5th-graders hear about Japanese American history

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Charles H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald Seattle-based writer and editor Mayumi Tsutakawa spoke at Garden Heights Elementary School on Thursday about the experience of Japanese Americans in Washington State.

MOSES LAKE — Mayumi Tsutakawa was pleasantly surprised by the fifth-graders at Garden Heights Elementary School on Thursday.

“I can tell they were prepared, they’ve read some books or saw some videos, so what I told them wasn’t a surprise,” the Seattle-based writer said.

Tsutakawa was at Garden Heights as part of a Humanities Washington lecture series to talk about the history of Japanese Americans in Washington.

And the thing the Garden Heights students were prepared about was the forced internment of all West Coast Japanese Americans and Japanese living in America in early 1942, following Japan’s attack on the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt originally ordered the removal of all citizens and residents of Japanese descent who lived within 60 miles of the West Coast, Tsutakawa said. However, some places took that farther — California relocated all Japanese residents, for example.

“In Washington, a line was drawn down the middle of the state. If you lived in Yakima, you were taken, but people living in Moses Lake were not taken,” she told the fifth-graders.

A lot of people scrambled to find friends and relations to stay with outside the exclusion zone, so they wouldn’t get sent to internment camps, she added.

All told, about 120,000 people of Japanese descent — including American citizens — were interned.

Including Tsutakawa’s parents, George and Ayame.

Tsutakawa said her father, a renowned artist and sculptor whose work adorns several Seattle-area landmarks — including the city’s public library — and the Puyallup Fairgrounds where Japanese were temporarily interned, joined the U.S. Army in World War II and taught Japanese to American soldiers in Arkansas.

“Japanese American soldiers who were in the U.S. Army fought very bravely in Europe,” she said.

Her mother, who spent much of her childhood in Japan, was interned in a camp for Japanese government sympathizers in Idaho.

However, Tsutakawa also told the gathered fifth-graders that those relocated had American friends — many of them clergy — and neighbors who would make the long journey to Idaho to bring news and mail all the way from Seattle.

“They would tell them things that happened,” she said.

Tsutakawa wanted the fifth-graders to consider the immigrants they know, and what their responsibility to those immigrants today might be.

The lecture, entitled “The Pine and the Cherry” has taken Tsutakawa to grade schools, senior centers, community colleges, and civic groups across the state.

“This is my second with Humanities Washington,” she said. “I gave 30 talks last year, and this year I’ve been invited to 16 so far.”

As a writer who specializes in Japanese American life and history in the Pacific Northwest, Tsutakawa said she likes to see how audiences will react and how they will compare what happened in the early 1940s to today’s immigrant situation.

“My biggest audiences have been in Richland and Yakima,” she said. “Some of the offspring of Japanese farming families have come to my talks, and that has been very interesting and rewarding.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com.

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