As a young teen growing up in Tacoma, Washington, Terry Ishihara had his life planned out. As the oldest in his family, he had been appointed to take over his father’s laundry business.
That all changed in the summer of 1942 when he, along with Japanese Americans up and down the West Coast, were incarcerated based on hysterical fears and prejudice as the United States entered World War II.
More than 70 years later, Ishihara can recount the details of his internment, including names of fellow prisoners and a prized comic book collection that had to be left behind. As he sits in a carefully pressed suit, hands folded quietly with dignity, he recounts the details without rancor. His eyes blaze while his smile disarms.
“You can’t be happy and bitter,” he says, smiling.
A life interrupted
The family was given a week to pack up their lives — allowed one suitcase. Ishihara left his junior high school, never able to finish. With soldiers guarding them, the prisoners boarded trains. Curtains were pulled so they couldn’t see out. They had no idea of their destination.
They came first to a temporary holding facility near Fresno, California. There, Ishihara and his family were housed in tar paper and wood temporary housing during a hot summer. As he disembarked from the train, he was handed a big bag and instructed to fill it with straw. The bag became his mattress, set on a wooden cot. Restrooms were temporary with no partitions, he says, with a chuckle that sounds both mild and incongruous.
After a couple of months in the temporary facility, the family was sent to Tule Lake relocation center, which was later renamed Tule Lake Segregation Center. Tule Lake was a camp for what were considered to be the worst offenders — those who had incorrectly answered two questions on a notoriously confusing and discriminatory U.S. government loyalty questionnaire.
Ishihara was too young to be asked to fill out the questionnaire. The adults around him were angry at the injustice, but he doesn’t remember being angry. Instead his life changed in ways big and small. Dinners had always been with family, but now he and his friends ate together in cafeteria-style facilities away from parents.
With the internment, his father’s business and way of life and Ishihara’s set future were gone.
“I was not angry or bitter. I only wondered what was going to become of me,” he said. “I was starting at square one.”
A remnant of those days of confusion 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 $25 on a lifetime subscription to Reader’s Digest, which he still has.
Change for the better
Ishihara didn’t finish junior high school, and the high school he attended was not accredited. Still, as a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American, he had been raised to study and to succeed. He was encouraged to attend college and applied to WSU because of the low tuition cost, a $25 scholarship, and because he could go there. It was one of the few schools in 1945 on the West Coast that Japanese American students could attend.
Once again, he took a life-changing train — this time to Pullman. He was nervous as he climbed the hill to campus, passing under the memorial arch. The school, he said, “changed my life completely — for the better.”
Ishihara thrived at WSU, studying mechanical engineering. He was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Crimson Circle, and 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 grade because of his non-existent foreign accent.
His native English, like his suit, is immaculate.
The prejudice he encountered spurred him to fight even harder to overcome it. It’s not the equations or the work in the classroom that made a difference for him, he says. Rather, he says, college helped him learn to relate to all people as well as to become a better and faster learner.
“The other benefit,” he says, smiling easily, “is making friends for life.”
Mostly, what he loved about campus life was that it was a place where respect was afforded to all, whatever their opinions. The atmosphere so suited him that he devoted his life to it, going on to receive a doctorate and becoming a professor himself.
Perhaps another remnant of a youth that was scarred by discrimination, Ishihara wouldn’t wear a tie in the classroom and had his students call him by his first name — years before that was acceptable.
“I believe that one of the most important characteristics of any group are relationships among its members,” he says.
Smiling broadly, he adds, “Equality prevails.”