While he was born in California, Marvin spent his early childhood in Japan. Marvin recalled that 1925 was a difficult time for his family; his mother had had four children beginning in 1917, and his father was a farm laborer struggling to keep his family financially afloat. Therefore, Marvin’s mother sent Marvin and his older brother back to Kumamoto, Japan in 1926, where they were left under the care of his paternal grandparents. Discrimination in America prohibited Japanese immigrants from buying land, and because “the future didn’t look so good,” Marvin’s mother believed her children would benefit from living in Japan for a while, where they could study and learn Japanese.
But Marvin’s paternal grandfather died in 1930, leaving his grandmother to care for Marvin and his brother by herself. When this proved too big a burden for his grandmother, Marvin and his brother moved back to the United States in 1931, when Marvin was just six.
Immigration and Angel Island
Marvin’s journey to Angel Island involved several train and boat voyages. Marvin and his brother boarded a ship in Yokohama called the Taiyomaru, a German ship the Japanese government acquired after World War I. His family had sent a couple of “very kindly ladies” to watch over Marvin and his brother on the boat voyage. Marvin remembers two things about the ship: the food and the entertainment. As for the food, he especially liked a “cha-shui-bao-like thing,” which he remembers was “big and really good,” and he reminisced about “samurai plays” enacted by the ship’s crew for the passengers’ entertainment. Six-year-old Marvin was perplexed by these shows, wondering, “How did they get the samurais aboard in the middle of the ocean?” With good food and amusing entertainment, Marvin described the journey as “a great time,” especially because, unlike his brother, he did not get seasick.
Marvin arrived at Angel Island in 1931 after a roughly fourteen-day sea voyage. There, he and his brother spent — Marvin estimated — just two to three days.
Although he was only six at the time, Marvin recalled the wooden barracks where he stayed along with other immigrants, most of whom were Chinese. He also remembers his physical exam, where he was stripped down and examined thoroughly. Six-year-old Marvin found the examination uncomfortable: “They wanted me to strip down. I was stark naked, and it was an embarrassment for me. Embarrassment was the key word.”
Angel Island brought new surprises for young Marvin. He recalled seeing Caucasian women — most likely Russian immigrants — living in a nearby barracks. Having grown up in Kumamoto, Marvin was not used to seeing Caucasians. Marvin was also surprised to see a woman smoking a cigarette, for smoking was, in Marvin’s experience, a male hobby.
Even though Marvin was a U.S. citizen by birth, he did not receive preferential treatment at Angel Island. However, Marvin recalled that he was treated better than many of the Chinese immigrants who passed through the immigration station.
When Marvin’s father went to pick up his children at Angel Island, Marvin had no recollection of what his father looked like, since he was only an infant when he had last seen him. Nor did he have any memory of his mother’s appearance. His knowledge of his parents was limited to stories his Japanese relatives told him: “over the hill and over the ocean is where your mother and father are.”
Marvin’s father brought his sons back to Loomis, California, where Marvin was reacquainted with his mother.
Placer Union High School and Pearl Harbor
Marvin took a yellow school bus each day from his family’s farm to Loomis Union Grammar School. Marvin later attended Placer Union High School for two years, where he recalled being treated fairly well by his classmates: “Nobody gave me a bad time.” He was especially proud that, with his impressive throwing arm, he was classmate Harry Sans’ first pick for the gym class football team.
Even if Marvin did not face much discrimination at Placer Union High School, anti-Japanese sentiment was perhaps more pronounced in Auburn, California, where the high school was located. Some stores in Auburn advertised “No Jap” signs that were, to Marvin, “kind of discouraging.” But Marvin maintained an optimistic attitude, reasoning, “They want our business, they don’t have to have my business! I would go elsewhere. So they’re loosing out.”
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Marvin was outside playing when he was called into the house to listen to the radio, which was abuzz with news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, the Placer Union High School principal summoned students to the auditorium to listen to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. Marvin recalled that he “was one of the fortunate ones, even after Pearl Harbor,” for none of his classmates teased him or accused him of starting the war. On the contrary, his classmates “were very, very, I think, understanding.”
Marvin’s older brother, fluent in Japanese, was recruited by the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School (now the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center). Established in November 1941, just one month before Pearl Harbor, the school was a secret institution in the San Francisco Presidio founded to teach Japanese. Marvin thought that, because his brother had been screened by the military and FBI and approved to enroll in this secret language school, his family would be exempt from the government internment order. But Marvin was mistaken: “The order was a blanket order that all Japanese, with even 1/16th blood, were to be incarcerated.”
