Although writing can help decipher history, it’s our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy..."

*NOTE FROM DENSHO: Japanese-American Legacy Project

"Today is the 69th anniversary of a date that causes discomfort for many Japanese Americans. It is a date that reminds Japanese Americans of the wartime hysteria and prejudice that led to the removal and incarceration of people of Japanese descent from the West Coast during World War II. Since 1941 much has been researched, written and learned about the injustice of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. But what still needs to happen is to apply these learnings to divisive issues facing our country today. During peacetime many racist tendencies exist only as slumbering thoughts, but they emerge during wartime into vicious words and hurtful actions because of fear and ignorance. Through education Densho hopes to make things better during the next crisis by helping Americans to be a little more informed, a little more thoughtful, and a little more accepting of the next group to be targeted. We do this work not only to make our country better, but to honor and remember the 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. An end of year note of appreciation: As 2010 comes to an end, I want to express my deep appreciation for your interest and support in Densho. More people than ever came to Densho's websites to learn about the Japanese American experience. We also had more donations from more people than in any previous year. These expressions of interest and support are the fuel that inspire and keep us charging forward. Thank you!"

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 killed or wounded over 3,500 Americans. The attack, then unparalleled in U.S. history, left people frightened and angry. "It is difficult forty years later to recreate the fear and uncertainty about the country's safety which was generally felt after Pearl Harbor; it is equally impossible to convey…the virulence and breadth of anti-Japanese feeling which erupted on the West Coast," stated the 1982 report of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians (CWRIC).1 This anti-Japanese feeling overwhelmed reasonable thinking.

The media perpetuated and in many ways generated this hysteria and fear. Attention-grabbing headlines and the competition to sell papers compromised the media's role of providing objective information. Instead of presenting evidence and well-informed commentary, many news sources supported and, at times, led a public opinion campaign against Japanese Americans. Some journalists claimed there were no differences between U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and the Japanese citizens who attacked Pearl Harbor. Retractions and corrections were rarely printed, so the public believed what they read.

Racist treatment of Japanese Americans in the media began long before Pearl Harbor. The wave of anti-Japanese reporting that arose after Pearl Harbor was based on a history of public fear over Asian immigration and settlement in the U.S. Many of the images and phrases depicted in World War II posters and newspaper editorials had been used for decades, often to justify racist policies against Asian immigrants.

A few lone voices in the media spoke out, urging the public not to punish their Japanese American friends and neighbors for the actions of Japan. The Bainbridge Island Review and its editor, Walt Woodward, published articles throughout the war denouncing the incarceration. The Northwest Enterprise, an African American newspaper in Seattle, also produced a series of editorials in support of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. These perspectives, however, were few and far between. Most mainstream newspapers continued to print articles that were not based on fact and reason.

This racial fear and hysteria, along with desire for economic gain, political opportunism, and a sincere concern for national safety, resulted in a complex mixture of motives that impelled the U.S. government to forcibly remove from the West Coast more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Sixty-five years later, as the country finds itself again grappling with issues of civil liberties and national security, these lessons of the past have never been so relevant. Hopefully, this time, we are paying attention.

From the Archive
Over the last dozen years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

1. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. (1982. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), page 67. [ link ]

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Concentration Camps in North American during WWII


While this event is most commonly called the internment of Japanese Americans, in fact there were several different types of camps involved. The best known facilities were the Assembly Centers run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), and the Relocation Centers run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which are generally (but unofficially) referred to as "internment camps." The Department of Justice (DOJ) operated camps officially called Internment Camps, which were used to detain those suspected of actual crimes or "enemy sympathies." German American internment and Italian American internment camps also existed, sometimes sharing facilities with the Japanese Americans. The WCCA and WRA facilities were the largest and the most public. The WCCA Assembly Centers were temporary facilities that were first set up in horse racing tracks, fairgrounds and other large public meeting places to assemble and organize internees before they were transported to WRA Relocation Centers by truck, bus or train. The WRA Relocation Centers were camps that housed persons removed from the exclusion zone after March 1942, or until they were able to relocate elsewhere in America outside the exclusion zone.

