Les Ouchida was born in 1942 just outside California’s capital of Sacramento. But when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war, his American citizenship hardly mattered. Based solely on their Japanese ancestry, the five-year-old and his family were taken from their home and imprisoned far away in Arkansas. Today, California’s legislature will likely approve a resolution apologizing to internment victims for the state’s anti-Japanese discrimination.
The Ouchidas were among 120,000 Japanese Americans held at 10 internment camps during World War II. U.S. officials were afraid that Japanese Americans would side with Japan in the war. Their only fault was “the wrong last names and wrong faces,” says Ouchida. He and others stayed in the camps throughout most of the war.
An executive order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the camps on February 19, 1942. For Japanese Americans, 2/19 is a Day of Remembrance.
Japan-born California Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi introduced the resolution to be read on the anniversary. He represents communities near Los Angeles. “We like to talk a lot about how we lead the nation by example,” he says. “Unfortunately, in this case, California led the racist anti-Japanese American movement.”
A congressional commission in 1983 said the detentions were a result of “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership.” Five years later, the U.S. government formally apologized and paid $20,000 to each victim.
The California resolution doesn’t include compensation. Instead, it targets the actions of the California legislature at the time for supporting the internments.
“I want the California legislature to officially acknowledge and apologize while these camp survivors are still alive,” Muratsuchi says.
Given their ages at the time, many living victims don’t remember much of life in the camps. But Ouchida does recall straw-filled mattresses and little privacy.
Ouchida says Japanese families like his always considered themselves loyal citizens—before and after the internments. He holds no bitterness toward the U.S. or California governments. He chooses to focus on positives like an exhibit at the California Museum that provides an honest view of the internments.
Before the last camp closed in 1946, the government sent Ouchida’s family to a facility in Arizona. The family members took a Greyhound bus back to California. When the bus approached their community outside Sacramento, “I still remember the ladies on the bus started crying,” Ouchida says. “Because they were home.”
The Lord watches over the sojourners; He upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked He brings to ruin. — Psalm 146:9
(Les Ouchida holds a 1943 photo of himself [front row, center] and his siblings taken at the internment camp his family was moved to. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)