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

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.

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About Me

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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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