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Long Time Gone and the Declaration of Inspiration

By Priscilla Waggoner

May 24, 2024

In 1943, a commencement speech was delivered by class valedictorian Marion Konishi, an 18-year-old girl who attended Amache Senior High School at the Granada Relocation Center where she and her family were among the 7,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II.

The question she posed in her speech resonates as strongly today as it did 77 years ago. After being read aloud by Colorado Senator Gardner on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2016, the speech was entered into the National Archives.

When sixteen-year-old Marion Konishi woke up in her family’s home in Los Angeles on that Sunday morning in early December of 1941 and began to get ready to go to church, she had every reason to look forward to the day.

At the time, Marion was living a life like any other middle class American teenage girl. Her family was considered “well off”. She went to the movies and for sodas afterwards with her friends, all of whom lived in her neighborhood within walking distance of her house. She helped her mother with daily tasks and had fun going to baseball games with her parents who were avid fans of the sport. She loved going to school, was an exceptional student and, having decided that she wanted to be a doctor someday, embraced her parents’ expectation that she go to college.

At the same time, there was something unique about Marion. The quiet girl with a soft voice and a gentle smile was always thinking about things. Some thoughts she kept to herself, recording them only in her diary. Other thoughts, ones she occasionally shared, reflected a depth of understanding beyond her years. That pensiveness is even evident in various class photos; she’s the girl with her hands gently folded, looking at something beyond the camera, seeing something the others don’t see.

There was also one significant difference in Marion’s life that would, for a time, drastically separate her—and others like her—from just about everyone else in the nation.

Tanigaro Konishi, Marion’s father, and Clara, her mother, were Issei, a term for first generation Japanese who immigrate to the United States. Both parents had come to America when they were very young; Clara had been just a baby. However, despite this being the country where they had lived almost all of their lives, Tanigaro and Clara were prohibited by law from ever becoming citizens of the United States.

That wasn’t the only restriction. Japanese immigrants made up less than 2% of the nation’s population, yet for decades they had been the specific target of discrimination and racial prejudice, and laws were passed to discourage Japanese presence and permanent residence in many western states, including California. One such law was the “Alien Land Law” that forbid those “who were ineligible for citizenship” from owning—and, in later years, leasing—property.

There were legal loopholes that could be used to circumvent the law, and, after completing high school and attending the University of California, Tanigaro Konishi was able to achieve success as the co-owner of a thriving produce company, despite having to list himself as a renter in the house he owned and put someone else’s name on the deed for his business property.

While Tanigaro certainly embraced his economic success, he also embraced something much more fundamental to life in America.

Perhaps it was the importance of belonging and being part of something larger than oneself, a value that sociologists and cultural anthropologists have described as core values in Japanese culture. Perhaps it was something unique to Tanigaro who descended from a long line of Samurai families that honored loyalty and duty above all else. Or perhaps, as Marion mused decades later, he attempted to “Americanize” his children as a way of protection.

Whatever the reason, Tanigaro determined that the law may forever view him as Japanese living in America, but he would raise his children to be Japanese Americans. As a result, Marion was brought up to stand on one foot in each of two worlds.

She lived in a “close” neighborhood that was largely Japanese with strong connections between families and friends, but she attended a “mostly white” school where she excelled as a student. She never considered dating anyone who wasn’t Japanese and grew up understanding the Japanese spoken by her parents and grandparents but was not sent to language school, as her friends were, and primarily English was spoken in the house. Her father, who “never said a bad word about America, never once, no matter what happened”, also raised her to believe that being an American meant to believe in all things America represented: liberty, justice, and equality for all.

And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on that Sunday in early December of 1941. “It really was a shock to us,” Marion recalled in a 2011 interview with the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University in Houston. “We…we really didn’t know how to go about behaving. We didn’t know if we should go to church...but our parents said we had to go. And everyone was really nice. All our friends, our teachers, everybody was really nice. They were. And they…they continued to be nice…until all the newspaper propaganda came out. Then, we began to feel like, well, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea to be Japanese, at all.”

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, directing the removal of any resident “enemy aliens” from their homes on the west coast, causing the forcible relocation of more than 110,000 Japanese— two thirds of them native born citizens—to internment camps for the duration of the war. Most were given three days or less to prepare and were only allowed to take with them what they could carry. As a result, tens of thousands of people lost everything they owned—land, farms, homes, businesses, personal property. Everything.

“When the evacuation order came out,” Marion recalled, “we kept telling ourselves that we are American citizens—like I said, we have never, never said anything against the United States government. My parents waited for a while, but they realized with the news reports that it was going to happen. Most families we knew were worried and had started burning anything, getting rid of anything that was Japanese. The dolls, the magazines, the books, any letters, anything they might have.”

In May, that day came, and the Konishi family lost everything they had worked for. “I remember getting ready for that train ride,” Marion said. “My parents made us get all dressed up. We had to wear our best and my mother wore her best. She even wore a hat. I remember that. The thing I can remember the most is that our family tried to stay together on the train. That wasn’t easy to do.”

The Konishis were first sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack where they, along with many other families, were forced to live in horse stalls while the internment camps were being built.

The conditions were terrible; the stalls had not been cleaned, and the family had to scrounge for hay to make “mattresses” for sleeping. There wasn’t enough ventilation, not enough food, not enough water. There was a belief among some “evacuees” that the living conditions reflected what many in the country believed: Japanese people were less than human and should be treated as such.

In August, after three months in Santa Anita, the Konishis were transported to the Granada Relocation Center on the plains of southeast Colorado. Located on 10,500 acres, the vast majority of which were used for agriculture with less than a mile devoted to housing thousands of imprisoned families, the internment camp was surrounded by barbed wire with guard posts, armed sentries and floodlights that swept the camp every night, all night long.

