“Simply remembering what happened was an act of resistance.”

It is fitting that I post this entry on May 1, the beginning of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Today’s Google Doodle commemorates Ruth Asawa who, along with her family, was sent the Santa Anita racetracks and the Rohwer concentration camp during World War II.

I began this blog on February 19, 2018, the 76th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized over 120,000 Japanese-Americans and others to be incarcerated, six weeks after Pearl Harbor. This included 5,918 children born in the assembly centers and camps, 1,118 people from Hawaii, and 219 non-Japanese (mostly husbands) who voluntarily accompanied their families.

On April 27, I attended the 50th Annual Pilgrimage to Manzanar, one of ten camps where between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II, and one of two in California.

I first heard about Mazanar when I took a course called “The Narratives of Internment” during my sophomore year at Smith College. We read poetry by Mitsuye YamadaJohn Okada‘s historical fiction No-No Boy, Miné Okubo‘s Citizen 13660 (1946), “the first illustrated memoir chronicling the camp experience.” But the book that had the most impact on me, personally and for my career was Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston‘s Farewell to Mazanar.  It describes the author’s childhood experiences at the Manzanar, located in the desert near Independence, CA and the hardships that her family endured.

At camp, Jeanne makes friends with a Japanese girl, whose adoptive parents are a Japanese man and his half-black wife, who was passing as Japanese to stay with her family. I was intrigued because I had thought that interracial marriage was illegal. I decided to look into it and uncovered some heartbreaking stories of families torn apart, mixed-race children in orphanage being ostracized, including Dennis Tojo Bambauer who didn’t know he was Japanese until the military took him to a Japanese orphanage. The orphans lived in the Children’s Village at Manzanar, though some were re-united with their families in camp.

There was even a case of a family incarcerated despite not being Japanese-American, because the husband had his Japanese-American stepfather’s surname. My class project became one of my long-term research interests. Over the last ten years, I have learned that there were several hundred mixed-race families in the camp, and have expanded my research to the history of mixed-race Japanese-Americans and their families in the U.S. and Japan, learning about some fascinating and important people such as Takamine Jokichi, in the early years of interracial marriage between Japan and the United States.

While reading Farewell to Manzanar, a classmate asked if we could go. To our delight, half of my class and I attended the 38th annual pilgrimage. We spent four and a half hours one way on the bus with former incarcerees. None of them had been in Manzanar, but it was the only location at the time that had a pilgrimage.

As we neared the camp, we were struck by the beauty of the flowers and mountains, which surrounded the site.

Desert

The surrounding mountains were a stark contrast to camp.

Mountains and Desert

There was little left, the remains of a block garden, a replica guard tower, a few signs, the original guardhouse, and the visitor’s center in the auditorium, which had been used by Inyo County as a road maintenance facility. The buildings had been torn apart right after the war, much of it re-used by local communities.

Guard Tower

Block Garden

Block Garden

Temple

The 38th pilgrimage was dedicated to Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who had worked to make Manzanar a National Historical Site, as she had died shortly after the 2006 pilgrimage. The ceremony began with a rendition of “Ue o muite” (Look Up), re-named for American audiences to “Sukiyaki” which had been a hit in the U.S. in 1963. This was followed by a process of flags bearing the camp names, speakers, and an interfaith service at the graveyard.

It was a haunting experience, to be surrounded by so many who had been sent to such desolate places simply because of their ancestry. Had I been born forty-five or more years earlier on the west coast, I would have been one of them. But, because of the racist, patriarchal attitudes, the Western Defense Command believed that children with non-Japanese fathers were culturally more American. Therefore, families with children like me, would not only have been allowed out of the camps, but been permitted to go home. But families with non-Japanese mothers, while permitted to leave the camps, could not go back to the restricted areas and had to find a new place to live. Nor were interracial couples without children permitted to leave. But this did not prevent such families from being sent to assembly centers. Despite noting that such families and children in care of non-Japanese foster parents were exempt from evacuation, this was not the case, as children living with white foster parents were also incarcerated. There was at least one exception, Ronald, Hirano, a Deaf boy who was temporarily adopted by an acquaintance and given special permission to stay to continue attending the California School for the Deaf. Other Deaf people and those with other disabilities were not as lucky.

