Monday, October 10, 2011

The Red Boots She Wore to Her Concentration Camp

It is an astonishing story, that of what happened at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the site of a Japanese American Internment Camp.

That's where I saw her posing in front of a life-size image of her wearing these red boots, cameras and video cameras documenting the poignant moment.  Her two grown children and many friends and relatives were wandering slowly through the exhibits, pointing at memorabilia and making comments about "I remember that..."
Toshiko Ito posed in front of a bigger than life-size photo of herself at the age of 20 when she and her birth family entered the relocation camp. Today she is 88 years old.
On February 19, 1942, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the mass removal of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to so-called "relocation centers."
Concerns about the loyalty of ethnic Japanese were the result of racial prejudice and wartime hysteria.  By the end of the war, 10 people were convicted of spying for Japan; all were Caucasian.
Toshi married Jim Ito, and raised two children, Christie and Lance.  Lance is a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles who came to national prominence when he presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Lance and my husband - compatriots in justice.  But has justice been served? Did O.J. Simpson's wife Nicole Brown Simpson get justice?  Did Toshi's family get justice?  What is required to be considered justice?
Heart Mountain was one of 10 "relocation centers" for Japanese and Japanese Americans run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA).  In addition to these, Japanese Americans were confined at times in temporary assembly centers, Justice Dept. internment camps and other wartime prison facilities.
Hurriedly constructed by more than 2,000 workers starting in June 1942, the center consisted of 740 acres enclosed by barbed wire fencing, with 650 barracks-style buildings, including a hospital, other support facilities and 468 residential structures.  The total number of people incarcerated for any period of time at Heart Mountain was 13,997.  Heart Mountain gets its name from the heart-shaped mountain seen in the background.
Upon release of internees after the war in 1945, many families returned to their homes and businesses and found them occupied by strangers, vandalized - properties stolen, with no recourse.

The redress movement of the 1970s resulted in a congressional commission formed in 1980, which issued the 1983 report "Personal Justice Denied" recommending token redress payments to victims and declaring internment "unjustly motivated by racism rather than real military necessity."  
The Civil Liberties Act was signed into law in 1988, implementing the recommendations of a congressional commission, and was sponsored by Representative Norman Mineta and Senator Alan K Simpson - who met as Boy Scouts at Heart Mountain when Mineta's family was incarcerated there. 
An irony was demonstrated here when more than 800 Japanese Americans from Heart Mountain internment camp served in the military, 11 of whom were killed and 52 wounded in battle, for the American side.  Some were volunteers, others were drafted.  The draft generated a resistance movement at Heart Mountain.  A "Fair Play Committee" formed to protest military induction, when recruits were forced at the same time into internment camps, and, as a result, 85 internees were elsewhere imprisoned for draft law violations!
The question of justice was on my mind as I wandered through the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Interpretive Learning Center, just an hour's drive from my home over the border in Montana.  With all these elderly survivors who surrounded me, I felt the overwhelming need to apologize.  Why?  I didn't have responsibility for their internment. Did my parents?
No, on a personal basis, it doesn't make much sense.  But, as fellow Americans, we acknowledge a grave injustice has happened.  Wartime makes people do awful things.  Being a witness to these survivors at this grand opening at Heart Mountain was just that - a grand mountain-size opening - of the heart. To read more on this chapter of American history click on this link to go to: www.heartmountain.org


  1. this is such a cool story, deb - those red boots are now invested with such an aura of female power! what a life story of an individual - as well as the overarching story of heart mountain itself. so many things the general public is not aware of. thanks for bringing this important tale to our attention ~ maybe we might be seeing a film by you on this subject at some point??


    sister panda

  2. p.s. wow - i remember judge ito! how cool to see that foto of him with steve.

    and yes --- your point about whether justice was served in that case — and of course it begs the question: what of toshi's justice?

  3. An amazing and interesting post, Deb.
    Justice is such difficult thing. It strikes me that there is so little of it today. Not in laws denied, but in our understanding of what is fair in our relations with each other.
    Though this may be simplistic, I think the lack of real justice is motivating Occupy Wall Street, and similar demonstrations all over the world.

  4. I have a pair of red boots and promise that I will always think of Toshi when I wear them. This is a great story and I know of this period of history and the Northwest only through books I have read.

    Justice is elusive and is difficult to obtain once the injustice has been done. Toshi is delightful and it is nice to hear of her marriage and life "after" the injustice.


  5. Amanda Panda Persephone ~ Those red boots mean so much to me on so many levels. One of my fondest memories was the time Dad stopped in Wall, South Dakota on our way across country moving from Massachusetts to Minnesota (via San Diego where you and Mom were at Grandma's house). I fell in love with a pair of square-toed cowboy boots and he bought them for me! There is something powerful about wearing boots that I still feel...so grounding.

    Rob-bear ~ Aren't those Occupy Wall Street people great? I adore well executed civil disobedience. It started out small and gained momentum. The 99% of tax payers are fed up and won't take it any more! Media messaging is the way to go these days.

    Genie ~ Why doesn't it surprise me that you, of all people, would have a pair of red boots! Toshi's story has a good ending and yet this petite woman had such a powerful feminine presence that she inspired me to write about her story. Hearing "I apologize" meant a lot, i was told.