JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.
This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.
JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?
Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.
JANM: What’s your family’s background?
JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.
JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?
JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].
JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?
JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.
JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].
JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.
JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!
JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?
JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.
JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.
JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)
JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?
JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.
JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?
JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).
JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?
JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.
JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?
JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!
JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?
JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.
JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?
JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.
JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?
JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.
JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?
JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.
JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?
JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.