Vol. 11


One Suitcase Each

1941–1945; Berkeley, California; Sevier Desert in Utah; Boston, Massachusetts — USA

One hundred years ago two sets of my great-great-grandparents arrived in California from Japan. In 1916 the Kumekawas owned a dry goods1 store, and the Hibinos had just arrived in California and would go on to settle in Berkeley.

1920 and 1930 came and went. Mrs. Kumekawa had two girls and two boys; Mrs. Hibino had two boys.

World War II began for the United States when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The government was convinced that all people of Japanese descent might attack the United States.

A few days after the Pearl Harbor bombing, some government agents went to the Kumekawa house and the Hibino home. The families were told to evacuate and take one suitcase each. The families were put on a bus. They arrived in a holding area at the Tanforan Racetrack. They stayed in horse stalls.

That evening Nobu Kumekawa lay awake on a hard bed of straw. It itched and smelled, and she was cold. She had been forced to leave the University of California during her last semester.

A few months passed, and nothing changed. Then one day, government agents arrived and told everyone in the camp to get on a train.

“Why are you doing this to us? Where are we going?” Yoshi Hibino blurted out.

“Orders,” one of the officers said flatly. With that, he shoved Yoshi into one of the train cars with the rest of the people from the camp.

They were on the train for two days before they arrived in the Sevier Desert in Utah. Nobu opened the creaky door to their room and looked in. She saw a few rusty cots and a heater; everything was caked with a layer of sand. There were barbed wire fences, guard towers, and soldiers carrying rifles. In the winter it was windy and cold; in the summer everything was covered in sand, and the heat was unbearable.

For meals they sat at long tables and ate American foods: hot dogs, baked beans, potatoes, and other canned foods. The Japanese people of the camp didn’t like the food, so one day they took it upon themselves and cooked foods they liked: white rice, canned fish, and fresh vegetables that sometimes they even grew themselves.

“This is so depressing,” Nobu said one day as she looked out at the guard towers from her cot. She sighed.

Then her father said stoically, “They must have good reason for keeping us here for so long.” Some of the people were kept there for four years.

In 1943 Nobu left the camp to finish college at Boston University, and Yoshi got a job at a small company in Boston that sold dynamite. Nobu and Yoshi had dated in California before the war. Nobu finished college, and she and Yoshi got married that Christmas Eve.

In 1945 the war ended, and everyone else left the camp on a train. Nobu’s and Yoshi’s parents moved to Boston, Massachusetts.

Nobu went on to educate schools about the war. She also had three children, including my grandmother, Diane Hibino, who told me this story. She also told me to tell people about her family’s experience in the camps so it won’t happen again.

Kiki Rosenthal; Colorado, USA


1. A dry goods store sells cloth, clothing, and related products.



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