Biwas that survived Japanese-American Internment


February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066, that forced 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast to “relocate” to internment camps. With confusion, anxiety, despair, anger and many more emotions, Japanese Americans had to leave their home in just a week with only luggage that they could carry in both hands.

The Iri family in Los Angeles was not an exception. Yoneo Iri, a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American and a high schooler at the time, had to say good-bye to the biwas he had been playing since he was six years old. The family left a small biwa, two adult-sized biwas, and a koto in the corner of their home, locked the door, and headed for the Assembly Center that they were assigned to.

The family was sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, and Yoneo graduated high school there. After the war, the family came home in Los Angeles only to find their home was totally vandalized. Burglars had intruded into the house, rummaged the rooms, and stolen valuable things. However, the musical instruments that they had left in the corner were intact. They rescued the instruments and kept them in very good shape for many years.

Much later, after Yoneo passed away, his wife Ayako contacted me, shared this story, and donated two of those biwas (in the picture above) in Yoneo’s name. I regularly play on the adult-sized one with much respect, and a feeling of responsibility to carry on the history.





©2021-2023 Nobuko Fukatsu. All rights reserved.

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