Entire books have been written about life at “Camp Amache”, as it was euphemistically called. But what is most extraordinary about the people who were forcibly imprisoned is their reaction to their imprisonment.

These “enemy aliens” who had been portrayed as opposing America immediately set up a form of self-government that mirrored the best of what America was supposed to be. Their charter, which began “We, the people of Granada Relocation Center,” echoed the preamble to the Constitution. A functional government was elected democratically. There was a police force of 60 volunteers, a fire department with 24-30 volunteers, a post office that handled 2500 letters every day, a local newspaper with 3,000 subscribers, a hospital, dentist office, library with 4,500 books and a school with 1900 students.

The families transformed the barracks where they were forced to live—20’ x 24’ spaces for entire families—into comfort able homes, despite only being provided a coal stove, army cots, thin blankets, a single light bulb and no indoor plumbing or running water. They transformed the landscape around them as well by building a pagoda, ponds for growing fish, gardens, a cemetery for those who died on the train. “That wasn’t easy to do.”

And, incredible as it may seem, 442 internees from the Granada Relocation Center volunteered to serve in the military, fought in combat and were recognized for outstanding bravery defending the very country that was holding their parents, grandparents, younger brothers and sisters as prisoners in internment camps simply for being Japanese.

Against this backdrop, Marion Konishi stood on the stage on July 14, 1943, and gave the following commencement speech during the graduation ceremony from Amache Senior High School. In so doing, the thoughtful 18-year-old girl whose life had been forever changed and whose beliefs had been challenged at the most basic level, asked a profound question and offered a profound answer that is more than worthy of consideration today. And, in so doing, Marion also determined her own place in history.

America, Our Hope Is in You

One and a half years ago, I knew only one America—an America that gave me an equal chance in the struggle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If I were asked then, “What does America mean to you?” I would answer without any hesitation and with all sincerity—“America means freedom, equality, security and justice.”

The other night while I was preparing for this speech, I asked myself this same question—“What does America mean to you?” I hesitated—I was not sure of my answer. I wondered if America still means and will mean freedom, equality, security and justice when some of its citizens were segregated, discriminated against, and treated so unfairly. I knew I was not the only American seeking an answer.

Then I remembered that old saying—All the answers to the future will be found in the past for all men. So unmindful of the searchlights reflecting in my windows, I sat down and tried to recall all the things that were taught to me in my history, sociology and American life classes. This is what I remembered:

America was born in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, and for 167 years, it has been held as the hope, the only hope, for the common man. America has guaranteed to each and all, native and foreign, the right to build a home, to earn a livelihood, to worship, think, speak and act as he pleased—as a free man equal to every other man.

Every revolution within the last 167 years which had for its aim more freedom was based on her constitution. No cry from an oppressed people has ever gone unanswered by her. America, froze, shoeless, in the snow at Valley Forge, and battled for her life at Gettysburg. She gave the world its greatest symbols of democracy: George Washington who freed her from tyranny; Thomas Jefferson, who defined her democratic course; and Abraham Lincoln, who saved her and renewed her faith.

Sometimes, America failed and suffered. Sometimes, she made mistakes, great mistakes, but she always admitted them and tried to rectify all the injustice that flowed from them. I noticed that the major trend in American history has been towards equality and fair play for all. America hounded and harassed the Indians, then remembering that these were the first Americans, she gave them back their citizenship. She enslaved the Negroes, then again remembering Americanism, she wrote out the Emancipation Proclamation. She persecuted the German-Americans during the First World War, then recalling that America was born of those who came from every nation seeking liberty and justice, she repented. Her history is full of errors but with each mistake she has learned and has marched forward toward a goal of security and peace and a society of free men where the understanding that all men are created equal, an understanding that all men whatever their race, color or religion be given an equal opportunity to serve themselves and each other according to their needs and abilities.

I was once again at my desk. True, I was just as much embittered as any other evacuee. But I had found in the past the answer to my question. I had also found my faith in America—faith in the America that is still alive in the hearts, minds and consciences of true Americans today—faith in the American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play that will judge citizenship and patriotism on the basis of actions and achievements and not on the basis of physical characteristics.

Can we, the graduating class of Amache Senior High School, still believe that America means freedom, equality, security, and justice? Do I believe this? Do my classmates believe this? Yes, with all our hearts, because in that faith, in that hope, is my future, our future and the world’s future.

Toward the end of that summer in 1943, Marion received a full scholarship to Simpson College in Iowa, due to the efforts of the United Methodist Church to get as many students out of the internment camps and into college as possible. She was later accepted to medical school but decided to go into teaching, instead.

Meanwhile, in December of 1944, the relocation orders were lifted effective January 2, 1945, and all camps were closed by December of that same year. In 1952, the Alien Land Laws were overturned by the Supreme Court of California. Sadly, the vast majority of Japanese Americans never recovered what was lost in being forced to relocate.

As far as Marion’s life, she married a man named Ken Takehara who fought in World War II. She had a successful teaching career that spanned 30 years, and she now tours the country with her daughter, Anne, speaking about the impact of the war on her family and encouraging acceptance of others.

In 2016, Marion returned to Amache for the first time when she delivered her commencement speech to the large crowd of former internees who make a pilgrimage to the camp every year. When asked by observers why she’s not resentful of the past, Marion attributes that to her parents. “They taught me it was something we had to do,” she said, “and so it should be done with dignity. I’m just grateful that I can still do something to contribute.”

This article was originally published in Life Goes On: Graduation 2020 magazine published by the Kiowa County Independent.

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