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Becoming an American: The Japanese Experience

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When Choichi Shimizu (or Cho, as he is better known) graduated from Fife High School in 1955, he was just as full of youthful excitement and expectation as the rest of his classmates over the future that lie ahead. In his cap and gown on graduation day he looked just like his fellow graduates, blending in and standing out in no particular way. However, Shimizu did have one thing very different from the rest that no one else could see, for it wasn’t too long before this long awaited graduation day that he, his family and thousands of Japanese living in America were targeted, rounded up and incarcerated in internment camps. World War II was raging in Europe and the U.S. government, suspicious of espionage, made sure the Japanese stateside were watched day and night and the only way to do that was to gather them all up in one place. Here locally, that place was the Puyallup Fairgrounds, re-named Camp Harmony, then off to Minidoka Relocation Center in Minidoka, Idaho where Shimizu and his family were held for almost four years.

For most of his life Shimizu – part of a disappearing population of second-generation Japanese, or “Nisei” as they are collectively called – kept these memories hidden within himself, just like other Nisei and “Issei” (first generation) Japanese families did by not speaking about the days of internment. It was upon the death of his mother in 1983 that Shimizu started jotting down notes on his family history, which led to more writing and research to ultimately result in his book “Cho’s Story: From the Eyes of a Nisei Son” just published this year.

On Thursday, Oct. 16 former Fife resident and U.S. Army Reserve veteran Shimizu will talk about his book and life when the Fife History Museum presents “Becoming an American: The Japanese Experience” at 6 p.m. in the Dacca Barn. Admission is free and refreshments will be provided. Joining Shimizu will be acclaimed Everett artist Chris Hopkins who will be showing a collection of his fine art paintings that focus on the internment and the extreme prejudice the Japanese faced during that time (see his work at Shimizu will read from his book, Hopkins will talk about his art, and the audience can ask questions afterward.

“Between the two it’s going to be a really powerful experience,” said History Museum Managing Director Jocelyn Goldschmidt. “It is something you’ll remember.” This event will serve as the final community event for the current “Rations, Rights, Remembrance: Fife in World War II and Japanese Internment Camp” exhibits now on view at the History Museum through the beginning of November.

Fife History Museum volunteer Mizu Sugimura, who was key in organizing the Oct. 16 event, stressed the importance of learning from history to avoid repeating it, as her dad and family members were at Camp Harmony.

“An exhibit like this is not just about dead people from the past. It’s a snapshot of a particular community that is like a family,” she said. “It lets you know about who the people were in the area where you live and also gives you an opportunity today to consider whether there is anything from that period of time that might be useful in today’s life.

Sugimura continued, “I believe that our sense of community identity is informed by our history. Ignorance of history does not mean you get a bye; it exists. You cannot go into any discussion of plans for the future without understanding that this is part of what is on the table. It doesn’t mean you can change it or completely eradicate what has gone before, but it lets you understand why certain things are happening and sometimes give you al little bit of perspective.”




While on the surface “Cho’s Story” makes for an engaging memoir of one man’s life and times, the book is so much more that that – it is an important historical document that chronicles, and puts a human face on, events in U.S. history not often spoken about, much less in the deeply personal detail as Shimizu tells it. Originally Shimizu wrote the book for his family members; he said he never dreamed it would result in such popularity with other readers. “When I released the book, the farthest thing from my mind was any publicity I would get from it,” he said, noting that he started with an order for 50 copies for his family and now it’s up to 800 copies with more on the way.

“I wrote the book to give it to my grandkids, nephews and nieces…so that they know something about their history. Like a lot of Japanese, we never talked to our kids about what happened or where their grandparents came from and why they came over here.

“The second generation of Japanese-Americans is altogether different than today’s (third generation) Japanese-Americans. We were known as the ‘Quiet Americans’ for a long time and we kept to ourselves. We just did what we had to do to prove that we were good Americans. I wanted to emphasize that aspect and make sure they understood that not only the second generation Niseis like myself but even our parents went through a lot of headaches and hard work to get them to where they are today.”

