Frank Kitamoto

The nephew of Fumiko Hayashida, Frank Kitamoto was put in the Minidoka relocation center as a young boy. He is now a dentist on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

[Image: Frank Kitamoto]

Jim: Tell me your name please.

Frank: I'm Frank Kitamoto.

Jim: And what town do you live in now?

Frank: What town? I live on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Jim: When were you in the camp?

Frank: Uh, let's see. Bainbridge Island was the first group to be sent to concentration camps so we went to Manzanar and we were there from April first, April Fools Day, until February and then we were transferred to Minidoka, so we were in Manzanar for about eleven months and then came into Minidoka in February of the following year.

Jim: You were pretty young. You don't have a lot of vivid memories?

Frank: No, I was two and a half when I left Bainbridge Island, six when I came back from Minidoka so I probably remember more about Minidoka than I do Manzanar.

Jim: We're focusing on Minidoka from the Idaho standpoint. What are some of your early memories?

Frank: Uh, boy, you know mostly things kids remember. I remember playing in the sand around the barracks. I remember my cousin liking to eat sand and I don't really know why but she always ate sand. I was always getting into trouble. Memorable things - I know I took a pack of cigarettes from my dad's dresser once and went into the barrack and smoked the whole pack and I was really sick for maybe a week or so but I did give up smoking when I was five years old. I remember that. I remember going to a Miss Minidoka contest and sitting in the front row and when the winner was announced everybody surged forward and trampled me into the gravel so I ended up in the hospital. That's where they picked gravel out of me. Uh, gee, what else? I remember the older kids having ping-pong. I mean, having spit wad fights with rubber bands and paper that they rolled up into spit wads and they would tip the ping-pong tables over and shoot at each other and when they were out of ammunition they had us little kids run out there and pick up all the ammunition for the next round. I remember some of the kids had dug a big network of tunnels. We were in the last block so they dug a big network of tunnels and they let me go in the tunnels. It was kind of amazing to see what they had done. So just kind of things like that, you know.

Jim: It's different talking to you. The folks we have talked to - there's a wide range of memories.

One of the things people say when they come to Minidoka is, "This doesn't look anything like it was when we were here before," because a lot of the areas are so green and some of that greenness I think was possible because of the irrigation ditches that the people who were incarcerated had to dig.

Frank: Yes.

Jim: Some hard memories, some nice memories.

Frank: Yes.

Jim: Your memories are kind of like those - sounds like any other kid. Do you feel that way?

Frank: Yeah. Well, you know when you are little you are pretty resilient and you don't really know there is anything else. I mean, my earliest memories of childhood are in concentration camps so I wouldn't have known whether I was missing out on anything or if there was a better way to be living or not because that's just the way things were. That's where I was and that's how things happened.

Jim: What was it like for your parents do you think, probably different?

Frank: Oh, I'm sure it was terrible for them. In my mother's case, we were taken away from the island. My dad had already been rounded up by the FBI so she was left with us four kids and I was two and a half, my youngest sister was nine months, my next sister was five and my oldest sister was seven so she had to contend with us four kids at the same time, having to get her affairs in order at home, because he was taken away on about the fifth of February right after Pearl Harbor and we got our notices on March 30. So it was probably almost a good two months that she had to cope without my father being there.

Jim: How did she do?

Frank: I think she did well. She was a very resilient woman, very intelligent. She only went to sixth grade but I always wondered how come she was smarter than I was and I went through college. I think she was the type of person who just felt like things had to be done and you just did them.

Jim: One of the things I heard was at the beginning you weren't allowed to take very much with you when you went to the camps.

Frank: No. We could only take what we could carry and of course in those days you didn't have these big suitcases with wheels on them so it was just a question of what you could fit into the suitcase that you had and in a lot of cases they had to actually go out and buy suitcases because they didn't have suitcases so you tried to get the biggest one you could get but at the same time if you got a big one you wouldn't be able to carry it so it was kind of like juggling what you wanted to bring and not bring and it was a big decision to decide.

Jim: What's it like coming back here? You have childhood memories. Coming back here and watching you with your Aunt, what's that like?

