May 17, 2021 |Kurt Ikeda

Reflecting on the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII

On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the United States declared war on the empire of Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 leading to the exclusion, forced removal, and incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during World War II.

5 17 21 Iminidoka sakura family bancroft 500x333Photo courtesy of Dan Sakura.

This story of racial prejudice and civil rights violations presents many parallels and relevant lessons today; since 2020, discriminatory treatment and the reporting of violence against Asian Americans has increased at dramatic rates in the United States. Anti-Asian racism combined with tensions from the attack on Pearl Harbor caused the loyalty of Japanese Americans to be put into question during WWII. The government claimed that the incarceration was a military necessity, but a Congressional investigation over 30 years later found that it was motivated by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Built in the Idaho desert, Minidoka Relocation Center was one of ten American concentration camps during WWII. The Conservation Fund worked with the National Park Service to protect the land and the history of Minidoka, using funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, so that generations can learn from these past mistakes and prevent future atrocities.

5 17 21 IMinidoka c Francis StewartPhoto courtesy of the National Archives.

We spoke with Kurt Ikeda, the acting Chief of Interpretation and Education at Minidoka National Historic Site to learn about this hidden history, the deep sense of responsibility that comes with remembrance, and his family’s own connection to the camps. The following are must-read excerpts from that interview:

A Family History

5 17 21 IKurt and his grandfather and cousin Dane Ikeda Kurt Ikeda (left) with his grandfather Ted Okushiba (center) and cousin Dane Ikeda (right). Photo courtesy of Kurt Ikeda.

The summer before I started fourth grade, my grandfather took our family to visit Yosemite National Park. It was my first visit to a national park, and he really talked it up. I remember mountain biking with my mom and hiking and seeing the big trees. You might think this was the moment when I said, “I want to grow up and be a national park ranger someday,” but it humorously wasn’t. When my grandfather asked me what my favorite part was about Yosemite, I looked him with deep conviction and answered, “Grandpa, I loved the hot chocolate at the lodge.” You could see in his eyes he was thinking, “Oh gosh, this suburban kid.” It’s a funny memory that he kept until the day he died in 2016. That makes me laugh too, because if he could see me now wearing my green and gray National Park Service uniform, I bet he wouldn’t believe it himself.

My father died when I was young, so growing up my grandfather was a major influence in my life. I was raised by a strong immigrant mother in a Japanese household in the large Japanese American community in the South Bay of Los Angeles. The WWII incarceration experience was a shared narrative by many in my community growing up, but not one that I thought was part of my family’s immigrant story.

My grandparents had remarried later in life, and it wasn’t until I was older that I learned that there was an important part of my grandfather’s life that he hadn’t shared with me. When he was 8 years old, my grandfather had been forcibly removed from his home in Riverside, California and his family was sent to a detention center at the Santa Anita Racetrack and later transferred to incarceration camps in Arizona and Texas. While I had a general idea of his story, he didn’t tell me about his experience before for many reasons. His father, who was prominent in the Japanese American community, was separated from the family during that time, so you could imagine how hard that was. As my grandfather was on his deathbed, he held onto his dream that one day he and I would make the journey to return to these camps together. He said he was too afraid to do it alone. So, after he died, my best friend and I followed that dream and traveled to Crystal City, Texas and witnesses all that remained of the camp—the site is now home to a school and various other buildings. It broke my heart to see that the only commemorative elements were a water tower and a few historical placards.

5 17 21 IPhoto of Crystal City TexasCrystal City, Texas. Photo courtesy of Kurt Ikeda.

While Crystal City’s history is now only held in the stories of those who survived it, several other WWII Japanese American confinement sites have been preserved and protected—and six are part of the National Parks Service. People may not realize that the National Park Service preserves this nation’s magnificent landscapes and also its culturally significant places; I was unaware of this fact when I was younger. I think about how important it is that within the 423-plus National Park sites, we’re continuing to preserve the diverse stories that make up this country. Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho is one of the many that do that. It tells the story of my community. It connects to the story of my wife’s family and that of my friends. It is a story of America that I’m proud to tell.

Seeing Myself in the National Park Story

If it wasn’t for Minidoka, I don’t think I’d be working for the National Park Service. My mission is to make sure that every visitor can see themselves in their national parks. It wasn’t until I knew that a place like Minidoka National Historic Site existed that I could see myself in the National Park story.

I wish I had access to visiting places like this site growing up. think I would’ve found my love for the national parks earlier. I love my grandfather, but I think he should’ve taken me to Manzanar National Historic Site, another American concentration camp, instead of Yosemite. Or maybe he drove past it and he didn’t have the heart to speak up. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my time at Yosemite… I’ve gone back since and the hot chocolate was just as good.

