Swing for the fences

Japanese-American family reprises WWII-era music that buoyed parents, grandparents held in internment camps

“One thing about music, it really can transport you,” Elaine Yuzuriha said.

Swing music transported her grandparents, if only in their imaginations, beyond the fences of World War II internment camps.

Now that music is transporting the Vancouver woman and her husband, Todd Yuzuriha, back to that era.

Their grandparents wanted to forget the barbed wire. Todd and Elaine Yuzuriha want to make sure people never forget.


Elaine, from left, Joy and Todd Yuzuriha are founding members of the Minidoka Swing Band. The band plays music from the World War II era, when more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in camps such as Minidoka, near Twin Falls, Idaho.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

So they play swing music, something that couldn’t be contained by a fence 75 years ago.

“It’s a way for us to be able to remember what happened,” he said. “We want to know what happened so we don’t repeat it.”

The Yuzurihas were founding members of the Minidoka Swing Band in 2007.


The Minidoka Swing Band takes off on a tune from the 1940s during a performance. The band will be playing a concert in Vancouver at the Cascade Park Community Library some time in December.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

Internment camp timeline

Dec. 7, 1941: Japanese forces attack the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, drawing the U.S. into World War II.

Feb. 19, 1942: President Franklin Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all West Coast residents considered security threats to inland relocation centers.

April 1942: Ten sites are chosen for relocation centers: two each in California, Arizona and Arkansas, and one each in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

February 1943: Loyalty questionnaires are distributed in the camps. All those considered disloyal and their families are sent to Tule Lake in California.

Dec. 17, 1944: Public Proclamation No. 21 declares that Japanese-American “evacuees” from the West Coast could return to their homes, effective Jan. 2, 1945.

Aug. 14, 1945: Japan’s unconditional surrender is announced.

March 20, 1946: The last internees are released as Tule Lake closes.

Aug. 10, 1988: President Reagan signs a bill awarding $20,000 in restitution to all living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II.

“The whole intent,” Todd Yuzuriha said, “is to remember the Japanese-Americans who were interned, and to emulate the bands that played in the internment camps, that big-band music of the early 1940s.”

Two of their three children, Ken and Joy, also were founding band members.

“I’m in a really unique situation,” said Joy Yuzuriha, who just finished her sophomore year at Stanford University. “All four grandparents and all eight great-grandparents were interned.”

Those relatives were forced out of homes in Washington, Oregon and California in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and sent to remote internment camps.

Middle of nowhere

“All these internment camps were in the middle of nowhere,” Todd Yuzuriha said. “The fear was that the Japanese-Americans were somehow in cooperation with the Japanese, which couldn’t be farther from the truth, so they stuck them in really desolate places.”

His father’s side of the family was sent from Portland to Minidoka, Idaho, the camp that lent its name to the band. His mother’s side of the family was moved from their farm in Wapato, near Yakima, to Heart Mountain, Wyo.

“Dad was 12; Mom was 11. When I was that age, I would have been pretty scared, being uprooted and taken away on a train, with the (window) covers down,” the trumpet player said. “In camp, they were surrounded by barbed wire, with towers with armed guards watching those people 24/7.”

Elaine Yuzuriha’s side of the family was living in California when the war broke out. Her mother and her parents were sent to Tule Lake, Calif. Her father’s family went to Gila River, Ariz. before being moved to Tule Lake.

Vancouver resident Nola Sugai Bogle, a vocalist in the band, was in the Minidoka Relocation Center as a child.

Bogle was only 4 when her family was interned, but she remembers hearing big-band music on the radio. She also remembers the dust in the barracks.

“It was always coming through the walls,” she said.

Camp memories

Todd Yuzuriha said his parents didn’t tell him anything about that era as he grew up.

“Absolutely nothing. It was such a traumatic time. They were U.S. citizens, born in the U.S. It was so painful for my parents to talk about. When I’d ask, they’d say, ‘I really don’t want to talk about it.’”