Frank: You know, the first time I came back I had kind of mixed feelings about it. I didn't know what I would think and how I would feel but there is just something about returning to a place where you knew that your childhood was and coming to a place that you know wasn't that good of an experience for a lot of adults and that it was a place where we were confined and had to be, and it was almost like being in a sacred place. A place that you just wouldn't have that feeling until you came back to visit it again. I don't think I really had any experiences where I feel like I can finally let anything go or anything like that because I was so little when that happened but you can almost feel the things that you had to go through while you were there and maybe understand more about what the adults talk about when they talk about being in "camps".

Jim: There was a moment when your aunt got out there where the old potato thing was and she got up there and she could kind of look over where the barracks were. She said "Wow, all I can say is wow."

Frank: Yeah. You know, when she was here she had kids that were really young. Her youngest daughter was about the same age as my youngest sister so she was about eleven months when she left and she was actually pregnant when she left the island so her youngest son was born in Manzanar and her oldest son was the same age as I was so she had kids that ranged from a few months to about two and a half, three years old so she had three kids in diapers. She said she just didn't get very far away from her barrack because she spent all her time looking after the three kids. So, I think although you kind of knew this is really a big place, to really get back and sense how gigantic it really was when you think about it, I think that and a lot of other things probably made her say "wow," yeah.

Jim: Is it possible for you to see some of this through her eyes, when you come out here?

Frank: Yeah, I can in a sense because you know she is my mother's sister and it's nice to be able to talk to someone who remembers some of the things that went on because a lot of the things that were there are things I've either never known or have forgotten or have just blocked out because if anybody asked me about details I probably wouldn't be able to tell them other than these snippets of things that happened to me. Like I wouldn't know what our room looked like, where the bunk beds were. Those kinds of things I probably wouldn't know at all or wouldn't remember so it's very gratifying for me to be able to see things through her but at the same time I can see where it had really, really been tough on her - to have the kids so young and having to be stuck here. I think she said before that it's not something she would wish on anybody and that wars aren't good for anything and they never will be. I've heard her say that before.

Jim: Did your parents talk about this much?

Frank: No. I think in general, not. I think in 1983 three of us third generation guys that were older tried to start an oral history project to interview people to talk about their experiences here and we really had a hard time. Not very many people wanted to talk about it. They actually called us angry young men you know and thought that we were really out of line trying to get information about what happened. But as the years went by and more people became more supportive of that it became easier for people to talk about it. I know my mom talked about it quite a bit in her later years but I never had the opportunity to talk to my father about it because he died in '67 and I don't think I was even interested and I was struggling with my own identity as far as who I was and maybe going through school wishing I wasn't Japanese because I didn't feel like it was a good deal to be one - or of Japanese ancestry anyway.

Jim: You talk about your identity, and trying to find that. I know there was a time when everybody's identity at one of the camps was limited to these little things you wore but these have names on them. What were those like?

Frank: They had numbers on them. No names. Numbers. In our case they were probably family numbers but they also were tied into where you would be put in the train when you were eventually put in the train to be sent to concentration camps so they were I.D. tags. I know because we could only take what we could carry I chose to carry my rubber John Deere tractor because that's what I thought was most important to me but I can see pictures where my tractor had a tag too. So I think everything was tagged.

Jim: You talked about coming into the camps on trains. I know some people came in trucks and stuff. I was thinking about that today when you guys were rolling in on the bus.

Frank: Yeah. When we went to Manzanar we were trained for two days and then I think we went into Mojave, California and then we were bussed from there to Manzanar so we were bussed probably for a portion of the ride too.

Jim: All the people that are here today, taking a bus with the tags on…. There have to be some similarities there…

Frank: Very much so, very much so. You know, I didn't ride the bus from Seattle this year but I've done it in the past and it's really a good experience, a lot of it because of the things they do on the bus to make everybody know each other and the things, exercises and the things they do. But that ride itself makes you more aware of how far we had to come to go to the concentration camp and how desolate it was. One of the things people say when they come to Minidoka is, "This doesn't look anything like it was when we were here before," because a lot of the areas are so green and some of that greenness I think was possible because of the irrigation ditches that the people who were incarcerated had to dig. But it's true, it looks so much more fertile here than it did when we were here. And also I think Twin Falls has come closer to us by the way it has grown, because you get surprised because it's only fifteen to twenty miles away from Twin Falls and we're thinking it was just miles and miles away from everything. But with transportation having improved and the city here, right now it just seems like, gee, you weren't that far from civilization. But it was really like another world being there.

Jim: You use the word concentration camp. That is sometimes controversial.

