In June, Chapman University awarded Alhambra resident Reverend Paul Nagano an honorary degree — 70 years after he missed his graduation because he had been forced to relocate to an internment camp like more than 100,000 other Japanese Americans. Nagano, now 92, shared with the Alhambra Source his journey from grandson of the first recognized Japanese immigrant to Canada, to a youth in LA’s Little Tokyo, to life in a desert filled with scorpions and packed into barracks with no privacy.Tell me what you were doing on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor.
I was eating a late lunch in Gardena. A Caucasian man came up to me, looked me in my eye, and called me a, “damn Jap.” I had no idea why he was so angry. He started pushing me, and we broke into a scuffle until the restaurant owner stopped us. Then he turned on the radio, and I heard the words, “We are at war.”
What happened leading up the internment? How did you family react?
My family had a very long history in the Americas. My grandfather, Manzo Nagano, in 1877 was the first official Japanese immigrant to Canada (A mountain is named after him in British Columbia). I grew up in Little Tokyo with my parents and three siblings, then moved to Boyle Heights in the 1930s like many other Japanese-Americans.
Despite our deep roots, when we went to war my parents were afraid we would all be made prisoners of war. We all had to register ourselves and get a number assigned. Posters in the neighborhood stated that relocation was imminent.
Chinese people were distinguished by a badge that said, “I am Chinese” so they could avoid recrimination. My father, whose bosses were Chinese, was arrested one night and jailed for breaking the 8pm curfew. He was let go the next day when he insisted to the police that he was Chinese (he could speak a little), even though his last name was Nagano!
I was in my last semester in college at Chapman University [a Christian school now located in Orange County] when we were relocated in May 1942. I got my degree in the mail at the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona.
What are your memories of being forced to leave your home?
We were hustled onto trains from Los Angeles to Parker, Arizona. To see soldiers with their guns pointed us as we transferred from train cars to the buses at Parker, Arizona was something else. I suddenly felt like a prisoner of war. Confused, disillusioned, I felt betrayed by my country. The US flag lost its meaning, and I wondered to myself whether I was an American or an enemy alien.
What was internment life like?
The camps were quite primitive with tarpaper barracks; they were better suited as temporary shelters. Three hundred residents were packed in a block, and latrines were shared and almost public. Nothing was private: blankets separated one family from another, young married couples thrown in with strangers. The seven of us in my family were crowded into a room measuring 20 feet by 25 feet. The Arizona desert with its dust, scorpions and centipedes would seep in through the cracks. Poston ended up being the largest camp with about 18,000 at its peak.
What role did religion play for you?
There were about 10 to 12 Protestant ministers in the camp, and the most senior pastor there organized the camp into four parishes, divided up among us to care for each area. Because we were all thrown together into the camp, our denominational differences and competitiveness were absent. I was only 22 and had no seminary training but was ordained to do everything including marriages and funerals.
Looking back, a Bible passage says that when trials come and your faith succeeds in facing such trials, “the result is the ability to endure…so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). Here was a real test of faith, and I found encouragement that others adjusted to this test of faith with triumph and courage.
You left the camp earlier than most in 1943. What happened?
Draft age Japanese Americans had to fill out a loyalty questionnaire with two particular questions that caused great frustration and division in the camps: whether I was willing to serve in the armed forces and if I would “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America.”After much prayer and seeing many of my peers volunteering for the Army (in the famous Japanese American Combat Unit, the 44nd), I answered “yes” to both questions. There was a request for chaplains and I signed up, but was informed two weeks later that I did not qualify because I had no seminary training. My pastor mentor advised me to find a seminary outside the camp to attend and also to get married. So on September 14, 1943, I left the day after my wedding to another internee, Florence Emiko Wake, on a train to Bethel Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Two months before I was to graduate seminary, the war was over between the US and Japan, and I got an urgent call from LA asking me to help the Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast who would need jobs and housing to resettle back into civilian life as well as organizing the churches. So now I not only missed my undergraduate but also my seminary graduation! But I never questioned going back as soon as possible to help those leaving the camps.
What message do you think is important to give the next generation based on your experience in the internment camps?
It's funny, Japanese who come to the States always want to hear about our internment experience. But a lot of our generation would rather move on.
But since you asked: Love one another, even the enemy. Love that is beautiful, relational, inclusive, and practical is needed in a world where the rich are becoming richer and the poor aren’t making it.
Interview was edited and condensed, and supplemented by two books with personal accounts by Rev. Nagano: Transformed by Love: The Spiritual Journey of Paul M. Nagano (2009) and Triumphs of Faith: Stories of Japanese-American Christians During World War II (1998).