Yoshiko Imamoto, An Innocent Victim of Wartime Furor, Gets An Overdue Apology-and $20,000-from Uncle Sam

updated 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

The barbed-wire fences that imprisoned her have vanished, along with the hysteria that built them. But Yoshiko Imamoto, 93, will never forget the knock that signaled the beginning of her nightmare. On March 13, 1942, Imamoto, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Japan in 1918, answered the door of her Norwalk. Calif., home to find three FBI agents standing on her porch. "We need to check into a few things," one of the men said. Then, with barely time to pack a nightgown and a Bible, she was arrested and taken to jail.

Imamoto had committed no crime. But three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that hardly mattered. For the next two years, Imamoto and her family endured incarceration, humiliation and the loss of their jobs and property as part of the U.S. policy of Japanese internment during World War II. About 120,000 other American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry suffered similar fates. For nearly 50 years, the wrongs of that shameful era went unredressed, and Imamoto, like many of the 60,000 former internees still living, clung to the stoicism reflected in the Japanese expression shikata ga nai—"it can't be helped." But last month the government finally started making amends. As part of a $1.25 billion package of reparations approved by Congress in 1988, the surviving internees began receiving one-time compensatory checks for $20.000—and, more important, a letter of apology from President Bush recognizing that "serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II."

Sitting in her sunny, four-room home in Berkeley, Calif., Imamoto maintains her calm demeanor as she recounts a story typical of that troubled era. As a schoolteacher, she had been one of the first people arrested under President Franklin Roosevelt's February 1942 executive order authorizing the roundup. At the Terminal Island immigration center in San Pedro, Calif., where she had been taken shortly afterward, Imamoto learned that her husband, Zenichi, a principal, had been apprehended and sent to a relocation camp in New Mexico.

Yoshiko tried to fight despair by writing to her four daughters, Grace, then 22, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley; Lily, 21, a nurse in San Le-andro; and Marion, 18, and Alice, 15, who were attending school and living at home alone. But in April the girls were also imprisoned—under an order requiring all people of Japanese ancestry in many parts of the West to turn themselves in. Two months later Yoshiko was reunited with them at the Santa Anita Racetrack, which had been converted to a detention center. Arrivals at Santa Anita found that some of the tiny horse stalls that would house them still had manure in them, and the smell of horses was stifling. "They had just slapped paint on the walls." recalls Alice, now 64, a pianist living in Kensington, Md. "You could still sec the horsehair stuck there."

At Santa Anita, Yoshiko kept in touch with Zenichi by mail. He, in turn, wrote the family "letters that would make you cry," Yoshiko says. In the fall, after Yoshiko and her daughters were transferred to Camp Jerome in Arkansas. Zenichi was finally permitted to join them. The reason, the Imamotos believe, was young Alice's plaintive letters to government officials. "She wrote, if your father, who had done nothing wrong, were taken away when you were 15, how would you feel?' " says Yoshiko.

Life in the barracks at Camp Jerome was bleak. The family lived in a 20-by 25-foot room, with one bed and no other furniture. Some inmates committed suicide or died due to the harsh environment and inadequate medical care. But there were a few precious remnants of ordinary life: church on Sunday, schoolwork and sewing. One by one, as the war wound down and restrictions were relaxed, the daughters departed: Grace, Alice and Marion to attend college, and Lily to marry a Japanese-American Army intelligence officer in Minneapolis. In 1944 Yoshiko and Zenichi were moved to a camp in Rohwer, Ark. Yoshiko's sharpest memories of those months were the frequent funerals held for the internees' sons, volunteers who had died fighting in the 442nd Regiment—the segregated Japanese-American unit famous for its valor. "It seemed like we were having funerals all the time." Yoshiko sighs. "I couldn't look at the mothers' faces."

Finally, in 1944, Yoshiko and Zenichi were released. With no money and few options for work, they took jobs as servants for a doctor in Washington ,D.C. From Grace they learned that the family home in California had been stripped bare by burglars. Nonetheless, after eight years in Washington, Yoshiko and her husband moved to Compton, Calif., to rebuild their lives as teachers. They moved to Berkeley in 1962, and Zenichi died in 1980.

Despite the official government acknowledgment that she and her family were seriously wronged, Yoshiko is not bitter. Though she worries that "Japanese may become disliked" because of the reparations payments, she says receiving the small brown envelope in the mail was "like a dream." But it was also a painful reminder of a tragic era. "The past: I can see those things in my mind's eye," she says. "But I try not to think of them very often. It was over 40 years ago."

—Charles E. Cohen, Nancy Matsumoto in Berkeley

From Our Partners