everything was done in a communal setting, like the showers in gym class. However, the facilities in the camps were never as good as in a school gym. The shower facilities would have been made of wood.

Are you angry against the U.S. government for the internment camps?
Rather than angry, I am more concerned that all Americans be considered as Americans by their fellow Americans. These camps happened because those of Japanese descent in this country were not seen as Americans.

Do you think that the U.S. had a just cause for the use of internment camps?
No, the government did not have a just cause to send 120,000 people off to these camps — that was proven by the U.S. government some 40 years later. A major reason for the camps to exist was based on rumors — not anything certain people did, but just based on who they happened to be.

Do you hold a grudge for what the U.S. did to your heritage?
Rather than a grudge, I think it's more important to know facts — how what happened in the past shapes your present and future. How do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?

 

What would you have done if you were placed in an internment camp at the age you are now?
If I were my present age in 1942, I probably would've gone along and into a camp. Japanese Americans had few supporters back then — hardly anybody speaking out against what was happening to them. If these camps were to happen today, there would be more national leaders — including a number of Japanese Americans in high government positions — who would speak out and work against this happening. I would probably be one of those speaking out and would probably have to pay some kind of price for it.

Were the Japanese treated like Jewish people were treated during Hitler's time?
No. No Japanese Americans were executed, although some were killed in unfortunate incidents, such as approaching too close to the fence, or some were killed when a riot broke out in one camp. The only similarity between the two was that both groups were singled out, had their civil rights suspended in their own countries, and were imprisoned for just who they happened to be, not anything they did. Interesting side note: there was a Japanese-American U.S. Army unit in the war, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, which was among the first to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. These soldiers witnessed the horrors of the camps and also found themselves in the ironic position of being “one country's persecuted minority liberating another country's persecuted minority.” The families of these soldiers were held in the camps in the U.S.

I do not condone internment camps. I think it is morally wrong to separate people from their friends and family against their will. How come the concentration camps in Germany and Poland were so much crueler than the internment camps in the U.S.?
Because the Nazis established the camps in Europe to exterminate millions of people — whomever they considered their enemies. The camps in the U.S. existed as a temporary residence after a racial group was forcibly removed from their homes.

How many internment camps were there in total?
There were ten major camps throughout the U.S. These were under the jurisdiction of the government War Relocation Authority and guarded by the U.S. Army. There were numerous other smaller camps run by the Deparment of Justice, which held Japanese-American community leaders detained immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor and before the establishment of the ten major camps. These Department of Justice camps also held those of German and Italian descent-mainly “aliens,” or those not American citizens.

Do you have any information about Americans supporting internment camps? Were most Americans in favor of or against the internment camps?
You can look at any American newspaper during 1942, particularly the major newspapers on the West Coast, and read the opinion of most Americans about forcibly removing those of Japanese descent away from the Coast. Almost all Americans who had an opinion on the subject were in favor of the camps. Some of the very few newspaper publishers who opposed the internment were the owners of the Bainbridge Review in Washington State. That newspaper came out of Bainbridge Island, where the first removal of Japanese Americans anywhere in the country took place on March 30, 1942. The publishers then had to suffer losses in advertising and subscriptions due to their stand. The most complete and comprehensive book on the camps is Personal Justice Denied, the report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. That includes the views of Americans on the internment, including that of President Roosevelt and his staff and Cabinet. Ironically, Eleanor Roosevelt publicly opposed the internment, while her husband, the President, signed the order to make it possible.

Why did WW II happen?
Mainly due to the military of Germany, Japan, and Italy conquering other nations.

