Survivor recalls life in internment camp for Japanese-Americans

A man prays after releasing a paper lantern on the Motoyasu river facing the Atomic Bomb Dome in remembrance of atomic bomb victims on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, western Japan, August 6, 2015.

MANZANAR, United States - At age 15, Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi became a prisoner in the blink of an eye, in her own country.

Now 88, she recalls the three miserable years she and her family endured in one of the concentration camps the United States set up for Japanese-Americans after Tokyo attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

"We were treated like enemies," Kakuuchi told AFP from her home in Las Vegas, speaking ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop in Japan on August 6, 1945.

Here was a government taking extreme measures that reflected fears that such Americans - some 112,500 were interned in the camps - could not be trusted as the country waged war in the Pacific.

The executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt - No. 9066 - in February 1942 created military exclusion zones along the West Coast and elsewhere, allowing for Japanese-Americans to be rounded up and held in camps run by the military.

"The successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage," said the order signed by Roosevelt.

Camps were set up in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

This is now regarded as one of the most disgraceful chapters of US history.

Kakuuchi remembers initially trusting the very government that had imprisoned her.

"This is my country, so I thought they knew what was best for us," she said.

- Harsh conditions -

Kakuuchi and her relatives ended up in a camp called Manzanar, in the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern and central California. The name is deceivingly bucolic - it is Spanish for apple orchard.

But life at Manzanar was far from pleasant.

The weather was like an oven in summer and a freezer in winter. Time dragged, the hours seemingly endless.

The camp held up to 10,000 people, who turned it into a virtual city: it had a nursery, a school, shops, a hospital and even a cemetery.

The guards overseeing the facility were strict, though, as they enforced life in confinement.

Most of the adults worked and earned a small wage, with which they could buy things by catalog.

People tried to entertain themselves, Kakuuchi said. They held dances and movie nights, and the camp even founded its own newspaper.

But conditions were harsh. The barracks-like housing was awful. The wind would blow dirt in the through the doors and windows. Families were crammed together.

"We lost our freedom and got used to horrible conditions," Kakuuchi said.

It was not until 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president, that the government paid reparations to the camp survivors. Each got $20,000.

"This is one of the most shameful chapters in US history," said Alysa Lynch, curator of a museum set up at what used to be the Manzanar camp. It also has three replicas of the barracks.

Jason Adler, an American in his 40s visiting Manzanar, said he had known nothing about the camps.

"I think we need to do more and tell what happened. People need to know this, that we had 10 concentration camps in our country," Adler said.

Kakuuchi has mixed feelings about the compensation paid by the government.

"It's not really enough, but at least by doing this they were accepting they made a mistake," she said.

When the gates of Manzanar finally opened in 1945, Kakuuchi said the government gave her a bit of money and a ticket, supposedly to go home.

"They gave us $20 and a ticket to go somewhere. We had nowhere to go," she said.