A Little Research, Writing Helps Open A Pathway To A Family’s Manzanar History

Former Manzanar incarcerees, Takio (Tak) and Masako (Ma) Muto and other Muto family members were among the over 11,070 incarcerated Japanese Americans, government ordered, to leave their homes and businesses behind in the spring of 1942, to live in an isolated location in the Owens Valley of California, between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains, called Manzanar, during World War II. Their civil rights were taken from them, even though Tak and Ma were born in California and loyal, productive American citizens. Their joyful future plans as newlyweds were also taken away and instead, Tak and Ma found themselves incarcerated in a strange barren, desert camp, surrounded by armed guards, barbed wire fences and guard towers with searchlights, ordered to live in the hastily built, wooden barracks with little to no privacy and very little protection from the harsh weather conditions. The sign on the entrance calls Manzanar a relocation camp but in reality it was a concentration camp environment. Their story is one of the many thousands of stories of those who endured Manzanar, a dark chapter in American History.

The country was fueled by fear and hatred against all people of Japanese ancestry, whether or not they were American citizens, like my parents, because our country was at war with Japan. Newspapers, movies, magazines, as well as the government, all took part in demonizing the Japanese people and in turn, made the incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent possible.

It is of great note to know that not one case of espionage was ever found to be true among any Japanese Americans, according to official government records.

My Dad was from a large family, one of nine children, and his family was scattered in various camps throughout the country. At Manzanar Dad’s family included his parents, one brother and three sisters. Two of my Dad’s brothers were not incarcerated at Manzanar—my Uncle Sam, who was a graduate from the University of California, Davis, and was doing research work in Utah. Sam and his wife were incarcerated at Camp Amache in Colorado. Dad’s brother George, was not in a camp due to his position in the United States Military, stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

My Mom’s family, her parents and one brother, were sent to Granada, the camp in Colorado. So, Mom was separated from her family through the entire war years.

My parents seldom talked about Manzanar with their children, my sister Carole, brother Kurtis, sister Donna, and myself. Like so many from the camps, they felt the pressure of a society that had silenced them. However, they would occasionally talk about bits and pieces of their experiences to the family, such as the lovely gardens Dad and his father, my grandfather, created in Manzanar.

Overall, us kids sensed, through their unspoken feelings, that their experiences at Manzanar were things not to talk about openly to others. But through the years, I would keep Manzanar in my mind as a family secret but at the same time, I would read books, attend lectures and watch movies about Manzanar as a way to educate myself. It was a topic that brought sadness to my parents to talk about and so I avoided asking them too many questions about that painful time in their lives.

Both my parents have passed away, my Dad in 2001, and Mom in 2013. But something remarkable happened and I felt it worth sharing. After so many years have passed, I recently found a wealth of Manzanar family history on my Dad, Mom and grandfather. The newly revealed insight into their struggles and their remarkable accomplishments has astonished me.

The recent path of discovery of our family history began right here on the Manzanar Committee’s web site . The chain of events began when I stumbled across an article on this web site last fall, while researching my father’s name to assist a local historic site in recognizing his accomplishments as President of the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce in the 1960’s. The press release entitled, New At Manzanar National Historic Site: Bridging Generations, named my father as one of the co-creators of Merritt Park, along with Kuichiro Nishi. I was amazed by this discovery and immediately shared the news with the rest of my family.

I contacted the Manzanar Committee and their web site editor, Gann Matsuda, was instrumental in helping me post a story about my parents (see An American Family’s Story Through The Manzanar Years). He also connected me with archeologist Jeff Burton of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Jeff has been leading much of the work at the site in recovering and restoring many of the artifacts of former Manzanar incarcerees, which includes my Dad’s and grandfather’s gardens and stone work, and working with the Nishi family to recreate the Merritt Park garden.

I relayed the information regarding Merritt Park and the Nishi family project that recreated the garden to the rest of my family. My niece, Michelle Warth, and her family, traveled to Manzanar to meet with Jeff and they also met with park rangers, Mark Hachtmann and Alisa Lynch. In December 2015, within weeks of hearing this news. My niece stated: “We were given a very warm welcome by all and an extremely generous, thoughtful, personal tour of my grandfather’s and my great grandfather’s gardens and both of their former barrack grounds, as well, and a touching tour of Merritt Park by Manzanar staff member David Goto.”

