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Love, life amidst Japanese internment

In 1971 the movie “Summer of ’42” provided nostalgic memories of coming-of-age romance for a certain segment of our society. For other natural-born Americans whose ancestors happened to be Japanese, recollections of that same summer trigger far different feelings.

scott hettrick of arcadia's best

Scott Hettrick

Douglas Kosobayashi, now 78, his mother Nami Shingu, who will be 99 next month, and Doug’s older sister Mae Kosobayashi Uchida, spent that summer being forced from their home by their own American government, which then herded them with thousands of others into hastily-built barracks at a “Relocation Assembly Center” on the parking lot of a horse race track in Arcadia California — Santa Anita Park. Doug was just 2 1/2 years old and his sister Mae was four at the time. The two toddlers had already suffered the death of their father a year earlier, which also left Nami a widowed single mother at age 24.

Word came suddenly that spring that the Kosobayashi family were being forced to evacuate their home in Los Angeles and leave all their possessions behind except for what could fit in a single suitcase per person. Upon arriving at Santa Anita they soon learned they were among the lucky ones assigned to the barracks instead of those told to make their new lives in stables occupied by horses just a few weeks earlier.


As train carries some “evacuees” to new permanent camps, others wave goodbye from behind fence at Santa Anita Park Assembly Center.

Like the other 120,000 or so “evacuees,” that summer of ’42 and the next three years of long-term internment at camps in other parts of the country would change and shape their lives forever. But for the Kosobayashi family, the experience would prove very different than most. Young Nami’s resilience, strength of spirit, and her will to ensure a good life for her children, would lead to multiple fortuitous opportunities during their years of internment that resulted in a lifetime of blessings and ironies for her family that none of them could possibly have foreseen.

Nami Shingu and Doug Kosobayashi were kind enough to share their amazing story with me on video in December 2009, when Nami was 91 and Doug was 71. Click to watch video below (the blog featuring more fascinating details of their story continues below the video)…

A dark and shameful period in American history

What always closely follows within a few months of the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (75 years this month) is the anniversary of the retaliatory rounding-up of our own citizens in the late winter and spring of 1942 based solely on their ancestry and keeping them locked up in camps under military armed guard for years. The unprecedented act was Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. Most were held captive until after the end of the war in 1945. Nearly two-thirds of those imprisoned were American citizens, and not one of those whose rights, homes and businesses were lost was ever found to be involved in any feared espionage against their own country. In fact, thousands of Japanese-Americans fought alongside American soldiers against the Japanese and Germans in World War II. And it was Japanese-Americans who broke Japanese naval codes that led to the tracking down and killing of the commander of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway, which broke the Japanese military morale and resulted in no more major battle victories for Japan.

The “relocation” of American citizens was an unconscionable act by our government and so morally reprehensible and indefensible that President Ronald Reagan offered an official government apology more than 40 years later in 1988 and the government gave each survivor $20,000.

One family’s unique story of resilience in the face of hardship

As Nami describes in the video interview above, despite the outrageous situation, there were many aspects of their incarceration that were beneficial to she and her family. Being a recently-widowed 24 year-old single mother of two small children, the camp provided a stable foundation, meals, and medical care for her family, as well as a social network and a safe and protected environment in which her kids could meet and play with others.

Even better, after being taken by train in October of 1942 to the Rohwer Relocation Camp in southeastern Arkansas near the Mississippi River and the border of Mississippi, where they lived for three years, Nami was encouraged by her new friends to strike up a relationship with a man in camp named Lloyd Shingu who was a single father with a daughter named Marian (now Marian Shingu Sata). After all, Nami was facing the prospect of eventually being released from the camp without a husband, a job, and in a state that was nearly 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles and nearly as foreign to her as Japan. Nami and Lloyd got along so well and so quickly that they were married while still living at the camp. The marriage to Lloyd Shingu would last 48 years and result in another son, Roderick Shingu, as well as many intriguing and productive new elements to Nami’s life.

