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

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

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,


The Big Read Holland Area: Connecting with a Community

Speaking with students at a school visit. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Earlier this month, I participated for two days in The Big Read Holland Area. Holland is located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The first Europeans who settled there were — you guessed it — from the Netherlands.

Holland’s nickname is “The Tulip City.” This whimsical sculpture by Stuart Padnos stands in front of the Holland Area Arts Council.

My experience in Holland was simply powerful. Rarely does an experience resonate in so many ways: as a writer, former teacher, politically conscious citizen, and human being.

The Big Read, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a program that provides grants annually to about 75 communities across America. Led by Associate Professor Deb Van Duinen of Hope College, Holland received its fourth consecutive grant this year. They’re doing something right!

According to the NEA website, “…the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.”

I had the joy of seeing a community putting NEA’s aim into action — particularly refreshing during this time of national turmoil.

For this year’s Big Read, Holland chose Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a heartbreaking novel about a family’s experiences before, during, and after the Japanese American internment. Built around this novel and the internment, Holland offered a month-long array of programs incorporating book clubs, lectures, visual arts, music, film, and so on.

My well-loved copy

The Big Read is not just for adults! The committee chose my book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, so that kids would have an accessible book about the Japanese American internment. A committee member told me that 600-700 copies of my book were distributed in the community. Wow! What an honor to think that so many kids in Holland have my book in their hands.

As you may imagine, the internment is a difficult subject to discuss with young people. The last thing I want to do, in my personal or professional life, is to crush a kid’s spirit. On the contrary, I try my best to lift up.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Whenever I share my book and give a program, I walk a fine line between educating kids about this dark chapter of American history and trying to inspire feelings of hope for their lives and our country. It feels like, and is, a tremendous responsibility.

Speaking to a group of 2nd graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Although my library visit was advertised for upper elementary students, younger children also attended. One boy, about four years old, asked one of the wisest questions:

Why were there guns?” He was referring to the guards who pointed guns toward the internees from the watchtowers.

Yes, indeed. Why?

At the library and at the schools, I spoke with a total of about 600 kids. What an opportunity to reach so many young people about the internment!

Yet my primary goal was to connect with them, in one way or another. I think that when we experience connections, it’s hard not to care about each other and the world. And I think that connections can also foster hope. Don’t we all need more hope these days?

Depending on the audience, I shared:

history about the Japanese American internment…

Discussing “Evacuation Day.” (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

…my maternal family’s experience at Topaz, one of the ten internment camps…

Discussing a photo of my mother and grandmother taken by Dorothea Lange. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…information about Topaz Art School where my grandfather, Matsusaburo Hibi, and my grandmother, Hisako Hibi, taught and painted…

Discussing Topaz Art School which my book centers around. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…my grandmother’s art which helped sustain her during the internment (as well as before and after)…

Discussing “Floating Clouds” (oil on canvas, 1944) by my grandmother, Hisako Hibi. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…and Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations which were, in part, inspired by my grandmother’s art. Do you see the girl in the red cape in both pieces?

Discussing my grandmother’s painting, “Windy,” (oil on canvas, 1944) alongside Felicia Hoshino’s dust storm scene. (Photo Credit: Thea Patterson)

I asked kids to think about what it is they love doing and encouraged them to nurture that love. What brings you joy? What brings you peace? Their faces lit up and they were eager to share.

Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area

Of course, I read and took questions.

These kids asked so many compelling questions! (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

You never know what someone might connect with, and it was eye-opening to see the range of connections that students made during my visits.

Some students focused on the internment: “One of the saddest things about the internment was all of the loss.”

Some students focused on writing: “What did you struggle with when you wrote your book?”

Some students focused on personal identity: “Did you know that I’m half Chinese American, too?”

Still others focused on personal experience. Between school visits, I heard that my book resonated with a student whose parent had been removed from home due to immigration issues.

And just yesterday, I received an email saying that one student, who is going through tough life circumstances, connected deeply with the main character who “understands what it’s like to go through hard stuff.”

Heart-rending stories.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Then there was a question that cut through the weight of the subject matter and made me chuckle: How old were you during WWII? You gotta love kids!

