In his familys small house in Fukuoka, Japan, the young boy could hear
his fathers hushed conversations with visiting strangers. They would
talk about camps.
After the visitors left, the boy would ask his parents: What camps were those?
Boy Scout camps? Summer camps?
His mother wouldnt discuss it. Its all in the past,
shed say. His father stayed silent, too. But as the boy got older, his
father told him everything.
During World War II, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, tens of
thousands of people living along the U.S. West Coasttwo-thirds of them
American citizenswere given just seventy-two hours to get their affairs
in order, to either abandon their property or sell it for far less than it
was worth. Then, their bank assets frozen, allowed to bring only what they
could carry, they were transported by bus, truck, or railway cattle car to
one of ten relocation camps scattered throughout the western states.
The boys family, living on Terminal Island, in Californias Los
Angeles County, was among those rounded up.
For the next three and a half years, men, women, and children, the very old
to the very young, were prisoners at the hands of their own country, not because
theyd committed any crime, but because they were Japanese.
And so Junro Edgar Wakayama, Ed, to his family and friendslearned about
Americas decision to imprison 120,000 of its residents in the name of
The internment was a violation of civil rights; it was racist and, as some
officials tried to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time, unnecessary.
It didnt matter. The entire country was awash with a flood of anti-Japanese
sentiment, and many in the government feared Japanese Americans might engage
in spying and sabotage.
After the war was over and the camps were closed, Eds father, Kinzo,
moved his family to Japan. Hed been forced to renounce his American
citizenship. Yet Ed says his father bore no grudge against the United States
for turning his familys life upside down.
Neither does the younger Wakayama, born in 1943 in a California internment
camp. Unlike his father, Ed Wakayama was able to retain his citizenship and
live the American dream. He became a decorated U.S. Army colonel,
now retired, as well as a leading professor and researcher in clinical laboratory
sciences. He and his wife, June, have raised two daughters, Lisa, thirty-two,
and Liane, twenty-three.
If anyone has a right to be bitter, its him, says test
pilot Tom Carter, who worked with Wakayama at the Pentagon several years ago.
But hes anything but that.
Wakayama calls himself a true fan of American-style democracy. Yet he is
well aware that democracies can make terrible mistakes. Avoiding them, he
believes, requires speaking up. Its why he regularly travels to colleges
and high schools, to talk about the treatment of Japanese Americans during
World War II, so young people understand how a government can err so dramatically.
And he warns against a new peril, the USA Patriot Act, which he says is once
again curtailing Americans basic constitutional rights. Were
repeating ourselves, he says plainly. Its the same thing
as sixty years ago.
Like a bad spy novel
Wakayama first realized the importance of telling people about the Japanese
internment when he was eighteen and back in the United States for the first
time since he was a toddler.
Living in Pembroke, Massachusetts, with an aunt and uncle, preparing to begin
his studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Wakayama was asked by a
local Grange group to give a lecture on Japanese culture. A woman in the audience
wanted to know where hed been born. Manzanar, California, he saidnear
Why did his family live there? she asked. He explained: Manzanar was a relocation
And she said, Excuse me? What do you mean, relocation camp? Is
that like a concentration camp? Wakayama recalls today. I
said yes. And she said, Oh, theres no such thing in the United
He was immediately invited to the next meetingthis time, to talk about
the camps. They were just flabbergasted, Wakayama says. They
couldnt believe a thing like that had happened. The lady said, This
is horrible. We dont know our own history. That really triggered
it for me.
Now Wakayamas presentations are anything but off-the-cuff. Hes
got PowerPoint graphics. Facts and figures. Family photos. And plenty of passion.
Speaking to a Northeastern audience last October, he began by saying, The
story Im going to tell you is like a page from a bad spy novel. Except
it really happened.
He added, Many Americans think the internment of the Japanese Americans
was caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor. But Im going to tell you,
thats not the case. The racial prejudice against Japanese Americans
started a hundred years before Pearl Harbor.
If Japanese Americans were such a security threat, Wakayama asks his audiences,
why were only West Coast residents put into camps, while another 60,000 Japanese
Americans in Hawaiithe site of the Pearl Harbor attackwere left
alone? The United States was also at war with Germany and Italy; why werent
German Americans and Italian Americans imprisoned, too?