“Merritt Park is a community park my grandfather helped create and Jeff Burton and the Nishi family have brought it back for all to see and appreciate,” Michelle added. “We were shown the National Historic Site’s signage at Merritt Park with my grandfather’s name on it. All of this was a deeply moving experience.”

Mark Hachtmann provided Michelle with information on how relatives can obtain copies from the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C.—files of their family members who were incarcerated. These government wartime files were kept on each Japanese American that was incarcerated during the war.

Michelle took the initiative to order and purchase Dad’s war file and has shared them with me. We were taken aback by the lengthy file kept on my Dad, over 150 pages which include many handwritten letters Dad wrote to Ralph Merritt and Mr. Merritt’s letters in response to my Dad. The file also contains many basic forms and questionnaires that each incarceree had to answer regarding any links or activities related to Japan. Neither Dad or Mom had ever been to Japan and no links were found in Dad’s file.

The handwritten letters my Dad wrote to Ralph Merritt and others in his war file were very insightful into his struggle to help and protect his family. Dad was trying to help my grandfather from losing his 20-acre flower farm in the San Fernando Valley. Due to their incarceration, the farmland stood idle and eventually ten acres of the farm was lost by the time they were allowed to return home. Dad’s letters were well written, professional and polite, but as the correspondence continued between Dad and Mr. Merritt, we could see the frustration building in Dad’s words. At one point, Dad wrote that he was going to hold the government liable for their loss of the family’s property. Mr. Merritt responded and asked what Dad meant by “holding the government liable.”

One of the pages in Dad’s file displayed a shipment record for personal property sent in boxes that contained family household items that Dad and grandpa tried to ship to Manzanar. The comments on the shipment list by the receiving station noted that each box had been opened and its contents were noted as scarred and marred. That brought back a sad memory for me since I recall long ago Dad talking about some boxes that they shipped to camp that arrived with all their items smashed and broken.

In Dad’s war file, he also spoke about the hardship they encountered working on a potato farm in Idaho. This work outside camp allowed Mom and Dad, along with their newborn baby who was born in Manzanar, my sister Carole, to leave Manzanar in June 1943. The Idaho farm experience is another one of the few memories Mom and Dad talked about with us kids in later years. Apparently, the family that owned the farm they worked at shocked my parents when showing them the living accommodations they provided to Dad and my Mom, who was expecting their second child and their baby girl, my sister. Their living quarters would be one of the farm’s pigpens, literally, and it would remain their only housing while my parents worked hard labor on the potato farm while they were on work leave from Manzanar. My Mom would eventually give birth to her second child, my brother Kurtis, under these harsh conditions.

Years later, I remember the married Idaho farm couple that once treated my parents so poorly would come to visit my parents at our flower farm in Encinitas, California. Dad was, by that time, a successful wholesale flower grower, shipping flowers across the nation. The farm couple would take the long drive from Idaho once a year to visit my family to say hello. I felt their visits were their way of saying they were sorry for the way they treated Mom and Dad during the war years and strange as it seems, they became friends. Dad and Mom had very forgiving hearts through all their years. That was their nature.

While visiting the Manzanar National Historic Site for the annual Pilgrimage this April, with my family, I took a photo of my parent’s front barrack entrance (see above) which Jeff Burton, pointed out to me, and to my niece, Michelle, during her previous visit to the site. Jeff, and others at the Manzanar site, take great care in preserving such artifacts of former Manzanar incarcerees. It amazed me that so much of my father’s and grandfather’s rock and cement landscaping still remains after all these years due to the work of the skilled cultural resource team at the site. A cement path my father made while incarcerated remains around the border of where my parents’ barrack once stood. The cement is very thin and shows Dad must have been able to order only a very scarce amount of materials while living within Manzanar.

Inscribed in the cement border my Dad made around his barrack is the date, 4/15/43. Government records show that was the date my Dad and Mom were issued an “authorized release” from Manzanar. My Dad’s war file shows the date of their “release clearance” was June 7, 1943, the day they headed to Idaho to work on the potato farm. My father must have been so excited over the news of their approved April 15 authorized release date that it inspired Dad to pour some left over cement to write the date at the entrance of their barrack.

On my recent visit to Manzanar, I reflected on the thought that Dad and Mom were incarcerated at this very piece of land that I stood on for the first time. I thought my Dad’s inscription was his way of saying, “yes, we were here.”

