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Internment through the eyes of a child

Matt Shibahara shares his memories of a Japanese internment camp during World War II


by: ISABEL GAUTSHCI - Estacada resident Matt Shibahara shares his memories of being in a Japanese Internment camp as a small child during World War II. He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Estacada Public Library on Nov. 14.Surrounded by sketches of watch towers, exclusion order posters and an apology letter from President George H.W. Bush, Matt Shibahara of Estacada shared his memories of what it was like to be in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

The Flora Room of Estacada Public Library was packed to standing-room-only during Shibahara’s talk on Thursday, Nov. 14.

Shibahara’s father, Masahiko “Mike” Shibahara, left Japan at age 14 and worked in the fields in Hawaii until 1907 when he joined the U.S. Navy.

Mike served for eight years and was honorably discharged in 1915.

He attended automotive school in Cleveland and planned to return to Japan with his degree, but thought better of it when he learned of how few roads there were there.

Instead, Mike moved to Hood River and purchased 20 acres.

He cleared the land with a shovel and a team of mules to prepare it for orchards.

Eventually, he got married, which resulted in seven children.

Then the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which pulled the U.S. into World War II.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order for the relocation of Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps.

by: CONTRIBUTED - These exclusion order notices hung on posts in Gresham in 1942.Notices appeared near Japanese residences informing them of the order.

“Can you imagine two posters appearing by your home... You have to leave behind your furniture, your pets, your heirlooms... You only got to take what you could carry,” Shibahara said.

Shibahara was 3 years old at the time, his younger brother only 1. They had to be carried themselves.

The Shibahara family was taken by train to a processing center in Fresno and sent to the Tule Lake internment camp.

Shibahara said that 18,000 people were incarcerated on the 1,100 acre camp at Tule Lake.

He compared it to Estacada’s population of 2,863 on 1,300 acres.

“It was quite crowded there,” he said. “In fact, it was over crowded.”

He explained that the buildings were partitioned into 20 feet rooms. One family per room, or two couples or four single people.

The barracks had coal-burning potbellied stoves, but as coal was hard to come by during the war, the barracks were often very cold.

But as a child, Shibahara said he had the time of his life in the camps. 18,000 people incarcerated in the same place meant there were a lot of other children to play with.

“These were our play structures,” Shibahara said, gesturing to the sketch of the watch tower.

Roosevelt rescinded the order for internment in 1944.

But the Shibaharas stayed in the camp for nearly a year afterward by choice, because “there was no where else to go.”

The American Legion post in Hood River encouraged Japanese Americans not to return for their own safety. Shibahara said about 30 families didn’t.

“The post actually asked us not to return,” Shibahara said.

Nevertheless, the whole Shibahara family returned to their farm around Christmas 1945.

Shibahara had lived in the internment camp until after his seventh birthday.

What had been more than 80 producing acres had fallen into disrepair. The family was able to keep the original 20 acres Mike had cleared by hand.

But life wasn’t easy upon their return. “We had a very difficult time because the merchants wouldn’t sell us anything,” Shibahara said.

Shibahara said about a dozen Hood River citizens helped the Japanese residents, “but most were afraid to.”

Shibahara remembers being the only Japanese person his peers had ever seen in his first-grade class.

Shibahara was quickly befriended by a group of girls and he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his school days.

However, the Shibahara family did not talk about their time in the internment camp.

“As we grew up, we never spoke about it,” Shibahara said. His older sister won’t talk about the camp to this day.

Before closing, Shibahara read this quote from George Takei, an actor and author best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek. Takei also was incarcerated in Japanese internment camps as a child.

“We are a nation of laws, and we have a Constitution that guarantees certain inalienable rights, including the right to liberty, the right to a jury trial, and the right against unlawful search and seizure. And yet, in times of trouble, how quickly these cornerstones of our freedom are abandoned. We must be constantly vigilant against tyranny and injustice of all forms, especially when it isn’t politically expedient.”




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