With Yoneko Hara’s death last month at age 96, one less person is around to share a personal story from a shameful era in this country’s history.
She was born Yoneko Inuzuka in Portland to Japanese immigrants who ran a floral business in Southeast Portland. She was the fourth among six children. She and her siblings were U.S. citizens.
That didn’t protect them after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, an act that drew America into World War II. The FBI took her father, Takashi Inuzuka, into custody.
In documents obtained by the family, they later learned that two white neighbors, people the Inuzuka family considered friends, told the agency that the father was a spy.
It wasn’t true.
At age 60 and after being in the United States for 38 years, he was held in a detention camp in Montana until the war ended.
His children and wife were sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, one of 10 camps created to hold a total of 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast.
The Idaho camp held 20,000 people. Yoneko Inuzuka was 19 when she was taken to the camp, where she and her family spent three years. After being released, she spent time working as a bookkeeper in Denver and then moved to Portland, where she met George Hara.
They married; he went to medical school and later became an obstetrician-gynecologist. She managed the books. They had five children.
It was only when the children were older that their mother talked about her time in the camp, said son John Hara, as the family planned a Saturday celebration of life for her.
John said in researching his mother’s life he found notes she’d written about time in the camp.
“She was bitter about the injustice of it all,” John said. “She didn’t want anyone to forget about it. At family reunions, and (when) we had big gatherings, we’d always stop the fun and games at a certain point to discuss our history.”
At the same time, she didn’t let that understandable bitterness infect her children, said daughter Phyllis Hara.
“She didn’t allow it to consume her,” Phyllis said. “She never let it consume us. That was her gift to all of us.”
As a child, Yoneko helped her parents run the family’s business, Nippon and Inuzuka Florist.
She attended Kellogg Elementary School and graduated from Franklin High School in 1940.
In 2003, she gave an interview about her life as part of an oral history project conducted by the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, a Japanese history museum in Northwest Portland.
She told the interviewer she heard about Pearl Harbor on a radio. She asked her father where it was, and he said he thought it was in Singapore. Then they came for her father.
“Someone knocked on the door,” she said. “We have an agent at the back door. Would you let him in?”
The children — while worried about their father — felt safe because their mother told them they were citizens.
President Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing people of Japanese ancestry into prison camps.
Eventually, Yoneko and her older sister were allowed to work in Denver, where they contributed their earnings toward mortgage payments that saved the family home while their parents and siblings remained in camp.
When the children and their mother returned to Portland in 1945, they found nine greenhouses that Takashi Inuzuka and florist business he had taken a lifetime to build was gone.
They received $100 for their $20,000 property. Yoneko took a job making small beaded moccasins that a lady from Idaho took and sold.
Her father returned to Portland in 1946, a moment Yoneko’s sister, younger Kazi, witnessed.
Yoneko told the Nikkei Legacy Center interviewer what her sister relayed to her: When their father walked in the door, four years after last seeing his family, he didn’t hug his wife.
The couple bowed to each other and then her mother said a phrase in Japanese that translates to “it’s been a long time.”
With that, a life that was interrupted resumed.
Her father took a job as a gardener, said John.
“Because he started from nothing, he started again,” John said. “In the Japanese community, they have a word “gambatte” that translates to don’t give up, or do your best. This reflected the spirit in the community as a matter of fact dealing with adversity.”
Phyllis said her mother told her the family, once reunited in the city, looked to the future.
“They focused on rebuilding their business and reintegrating into their hometown, Portland,” Phyllis said. “They moved on, looked forward and refused to submit to the weight of their internment experience.”
Yoneko made sure the burden would not be passed to the next generation.
“When we were little,” said Leslie Hara Shick, another of Yoneko’s children, “my mother said nothing about the bad times. She digested it, alone, in her heart.”
John Hara said he and his siblings have spent years gathering documents from the time in their mother’s life when so much was at stake.
“Her experience, along with 120,000 people, is a significant historical component of our country’s history,” he said. “How they weathered it is interesting. Few are taught about this in school. It’s important that people never forget this.”
Hara said his grandfather eventually became a U.S citizen and embraced the country that had once done him and his family wrong.
“My mother got strength from her mother,” Hara said. “From her father, she got his enduring message to be a good citizen. She took all that to heart, and she passed it onto us, her children.”