Sumiko Kobayashi near her home in Medford, N.J.
Photo by Bill Cardoni

When Sumiko Kobayashi ’46 first came to Drew, she hadn’t left her parents’ home. She’d gotten a pass out of a Japanese internment camp in Utah.

By Mary Jo Patterson

Some memories of the desolate spot where she and her family were imprisoned so long ago are still sharp.

Like the band that was playing when they stepped off the Army bus, bewildered and tired. (The musicians were prisoners too.) The official who handed them mattress ticking and told them to fill it with straw from a pile on the floor. The dust, which blew across the flat plain and seeped through the barracks’ closed windows and doors. Their room, which was furnished with a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Together with her younger sister and brother and their parents, Sumiko Kobayashi, 19 years old, had been deposited smack in the middle of a Utah desert previously populated by jackrabbits and coyotes. They were now family 21518 at the Topaz Relocation Center, a city of tarpaper shacks hastily erected to contain thousands of ethnic Japanese. Ten months earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. The federal government ordered more than 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry from their homes in California, Oregon and Washington state, and transported them to 10 remotely located internment camps inland, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens, like Kobayashi, who was born in Florida, and none had displayed any disloyalty to the United States. But the government, fearing espionage, cited military necessity.

Topaz Relocation Center in 1942.

Other memories are hazy, as if from a dream. Some things—like the well-documented death in 1943 of 63-year-old inmate James Wakasa, shot by a sentry in a watchtower—she does not recall. But this is not surprising. Kobayashi is 89. And she is not one to dwell on past injustices. Before Topaz she’d lived an idyllic childhood in the Midwest. After Topaz came an interesting and successful life, starting with her early release from the camp to attend Drew, from which she graduated in 1946.

Sumiko sits next to her mother, with her father and siblings.

“Being in the camps was a small part of my family history. Traumatic, but a small piece,” she says, sitting in her home in Medford, N.J., about 20 miles from Philadelphia.

There was also, among the internees, a widespread cultural attitude expressed as Shikata ga nai, Japanese for “It can’t be helped.” Her parents and perhaps most Japanese Americans accepted their fate. “I thought it was wrong, but I was resigned,” she says. “We were completely under the control of the military.”

That’s not to say Kobayashi was indifferent. Diminutive (4 feet, 10 inches), friendly and mild-mannered, with a good sense of humor, yet also assertive and frank, she later became a prominent figure in the movement to provide redress for Japanese Americans. She lobbied hard for passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which Congress formally apologized for the shameful chapter and admitted it was based not on military need, but on “racial prejudice, war-time hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The government also paid survivors $20,000 each for having deprived them of their liberty and caused so much suffering. Ordered to bring only what they could carry to the camps, people lost jobs, businesses, possessions and, sometimes, identities. When the war ended and the camps closed, many chose not to return to their former lives.

Kobayashi’s story starts in the Yamato agricultural colony in Boca Raton, Fla., where her father emigrated in 1914. After a few years he returned briefly to Japan to marry, then brought his new bride back to America. The couple settled in Geneva, Ill., near Chicago, where Kobayashi’s father found employment tending the Japanese garden of Colonel George Fabyan, a millionaire textile merchant. Kobayashi and her family lived in a house on the grounds of his lavish 300-acre estate, which housed a private zoo, Roman-style swimming pool, greenhouses, windmill and laboratory complex where Fabyan studied cryptology. “It was a fabulous place to grow up,” she recalls. “Mrs. Fabyan bred farm animals and dogs, and there were other families with children living at Riverbank.” Kobayashi and her family lived there for 14 years, with she and her siblings attending public school.

At Mead Hall in her Drew days.

When the estate was sold, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Kobayashi’s father raised roses and carnations. She graduated from San Leandro High School and was about to enter the University of California, Berkeley, when she became ill. A doctor misdiagnosed the problem as tuberculosis and sent her to a sanatorium. One day, during a visit from her parents, a nurse came into her room and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “We knew, of course, there would be hostility to us. My parents were not citizens—Japanese-born were ineligible for citizenship under American law—and we knew something was coming,” she says. “We just didn’t know when, or what.”

With the military worried about the Japanese invading the West Coast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order creating military zones and authorizing the evacuation of persons deemed national security risks. It did not specifically mention the Japanese, but within a matter of weeks Japanese Americans in the Seattle area were ordered to leave. Notices soon went up in other communities. When Kobayashi’s parents received their order, they had two weeks to prepare. Household items had to be stored or sold. Since pets were not allowed, Kobayashi had to give up her toy terrier, Tippy, an 11th birthday present from her father. A government official who came to their house at this time spotted a baby picture of her on the wall and attempted to confiscate it, convinced it was the infant crown prince of the emperor. In May 1942 the family was transported to a temporary assembly center at the Tanforan Racetrack near San Francisco, where the government had built barracks. Families were also housed in the grandstands and horse stalls.

Six months later, the family learned of its final destination: a 19,800-acre site in central Utah, 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The heart of the camp was a grid of 42 blocks. Each residential block contained a latrine, mess hall, recreation hall, bathhouse and 12 barracks with six rooms each. Most families were jammed into one room. “The partitions between the six apartments only went up to the eave line. It was open across the top,” Kobayashi remembers. “If a neighbor sneezed, you heard it.” Family life suffered terribly. So did parental authority.

