Peace and Dignity Overcome Oppression

The Cultural Effects of World War II on Three Generations of Japanese Americans

Meredith Montgomery
11 min readMay 18, 2021
left: Marion Konishi and her brother in Los Angeles before the war; middle: families of Japanese ancestry boarding buses for an assembly center and aerial view of Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado (both photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration); right: Ken Takehara of the 442nd during World War II

Marion Konishi was a happy 16-year-old living a comfortable life with her parents and younger brother in Los Angeles in 1941. They’d go to the movies every Saturday night and they’d attend baseball games whenever they could. Her father, who immigrated to California from Japan in high school, had a produce company, and her Japanese mother, who had been brought to America as an infant, was a homemaker.

But life as they knew it changed drastically when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor that December. “I can still remember how I felt when we heard the news,” says Marion, who is now 96. There were other Japanese families in the neighborhood, but their school’s student body was predominantly white. “All of us did not know whether we should go to school the next day. We were so worried and scared, but our parents encouraged us to go.”

Konishi family (Marion in front) at the beach before World War II

Teachers and peers were initially warm and accepting, but as the scope of the disaster became better understood, public opinion began to change. “Then we didn’t think it was such a good idea to be Japanese and we wished that we didn’t look like the enemy,” Marion says. FBI agents swept through homes in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, arresting community leaders and anyone that might be suspected of having sympathetic ties to Japan. All bank accounts belonging to anyone born in Japan were frozen and a curfew was imposed for Japanese people, including Japanese American citizens.

A History of Asian Oppression

This was not the first instance of anti-Japanese acts in the U.S. After Japanese immigrants started arriving in the 1860s, the Japanese Exclusion League formed in the early 1900s and used legislation, boycotts, propaganda and school segregation to oppress these new members of the population. Immigrant quotas that excluded any Asians from entering the U.S. were established, and in 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese immigrants were not eligible for naturalized citizenship — only free white persons and, since 1870, persons of African nativity or descent. States such as California and Washington further discouraged undesirable immigrants from settling permanently in the U.S. with alien land laws that prohibited those ineligible for citizenship from owning land.

Out of fear for future discriminatory laws, many Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) raised their children in a way that prepared them to live in both Japan and America. However, the Konishis wanted their kids to be as Americanized as possible and did not send their kids to Japanese language school. “That is the reason we have always been able to speak English without an accent. My parents were fluent in English so we spoke only English in our home. It was only when my grandparents came over that we were exposed to the Japanese language, food and customs,” explains Marion.

On February 19, 1942, nearly 10 weeks after the outbreak of the war, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in response to growing fears of further Japanese sabotage. Despite Attorney General Francis Biddle telling the president that more targeted security measures were preferred over a mass evacuation of citizens, Roosevelt ordered the removal of all people who were at least one-sixteenth Japanese, both alien and citizens. They were given less than three months to sell their homes and possessions before they were uprooted from their West Coast communities.

“My dad had to sell his business and our house for almost nothing. We lost our car. Probably what I remember most was that we had to put our dog Brownie to sleep because we didn’t know what else to do with him,” Marion reflects. “Trucks came into our neighborhood and we sold, gave away or destroyed most of our furniture and clothes. We were allowed to take only one suitcase per person. I remember how very sad and disheartened we felt at that time.”

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established to administer the mass removal and confinement of 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of which were American citizens. With no charges of disloyalty or unlawfulness against the targeted population, there was no means for the victims to appeal their loss of property and personal freedoms. In a propaganda film, Director of the WRA, Milton S. Eisenhower said, “We are setting a standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation. We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency.” After only three months in that position, he resigned in protest of the incarceration of innocent citizens, including 17,000 children under the age of 10.

Relocating an Innocent Population

The Konishis dressed in their best clothes to board the train to the Santa Anita Race Track, oblivious of the fact that they would be housed in filthy horse stalls where they were given feed sacks to fill with hay for mattresses. While at this short-term assembly center, they were tagged with the name of the permanent relocation center they would be detained in until the war was over.

Japanese Americans waiting in line for the mess hall (photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

“Our sense of family was greatly changed because we had to wait in lines for every meal and it was uncomfortable having to eat with so many strangers. It was almost a relief when we were loaded on trains to Amache,” Marion says.

Camp Amache was one of 10 internment camps built in desolate parts of the U.S. It covered approximately 10,500 acres in Colorado south of the Arkansas River, bumping up to the small town of Granada on the east side. Army barracks were used as housing — six families per barrack. As a family of four, the Konishis had a 12-by-12-foot area with steel army cots and two blankets for beds, a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a coal-fired heater. Temperatures ranged from 110 degrees in the summer to 22 degrees below zero in the winter. The walls were not insulated and the windows did not open. Toilets and showers were communal and meal times still required long lines.

While the perimeter of the camp was lined with barbed wire and soldiers standing guard with machine guns, community life and security within camp was up to the evacuees. To conjure a sense of normalcy, the interned organized basketball and baseball games, held church services, opened beauty parlors and planted prolific gardens despite the desert climate. Japanese American teachers started leading classes in the fall, and in June of 1943, Marion was named valedictorian of her class. She delivered an inspiring and hopeful commencement speech at Amache Senior High School’s first graduation ceremony. (Read commencement speech in The Power of Faith and Hope.)

Finding Paths Out of Incarceration

The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council provided a government-approved route of resettlement for college-aged students that helped over 4,000 young internees leave their camps for college. Through this program, the Methodist Church offered Marion full scholarships to three different schools. She chose to enroll at Simpson College in Iowa because she favored its Midwestern location over the schools in the South or East, where heightened discrimination was more prevalent.