Marvin described his reaction to Pearl Harbor as one of confusion tinged, perhaps, with some anger. Marvin said that, like everybody else, his reaction was, “Why the hell did [the Japanese] do it?” Marvin also spoke to the confusion some Japanese-Americans felt as to which country, Japan or America, they should sympathize with: “As far as the start of the war is concerned, I always relate [it] to a family fight; that is, husband and wife fighting, and the child — which side do you go with, with your mother or your father? When Japan and America went to war, which side do you take? We’re like the child in a divorce case — which way do we go?” While the decision was a difficult one, Marvin and his family ultimately decided that America was their country: “This is where we’re born and this is our country, so we’re going to go along with what the government wants.”
The Assembly Center in Marysville, CA
In May 1942, Marvin and his family were ordered to abandon their home and relocate to an internment camp. Many of Marvin’s classmates were sympathetic, wondering where Marvin was being sent and asking for his address so they could write him. The state of his family’s farm was also called into question. By that time, Marvin’s family owned their forty-acre farm; Marvin’s older brother had been able to buy the farm when he turned twenty-one, since he was a U.S. citizen. But what would happen to the farm in his family’s absence? Luckily, Marvin’s brother had taken an agriculture course, and his professors agreed to oversee upkeep of the farm while Marvin’s family was away. Marvin recalls how lucky his family was to have these men watch over their property, for many of the Uratsu neighbors later returned home to burned-down barns and sheds. The Uratsu ranch, however, was well cared for, and the agricultural teachers hired high school students to harvest crops on the Uratsu ranch during the summer.
Looking back, Marvin understood the anguish his parents must have felt upon leaving their ranch in May 1941: “They had come over to this country in the early 1900s and tried to find a place in America to participate in what everyone calls ‘the American dream.’” By 1938, his family was prospering, having finally bought their ranch and paid off their debts. Furthermore, fruit prices were good, and his family intended to use their extra income to buy a new car or fix up their house. However, the “evacuation order [came] through and it kind of [shattered] that dream.” Marvin’s family lost out on three or four harvests, which was frustrating because in those years, vegetable and fruit crops were especially lucrative, as produce was in short supply during the war. But Marvin recognized that his family had to move beyond these resentments: “You kind of feel a little bit of bitterness. Somebody told me along the way that, “Hey, you can’t let bitterness hold you back.” We try to overcome that bitter feeling and move on. We’ve got to move on.”
Marvin and his family began the internment process around February 1942. Under Executive Order 9066, each family was assigned a number and instructed to bring with them only what they could carry. With “no resource to fight it” and lacking “attorneys who would go to bat for us,” Marvin said, “the easiest thing to do was to follow government orders, and that’s what we did.” While Marvin’s family, “just went along,” several people resisted the evacuation order, bringing their cases as far as the Supreme Court.
Marvin and family were given only a few weeks to prepare before being sent first to the Marysville Assembly Center, known as Arboga or Walerga, in Marysville, California. This station acted as a temporary holding center where Japanese-Americans were kept in barracks that afforded little privacy.
Upon arrival at the Assembly Center, Marvin, instead of feeling bitter, angry, or disappointed, instead adopted a “let’s make the best of it” attitude. But in retrospect, Marvin realized the unfairness and unconstitutionality of the Japanese internment, which “makes you mad, makes me mad.” But at the time, the new experience brought new friends, new jobs, and good times: “When we got the offer to work in the kitchen…we worked together and had a good time.”
Indeed, friendships were the strongest relationships Marvin had at the Assembly Center, stronger, even, than familial bonds. Marvin confided in his friends and ate with them, rather than with his family, in the mess hall: “There was no family communication, which would take place normally…[at] the dinner table.” In fact, Marvin recalled that “the family as a unit [was], kind of, destroyed.” This dissolution of the family unit happened gradually as children “established friendships with kids [their] age, and, rather than eat with the family, [they would] eat with…friends.”
Tule Lake Internment Camp
Marvin and his family were later relocated to Tule Lake, a more permanent internment camp. On the train from the Assembly Center in Marysville to Tule Lake, passengers were asked to close the blinds so they could not look outside: “The shades were down, we were cooped up in the train and we were taken to a destination unknown.” Upon arrival, the head of each family was sent to collect his family’s living assignment. Each living unit had a coal-burning potbelly stove to provide warmth in the winter. Units lacked bathrooms, however, which were located in a separate building. Marvin noted that this set-up must have been especially tough for mothers with infant babies.
Tule Lake was different than the Assembly Center in several ways. Because it was a permanent camp, there were more people: up to 20,000, Marvin estimated. With so many people, community leaders organized social outlets like churches, baseball leagues, talent shows, and musical bands. Later, they even began a school.
