The young, second-generation Japanese immigrants (Nisei) relocated to the Topaz Mountain Internment Camp during World War II faced a unique challenge. Born in American to the children of Japanese immigrants, they were forced to negotiate between being legal citizens and being seen as outsiders.
After Pearl Harbor in 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 creating the Military Exclusion Zones along the Pacific Coast. The order pushed 120,000 Japanese out of their homes and into internment camps, including Topaz. The intention was to protect America against any immigrants whose allegiance was still with Japan. The youth were directly confronted with the issue in the form of the Loyalty Exam. Two of the questions read, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” and, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America . . . and foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power, or organization?” These questions were the basis of the “Yes-Yes” and “No-No” groups that caused division among their age group and all within the camp.
The forced relocation led many Japanese young people like: R. A. Sasaki, Miné Okubo, and Yoshiko Uchida to turn to art, journals, and letters to compile the effects the movement had on Japanese family structure and their own dreams of education or social advancement. These forms of communication expressed a worry for their people, confusing and hurt over being sent to internment camps, and the desire to still support the America they had been born into. R. A. Sasaki captures this desire in her short story American Fish. The main character, Mrs. Hayashi, is asked by an old acquaintance, Mrs. Nakamoto, why Mrs. Hayashi’s parents stayed in the United States after Pearl Harbor. Mrs. Hayashi answered simply, “I guess they knew that we, I mean my brothers and sisters and I would never want to go to Japan. I mean we were born here. We belonged here. And they wanted the family to stay together.”
Despite their circumstances, Japanese-American youth held on to the hope of an America that offered opportunity. They created from scratch, along with teachers and administrators, a successful school with limited resources. In fact, many of the students complained in interviews later in life about the lack of credible teachers and resources. The draw to a world they had grown up in, like Yoshiko Uchida who continually applied to go to college while in Topaz, highlighted the difficult situation these Japanese Americans were in. They believed in a nation who could give them everything, but were left to wonder why they were building their own prison walls when they were more than willing to fight for the nation that they were both “born” to and “belonged” in.