“Leaving camp was pretty tough. My parents were able to give me only $200 in cash for expenses. And I had never been away from home,” recalls Marion, who received a warm welcome at Simpson. But college life also provided a daily reminder that she was not equal to her white peers.

“All my friends lived in sorority houses, but I was never invited in. They always included me in a lot of activities; we were together a lot and I always hoped I would be asked to join a sorority, but I was finally told that even if they wanted me to join them, they couldn’t invite me because of my nationality,” she says.

While Marion was at college, her father was offered an undercover job with the Army Map Service, translating bombing maps of Japan for the U.S. He was one of very few Japanese who was able to read, speak and write both Japanese and English languages, and this position granted the whole family a rare opportunity to leave camp.

“This was a very difficult thing for him to do — mapping places that probably were homes of some of his relatives,” says Marion. “He still wasn’t able to apply for citizenship at that time, but he never regretted that decision and I still have the citation he received for his work.”

Japanese Soldiers Fight for America

Ken Takehara, Marion’s future husband, was from Hawaii, where there were no internment camps due to the area’s reliance on the Japanese community. He was at Simpson College during Marion’s first year and they met briefly before he enlisted in the army.

Ken Takehara at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in 2011 for the Congressional Gold Medal presentation

After initially designating all Japanese American men of draft age as enemy aliens, the War Department announced in January of 1943 that it was forming an all-Nisei (American- born soldiers of Japanese ancestry) combat team — the 442nd. Ken left college to join the 12,000 Nisei who volunteered, and ultimately about 3,000 Hawaiians and 1,000 men from internment camps reported for infantry training that April at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

A year later they left for their first overseas assignment in Europe and saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting in Italy, France and Germany. Not only were the soldiers fighting against Germans, they were also proving their loyalty to the U.S. — not Japan — in a fight against racism. To this day, the 442nd is regarded as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. Military, earning more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and seven Presidential Unit Citations. During his two years overseas, Ken received several citations and medals, including two Purple Hearts.

When Ken was discharged, he returned to Simpson to finish school and started dating Marion. Around the same time, internment camps were closing with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the Mitsuye Endo case that the WRA “has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure”.

A New Generation Tries to Fit In

Marion and Ken were married in 1947 and their first daughter Anne Aiko Takehara was born four years later. Like Marion’s upbringing, Anne and her younger brother and sister were raised to be as American as possible in an effort to fit in. They were taught to ignore negativity and were reminded that they would usually stand out in a crowd. Ken often made udon soup and they ate rice at every meal, but the kids always ate it with ketchup.

“I remember when we were little when we would go to the grocery store, people would just stare and point at us and they called us Chinese,” says Anne. It wasn’t until she was in high school that she began to embrace her unique heritage. “I was mature enough to know that it was okay to be different and people accepted us for who we were so we didn’t have to try to hide our identity and be embarrassed by it.”

Anne started dating her future husband, Butch Wilson, in high school and they married in 1973 after college. “At first my mother refused to come to Anne’s wedding [because he was white] but she finally gave in and got to really love Butch,” Marion recalls.

The Wilson family always welcomed the Takeharas into their lives and Anne was thrilled to have an Americanized name, saying, “It was so much easier to be called Anne Wilson!”

Butch Wilson (left) with the Takehara family in 1975

Making Peace with the Past

It wasn’t until 1988 that Congress issued a formal apology for the mass incarceration and President Ronald Regan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act. Two years later, payments of $20,000 and letters of apology signed by President George Bush were sent to over 80,000 survivors of internment as reparations for their treatment.

The National Japanese American Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. on federal land on November 9, 2000 and in 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation to grant the Congressional Gold Medal (Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contribution) collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in recognition of their exceptional service, sacrifice and loyalty to America during World War II.

The atrocious acts of discrimination and injustice that Asian Americans faced during that time continue to fly under the radar of the general public. For decades, Marion and Ken never talked about their experiences, even to their own kids. “All we knew was that Dad had been in the army and he had medals that we played with. We had no idea growing up — not until we were adults. And it wasn’t talked about in school or taught in U.S. History,” says Anne.

Anne and Marion in 2016

She and her mom began breaking that silence as they started talking publicly about the multi-generational effects of World War II on their families. What started as a single presentation for a women’s group in 2008 turned into a long list of events throughout the Houston area (where they have lived for the last 40 years). Invitations to share their story started coming in from throughout the state, and United Airlines has hosted them in Chicago twice in honor of Asian Awareness Month. Over the course of 10 years, the pair gave 50 presentations to more than 1,000 people.

“I am always surprised when I look over the audience and see so many in tears. An Asian high school student came up and gave us a big hug at the end of one presentation. We are doing our duty to let people know what we went through and how we still feel that this is our home,” says Marion.

“Our hope is that we bring an awareness of diversity and that people are a little more sensitive to people who look different than they do,” says Anne about the mission of their programs.

A few health setbacks for Marion and the global pandemic have put their presentations on hold since 2018, but based on their history of resilience it’s easy to bet that their work is far from finished. In the meantime they’re supporting efforts by the Japanese American Citizens League to ensure that the internment story is included in history books for the state of Texas, Anne serves on several nonprofit boards that promote diversity, and they both share their love for origami with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When asked why she feels no resentment for the injustices she has faced, Marion says in a serene and thoughtful voice, “It’s something that we had to do and we accepted it. I’m very sorry I had to go through that, but it’s made me strong enough to live through a lot more. I’ve been able to live this long at 96!” Faith and positivity such as this provide hope to anyone facing adversity and is sure to inspire many generations to come.

Meredith Montgomery is the daughter of Anne Wilson and grandaughter of Marion Takehara. To read other Diverse Conversations articles she’s written, visit



Meredith Montgomery

writer | designer | artist | mom | ryt | herbivore | nature nut | music enthusiast | slow bicyclist