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Descendant of Japanese internment camp survivor recalls family story; local university preserves history

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Posted at 5:48 PM, May 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 18:48:32-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo — The United States forcibly relocated and incarcerated more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. Mark Saito, a son of Niseis, grew up hearing stories of his relatives who were imprisoned in internment camps.

A Nisei is a son or daughter born to immigrants from Japan.

“My dad’s family settled in Seattle, and during the war, they were part of the group that was evacuated away from the West Coast into the internment camps,” said Saito. “A lot of fear at the very beginning — uncertainty. My grandmother remembers crying when they had to pack things up and there’s a lot of things that they had — memorabilia, family heirlooms that they had to destroy. They were afraid that it would be considered contraband.”

His father’s side of the family was sent to a camp in Idaho, and his mother’s family was sent to camps in Arkansas and Arizona. Growing up, he heard the stories of families destroyed.

He said for many of them, the toughest part was losing a sense of control and dignity. He hopes future generations will never forget the sacrifice of their ancestors.

“When you look like the enemy, they really felt they needed to do something to show they’re not the enemy, that they are indeed loyal to America. And I don’t want that part of it to be lost,” said Saito. “It was costly, no question it was, but at the same time there was a purpose with all of that.”

In hopes to preserve that history, Park University in Parkville, Missouri, has dedicated a wall to telling the stories of Nisei alumni. Then-president Dr. William Lindsay Young fought to enroll approximately 20 Japanese American students from the camps.

“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, President Young visited California, and that’s when he became aware of the relocation centers first and then what we would call internment camps,” said professor of history and associate university archivist Dr. Timothy Westcott.

The atmosphere in Parkville was not accepting of these students. The mayor at the time sent a letter to Dr. Young threatening to shut the college down if they accepted any Nisei students. Much of the community and some of the students were in strong opposition.

In order to get permission from the federal government, Park University convinced Sheriff Holt Coffey to give his support.

“He made it very clear that he was admitting these students as an act of democracy,” said Dr. Westcott.

Eventually, nine of those students went on to graduate from Park University. One of the alumni wrote a letter to the school years later claiming that the education he received at Park provided an opportunity to break from the barbwire he grew up behind.

He ended up donating half of the reparations check he got from the federal government to the university.

“Education in general can break those barriers that deals with race, diversity, just life in general,” said Dr. Westcott.

Saito said that despite the persecution, his ancestors made the choice to let go of bitterness. He appreciates the strength it took to make sure the pain of the past does not become a generational wound.

“I think it was just a choice. I think they could hang onto it, and let it eat away at them, or they could just let it go,” said Saito. “They knew it would poison themselves and it could’ve poisoned future generations, and I think they just decided you know, it ends here.”