To keep busy — and to quell his mother’s fears that idleness would lead him to get into trouble — Marvin and a friend joined a carpentry crew in charge of lining housing units with sheet rock for better insulation during the winter. Later, Marvin found work harvesting potatoes on the camp’s farm. In the fall of 1942, Marvin, a high school junior, attended school in Tule Lake in classrooms that had been organized in the barracks. Some teachers had been hired to come to Tule Lake to teach, while other teachers were internees.
In early 1943, the U.S. government began to allow Japanese-Americans — including those incarcerated in camps — to serve in racially segregated U.S. army units. That same year, the government released a “loyalty questionnaire” to be completed by all internees of Japanese ancestry seventeen years of age or older. Two questions, numbers 27 and 28, were especially confusing and controversial.
Question 27 read: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”
Question 28 read: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”
Many found these questions insulting. Being asked to join the U.S. army after they had been incarcerated in camps as “enemy aliens” seemed hypocritical. In the camps, tension arose between those that responded “no-no” (“no” to both questions 27 and 28) and those that responded “yes-yes.” According to Marvin, the “no-no’s” would harass the “yes-yes’” to the point where the latter group had to arm themselves in self-defense.
Marvin and his family responded “yes” to the questionnaire and were relocated to the Granada Relocation Center, also known as “Amache,” in Colorado. Tule Lake became a maximum security camp for those that had answered “no” to the questionnaire.
High School in Des Moines, Iowa
While at Amache, Marvin realized that pursuing a high school diploma at a school outside the camp would increase his chances of attending college. The camp director said he could go to Des Moines to pursue his diploma, and not soon after, Marvin boarded a train for Iowa. There, Marvin lived with the Allen family, where he helped with household chores in exchange for room and board.
Marvin remembers the Allen family fondly. Mr. Allen, a judge, and his wife Mrs. Allen had a son and son-in-law who served as a navy lieutenant and B-24 airplane pilot, respectively, during the war. Despite their involvement in the American war effort, the family was sympathetic toward Marvin and respected his Japanese heritage. And while neighbors were at first apprehensive that a Japanese boy was living in the neighborhood, many came to respect Marvin for his hard work, and many hired him to work in their own homes.
Marvin attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. Even though he was the only Asian-American, he was treated well — welcomed, even — by his classmates. He was recruited to play basketball and participated in Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings at the local Methodist Church.
While Marvin was away in Des Moines, he did not have many chances to talk to his mother or father. But he later realized that it was a difficult time for his parents. Interned in a camp far from home, Marvin’s parents worried about their ranch. Marvin’s mother also worried about her sons who served in the military. Eventually, both Marvin and two of his brothers served in the army, meaning three boys in the Uratsu family were in service. This distressed Marvin’s mother, who found it unfair that the government had taken away her sons while locking up the family in an internment camp.
Service in the War
As the war with Japan intensified, the demand for Japanese linguists increased. Marvin, of draft age and almost a high school graduate, sent a recruitment inquiry to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling. At the time, the U.S. government had just reopened the draft for Japanese-Americans. If drafted, the government could send Marvin wherever they wished. But Marvin said he wanted to choose his own path, so he reached out to the Military Intelligence Service Language School.
Marvin was accepted to the School and began work immediately. After nine months of training, Marvin was sent to Manila. Once fighting ceased in August 1945, Marvin was transferred to Tokyo with the Chief Engineer’s Office of the “Utilities Section,” where he oversaw reconstruction of bombed buildings to be inhabited by occupation forces.
Returning to Japan brought Marvin face to face with the destruction of war. On the ride from the port of Yokohama to Tokyo, Marvin witnessed the devastation of the bombings, which he described as “a pitiful site. It just told us how devastating war is.”
By May 1946, Marvin had fulfilled his duties abroad and returned home to Loomis, where he helped his brother on the family farm. Not soon after, he enrolled at U.C. Berkeley under the G.I. Bill.
U.C. Berkeley, Marriage, and Family Life
At Berkeley, Marvin studied business and administration with a focus on foreign trade. He minored in accounting and investments, a career field he pursued later in his life. He graduated from Berkeley in 1949.
After college, Marvin worked for American President Lines, a transportation and shipping company. He later worked in investment, managing mutual funds for the Japanese-American community.
Marvin met his wife, Miyo, while she was studying business at Armstrong College in Berkeley, California (closed in June 1986). The school had a social organization that periodically sponsored dances and other events, and it was at one of these social gatherings that Marvin met Miyo.
Marvin and Miyo married and have four children, two sons and two daughters. Marvin’s daughter graduated from UC Berkeley thirty years after he did, and he also has grandchildren who attended UC Berkeley.
