Japanese Interment: Not Only Important for Historical Perspective

When my high school history teacher first taught us about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, I was shocked that something like that had happened. But it was “ancient” history to a teenager. I honestly didn’t see the relevance of the topic to my life in the 1980’s.

As I began researching to write my novel, Go Forward with Courage, the relevance to modern times became increasingly clear to me. While the novel was being edited, my husband drew my attention to an interview given by a retired US Army general who suggested the solution to Islamic terrorism was to lock up young Muslim men in camps. (Watch interview here)

Who gets to decide which Americans are “disloyal”? You might want to believe that the FBI had compiled credible evidence against these Japanese American citizens who were placed in camps, but that was not the case. Their ancestry alone was the sole deciding factor in their internment.

Someone shared this article on my Facebook page this morning, and I thought it was a wonderful example of how little most Americans understand about this topic. A middle school class researched their ancestry and one young man discovered that his grandmother was born in a horse stall during internment.

George Takei’s new Broadway musical Allegiance also tackles this painful period in history. The show is earning rave reviews and features one of my favorites–the beautiful and talented Lea Solonga. I can’t wait to see it myself, and I hope that it continues to shed light on this important subject. Especially since the subject is even more relevant today than it has been since the war.

Making History Come Alive

Jimmie Kanaya in Uniform

I have spent the past 7 or 8 months immersed in World War 2 conducting research for my current novel, which I’m happy to say is nearing completion! Nothing brings the war to life for me more than first hand accounts. One amazing person from the war that I’ve come across was a medic named Jimmie Kanaya. While his family was living behind barbed wire in one of the 10 Internment Camps built to house displaced citizens of Japanese descent during the war, Jimmie fought with the 442nd division and was captured by the German Army. During his time in POW camps, he kept a journal documenting his experiences. He also speaks on film in a short video on The History Channel website.

I am in awe of this man’s spirit and courage. It is one thing to read about history in a text book, but to listen to a man speak about his own personal experiences is to become a part of the experience. As a nation, our stories all weave together–what effects one group of our citizens ultimately has an impact on everyone. Native Americans of old were much more in tune with this knowledge than we are today. For instance, take this quote from Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

My heart is filled with gratitude to the countless Americans who fought with courage in wars. However, after spending so much time reading the narratives from the men who fought, in spite of the complete denial of civil liberties of their own families, I have a special respect for them. I hope that my novel will do its small part to pay tribute to them and their legacy.

photo credit: National World War Two Museum

What does an “American Girl” look like?

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It is a necessity when writing historical fiction to immerse yourself in a time period in order to write a story set with that backdrop. My current work in progress is set in the midst of World War 2, and as I wasn’t alive in the 1940s (I’m sure my children will be shocked to realize this!), I rely on research to paint a picture of daily life in that era. I came across the magazine cover for The American Girl, a publication of the Girl Scouts. One of the characters in my novel is a young girl who is interned in Arkansas with her family due to their Japanese heritage. As she is adjusting to her new life away from California, she sees this magazine cover (see picture at top of post). I tried to put myself in her place and see the cover through her eyes–someone who is mistrusted because of how she looks.

If your features are those of Japanese ancestry, how would looking at the features and coloring of these young girls make you feel? Would my character feel like she would fit right in with these two, or would she feel too different in physical appearance to feel “included”? Another interesting aspect of the historical backdrop for my novel is the setting. Arkansas during the 1940s was under Jim Crow laws. It wouldn’t only have been the young girls of Japanese ancestry who wouldn’t see any resemblance to themselves in this cover image.

Obviously in 2015 our culture is much more aware of portraying a variety of ethnicity on magazine covers, books, movies, etc. Thankfully every young American girl doesn’t grow up with only Barbie for a role model. There is even a series of books (complete with dolls, outfits and accessories) called American Girl books. I read these books with my daughter years ago and they do include some characters that are “non-white” among the majority that are some variety of Caucasian.

Seeing this magazine cover made me ask myself, “What does an American Girl look like?” I can’t think of one image in my mind. We come from so many different backgrounds and regions of the world and therefore we all look different from each other. Personally, I like the differences. I would hate to live in a place where everyone looked like slightly varied copies of one basic original specimen. It would be rather like the clone army in Star Wars where everyone looked just like Boba Fett!

Still I wonder if little girls that are African American ,Indian, Asian or Hispanic would look at a cover like this one and feel like my character Michi felt. I hope not, and I am charging myself to be more aware of magazine covers and movie posters around me. I recently heard about a controversy involving a major retailer using a white girl to promote a clothing line for a movie with an African American as the main character.

I would love some feedback from people who might relate to the character in my novel, or from anyone who has an answer for my question in the title of this post.

All are punished…

I read an amazing poem last week. I am not generally a fan of poetry, but this one really grabbed my attention. It was written in the 1970’s by Mitsuye Yamada. Her family was taken to a camp along with many other Japanese-Americans during World War 2 after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the interments. The title of the poem is To the Lady, and the very beginning of the poem states, “The one in San Francisco who asked: Why did the Japanese Americans let the government put them in those camps without protest?”

Okay, so already my dander is up! Really? Someone is going to blame the Japanese-Americans for “letting” themselves be put in “those camps”! The poem goes on, filled with irony, listing all of the things Japanese-Americans “should have” done to prevent this from happening to them and then goes on to list all of the things “the lady” would have done to stand up for her fellow Americans. The ending of this poem is probably what really has me pondering it a week later. It ends with the simple phrases: 

You let’m
I let’m
All are punished.

All are punished. That really spoke to me. I’ve been spending so much of my recent past mired down in research of my own family’s history involving slavery. Isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself? Any time a group of people is oppressed for any reason, it is because “we” as a society let it happen. And if it happened once, we’d be crazy to think it couldn’t happen again. All it takes is fear fanned by propaganda, which turns into hysteria. Anything seems justifiable it seems under those conditions. 

In writing Burning Prospects, I had to wrangle with my own feelings regarding the fact that my ancestors were slave owners. There were scenes that I wrote with tears streaming down my face. In fact, the novel is dedicated the the slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation. Obviously there is nothing I can do to help them now. However, the legacy of slavery exists today–we see it in the news every day. When we let fear or prejudice influence our actions, we are all punished. Not just the group that is being oppressed…but all of us. It hurts our nation collectively when any citizen is denied the civil liberties promised to us in the Constitution. Why? Because it chips away at our integrity and weakens our nation by dividing us into fragments. 

I do find myself grieving the blights on our nation’s history: The Indian Removal Act, slavery, the interment of Japanese-Americans and the Jim Crow laws. Let’s not become “the lady” who would ask why people would “let” themselves be unfairly treated. Instead we should be determined to learn from history and collectively refuse to let history repeat itself. 

Yamada, Mitsuye. “To the Lady.” Camp Notes and Other Writings / Mitsuye Yamada.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998. N. pag. Print.

Image courtesy of California State LibraryImage