Who Tells What Story About Japanese American Incarceration: A Review of “Ten Japanese-American Concentration Camps” by Renee Billingslea at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara

By Susan Hayase – Introduction:  Today, persistent efforts of Japanese Americans have made our concentration camp story into “an American story,”  applicable as an object lesson to political leaders advocating policies that scapegoat or deny individual due process rights and to activists in opposition to such policies.  The thirty plus year old redress victory makes our objection to and criticism of the forced removal and incarceration “non-controversial” and therefore easier to access as subject matter for documentary or artistic works.  This may “lower the bar” for artists, but it’s still important for artists to do their homework and for Japanese Americans to allow ourselves to weigh in on the quality – artistic as well as political content – of works on this topic.

The best thing about Renee Billingslea’s photography exhibit at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara is the title, “Ten Japanese-American Concentration Camps.” (FMI: Triton Museum ) For most Japanese Americans, this is a preferred terminology, although there is habitual use of “internment camps” in news media, by politicians, and even amongst ourselves.  Using this terminology is still controversial in some circles today, even though it is technically correct and differentiated from the extermination camps or death camps operated by the Nazis as part of the Holocaust in WWII.  In 1998, an exhibit similarly entitled “America’s Concentration Camps” at the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles) was brought to Ellis Island and provoked a national debate over the propriety of replacing long-used euphemisms like “relocation center” and “internment camp” with unapologetic terms that didn’t pull any punches about the lack of judicial process afforded the prisoners based on their race. (FMI: Concentration Camp Debate )

Billingslea’s exhibit is composed of ten contemporary photos of the current conditions at each former camp location modified with small cutouts from WRA (War Relocation Authority) propaganda photos stitched into the mostly empty landscapes with gold thread.  She makes an attempt to place the historic photo in such a way as to merge the past and present.  Some use images of a still-surviving tree to anchor the placement of buildings that no longer exist.  Some of the efforts to merge are less seamless, resulting in a slightly tilted historic image and inconsistencies of size and perspective as in the photo of Manzanar where the relationship of the historic barracks seems not quite situated correctly in relation to the Sierras in the dramatic background.

For each photo of one of the ten camps the card mounted on the wall identifying the name and location of the camp in the photo also identifies the WRA image inserted into the larger photo.  I thought it was interesting, and also a little disappointing that the only information included in each card was the original WRA photo caption, which sound dated in that they call the people in the photos “evacuees” (a euphemism that masks the coercive nature of their confinement) and because they are conveying a cheerful propaganda message about the activity each photo represents.

The exhibit is accompanied by a statement by the artist.

We all have that “special” teacher who made an impact on who we have become, today.  For me, it was Ms. Thompson, she was beautiful. She always stood tall wearing a bouffant hairstyle, horn-rimmed glasses and a smooth polyester, pencil-lined dress with a rounded collar.  Ms. Thompson was not only kind and caring but adventuresome, taking on the task of introducing me and the other children in my class to culture through the unique tastes and flavors of food.

I was recently reminded of Ms. Thompson while listening to a story on National Public Radio hosted by The Kitchen Sisters.  On the radio, the voice of a young woman described in detail a recipe her grandmother had recently passed down to her, “Weenie Royale,” a dish always served at family gatherings, a reminder of difficult times her grandmother and other relatives endured while being incarcerated in their own country during WWII.  It was a dish commonly cooked and eaten while “at camp.”

By chance, I had just returned home from Washington, D.C., where I was conducting research at the Library of Congress.  There, I examined hundreds of photographs in The (sic) Farm Security Administration file.  Among the photographs I pulled to view was an image by F.S.A. photographer, Russell Lee, taken in the month of May, 1942, in Salinas, California.  In the photograph there are two young Japanese women standing at a counter in a mess hall serving, with chopsticks, a typical American-style meal of a hot dog, chips, and potato salad.  The description of the foods in both the radio story and in the photography, made clear the connection the control of the government over Japanese Americans during this time.  This connection took me back to a day in early 1970’s when Ms. Thompson invited me and the rest of the third-grade class to sit on the floor cross legged in a circle surrounding a bowl of dried fish and rice.