About a dozen years ago, their oldest daughter, Jill, did a presentation on the camps in high school.

“Both her grandmothers spoke to the class. My mom just broke down and cried. She really could not say anything,” said Todd Yuzuriha, an Evergreen school board member and a Fort Vancouver Regional Library District trustee.


Joy Yuzuriha holds a photo of her grandmother, Sakaye Tenma Nishikawa, center, wearing a kimono in 1935. The kimono was passed down to Joy, who is a founding member of the Minidoka Swing Band.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

Elaine Yuzuriha heard some mention of the topic as a child, but details were scarce.

“Growing up, I would often hear, ‘This family, we knew them in camp.’ When they would say camp, I would think summer camp. They never talked much about it until I was a freshman in high school,” said Elaine Yuzuriha, who plays baritone saxophone.

“My first assignment was to write an essay about my parents’ experiences in high school.”


Records of Japanese-Americans who were held at internment camps during World War II are among the family keepsakes at the Yuzuriha home in Vancouver.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

She wanted to interview her mother. She told the teenager to talk to her dad, Yutaka Nishikawa.

“He went to high school all four years in the camp. That was the first time I found out what they went through.”

Elaine Yuzuriha’s mother, Sakaye Nishikawa, had an interesting take on camp life.

“She said for her, it was actually fun. They had lived in the country, they were farmers, and suddenly there was a lot of other children around,” her mother told her. “They didn’t have people calling them names, calling them Japs, treating them like they were second-class citizens.

“The people who lost their property and freedom and dignity were the adults.”

This is footage is provided by the Nobori family from their internment in 1942 in Jerome, Ark., during World War II. Larry Nobori, the Minidoka band director and alto saxophone player, was a baby during this time. Larry said his father owned a camera, which he brought into the camp illegally, that he used to capture what it was like to be incarcerated. “Living conditions were terrible. No privacy, poor insulation, dessert dry heat, cold at night. Lots of snakes and reptiles,” Larry said. “This, and more, is evidence of how bad the conditions were in all internment camps (more correctly concentration camps). Yet it shows people smiling, laughing, and going on with their lives. I hope no other racial group has to endure these conditions, but sadly, it continues under much worse circumstances.”

Camp music

But once a week, there was the music. One of the best-known groups was the Jive Bombers, interned at Manzanar, Calif.

“Minidoka had a group, the Mikados, out of Seattle,” Elaine Yuzuriha said. “At Minidoka, they changed the name to the Harmonaires. They actually were sent out to play a prom at Twin Falls under armed guard.”

“They would have dances every Saturday night, maybe forget their surroundings for a while,” Todd Yuzuriha said. “A lot of the pieces we play were the most popular songs of the time.”

One popular title was, appropriately, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Another was “Sentimental Journey.”

“One song my dad has said brings back a lot of memories for him was ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ It was the song they played at the end of each dance. I really like ‘In the Mood.’ It’s upbeat; from a trumpet standpoint, it’s fun to play. “


Aaron and Lee Schiller, center, get into the swing of things on the dance floor as the Minidoka Swing Band plays music of the 1940s.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

Three weeks ago, the musicians were getting their first look at a new song — a tune that borrowed the name of their group. Written by Richard March of Portland, “Minidoka Swing Band” reflects the importance of music in that setting.

• • • 

“Try to be happy though they’re treating you bad

Music and dance can make you feel glad

They may have you penned up behind barbed wire

Still the Minidoka Swing Band can light your fire.”

• • • 

More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were in the camps; two-thirds were American citizens. Some, including Elaine Yuzuriha’s family members at Tule Lake, weren’t released until 1946.


Joy Yuzuriha holds a photo of residents in Block 37 at the Minidoka Relocation Center near Twin Falls, Idaho. Several of her family members are in the photograph.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

Even when they went home, “They faced a ton of prejudice,” Todd Yuzuriha said. “They wanted to assimilate. They wanted to fit in.”

