By Yiqin Weng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Elsie Taniguchi, a 79-year-old Japanese American, describes herself as a volunteer.
She has been the president of the Puyallup Valley Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) for 17 years. Taniguchi and her colleagues in JACL are now focusing on a subcommittee called “Camp Harmony Committee” to tell the next generation what happened in the incarceration camps in 1942.
Bill Tashima, the past president of the Seattle JACL, has known Taniguchi for a long time. In his eyes, Taniguchi is a big part of other organizations as well.
“She is also active in [the] culture center and UW Alumni Association,” said Tashima. “She does ukulele playing, hula dancing and Obon Odori. I always see her in different activities.”
But Taniguchi didn’t always have a choice about doing what she loves.
Taniguchi was among the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned by President Roosevelt and his Executive Order 9066, which sent people to 10 camps located in the United States in the 1940s.
Taniguchi, who was 5 years old, and her entire family were sent to the Washington State Fairgrounds for four months and then to Minidoka, Idaho, for three years.
“The hardest thing for a 5-year-old child [sic] is to get up at the middle of the night, and walk in the dark and mud, use a communal facility, and then walk back,” said Taniguchi. “We were fed expired K-rations which the army no longer needed. Finally the government came in with health department [sic] because there was so much gastroenteritis and dysentery. They discovered that we were being fed canned food that had been expired. They changed this situation. But till this day I cannot face something like sausage or Spam.”
Choichi Shimizu, who was in the same camp with Taniguchi, was one year younger than her. His family had a farm before they were sent to the incarceration camp. Shimizu published a book called “Cho’s Story: From the Eyes of a Nisei Son” to record his experience during and after World War II. In Shimizu’s memory, life after leaving the camp was hard for him.
“As a third-grader in 1942, I didn’t feel that we were living in a harsh environment in the camp,” said Shimizu. “The worst thing for me was after the war – we couldn’t find a place to live because our farm was taken away. I was bullied by school kids. I used to get into a lot of trouble because I was still considered as an enemy. I was in a shell because I didn’t want to face the world.”
Shimizu spent about two and half years in low-income housing. He didn’t break out of his shell until he entered college. Taniguchi’s family had a farm before they were sent to the camp, but they were luckier than others.
“We were blessed because our Caucasian friends said that they would try to keep the farm going when we were asked to go to the camp,” Taniguchi said. “They hired a family that needed a job but had no place to live. That family lived in our home and reaped the harvest. Three years later, when we came back, they gave our home and farm back. Many people had no place to come back to because their lands were taken by others who were glad that the Japanese were incarcerated.”
Taniguchi said she felt lucky to survive. Now she is trying to educate the next generation not to make the same mistake by telling them her own story.
“We live in a country where the president would admit that it is a mistake,” said Taniguchi. “He apologized for the United States. He said that was unconstitutional. I’m grateful to be able to share the story with the students. We tell the students that we share the story with them because they are future leaders. So if a similar situation happens and they are a senator or the President of the United States, would they consider that whether you should incacerate the Japanese?”
There is no hate in Taniguchi’s mind. She says she feels blessed.
Tashima uses one word to describe Taniguchi.
“Love,” said Tashima. “She expresses love for everything.” (end)
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Yiqin Weng can be reached at email@example.com.