Ms. Thompson, a name most likely not her birth name, was Japanese-American.  At the time she most likely did not have a voice to discuss her feelings of injustice and frustration from being incarcerated by her own government, but instead taught us to love and appreciate other cultures.  I am grateful for Ms. Thompson’s lessons, and I dedicate this exhibit to her.

It’s not clear to me what the connection is between “Ms. Thompson” and the National Public Radio show or the photos from the Farm Security Administration.  It seems like this is offered as a personal reflection by Billingslea, to indicate the motivation for her work, but her characterization of her teacher seems slim and based on supposition, and the story seems unrelated to the modified photographs in the exhibit.  The only mention of the teacher’s voice is to theorize that she didn’t have much of one.

I found a video interview of Billingslea celebrating her being named a SVCreates Laureate for her work on this piece.    She says, “I’m a visual artist who uses art to tell forgotten stories.” Elaborating, she says, “I think about what stories need to be told to help us move through issues of racism and injustice.”  In describing the stitched-in WRA photos in her landscapes of the present-day concentration camp sites, she states, “I’m trying to tell a story of today and the past.” (FMI: Billingslea interview)

This stated aspiration reminded me of several examples of art that I think do this blending and contrasting of present and past really well.  One is the photography and research work of photographer Paul Kitagaki, Jr. entitled “Gambatte!  Legacy of an Enduring Spirit, Triumphing Over Adversity: Japanese American Incarceration Reflections, Then and Now.” Despite the very long exhibit title and some extensive stories in text, Kitagaki’s photos of Japanese American former incarcerees today paired with the historic photos in which they were captured by Dorothea Lange and other photographers working for the WRA during WWII are instantly evocative of past, present, and the passage of time and memory.  The faces of elderly Japanese Americans alongside their younger selves force us to confront the long-term impact of the incarceration on specific humans. (FMI: Gambatte exhibit)

Photo by Dorothea Lange (l) and photo by Paul Kitagaki (r) from the Japanese American National Museum.

Another example that movingly evokes past and present is the work of photographer John Tonai.  Accompanied by remembrances of his family members, one of his most effective photos tenderly shows his elderly father walking down a path in the present at the site of the WWII incarceration of his youth. (FMI: Tonai photos)

Photo essay by John Tonai.

Two more examples of the inextricable ties between past and present that also make explicit statements about political accountability in a present with the concentration camps in the background:  Na Omi Judy Shintani’s “Dream Refuge for Children Imprisoned” which ethereally intertwines drawn images of sleeping children in WWII detention camps and those held today in migrant detention by ICE accompanied by audio of family stories from WWII and today; and Erin Shigaki’s mural at Bellevue College that unapologetically names the local family dynasty that used its considerable resources to agitate for the exclusion of Japanese immigrants for decades before Pearl Harbor and then profited from the removal of Japanese farmers from prime property that became the basis for a development empire that dominates the area today.  Shigaki’s mural was so powerful that it was secretly censored by the college that commissioned it and that also receives donations by that wealthy family, descendants of Miller Freeman. (FMI:  Shintani exhibit and Shigaki mural)

Dream Refuge for chldren imprisoned exhibit by Na Omi Judy Shintani. Photo from Triton Museum.

Mural by Erin Shigaki at Bellevue College.

The strength of the works of these four Japanese American artists is the strong conjuring of past and present with the clear continuity of the human lives involved and in addition, the real and varied human family stories that are directly tied to their incarceration experience.  By contrast, Billingslea’s stitched photos are empty of people in the present and most of the historic photos contain unnamed people, with some notable exception.

It’s ironic that Billingslea’s efforts to tell “forgotten stories” include one photo that can’t help but refute this alleged loss of memory.  In the photo of the Heart Mountain Concentration Camp, I recognized the person in the historic photo stitched into the empty landscape, and this was confirmed by the caption for the WRA photo:  the man in the photo is the late Eiichi Sakauye, who was a prominent member of the pre-war and post-war Japanese American community in the Santa Clara Valley and who was the author of the book, “Heart Mountain:  a photo essay.”  He was also one of the founders of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, a repository and educational operation that has been telling various aspects of the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans for about thirty-three years. (FMI: Eiichi “Ed” Sakauye)

