As a teen in Tacoma, Terry (Teruo) Ishihara had his life planned out. The oldest child in his family, he was going to take over his father’s laundry business.
That all changed in the summer of 1942 when he and more than 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast were imprisoned as the United States entered World War II.
More than seven decades later, Ishihara clearly recalls the particulars of his internment, including names of fellow prisoners and a prized comic book collection that he had to leave behind. He recounts the nightmarish details without rancor. “You can’t be happy and bitter,’’ he says.
Ishihara’s family had just a week to pack up. Each person was allowed to bring one suitcase. Under soldiers’ guard, they boarded trains to an unspoken destination. The curtains were pulled so they couldn’t see out.
They came first to a temporary holding facility at the Fresno County Fairgrounds. There, Ishihara and his family lived in wood and tar paper barracks through a summer of extreme heat. As he stepped from the train, Ishihara was handed a canvas bag and told to fill it with straw. The bag became his mattress atop a wooden cot. It was rugged living. The restrooms were crude, with no partitions, he says.
After a couple of months in the relocation camp, the family was moved to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Northern California up near the Oregon border. Tule Lake was a camp for those who were considered to be “disloyal” to the United States because they had answered “no” to two questions on a notoriously confusing and discriminatory government loyalty questionnaire.
Ishihara was too young to have to fill out the questionnaire. The adults around him were angry at the injustice of the internment, but he doesn’t remember being angry. Instead he was bewildered as his life changed in ways big and small. Dinners, for example, had always been with family, but now he and his friends ate together in cafeteria-style facilities away from their parents.
Because of the internment, his father’s business and way of life and Ishihara’s set future were lost. “I was not angry or bitter. I only wondered what was going to become of me,’’ he says. “I was starting at square one.’’
A remnant of those days is Ishihara’s lifetime subscription to Reader’s Digest. The subscription came about when he was asked to buy war bonds. His parents said little about the challenges they faced, but when he was asked to buy war bonds, his mother suggested that while they were imprisoned wrongly by the U.S. government, that perhaps he shouldn’t buy them. Instead, Ishihara spent his $25 on a lifetime subscription to the magazine, which he still has.
Ishihara didn’t get to finish junior high, and the high school he attended was not accredited. Still, he had been raised to study and to succeed. He was encouraged to attend college and he applied to Washington State College because of the low tuition, a $25 scholarship, and because it was accepting students of Japanese ancestry. It was one of the few schools on the West Coast in 1945 that did.
Once again, a train ride changed his life. This time, 70 years ago this year, it took him to Pullman. He was nervous as he climbed the hill from the train station to campus, passing under the Memorial Arch. The school, he says, “changed my life completely—for the better.’’
Ishihara excelled at WSC, studying mechanical engineering. He was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Crimson Circle, and the Christian Student Council. He was named one of 42 outstanding seniors for the class of 1949.
There was still plenty of prejudice on campus, he says. A speech professor gave him a C because of his non-existent foreign accent.
But the prejudice spurred him on and a new life on campus nourished his spirit. It’s not the equations or the work in the classroom that made a difference for him, he says. Rather, college helped him learn to relate to all people as well as to become a better and faster learner. “The other benefit,’’ he says, “is making friends for life.’’
Mostly what he loved about his time at college was that it was a place where respect could be afforded to all, whatever their opinions. The atmosphere so suited him that he devoted his life to it, going on to receive a doctorate at the University of Arizona and becoming a professor himself. After teaching at several schools, he finished out his career at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, where he is now professor emeritus. He currently lives near Los Angeles.
Perhaps another remnant of a youth marred by injustice and discrimination, Ishihara never wore a suit and tie in the classroom. And he insisted his engineering students call him by his first name years before it was acceptable. He didn’t want to enforce a distance between himself and his students. “I believe that one of the most important characteristics of any group is relationships among its members,’’ he says.
Smiling broadly, he adds, “Equality prevails.’’