Growing up in San Francisco’s Japantown, Kathy Saito Yuille heard the phrase shikata ga nai frequently.
It means, “It can’t be helped.”
For Yuille’s family, there was no point in dwelling on the three difficult years they endured while confined in a camp for Japanese Americans in rural Wyoming, where Yuille was born.
They wanted to look ahead and build a new life.
Because no one talked about their time at Heart Mountain, one of the 10 camps where the U.S. government incarcerated an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, Yuille didn’t ask about it.
As an adult, Yuille’s older brother tried to convince her to visit Heart Mountain to see where she’d lived until she was 2 years old, and where he had spent his teenage years. Yuille didn’t see the appeal.
“I said, ‘I have no interest in going and seeing this desolate place,’” said Yuille, now a River Hills resident. “I was fine. All I knew was my parents came out of it OK.”
But eventually, in the mid-2000s, she did visit, and she began to learn about the things her parents never discussed. She realized it was important that this dark chapter of American history wasn’t forgotten.
Yuille joined the board of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, helped shepherd the construction of a museum on the grounds, and today leads an annual pilgrimage to the site for former incarcerees, their descendants and other interested visitors.
Yuille had never told her own story widely. This year, she turned 80. She reflected on her life and thought: When I’m gone, no one will know what I know, unless I share it.
“If there’s something to be told, one should share it now,” she said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.
Like Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, the population of Japanese Americans who lived through the incarceration camps is aging and dwindling. Their powerful first-hand accounts are disappearing with them.
Yuille sometimes talks to her Wisconsin friends about Heart Mountain. She explains how, just 80 years ago, tens of thousands of innocent people were forced from their homes and placed in bare-bones camps in remote areas.
Often, she’s met with shock. Too many people have no clue it happened, she said.
“It’s time that people understood,” she said. “There was no trial, nothing. They were just scooped up and removed from their homes, only with what they could carry.”
Japanese Americans forcibly relocated with few belongings
Yuille was born in the Wyoming camp in 1943, the fifth, and youngest, child of the Saito family. Her parents, Yoshio and Fumi Saito, immigrated to San Francisco from Japan. Their eldest child, Yoshiro, died in 1940 due to illness.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government posted signs in their neighborhood calling for everyone of Japanese ancestry to report to “evacuation” sites, a euphemistic reference to forced removal.
The family had days to pack up their lives. Her father, Yoshio, owned a store that sold Asian art goods such as vases, kimonos and lacquerware, and he had to sell items for 10 cents on the dollar. He likely gave away most of it for free, Yuille said.
It’s an experience Yuille has thought of frequently since she began diving into her family’s history. If she were in a similar situation, what would she take? An exhibit in the Heart Mountain museum offers visitors the chance to pack a suitcase as if they were leaving for the camp.
A contemporary art enthusiast, Yuille’s home is decorated with many paintings and valuable art pieces she would have to leave behind.
“It really makes you think about what’s important,” she said. “Having been involved with Heart Mountain and talking to people, that’s when the impact of what they must have gone through sets in.”
In their forcible removal from San Francisco, the government sent the Saito family to the Pomona County fairgrounds, where they stayed for about three months until they were put on a train to Wyoming in about August 1942, according to an oral history from Yuille’s older brother, F. Alfred Saito, who died in 2014.
Unaware of their final destination, incarcerees didn’t know what kind of clothing to bring, Yuille said. At Heart Mountain, about 14,000 people found themselves in a stark and dusty landscape. Nine guard towers and a barbed wire fence surrounded the camp.
The tar-paper army-style barracks where they were housed lacked insulation, making for freezing, windy winters. Incarcerees stuffed rags and newspapers into cracks in the walls and floors to keep out the drafty air, according to the National Park Service, and even ordered tools from Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs to make repairs themselves.
Carrying the memories of her family’s confinement forward
Yuille has no recollections of the camp. But her siblings were 9, 11 and 13 years old when they entered, so their memories were intact.
As the last living sibling, it has become Yuille’s mission to carry their stories forward.