In 2017, with the 25th anniversary of Manzanar becoming a National Historic Site, and the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the Manzanar National Historic Site began building recreations of everything from a classroom, barracks, basketball court, mess hall, and women’s latrine.

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The incarcerees lived in hastily-built, tar paper shacks without proper heating or water. The camp was over 540 acres, surrounded by barbed wire. Inside were 67 blocks, including 36 residential, two staff housing, one administrative, two warehouse, one garage, and a military police, and a hospital.  Each residential block had 14 barracks, a mess hall, recreation hall, two bathhouses, a laundry and ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank.  Later, a Bank of America branch and Sears Roebuck cataloger store would be added.

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The bathrooms offered no privacy and incarcerees had build their own partitions.

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But the most gratifying for me were two new addition. The first was the Children’s Village, which is still under archaeological investigation. I had read Catherine Irwin’s Twice orphaned : voices from the Children’s Village of Manzanar several years earlier. Unfortunately it hadn’t been published when I was doing my undergraduate research. But it provided a lot of valuable information and showed how different the experiences were for the orphans than those who were incarcerated with their families.

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The other was a replica of a classroom. This included information on children with disabilities, another of my research interests. I learned about the Helen Keller School at Tule Lake, a short-lived program for children with disabilities, a few years ago. I also found letters from Deaf and blind schools across the country offering to take children into their institutions. To my surprise, I found that camp newspapers had extensive coverage of “crippled children” with disabilities such as harelip, partial hearing and sight loss, paralysis due to polio, etc, as well as wounded soldiers. But this was the first time that I found any mention of special education programs in any exhibits and it was gratifying to see that it was finally being included.

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Seeing the camp with these additions made it all the more heartbreaking. But I am grateful that more of this story is being told, to include those who have been overlooked.

“I wanted to write stories about human beings, not the stereotypical Asian”

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was originally a week long, when President Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation in 1978. The week beginning on May 4 was chosen so that it would include May 7 and May 10. The first date was when Nakahama Manjiro1 (John Mung) arriving in New Bedford harbor in Massachusetts in 1843, aboard the John Howland as the first documented Japanese immigrant to the United States. He eventually returned to Japan and was instrumental in the negotiations between Commodore Perry and the Japanese government. Manjiro’s story is still relatively unknown but there is now a ballet. The second date marks when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Most of those who worked on it were Chinese immigrants. In 1990, the week-long celebration turned into a month.

I learned more about Japanese-American history in two semesters of college and two years of graduate school than I had all through high school, though mostly through my own reading and research. As a child, I read Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz and Journey Home without realising that these fictional stories were based on true events until I read her autobiography Invisible Thread some time later. Invisible Thread would be my first exposure to my alma mater, Smith College, which Uchida attended for her Masters program while her parents were incarcerated at Topaz, in Utah.

During my sophomore year of college, I took a course called “Narratives of Interment” where we studied poetry, autobiographies, novels and other literature written by Japanese-Americans about their and their families experiences in the concentration camps in the United States during World War II. While most writings were autobiographical, some, such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, were fictional, but based on historical events. I chose my final paper topic on multi-racial Japanese-American families after reading Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar about her family’s experiences at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. One of the couples there, was a Japanese man and his black wife. I had thought interracial marriage was illegal and decided to do some research. I found that, it was only illegal in some states and that many couples circumvented the law by marrying in other states. I found that the government was meticulous in finding anyone who was Japanese, including those with 1/16th (one great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, my research was only superficial and it would be several years before I returned to the topic.

It was also while discussing Farewell to Manzanar that one of my classmates asked if we could visit the site. Our professor promised to look into it. We left class, doubtful that such a thing would happen, only to find out that the American Studies department had funds left over and was going to pay our way. As it was nearing the end of the semester, only about half of my classmates could attend. We arrived in LA at 8 PM PST, 11 PM EST and woke up at 5 AM the next day. But it was all worth it when we realised that we had inadvertently come on the date of the annual pilgrimage and would be riding the bus with former inmates, who shared their stories with us on the long ride.

