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Ben Iijima

Name Ben Iijima
Born June 17 1922
Died January 31 1999
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) fieldworker at Topaz . Ben Iijima (1922–99), the youngest of the JERS fieldworkers, reported on life at the Tanforan Assembly Center .

Ben Nobutaka Iijama was born on June 17, 1922, the son of Issei parents Rinzo and En Iijima. He had an older sister, Tomiko. The family had run a nursery in Redwood City, California. At the time war broke out, Ben was an undergraduate at the University of California in Berkeley, where he remained in the months prior to the forced removal. He eventually reunited with his family at the Tanforan Assembly Center in May of 1942.

Shortly after his arrival at Tanforan, Tamotsu Shibutani , a fellow Berkeley student who was already working for JERS, approached Iijima about the possibility of his joining the project. Though he didn't feel qualified for the job—he wrote in an essay from about that time, "I am exactly nineteen, young and inexperienced. The farthest south I have traveled is Carmel, and the farthest north, Reedley"—he told Shibutani he would be willing to help. Based on Shibutani's recommendation, JERS Director Dorothy Swaine Thomas hired him. Throughout his four month stay at Tanforan, Iijima kept a detailed diary documenting his life at the camp. Housed in a horse stall with his parents and sister, he worked for the camp newspaper, the Tanforan Totalizer , and was involved in many aspects of Nisei life at the camp.

Along with most of Tanforan's inmate population, the Iijimas were transferred to the Topaz, Utah, War Relocation Authority -administered concentration camp in September of 1942. He remained in Topaz for only four months, leaving in January 1943 to attend Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Active at Drew—he was on the debate team and the newspaper staff and was senior class secretary-treasurer—he graduated with honors in June of 1944. He was subsequently admitted to Harvard Law School, which he attended but never graduated.

No doubt to join Ben, his parents resettled in Boston in September 1945. His father subsequently passed away there. His mother and sister later moved to Chicago and Ben later joined them there. Ben never married and served as the primary caregiver for his mother until her passing. Ben died on January 31, 1999.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Iijima, Ben. "The Day We Left." In Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience . Edited and introduced by Lawson Fusao Inada. Preface Patricia Wakida. Afterword William Hohri. Berkeley: Heydey Books, 2000. 3–7.

JERS Material by Iijima Available Online

All materials below are available as part of the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library's "The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive."

Various writings on the forced removal and Tanforan, along with some drawings of his surroundings there. 45 pages. Call Number BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B12.10 (1/4)

Diary, May 22 to July 4, 1942. 81 pages. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B12.10 (2/4)

Diary, July 5 to Aug. 17, 1942. 133 pages. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B12.10 (3/4)

Diary, Aug. 18, to Sept. 18, 1942. 101 pages. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B12.10 (4/4)

Last updated Nov. 3, 2020, 10:22 p.m..