“Even though I never met my great-grandparents, I have such a connection to them, knowing what they went through, all the stories my grandparents or my parents told me,” Joy Yuzuriha said.

“How grateful I am,” she said. “They came from nothing, and worked so hard to make a living in this country — and make a living for their future generations, like me, my siblings and all my cousins.”

Todd Yuzuriha’s family:
Minidoka, Heart Mountain

Todd Yuzuriha’s dad, Shig Yuzuriha, was 12 when he and his parents, Zoichi and Fumiye Yuzuriha, were interned. The Portland residents were among families from all over the Northwest who made their first stop at Portland’s Delta Park.

“They were put in the Portland Expo Center, basically staying in horse stalls for six months while the government was constructing internment camp barracks,” Todd Yuzuriha said. “Then they were sent to Minidoka, just outside Twin Falls, Idaho.”


Todd Yuzuriha gets into a trumpet part during a performance of the Minidoka Swing Band. Yuzuriha was vice president of engineering for Logitech before he retired.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

Todd’s mother, Yoko Okano, and her parents, Torakichi and Hisayo Okano, were moved off their farm in Wapato, south of Yakima.

“My grandmother had seven kids, including my mom. They had to pack up and sell everything they could. They sold things for 10 cents on the dollar,” Todd said. “They could only take what they could carry.”

The family wound up at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. With 10,000 residents at its peak, it was the third-largest town in the state.

His mother came down with the measles, so they took her to a nearby hospital. But they wouldn’t allow her parents out of the camp.

His mother was about 11 when they arrived, Todd said.

“At that age, you tend to want pets,” Todd said. “There was a canal near the camp. I think my mom went under the wire with other kids to catch some fish in a jar.”

Soldiers eventually drove out to round them up and then notified the kids’ parents. But the saddest thing? All the fish died.

Elaine Yuzuriha’s family:
Gila River, Tule Lake

Elaine Yuzuriha’s mother, Sakaye Tenma Nishikawa, was born in Lincoln, Calif., in 1932.

On Dec. 7, 1941, “my mother said she saw her mother come out of the bedroom with tears in her eyes. She had never seen her mother cry until that day. They had no idea what would happen to them as enemy aliens.”

The family was sent to the camp at Tule Lake, Calif. Elaine’s grandfather, Itsuo Tenma, was arrested, so Tamito Tenma wrangled their five children on her own.


Elaine Yuzuriha helps her daughter, Joy Yuzuriha, into a kimono worn in 1935 by Joy's grandmother, Sakaye Tenma Nishikawa. During World War II, Nishikawa and her family were held at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. The kimono was passed down to Joy, now a student at Stanford.

(Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

“My grandfather eventually joined them. His health was failing,” Elaine said, and rather than care for him, government officials “wanted the family to take care of him.”

“My mother turned 11 in camp.”

Elaine’s father, Yutaka Nishikawa, was born in Liberty Island, Calif. He and his parents were relocated to Gila River in Arizona.

After a year in Arizona, Kurakichi and Yone Nishikawa and their children were transferred to the camp at Tule Lake.

Her grandparents left two daughters behind in Japan when they came to the U.S. in 1922.

After a loyalty questionnaire was distributed in all the camps, her father said he would not register for the draft.


Elaine Yuzuriha plays the baritone saxophone during the Minidoka Swing Band's rehearsal at the Oregon Buddhist Temple in Portland on June 24. The group worked on a new song, "Minidoka Swing Band," written by Richard March. and arranged by Kokichi Tagawa. It includes the lyrics: "Saturday night 'neath the Idaho moon, the Matsunaga boys were a-wailin' a tune. On that windy desert when they started to play, you'd hear the Minidoka Swing Band for miles away."

(Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)

“They felt this country didn’t want them anymore,” Elaine said.

A few years later, when the Korean War broke out, her Japanese-speaking father served in the U.S. Army. He spent 16 months at the front as an interpreter.

“Because Korea had been under Japanese rule for so long, every Korean knew Japanese.”

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