Desert

 

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That year’s ceremony was dedicated to Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who had worked to make Manzanar a National Historic Site and had died the previous year. It was a sobering experience for me, as a bi-racial Japanese-American, knowing that had I been born sixty years earlier on the east coast, I would have been incarcerated here as well. But unlike most, my family would have been allowed to leave camp and return to the east coast. Despite the solemnity, it felt like a family reunion, with everyone catching up on the news. I was amazed at how eager everyone was to talk to us after they learned who we were and why we were here. It was an extraordinary, moving experience. I had hoped to return, this year, after hearing about the restoration and to see how it had changed since I had been there. But I was unable to attend and hope to do so next year, for the 50th anniversary of the pilgrimage.

In my senior seminar, I used the Sophia Smith archives to write a paper about Japanese and Japanese-American Smith College students. During my research, I discovered that Ninomiya Tei who attended Smith from 1906 to 1910, was not the first Asian-American student to have attended Smith. That distinction went to Inokuchi Akuri, who attended Smith’s graduate school for a year to study physiology and sports science, before transferring to the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. Inokuchi eventually returned to Japan to teach at her alma mater, the Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School and later taught dance and physical education to Emperor Meiji and his family. My research paper ended World War II, during which time, six Japanese and Japanese-American students attended Smith College as undergraduate and graduate students, several of whom had families in the camps.

It was not until graduate school that I embarked on a broader study of Asian-American history. In addition to my courses on American imperialism and U.S.-Japan relations, I read widely about modern Asian-American and Japanese-American history, from Chinese-American immigration to diplomatic and cultural relations between the United States and Japan. I also learned about Nakahama Manjiro and Commodore James Biddle, who arrived in Japan in June, 1846, in the last years of Japan’s two hundred year seclusion. Biddle wanted to negotiate a treaty with Japan, but was refused. It would not be until 1854, a year after Commodore Perry first arrived that the U.S. and Japan would negotiated their first treaty. Commodore Biddle was a distant relation to Francis Biddle, U.S. Attorney General during World War II, who initially opposed but later authorized the Japanese-American incarceration. He would also serve as a judge during the postwar Nuremberg trials.

It was during my U.S.-Japan relations course that I returned to studying multi-racial Japanese-Americans. I wrote my final paper on Japanese women who married black GIs during the American Occupation (1945-1952), which has only recently begun to be studied. I was surprised by the amount of racism that the couples faced from all sides, Japanese, blacks, whites, and Japanese-Americans.

That same semester, I took Writing History and History Communication, in which I continued my study of interracial Japanese and American couples, but also expanded it to include all interracial relationships. In History Communication, we explored various means of bringing history to the public, from podcasts to infographics and other visual and audio. I used graphics to show the history of anti-miscegenation laws, based on Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America to non-academic audiences. I expanded on Pascoe’s conclusion about a “color-blind” society in the wake of Loving v. Virginia, which overturned bans on interracial marriage, citing everything from movies to current events in the on-going preoccupation with and negative attitudes toward interracial couples.

In Writing History, we learned how to craft a narrative, write character studies and set a scene. Initially, I wanted to write a book proposal about multi-racial Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in the Manzanar Children’s Village orphanage and the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II, but found the source material lacking. The history of the Children’s Village turned out to be far more complicated than I had initially thought, and in the end, I wrote a book proposal about the Manzanar Children’s Village. My trip to Manzanar ten years earlier helped both frame my narrative and imagine, however superficially, the hardships that Japanese-Americans had faced during that time. I also using camp newspapers, interviews and documentaries to augment my research, ending, as I had with my History Communication project, on the current state of research about the Children’s Village, which, while still mostly a taboo subject among many former inhabitants, several are working to spread their story.

1I have rendered the names of Japanese individuals using the surname first.