Let’s face it. We Japanese Americans of the camp generations still carry a heavy monkey on our backs, for we carry the memory of having been stuck in concentration camps for three years. We were categorized into oversimplified, distorted categories of having been “loyal” or “disloyal” or associated with a family that carried one of those labels, and we were so silent about it for so long. This burden has been on our backs for so long that many aren’t even aware they are carrying it, or that it has become such an embedded part of their persona that the concepts only rise to the level of consciousness, if ever, on rare occasions. Some folks are going to quit reading this column at this point with a “there she goes again” weariness, and I know that many no longer care to give even a thought to these matters.
But there are reasons why these matters are still being studied and debated. And just wait until the musical (yes, a musical) about the camps, called “Allegiance,” comes out later this year. Something is going to hit the fan when it does. I know that these issues are still sensitive points, even painful points because of the way many Nikkei react to their mention. The blank looks that come across many faces betray a profound ignorance of our general history and of the consequences that befell our whole community due to our incarceration. Sometimes I think this is a legacy of our Japanese cultural heritage, a heritage that has among many components — like denial, evasion, resignation to the vagaries of life (you know, “shikata ga nai”), and a herd mentality that dictates a policy that in order to get along, you go along. You submit to practical considerations and act accordingly even if you don’t agree with what it is that you are agreeing to.
All this, however, bumps up against an American education that teaches us a sense of fairness and democratic, individual freedom and rights, and protesting against injustice. The incarceration was a big betrayal of these fundamental ideas and we all knew it.
How you reacted was at the very heart of the struggles that roiled the camps during the registration period of the questionnaires, the formation of the fighting forces through volunteering or submitting to the draft, and other major and minor issues that came up.
Now, I’ve been thinking about these matters for a long time because I have felt this uneasiness due to the monkey on my back, which consists of anger at the government and at those who pressured us to pretend that it was okay and that we had to be “patriotic.” So when someone comes along to help me sort out some of this unease, it’s really helpful.
Reading Cherstin Lyon’s book, “Prisons and Patriots,” was very helpful and clarifying and I highly recommend it. Lyon is ostensibly telling the story of Gordon Hirabayashi and the resisters who became known as the “Tucsonians,” who spent part of the war years in a prison camp building a road in Arizona. But because of her research and deep thinking about the complexities and difficult choices faced by all inmates in the camps, she has come up with a framing that seems to explain the situation in a much more coherent way. It concerns the nature of citizenship in the U.S., both for us citizens and for the state. I cannot boil it down into a few sentences, and you ought to read the book if you are interested in her insights and conclusions. As Franklin Odo puts it, “Prisons and Patriots” shows us “the fascinating ways in which postwar actors sought to play roles in the crafting of a metanarrative for (Japanese Americans), the war, and the nation.”
The stories about the individual resisters are a great read and I was left with a sense of their toughness and the honesty. They were so young at the time and yet they chose not to go along. In their old age, I don’t think it was easy for them to recollect exactly what they thought, what their exact motivations were and everything that happened, but they still held strong convictions. You have to admire their strength. Of course, the draftees also had to make hard choices and the price they paid was in many cases, the ultimate. They also deserve our gratitude and admiration.
I appreciated learning from Lyon’s book about the strong, diverse and at times well-organized resistance within all of the camps to the call for volunteers and the drafting of the young men. In my research, I always marveled at the letters, petitions, position papers, requests, the respectful and reasoned arguments presented by all sorts of persons and groups questioning government policies and treatment. The Nikkei were a well-educated, literate and articulate group at the time, knowledgeable about their situation and thinking about how to deal with the myriad problems that came up. Maybe little came of their efforts, but they obviously tried and the government more or less refused to deal with their questions or squelched them in many ways. This book gives us a different picture than the standard presented in many of the history books.
As Art Hansen put it in his Nichi Bei Weekly review of Lyon’s book (Jan. 1, 2012), “While neither the wartime acts of individual draft resisters nor the pervasive community resistance sentiment … has yet attained a popular hold on the American or Japanese American collective memory, ‘Prisons and Patriots’ promises to provide this development with considerably greater traction.” He goes on to say that it might also serve to contextualize a re-examination and evaluation for those who have been demonized over the years as the “disloyal,” those who became renunciants and expatriates. This is long overdue and Lyon’s book gives us some good basic knowledge for these changes that I think must be made in our collective memory. We’ll never really feel like full American citizens without coming to terms with our past, that monkey on our back.
Chizu Omori, of San Francisco, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.