Monday, January 14, 2008

Honoring the Legacy, Part 1.2: Yasutaro Soga's Story

[The following is taken from Life behind Barbed Wire by Yasutaro Soga. Paraphrasing by Mary Louise Haraguchi.]

December 7, 1941

Yasutaro Soga, the managing editor of the Japanese language paper Nippo Jiji, is arrested the evening of December 7 at the Honolulu home he shares with his wife and four children. Three military policemen inform him that he is being taken to the Immigration Office. The prominent journalist is 68 years old.

[That morning] I had a premonition that something was going to happen to me. I usually wore a kimono on Sundays, but I changed to a suit and put on a pair of shoes so that I would be ready to go out at any time.

My wife came with me as far as the entrance hall and whispered, “Please be careful not to catch a cold.” I tried to say something but could not utter a word and silently went to the car. Two of the MP’s sat in the front, and one sat beside me in the back with a pistol in his hand.

Within the space of a day we had been forced from our Pacific Ocean paradise and now found ourselves in hell. [Life behind Barbed Wire]

At the Immigration Office Soga is searched and most of his belongings are confiscated. His MP escort then thrusts him into a room that he later realizes is “packed like sushi” with men who have been arrested that day. They soon learn that all of their routines are under the surveillance of military police with bayonets.

On the very first morning, a cocky young MP, apparently fresh from the Mainland, ordered us around like dogs with his bayonet. Once, with the blood surging in my veins, I was on the verge of throwing a dish at him, but at the last minute I regained my composure. [I would have been] gored like potatoes---and would have died needlessly. [Life behind Barbed Wire]

Sand Island Detention Center

Three days later, on December 9, Soga is part of a group that is taken by boat to Sand Island, the U.S. Quarantine Station under military control. They are told that they are detainees, “not criminals but prisoners of war.” By the end of that day they have to assemble their tents, working in the dark and the rain. Exhausted, Soga writes, “That night, like sewer rats, we slept just as we were.”

The detainees are not allowed to keep any item that might be used as a weapon. In one incident, when a man is found to have a handmade knife, all of the detainees are ordered to assemble in the dark and strip completely.

Even in Hawaii it gets cold at night in the middle of December. It was especially cold that winter, the year the war began. We were kept standing for a long time; a dry wind blew and we all shivered with cold. When we finally returned to our tents, we found all of our belongings scattered about. (Life behind Barbed Wire]

The detainees are allowed no free time unless they are sick. Besides their assigned chores, they weed and pick up trash. They are also ordered to disperse if more than three of them gather to talk. Paper, pencils, newspapers are not allowed. No light is permitted at night and detainees have strict rules about leaving their tents.

After dinner, from eight o’clock on, we could not leave our tents except to go to the toilet. If you were on your way to the toilet at night and a guard suddenly ordered

“Stop!” you had to answer “Prisoner!” immediately. If you kept silent, you could be shot dead. [Life behind Barbed Wire]

By the third week of December, Lieutenant General Delos Emmons arrives in Hawaii as the newly appointed army commander. After an inspection of Sand Island, a statement is issued that the men are not to be considered prisoners of war or criminals but detainees not subject to military rules.

Up to that point, we had been regarded as prisoners of war. We had all thought that designation a strange one, and I think Commander Emmons noted it upon his arrival…Once our status changed, the tight grip was loosened. [Life behind Barbed Wire]

Nonetheless the harsh living conditions continue, with water flowing in the tents when it rains at night. There is also a regular rotation from one tent to another until barracks are built after six months.

Communications from outside Sand Island are also limited at that time. Letters can only be written in English so the few men who can read and write in English have to help the others during the limited hours when letter writing and access to stationery and pencils is allowed.

An inquiry commission is set up at the Immigration Office in early January of 1942, composed of civilians and military personnel. Hearings last from less than an hour to several days.

Soga is detained at the Immigration Office for two weeks. His attorney, Masaji Muramoto, is allowed to represent him and Dr. Stanley Gulick is a witness.

Fear of another impending attack by Japan also continues to persist.

We did not know if or when Japan would attack Hawaii again, but we were convinced it would bomb Sand Island. The camp office issued gas masks and taught us how to use them. We were also ordered to dig trenches around the camp. Air-raid sirens would sound unexpectedly as a signal for us to jump into the trenches. This often made us feel like sewer rats. We never knew if a real attack was imminent, so we were terror-struck whenever we heard the sirens.

In February 1942, the first group of detainees is sent to camps on the mainland. Those who remain continue to have little access to the outside world.

We received no news of the war or of Honolulu, although the city was clearly visible. When new internees arrived, we welcomed them eagerly, anxious to hear any news, good or bad…Most of the time the information was accurate, but sometimes it was not, which led to many false rumors within the camp.

Conditions begin to change in mid-May of 1942 when the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser are allowed in the camp. Then, on May 25, it is announced that visits from families twice a month would commence.

Finally, in early August, the fifth group of internees receive notice that they are to leave for the mainland. Soga’s name is included and he writes farewell letters to his family. He leaves ninety poems he has composed at Sand Island to be given to his wife.

I felt like the aimless wanderer in the old Japanese tales. I carried a suitcase in each hand and asked a young man to carry the big barracks bag for me. When we passed in front of the women’s barracks, they called out, “Good luck!” I heard Mrs. Mori say,

“Mr. Soga, be strong.” A tear fell in spite of myself. We boarded ship at four o’clock that afternoon.

Soga is interned at two camps in New Mexico. Lordsburg is run by the U.S. Army and Santa Fe, by the Justice Department.

Return Home
He returns to Hawaii on November 13, 1945, after being incarcerated for almost four years.

Soga resumes writing for the Hawaii Times, the successor to Nippo Jiji which was taken over and renamed by his son Shigeo while his father was away. He also continues to write autobiographies, assists in reactivating Choon Shisha, a tanka club, and produces an anthology of his poems.

The feelings he experiences after December 7 is captured in one of his poems:

There is nothing ikusa hodo
More sorrowful than war. kanashiki wa nashi
Here alone, sekaijyu no
All of life’s sadness kanashiki koto no
Is brought together. koko ni atsumaru

Yasutaro Soga dies on March 7, 1957, at 83 years old.

Soga’s book Tessaku Seikatsu (Life behind Barbed Wire) covers his observations of the entire period he was incarcerated, all captured with the unique nuances of an experienced journalist. It was translated by Kihei Hirai and released in 2008.

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