Who were all of the countries that were involved in WW II?
You would have to look up in a reference source, such as an encyclopedia, to find a listing of all the countries involved. Those that actually declared war and fought in it were on the side of the “Allies” or the “Axis.” The Allies consisted primarily of the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, and the Soviet Union. The Axis consisted of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor?
To fully address this question, we must go back about 150 years or more in history. Japan is an island nation, about the size of California. Its rulers have always tried to keep the nation isolated. Japan's relations with the United States began in 1853, when American Commodore Perry and his fleet arrived in Tokyo Bay, forcing the Japanese to open up their ports to Western trade and influence. Within the next 50 years, the Emperor Meji started Japan on the road to modernization, incorporating all things Western into daily Japanese lives, including the building of a Western-style military. At the turn of the century, Japan went to war with Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan acquired some territory from Russia in a resounding Japanese victory, but much more important was the psychological victory for the Japanese — they felt they could then take on any Western nation. To maintain its modernization and military, Japan needed more natural resources, especially oil. Since the nation was relatively bare of any of the resources it required, the Japanese military took what their nation needed from other countries by conquering them. In protest of this Japanese expansion, particularly into parts of China, the United States placed embargoes on Japan, preventing those natural resources from reaching the nation, especially oil. The Japanese military then decided that the United States stood in the way of creating the larger Empire of Japan, concluding that a quick, decisive strike on the U.S. Seventh Fleet docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, would critically cripple U.S. military power and keep the U.S. from successfully waging war against Japan. Big mistake, as we know now through history. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the Japanese military's most critical mistake during World War II, much as Nazi Germany's was to attack the Soviet Union. These decisions create some “what ifs?” in history. If neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union were attacked, what would've happened? The U.S. probably would've stayed out of the war longer. Germany and Japan would have been eventually defeated, although the war would probably have been longer and a lot costlier. A movie that shows the attack on Pearl Harbor from the points-of-view of both the Japanese and Americans is Tora, Tora, Tora.

Why Pearl Harbor? Why not somewhere else in the U.S.?
Because the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet was anchored there — a lot of the fleet's battleships and smaller ships. The Japanese military thought that critically damaging the fleet would cripple U.S. ability to combat the Japanese military in the Pacific.

What information or resources do you have on the Japanese imprisonment of Dutch people in Indonesia from 1941 to 1945?
There seems to be very little common knowledge of this atrocity. You're correct — there isn't much available on that subject, one of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese military. I emphasize Japanese military, for not all of the Japanese people were complicit in what its military did. The military had its own version of the German SS, which brutally suppressed domestic opposition and opposition within conquered territories. This unit was responsible for many of those atrocities. There has been a memoir or novelized version of that event that has recently been published — sorry, I don't remember the name of it. You might try searching through amazon.com.

Was it hard for most Japanese Americans to get back to “normal” life after the war?
When they returned home, did their neighbors look down on them? Did they have problems finding jobs? Yes, it was difficult for Japanese Americans after the camp experience. Those who did return to their original homes sometimes found no home or business to return to, with someone else living in their former homes, or property deteriorated or stolen. Others found that neighbors or caretakers did live up to their promises and were able to resume home and business life as before the camps. Those Japanese Americans who found themselves homeless had to live in local churches or temporary homes provided by the American Friends Service Committee (members of the Quaker religion). How they were treated by former neighbors depended on the situation and location. Some returned to hostility, while some returned to their homes with neighbors who treated them as if they had never left. This was the situation on Bainbridge Island, WA, where the publishers of the Bainbridge Review, Walt and Mildred Woodward, had the courage and foresight to have former Japanese American residents send back reports from camp, letting their former neighbors know who was born in camp, who died, who got married, who formed sports teams, and who won games. In this way, when the Japanese Americans returned to the island, their old neighbors knew all about changes in the families — like they had never left. Jobs were often hard to find for Japanese Americans, but there were some employers who had nothing against them. After the camps, many Japanese Americans traveled to the Midwest or East Coast, where they found jobs and started new lives. One such popular city for Japanese Americans to relocate to was Chicago, where many did find employment. For an excellent re-creation of Japanese American post-war life, read the novel No-No Boy by John Okada.

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    Achievement and Success, American History, Civics and Government, Communities and Ways of Life, Creativity and Imagination, Kindness and Compassion
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