Lessons learned from Minidoka

notice-l

An Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directs the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first San Francisco section to be affected by the evacuation during World War II. (National Archives)

U.S. history books tell us of the abominable sin known as slavery and of the genocidal displacement of Native Americans at the hands of European explorers and colonists.

But if you’re like me, your textbooks might not have been as forthcoming about another huge stain on America’s history of human rights violations.

I’m talking about the forced removal and imprisonment of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II — an action taken against U.S. citizens under the authority of an Executive Order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I’m reasonably familiar with the overarching narrative.

In February 1942, little more than two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government created a military “exclusion zone” along the Pacific Coast, where it feared an attack by the Japanese military.

Law-abiding citizens lost their farms, homes and businesses and, with no due process, were rounded up in August 1942 and sent to one of 10 concentration camps in seven states, where they lived in hastily built compounds surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fencing.

The camps were shut down after three years, after Japan’s surrender, with no reports whatsoever of treason or enemy threat from within. Eventually, in 1988, Congress formally apologized and President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in reparations – $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000 internees then still alive.

61mbufzm-gl-_sx460_bo1204203200_

A splendid book published by Boise State University in partnership with College of Southern Idaho.

Knowing the big picture of that mass incarceration is one thing. Learning and absorbing the details of that humiliating experience is another thing altogether.

Thanks to an elegant book I’ve just read, loaned to me by a friend who endured wartime incarceration with her parents and siblings, I’ve got a much better understanding now.

Let me introduce you to “Surviving Minidoka,” a beautifully written and illustrated book examining the legacy of WWII Japanese American incarceration.

There’s no better time to reflect on the lessons of that era than now, given our president-elect’s campaign rhetoric about a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries and possibly a database for all Muslims in the United States.

***

The Minidoka Relocation Center, also known as Hunt Camp after the nearby town of Hunt, was located in the arid sagebrush of south-central Idaho, about 130 miles southeast of Boise, the state’s capital and largest city.

Minidoka was operated by the U.S. War Relocation Authority and held more than 9,000 people from Washington, Oregon and Alaska in tarpaper barracks. “Surviving Minidoka” tells the story of that shameful period in U.S. history, tracing the long history of discrimination against Asian immigrants and the lingering bigotry that led military leaders to believe — wrongly — that Japanese American citizens living on the West Coast would be loyal to the Japanese Empire

The book’s 10 chapters, written by historians, artists, landscape architects, essayists and camp survivors, give voice to the men, women and children who were rounded up like cattle during WWII.

Poems, paintings, political cartoons and historical photographs document racist sentiments of the times while also chronicling internees’ efforts to make the best out of a deplorable situation.

On Minidoka’s 33,000 acres there were schools, fire stations, a hospital, a library, food stores, ballparks, theatres, vegetable gardens and traditional Japanese-style ornamental gardens and ponds.

Astoundingly, the federal government required all eligible Nisei men (second-generation) to register for the draft. Though dozens resisted and were convicted of draft evasion, nearly 1,000 men and women from Minidoka volunteered or were drafted for military service in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, Women’s Army Corps or the Army Nurse Corps, according to the book.

minidoka-honor-roll

Fumi Onodera, 20, points at the names of her three brothers, Ko, Kaun, and Satoru, who were listed on the Minidoka Honor Roll of Japanese Americans serving in the U. S. Army. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

The 442nd, made up nearly entirely of Japanese Americans, had nearly 14,000 men serve in the combat unit, and together won 21 Medals of Honor and 9.486 Purple Hearts during WWII. So much for disloyalty.

***

What’s most troubling about this aspect of our history is that so much of it took place in West Coast cities and communities where I’ve lived or otherwise know very well. It’s painful to see dozens of photos documenting the uprooting of Japanese families and business owners from places like San Francisco, Oakland and Salinas, California; Portland and Hood River, Oregon; Seattle, Everett and Bainbridge Island, Washington.

