The Irony Of Moving To 'Atomic City' After Internment

Jan 6, 2016

When Roy and Alice Ko were released from internment camps after World War II, they ended up in Richland, Washington – home to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Their children David and Karen Ko talked about growing up in Richland in the years after the war.

They recorded their talk with StoryCorps in Seattle's New Holly neighborhood last summer. 

Karen Ko: Richland, ironically, because we are Japanese-Americans and because Mom and Dad had both been put into concentration camps during World War II.

That they came out of those camps, went to college and then ended up in Richland at this site that was making plutonium was kind of ironic. I don't know if Mom and Dad thought it was very ironic.

David Ko: We were talking about that last night, whether or not it was part of the conscious decision to come to Richland for them. But Dad graduated in chemistry. I think the consciousness was more, “This could this is a great opportunity. Let's move out there and raise our family.”

Karen Ko: It was a really white community. For a long time when I was young, I thought that all Japanese-American people lived in California. Because we'd go every year down California to see our aunts and uncles and cousins. And there were lots of Japanese American people    in California.

David Ko: My experience was a little different in that I didn't really think about race much growing up. It became more apparent to me when I went away to college.

Karen Ko: I realized when I got to college and was studying race and the whole business around the incarceration of the Japanese during World War II. It's just so infuriating.

And then just thinking about the way I felt – like I really needed to prove to everybody in Richland that we were as white as they were. That we were we were as good as everybody else.               

I remember when I was in grade school, and this kid came out of the playground and called me a “dirty Jap.” I went running home. I was really upset. I don't know why I was so upset because I wasn't familiar with the term, so I didn't know exactly what that meant, but it was that there was so much hostility in his voice. When he said that. It just made me feel bad.

I told Mom, and Mom gave me the “You be proud of being Japanese” lecture. And proud of being part of our family and that I always needed to make the family proud.

David Ko: I remember that. I remember less of being proud of being Japanese. Just more proud of being part of this family. Because we didn't have a lot of cultural things, we didn't speak Japanese.            

Karen Ko: Until the Japanese man came once a month. When the truck would come from Seattle full of everything from Uwajimaya. This guy would make stops in little town, and he would come to Richland and pull into our driveway. And all the kids in the neighborhood would come down and check it out.

David Ko: One of my favorite things that he would bring were those jelly candy wrapped in rice paper – you could eat the paper. And then there was a little prize in the box.

This transcript was edited and condensed for clarity.