Revisiting History: The Japanese American Incarceration

Since my older daughter was one year old, my family has headed to the west coast nearly every summer to gather with relatives. It’s part of the rhythm of our summer.

On our way to CA!

It makes sense for us to fly that way since my mom, my husband’s mom and brother, and one of my brothers all live within two hours of each other. My three other brothers—they live in Shanghai, Hawaii, and NYC—and I, along with our families, join the Californians somewhere on the west coast.

Most years, our reunion happens in both The Bay Area and The Central Valley. There’s always too much to do especially in San Francisco where my brothers and I spent part of our childhood. So many beautiful sights and sites, old haunts, old friends.

At Green Apple Books, just blocks from my old middle school

As usual (and expected), we managed to make just a dent in our shared wish list this summer. Most of the list contained fun, child-centered destinations and activities.

But at the top of my San Francisco list: the exhibit, Then They Came For Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties. It didn’t take any convincing for my family group to attend.

With my brother Pete

Along with learning more history and supporting the exhibit, we wanted to view a photo of my mom, Ibuki Hibi Lee, and her mom, artist Hisako Hibi, taken by Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange, hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), was opposed to the internment and used her photographic prowess to document the injustice.

My mom told me a fun tidbit recently–my grandmother and Dorothea Lange likely knew (of) each other from The Bay Area artist community.

In the photo, taken the day they were sent to an internment camp, my mom holds a doll. Since that fateful day 77 years ago, my mom (and for a period of time, my grandmother) kept this doll.

I’d seen this Dorothea Lange photo in various books and online sites as well as at The Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. I appreciated the opportunity to see a larger representation of this poignant image.

What else did I want to see at the exhibit? My mom’s doll, cleaned up and sporting a newly crocheted cap. I’d seen this doll–dirty, damaged, and bandaged up from its long life–sitting in my mom’s home for years.

My mom at the opening reception
1/18/19

My mom is someone who holds on to meaningful belongings (like mother, like daughter), so I’m not surprised that she has kept this doll for the long haul. That little girl in the photo and that doll were/are connected—and it was powerful to see them juxtaposed for viewers. Together, the photo and doll tell a more complete story.

Earlier this summer, I was contacted by a student at San Francisco State University who had seen the exhibit. She was so moved by the photo and doll that she did online research and, in the process, found me and my book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow. She reached out and interviewed me by phone for a journalism class paper. Art, books… They connect us.

There are so many pieces of art, artifacts, and photos on exhibit. So many stories filled with jaw-dropping injustice and immeasurable loss. So many opportunities for human connection. It’s hard not to feel compassion while soaking in the internment’s impact on real human beings.

Part of my family group

I, for one, walked through the exhibit shaking my head (once again) at the abomination that was the internment. I can only imagine the experience of someone learning about it for the first time.

In addition to educating the public on the Japanese American incarceration, the exhibit draws parallels with today’s current events.

As a Japanese American whose family was incarcerated at Topaz in Utah, I shudder at today’s camps along the U.S. southern border. Pardon the expression, but it’s too close to home. Once again, the government is targeting a very vulnerable group of people and dehumanizing them for its political gain.

As George Takei says in this Washington Post article, “In one core, horrifying way, this is worse.” He’s referring to the fact that the government is incarcerating children who’ve been separated from their parents. Takei added, “At least during the internment, we remained a family…”

With Rob at Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps
7/12/19

One of my nieces who attended the exhibit is five years old, my mom’s age at the time of incarceration. A sobering thought. My niece is full of promise, so trusting of adults. What can an experience like that do to a child?

Common sense tells us. History tells us. Research tells us. The devastating immediate effects should be more than enough to put a screeching stop to the inhumanity. The lasting effects on individuals, families, and society are unfathomable. They lead to exhibits like this one.

The name of the exhibit refers to a quotation by Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran minister, about being complicit through silence. There are various versions of the quotation; this excerpt is displayed at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Toward the end of the heartbreaking stories on exhibit, I found a cluster of stories about people who, in some way, showed the best of humanity during the worst of times. Finding these was like finding water in the desert. They renewed my spirit and reminded me that there is always hope.

Here’s one of those stories, as described in the caption of this photo taken by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki: “Mr. and Mrs. Tarao Mori returned from Topaz to their chrysanthemum farm in Redwood City. As a gesture of friendship, local growers including Caucasians, Filipino and Chinese Americans gave them chrysanthemum cuttings without cost to reestablish their gardens. Two shippers offered to buy their entire output…”

During these very trying national times, let’s all share stories and learn from each other. Let’s all speak up and offer hope. Everyone deserves it, especially the children.

My daughters and their cousins blowing bubbles

Until we meet again,

Amy

2 thoughts on “Revisiting History: The Japanese American Incarceration

  • September 4, 2019 at 11:17 pm
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    Thank you, Amy, for sharing your experience and speaking out.

    Reply
    • September 5, 2019 at 1:45 am
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      Hi, John, and thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your support.

      Reply

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