'A dream that never comes true'

Toru Saito was one of thousands of Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II

Toru Saito is an American citizen who was born in San Francisco. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, and following America's entry into World War II, he and his family were imprisoned in the remote Topaz internment camp in Utah.

Toru was one of over 110,000 Japanese Americans interned without trial during the war on account of their Japanese ancestry.

He says the affects of his internment and the racism he experienced afterwards has meant that for him, the American Dream was never a reality.

"I have a saying, 'You can take the boy out of the camp but you can't take the camp out of the boy', and it's true. My life has been tainted by the concentration camp that I grew up in."

Toru was only four years old when he entered the camp but he remembers the look of fear on his mother's face.

"She speaks no English so she really didn't know what was going on, and I remember her face without words said, 'I'm under a lot of stress, I am fearful... so don't ask me any questions'.

"We were taken by soldiers who had United States Army on their uniform which was confusing to me. Why were we being herded by our own soldiers?"

The Topaz camp was in the middle of the Utah desert, a very different environment for the family to adjust to. The camp had 12 barracks, and provided little protection against the extreme weather of the desert. Medical facilities were primitive.

Japanese-American Internment

Toru Saito outside one of the Topaz camp barracks
  • Over 110,000 Japanese-Americans held in 10 remote camps for up to four years
  • Not convicted or charged with any crime
  • Camps located in Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, California, Idaho, and Utah
  • President Reagan issued an apology to those interned in 1988

"There was no furniture and it was cold in the winter because the temperature went to 30 degrees below zero and in the summertime it was so hot you couldn't go in the buildings because they were black and there was no shade around," Toru remembers.

"There was barbed wire fencing all around and there were guard towers and all the guards were white… They weren't friendly to us and it was my first introduction to white Americans and that was a negative thing. They had guns with bayonets at the end and they were pretty scary."

Toru's family were interned for three years. "We were kept in the dark - we didn't know when we were going to be released. We missed home."

When it became clear the US was winning the war the Japanese prisoners at Topaz were told they could leave, and slowly they began to evacuate the camp.

The government gave each of them $25 and a bus ride to the railway station. Many internees had lost their homes, jobs and possessions. Toru says they had to rebuild their lives.

"Towards the end of our imprisonment in the camp… the government was pushing us to leave but we had no place to go because we had lost our homes.

"We had letters from our neighbours saying 'We don't want any Japs back on our street'."

Without a country

He has had a recurring nightmare since that time.

"I had this dream that the news came to our block that the soldiers are hanging people… They had built gallows in Block 1 and they were hanging all the Japanese and we were next because they were in Block 3.

"All my life I've had this dream… It was so powerful and frightening to me as a kid."

All these years later, former internees react in different ways to their imprisonment in the camps. Some have never spoken of it. Others have forgiven, if not forgotten. Toru remains very angry.

"When I went to school in the camps we learned the pledge of allegiance and at the end of the pledge it says 'with liberty and justice for all'.

"But as an adult I learned that our rights and our freedom didn't mean anything, our constitution didn't apply to us.

"We didn't get the dream - we got the back end of the dream. We got a lot of discrimination, a lot of hatred. A lot of my friends say in private that they are still very bitter about what this country did to them."

Toru says that when Americans talk today about achieving happiness and success and the Dream - the idea that all men are equal - he remains disenchanted.

"I think the American Dream is just that, it's a dream that for most of us never comes true. I worked in three county jails as a counsellor and in my six years of working in a jail, I never once had a Japanese prisoner, never once.

"We obey the laws, we are good citizens. We work hard on the job, we're good neighbours… and what do we get for it? We're thrown in camps. Our rights are violated.

"To this day we're referred to as Japanese Americans - Americans second, Japanese first. I've been told many times, 'You Japs should go back to Japan.' I'm 73 years old, I've never been there. This is my country but I feel like a man without a country."

Toru Saito was interviewed for the BBC Two series - The American Dream - which was first broadcast in the UK.

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