At one of the schools, I offered a high-five to students as they were filing out of the gym. I was surprised to be offered hug after hug. Ever mindful of physical boundaries, I repeatedly said, “You don’t have to hug me.” But many students chose to give a hug over a high-five.

Photo Credit: Anne Harrison

In addition to kids, I had the pleasure of connecting with adults in Holland. I shared a yummy lunch with Hope College students who serve on the college committee of The Big Read Holland Area. It’s a big operation (and even includes a high school committee). These bright students are getting it done!

Hope College students (from left to right): Ryan, Lauren, Becky, Thea

I also shared a long dinner with two wonderful librarians, Anne Harrison and Anne Pott, who serve on the main committee of The Big Read Holland Area. Dinner was scrumptious, the company lovely, and the conversation meaningful. Could I love librarians more? Authors and librarians (and teachers) share a special bond when it comes to books and kids.

With Anne Pott (front) and Anne Harrison (back), celebrating The Big Read Holland Area.

I asked the waitress for a menu to take home as a memento. Salt of the Earth seemed like a fitting description of the evening and of my experience in Holland.

I went to Holland hoping, most of all, to connect with people. I did and left with a renewed sense of hope — born of a community’s commitment to learning and growing, even when the conversation gets difficult. As with most things in life, going through the process can bring on something positive.

I found this downtown — footsteps leading up to an inspiring sculpture.

The President aims to start shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018. NEA programs like The Big Read, which reach millions of Americans, would cease to exist. It’s hard to fathom the loss that this would cause in our country, both individually and collectively. Please click here to read about it and to speak up for the arts.

I often quote Kate DiCamillo: “Stories connect us.” I think the same goes for all of the arts. They have a way of sparking connections within and between people, sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

My first time spotting a fireplace on a sidewalk!

Thank you, Holland, for your warm welcome. As 2017 comes to a close, I’ll remember my time there as one of the brightest spots of my year!

Signing and saying good-bye. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Until we meet again,


Topaz Museum: A Gem in The Desert

Three weeks ago I joined my mom, Ibuki Hibi Lee, and Michio Aoyagi for the Grand Opening of Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. As young children, they had lived at Topaz, one of the ten Japanese American internment camps during WWII. They met decades later in the Bay Area where they were born and now live.

My mom, Mich, and me at Topaz

My mom, her brother Satoshi, her mother Hisako Hibi, and her father Matsusaburo “George” Hibi were among the 8,000 Japanese Americans who were interned at Topaz. My grandparents, who were professional artists, were very involved at Topaz Art School.

The art school was directed by Chiura Obata, who had been a Professor of Art at UC Berkeley for 10 years prior to the internment (and later returned to teach there). He and my grandfather were close friends and served as best man at each other’s wedding.

Edited by Kimi Kodani Hill, Chiura Obata’s granddaughter, and published by Heyday Press (2000)

When Obata was released early from Topaz, my grandfather took over as director of the art school. My grandmother taught classes to children; my mom and uncle were students. The art school gave them all a sense of purpose and peace behind barbed wire.

The final art exhibition at Topaz, as pictured in Topaz Moon. Photo Credit: War Relocation Authority

My mom published an edited book, Peaceful Painter Hisako Hibi: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist (Heyday Books, 2004), containing some of my grandmother’s artwork and memoirs.

I published a picture book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (Lee & Low/Children’s Book Press, 2006), incorporating the Topaz Art School.

Illustration by Felicia Hoshino from A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Really, how could I not go to the Grand Opening with my mom and Mich? The internment history made it a bittersweet occasion. Yet it turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive experience.

This museum is more about the future than it is the past.” — Don Tamaki

Hundreds of people — of all ages from all over the country — attended the events on Friday, 7/8 in Salt Lake City and Saturday, 7/9 in Delta. The outward energy was upbeat and, well…celebratory. It was as if the community was saying, “We did it. We survived. We were wronged. We prevailed.”

At the reception in Salt Lake City

Below are the Topaz survivors who were able to attend the events. I wanted to hug each and every one of them! Three moments during the weekend made my eyes well up: at dinner and at the opening ceremony when the survivors were asked to stand, and when this group photo was taken. Each of them had traveled such a long distance in life. What were their stories?