The answer is simple, Wakayama says. Internment was about two things: money
Waves of Japanese immigrants had come into the United States during the early
part of the twentieth century. Many who settled along the West Coast became
prosperous farmers. The success of these outsiders aroused their
neighbors envy and vindictiveness, which led in turn to formal discrimination.
Laws were passed banning Japanese children from white schools.
The 1924 Asian Exclusion Act prohibited Japanese nationals from becoming citizens.
By 1930, more than 600 anti-Japanese statutes had been enacted in the United
States. Such laws recalled late-nineteenth-century restrictions against the
Chinese, when that groups gold-mining successes evoked similar prejudice
Pearl Harbor just provided the final straw, Wakayama says. By early
1942, there was a demand for the incarceration of Japanese Americans by public
officials, civic organizations, and especially the Hearst newspapers,
he says. They called the Japanese the yellow peril. War
became the perfect pretense to inflame the anti-Japanese feeling that had
been brewing on the West Coast.
Documents show several top advisers told President Roosevelt that interning
Japanese Americans was unconstitutionaland that the government didnt
need to do it. Their advice was kept secret. Roosevelt ordered the internment
A closed-in life
Life in Manzanar was uncomfortable, cramped, dull. Internees lived in military-style
barracks, three families to a room, with only curtains for partitions. Privacy
was a major problem, says Wakayama. I remember when I was a kid,
out of the blue sky, I asked my parents, How did people make love?
And my dad said, Very quietly.
Dust flew through the cracks in the wooden walls. When Wakayama was a small
baby, his family stuffed towels in the holes to try to keep the dirt away
In the early going, the camps had no schools; even after Quaker and Mormon
groups sent teachers, the children were mostly bored. Many teenagers were
angry, blaming their parents for the internment. Food supplies were a problem;
wartime rationing meant the prisoners food was often stolen for resale
on the black market.
Some people gave up hope, says Wakayama. It was really
Life for the Wakayama family was particularly tough, because Kinzo Wakayama
seldom took a passive approach to injustices.
After the Pearl Harbor attack but before the internment, the elder Wakayamaa
U.S.-born attorney who became the first Japanese American secretary/treasurer
of the Western Fishermens Unionforesaw trouble ahead. He set out
to convince government officials that Japanese fishermen living in the western
United States would be willing to donate their vessels for war purposes.
Once the internment had been ordered, Kinzo tried another tack: He wrote
to officials requesting that Japanese American veterans of World War I, like
himself, be exempt. That plea, too, was ignored.
He even considered making a legal protest to what he considered an unconstitutional
action. But when armed sailors came to take him and his family away, he surrendered
Still, even as a prisoner, Kinzo was seen by authorities as a troublemaker.
At the familys first stopa makeshift camp at the Santa Anita Racetrack,
where they slept on hay in a stallhe criticized the use of internee
labor to convert fishing net into camouflage, saying the Geneva Convention
forbade forcing prisoners of war to aid in a war effort. That protest landed
him briefly in a local jail.
At Manzanar, Kinzo was jailed twice more. Once, for translating camp policy,
dining schedules, and work-program information into Japanese for first- generation
immigrants who couldnt understand English: War Relocation Authority
policy forbade the use of Japanese at public meetings. Then, for complaining
about the diversion of prisoners food to the black market. Each time,
fellow internees protested by rioting outside the camps administration
building; each time, unarmed prisoners were injured or killed when guards
fired their machine guns into the crowd.
Kinzo was in jail when his wife, Toki, gave birth to Ed, the first of their
three sons. In fact, the babys middle name was chosen in honor of Edgar
Camp, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who tried to help the Wakayamas
by filing a writ of habeas corpus that challenged the constitutionality of
interning U.S. citizens without charges or due process of law. (Kinzo eventually
dropped the suit, worn down by camp authorities harassment.)
The elder Wakayamas outspokenness meant the family was shunted from
place to place. After Manzanar, they lived in Tule Lake, California (where
Eds brother Carl was born), then in New Mexico, then Texas. Kinzo was
forced at gunpoint to sign away his citizenship. Beneath his signature, he
wrote under duress.
When the camps closed in 1946, the Wakayama family left for Japan. Things
got worse before they got better. The Wakayamas had planned to reconnect with
Kinzos parents and other family members in Hiroshima. After they arrived
in Japan, they learned their relatives had been killed by the atomic bomb.
