- Emily Pan
Life in a Japanese Detention Camp and The Kind Mr. Wilkinson
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
Expensive maple dressers, love seats, dining room sets, and bedsteads, all imported from Japan, filled the homes of many Japanese families - up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that is. Shortly after, all of those things had "disappeared, [were] stolen, or broken up by cowards armed with hatchets" (Gregory), and the Japanese themselves were forced out of their homes by the government and to detention camps. Many Japanese Americans who lived in Arroyo Grande were "shipped to the temporary relocation center at the Tulare County Fairgrounds, where they slept in livestock stalls" (Gregory).
But not everyone treated the Japanese in this way. For example, Mr. Wilkinson, who owned a meat market and grocery on branch street refused to accept the payments of Japanese immigrants for he said, "You keep your money. You’re going to need it" (Gregory).
Meanwhile, the Japanese immigrants were being moved from camp to camp, first in Tulare, then to the Gila River camp, where they encountered gusty desert winds and the temperature was at 109 degrees and above for a month. The unfavorable conditions allowed Valley fever to spread and they lived in barracks with cardboard-thin walls that carried them, with rattle snakes and scorpions to greet them.
As shown, these camps were not suitable for humans and by 1944, the younger generation had escaped from the Gila River camp to attend college or "to die in distant Italian mountains or in the forests of the Vosges Mountains in France, where the Germans had learned to fire their superb 88-mm cannon into the treetops to impale the Nisei GIs below with jagged splinters" (Gregory).
By the end of 1944, less than half of the Japanese population in Arroyo Grande came home, while others' ashes were brought back to rest with their family and friends once and forever. Many of them who did come home were denied hotel stays and service in local grocery stores. Their community had been stolen from them for three years, and when they came home to pick up their life where they left them, discrimination and refusal of service awaited them.
Again, Mr. Wilkinson extended credit to those who were looking to begin a new life after returning home from the desert. Similarly, the blacksmith, "Mr. Schnyder, repaired the Kobara family’s water pump on Christmas Day 1945 because there are no holidays with crops in the ground. He understood that and he understood, too, the kind of people the Kobaras were—and are" (Gregory).
The Japanese had endured so much pain and agony, but when they returned, "their generosity was open and seemingly effortless. They never stopped giving to their neighbors—in youth sports, in service clubs, in countless volunteer hours, in the Methodist Church, in homes where their refrigerators were always open to a generation of ravenous teenaged boys" (Gregory).
Yet no matter how wonderfully people treated the Japanese after the war, the memories of the war years were not shared with their children and "Gila River remained, both submerged and sharply painful, until they began to approach the ends of their lives" (Gregory).
Gregory, Jim “Lessons from Coach Sab's Generation.” A Work in Progress, 13 Apr. 2018, jimgregory52.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/lessons-from-coach-sabs-generation/.
100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Program, from the Collection of Masami Hamakado