Selected Shigezo and Sonoko Iwata Correspondence, May 28-July 22, 1942
After the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, Japanese-Americans saw many of their freedoms and constitutional rights slip away. Fearful that Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast would betray the United States, President Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066, which granted Congress the ability to take away constitutional safeguards from American citizens in the interest of national defense. This order led states such as California, Oregon, and Washington to exile Japanese-Americans to internment camps managed by the government, often splitting up families and confiscating property in the process. Sonoko Iwata and her husband Shigezo, who lived in Thermal, California, faced separation from each other and the loss of their home as a result of these measures. Shigezo, a Japanese immigrant, was arrested by the FBI in March 1942 on suspicion of being an "enemy alien." He was given no warning and received no formal charges. After undergoing trial in Santa Fe, which his family was not allowed to attend, he was moved to a camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico, for an indefinite period of time. Sonoko, a natural-born American citizen, received a month's notice before she and her children, along with many of their neighbors, were sent to Arizona's Poston Relocation Center in May. Throughout their respective detentions, Sonoko and Shigezo exchanged postcards and letters, three of which are presented here. These letters provide a view into the lives of the Japanese-Americans who had their freedoms suspended as a result of wartime fears and reveal the Iwatas' resilience in the face of adversity and devotion to each other.
On July 21, 1942, Sonoko wrote to the US Attorney General Francis Biddle, a man known for his dislike of the government's extreme anti-Japanese measures. Sonoko begged Biddle to release her husband based on his loyalty as an American citizen. The few Japanese-Americans who were freed during this time were usually endorsed by Caucasian, natural-born citizens. Most of the Iwatas' neighbors and friends were Asian-American, however, and Sonoko was unable to find any white people to advocate for her husband.
Shigezo was eventually relocated to Poston on July 6, 1943, and reunited with his family. After the end of the war, the Iwatas were allowed to leave the internment camp. They eventually settled in Bridgeton, New Jersey, where Shigezo and Sonoko found work at a frozen produce shipping plant. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 would attempt, at least financially, to rectify the government’s action by providing surviving members of internment camps with a $20,000 reparation payment. The Iwata correspondence is crucial to understanding the experience of wartime America. Although mistreated by their government, Shigezo and Sonoko never lost faith in finding justice or faith in each other.
"Brief Overview of the World War II Enemy Alien Control Program," US National Archives and Records Administration, accessed November 2012, www.archives.gov/research/immigration/enemy-aliens-overview.html.
Freedom for Some: The Japanese American Internment Experience, Balch Online Resources.
Japanese American Internment Unit Plan, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Shigezo and Sonoko Iwata Papers (Collection MSS053), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Finding aid