5 17 21 IKurt Ikeda headshot rectangleKurt Ikeda. Photo by the National Park Service.

I’m still navigating what it means to be wearing this badge and uniform, having joined as an intern in 2018, returned as education specialist for the three southern Idaho parks in 2020, and stepped into my new role as acting Chief of Interpretation in 2021. Our job is to create relevance and meaning with our audiences, to help visitors create that meaningful connection with their public lands. I love my job. It is at the intersection of my former career as a schoolteacher and my family history.

One challenge at a culturally significant site like Minidoka is rising up to these moments of history that we are living through today. As we see a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least a stronger spotlight on it, what we’re seeing is that Japanese American confinement sites like Minidoka have suddenly come into national attention as a reminder of our nation’s struggles with anti-Asian hate. This hate is rooted in the same systems of oppression that Black, Brown and Indigenous communities continue to face. The struggle for justice that all marginalized identities fight for are interconnected.

 Minidoka National Historic Site

The Minidoka staff is excited to welcome visitors to the new visitor center this Memorial Day weekend. One of the first things people will see is a quote from camp survivor, Dr. Frank Kitamoto from Bainbridge Island, Washington, which was the first Japanese American community to be forcibly removed to incarceration camps during the war. It reads: “This is not just a Japanese American story, but an American story with implications for the world.”

5 17 21 IIMG 2394Photo courtesy of Kurt Ikeda.

Another element of our visitor center is the terminology wall. We invite visitors to consider the power held by the words we use to describe our histories. As a linguistics major during my undergrad years, these conversations with visitors are what excite me the most. Visitors might have heard the term “internment” used to inaccurately refer to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Other euphemistic terms include “evacuation” and “relocation centers.” The National Park Service uses more accurate terms like “forced removal,” “incarceration,” and “concentration camp” because words matter. The U.S. government used euphemism to disguise the harsh realities of these actions. As visitors experience the exhibits, they may see terms that are unfamiliar. Our staff is here to help provide context and build a greater awareness of how words shape our understanding of history.

5 17 21 IIMG 2388Photo courtesy of Kurt Ikeda.

Right around the midway point as you’re walking through, located above the Issei memorial where of the names of the first-generation Japanese immigrants who were incarcerated here at Minidoka are honored, there are pieces of art made of highly polished wood that hangs from the ceiling like a mobile. These beautiful and inconspicuous pieces of bitterbrush, commonly called greasewood, have a tragic story.

The pieces of wood were found with the body of Takaji Edward Abe, an Issei man who died at Minidoka while gathering wood in December 1942. In the harsh winter conditions, he couldn’t find his way back to his barrack. The camp newspaper, the Minidoka Irrigator, described how he was finally discovered by the search party: “Hatless, the elderly man lay in a horizontal position, head resting on a pillow of sagebrush, both arms laying on his breast. His hands were clenched and his eyelids were closed as if in sleep, the greasewood, for which he ventured alone into unfamiliar land, was at his side.”

Mr. Abe’s family saved the pieces of greasewood for decades until a descendant approached the Nakashima Woodworkers Studio in Pennsylvania. George Nakashima, the studio’s founder, was a world renowned Japanese American woodworker and his daughter Mira continues the family’s woodworking legacy. Connected by the family’s shared incarceration experience at Minidoka, Mira turned the pieces of greasewood into art. These art pieces honor all of those who perished during the incarceration. It is incredible to imagine how wood gathered by the hands of an Issei who tragically died at Minidoka, was passed down and transformed by an artist with a connected family history, and has returned to Minidoka as an artistic monument, honoring those who perished during the incarceration. It’s a story of legacy and how these legacies can inspire remembrance at Minidoka.

5 17 21 IMG 2383Photo courtesy of Kurt Ikeda.

A Place of Remembrance 

Our visitors center expands the narrative and reveals that this story doesn’t just start at Pearl Harbor or end with the inhumane atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and closing of the camps. I hope our visitors can be inspired by their learnings to recognize future injustices and violations of civil liberties. I think Minidoka has been doing that, connecting visitors and facing history in a bold manner—head on.

I think that’s the mission as we continue to think about what Minidoka will be in the next 10, 20, or 30 years—to uphold these stories of legacy and preserve the history of our communities. About how the community can continue to honor their grandparents and great-grandparents and so on. This idea of growing old with our community is both exciting and challenging.

5 17 21 IIMG 2400The mess hall (left) and barracks from Block 22 are both historic buildings that have been returned to their original locations at Minidoka National Historic Site. Photo by the National Parks Service.

I love working here because the work that we do is built on the trust of our communities both near and far. The Japanese American community contains multitudes and yet sometimes feels very small; in fact, my wife and I met through this community work. I now have community aunts, uncles, and adopted grandpas and grandmas who we can’t let down because they have entrusted our staff with their stories. We also continue to preserve the local history of Idaho and honor these lands that belong to the indigenous peoples. These personal connections that we help to foster with the public are the ties that bind this story.

Some of those stories have come from the annual camp pilgrimage hosted at Minidoka. This community organized gathering brings together over 300 people—camp survivors, their families and descendants, allies, friends, and local community members who are interested in this history—for a chance to study, learn, cry, share, remember this tragic history and also reinvigorate our own commitments to upholding civil liberties and civil rights. There’s a certain kind of energy that comes with gathering so many people to a place of confinement and re-claiming that space. The Minidoka pilgrimage organized by the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee will be virtual this year. We look forward to hosting our communities in the future.

Educating Future Generations

As a former teacher, I get recharged when I get to introduce our Junior Ranger program to visitors of all ages. After kids experience a tour of the site with us and walk through these historic buildings, after they hear George Takei’s booming voice narrating our park film and read the visitor center exhibits, they get inspired to complete our Junior Ranger booklet. After completing the book they get to recite the Junior Ranger pledge with a park ranger: “I pledge to preserve and protect Minidoka National Historic Site. I will learn more about civil rights, our national parks, and our nation’s history. I will share what I learn with others. I will work to keep the parks and the environment clean so that future generations can enjoy them as I have.”

5 17 21 IMinidoka Junior Ranger BookletMinidoka’s updated Junior Ranger Booklet is available online and at the Visitor Center.

How can we help our families make sense of this ever changing and challenging world? We hope that our site serves a place of education and dialogue. As a former teacher, there’s nothing better than that a classroom like this. Our National Parks are beautiful, vibrant, and historically significant classrooms for the public.

Exactly Where I’m Meant to Be

Minidoka is exactly where I need to be right now. I want to be here in Idaho as a Japanese American descendant of the camps, a child of an immigrant. Being fearlessly Asian American in a place of conscience, of confinement, and of legacy I wear this badge and uniform and represent our public lands with pride. In third grade I had my first male teacher who happened to also be Japanese American. Seeing a teacher for the first time who looked like me, who had lived and navigated the world like I had, inspired me to pursue a career that I previously thought was only for a specific group of other people. It was the same for me in the National Park Service. I had fantastic mentors like our former Chief of Interpretation and Education, Hanako Wakatsuki, who paved the way for young Japanese Americans like myself and Ranger Emily Teraoka at Minidoka.

5 17 21 IKurt with Hanako Former Chief The former and current acting Chief of Interpretation and Education, Hanako Wakatsuki (left) and Kurt Ikeda (right). Photo courtesty Kurt Ikeda.

To be able to stand here at a national park site wearing this uniform and say, “Welcome to Minidoka National Historic Site. I’m excited to explore our nation’s complicated history with you.”… I think there’s no more fitting way for me to continue to do my part in helping create a more inclusive world. I hope that this place can become a place of learning and of healing, but ultimately a place with a call to action. To quote the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial in Washington state, “Nidoto Nai Yoni”—“Let it Not Happen Again.”

Find out More

Ensuring Our Nation’s History Will Not Be Forgotten: Minidoka National Historic Site by Emily Korest

Minidoka Pilgrimage
—Since 2003, the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage offers an opportunity to revisit the place and the memories amidst family, friends, supporters, and National Park Service officials. The intent is to honor the first generations of Japanese Americans who suffered most under institutionalized racist laws, to deliver the message of “Never Again,” and to pass on the legacy to anyone who will listen.

Written by

Kurt Ikeda

Kurt Ikeda is the Acting Chief of Interpretation at Minidoka National Historic Site. Previously he served as the Educational Specialist for Minidoka, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. As a second-generation Japanese American, Kurt’s work is rooted in the WWII incarceration story of his grandfather, illuminated by his experience at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, and inspired by his service as a High School English teacher through Teach for America. He received his B.A. from University of California, Los Angeles and M.A. in Urban Education: Educational Policy and Administration from Loyola Marymount University.

Kurt would like to thank the former Minidoka Chief of Interpretation and Education Hanako Wakatsuki, and the former lead ranger Annette Rousseau. He is excited to work closely with the Minidoka team including Ranger Emily Teraoka and Sam Bowlin of the Facilities and Maintenance division. He would like to recognize his family, especially his mother, and has special appreciation for his wife who shares a passion for this history.