Civilian Assembly Centers

Relocation Centers- Also referred as Internment Camps

Justice Department detention camps

These camps often held German and Italian detainees in addition to Japanese Americans:

US Army facilities

These camps often held German and Italian detainees in addition to Japanese Americans:


In addition 2,264 persons of Japanese ancestry taken from 12 Latin American countries by the U.S. State and Justice Departments were held at the Department of Justice Camps. Approximately two-thirds of these persons were Japanese Peruvians. There has been some speculation that the United States intended to use them in hostage exchanges with Japan, a plot in part facilitated by local prejudice against Japanese communities in various South American countries. After the war, Peru refused to accept the return of the Japanese Peruvians they had acquiesced to interning in American camps; of this group, some were transferred to Japan, some were granted American citizenship, and a small minority of approximately 100 managed to achieve repatriation into Peru by asserting special circumstances, such as marriage to a non-Japanese Peruvian. Three hundred of the Japanese Peruvians who fought deportation in the courts were allowed to settle in the United States, and were granted American citizenship in 1953.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why write about the Japanese American Internment Camps

When I was fourteen I came across a book, called Kim/ Kimi, about a young girl searching for her real father, who was Japanese American, only to discover he had been imprisoned in an American internment camp during WWII. I had never heard of these camps up to that point in my life. In Europe, yes, even China, but not here. Not in America. I had to know and therefore went to the library to begin my journey. Three years later I put together a 30 minute mini-documentary for a class project and then wrote a short story. Nine years later I expanded that story into a novel. Why? I don’t have any Japanese ancestry in my family tree. I live in the Midwest and grew-up in a medium size town where cultural diversity is a bit underdeveloped. My reason is simple: I don’t want to continue to live in a conical world. Consciousness does not develop and mature by existing in a frozen pond, therefore after I had graduated college in 2000, my husband and I drove to Bainbridge Island, just on the tail skirt of Seattle, Washington, to pursue my journey. I already had made a couple of contacts to set up interviews; contacts I found researching on the internet.

My first interview was with a dentist, Frank, who is a Sansei. Frank, much to my surprise, was tremendously open about his experiences, from what he could remember since he was only two when he and his family were evacuated. He remembered the “ping-ping-ping” sounds of the train transporting them to a place where there were rumors of large mosquitoes awaiting them there to suck them dry. He remembered chasing tumble weeds down the dusty streets. And the time he became stuck in the mud, being too small to get himself out, crying until one of his uncles popped him out, leaving his boots rooted in the mud.

Frank was also candid about the Japanese-American community itself, including their own prejudices and insecurities as well as their resilience, because after all, as Mark Twain had simply put it: “There is a great deal of human nature in people.” Then, with a smile, he told me that he was an extra on the movie set Snow Falling Over Cedars during the big evacuation scene, (which you can see him standing directly behind the main character as she tearfully stands on the ferry boat.) After the interview, Frank supplied me with a long list of others who had consented with telling their stories in the past but only three out of the list were willing to speak with me. I took no offence given that I was a stranger. For instance, one told me over the phone that he had no further interests with additional interviews and, to confirm his point about his past, he revealed that he had burned his army uniform after his discharge.

So, the three who had agreed were family and a good friend of Frank’s; all of whom were incredibly gracious and humble that words fail to provide justice for their sincerity. Kay, his cousin and retired teacher, spoke with me with such ease that I felt like we had been friends for years and, ironically, had traveled through my home state once. Lily, his sister, cooked lunch for me and my husband in her home, but I won’t go into details of how we sadly struggled trying to use chop sticks as utensils. Just won’t. And then there was Gerald, his friend. Not only did he and his wife took us out to dinner but also bought our meals. (I have to admit, that was the best Thai I’ve eaten thus far!)

I chose Bainbridge Island as the setting because I wanted my characters to come from an isolated town where they felt safe and experienced minor racism. The purpose of this was to show the aggressive chains of events that would challenge their once secured lives. In keeping true to historical fact, I researched the different communities that were sent to Manzanar, many that came from Los Angles and other cities. This would provide an interesting clash in the upcoming trials and tribulations for my characters.

Two years later I even made a journey to Manzanar, which survives as a historical marker. And to this day it persists to creep into my dreams now and again with its surreal beauty. The dry desert air and its tornado-like dust devil, even in a calm wind. The two monstrous mountain ranges that seems to make you disappear. The rectangular residue of where the barracks use to stand. But the small cemetery still exists as does the medal administration building that stands nearby the two guard posts. Since then, Manzanar has been rebuilt, to an extent, to preserve the consequences of mass hysteria and a reminder of our accountability towards humanity.