The Manzanar site has also taken great care to reconstruct, with the original stones, and preserve the stone lantern my grandfather, Kiichiro Muto, created by his barrack, circa 1943.

Jeff provided me with contact information to reach the Nishi family and I have since exchanged letters of appreciation with the family and have learned more about their extraordinary story.

In the end, learning all these new insights into the experiences of my Dad, Mom, grandfather and family at Manzanar has had a profound affect on me. It has brought an even greater appreciation and understanding than before of their legacy at Manzanar, and the sacrifices they made for their family and future generations. It also inspired me to want to share their story with others in the hope it can contribute to greater public awareness of the history of Manzanar and how it affected the lives of so many incarcerated Americans, like my family, whose lives would be changed forever.

Thank you Manzanar Committee and the Manzanar National Historic Site for remembering my family and all the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and endured the Manzanar years.

Artist/illustrator Susan Muto Knight, the youngest of the Muto’s four children, is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Knight, who made her first trip to Manzanar during the 47th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, 2016, writes from Carlsbad, California.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: Takio and Masako Muto – Wedding photo, June 1941. Photo courtesy Muto Family Collection.

SECOND PHOTO: Takio Muto etched his release approval date, 4/15/43, into a stone
by his barrack entrance. Photo courtesy Muto Family Collection.

THIRD PHOTO: iichiro Muto’s stone lantern, circa 1943. Restored by National Park Service archeologist Jeff Burton and staff. Photo courtesy Muto Family Collection.

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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9 thoughts on “A Little Research, Writing Helps Open A Pathway To A Family’s Manzanar History

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      1. Suzan,

        Your parents farmed in the SF Valley before being imprisoned in Manzanar. Is there a story to be told about how they left Idaho to farm in Encinitas instead of SF Valley?

        My parents had a gift shop in San Fran Chinatown and lived above the store before being sent to a Tanforan horse stable before being shipped off to the Topaz Prison where I was born in 1943. Our trip was from there to Chicago and then on to living in the back of a grocery store in Salt Lake City Utah.

        Some of his new friends went to LA, CA and became produce clerks at a small Farmer’s Market. He ended up working at Vons and Ralphs Markets.

        We left Topaz with the obligatory $25.00 and some olive drab Army blankets – we were and lived with other poor Mexican Americans.

        With roots in the Camps, there are thousands of stories that can/should be told by the children of the camps – most about their successes through assimilation.

        We didn’t know what we weren’t told so we didn’t sulk but instead achieved through hard work that we were told/taught to do by our parents – their legacy to us kids.


        1. Thank you, Earnie, for sharing a bit of your family’s extraordinary story and your interest in my parents’ experience. To answer your question, my parents did eventually return to my grandfather’s San Fernando farm for a few years before my family moved to Encinitas to start a separate flower farm. (It was a long road before they returned to their home in San Fernando .. from Manzanar to Idaho to the Midwest for my dad’s military service and then finally back to their home in San Fernando.)

          It is hard to fully comprehend what they must have felt during those years. To think that all these families were put into camps and some in horse stables before sent to the camps, like your family, during WWII and not know, really, what would happen to them ..if they would ever be able to return home or where they would end up.

          I feel every story that is shared from the families of the WWII incarcerated Japanese Americans will help tell our story that our history classes failed to include as part of our American history. Whenever I would mention the camps to others I was met with similar reactions of unawareness or even misconceptions of what occurred.

          So many, like my parents, were made to feel that their painful experience was something private and so the next generation, like you and me, can tell their stories for them. For future generations, the link will be lost if we don’t carry their history forward. Thanks Earnie and take care! Susan~

  1. Susan,
    Thanks for your reply to my question and your terse reply – but there is more to share.

    I don’t know why most children from the Camps don’t share here? The Manzanar Committee is a perfect place to do so.

    The rest of my story:

    Life of a Pauper after leaving Topaz, Utah

    My mother, Teruko (Teri), was born in May 1922 and grew up in the Imperial Valley and her father, Toraichi, Kiyoshi Okamoto’s brother, was a farmer or a truck farmer and had a life of hard work. Later, her father owned a small grocery store in Glendale, CA before they went back to Japan in 1932. She was a young girl and would be educated in Oshima Island, Yamaguchi, Japan.

