Ben Kodama — a retired businessman in Sumner— is respected in the community and living the American dream.
But the Japanese-American has never forgot his experience of being in internment camps along with his family as a result of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. And he doesn’t want current generations to forget it either. That is why Kodama will share his experience this Friday at the Sumner Pierce County Library with his presentation, “Heirs of the American Experiment.”
The presentation title was inspired by a quote from then-Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy after voting the minority position in Korematsu v. United States in favor of Korematsu and calling all immigrants, “heirs of the American experiment.”
The Kodamas were an all-American family and introduced themselves to others by saying, “We’re the Kodamas from Sunnydale.”
Following the attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, America went to war. At the time, Kodama was seven and attending second grade at Sunnydale Elementary near Burien. Two months following the attack, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that ordered all Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast be sent to internment camps by rail. Many families like Kodama’s were uprooted from their home and business.
Ben’s father came from Japan with his brother in 1912 finding work in the saw mills in Port Townsend. A widower, he would marry twice and father Ben and his half sister. In 1929, after working in horticulture, Ben’s father purchased several greenhouses in Burien. When Executive Order 9066 passed, the Kodamas leased their green houses to another family, in hopes they might reclaim the business after the war.
They were shuffled from camp to camp in California, often in cramped and dusty desert facilities. Eventually they made their way to a Minadoka, Idaho where they were held in a facility there. They were kept in communal barracks for housing with seven to a room and shared a communal mess hall for dining.
“There was no privacy whatsoever,” Kodama said.
The chaotic nature of the camp made it hard to maintain structure for children, causing strain for many families. The Kodamas made an extra effort to keep strong during the internment.
“My father insisted that we eat together as a family to maintain that structure,” Kodama said.
Minadoka was more relaxed than some other facilities, allowing its occupants to leave. However, outside the walls they often faced discrimination. Signs in town on many establishments read “no japs” and they were frequently denied service. However, with many of the young men off fighting in the war, short-handed farmers in the area wanted to hire the Japanese-Americans to fill gaps in the work force. The Japanese said they’d be open to it, but only if the signs were taken down and they could expect decent treatment in town. The farmers pleaded with the town residents to soften their stance on the Japanese-Americans. It ultimately paid off, and attitudes alleviated as the Japanese-American farmhands proved more and more beneficial.
After the war, the Kodamas returned to Sunnydale and reclaimed their business but discrimination lingered. They were unable to shop in Burien and had to drive to Seattle’s Chinatown to get groceries for almost a year.
Ben Kodama went on to study horticulture at Ohio State and took over the family business after his father’s death. He moved the business to Sumner in 1969 when highway expansions in Burien displaced the greenhouses he had. He never talked with many people about his time in the camps until 1990 while serving as a school board member for the Highline School District. While attending a meeting about cultural competency he was asked to share his experience as an internee.
“I sat there — stunned — and realized I’d never talked about it before,” Kodama said.
He began going to speaking engagements, sharing his experiences with community groups and in classrooms.
“The constitution was supposed to protect us, but it wasn’t the constitution that failed us,” Kodama explained. “It was the people who were supposed to uphold it.”
He feels it’s important for himself and other remaining internees to share their stories so that the injustices of the past are not forgotten.
“There are so few of us left,” he said.
If You Go
Ben Kodama of the Sumner Rotary Club will speak about his experiences as a young boy in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. “Heirs of the American Experiment” will start at 6 p.m. Friday at the Sumner branch of the Pierce County Library System, 1116 Fryar Ave. in Sumner. The free event is sponsored by the Friends of the Sumner Library.
Kevin Knodell is a freelance reporter for the Herald.