EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066: Actor Pat Morita Spent Time In 2 WWII Incarceration Camps, Part III
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Sacramento, Calif. — When Japanese American Pat Morita lived in northern California, through the worst of times, he was destined to become a major star on television sets, and hopefully, a gainfully-employed actor on the silver screen.
Due to certain circumstances, Morita had to keep himself entertained as a child, which led to his drive to become an entertainer. By far, this was not an easy rise to fame for “Nori,” either. But make no mistake about it, his life is an American story — one we could all learn from.
While working in his parents’ restaurant, Ariake Chop Suey Palace in Sacramento, Calif., young Morita would provide comedic amusement for the customers, showing signs of a budding stand-up comic with skillful showmanship.
Morita went on to appear in successful 1970s television shows such as Sanford and Son with Redd Foxx and Happy Days alongside Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. For a moment, Morita starred in the situation-comedy, "Mr. T and Tina," the first Asian American series to appear on television.
In the mid-1980s, Morita’s career hit another plateau when he landed the role of martial arts instructor, Sensei Kesuke Miyagi in The Karate Kid film with Ralph Macchio. Morita would appear in subsequent films for what became a lucrative franchise.
However, it must be noted, and Morita did discuss the issues before he left this life on Nov. 24, 2005, at the age of 73. The talented actor was one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry placed in one of 10 incarceration camps after Japan's attack of Pearl Harbor in late 1941.
At the age of 11, Morita and his parents were put under “enemy aliens” status.
Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (June 28, 1932 - Nov. 24, 2005) was an American actor. He and his family were placed in incarceration camps in Arizona and California after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Morita would later be known for the role of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid and the voice of the Emperor in Disney's Mulan films.
Noriyuki Morita was born on June 28, 1932, in Isleton, Calif., a small farming community along the Sacramento River, which is 20 miles south of the city Sacramento. Morita’s parents, father Tamaru and mother Momoe, immigrated from Japan to America sometime after the year 1900.
The elder Moritas are Issei, immigrants or first generation, while Noriyuki Morita and his older brother Hideo Morita, are regarded as Nisei, second-generation individuals born in the United States. Noriyuki would later be called “Pat” and Hideo took the name “Harry.”
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration contains personal descriptive data about Japanese Americans evacuated in California. Hideo Morita's records, File No. 308543, states that he was born in California in 1920. He was 20 years old when his family were incarcerated.
Ironically, Isleton also is the town where Black serial killer Morris Solomon Jr. lived his younger days from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. Solomon, the Homicidal Handyman, is now on death row in San Quentin State Prison for the murder of four Sacramento women in the mid-1980s.
The Moritas were migrant fruit workers, a low-skilled profession Pat Morita did not experience until about 15 years later in his life. Morita spent nine years in hospitals, including the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco, after he developed spinal tuberculosis at the age of two.
Tuberculosis, a medical condition also known as Pott's disease, can affect several tissues outside of the lungs including the spine. Morita could not walk and was placed in a body cast.
His surrogate family became the children, doctors, and nurses in “charitable” infirmaries, Morita’s daughter Aly Morita wrote in April 2010. In 1941, at the age of nine, Morita’s battle for his life improved. He learned how to walk at the age of nine.
Two years later, young Morita got a visit from a Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI) special agent. After U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a lot of people of Japanese ancestry were paid visits. The country entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
Morita told Archive of American Television that he “felt like I was some kind of big deal” because an FBI agent. Unbeknownst to Morita, the agent escorted him to an incarceration camp in the middle of Arizona. His Japanese parents were locked down there, too.
“What do kids know about wars? I was just happy to be walking. They said this kid would never walk,” Morita said during the Archive of American Television interview. “The first one we were in was called Gila, G-I-L-A, as in Gila River. It was called the Gila River internment center.”
Executive Order 9066 authorized the evacuation and removal of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry and Japanese Americans living in the western states to incarceration camps, away from designated military areas.
This wartime action was in progress from the spring of 1942 to the summer of 1945. The centers, 10 in all and located in remote areas, were commonly known as “internment camps.”
Today, the infamous title as well as another names the federal government used, are up against a campaign by Sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans, to ban it from the context of history. Morita explained why.
“Uncle Sam and we Americans, we like to use euphemistic words or invent words if we think other words are too harsh,” Morita told the Archive of American Television. “So, they called them ‘relocation centers.’ They were the American version of concentration camps.”
The Gila (pronounced He-la) River Relocation Center was built by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) on the Gila River Indian Reservation Camps.
The center was located 30 minutes southeast of Phoenix, Arizona and consisted of two camps, the “canal” and “Butte.” In the beginning, the Gila River Native American community was in strong opposition to the relocation camp. After two attempts, a narrow vote sealed the agreement with WRA.
The first set of incarcerees, wearing paper tags for identification, were placed on automotive trains that had the shades pulled down so no one could see the journey to the Gila River Relocation Center destination.
It was in July 1942, in the midst of Arizona’s 25-plus days of 105-degree temperatures. The month of August also yield a string of triple-digit days for hundreds of inmates — young, old, and infants — living in uninsulated, wooden barracks in the middle of nowhere.