In fact, the story of EO9066 and its aftermath is NOT a forgotten story, and this is due in large part to the persistent, dogged efforts of generations of Japanese Americans over many decades starting at some point after their release from incarceration.   Billingslea doesn’t note and probably doesn’t know that Japanese Americans have been doing public education on this issue in all mediums – photography, documentary film, oral histories, theatre works, poetry, books – fiction and non-fiction as well as graphic novels, visual art, music, curriculum development, political activism – on some level ever since the camps closed and especially since the dawn of Asian American Studies, the beginnings of the grassroots redress movement and then in the projects that have been funded by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, the California Civil Liberties Public Education Project, the National Park Service Japanese American Confinement Sites grants – funding opportunities that Japanese Americans fought for – and many Japanese American local and family foundations.

Photo from 50 Objects project.

Japanese Americans, both the formerly incarcerated themselves and their descendants, have been doing yeoman’s work to make sure that the forced removal and indefinite detention is NOT a “forgotten story.” Yearly “Day of Remembrance” commemorations are held across the country on or near the anniversary of the signing of EO9066.  Pilgrimages to all ten WRA concentration camps sites have been underway since the late 1960s, and 2019 was the first official Pilgrimage to Crystal City, a Department of Justice detention camp.  And, although there is misinformation about Japanese American history still floating around, although some people want to recreate it in policy today, it doesn’t seem very “forgotten” mainly because of the efforts of the Japanese American community over decades. (FMI: Day of Remembrance)

Originally, I decided to review Billingslea’s exhibit because a number of Japanese Americans drew my attention to something she said in an interview: “Recognizing that I’m very much an outsider doing this work . . . I think in a way allowed me to do the work, because I don’t carry the trauma that a lot of Japanese Americans [have].”  This statement bothered my friends. (FMI: Japanese American memories)

The implication of Billingslea’s comment is that Japanese Americans are too traumatized to tell their own story.

It’s very true that the experience of the camps caused trauma in our community, and that it has been passed down through the generations is something that many of us acknowledge.  But Japanese Americans are not ready to be erased or sidelined due to that trauma. While moderating a film panel at the “Films of Remembrance” (a day-long film festival by the Nichi Bei Foundation) all I could think of was an unfolding flower, petals opening from a tightly wrapped bud to a gorgeous, vivacious blossom. There are so many stories that are emerging in Japanese American history – in books and in film, on websites – many stories that couldn’t have been told during WWII or even during the redress movement. Even though the CWRIC hearings (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians) opened the floodgates in 1981, what we’re learning today about Nikkei families and individuals as well as the government during that time period is still a steady stream of new information. (FMI: Films of Remembrance50 ObjectsCWRIC)

This infusion means that if your conception of the Japanese American WWII experience hasn’t been updated for a while, for example, since you last saw “Farewell to Manzanar” during middle school, you may be unknowingly clinging to a stereotype or definitions of that experience that no longer are complete. (FMI: Farewell to Manzanar)

Even more recent discussion of intergenerational trauma can be absorbed in a one-dimensional manner, as I think Billingslea does when she falsely implies that Japanese Americans are too traumatized to take a contemporary photographic, artistic look back at the WRA concentration camps, too traumatized to be the architects of our own drawing of parallels between our experience and that of migrants and asylum seekers today.  This in particular is astounding given the way that Japanese Americans were among the first to step forward to object and offer solidarity when the World Trade Center fell in New York and Muslims and Arab Americans became modern scapegoats for fear and anger. “Too traumatized …” doesn’t fit, when Japanese American communities around the country are organizing today to be there for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, on defending sanctuary, on working to abolish ICE. (FMI: Intergenerational Trauma, JA Solidarity with Muslims, and Japanese Americans Protest ICE)

Being a former incarceree or having a family relationship to someone who was removed and incarcerated does potentially provide insights that others may not have, but the artistic and content weaknesses of “Ten Japanese-American Concentration Camps” have nothing to do with Billingslea not being Japanese American.  Works by people who aren’t Japanese American, such as Luis Valdez’ play “Valley of the Heart” can and do wield an emotional punch while also telling the story from a new vantage point.  Valdez’ play tells the story of two immigrant families whose lives were intertwined – one Mexican and one Japanese – and the struggle of the former to keep the farm going when the latter was in indefinite detention.  It also addresses the issues of the second-generation offspring of each family, their aspirations, and the obstacles they faced, while adding a fresh Chicano perspective. (FMI: Valley of the Heart).

