A high school student listened to Jewel Okawachi’s speech attentively while a senior looked at a map of a concentration camp in front. A large audience attended Okawachi’s speech on her internment experience during World War II at Albany Libary Monday, and a tense discussion on whether racial discrimination still exists in the city was aroused. Photo by Linjun Fan.
When she was 14, Jewel Okawachi and her family were rounded up with several other Japanese families in Albany, ordered to take just what they could carry, and sent to a concentration camp in Arizona during World War II.
Now at the age of 79, Okawachi is a City Councilmember of Albany, has served once as Albany’s mayor and won a number of honors for her service to the city where she has lived for nearly eight decades.
When Okawachi spoke about her internment experience to a large audience at the Albany Library Monday, she didn’t use any harsh words to describe the tragedy, during which her brother died and her father was mentally devastated. And she carefully avoided relating it with racial discrimination until it was brought up by a person in the audience who stirred up a tense discussion on whether racism still exists in Albany.
Okawachi started her speech with basic facts about Gila River War Relocation Center, an Arizona camp in the middle of a desert where she stayed with her family in a small barrack room for almost three years.
She used the word “evacuate” when referring to her family’s removal from their home.
“When we were evacuated, what we could take was what we could carry, ” said Okawachi.
Sad stories such as the death of her brother, who died as a soldier fighting the war in Italy, were told in placid tones.
“In his last letter to me he said he found a rabbit, ” said Okawachi. “He was very excited at having a pet. And the next thing I knew was that he was killed.”
She briefly mentioned the tragedy of his father only after one person in the audience asked. Staff of the Federal Bureau of Investigation closed her father’s dentist’s office in San Francisco, and stayed there for several days monitoring incoming phone calls.
“He was pretty devastated and opened a small office at Berkeley after the war. Frankly, he was never the same again for somebody who was very outgoing and had lots of friends, ” Okawachi said.
She recalled some funny things at the camp, which aroused delightful laughters in the room.
“I couldn’t remember much of what we ate, but I do remember we had ox tail soup. I don’t know where they got the ox tails, ” Okawachi said.
She took a Greyhound bus by herself from the camp back to San Francisco at the age of 16.
“We were still at war with Japan. It was frightening to me. After a few days I returned, Japan surrendered. I came across the Bay, and asked people that were living at our house to leave, ” said Okawachi.
“I think back at 16 I had a lot of nerve. I probably didn’t know any better, ” Okawachi added, setting off a loud laugh from the audience.
But the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed when Licole Williams, an African American tutor in the audience asked Okawachi whether she was surprised at the internment.
“You should not have been surprised if you really studied the history of the United States, ” said Williams after Okawachi answered yes to her question.
Williams said that the country had a long history of racial discrimination, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the World War II was similar to her black ancestors’ experience on plantations in the hundreds of years of slavery.
“Plantation is another word for concentration. If you look at Native Americans, this land is stolen, stolen from Native Americans, ” said Williams. “You know what they did, reservation is another word for concentration. “
Okawachi seemed a bit unprepared for the remarks. She continued to talk calmly, but started to touch on the topic of racial discrimination.
“They went through a lot, a lot of discrimination, ” Okawachi said of her parents. “Our house was built in Albany in 1928. They had a very hard time getting permits, and their neighbors objected it.”
She said that there were only five Asian families, one black families in Albany in the 20s, and real estate agents tried to keep people of color out of town.
She also used stronger wording to describe her internment.
“We were told not to call them concentration camps but relocation centers. But they were concentration camps. We had guards guarding us, ” said Okawachi. “Gila wasn’t bad because we couldn’t go very far, we were in the middle of a desert.”
She then said that there have been lots of positive changes in Albany.
But Williams continued to question how much has changed, saying that there are still not many black families in Albany.
About 61 per cent of Albany’s current residents are white, 25 per cent are Asian, and less than five per cent are African American, according to a latest census.
Williams believed that racism still exists in the city.
“My African American boys were out there playing. The Albany police came and parked right there and watched them, ” said Williams. “Had there been White boys out there exercising, no one would say a word.”
A high school student in the audience agreed with Williams, saying that a Muslim friend of hers at Cornell Elementary School stopped wearing her head wrap after September 11 and then didn’t come to school anymore.
“A lot of people are really open in Albany, but just like everywhere else, racism is here silently, ” said Ashley Parks-Lafargue of MacGregor High School who was at present at the speech with several schoolmates.
“I think she (Williams) was completely out of line, ” said Mary Wallmann, a senior who has lived in Albany for eight decades, told reporter after the speech. “She was trying to put her own thing into the speech.”
“The Japanese Americans didn’t carry so much bitterness, ” said Fran Roberts, another senior Albany resident in the audience. “I think that’s important. You can see she (Okawachi) didn’t carry that bitterness when she was talking about it. “
But the bitterness could be hidden. Several Japanese Americans in the audience came to talk with Okawachi about their own harsh internment stories after the speech, recalling the discrimination they suffered and how hopeless people were at the camps.
Okawachi said that it’s important younger generations know about the tragedy and make sure it never happens again, but she hasn’t talked with her children seriously on the topic yet.
“That’s something I have to do. The opportunities never come up. But I will. Maybe I’d like to get something down in writing, ” Okawachi said.
She is considering publishing the letters her brother wrote to her before he died.
“Very touching letters, actually. He was worried about our family, we were worried about him, ” Okawachi said.