Morita spent 18 months at the Gila River Relocation Center. Like many Nisei, he did not speak Japanese, but was able to make many friends. He spoke mainly English in the hospitals prior to being surrounded by Japanese-speaking people.
As a child, he was still confused about the whole experience. Especially, when he saw other young Nisei behind barbed wire fences going off to war to fight for the country that had them and their families held captive.
“I remember doing the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day. It was in Barracks,” Morita said in an article, Furyu: The Budo Journal in the spring of 1996. “(I remember) my English class and looking out the window and seeing the American flag waving, juxtaposed against a guard tower in the background. I had this sense of ‘What’s this all about?’ Why I am I saying, ‘Liberty and justice for all?’ I was too young to rationalize this. But I do remember that hurt of bigotry.”
Morita, the Furyu: The Budo Journal article stated, saw mothers at the camp clenching onto paper that declared they were now “Gold Star” mothers. Mothers of Japanese American soldiers that died in the war.
Morita was moved from the Gila River Relocation Center only to be moved to another camp in northern California, near the Oregon border. He learned that this relocation center, Tule Lake, was a stark contrast compared to the Arizona camp, which officially closed on Nov. 16, 1945.
Tule Lake was operated by the WRA from May 27, 1942 to March 20, 1946. It was the last WRA camp to close, remaining in operation seven months after World War II ended, as referenced in the National Park Service’s Foundation Document Overview for the Tule Lake Unit.
On June 15, 1943, Tule Lake was converted to a high-security segregation center. In 1943, the U.S. federal government produced a “loyalty” questionnaire that was administered to the incarcerated over the age of 17 at all relocation sites.
Whether they were born in Japan or United States, Question 27 asked would the individual serve in the U.S. armed forces and Question 28 requested that the individual deny allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or other foreign governments.
If the government found the questionnaire answered in the negative that person was deemed as “disloyal.” While many of the inmates answered no in protest to the injustice and forced incarceration, the “disloyals” were shipped to Tule Lake. Tule Lake was also the primary sidt where 6,000 Japanese Americans renounced their U.S. Citizenship.
Morita did not end up at Tule Lake under these conditions. He said there was “separation” among people of Japanese ancestry and Japanese Americans. His grandfather, on his mother’s side of the family was sent to Tule Lake.
Morita’s mother didn’t think that her father would live through the war and wanted to be relocated to Tule Lake to be with him and his brother, who was also incarcerated at the facility.
“I forget how we did it because I was too young to understand,” Morita said. “But that’s how we got transferred to Tule Lake.”
The Morita family was released from Tule Lake after the war. Each member would be processed late in 1945 at the Sacramento Assembly Center, also known as the Walerga Assembly Center. The center was one of 15 temporary assembly centers that opened for 52 days in 1942 until the permanent camps were completed.
It was built on a former migrant labor camp 15 miles northeast of Sacramento. When the war was over, the center would serve as nexus for returning Japanese Americans intending to return to a society that stripped them of their human rights.
The Morita family was able to open the Ariake Chop Suey Palace restaurant in Sacramento on 4th Street between M and N streets. Named after an area where Tamura Morita was born, the family served Asian food (Chop Suey is a Chinese cuisine) in the Black section of Sacramento.
Morita, known as “Nori” to the patrons, worked 14 hours each day at the restuarant with other members of the family. They served Blacks, Filipinos, Latinos, and “anybody else that didn’t fit in any other neighborhoods,” Morita once told the Los Angeles Times.
The restaurant was known to book up to 300 people and that volume gave Morita an audience. After high school, Morita got married, had a child, and landed a job at Aerojet Rocketdyne, which was located outside of Sacramento in Rancho Cordova.
But a career in manufacturing American rockets and missile propulsion was not Morita’s desire. He left the company at the age of 30 and 23 years later he was in theaters portraying “Mr. Miyagi.” The role garnished an academy-award nomination.
“It was both my honor and privilege to have worked with him and create a bit of cinema magic together,” Macchio said in a written statement to CBS News in 2005. "My life is all the richer for having known him. I will miss his genuine friendship. Forever my Sensei.”
— T. Ray Harvey, PA Public Information Officer and Photographic Artist
First Published Feb. 18, 2017
A film review of “Come See The Paradise,” a love story with messages that revealed Japanese American families’ experiences and treatment after the attack of Pearl Harbor.
A coffee-table chat with the authors of Tule Lake Revisited: A Brief History and Guide to the Tule Lake Concentration Camp Site — Second Edition, Barbara Takei and Judy Tachibana.
The Survivors of Executive Order 9066 — After the wartime policy was suspended and the incarceration camps were closed in 1946, Japanese Americans had to reconstruct their lives. T. Ray Harvey, Publicity Agents’ Public Information Officer, interviews individuals who shared what life was like after they were released from the camps.
T. Ray (Antonio) Harvey is a Public Information Officer and Photographic Artist for Publicity Agents. Harvey is also the author of The HOMICIDAL HANDYMAN OF OAK PARK: MORRIS SOLOMON JR.
First published Jan. 4, 2017