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Camp survivor recalls Japanese confinement

Roy Saigo, the former president of Southern Oregon University, was 3 years old when he learned the word “gambai.” It means “suck it up, don’t bitch and moan, life is tough, get on with things.”

It’s what his parents said when President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, signed the executive order confining 120,000 Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War II.

His parents, orchard workers in Vacaville, California, were given 10 days to pack bare necessities, sell all other belongings, do something with homes, businesses, cars and pets, and report to a prison camp in Gila, Arizona.

Realizing the family’s belongings would be pawed over after they left, the parents took everything, including family documents and photos, to a ditch, poured gasoline on them and lit a match. They smashed the family’s much-treasured tea setting, so no one could ever use it.

The family were put in a communal dining hall and barracks, with no dividers between beds — and no stalls around toilets, so for privacy their “fastidious” mother would take her three children to the bathroom an hour early, when it was empty.

Another word heard a lot during internment was “shegatanai,” which, says Saigo, means “nothing you can do about it.”

It helps that, 46 years later, President Ronald Reagan apologized for it and, says Saigo, that the California Assembly, on Feb. 19 of this year, the annual “Day of Remembrance,” unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for the state’s “failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese-Americans.”

Indicating present incarceration facilities on the U.S. southern border, the resolution adds, “Given recent national events, it is all the more important to learn from the mistakes of the past and to ensure that such an assault on freedom will never again happen to any community in the United States.”

Saigo has documented the camps for lectures and interviews around the Day of Remembrance. He tracks the worsening racist cartoons and statements of public officials during the war, that all Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. were dangerous, this despite a pre-war study by the Office of Naval Intelligence concluding they posed no threat of espionage or terrorism — but the report, he says, was suppressed after the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941.

After the war — and release from the camps — Saigo’s family did farm and ranch work around Sacramento. Saigo saw it as a dead-end.

“We were poor. I hated the way we were treated, and I hated the work,” said Saigo, in an interview. “My father said, ‘go to school. That’s the only way out.’ I found eduction was the way to gain respect and a modicum of success. I really applied myself, and my parents supported me through it.”

Saigo graduated in biology from University of California at Davis and got a Ph.D. from Oregon State University, capping his career as President of St. Cloud University in Minnesota and as Chancellor of Auburn University in Alabama. Considered a “turnaround expert,” he was hired as president of SOU during the painful “retrenchment” of 2014-2016.

He jokes about being the only former federal prisoner who went on to lead three universities.

Saigo said he worries about the survival of democracy, which, he notes, requires an educated community, one that can afford higher education. He has spent his career working for that, and against prejudice.

The “virulent” propaganda of World War II had a huge affect on our society, he says, made worse by the Korean and Vietnam wars, because all Asians get “bunched together” in society’s stereotyping.

Saigo lectures to middle-schoolers, having them visualize looking Asian, with a different language, diet and customs. He notes, “At that age, they have a strong sense of equity and justice. It’s the only way to eliminate the racism, teaching them young. If not, it gets transferred from generation to generation. They have to learn respect, and we’re not doing a very good job of teaching that in our society. It’s not true that the election of President Obama eliminated racism.

“If we don’t stand up and challenge it, we will lose our democracy. If you do stand up, you will take a beating, but that’s why I’m so passionate about education.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Ashland TidingsRoy Saigo was talks about his time in an internment camp during WWII.