Japanese Americans' darkest days

Forced out
Forced out
Japanese-American Dorothy Kittaka holds a picture of her father in front of the service station that he owned before he had to take his family to the West Coast Internment camps during WWII. Dorothy, who was only 2 at the time, said she has memories of the camp but not of the life her family was forced to leave.
By Michelle L. Klampe of The News-Sentinel

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, shocked Americans everywhere; from it spread an anti-Japanese sentiment that fostered suspicion of all people and things Japanese.

No Japanese Americans lived in Fort Wayne during that time, but the city did have a Japanese Gardens. After numerous petitions, the parks commission renamed the garden in West Swinney Park in a rebuke toward Japan. The gardens became the Adolph Jaenicke Gardens, after a park superintendent who helped create them.

Elsewhere in the country, people of Japanese descent were taunted, harassed and eventually forced from their homes. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that essentially barred all persons of Japanese descent from living in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

An estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans were ordered to abandon their homes and businesses and move to remote internment camps. It was 1945 before the residents of those camps could leave their barbed-wire confines.

Many migrated east to cities such as Chicago, armed only with their memories and the few possessions they could carry. Eventually, some worked their way to Fort Wayne.

Haverhill Elementary School music teacher Dorothy (Kometani) Kittaka was one. After being forced from their home and gas station in Auburn, Wash., during the war, the Kometani family — Kittaka's parents, her three brothers and herself — moved to several internment camps before ending up at the camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo. The family of six shared a small room in one of the camp's barracks.

"When the edict came down, we had a week to leave," Kittaka said. "It's a very scary thing."

It was in the camps that Kittaka, now 60, recalls hearing her first musical tune. The man with the trumpet was called the poo-pah-poo man, for the melody he played. Kittaka, just a toddler at the time, remembers sneaking out of nursery school to hear the man play.

"Every morning he would play his tune," she said. "I loved it. The melody still sticks in my mind. It is such a vivid memory for me."

Kittaka's parents tried to make their family's time in the camps as normal as possible. And her parents worked hard to maintain their dignity throughout the ordeal.

Kittaka remembers how a truck would bring a load of coal to the middle of the camp and dump it. Camp residents would rush to the pile and gather as much coal as they could, shoving each other to reach it. Kittaka's father was never among them, though. He always waited until the others cleared, then picked up whatever coal might remain on the ground.

When Kittaka asked him why, her father told her he would never lower himself to act like an animal. The lesson, she said, was to maintain dignity, "whatever the situation."

After the war, Kittaka's family made a new home in Marengo, Ill. She said her father must have suspected that starting over would be best for his family. She grew up there, then lived in Chicago with her husband and three sons before moving to Fort Wayne 21 years ago.

Kittaka brought her musical memories, and her talent, with her. She co-founded FAME, the Foundation for Arts and Music in Elementary Education. She also has sung with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

When asked, she'll tell the story of her family's internment to students at her school. She agreed to share her story with News-Sentinel readers as a reminder of the horrors of war and the misconceptions it can bring.

Now, Kittaka uses music to try to teach her young students that all human beings are equal, regardless of race or creed.

"With FAME, the thing we're trying to do is highlight a part of the world so that children can understand how the arts bring us all to a human level," she said.

"We can never forget that we can't treat people like this because of what they look like," she said. "They took away complete families without any charges.

"The premise of the government was `We're here to protect you.' Well, the guns were pointing in, not out."

unction(w,d,s,l,i){w[l]=w[l]||[];w[l].push({'gtm.start': new Date().getTime(),event:'gtm.js'});var f=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], j=d.createElement(s),dl=l!='dataLayer'?'&l='+l:'';j.async=true;j.src= 'https://www.googletagmanager.com/gtm.js?id='+i+dl;f.parentNode.insertBefore(j,f); })(window,document,'script','dataLayer','GTM-KVWHXLX'); Contact Us | FortWayne.com