The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration: Missing links of my history and warnings for our country’s future.

By Peter Horikoshi. Posted May 15, 2024

One of my biggest regrets in life was not asking my parents about their incarceration at the Heart Mountain “Relocation Center” in Wyoming during World War II. My brother and older sister were also imprisoned there but were far too young to remember anything about living in the camps. Both of my parents have passed away and we have no other living relatives who were adults when my family was forced to move from Wapato in eastern Washington state. There isn’t anyone who can answer questions about my family’s experiences there.

In talking about family history and the desire to preserve lessons learned, one of my brothers-in-law said that we can’t even conceive of the questions that we might have asked our parents and grandparents. An example of this is the swimming area at Heart Mountain that was created by the camp administration after two young boys snuck out of camp to the nearby river and drowned. How would we even know to ask about such a traumatic event?

Heart Mountain Concentration Camp. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto.

Drawing upon the stories, historical documents, poems and written statements by those directly involved in the mass incarceration, The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration, addresses and answers some of the questions that I didn’t know I wanted to ask.

When I started reading The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration, this anthology of stories and poems and historical documents edited by Floyd Cheung and Frank Abe, I wondered, as friends of mine have asked, why this is being published now, more than 80 years after the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and who is going to read this book? I will offer my thoughts about these two questions.

Reading accounts of Japanese Americans as they experienced the uncertainty of their fates, both in the short term and for the future, helped me to understand how these events might have affected my parents. The inclusion of historical documents that are not usually categorized as literature provides an informative backdrop for the events that occurred. Seeing Gordon Hirabayashi’s written explanation about the reasons why he refused to register for evacuation shows that his actions were well thought out and clearly articulated. Mike Masaoka, one of the leaders of the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL), described meeting with General DeWitt and his staff and being told in no uncertain terms that “evacuation” was going to happen, then having to decide what role the JACL would play in the process. This first-person account of the plans of the Western Defense Command and subsequent thoughts of the JACL allows the readers to come to their own conclusions about whether this turned out to be an appropriate decision to help facilitate the removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans to the so-called Relocation Centers.

Through the stories of writers in their own words, I could imagine and feel what they were going through. Fujiwo Tanisaki in “They Took Our Father Too (Chichi Mo Hipparareta)” conveys the anticipation and uncertainty prior to evacuation as the family prepares for the father to be arrested by the FBI and how they pick up the pieces after it happens. The actual journey from Puget Sound to “Camp Harmony” by Monica Sone describes the emotions of being forced to move to the Puyallup Assembly Center. “Geta” by Bunichi Kagawa tells how a simple piece of footwear like the wooden slippers used in Japan becomes a symbol of the common experiences that all who were incarcerated had to endure through the muddy terrain. “She is My Mother, and I Am the Son Who Volunteered” by Toshio Mori, a chapter in the novella, The Brothers Murata describes the peer pressure that both the Nisei (American-born children) and Issei (Japanese-born parents) faced from others in the camp communities. The statement of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain explains why they refused to participate in the Army’s draft while their families remained imprisoned.

I have seen references to the oft-quoted questions 27 and 28 asking Japanese Americans to serve in the armed forces, to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Seeing the actual language of the infamous questionnaire and the 26 questions before 27 and 28 gives more insight about how intrusive the entire questionnaire was. Questions about residences before camp, relatives in the US and in Japan, education, including Japanese schools, religion, membership in organizations, foreign investments, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and birth registration in Japan preceded Questions 27 and 28. Those in the camps who were eligible to serve in the armed forces were required to submit this information in writing on the questionnaire.

The journey of Japanese and Japanese Americans immediately after leaving the camps is an area that has received more attention in recent years. I was disappointed to see that the editors did not find and include more descriptive narratives of the immediate post-camp experience. Although there is poetry and prose, I would have liked to see more first-person accounts in this section. Fortunately, those who were involved in the movement for redress and reparations have written much about their efforts, and some of these are included in the After Camp section of the book.

The connection between the unjust incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans to events happening in the present completes the book. The last section, Repeating History, though not directly considered part of Japanese American incarceration, links events in the present that draw comparisons with the political and social climate in the 1940’s.

I found the introductions for the different sections of the book – Before Camp, The Camps, and After Camp, to be particularly helpful in understanding why certain stories, poems and documents were included in the book. I also appreciated that they included the perspectives and experiences of the Issei, who are often not included because they were written in Japanese.

I believe that this is why this anthology was published – to provide a more complete understanding of the Japanese American experience that started before World War II and continues today. The stories, poems and documents in this book can certainly be instructive to the families of those who were incarcerated, who have not known what questions to ask their parents and grandparents until it was too late for them to answer. We can draw inferences and inspiration from the authors here and perhaps start to understand what our families have gone through.

Japanese Americans and their descendants aren’t the only ones who should read this book. It can be an excellent resource for courses on Japanese American and Asian American history. Families of Americans of many different ethnic backgrounds have gone through similar periods of intense discrimination. That was why Asian American students like me joined with black, Latino and indigenous students in the 1970’s to create ethnic studies programs. Any literature covering Japanese American history provides a warning about the abrogation of civil rights that is instructive in our country’s treatment of immigrants and marginalized communities.

Lastly, now that those of us who lived through those years are getting older and are becoming the elders in our families, I see us trying to pass along stories to our children who may not be particularly interested in hearing them, at least at this moment. The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration can provide a starting point to conversations within our own families so that future generations can know about their family legacies.

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The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration was edited by Floyd Cheung and Frank Abe and published by Penguin Classics. It is available for purchase from Eastwind Books (asiabookcenter.com), independent bookstores and wherever Penguin Classics are sold.

Peter Horikoshi graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA degree in the individual major of Amerasian (Asian American) Studies. He has worked with Toshio Mori, interviewing him for the anthology Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, Asian American Studies Center, UCLA, 1976, and was part of the Japanese American Anthology Committee that published Ayumi in 1980. He was also a founding member of the Asian American band Yokohama, California, that released an album in 1977, re-released as a CD in 2016, and produced two more CDs, Charlie Chin in Concert and Philip Kan Gotanda in Concert, which are available at YokohamaCA.com.