Al Saito, who was 13, recalled dust storms, bad food in the mess hall and ice skates from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, according to the oral history.
The family lived by shikata ga nai and the Japanese value of gaman, or patient perseverance, Yuille said, and once back in San Francisco in 1945, they did their best to forge ahead.
After some years working as a busboy at a yacht club, Yuille’s father saved enough money to open a store once again. By the 1950s, his business, the Golden Pagoda, was successful, she said.
Today, some of the Japanese vases, artwork and heirlooms from her father’s shop are displayed in Yuille’s home, a reminder of his life’s work.
Did her parents feel bitter that they’d lost everything because of war hysteria, racism and governmental overreach?
“No. I know it’s hard to believe,” Yuille said. “But again, shikata ga nai. It can’t be helped.”
Yuille wishes she’d talked with her parents about what they experienced at the camp. But she had a “hunky dory life” as a child in San Francisco, she said. She recalls buying fresh tuna from nearby markets, going to Girl Scouts meetings and walking the handful of blocks to Golden Gate Park.
“I never bothered to ask,” she said. “We never ask our parents the questions we should be asking them until they’re gone.”
She also guesses they felt shame and embarrassment at the experience, even though, of course, “it wasn’t their fault at all.”
Yuille’s father died in 1988, just two weeks before President Ronald Reagan signed a law that would send $20,000 reparations payments to Japanese Americans for the injustice of their mass incarceration.
“It did come a little late for those who really deserved it, who really experienced it,” she said.
Preserving history, educating others
Yuille had been rebuffing her brother Al’s invitations to visit Heart Mountain for years when, one day, her daughter, Vanessa, came home from elementary school with a family tree project.
It made Yuille realize how little she knew about her family history. She knew her parents’ names, but not the names of her grandparents, who she never met. She’d rarely spoken to her own children about being born behind barbed wire.
Vanessa “kept needling me,” to learn more, Yuille said.
When she finally went to the camp site in Wyoming, she was struck by the depth of emotions that just being there conjured in people — from disgust to grief to a sense of closure.
Yuille saw the remote property and spoke to former incarcerees about their experiences, and thought about how her parents must have felt, uprooted and detained in such a place.
What draws Yuille back year after year to a place of pain for her family is a strong feeling that “history should not be forgotten,” she said.
“It really shouldn’t happen to any other ethnic group,” she said.
Her daughter has also become involved in preserving the stories of former incarcerees. She conducted the oral history interview of her uncle, created a short documentary film about Heart Mountain and regularly volunteers to help people record their own oral histories on the pilgrimages.
Yuille and her daughter hope their efforts educate the uninformed.
Once, at a luncheon in Milwaukee, in one of the few instances Yuille shared her story publicly, a man argued the Japanese Americans were put in the camps for their protection — an insidious misconception.
The man was older, set in his beliefs. Yuille said she hopes that “the lessons from the past will guide young people to make the right decisions.”
The museum at Heart Mountain, designed to look like the barracks that once stood at the site, uses language like “I” and “we” to describe what happened to Japanese Americans instead of “they.” Former incarcerees hope the more personal wording makes an impact with visitors.
The language describing the whole episode has changed as well. Once brushed over in history classes, places like Heart Mountain were, for decades, referred to as internment camps. That term has fallen out of favor because it minimizes the experience and is seen as implying the detainment of non-citizen enemies during war. About two-thirds of those incarcerated in such camps were American citizens.
Yuille was one of 556 babies born at Heart Mountain from 1942 to 1945. This year in Wyoming, about 10 of them gathered to celebrate the anniversary of their birth, blowing out the candles on a cake frosted with red and yellow flowers and the words, “Happy Birthday Heart Mountain Babies!”
It was a bit strange, she said, to be honored in that way. For much of her life, she didn’t want to look back or acknowledge what happened.
Now, she was being recognized as an emissary of her family’s story — of her own story.
“I thought, ‘We are part of the history of Heart Mountain,’” Yuille said. “I’d never thought of it that way.”