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'Every One of Those Folks Has a Story': The Chicago Hearings on Japanese Internment

Meredith Francis
Sam Ozaki
Sam Ozaki testifies at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings at NEIU in 1981. Image: Courtesy of NEIU

In September of 1981, nearly 100 people testified at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) as part of an official government investigation into the constitutionality of the World War II internment camps that incarcerated 120,000 residents and citizens of Japanese ancestry. 

They told their stories of being imprisoned by their own country and the effects it had on their lives. Recently, NEIU uncovered a video record of their testimony that preserves this chapter in history.

Before and After the War: Japanese Americans in Chicago

Prior to the 1940s, Chicago had a relatively small population of people of Japanese ancestry. There were only a few hundred people, in part because of strict immigration laws that targeted Chinese and Japanese immigrants, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the Secretary of War the authority to create “military zones” for anyone deemed a “threat” to national security. Over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, mostly from the West Coast – the majority of whom were American citizens – were detained in internment camps, often referred to as American concentration camps. The government established ten camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Arkansas. Many people were held for an average of three years. 

The government eventually began releasing some second generation, or Nisei, Japanese Americans who were considered “loyal” to the United States. Many were resettled in Chicago. 

“After a period of time, the War Relocation Authority (they were the federal agency that administered the incarceration) wanted to find a way for some of these people to be able to leave these camps – not to be able to return to the West Coast, but to go elsewhere,” said Bill Yoshino, former midwest regional director for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

“But they were still being overseen in some ways by the War Relocation Authority, because when they left the camps they were told not to cluster in groups,” said Yoshino. “One of the things that the government wanted to do was to not have the Japanese start creating these ‘Japantowns’ that were prevalent on the West Coast prior to World War II.”

Yoshino explained that, at the time, Chicago was an industrial hub with ample job opportunities, so friends and family would help each other get jobs in Chicago as more and more people left the camps.

Michael Takada, CEO of the Japanese American Service Committee, said that, by the 1950s, the Japanese American population in Chicago grew to 20,000. But while there were many job opportunities, Chicago’s discriminatory housing covenants made it hard for people to find a place to live.

“Redlining was rampant back then,” said Takada. “So it was very difficult for someone who was of Japanese ancestry after World War II to find housing.” Eventually, Takada said, many Japanese Americans worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder, overcoming discrimination, attending college, and shifting to white-collar work.

The Hearings

In 1980, 35 years after the war ended, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was created to investigate Executive Order 9066. The goal was to examine the constitutional and ethical issues with the order. 

The following year, the commission held hearings in cities across the United States – including in Chicago, at NEIU on the city’s northwest side. Yoshino was leading the Midwest chapter of the JACL at the time.

“We tried to locate individuals from within our community here in Chicago who would be willing to testify and tell their personal stories of what took place, and how the incarceration impacted them, and impacted their families,” Yoshino said.

Approximately 750 people testified across the country, discussing their experiences in the internment camps. In Chicago, about 100 people testified.

In 2018, Hanna Ahn, archivist at NEIU, stumbled upon some boxes that seemed to indicate they were the recordings of the hearings. After a lot of searching through dusty boxes, Ahn was able to get the tapes digitized. Now, NEIU has a collection of transcripts and video recordings of the CWRIC hearings in Chicago.

Ahn said there is a lot of memorable testimony preserved on the tapes. One witness that stood out for her is Sam Ozaki

Ozaki was a high school principal in Chicago. He recounts how, after being incarcerated at the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas, he and some of his friends volunteered to join the army. 

“How could you expect young men to volunteer to fight for this country after this country had placed them in concentration camps? I am always asked the question, ‘why did you volunteer?’” said Ozaki. 

Ozaki lists three reasons. First, he said he was loyal to his country and thought it was his duty to serve. Second, he thought that, by enlisting, his father might be released from another internment camp and be allowed to return to his family. Third: “Anything, anything was better than staying in these lousy concentration camps.” 

Toaru IshiyamaToaru Ishiyama testifies at the hearings. Image: Courtesy of NEIU

Yoshino, whose parents were incarcerated in the camps, attended the hearings. One particular testimony stood out to him, too – that of Toaru Ishiyama, a psychologist from Ohio who traveled to Chicago to share his story. As a mental health professional, Ishiyama talked about the repercussions the internment of Japanese Americans had for the community and for himself, since he was also incarcerated.

“I could deal with a lot of things. I could deal with the hardships, I could deal with the physical discomforts, but I couldn’t deal with the psychological assault of being in a prison without being guilty of any crime,” said Ishiyama.

Ishiyama said many Japanese Americans didn’t openly discuss their experience because of the trauma associated with it. But the hearings gave them the chance to share their stories.

Preserving the Stories

After the hearings and the investigation, the CWIRC concluded that the executive order was not justified, and that the reasons for incarcerating residents and citizens of Japanese ancestry were “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Based on the commission’s findings, the government issued a formal apology. The investigation also led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted survivors of the camps financial reparations. 

Yoshino said the individual experiences expressed by Japanese Americans during the hearings is important because it addresses big-picture issues that the United States still faces today.

“In some ways, it’s a personal story of people and what happens when issues like prejudice and bigotry take hold and you couple that with things like fear,” Yoshino said. “We have to take these stories as being lessons that hopefully the general public comes to understand. It has to do with how we conduct ourselves as a nation. Hopefully we’re a nation of laws and not one driven by fear.”

Ahn was glad to have found the video tapes that preserve much of those stories.

“It’s really different when you’re watching the tapes. You can really put a human face to the story,” Ahn said. “What happened during World War II didn’t just happen to a nameless group of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Every one of those folks has a story.” 

A story like Sam Ozaki’s.

“I would like to see that this does not happen again to any individuals or any group,” Ozaki said in his 1981 testimony. “This is for all Americans.”