The Kamisato Family

(Interned at Crystal City Internment Camp 1944-1946)

The Kamisato family circa 1947

In her own words, from the journal of Kami Kamisato:

“During World War II, my late husband, Junken Kamisato, was forcefully taken from our home in Peru to be deported to the United States. I was able to join him later in a family internment camp at Crystal City, Texas. We stayed in the camp until the war ended, two years later.

With our homeland Japan having been defeated in the war, there was no hope of our returning to Japan, so we decided to remain in the United States until we could go back to Peru. (At the time, the Peruvian government would not allow us to return.) When the camp closed, we decided to look for work outside. My husband and I were desperate, we were in our fifties and couldn’t speak a word of English. As if that weren’t enough, we also had small grandchildren to care for.

It is important to me that this experience of ours – this fight for survival – not be simply buried and forever forgotten. This is what motivated me to write about our experiences.”

Kamisato family business in Peru circa 1920’s or 1930’s

Junken and Kami Kamisato immigrated to Peru from Okinawa, Japan in 1917 and 1920. They built a new life and a successful business serving their community over a 30-year span in Peru, before WWII would forever change their lives.

“With a war raging in the Pacific, the Peruvian government was issuing anti-Japanese ordinances… Gatherings of more than five Japanese people were now prohibited, and every day, more and more Japanese were being taken into custody to be deported to the United States. We were resigned to the fact that Junken would eventually be taken…. One day, without warning, five police officers suddenly appeared at the door and took him away, dragging him off like a common criminal. I will never forget the cold chill that fell over me as I watched them take him away.”

After Junken’s arrest, Kami made the difficult decision to leave Peru with her three small grandchildren (Chieko (10), Bebe (3) and Henry (2)) in hopes to be reunited with her husband. On February 1, 1944, they departed Peru on a ship bound for the United States.

“Shortly after we docked in Panama, Chieko came running to tell me that some large trucks had pulled up next to the ship… soon, all three children came in crying ‘Papa was just brought on board by a soldier carrying a rifle! Come Mama! Hurry! Hurry!’”

“In spite of our fears, on the 21st of February, 1944, we docked safely in New Orleans. We went ashore and were immediately taken for a disinfectant bath. After that, we boarded a train, where we were finally reunited as a family.”

The Kamisato Family remained at Crystal City Internment Camp for the duration of the war. After the war ended, the decision for the family to stay in the United States was made as a means of survival and staying together. 

“The U.S. Government had given us notice that they intended to deport the Peru Group to Japan on the basis that they had no residency rights. The group resisted, insisting that they would willingly return to Peru, but not to Japan. The Peruvian Government, however, refused to accept us. We thought the U.S. had responsibility for us in that they were the ones who had brought us here. It was about then that a bulletin was posted about work available outside the camp, stating that anyone who wanted to work outside should apply. The employer was Seabrook Farms, a New Jersey company… On Chieko’s birthday, August 15, 1946, we left the camp, which had been our home for the last two and a half years.”

After nearly two years of seasonal hard work at Seabrook Farms, the Kamisato Family made their final trek across the U.S. to California.

“I talked it over with Junken, and asked what he thought about leaving Seabrook Farms (which after all was little more than an extension of the internment camp) and relocating to Los Angeles. Junken thought that would be alright, but said that (because of our immigration status) we would not be able to go to Los Angeles unless we had a sponsor. We asked a friend in Los Angeles for help, and he came up with a sponsor for us… On February 12, 1948, we left on another trip across the United States – this time from east to west.

The Kamisato family in Los Angeles circa 1950’s

The Kamisato Family eventually settled in Los Angeles, California. They took on odd jobs, factory work and anything they could get given their language limitations. This was yet another period in their lives that Kami would refer to as “swimming back to the surface”. After many years of difficult work, and hard luck they were able to build a boarding house which became the family income. Chieko, Bebe and Henry continued with their education as the family planted their roots to stay, eventually raising families of their own. 

“Ours was a marriage that was arranged by our parents, but one in which the love that blossomed naturally between us grew stronger and stronger over our long, married life. We had no regrets. Junken was a man with a big heart and a strong character, and I was a willful and stubborn woman with no qualifications of any kind. Yet this good man guided me through the stormy seas of life as we sank time after time, always swimming back to the surface again. And then, just when it seemed that at last, we were about to reach the shore, he died.”

Junken passed away in 1961 and Kami passed away in 1977, and though they did not speak very often of their time during the war or camp or of what they had lived through to survive, their stories were kept alive by Kami’s journal.

Henry, Chieko, and Bebe at the Crystal City Pilgrimage 2019

Chieko Kamisato is the oldest child in the Kamisato family and was old enough, at that time during the war, to recollect what happened to them during this period. Over the years, she has been very active in re-telling the family story as well as participating in events that reflect and bring light to this sad part of history. Having had experienced this as a child, she will never forget the forceful removal of Junken from Peru, their family life in Crystal City Internment Camp, the hardships of the seasonal work at Seabrook Farms and finally, the years of rebuilding the family and business in Los Angeles. Here are her words speaking of her life as a forced internee during a recent interview for The Continuing Fight for Justice for Japanese Latin Americans video.

“Being in a strange country, not knowing the language was very difficult, especially for our parents because they had to start all over again. Starting from nothing was devastating and this is where our real struggle began, not only for us, but for everybody who was thrown into Crystal City camp during the war. We all suffered, we all went through the same thing, and it was all very difficult. I think the younger generation should know what happened and what went on with our lives, because it’s a very important part of history. I don’t think it should just go away, it should be told and retold for the next generation to know what had happened to us, so it won’t happen again. I don’t think it was right for them (US Government) to do that, I don’t think it’s right for anybody to do this in the future.”