Frank: Yeah, it is. Yeah. It is controversial because I think it just immediately brings up visions of the death camps in Nazi Germany but it really is the proper term because that's the term that was used at that time by President Roosevelt, President Truman, most of the Cabinet members. In Life Magazine they actually called it a concentration camp and if you look at the definition of a concentration camp in the dictionary, it just really fits us to a tee. We were there for political reasons, we were an ethnic group that was singled out so it does fit us and I think it's more of a proper term to use than a relocation camp because relocations are usually done for people's benefits and this just wasn't done for our benefit, so -

Jim: But they said it was.

Frank: Yes. Yes except the barbed wire was around us and the guard towers and the machine guns and the search lights were pointed in at us instead of away from us so it made you kind of think maybe it wasn't for our protection.

Jim: There is lingering bitterness, there is anger. Do you feel that or not?

Frank: You know, that's an interesting question because I think there is no definite answer you can give to that to a person. Myself, I was probably too young to really feel bitter about it. The same time I know it affected who I was as a person and my perception of myself. Some people ask me, "Why don't you speak Japanese? It's kind of a shame you don't," and I say "Hey, it wasn't popular to speak Japanese." And our parents, when we got back from concentration camp, did everything they could to make us try to assimilate and fit in and they didn't see teaching us Japanese as really a good way to go and we didn't see speaking Japanese as a good way to go. In a lot of ways it was probably difficult, very difficult for us.

Jim: It was a decision President Roosevelt made. Ever thought about if you had the chance to talk to him what you'd say?

Frank: About this decision about sending us to concentration camps? Gee, I've never really thought about that other than I know things like that are kind of going on now and there are some things I feel like I would like to say. I guess in a lot of ways I'm thinking as Japanese Americans we talk about the injustice that was done to us, we talk about the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and those are legal bases for saying this is wrong for us but at the same time I'm also thinking those have been in existence for a lot of years and even if they are in existence this stuff just keeps happening. So, I think there is more to not letting this happen again than just the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Laws are kind of made to protect us from each other and I think they are fear based. They are not caring based and I think the missing element is us caring for each other and the more fear we have of who we are and losing our own powers or being seen as a person less than we'd like to be, the less possible it becomes to think about the other person and I'm thinking there's got to be a way for people to somehow get over that fear of self protectionism to be able to care for each other and say, Hey, this is a human thing and not particularly a law thing where we need to accomplish to have something like this not happen again.

Jim: It was interesting, we did a World War II documentary about World War II in Idaho and talking to some of the folks who were around back then, just regular folks who lived in Idaho, I asked them about the camps and I have to admit I was expecting this sort of sense of collective guilt that you hear from Caucasians in those days. Instead what I got was, Well, it's too bad but we didn't know what they were going to do. We didn't know what was in their hearts.

Frank: That's right. Yeah, I think when people are under the stress of fear for themselves a person becomes very self centered and worries more about themselves and how an action may affect another person and a lot of times when we become so fearful of losing our power or our identity or our safeness, it becomes important for us to be able to find a reason to defend that by doing something and I think in a case like that it becomes hard to identify that you may have done something wrong to a group a people that may not be justified so maybe somewhere along the line here we'll be able to help people realize that power is not really military or strength or the Patriot Act or home security. Really the authentic power is really how you care for each other and the more human you can be and the more soulful you are, the better this world will be because you know when you get right down to it that's the purpose in life, is caring for each other, not how you can influence someone or manipulate someone.

Jim: One of the groups that came out of this whole experience were the guys that went into the 442nd. What do you think about those guys?

Frank: I think they really feel strongly to go out and fight for their country would justify their loyalty and to show that they were really true Americans and that in a lot of cases I think they were fighting for their families back in the concentration camps and at the same time I know there were people that didn't want to go in the service and they refused and protested and say, "We won't go in unless you free our parents and our brothers and sisters," and I know in a lot of cases they were chastised by not only the public in general but also other Japanese Americans or Americans of Japanese descent who felt that they were being either cowards or not being good Americans by doing that. When I think about it now as an adult I'm thinking that the people who protest and refuse to go in, in a lot of ways are probably braver than the person that went in because they were willing to stand up for their beliefs and to risk being incarcerated even further in federal prisons and penitentiaries and I don't think that's an easy thing to do - to stand up for your rights, especially when the pressure from the group in general is for you to volunteer or be drafted and serve in the military. I think that was really hard to do

Jim: Those guys were called something, weren't they?

