SELMA: Some personal reflections and recollections

I found it refreshing, the movie “Selma,” which recounted the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and thru a black lens. Not surprisingly, it met with some criticism from critics, amongst “whites,” principally. Simultaneously, watching “Selma” caused me to reflect on the road from disenfranchisement to enfranchisement that those of Japanese descent traversed in this country.

Of course, our journey began with the Issei. My father was born in Japan and immigrated to this country in 1906. He married my mother, who was born in Los Angeles but spent her childhood growing up in Japan. Those who did so were called Kibei. I am eerily reminded of what my parents’ experience was prior to them finally being able to become American citizens in 1954, after living in this country for about five decades. Of course, I am referring to the multiple losses and injuries they incurred as a result of those of Japanese descent being unconstitutionally incarcerated during World War II. In spite of that, I can still recall as a youngster (I was born in a prison camp in Gila River, Ariz. in 1943) the joy they experienced as a result of becoming U.S. citizens in 1954. In this respect, and in stark contrast to my parents’ experience, I view the recent experience to disenfranchise blacks, once again, as yet another bitter pill they are being forced to swallow.

Also, of germane importance in the above context, and relative to the Civil Rights Movement, I was in my early 20s at the time. What it served to do for me, though I was largely a bystander and observer, was to awaken my consciousness, which had been relatively dormant up to that time, at least in terms of civil rights, for both people of color and women. One of the crossroads I was confronted with around that time was whether or not to join the Weather Underground. For those of of you who are not familiar with it, it was one of the protest groups that arose in the aftermath of the March On Selma and the Voting Rights Act. For the Weathermen, as they were called, nothing short of violence was called for, in the face of what they perceived as the failure of peaceful protests to accomplish anything significant. Fortunately, I did not choose that path. On an intuitive level I was aware that it would not accomplish anything but perhaps to be imprisoned (once again).

The description above fits perfectly with my particular mindset at the time. Although I was opposed to any violence that would do any harm to individuals I viewed government buildings as permissible targets. I did feel that violence was the only way to right the wrongs that our country had committed. However, what I was not aware of at that time, was that the rage, helplessness and powerlessness, which had emerged from deep within my consciousness was in any way related to those of Japanese descent having been incarcerated during World War II. Like many Japanese Americans at that time, I suffered from what one might call a case of flatness of affect. In other words, and virtually since birth, I had repressed my deepest sensibilities as a human being. Little did I know, ‘til recent decades, that this was a symptom of post traumatic stress.

I discovered the source of my repressed feelings while undergoing a … brief psychotherapy during the 1980s. I had been accepted into a doctoral program and feared that I would likely flunk out. What kept me in the program was the awareness that as a Japanese American, if I were to return to California before successfully completing the program, I would not only have failed and shamed my family but also the wider Japanese American community. I thus became obsessed with succeeding but simultaneously suffered from an acute level of anxiety and depression.

My psychiatrist happened to be European American, which is worthwhile to note in terms of what happened in one of the sessions which I will now share. In my third or fourth session, I somehow entered a light trance state wherein I remained fully conscious. At the same time, I both perceived and experienced myself as an infant in a jail cell and was in a catatonic position. (This is relevant to the emotional numbness observed amongst the Nisei by researchers after WWII, which I will comment upon shortly). The awareness then dawned on me that my psychiatrist/jailer’s job was to release and free me from the confines of the cell, and also, the inner perception that lay just below the level of my conscious mind, i.e. that I had lived my life, theretofore, as if I were looking at my life thru the  bars of a prison cell. (My best sense is that as an infant in camp I did in fact absorb, akin to the process of osmosis, much of what my parents and the larger Japanese American community were experiencing while imprisoned).

In the next instant the infant that was me turned into a raging gorilla. Once that transformation occurred, I gave some thought to killing the “white” psychiatrist/jailer. I then thought of how the Japanese American community that I was part of in camp would regard me. I concluded that my actions would be perceived by them as being shameful and that they would then proceed to ostracize and disown me. I then thought about how the “white” community would react. I quickly concluded that such an action would either result in my death or deportation to Japan. I would then be an individual left without a country or identity, and this latter thought left me with a deeply unsettled feeling.

Is it any wonder then that many of my fellow Japanese Americans, both during and decades after being released from the prison camps, did not talk about “camp,” and if they did, as Donna Nagata states, “More often, ‘camp’ was mentioned very briefly as an incidental topic or a reference point in time. It was not unusual for Sansei like myself to think that ‘camp’ referred to a summer or Scout camp when we were children!”

Along the above lines, Bill Hosokawa, a Japanese American journalist, once wrote a book titled, “Nisei: The Quiet Americans.” What was left unmentioned is that we had also become closet Japanese, except when we interfaced with our fellow Japanese Americans. As many of my research Nisei subjects stated to me in their quite typical understated manner, it was not popular to be Japanese at that time. Of course exacerbating matters even further was the Loyalty Questionnaire that was administered to those of Japanese descent while in camp. Although it was designed to determine who we were loyal to, i.e. Japan or America, on the level of identity, the unstated question became “Are You American,” or “Are You Japanese?” And, what do you then do, when you are comprised of both? In terms of another research study I conducted (“The Battle Between the Nisei Veterans and the Resisters of Conscience”) amongst the Nisei, the Loyalty Questionnaire became a principal source of much of the infighting, divisiveness and factionalism that arose within the multiple prison camps that those of Japanese ancestry were confined within.

In a related manner another phenomenon that I observed in many of the Nisei males that I interviewed (FYI I completed my doctoral dissertation in clinical social work and interviewed 40 Nisei males who were between 10-13 during World War II) was a tendency to walk, as if they were walking on eggshells. In the postwar period they badly wanted to fit in and also be regarded as law abiding citizens, who crossed all of their T’s and dotted all of their I’s. They wanted to be perceived, not only as American but All-American, and consequently, no longer Japanese. FYI, this dynamic (that of attempting to be a model citizen) is also reminiscent of children who have been severely abused and make every effort to appear to be model children, in the hopes that they will no longer be subjected to further abuse. (I worked in the arena of child abuse for about a decade and examined the latest literature in the field at the time.)

George Tsukuda, Ph.D., writes from Santa Rosa, Calif. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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