    She was married there to a Kibei, Jack Masumoto and returned to the US and lived in San Francisco’s China Town on Grant Avenue. Jack was in the importing business and sold his souvenirs that were made in Japan in a small store. They lived above the store and soon had a daughter, Toshiko in 1941. That didn’t last long for when the war with Japan broke out, they were sent to Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack with stables, in October 1942 and then on to Topaz Relocation Camp on the salt lake of Utah – a Prison.

    Toshiko took on the name of Nancy from the comics years later when she went to school to help assimilate and to not have her Japanese name create untoward attention. This must have helped for she was accepted, did well in school and although my parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, she eventually became a Nurse and married a doctor.

    I, Earnest Yutaka (named after Utah), was born in May 1943 in Camp. The first thing that I remember was my mother carrying me up the steps of a Brownstone building in Chicago, in 1945, right after we left the Topaz Internment/Prison Camp. Chicago was cold and wet with snow so we had to wear ear muffs and padded cloth hand warmers. I remember that we all slept on a Murphy bed that came out of the wall. It was then that I was first introduced to bed bugs.

    I presume that my parents got the $25.00 traveling money from the government that was mentioned somewhere when the Internees left camp. I was told that we were only allowed to take some clothes and the ubiquitous army blankets with us that we used for many years thereafter. All that my father shared about camp was that he worked on the pig farm there and only after I asked.

    When I was two, in late 1945, we lived in the store room at the back of a small grocery store in Salt Lake City. I was given baths in a small galvanized oval shaped steel tub filled with hot water from the stove – not a nice porcelain one. There wasn’t an outhouse like in the country, but instead the benjo was in back of the market’s storage area. I remember looking at the rats that ran along the water pipes high above near the ceiling while on my walks to the benjo – scary. They were like the only pets that I had and I didn’t have to feed them.

    In 1946, my father, Jack, had some friends that located in the Los Angeles area and told him to come and they would help him get a job and a place to live. When he left to investigate, I remember my mother carrying me to the train station in Salt Lake City Utah to say farewell to my father. I started to cry so she gave me some candy – it worked. I don’t remember ever being in a stroller for there were just too many stairs and no elevators. She carried me before I could walk and my older sister, Toshiko, followed us everywhere we went for we didn’t have a car and we never took a cab.

    We stayed with a couple of families in different parts of LA until we moved to the Bunker Hill’s tenements on Olive Street that housed mostly Mexicans in Downtown LA. When we arrived with everything that we owned in the trunk of a car, we were greeted by some kids singing, “Chino, chino, japonese come caca y no me des”…repeated over and over again. This was the only racist experience that I remember for we were soon accepted and became their friends as well as with the other poor families in the neighborhood.

    For fun, my older sister, Toshiko (Nancy) and I used to make tents out of those army blankets outside on the dirt and sit and talk and play house without dishes – for we didn’t have any toys to play with nor did we any have parks nearby. Instead, surrounding Bunker Hills were dirt fields with oil derricks, pipes and oil storage tanks.

    Outside of the tenements, there was a strip of dirt between our and the adjacent tenement. We would sit there and have little pretend picnics. With no other recreational activities, my Mexican friend and I would go door to door in the tenements and ask for food just to be doing something to kill the time, I guess, for we really didn’t have to. Well, I got some old wieners one day and I got real sick – no more mooching thereafter.

    My friend and I also used to play hide and go seek in and around trash cans and I contracted Scarlet Fever. I was running a high fever for days and the doctor used to come by in the evenings after work to give me penicillin shots in my butt – doctors made house calls then. I had a high fever around 104 F and stayed and slept in my crib all day. Later I learned that the fever could make one sterile – that didn’t happen so my kids tell me.

    My friend and I used to watch his mother make flour tortillas on the stove and when they were still hot, she would give one to each of us without butter as is popular now. To me it was like eating a cake that we never got because cake was a luxury. My mother offered him bland rice balls in return.

    Teruko was a very strong mother for her petite size and always under 90 pounds. I remember her slinging me across her hips and walking up several flights of stairs with Nancy holding on to her other hand when we lived on the third floor of the tenement in Bunker Hills. There was one common bathroom at the end of the hallway shared by all of the tenents.

    You don’t know what you don’t know, and I didn’t know that we were poor and neither did my sister or my Mexican friend. The only hint back then was at dinner time when I asked my mother why my father was eating steak and why we always ate hamburger? She told me that my father has to eat well so that he can continue to work and make money and that hamburger was cheaper. Cognitive dissonance set in and I started to imagine that steak was tougher for Dad had to use a knife, and probably didn’t taste any better than hamburger.