Frank: They were either called resisters - they weren't really conscientious objectors, they were resisters - and there were also people that were called no-no boys who refused to sign a loyalty oath for the government but the ones who refused to go into the service I think were called resisters.

Jim: Kind of a dicey place to be in back in those days.

Frank: Definitely. Yeah, I think most of them ended up in federal prison for even a longer term than we were in concentration camps, so -

Jim: One of the things I've heard, when we've talked to folks is we talked about the resistance to talk about this stuff and now you talk about how people are talking about it more and there seems to be sort of a spirit of - I've heard people say we need to spread the word.

Frank: Right.

Jim: What word? What does that mean to folks, do you think?

Frank: You know I've heard people say before that as far as groups that have immigrated here in the United States, the Americans of Japanese descent were probably the only group that have had that happen to them where they have been singled out, sent to concentration camps and so forth. And in a lot of ways that has kind of stunted our growth, mostly because made to lose a lot of things, but also because they felt like they were beat back. Although in nature, it was from the way most Japanese grew up they tended to be people that were not supposed to show their emotions, not supposed to show their bitterness because that means you were blaming other people for your station in life or to show anger against authority because that was shameful to do because if you did that it meant you thought your leader or your supposed leader was not good enough a person to be your leader. For it was hard for undue criticism but in a way though, we have probably experienced more than any other Asian group anyway, how to get along, how to assimilate, how to work cooperatively with the majority. And although you'll find a lot of the new Asian immigrants will progress two or three times faster than we ever did economically, the skill of being able to be human, to relate and so forth is something that we've had to learn and we've had to do. Because of that I think our legacy really is to help other groups - get along is not a good word. It's more to be more non-confrontive - and I don't mean being meek - I mean being able to work things out, being able to work in a consensus rather than through anger and I think because of that it's very important for people to know the things that have happened to us so we can show people what can happen if we're not careful about our own liberties and the possibilities that can happen if people tend to become overprotective. And I think that's our legacy - to be able to help people work things out in a way that may be more peaceful than through anger or violence or those kinds of things.

Jim: What do you carry back out with you?

Frank: You don't get very much opportunity to really get together with people that have had common experience especially of your own ethnic background. We live in a world now where we're not isolated into a community where we're all Japanese Americans or Americans of Japanese descent and it is nice once in a while to be able to get together with people that you know have a common background with you, although they're not all the same, and to feel that commonness. I know one time at a meeting a person that was younger than me who never went through internment was sitting there while the rest of us were talking about our experiences in concentration camp and he got up and said, "You know, I envy you," and I said, "You envy us?" You know, we went through this thing that was kind of horrendous. He said, "Yeah, you know because you know I'm sitting here listening to you talk, you guys, and you have a common feeling and a commonness and a feeling of closeness because you've gone through this experience and you've been able to overcome it that I may never have." And I thought, Well you know he's got a point there. He really does and in a lot of ways when we get together with each other you kind of admire each other, you kind of feel like, What was your experience, this was mine, and just the sharing and being able to be together just kind of renews you in a certain way.

Jim: Do you wish your mom could be here for this?

Frank: Oh definitely, yeah, definitely. My mom was a real great person. She only had a sixth grade education but my dad had a jewelry story in Seattle so my mom ran the farm and she was a very innovative woman. She would start out with strawberries and because she was competing with everybody else with strawberries she went to raspberries which was the next season and then she started her own irrigation system and when the raspberries got too hard for her as she was getting older she pulled up all the raspberries and planted Christmas trees and had a Christmas tree farm for a lot of years. So she was just a woman who was very innovative, a very kind person, very strong person although I know she had her times of self-doubt. She just was a person who saw what she had to do and just did it so, yes, I really miss her. Yeah. And it's been a lot of years since she passed. I think she passed away in '96 so it's been about eleven years. But yeah, it would have been really great if she and my aunt could be here and, not just my aunt. In a lot of ways I think my aunt who is here, who is 96, and she's next to the youngest child. The youngest child is still in Japan. She actually went back to Japan with my grandfather after being born on Bainbridge. He went back in 1935 before the war but she and my mother were probably the closest sisters. They were very close together as far as talking to each other. I remember them talking every day on the phone and so it was, in a lot of ways, I was very sad to see my mother go.

Interviewed by Jim Peck, producer of The Idaho Homefront: Of Camps and Combat

Funding provided in part by the generous support of WETA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.