Topaz was a prison, surrounded by barbed wire, but it was also a community, with athletic fields, schools, churches and a PX, where detainees could buy snacks. Residents built ornamental gardens, to make the place seem more like home, and planted trees and bushes brought down from the mountains. (Most died in the arid climate.) Beyond the barracks were agricultural fields, a chicken farm, turkey farm, hog farm and kitchen. Jobs were available, but paid little, even for skilled professionals. The pay scale ranged from $12 to $19 a month.

Kobayashi wound up processing bills of lading. “I didn’t like it, but I put up with it. Shikata ga nai. If we had wanted to resist, we would have been leaderless,” she says. “Those with a sense of responsibility felt that the best thing was to go along with the government. We weren’t thinking about civil rights. We were worried about staying out of jail, staying alive.”

Kobayashi with a photo of her and her parents.

As the war wore on, pressure developed to return the detainees to mainstream life away from the West Coast. Young people of college age were of particular concern; before Pearl Harbor, some 3,500 nisei, or second-generation Japanese, were studying at American colleges, mostly in Washington state and California. In 1943 the federal government sanctioned a student resettlement program, the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. Led by the American Friends Service Committee, it recruited prospective students from the camps and helped them apply to universities willing to accept them. Private colleges, especially those affiliated with churches, were the most receptive; big state universities, with war contracts, were ineligible.

At Topaz, Kobayashi was interviewed by Tom Bodine, a young Quaker and conscientious objector on the council. She applied to a number of schools, but was not immediately accepted. “Grinnell said they would accept me, but only if they could find a Japanese roommate,” she says. “I decided I wasn’t going to wait for that.” Then she applied to Drew, whose undergraduate school, then known as Brothers College, had only recently begun admitting women. She had enjoyed trips into Chicago as a young girl, and thought she’d like living near New York City. On the application, Kobayashi stated she was Methodist, which was partly true. Though she did not attend church regularly, her parents had taken her to Methodist Sunday School years earlier. Drew accepted her.

In the fall of 1943 Kobayashi traveled alone to New Jersey. She vividly remembers getting off the train and heading toward campus, one suitcase in hand, when a young man across the street called out a friendly hello. “I was surprised. It made me feel so good. Here I was, coming out of a concentration camp, and it was such a cheerful greeting,” she says. She had just turned 20.

With her tuition covered by a private group, she worked for room and board in the homes of two local Quaker families. When the war ended and her parents, released from the camps, found work, she could afford a dorm room. Kobayashi has fond memories of these years. She formed strong relationships with a couple of professors and was readily accepted in a social circle of students. One of her close friends was Maurice Blanken ’46, a returning serviceman. “Drew had a lot of girls, but they were inexperienced and naïve. I couldn’t relate to them,” Blanken recalls. “Sumi was more mature. She was savvy. Like me, she’d had a lot of experiences.”

Kobayashi graduated with a degree in economics. She remained in Madison for another year, working in Drew’s registrar’s office to pay off college bills. Then she moved to Philadelphia, where her family had relocated. She brushed up on her shorthand and got a job as a law secretary. Years later, finding the job a dead end, she became a computer programmer. Throughout she was active in many cultural and civic organizations. When the Japanese American Civic League launched a campaign for redress in 1978, she signed on. “It was the young people—the children of the people in the camps—who decided we ought to do something,” she says. “They’d been brought up on civil rights marches and Martin Luther King. They said, ‘This was terrible, you should do something.’ Some people wanted to let sleeping dogs lie, but I thought it was the right thing. Part of the movement was to get our experience into the textbooks, so it would not be forgotten.”

Over the years, she returned twice to Topaz, where a retired high school teacher was leading a campaign to build a museum at the site. These days Kobayashi lives quietly at Medford Leas, a Quaker-related continuing care community once home to 18 Japanese Americans from the camps, including Kobayashi and her mother, Suye, who died in 2001. Their numbers grow smaller every year. In 2008 Kobayashi assembled an exhibit there about the Japanese-American experience during World War II.

At times she wonders if the country has truly absorbed its lessons. After 9/11, she says, “Americans began looking at Muslims and people from the Mideast the same way they looked at us. The tendency toward prejudice is still there. One generation may have learned, but another generation has come along.”

Kobayashi’s health is good, but she no longer makes many public appearances. Still, thanks to the internet, people manage to find her. Last year she was contacted by a doctoral student in ethnic music wondering if there was music in the camps. (There was.) A museum executive called from Florida on behalf of a student looking to interview a Japanese American from the camps. Kobayashi didn’t hesitate to volunteer her story: “Of course, I would talk. There are not many of us left.”

As the last surviving member of her immediate family, there is one last piece of business she wants to complete. After retiring she wrote a trilogy about her family’s experience in the United States. While the experience of Japanese Americans who stayed in the West after being released from the camps has been well documented, the lives of those who moved elsewhere has not. “I’m trying to fill in the blank spaces,” she says, referring to her dream of publishing her work. “If I don’t do it, who will? I don’t have children. This is my legacy.”

Mary Jo Patterson is a former reporter for the Star-Ledger and a regular contributor to Drew Magazine

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