Years ago my family hosted a series of Japanese students, an experience everyone enjoyed a great deal. I was so taken with the students that eventually I spent part of each summer teaching ESL classes to groups of Japanese students, here in the U.S. for one-month homestays and language study. My contact with them piqued my interest in Japan, a country about which I then knew very little. Soon this interest blossomed into an intense focus on Japanese culture, literature, history and language.
Jane was my next-door neighbor in the cul de sac in Bellevue, Washington, where I was living at that time. She had two little girls who were the same ages as my two daughters. The girls played together, and sometimes she or I would take all four of them on outings. That their race might be an issue to others never occurred to me until the day I took all four girls out for ice cream, and someone came up to me and complemented me on my kindness to ``those poor little Vietnamese orphans.'' But Jane's daughters didn't come from Japan. They were born here in the U.S. to their Japanese-American parents.
A few days later I was in Jane's living room and happened to notice her parents' wedding picture. The bride and groom were dressed in conventional American-style wedding clothes. I asked Jane why her mother wasn't wearing kimono and got an angry response I didn't expect. ``My parents were born here, and married here,'' she said. ``Do you want to see some other family pictures?'' Without waiting for me to reply she pulled a book off the shelf, opened it up and pointed to a photo that was clearly shot in the 1940s. The photo was of a mother dressed in her best clothes, a stylish little 1940s-style hat perched on the front of her head. With her were four little kids, all of them with big cardboard tags attached to their clothing. ``I'm the baby,'' Jane said, pointing to a doll-like little girl, balanced on the mother's knee.
She flipped through a few more pages of the books. I saw other, similarly clad mothers and children walking across a dock to board a waiting ferry. Accompanying them were soldiers with bayonets fixed in their rifles. ``What's going on?'' I asked Jane. ``Why were soldiers there with all these women and children?'' Jane turned back to the front of the book, which was titled ``Executive Order 9066.'' The book was a collection of photos and commentary about the internment of people of Japanese descent that took place in the West Coast states beginning in February 1942. Executive Order 9066 was the order that mandated their removal from coastal states. Jane told me about how her family was uprooted from Bainbridge Island, in Washington State's Puget Sound, and shipped off to one of 10 concentration camps along with 120,000 others of Japanese ethnicity.
I was born in California and grew up in the Pacific Northwest, spending virtually my entire life on the Pacific Coast. Yet I had never once ever heard a single word about the Japanese internment, not in school, not from my family, not anywhere. To say I was shocked and horrified would be to make a major understatement. If I hadn't seen the photos in Jane's book, I would never have believed such a thing could have happened.
For years since then I've thought about the camps and wondered what life was like there. I've tried to imagine how it must have been for Jane's mom to have to head off to an unknown place with four little kids -- Jane's father was taken to a separate camp as they didn't believe he was a citizen and there was some issue about the dynamite he used to blast the stumps out of his strawberry field. Jane told me that her family was part of the first group of people of Japanese descent rounded up and that they were shipped off to Manzanar in California's Owens Valley. Janes's parents were Nisei (born in the U.S. of Japanese parents), and she was of the Sansei generation (born of parents born in the U.S.).
Wonderful, eloquent and tragic photos exist of Manzanar and the people who were interned there. Both Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange documented the lives of the internees. But seeing photos is not the same thing as being there. So I decided to go visit the came myself. I spent the Labor Day weekend traveling to and from Manzanar, which is in a dry windy valley between Mt. Whitney and the Inyo Mountains.
The first thing I saw, from a long distance off, was a reconstructed guard tower, placed on the same site where one of the eight towers surrounding the 540-acre camp once stood. A hawk was sitting on one of the crossbeams when I shot this photo. Behind are the sharp-toothed eastern slope of the Sierras.
Next I saw two stone gatehouses and the sign, ``Manzanar War Relocation Center.''
The camp is now a National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service. At its peak Manzanar held 10,000 women, children and men, many of whom were U.S. citizens, deemed a threat for nothing more than their Japanese ancestry. When the internees arrived, they were given large canvas bags which had to be stuffed with straw to serve as mattresses for one 20' X 20' room in a tarpaper-covered barracks alloted to each family. Each barracks had six such rooms.
There was no running water, other than a spigot at the outside corner of each barracks. The toilets and showers were in a separate building, causing the Japanese women mortification at the lack of partitions and privacy at each. No furniture of any kind was provided, and given that the internees were limited to only what they could carry, very few brought any furniture with them. ( I read Jane's brother's account of the internment in which he mentioned that the thing he thought important to bring with him was a small rubber model of a John Deere tractor. In that photo I mention above, if you look carefully you can see him clutching that tractor).
Even though the internees arrived in family units, the War Relocation Authority initially made no provision for schools for the children. And more than 100 Japanese-American orphans were also rounded up and brought to a special ``children's village'' on the site because they were seen as a potential ``threat to national security.''
The uninsulated barracks had been thrown up hastily, and when the internees first arrived many could look up through holes in the roofs to see the sky. Here's a photo of one of the barracks reconstructed.
An auditorium built by the internees has been turned into an interpretive center, with a model of the camp, exhibits about every day life, a memorial wall listing all the internees, and photos that illustrate the anti-Japanese hatred that raged in this country in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here's one of the photos that was enlarged and made part of the exhibits.