It turned out that Lloyd was also familiar with Los Angeles, having graduated from USC in 1932 with a Master’s Degree in psychology. But in the midst of the Depression, he was unable to find work, so he became a principal at a Japanese language school. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the growing suspicions of potential Japanese espionage, particularly among those living on the West Coast, Lloyd was deemed a “community leader” by the FBI and was therefore considered a person of such interest that a special FBI detail was assigned to keep an eye on him. According to Doug, as the surveillance increased, Lloyd approached the FBI with the idea that he would move to Stockton, California to live with his parents and his daughter Marian, where the FBI could more easily keep track of him in the rural region of Central California. They agreed and he made the move. A short time later Lloyd and his family were corralled into an “Assembly Center” in Stockton. From there, they were sent to the Rohwer camp in Arkansas, where Lloyd would meet Nami.

Lloyd’s brother-in-law had been a farm superintendent in the Stockton area, so Lloyd began working with him in the camp to learn that trade (Nami said laughingly that Lloyd never really mastered the art of agriculture, though with his education he made a valuable teammate since he was good at communicating). When they were eventually released from the camp more than three years later in the fall of 1945, the family didn’t have enough money or the means to move back to California. They loaded their few belongings on a flat bed truck and moved to a small house not far from the camp where they all worked together on a plantation.

Nami Shingo (right) with Arkansas plantation owner Virginia Brown in the 1940s.

Nami Shingo (right) with Arkansas plantation owner Virginia Brown in the 1940s.

Doug described them as “truck farmers” who had sharecropper arrangements with the plantation owners.

During this time Lloyd’s brother-in-law (Doug’s uncle) figured out how to irrigate more efficiently and use innovative techniques to get an earlier harvest. These techniques drew attention from educators at the agriculture colleges in Arkansas. An article in the Arkansas Gazette newspaper included a photo of Nami working in the field with a plantation owner (photo at right).

It would be seven more years before the families would raise a bumper crop of tomatoes that would yield enough money for them to return to California. Doug was 14 when the family moved to Pasadena in 1952. That family included the four children and Lloyd’s parents, who were also in the camp at Rohwer.

Despite his Master’s Degree in Psychology, it had now been 20 years since Lloyd had earned his diploma. The Depression, followed by 11 years of being forced to live in war camps and Arkansas, left too big of a gap to return to his field of education. Instead, he became a gardener for seven years with many clients in the area, including Arcadia, where Doug worked alongside him. Lloyd then got a license to become an insurance agent. Doug marvels now that Nami handled the care and feeding of eight people in their home in Pasadena, including her in-laws for the rest of their lives. Not only that, Nami and Lloyd managed to pay for all four of their children to go to college.

Back to Arcadia

Ironically, Doug Kosobayashi now lives with his wife Judy Takeuchi Kosobayashi in the very town of Arcadia within a mile of where he and his mother and sister were incarcerated during that summer of 1942. It was the burgeoning real estate market and home prices that prompted their moves from Pasadena to South Pasadena and eventually to Arcadia in the late 1970s. Doug’s mother Nami lives not far away in Los Angeles, the city she was ordered to leave all those years ago.

The rest of Nami’s story

Even before the events that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nami’s story was quite full. She was born in San Francisco where her parents were among the few immigrants who were so successful that they could afford to move back to Japan with Nami when she was 10. After seven years of living in the oppressive militaristic government regime where people she knew who spoke out about their political views simply disappeared one day, she was anxious to return to the safety and freedom of her home country of America as a teenager. She met a man called Shizuo Kosobayashi who had lived in Washington but went back to Japan to find a wife. Nami was living in the same Japanese village as Shizuo’s family. Nami and Shizou were married and moved to Los Angeles in 1935 when Nami was 17.

A little more than a year after Nami bore her second child, Doug, her husband Shizuo became sick and was hospitalized for a year before dying of tubercular meningitis in 1941.

Nami couldn’t know that four years later on August 6, 1945, she would be living in an internment camp in Arkansas as ordered by her own American government. She could not have known that she would be married to another man whose family was living in Hiroshima, Japan. Nothing could have prepared her for the announcement she heard on that fateful day over the loud speakers throughout the camp that her government’s military had just dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And she certainly could not have imagined that on that very same day of August 6, 1945, she would give birth to her third child, Roderick.

— By Scott Hettrick

View more stories of those who spent time at the Santa Anita Park Assembly Center in 1942 in the video below produced by Arcadia’s Best from a 2009 program at Museum of Arcadia Heritage…

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