When his father, Kiyoshi Shimizu, was 13 he left Japan for America on May 20, 1903 to make money to support the family, as heavy taxation and government restrictions in Japan kept many families poor. Kiyoshi worked in the fishing industry in Alaska, the railroads in Northwest Territory, in rock quarries and the lumber industry before returning to Japan to marry Haru Kinoshita then back to the states where the newlyweds became farmers, even though during this period Asians were not allowed to own land nor were the Japanese allowed to become citizens.

Puyallup tribal members, however, befriended the Japanese and leased land to families. Shimizu writes that his parents leased land from Sally Sicade, daughter of tribal chief Henry Sicade, on what is now Freeman Road, and that she became close friends of Shimizu’s mother. “When you think about it, the Puyallup Indian Tribe went through the same thing where the government forced them into this area and put them on a reservation,” Shimizu said. In later years his brother, Sam, would fish on the Puyallup River with the tribal fishermen and became friends with them. Shimizu writes that he and his brothers saw that Indians were treated much the same as the Japanese, like when Caucasian fishermen would throw bales of hay into the river to choke it in protest of the tribal fishermen.

For 20 years, beginning around 1920, the Shimizu family worked their farm and made their way in search of the American Dream. Despite the language barriers, little money, hard labor and outward discrimination they faced, Shimizu writes that after the Great Depression, Japanese farmers produced more than 90 percent of crops in the Puget Sound area. But just as post-Depression life was getting better, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and war was declared the next day. The Shimizu family cut ties with their family in Japan to avoid being seen as sympathizers.




The 11th child of what would grow to be a brood of 14, Cho Shimizu was just four years old when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942 directing the removal of all Japanese from the west coast. The Shimizu family, and the other Japanese families around them, were given orders to vacate their farms in 10 days and prepare to depart to a “relocation camp” in spring of 1942. In Pierce County, Civilian Exclusion Order 58 forced farmers to expedite the move or be arrested for sabotage.

Shimizu writes: “The U.S. Government had decided that all Japanese living on the West Coast would be evacuated inland, would be interned and guarded as an enemy even though there was no real threat from them. As far as my research shows, there were no instances of treason or criminal actions. My parents had emigrated from Japan to avoid this type of mistreatment by a government but it was happening again. Everything was so hostile during this period.”

The Shimizus were first taken to Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. “…[M]y memories start there,” Shimizu writes. “Although I was still fairly young, the memories of the experience linger.” The camp was divided into four restricted areas, with a 9 p.m. curfew and morning roll calls. The Shimizus were assigned to “Area D,” today the Blue Parking Lot at the Fairgrounds. They were there for six months before being taken to the Minidoka Relocation Center. Cho remembers waving good-bye. “We had tears in our eyes, a fake smile, and a crushed spirit.”

With its armed guards, barbed wire – and rattlesnakes slithering about – Minidoka was in fact a prison. Nevertheless, Shimizu’s brothers George and Jerry enlisted in the army, “fighting for a country that considered them enemies,” as Cho writes.

Once released in 1947, the Shimizus had to start all over again, having lost their home, farm and equipment. They persevered and made life better for themselves. Nine-year-old Cho went to Firwood Grade School then Fife High School where he excelled in Future Farmers of America (FFA), winning many blue ribbons and receiving the Washington “State Farmer” award in FFA in 1953. Cho loved playing baseball and spending time with his brothers.

From Fife High, Shimizu was accepted into the engineering program at University of Washington and earned a degree in mechanical engineering, graduating in 1959. He got a job at Boeing where he stayed for 37 years before taking early retirement in 1997. While at Boeing, Shimizu earned a second degree in Electrical Engineering. In 1961 he took a leave of absence to join the Army in a special-skills program for people who worked in a defense-related industry.

By the end of “Cho’s Story” he had achieved the American Dream that was so elusive for his parents. Today, at 77 years old, he is enjoying retirement with his wife Sharonne but finds himself kept very busy with book signing, talks and visits to schools and community centers. He is an active volunteer for the Office of the Washington State Insurance Commissioner, Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors (SHIBA) and a member of the Camp Harmony Committee, helping to plan the 75th year commemoration of the incarceration at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.  

"Cho's Story: From The Eyes of a Nisei Son” will be available at the event for purchase and signing, or buy beforehand at the Fife History Museum or by contacting the author at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).