Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ Don Wakamatsu carries lessons learned from grandparents’ ordeal in internment camp

Kansas City Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu with photos of his grandparents, who were held in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, and other relatives. Wakamatsu’s father was born inside one of the camps.
Kansas City Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu with photos of his grandparents, who were held in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, and other relatives. Wakamatsu’s father was born inside one of the camps. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

In a Fourth of July statement in 1945, President Harry S. Truman urged Americans to “honor our Nation’s creed of liberty” as our armed forces remained deployed around the globe helping douse the final smoldering of World War II.

“Citizens of these other lands will understand what we celebrate and why … others will join us in honoring our declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the credibility of Truman’s words was diminished by irony, if not outright hypocrisy:

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, some combination of paranoia and racism had provoked the land of the free to herd, relocate and incarcerate more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans who would struggle to return to society.

Some 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens, and many of the others would well have been if not for the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act.

None of this dehumanizing treatment, none of the images of abruptly surrendering property and being crammed into trains and whisked away behind barbed-wire fences and being administered a convoluted, soul-draining loyalty oath, was spoken about in the home of Don Wakamatsu, the bench coach for the Royals.

None of it quite came up in school, either.

“It’s just never really identified in our history books,” he said.

Then one day in the late 1980s, Wakamatsu was home in California from college at Arizona State and saw his father, Leland, grumble about a piece of mail he’d opened.

“I asked my dad what it was about,” said Wakamatsu, 52.

Enclosed in the envelope was a reparations check from the U.S. government, the result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that promised $20,000 for each surviving internee by way of apology.

“These acts were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission,” the act states, “and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

What was intended to bring closure to the detainees and their families prompted the beginning of a journey of discovery for Wakamatsu, whose father was born in the Tule Lake, Calif., detention camp.

It’s a particularly reflective time for Wakamatsu in the wake of the recent death of his cherished grandmother, Ruth, 97, who will be memorialized Saturday.

“I just feel fortunate for the fact that I’m here today because of what transpired there and the way they raised me, without the bitterness or the racism that goes along with everything,” said Wakamatsu, who in 2009 with Seattle became the first Asian-American manager in the major leagues. “I like telling this story a lot just for the fact that people aren’t aware of it: Let’s not forget what happened.”

Mindful of all the strife in the world now and the potential for sweeping backlash based on just such stereotypes, Wakamatsu added, “Was this a learning lesson?”

Certainly it has been for Wakamatsu, a pensive man who spends his spare time sketching portraits (he’s done one of Albert Einstein and now is working on a depiction of Jimi Hendrix) and is known for his engaging disposition and baseball acumen.

That was part of what manager Ned Yost was referring to last October when he said he’s “OK with” being known as “the dumbest manager in baseball” because he has really smart coaches.

Wakamatsu, Yost said last month, has an “astute baseball mind. He’s very organized; he’s great at gathering pertinent information, and he’s right there with me the whole time.

“I mean, I really don’t make a move without consulting Wak,” added Yost, who quickly made it a point to mention other coaches.

Wakamatsu’s impeccable sense of detail is illuminated by his ornately drawn lineup cards, a reflection both of the penmanship of his grandfather and the way he was raised:

Whatever you do, do it with care and make it have meaning.

That’s why his father, an ironworker who went on to construction management, would iron his pants before he went to work every day and diligently clean his boots when he got home. He may never have missed a day of work, even though there were times when he came home that his back hurt so much that he could barely stand.

His way followed the standards set by Wakamatsu’s grandparents, who were born in the United States, became the victims of circumstances and yet honored their country in numerous ways.

When Wakamatsu’s grandfather, James, left the internment camp system in 1945, it was to join the U.S. Army.

According to his obituary in 2010, he was decorated with the Army of Occupation medal and World War II victory medal.

James Wakamatsu never spoke about much, if any, of this, but Don Wakamatsu said he had other relatives join the armed forces even as their families were imprisoned.

They were among about 20,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who served during World War II.

“You wanted to be patriotic and serve your country — and yet your parents were in a camp, stripped of their civil liberties,” he said. “I can’t imagine going through that and how I would have reacted.”

Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt paved the way for the internments by signing Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

Ultimately, the harrowing edict came to be imposed on the Japanese population of the entire Pacific Coast, where the produce industry was so dominated by Japanese that Wakamatsu can’t help but wonder how that played into the decision.

“To this day, I think there was more to it; I really do,” said Wakamatsu, who has made it a passion to read as much as he can about the topic.

It’s unclear exactly when the order rippled to the home of Ruth and James Wakamatsu in Hood River, Ore., where James toiled in a sawmill, Ruth worked in the packing house at Diamond Fruit and together they farmed the family orchard.

But as their grandson came to understand it, in 48 hours they had to pack everything they could carry and get on a train with no sense at all of when — if ever — they’d return.

A prison sentence might have been preferable.

At least there would have been some parameters.

“You didn’t know if you were going to be gone for a week or forever,” said Wakamatsu, who believes much of what they tried to save in the barns of friends was ruined by rodents or weather.

Like other members of their extended family, the Wakamatsus lived in horse stalls for months as barracks were being built.

The indignity and the discomfort were intensified by the lack of privacy: communal showers, hanging sheets to divide spaces, all within the fenced-in confines of camps observed by armed guards in towers.

This all was passed along to Wakamatsu by his grandmother after he finally learned what had transpired and asked her about it.

What amazed him most was the matter-of-factness with which she’d tell it, especially knowing the conditions were compounded by welcoming their second child into that world even as they were moved five times in three years, ultimately to Jerome, Ark.

The Wakamatsus made their way, though, as part of communities within the camps. They created their own entertainment. Ruth washed dishes for $12 a month, she once told the Seattle Times, and James worked as a carpenter.

“I still have an original serving tray that he made” in one of the camps, Wakamatsu said.

While they never let the internment camp experience define them, in a sense it never left the Wakamatsus.

When they returned to Hood River, it was under a veil of suspicion that took years to dissipate.

They were unwelcome largely for having been made unwelcome, and for a time no one would cut their hair, and they’d have to buy groceries in the backs of stores that would work with them.

Their home had been leased out from under them, leaving them relegated to living in a shed before they finally could build a house years later … bolstered by lumber from an internment camp barracks, part of a surplus that was offered to detainees.

“It kind of floored me when I found that out,” Wakamatsu said.

In May, the Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame honored Wakamatsu with its “I Didn’t Know He Was Irish” Award.

After all, Wakamatsu’s mother, Sandra, is of Irish descent, and he is proud of that part of his heritage, too.

“I was fortunate to be able to see different cultures and raised that way and love them both equally,” he said.

Still, he relates more to the Japanese side, something that was stressed by his father.

Partly because he regrets that he took only one year of the language and never could speak it with his great-grandparents, partly because of what he’s learned since, he wants his three children to be cognizant of what his grandparents and this country went through and the significance of it.

“Any time you can talk about it, it immortalizes it a little bit more,” he said. “There’s always in history a learning curve.”

Or so we can hope … if we seek to stay true to the promise of the Declaration of Independence and “our Nation’s creed of liberty.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to

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