I’m ashamed that the campus of San Jose State University, my alma mater, served as a processing center for internees in California. I’m appalled that the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup, just outside Tacoma, also served as an “assembly center.” And I’m chagrined to read about racist resort owners mistreating a family of recently released internees from Seattle who had hoped to vacation for a couple of days in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

registration-l

Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. (National Archives)

Though I only recently read the book, Minidoka has been on my mind for months.

A Japanese American friend and his 12-year-old daughter both wrote essays for my blog following their experiences this summer visiting Minidoka and another internment camp in Wyoming.

Related reading from Voices of August: American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone by Aki Mori; My visit to Heart Mountain by Midori Mori.

Not long thereafter, Lori and I went with friends to see a splendid play about Gordon Hirabayashi, the University of Washington student who was sent to prison in 1942 for willfully violating a wartime Army curfew. Our friend Nancy, who was just 3 years old when she and her family were sent to Minidoka, brought her copy of “Surviving Minidoka” and left it with me to peruse at my leisure. I finally got to it this month.

Minidoka 3

Young visitors explore an original WWII internment barrack that was located at a county fairground and returned to Minidoka. There were 432 such barracks at the camp. (Photograph by Aki Mori)

As I prepare to return the book, I’m grateful for the exposure to so many stories of ordinary people who stoically endured the camps and yet emerged with a sense of dignity that no government could stamp out.

I am struck by the wisdom of Frank Yoshikazu Kitamoto, a camp survivor who was 2 years old when the FBI arrested 34 men, including his father, in a 1942 raid near Seattle:

“Anger and defensiveness cause a vicious circle of fear. As human beings we can make the choice of responding in a fearful way or we can overcome our fears to think outward. No matter how hard people may try, they can never, never, never take away a person’s authentic power. Understanding this is a key to being able to look outward from one’s self. Human rights are love based and have no exceptions.”

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Lessons learned from Minidoka

  1. George, thank you for your on-going interest in the tragic internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. You have returned to this subject on multiple occasions on the pages of your blog. Though I am of Japanese descent and you are not, ironically you might be closer to this topic than myself, given the multiple geographic connections you list in your piece. My parents immigrated to the eastern United States long after WWII in 1969, so my historical (and to some degree cultural) connections to the Internment experience are more tenuous than you might think.

    With our new President-elect, I lately find myself wondering whether, for the first time in my life, I will have to put my political beliefs to the test and practice something more “participatory” than merely voting once every 4 or 8 years. I can only stomach occasional peeks at the news anymore, but I have heard progressive champions like Michael Moore and others warning us against defeatism or complacency in the face of our country’s new political order. Coming from an Asian family tradition, it has never been in my nature to protest. However, among all WWII internees of the West Coast, Japanese-Americans experienced the least political and public support from Oregonians–and Portlanders in particular. The proverbial shoe might now be on my foot, and I wonder whether I will need to rise in some form.

    The photograph of mine that you posted is one of my favorites. It’s the only photograph I have ever taken in my life that has a photo-journalistic feel. The effect was wholly unintentional. I don’t know what my daughters were thinking at that very moment, but their body language certainly mirrored my emotions in full perfection. (Thanks again, George!)

  2. Thanks, Aki, for your thoughtful comment. You know, I think you’re right in pointing out that I might be closer to this topic than you because of geographical reasons. Having seen the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. last year also made a lasting impression. I’m not comparing German concentration camps to American camps, but the spectacle of innocent people being mistreated by their government on account of their race or ethnicity is appalling in any form.

    I wish you the best as you work through the process of deciding what, if anything, to do in response to the new political order. Everywhere I turn, I encounter stories of people being accosted by racists — or worse, cowards — who are feeling emboldened by the white nationalist sentiments unleashed by Trump. It’s hard to fathom behavior like this in 2016.

    Finally, you should be proud of that photo. As you say, it has photojournalism elements that convey truth and spontaneity. Nothing set up at all — just a dad clicking the shutter at the right time, from the right angle with just the right lighting. It would be interesting if you asked your daughters to try to recall what they were thinking at that moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s