It was too much. Ed Wakayama says his father became so depressed, he at one
point considered killing himself and his family.
But he looked at the boys, says Wakayama, and he couldnt
do it. Eventually, the family settled near Tokis relatives in
Fukuoka, in the south of Japan. A third son, George, was born there.
Back to America
When Wakayama turned eighteen, during the Vietnam War, he was drafted by
the U.S. Army. He couldnt believe his father wanted him to return and
He recalls, My father said, Youre not a Japanese citizen.
If you dont serve in the Army, youre a man without a country.
But I said, Dad, they treated you so bad! He said, I assure
you, times have changed.
And, in truth, Wakayamas life as a young man in America would be wholly
different from his fathers.
His first days back in the United States seemed magical. A May snowstorm
in New England diverted his Los AngelestoBoston flight to New York
City. From there, he took the train to Boston, gazing out in wonder at the
snow-covered countryside. He spent the night at a hotel, waiting for his aunt
and uncle to pick him up.
I didnt mind waiting, he says, laughing. Everything
was a new experience. And the people were so nice. I thought, These are the
Americans that the Japanese fought? How stupid!
Wakayama deferred his military obligation by opting to attend Northeastern
University and join ROTC. His freshman year was rough. At orientation, President
Asa Knowles told the entering class: Look at the person in front of
you, the person in back of you, the person on your left, and the person on
your right. Only one will graduate.
That was enough to throw Wakayama into a tailspin. I almost fainted,
you know? he admits. I thought, Oh, no, Im going to be one
of those victims. But I was determined to survive and graduate. He adds,
Just to be accepted to Northeastern was a miracle for me. If I were
to apply today, I wouldnt have gotten in.
At first, academics were a challenge. Though Wakayama had taken English classes
over the summer, he was still learning the language. I had a hard time
taking notes, he says. So I would read the books. If the professor
said something outside of the book, I was stuck.
In English 101, we had to read John Steinbecks The Grapes of
Wrath, Wakayama remembers. With some of the Oklahoma slang, I
just had no idea what they were talking about. Id say to my professor,
Steve Fine, What does this mean? And hed say, Ed,
thats slang. I dont blame you for not understanding it!
He was very accommodating.
Wakayama also took French to fulfill his language requirement. I was
struggling with English, and French was really tough, he recalls.
Over time, school got easier. He excelled in science and math. In his sophomore
year, he moved in with some new Northeastern friendsall fellow biology
majorsand they studied together. I was very lucky to have these
roommates, he says. It was cheaper, too. And fun.
Wakayama found he loved research. While still an undergraduate, he published
two papers and received two research awards. After graduating with a bachelors
in biology and medical technology, he entered the U.S. Army in January 1968
as a clinical laboratory officer at the Fort Ord hospital, in Monterey, California.
Essentially, I was running a lab, says Wakayama. Typical
military stuffhere I was a young kid, coming in as a boss for people
much more experienced than me.
Discharged from active duty two years later, Wakayama maintained his Army
Reserve status while taking advantage of the GI Bill to earn a masters
in clinical chemistry at the University of Oregon, where he worked through
1978, helping to train postdocs. He then taught for a year at the University
of Oklahoma before moving back west to teach for twelve years at the University
of Nevada in Reno, where he earned a doctorate in biochemistry.
Later, he worked at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, chairing its Clinical
Laboratory Sciences program for seven years. In 1998, he became an associate
professor at the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond.
Mirroring his extensive civilian experiences, Wakayama wore multiple hats
during his thirty-six-year military career. Trained as a medic, he also worked
as a clinical laboratory officer, a biochemist, and a nuclear medical science
officer. On the basis of his civilian jobs, education, annual Army evaluations,
and military decorations and awards, he was elevated to the rank of colonel
in July 1991.
In spring 2001, the Pentagon asked Wakayama to return to active duty, to
help the government keep an eye on safety issues related to military equipment.
His two-year, congressionally mandated positionworking as a staff officer
with the director of operational test and evaluationwas politically
sensitive, reporting directly to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Congress.
And it pitted Wakayama against military officials and defense contractors
interested in getting new equipment adopted quickly, perhaps even when that
meant leapfrogging over rigorous safety testing.
