Kristin Asai Shares Her Family History in the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps
Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.
In the third episode of this series, Portland Partner Kristin Asai describes her family's experience in the U.S. Japanese internment camps during World War II. Kristin's great grandparents immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and settled in the Hood River Valley in Oregon, an area with a large Japanese community of farmers and orchardists. During World War II, the family was forced to move to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Kristin recalls her grandmother's stories about the three years in internment as well as the discrimination they faced after returning to Hood River. She says listening to these stories growing up inspired her to become a lawyer and advocate for underrepresented communities so that their voices are heard.
Kristin Asai: Hi, I'm Kristin Asai. I'm a partner in the Portland office, and I'm a Yonsei, a fourth generation Japanese American. I was born in Oregon, and my family immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. My great grandfather came to this country with nothing. He brought his wife over a few years later, and they started orchards in the Hood River Valley of Oregon. The Hood River area was very welcoming to the Japanese community. There was a large Japanese community of farmers and orchardists in that area. Because of that, the community started many Japanese-related schools, and the Japanese American Citizens League had a group out in Hood River for that community. But also because of that meant that they were specifically targeted when World War II happened and the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the president's executive order to remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. My family was part of that. My great grandfather was forcibly removed from his home. Several of the family's artifacts were destroyed. My great grandmother and her children were then taken to Portland, which is about an hour and a half from the Hood River area, to the Portland Assembly Center, where all Japanese Americans from Oregon were taken to get numbered and determined where they would end up. They boarded trains where the windows were all covered in black so that no one would know where they were going, and first were taken to Pinedale, California, several hundred miles south, then to Tule Lake, where barracks were constructed for the internees, which were basically horse farms. The family was then taken to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. What's important about this is that, again, my family had only known Oregon. They had had an orchard, they were used to the Pacific Northwest and were taken to communities that were entirely desert, where they had to grow much of their own food because the food provided from the U.S. government oftentimes had expired or gone bad. My grandma told me when I was in college that she has very strong memories working in the kitchen because it was her job to take all of the packaged hot dogs that arrived from the government that were covered with mold, and she had to scrape them off with a knife before they could boil them and serve them. So much of my family lived there for the entirety of World War II. My grandfather and great uncle, who are the eldest in the family, joined the military and have since posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal for their work in the world war, serving a country that then interned and took away all the civil rights of their family members.
When they returned to Hood River, our family was the first family to return to the Hood River Valley and were faced with incredible discrimination, much like what we're hearing about in the news today: being spit upon, being said awful racial epithets to, being turned away from businesses, having rocks thrown at them, having dogs sic on them. And it was an incredibly difficult period. However, there were some very friendly and supportive neighbors who made it so that the Japanese community coming back to the valley had a place to go. Several Japanese families lost everything, because when you're gone from your home and your orchard or your farm for two, three, four years, there may be nothing to recover at that point. It could be the land destroyed. And in many cases, white families just took over the land as their own, and there weren't really any rights that the Japanese returning families had. However, my family was fortunate. They had developed good relationships with the neighbors. And the reason that our family still has our orchard is because the kind neighbors looked after our home and orchards for the entirety of the internment. I learned about our family's involvement and history of World War II as a pretty young child because the photographs were on my grandparents' wall. One of the things that was most important to them was the apology from the U.S. government. They had the letter from, I believe it's President Reagan, on their wall for the entire time that I lived. And I always asked about that, "Why did you have a letter from the president?" My grandfather, it was very meaningful to him to say, "The government apologized for what they did to us." And I got to hear about both of their times. Again, my grandfather was in service for much of that time, and my grandmother was incarcerated the entire time. And learning about those stories, learning about how the kindest person I've ever met — my grandmother — to hear that she was treated so unfairly is what prompted me to want to study civil rights, to want to become a lawyer, to want to look out for communities that maybe didn't have a voice, and what continues my goal of advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion and underrepresented communities. Because I know that if those of us with power and privilege don't do so, there's nothing that we can do for those whose rights are being stripped. Again, my family didn't really, my great grandfather and great grandmother didn't speak English. They had no way to know really what was happening to them as they were being herded away. And part of our cultural value was not to complain and to do what the government said and just to continue to try and make the best out of every situation. And so that's why as a lawyer now it's important to me to think about who isn't at the table, whose voice is not being heard right now. How can we make it more inclusive? How can we make sure that we are not doing the same thing that happened to this huge community of people who were U.S. citizens and lost everything?
More Videos in this Series
Episode 3: Kristin Asai Shares Her Family History in the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps (You are currently viewing Episode 3)
Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield
Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth