Living Voices: ‘Within the Silence’ explains reality of Japanese internment during World War II

A Japanese child with his family’s identification number attached to his jacket, while waiting for transport to an internment processing center in spring 1942. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

On Sunday afternoon, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a moving and highly educational session in Lynnwood that combined live theater performance with archival film and photos. The subject reviewed was the effects of Executive Order 9066, issued by U.S. President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, against people of Japanese descent in the spring of 1942.

The presentation began by documenting the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack by Japan on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and the subsequent effects it had on the psyche of American citizens toward Japanese people. A discussion of how “dirty Japs” were portrayed in everything from comic books to newscasts was examined, along with the underlying emotions (including hate, fear and greed) that generated those responses.

The theater performance used a film and photos from the period as a backdrop and chronicled the effects that Executive Order 9066 had on one family.

The order stated that people determined to be at least 1/16th Japanese were to be transported inland from their current homes to internment camps to help protect the United States from further attacks.

The first to be rounded up by the FBI and U.S. military personnel were Japanese community leaders, who were fingerprinted and then transferred to military camps for interrogation and incarceration.

Other family members were subsequently notified that they had one week to get ready to be relocated to their new temporary homes due to their “disloyalty” to the United States. Those families had to sell or give away everything they had. If they owned a business, they were forced to sell their inventory for pennies on the dollar and board up their facilities.

Order 9066 affected approximately 122,000 people, of which two-thirds were second-generation U.S. citizens.

Families in the greater Seattle area were transported to Puyallup on buses for initial processing and then sent via train to internment camps in Idaho and California. Each family member was given a tag with the same number on it, so that families would hopefully be kept together. Fathers who had been interned earlier as community leaders eventually were reunited with their families, but in many cases were disillusioned and bitter.

The wooden barracks in an internment camp, where Japanese families were housed for three to four years. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Sunday’s presentation covered both the freedoms within the camps and the problems that the families endured. Foods that were high in sugar, and non-traditional to the Japanese diet, resulted in a number of health issues, including diabetes. Over time, the detainees were given seeds and allowed to plant their own gardens, albeit on arid, generally non-productive land. Schools and community centers within the fenced compounds were built to give some semblance to normal life.

It was also documented that all detainees over the age of 17, including women, had to answer a number of questions on a survey. Questions 27 and 28 asked if they would be willing to fight in a combat role for the United States anywhere in the world, and secondly if they would swear allegiance to the United States over any other entity or organization in the world.

Those men who said “Yes” to both were enlisted in the armed services. They became members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which — despite their odds — became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military.

Those that chose to say “no” due to the fact that they felt that they were being asked to fight for a country that had violated their rights via internment, were classified as “no-no” boys and were often shipped out to more restrictive camps.

Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team on a march in Europe. (Photo courtesy National World War II Museum)

The end of the presentation detailed the release of the detainees and the return to their prior homes, and the breaking down of the internment camps. Things had often changed drastically and many chose to move elsewhere. But given the situation, as the narrator stated, they “had to look forward.  What choice did they have?”

In the question-and-answer session following the performance, the audience of approximately 40 people was able to dive into more detail, including the 1988 reparation of $20,000 that the U.S. government gave to each living person who had survived the internment camps during the war.  This of course paled in comparison to the financial and time losses that they and their families had suffered.

It was also noted that the large Japanese population that had raised strawberries on Bainbridge Island, returned there in much larger numbers than in most areas.  Sixty percent returned, which was approximately two to three times the norm.

I would highly recommend this presentation for people who want to learn about the World War II era. Learn more at

Kudos to Rachel Rene, the narrator and session leader. Her performance, knowledge and passion for the subject matter was outstanding. Thanks also to the Lynnwood Alderwood Manor Heritage Museum for hosting the event.

— By Byron Wilkes

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