    Every once in awhile, my mother would pound abalone until it was tender and then slice it into thin sashimi strips and serve it on a bed of lettuce served with some shoyu and a bowel of rice for each of us. It wasn’t my favorite but I now realize that it was a treat considering how much abalone costs today. Abalone wasn’t that popular back then and plentiful so I guess that it must have been inexpensive for us to enjoy it for dinner.

    Between Bunker Hills to Downtown there was The Angels Flight “Railway”, one block long, between Olive and Hill St. and we would take that tram up and down the hill. My father would take us to see the film clips at The News Reel Theater on Broadway about current events and this must have been how we got information for I don’t remember listening to a radio and there was no TV back then – for us. There were several large theaters near by but we never went to them for though they were bright and inviting – they probably cost more. We wouldn’t have understood what we were watching or how the other half lived anyway – cognitive dissonance can be a good thing.

    My mother would take us down to the Grand Central Market for groceries. We made this trip often because we had an ice box instead of a refrigerator and I could only carry a small bag of food. Once in a long while we would go to the Clifton’s Cafeteria for dinner. I remember eating chicken wings, soup and bread – nothing expensive but it was a nice treat instead of the usual shoyu mackerel and rice, liver and fried onions or spaghetti and meat balls that we had at home.

    I imagine that many kids then didn’t know that they and their family were struggling back then and that they found ways of keeping busy and having fun – children do that. Besides, we didn’t have designer kid clothes and strollers back then to wish for either.

    There is a story that wants to be told about the trials after camp as experienced by the younger camp generation and how overcoming them ultimately led to their assimilation and financial success – I am a part of that story.


  2. Just a general observation to no one in particular. Pertaining to the painful experiences we all share through our family stories and our unique Japanese American experience, grows an awareness to an unkind act or words or witnessing the suffering of others. A life long question – I ask why and what is the solution? Recently, I attended a film/photo exhibit in Balboa Park in San Diego and its message resonated and touched me and I thought worth sharing. The exhibit is called HUMAN and featured the work of photographer and film maker Yann Arthus Bertrand. In the movie, HUAMAN, Bertrand says the following words:

    “I am just one man among 7 billion others. For almost 40 years I have been taking photographs of our planet in an attempt to understand the earth in which we live. As humanity progresses I have the feeling we are still living in a two tier world, undermined by inequalities, ravished by wars. We’re still incapable of living together. Today, naively as a child I do – I want to ask a question. Why? Why from one generation to the next do we continue to make the same mistakes? I have not sought an answer in numbers and statistics but in humanity itself.”

    1. One reason for sharing the video is to consider the two questions Bertrand poses – Are we humans incapable of living with one anther and why do we make the same mistakes generation after generation.

      My hope, which the people connected to the Manzanar site and web site work so hard for, is that we do not repeat the same mistake of the traumatic WWII camps that our families experienced.

      May we respect one another despite our differences. Peace be with all.

  3. Susan,

    Thanks for sharing the piece and your thoughts and the question.

    Our contribution to this tiny forum is unusual considering the traffic here or the lack thereof. We all wish that there were more stories, questions and posters to stay vibrant and relevant.

    I am incapable of knowing the answer if there is a true one or just different opinions based on one’s experience and observations that we all have. It’s like asking if there is a good God that would not allow bad things from happening? The easy answer is that there isn’t one for bad things continue to happen.

    My humble belief is that there will not be a repeat of the imprisonment of the Issei and JAs during WWII for there is no reason to today – in my lifetime. As a minority, they had accomplished through hard work, success in farming and business that others wanted to take from them and did with the help of our Government. What the America Indians had was their land that others wanted but that is another (bigger) story.

    Is it the Oil In the ME that we want from them and why we meddle in their affairs or the affairs of their leaders. I contend that the people there have lived comfortably there for centuries – in their own way. Do we truly meddle in their life to improve their and other countries lot or to profit from the “improvements” that we can effect – another bigger story?

    As long as someone else has something that we want, there will be victims like Issei and JAs during WWII. Considering that they were not violent and destructive to the USA, they could have been left alone and helped the war effort earlier.

    If we all, across the world, stopped profiting from what others have like land, interest on debt to the profits that our leaders take from their ward. then perhaps the question can be answered. In the mean time, I will not hold my breath.

    Thanks from one in 7 billion,


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