Topaz Museum is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It features art as well as artifacts from the camp, displaying the beauty that internees managed to create during one of America’s darkest chapters.

Located about a 20-minute drive from Topaz and about a 2.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City

Of all the camps, Topaz held the highest concentration of professional artists. Topaz Art School served several hundred students, from young children to senior citizens, in classes that ranged from ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) to oil painting. Not only did classes allow for creative expression and exploration, they documented camp life since internees were prohibited from owning cameras.

Seeds for the museum were planted 35 years ago in two of Jane Beckwith’s Journalism classes at Delta High school. Over the years Jane, the Founder and President of Topaz Museum, worked tirelessly with the help of others to grow these seeds into the museum.

With Jane Beckwith at the reception

The events were organized to a T by Jane, other Topaz Museum Board Members, and volunteers:

There were speeches…

Don Tamaki, one of the pro-bono lawyers for Fred Korematsu’s appeal case


Ogden Buddhist Taiko Group during dinner at Salt Lake City

Shirley Muramoto, Koto and Vocals, at the Grand Opening in Delta


A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is now available at the museum gift shop.

…a play…

…even a pack of greeting cards in the welcoming packet…

…and, of course, artwork. The museum features many artists; here is one each of my grandparents’ pieces.

Tigers #1, #2, #3, and #4 by my grandfather Matsusaburo “George” Hibi

Print of Laundry Room by my grandmother Hisako Hibi. The original is at the JANM in LA.

In 1972 my grandmother donated the majority of my grandfather’s artwork to the UCLA Japanese American Research Project. In 1996 my mother donated the majority of my grandmother’s internment camp artwork to the Japanese American National Museum.

My grandparents’ pieces at Topaz Museum were donated by other individuals, known and unknown to my family. It was a joy to see their pieces, especially in this setting — in an ironic sense, back home where they belong.

The local NBC affiliate interviewed my mom about what the museum means to her. At one point she said, “To see my parents’ works, too, displayed here is very meaningful.”

The last event that I attended happened to be the most sobering one: visiting the site of the internment camp itself. What remains of Topaz is an open field, now a historic site.

Standing there, I could only imagine the shock of being removed from the Bay Area — where most of the Topaz internees had lived — to the one-square-mile of desert surrounded by barbed wire and policed by armed guards.

The heat alone felt oppressive. To give you an idea: an EMT truck was stationed there in case any of the guests should need medical care. When I jumped back on the bus and felt the rush of cool air from the AC, my heart sank at the thought that the internees didn’t have even electric fans to provide some comfort.

How did they cope with the hardships? From physical to psychological? How did they endure? While these were not new questions for me, they now felt more tangible.

After the events were over, my mom asked me, “Was there anything about Topaz that surprised you?” It was a thought-provoking question, and I was surprised that only two things came to mind. The first was that there was a great deal more sagebrush than I had imagined. My mom said that indeed a lot had grown since Topaz days. The second was that Delta was located much closer than I had imagined. Mich said that the town had indeed grown over the years and spread closer to the site.

This was my first visit to Topaz, so I felt relieved that I had managed to depict my book fairly realistically. I’m currently writing another children’s story based on the Japanese American internment. Being at Topaz was both grounding and inspiring for my work. I wrote while there and have continued to write since (which is partly why I’ve taken so long to blog about the museum!).

I also left with a better understanding of my mom, even though she had spoken openly of the internment while I was growing up. There was nothing like stepping back into history for a bit with her to bring me to a greater place of knowing.

My mom and me with our Topaz-related books

Finally, I left with an even bigger wish for this grave history to never repeat for any group in America. This deep sentiment was echoed over and over at the Grand Opening. My mom said it in her TV interview: “Justice for all people…We’re a nation founded in democracy.”

This t-shirt, which I picked up for my daughter, also sums it up:

If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods (or desert), please stop by Topaz Museum. It’s filled with gems from the desert. And you’re sure to learn a thing or two about American history.

As Don Tamaki — one of the pro-bono lawyers representing Fred Korematsu in the 1983 reopened case that cleared him of criminal conviction for defying internment orders — said in his keynote speech at the Grand Opening, “This museum is more about the future than it is about the past.”

At Topaz

Until we meet again,