The reason I chose Manzanar out of the other ten internment camps are influenced by two special details: First- Manzanar was the most photographed camp out of all the others; the others included Tule Lake, Minidoka, Heart Mountain, Poston, Gila River, Topaz, Granada, Rohwer and Jerome. Photographers like Toyo Miyatake, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams helped preserve the conditions of camp life and even wrote books based on their experiences. Their hard work made it a littler easier for me to visualize and interpret these imprisonment camps best to my ability. Second, although there were riots in the other camps, the one in Manzanar revealed the political clashes within their own community which then lead to the outbreak. AND it ironically it fell on the eve of Pearl Harbor’s first anniversary.

Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who are the Issei, Nisei, Kibei, and Sansei?

In Japanese, Issei means “first generation.” They had emigrated from Japan, beginning from the 1880’s up until 1924 when Congress stopped all legal migration. The Gentlemen’s Agreement Act of 1907, an unofficial agreement between the U.S. and Japan, was the first domino put into place in a series of racial discrimination. The oral contract was as following: Japan agreed NOT to issue any more passports to its citizens via the path to the United States in EXCHANGE for the U.S. tolerating their presence BUT would at least allow their wives and children to immigrate. And thus, the Picture Bride phenomenon came into the scene. At the same time, Hawaii- before it became a unionized state, turned into a loophole. The Issei could work in the Territory of Hawaii THEN migrate to the mainland. Unfortunately all of that came to an end when the Agreement expired and would never be renewed until a new immigration law was put in effect in 1953. Of course the Japanese were not the firsts to be discriminated against regarding immigration laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 set in motion the inequality and segregation of all Asian communities which included the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.

The Issei’s children, who were born in America, were referred to as the Nisei. Nisei means “second generation” in Japanese, although by American standards they are considered to be the first generation. Despite that the Nisei were born with an American citizenship, the harsh discriminations on the West Coast bounded them as second class citizens. Schools and other public places were segregated. Educated jobs were exceedingly restrictive. Labors, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution were notorious in speaking out and provoking violence against the Asian populace. But in spite of these problems, the Nisei flourished and pursued. The JACL, Japanese American Citizen League, made an influential impact in our society by providing a support system and fighting against these injustices. Among this generation includes Pat Morita, best known for The Karate Kid series, George Takei and Roberto Ito from Star Track, and Jack Soo from Barney Miller.

Then there were the Kibei. Kibei, meaning “returning to America,” although born with American citizenships were educated in Japan. Many were the same age as the Nisei, yet were often discriminated against their own peers because they were considered “too Japanese.” The Kibei truly received the raw end of the stick.

The Sansei are the Nisei’s children and were very young during their incarceration in the camps. Among this generation includes US Congress representatives Bob and Doris Matsui.

To learn more about the different generations and political differences during WWII, check out historical fiction Eyes Behind Belligerence.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The meaning of Concentration Camp

According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning of a Concentration Camp is "a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined." Unfortunately the usage of these camps are without trails for people's so-called crimes. Use of the word concentration comes from the idea of concentrating a group of people who are in some way undesirable in one place, where they can be watched by those who incarcerated them. For example, in a time of insurgency, potential supporters of the insurgents may be placed where they cannot provide supplies or information.

The earliest of these camps may have been those set up in the United States for Cherokee and other Native Americans in the 1830s; however, the term originated in the reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years' War (1868–1878) and by the United States during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902). Polish historian Władysław Konopczyński has suggested the first concentration camps were created in Poland in the 18th century, during the Bar Confederation rebellion, when the Russian Empire established three concentration camps for Polish rebel captives awaiting deportation to Siberia. The English term "concentration camp" grew in prominence during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), when they were operated by the British in South Africa. There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. Of the 28,000 Boer men captured as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. The vast majority of Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children. Over 26,000 women and children were to perish in these concentration camps.

In the 20th century the arbitrary internment of civilians by the state became more common and reached a climax with Nazi concentration camps (1933–1945). As a result of this trend, the term "concentration camp" carries many of the connotations of "extermination camp" and is sometimes used synonymously. A concentration camp, however, is not necessarily a death-camp. Because of these negative connotations, the term "concentration camp", originally itself a euphemism, has been replaced by newer euphemisms such as internment camp, resettlement camp, detention facility, etc., regardless of the actual circumstances of the camp, which can vary a great deal.

So, where does that leave the understanding of the Japanese-American during WWII? “We knew we had been in concentration camps. Even President Roosevelt used the term. But by the wars end the word concentration camp had taken on a meaning of unimaginable horror. So one of the reasons we didn’t talk much about them is not that they were so bad, but they weren’t bad enough.” Quoted by documentary A Rabbit in the Moon, by Emiko Omori.
Let us not misinterpreter what these "detention centers" really represented and learn from our past's mistakes.

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Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. In addition to studying cultures, I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

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