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‘Racism Wasn’t a Feeling, It Was a Fact’: Mike Shinoda on His Family’s WWII Incarceration

“Have you ever had mochi ice cream?” Mike Shinoda asks with a grin. “Did you know it was invented in Los Angeles?”

The Linkin Park rapper and multi-instrumentalist, 45, continues: “That’s a Japanese American creation. This thing people think of as Japanese, but actually is American. People don’t know that.” 

For him, the point is about more than just ice cream. The indistinction he’s discussing between Japanese and Japanese American is where the trouble began 80 years ago.  

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack drew the U.S. into World War II in December 1941, Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, leading to Japanese American families along the West Coast being rounded up and sent to prison camps under the belief that they could be operating as wartime spies. 

Among the tens of thousands of men, women, and children incarcerated for their ethnicity were Shinoda’s father and his family. Not a single Japanese American was ever convicted of treason or espionage during this time, and later U.S. presidents would apologize and pay reparations to the families affected.

“I remember when we studied World War II in school here in L.A. in the 1990s, there were two paragraphs in our history books,” says Shinoda, who is Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. “One about Pearl Harbor and one about the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans.” 

It occurred to him then that his teacher wasn’t telling the students the full story: “As a person whose family went through it, it was disappointing there wasn’t more information. It was just glanced over.” 

This wasn’t so different from what he found at home, he adds. “If you know Japanese American families — much like Japanese families — there’s not a lot of openness to talking about these difficult subjects. The term we use is shikata ga nai, which means ‘It can’t be helped.’ It’s almost like ‘What’s done is done.’” 

Shinoda remembers family events where relatives would get close to the topic of the internment camps, but the conversation would merely touch the surface. “They’d say, ‘Remember so-and-so we knew from the camp? I ran into them the other day…’” 

He would use this opportunity to ask his aunts and uncles about the camps. “They’d give you a couple of sentences and then someone would move on. Again, shikata ga nai — ‘You’re wasting your breath. Why talk about the past?’” 

Eighty years after the camps opened, Shinoda is aware of time, with fewer survivors around to tell their stories each year. “At some point, you lose the original voice or storyteller,” he says. “It’s shocking at times — you bring the camps up and people don’t know that it ever happened. But the more you talk about it, the less that occurs.” 

Shinoda’s grandfather was the first member of the family to come to the U.S. from Japan, in what’s known as the Issei generation. He had 13 children, including Shinoda’s dad  — the Nisei generation — and built up successful businesses in Orosi, California, where the Shinodas ran a grocery store in the center of town. Over time, they added a barber shop, a pool hall, and a gas station.

Everything ended abruptly when Roosevelt’s order forced families like the Shinodas to leave their homes. Mike Shinoda’s father, Muto Shinoda, was just three years old. “Everyone was given 24 hours notice to pack with no timeline on when they could come home,” the musician says. “If you couldn’t carry it, you couldn’t bring it.”

People left carrying two trash bags of clothes in each hand, not knowing where they were headed. Some neighbors felt unsure that their belongings would remain safe in their homes, so they asked the Shinodas if they could lock up their stuff in their grocery store for the time being.  

Japanese American families were put on buses headed to various camps. The barracks where they were supposed to live in hadn’t been built yet at first, so families were transferred to so-called War Relocation Centers where they were housed in empty fairgrounds. Shinoda’s family was incarcerated in the Santa Anita race track.

“They were put in the stalls where the horses used to be,” he says bluntly. “Horse feces and hay on the ground. There were no beds, amenities, or anything.” 

Eventually, those families were transferred to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, incarcerated along with nearly 18,000 other Japanese Americans for the remainder of the war. 

“My dad’s memories were things like playing sports,” Shinoda says. “Somebody acquired a film projector that showed movies on the side of the water tower. They’d have all these wonderful victory gardens and kids would pick fruit and vegetables.”  

Most vividly of all, Shinoda’s father remembered the dirt. As the barracks were poorly constructed, dust from the desert would get in through the cracks of the walls. 

“They’d wake up in the cots covered in dirt. Get up. Make the table for breakfast. Sweep all the dust off everything. Put plates down. Use the communal bathrooms. Come back to brush the dust off the table again to eat.” 

The Nisei generation in the camps felt a specific agony: Like Shinoda’s father, they were born in the U.S. and had only ever known life there, and some of them felt they needed to contribute to the war efforts for their country.  “A couple of my uncles joined the military to prove they were truly American,” Shinoda says, citing a Japanese idiom, fugen jikko — actions before words — to describe their mindset.  

After the camps were closed in 1946, some family members went back to Orosi to see what was there and try to rebuild. When they saw that the buildings where they’d once lived and worked had been destroyed and vandalized, they migrated to different parts of California. 

Though the war was over, Japanese Americans were still not allowed to own land. Shinoda’s family went from being successful business owners to picking strawberries in fields. Anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant in the U.S., with many continuing to view Japanese Americans as a wartime enemy. Unlike German Americans, they were visibly identifiable in society, which meant that discrimination continued to happen publicly. 

“Racism wasn’t a feeling, it was a fact,” Shinoda says. “There was no subtlety about racism. They literally had racist slurs in the newspapers. The politicians themselves were using the term.” Schoolteachers would call his family members racist names in the classroom. 

In Shinoda’s childhood, it was his mother — a white woman from Appalachia — who made the effort to ensure that her children were aware of their Japanese heritage. She made Japanese dishes she learned from her in-laws, and every year they would attend the Obon festival as a family, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of ancestors. 

Over the years, Shinoda has pieced together his family’s stories of the camps. He instinctively interpreted their experiences in relation to the rap music that he loved. “I felt I learned something about racism and discrimination by listening,” he says. “Anything from Boogie Down Productions to NWA, Ice Cube. They were talking about things that weren’t on the news… That’s how I learned about the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the systemic racism that they were facing.” 

As an adult, in 2005, Shinoda recorded a song called “Kenji” with his side project Fort Minor, drawing on his father’s experience as a Japanese American kid during World War II. “I was looking for a topic that felt like it was unique to the song, and those words started coming to me out of nowhere,” he says.

The lessons of the Japanese American experience in the 1940s are crucial today, he adds. “Fast forward to today, injustice is still going on but it’s got a different shape to it.” In 2017, when Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Muslim ban — forbidding people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. — Shinoda was proud to see members of the Japanese American community broadcasting the story of the camps as loudly as they could on social media and warning about history repeating itself. “They were like, ‘We’ve seen this, we’ve been there. It is illegal!’” 

In total, Shinoda’s father’s side of the family includes about 150 people, with so many cousins that it can be hard to keep track of everyone. “I would hear from others after ‘Kenji’ came out: ‘Thanks so much for doing that, because now I got to have a real, in-depth conversation with my parents,’” he says. 

Some of those cousins would pull out documents or family photographs to show him. “The younger generations have a hunger to know these things,” he adds. “The older generations didn’t want to talk — they spent so many years downplaying their Japanese-ness and just trying to blend in to be American.” 

It makes him happy to know that people are still listening to “Kenji” and thinking about the experiences it represents. “The goal of writing ‘Kenji’ was ‘Let me tell you my story,’” he says. “For some people, it is the first time hearing about these camps. I regularly hear from people of all colors that they were moved by that song. That’s one of your goals as an artist: to make stuff that strikes people that way, and in this case, teaches them.”

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