While many are, sadly, no longer around, Marvin has also kept in touch with friends he made at the Assembly Center and Tule Lake.
Sharing His Story and Building 640
When they were young, Marvin’s children showed little interest in learning about their father’s childhood and wartime experiences, but they became gradually more interested as they grew older. Marvin felt that he did not want to discuss his past unless his children showed some interest, but as long as they were interested, he was more than willing to share everything he knew.
In recent years, his children have been interested in Marvin’s involvement in renovating Building 640 in the San Francisco Presidio. The building was the original site of the Military Intelligence Service Language School, where, beginning in November 1941, the U.S. army trained Japanese-Americans to become military linguists for the war. Since the 1990s and early 2000s, the National Japanese American Historical Society has spearheaded efforts to transform the building into an interactive museum to commemorate the legacy of the MIS and the Japanese-American story more generally. Marvin has helped with these renovation efforts. He said about the project:
“There was a tremendous amount of heroics that [the Japanese-American linguists] produced. We thought we would like to preserve these stories and tell the Japanese-American story in general. I always like to think that we are part of the fabric and nature of America. Ethnically, we are Japanese-Americans, and we are a thread in the American fabric that is made up of other ethnic American groups. I like to say that this is an American story that we want to tell the American public… It’s a small story, and yet it’s a very large story because of the civil rights question involved.”
Marvin is very happy to have played a part in the Building 640 project: “Many lessons can be drawn from this project. I am very happy to have had a part in it, a small part in it. I know other people will carry it on.”
In retrospect, Marvin said that it is hard to understand why he, his family, and other interned Japanese-Americans put up with the “nonsense” they were put through. He reflected, “You only realize the power of the U.S. government when you go through something like that; you’re helpless. Although you’re a citizen, you’re helpless. That’s something that, you know, I feel pretty bad about; that is, the government can have so much power that individuals don’t count.” Marvin likened the U.S. government’s acts toward Japanese-Americans to the Hitler regime and the events of the Holocaust. Marvin pointed out that when a government obtains too much power and a leader — like Hitler — becomes despotic, he will “stay the course” even if the “whole country is saying ‘no.’” Marvin referred to an old saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” To Marvin, such a situation was happening to Japanese-Americans during the war “through this camp experience… Those were the times when humans [were] actually inhumane to other humans.”
Marvin’s experience in an internment camp gave him a new perspective on American patriotism and the Pledge of Allegiance:
“When I was going to grammar school every morning…we would just put our hands to [our] chests… The final phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is "justice and freedom for all." Some words to that effect. Well, that's all out the window. When you're in camp, you're helpless; that kind of pledge you used to make in grammar school is just out the window.”
Marvin believes that the challenge of today’s young generations is to make sure that an injustice like that faced by Japanese-Americans during World War II is not repeated: “That's the challenge for you young people; we ought to make this a little bit [fairer], with justice and freedom for ALL people.”
But despite the injustice with which Japanese-Americans were treated, Marvin does not feel particularly bitter about the past: “When you look back on history, people have been mistreated by governments… We recognize the injustices and I think the big thing is, once we see the injustice, what do we do about it?”
Marvin recognizes the importance of letting go of resentment: “As you grow older, you mature in your thinking. You realize that bitterness can kill you and drive you nuts.” He has also been guided by his religious beliefs: “I believe in God, and I know He does things for the welfare of all of us. I have found comfort in religion, and I draw on religion to console myself.”
Most importantly, Marvin reflects back on advice Mrs. Allen, the woman with whom he stayed in Des Moines, gave him: “You shouldn’t let bitterness eat into you because it can kill you. Rather, you’ve got to look forward positively and move on.”
“Amache Preservation Society.” Amache.org. Amache.org, 2012. Web. 31 May 2013. <http://www.amache.org/>.
Conversations Between Generations: Stories from the Angel Island Oral History Project. Eds. DiFranco, Aaron K. and Svetich, Kella de Castro. 2006.
“Marvin Uratsu.” Telling Their Stories: www.tellingstories.org. Ed. Ashlyn P, Julianna B, Sophia S, Jeff M, and Howard Levin. Urban School of San Francisco, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.tellingstories.org/internment/muratsu/index.html>.
“Reading: The Question of Loyalty.” Reading: The Question of Loyalty. Densho and the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, n.d. Web. 22 May 2013. <http://www.densho.org/learning/spice/lesson5/5reading5.asp>.
“The Vision for Building 640.” Building 640 Communique. National Japanese American Historical Society, 2013. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://njahs.org/640/the-vision/>.
Uratsu, Marvin. "Immigrant Voices: Marvin Uratsu." Telephone interview with Olivia Pollak. 12 June 2013.