From left: Hannah Woehrmann, Andrew Ortiz, Randall Nakano, Cara Mitsuko, and Ken Chong in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart.”

Another non-Japanese American, Todd Stewart, a one-time assistant professor of photography and digital imaging at the University of Oklahoma, produced a photo exhibit and book entitled, “Placing Memory – a Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment” (2008, Univ. of Oklahoma Press) that superficially is very similar to Billingslea’s exhibit but in which the artist arguably “sees more.”  Stewart shoots contemporary landscapes of the ten WRA camp sites, but unlike Billingslea, his photos are not empty, or requiring inserts in order to weave past and present; in beautiful natural landscapes, Stewart is careful to show the evidence that these sites were inhabited – foundations of buildings, abandoned guard shacks, unconnected electrical poles, lingering barbed wire fencing, as well as headstones of Japanese American babies who died under guard. Stewart’s perceptions of place and history comes through in his artist’s statement: “What surprised me the most about my visit to Manzanar was the immediacy of the experience.  Although the landscape had been abandoned for fifty years, the presence of ten thousand internees was unmistakable.” (FMI:Todd Stewart – “Placing Memory”)

On the other hand, not being Japanese American does not endow Billingslea (or anyone) with a more objective vantage point unobscured by emotional trauma.   Billingslea assumes that it does and therefore falls prey to the idea that being white makes one a neutral observer of the suffering of people of color, and the distance of time – more than seventy-five years since the signing of EO9066 – probably enhances that feeling of detachment.

The stories that Japanese Americans tell are varied, but they aren’t the only stories.  There are many players in the WWII concentration camp drama and many potential insights are as yet unaddressed.  For example, few non-Japanese Americans have addressed the issue of white Americans on any side of this issue, past or present.  What were the sons and daughters of the camps’ architects thinking and how has their ancestor’s actions impacted their own thinking about civil liberties, leadership, and accountability today?  How does the white supremacy of the past relate to assumed white privilege today?

Why do so many Americans today, knowingly or not, take the side of General DeWitt, who famously complained, “a Jap’s a Jap” when he argued in favor of removal and incarceration, failing to differentiate between the Japanese Imperial Naval forces and immigrant Japanese and their citizen children?  Why do so many Americans still trot out the tired rationalization that being put into concentration camps was done for “their own protection”? Why is there a pushback when Japanese Americans make the case that opposing the WWII concentration camps means one must oppose migrant detention and family separation of asylum seekers?  This pushback usually implies that Japanese Americans are special (model minorities?) but others don’t “deserve” civil liberties.   Exploring views such as these would be more in keeping with the “forgotten stories” theme Billingslea cites as well as her wish to address her stated desire to “…help us move through issues of racism and injustice.”

Author’s bio:

Susan Hayase is a third generation Japanese American and her parents were incarcerated in the concentration camps at Amache, CO and Gila River, AZ.

She is a long-time activist in the San Jose area Japanese American community, and was a part of the grassroots movement for Japanese American redress, working in the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC) and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR.)  She was a performing member ofSan Jose Taiko from 1980 through 1990, and she was appointed in 1995 to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board by President Clinton and served as its vice-chair.  Hayase has worked on projects for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj), including the #DontExcludeUs series exploring parallels between Japanese American incarceration and other historic oppression including the Mexican Repatriation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Muslim Ban.  She and her husband are the initiators of Hidden Histories of San Jose Japantown, an Augmented Reality community art project currently under way.  She and her husband are the founders of San Jose Nikkei Resisters, a grassroots multi-generational community organization whose mission is to unite and mobilize the Japanese American community to oppose Trump’s attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers.  Hayase is a retired software engineer and resides in San Jose with her husband and two young adult sons.

Cover Photo:

Kotake family block at Topaz Concentration Camp. Photo by Eddie Wong.

1 Comment

  1. Rod Tatsuno on March 15, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Excellent review. As a former Tanforan and Topaz resident, as well as San Jose, she covers the subject well…

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