Uncovering the only voluntary work camp for Japanese inmates



By Priscilla Wegars (Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2010, 357 pp., $19.95, paperback)

Most people can barely pronounce Kooskia (KOOS-key), Idaho, let alone know what took place there during World War II. Priscilla Wegars brings to light what went on and what makes Kooskia different and significant as part of the Japanese experience during World War II.

Wegars produced a masterful work of recreating what took place at the only voluntary work camp for Japanese inmates by weaving governmental documents, other archival documents, oral histories, letters, newspaper accounts, and memories of those who where there. The author provided us with broader understandings of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) internment camps as well as how Japanese “enemy aliens” salvaged their dignity and self-determination while being incarcerated.

The irony of the title “Imprisoned in Paradise” might not be lost on the reader, but there are many more ironies that Wegars exposes through meticulous research that hits one square in the face. One of these ironies is that unlike U.S. citizens, Japanese “enemy aliens” had protections of the Geneva Convention of 1929.

Even more impressive was the fact that the Japanese inmates at Kooskia were well aware of their rights, exercised their rights through various means, and as a consequence where treated more justly and had better living conditions. For example their pay ($55-$65), living quarters and food was better than for Americans of Japanese ancestry in the “relocation” camps.

Wegars’ book should be on everyone’s reading list. It is a wonderful and much needed addition to the body of work on the wartime experience of Japanese Americans, demonstrating that Japanese were more than cultural products of a by-gone era (you know, all the gaman and shikata ga nai stuff): they were simultaneously victims who exercised their agency achieving some control and dignity over their lives.

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