Right away, I made enemies with the Army, the Air Force, the Marine
Corps, he says, laughing. But I was a good choice because I was
a reservistI wasnt looking for the next assignment or the next
promotionand I had the necessary research skills. The [defense] secretary
always told me, As long as youre telling the truth, stick to your
He did. He studied cabin pressure during high-altitude flying, suppressants
used to douse engine fires, toxic fumes emitted by guns, chemical and biological
decontamination methods, the ergonomics of confined spaces. At one point,
Wakayama pushed to halt manned testing on an assault vehicle he thought presented
safety concerns. Several defense contractors made it clear they werent
happy with him. But I didnt budge, he says. So they
finally stopped testing.
It didnt bother me to get criticized, he adds. I
was just telling the truth. Im a typical stubborn scientist. Im
open to suggestion, but just dont lie to me.
Wakayamas Defense Department colleagues appreciated his approach, and
his work ethic. Tom Carter remembers a research paper Wakayama wrotein
about a weekon safety issues related to the V-22 Osprey aircraft, which
really knocked my socks off, Carter says. And Kirt Hardy, military
assistant to the director of operational test and evaluation, says Wakayamas
six-month study of the assault vehicle he labeled unsafe had a crucial impact
on its ultimate design.
Then came the events of September 11, 2001. That Tuesday morning, Wakayama
was working in the Pentagon not far from where American Airlines Flight 77
hit, at 9:38. After he got outside and saw the wreckage, he went back into
the burning building twice, leading and calling people out of the smoky darkness
In spite of warnings to leave the area (another hijacked airplane was still
in the airUnited Airlines Flight 93, which later crashed into a Pennsylvania
field), Wakayama stayed on the scene until 9 that night, administering intravenous
fluids to people who had been hurt, caring for those in shock.
After he got home, he spent hours more answering dozens of phone messages
from worried family and friends. The next dayand every day thereafter
for a week and a halfhe returned to the Pentagon to help with the recovery
and clean-up efforts.
The first day his staff returned to work, they gave him a standing ovation.
I told them I wasnt a hero, Wakayama says. I was
just doing what I was trained to do. Thats my responsibility as a soldier.
Nonetheless, the Army agreed with Wakayamas colleagues. In December
2001, he was awarded the branchs highest decoration for noncombatant
valor, the Soldiers Medal.
Last October, Northeastern honored Wakayama, too, presenting him with an
Outstanding Alumni Award for his distinguished academic career, lifelong service
to his country, heroism on September 11, and selfless sharing
of his life story.
Though Wakayama downplays his own awards, he beams when telling how, in the
late 1980s, he convinced a U.S. official in Japan to present his father with
a medal commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War
He was equally thrilled in 1988 when the U.S. government, after a nearly
decade-long push by third-generation Japanese Americans, formally apologized
for the Japanese internment. Seven years earlier, to support the lobbying
effort, Kinzo Wakayamawho had always maintained the United States would
redress its wrongscame to America for the first time in nearly thirty-five
years, to testify before a congressional committee.
It was a fitting resolution for an elderly, once-ignored activist. He
finally got to tell his story, recalls his son. At the end of
the presentation, all the panel members thanked him.
These days, Ed Wakayama has returned to academia, working in the Washington,
D.C., office of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, where he conducts and
manages research for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
He hopes one day to write his fathers story. In the meantime, as often
as he can, he visits schools to talk about the Japanese internment. He makes
sure his listeners hear about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated
Japanese American unit culled from the internees ranks (those who refused
to serve were labeled draft dodgers and sent to jail). The 442nd became the
most decorated unit of its size in the history of the U.S. Army.
And Wakayama freely criticizes the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress just
six weeks after the September 11 attacks. The legislation gave the government
sweeping new powers to conduct surveillance on private individuals, access
their medical and library records, tap their phones, monitor their web surfing,
search their property, even detain them without chargeand do it all
secretly, without a warrant or probable cause.
The fifth and sixth amendments to the Constitution clearly indicate
you cannot put someone in prison without due process of law, the retired
colonel told his Northeastern audience last fall. We should enjoy the
right to a speedy and public trial, and weve got to know the nature
and cause of the accusation.
He added, I want you to know what happened to the Japanese Americans,
because it seems like its happening again today. My advice is, whatever
the government does, question it.
Thats your right.
Copyright © 2004 Northeastern University Magazine
All Rights Reserved
is a senior writer at Northeastern University Magazine. This story originally
appeared in the March 2004 issue of Northeastern