This next photo shows a mock-up of a typical room in which an entire family had to live. Image trying to take care of four little kids in this space!
There was nothing outside except the hard alkaline soil the endless winds in the Owens Valley turned into dust permeating every crack in the buildings. When the kids went outside to play, they were soon covered with that dust.
Initially there wasn't much for the new arrivals and their children to see or do. Some of the internees volunteered to help build the barracks and other facilities. Others scrounged scraps left from construction or packing crates to make crude furniture. Eventually schools and a hospital were established, both staffed largely with internees themselves. Some of the internees were the gardeners who created the gardens and landscaping of the wealthy residents of Pasadena and Beverly Hills. They quickly turned their efforts to creating gardens, some of which eventually contained streams and the kind of rock features you'd find today in the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park. Here's the remnant of one of the gardens, this one adjacent to the on-site hospital.
Some internees died during the 4.5 years of the camp's operation. They were buried in a cemetery adjacent to the site where this ``Soul Consoling Tower'' monument was built by internees. Today visitors to the cemetery often bring small offerings, such as flowers, coins or strings of origami cranes.
Here's another shot of the tower, with some of the other visitors included, to give you an idea of the scale. You can see some of the strings of origami cranes.
Some of the internees were able to work while they were in the camp, weaving camouflage nets that were placed over military sites to disguise them from enemy aircraft. I found myself wondering if the people from Bainbridge Island ended up making camouflage nets to disguise the Bremerton Naval Yards or the Boeing Company, since their proximity to each was one of the rationales given for their internment.
Only those internees who were U.S. citizens were allowed to work at the camouflage factory. Over time some of the internees were filled with bitterness, and some of them became ``no no boys'' when they were asked to answer affirmatively to two questions about their loyalties and their willingness to serve the the U.S. Military. I had read John Okada's No No Boy years ago, so was aware of the loyalty questionnaire. But seeing this FBI file on an internee who had served in the U.S. military in World War I, and who was rejected on the grounds of his ancestry from serving in World War II was chilling. The man whose photo you see answered ``no'' on both questions, was sent to Tule Lake, also known as the ``camp of the disloyal,'' and at the end of the war was so disgusted at his treatment and that of other internees that he went to Japan and never returned to the U.S.
Later on in the war, the draft-age men in the camp were encouraged to volunteer, and many of them were part of the legendary all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. This link will take you to a photo of Sadao Munemori, a member of the 442nd, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor while his mother was interned behind barbed wire at Manzanar. And this link connects you to a photo of the blue star banner Monemori's mother displayed in her barracks window while her son was serving in Germany. Some women chose to serve also, as you can see in this photo Ansel Adams shot of Kay Fukuda, who left Manzanar to become a naval cadet nurse.
Naturally the interpretive center at Manzanar had a bookshop and naturally I came home with several books. My favorite is The Art of Gaman, by Delphine Hirasuna. The word ``gaman'' doesn't translate terribly well from the Japanese, but means something like enduring with dignity and patience. The book contains photos of a wide array of art created in the camps. Often the art is made from the most mundane materials, such as string saved from bags in which onions arrived, packing crates or electrical insulation board. What was really interesting to me is that many of the items pictured in the book were made from the most mundane materials, yet exhibited such a high degree of craftsmanship as to be museum-worthy.
Jane and her family were at Manzanar for only a year. Like many other internees from the Pacific Northwest they were transferred to the Minidoka camp in Jerome County, Idaho, which is now also a National Historic Site. Even though her family was not at Manzanar for the duration of the war, I still was able to find their listing in the computerized database at the interpretive center.
When I was standing in the interpretive center looking at the exhibits, a Buddhist monk came up and started talking to me. He asked me why I was there and I explained about my friend Jane and mentioned that she was from the first group that was interned. ``From Bainbridge Island?'' he asked. When I said yes, he asked me Jane's name and then said of course he knew who she was, and that her brother -- who is a dentist on the island -- takes care of the local Buddhist monks' teeth pro bono. Small world, isn't it?
The site on Bainbridge Island from which Jane and her family were sent to Manzanar has now become an affiliate of the Minidoka monument. It's called Nidoto Nai Yoni, which translates into ``Let it not happen again.'' This story from the Seattle PI about the monument contains the photo of Jane's aunt Fumiko Hayashida carrying her daughter Natalie that is probably the iconic image associated with the internment. Every time I look at it, it makes me so sad. Here's a video from KING-TV about the dedication of the Nidoto Nai Yoni wall in which 100-year-old Fumiko Hayashida and daughter Natalie talk about the internment.
My friend Jane was not at the dedication. She died very suddenly and unexpectedly in 2002. She lived a good life of service to the community, always real role model in terms of her energy and commitment. I'm so sorry she didn't live to see this day.
This Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the terrible attack on the World Trade Center. I remember well that in those frightening days after the attack, some of the voices of reason came from the Japanese-American community, which cautioned restraint and warned against irrational hatred of all Muslims for the actions of a few. Those who were sent to the camps -- and their children and grandchildren -- want to make sure that we let it not happen again.
The last photo I shot at Manzanar is this one. The cemetery there was, strictly speaking, outside the bounds of the camp. That Soul Consolation Tower was built on the other side of the barbed wire, which tells me there really was no escape from the camp and from those hard times for a group of people treated so badly just because of their ancestry. Nidoto nai yoni!