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‘They were going to shoot me:’ Japanese American, forced into internment camp as child, recalls trials, triumphs


Eighty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps following the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

About 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, had to leave everything behind. Many families did not know when they would be released, or how long they could be gone.

Mike Hosokawa's family was one of the 120,000 people forcibly placed into a camp.

"February 19, 1942, they gave us only a few weeks to take care of your house, your business, your pets, your farm, your everything, you simply had to pack up," Hosokawa said. "I remember my mother in tears, picking up things and then putting other things in a box for the trash man."

Hosokawa was 2 years old when it happened. The family's first stop was the Washington State Fairgrounds, where each family stayed in a horse stall until other camps in other states were being built.

"It was really pretty stark and harsh, I remember telling my mother that this wasn't my home," Hosokawa said.

Next stop, Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. Hosokawa said each family was put up in a 14-foot-by-14-foot room. He remembers it being desolate, and not much out there in the plains, just tarpaper barracks surrounding the camp.

Hosokawa said many people were depressed and suffered PTSD due to the experiences in the camps.

"I think the significance of it is the feeling of people at the time was we will follow instructions, we will be obedient, we will not object," he said. "That's our contribution to patriotism. At the same time, we lost all contact with culture."

Two years later the moment finally came, an early release. Hosokawa's father got a job at the Des Moines Register, as a reporter, and also received a family sponsor. Both of those opportunities allowed the family to go early.

In Des Moines, the family was welcomed by their sponsor, who was a Quaker. He helped them resettle in a rental property. After some time, the Hosokawa family had enough money to buy their own house. The initial move into their new neighborhood was smooth, Hosokawa said, thanks to neighbor Pauline Lynam.

"She had gone around the neighborhood and said, 'these people are ok, they're not the enemy,' the whole thing," Hosokawa said.

Lynam would eventually become a grandmother figure to him, who he would frequently visit even after the family moved out of Des Moines.

While the move-in was comfortable, the experiences afterward weren't.

"There was one incident where the boys in the neighborhood, I was about 5 or so. The boys said 'come out and play,' I was thrilled," he said. "I sneaked out the back door, across the street into the woods where the boys were playing. They came up to me and said, 'would you like to learn how to shoot a gun?' Of course, I was thrilled with that, but they said 'first you have to stand in front of this tree,' and then they started talking about killing the jap. They were going to shoot me."

Hosokawa said, "I started to run, and I could hear gunshots behind me but I ran home and I was hiding in the garage." He said he never told his mother about that incident.

"That's a kind of indication of the mood at the time, there was a lot of hate. People were angry and hurt, they lost people in the war and we looked like the enemy," he said.

The anger was so much, he would take a different exit and way home every day so kids wouldn't beat him up.

While being in school wasn't always pleasant, it's where he would find himself again. Hosokawa currently serves as the senior associate dean of education at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

He says being in a leadership role put him on a platform that allows him to be a representation to other kids that Asian Americans can hold important roles.

He said he remembers after 9/11 and how Middle Eastern students were being treated following the attacks.

"I'm very quiet, Hosokawa said. "I don't say much but after 9/11 the faculty came together in the auditorium here and that's when I felt compelled to speak out so people understood my history and how that carried over to the Middle Eastern students. This was the first time I've spoken out like that, then it kind of motivated me to do more speaking out."

Hosokawa said he's looking to retire soon, but until then he continues to love what he does. "I don't know what else to do, I'm having too much fun."

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Deborah Kendrick

Deborah is a weekday evening anchor and investigative reporter for ABC 17 News.


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