THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Classical music behind barbed wires


bioline_Greg Robinson

(Editor’s Note: The following was co-written with Jonathan van Harmelen)

In the tragic and difficult conditions faced by Japanese Americans confined in the War Relocation Authority camps during World War II, one imposing arena of achievement was in the arts. In recent years, a number of books and exhibits have highlighted not only the extraordinary skill and craftsmanship of inmate painters, illustrators and producers of decorative art, but the important role that the production of arts and crafts played in the everyday lives of those confined. As Delphine Hirasuna revealed through her book and exhibit, “The Art of Gaman,” art offered inmates of all ages — especially the Issei — a powerful means of overcoming the rigors of the camp experience and documenting hidden injustices.

At the same time, the camp experience was marked by music, both performing and listening. While some Japanese Americans showcased traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and the koto (Japanese stringed-instrument), jazz and popular music remained a large part of daily life. In recent years, there have been stories about such figures as Mary Kageyama Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” who performed at talent shows and dances. The youthful music director, Lou Frizzell, who mentored and aided inmate performers at the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp (and who was later invited to play himself in the 1970s TV-film version of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir “Farewell to Manzanar”), has also been celebrated.

Chroniclers of the camps have noted how music provided a source of enjoyment and sense of achievement to Japanese Americans. The most comprehensive work on music in camp, George Yoshida’s monograph “Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960,” documents the popularity of big band music among Nisei in camp, as well as taking up Yoshida’s own experience as a leader of a jazz quartet in the Topaz (Central Utah) camp. A contrasting approach is taken in Minako Waseda’s article in the Densho Encyclopedia on music in the camps. Waseda provides a cogent discussion of the place of both traditional Japanese music and American jazz and popular music in camp, and the tension that these represented between preservation of a traditional Japanese cultural identity and forces of Westernization.
Curiously, the presence of Western classical music in camp has remained largely absent from the discussion. Yet, like the musical genres discussed by Yoshida and Waseda, the performance and appreciation of classical music afforded the inmates a means of gaining acceptance within mainstream American society. Indeed, the organization of string ensembles, choirs, and in a few cases even full-fledged orchestras represented a distinct example of gaman (to endure) by the inmates.

Such musical activities built on a broad foundation. As Mari Yoshihara reminds us in “Musicians From a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music,” there is a longstanding tradition of people of Asian ancestry playing Western classical music. Certainly, during the prewar period, masses of Nisei took music lessons and played in school orchestras and local ensembles. (As detailed in recent issues of “The Great Unknown,” a series of outstanding Nisei opera singers were products of prewar West Coast communities.)

Once confined in camp, Japanese Americans presented classical music in a number of different ways, including concerts of recorded music, recitals by soloists, and performances by organized ensembles such as chamber music groups, choirs and orchestras. Concerts of record albums were the earliest medium of classical performance, because of their simplicity and the lack of available instruments. These concerts became sources of solace amid the boredom and suffering of camp. Most of these phonograph recordings were provided by the inmates themselves, and represented some of the few prized possessions taken along by families at the time of the incarceration. As a result, concert organizers produced a census of record holdings by different inmate families.

Among the first such concerts took place in the Fresno Assembly Center, where former music student Kazue Sekiya organized “listenings” in recreation halls, and ran advertisements in camp newspapers for upcoming concerts. Sekiya’s concerts included selections from George Gershwin’s 1935 African American “folk opera” “Porgy and Bess,” Beethoven symphonies, and Tchaikovsky ballets. Similarly, on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1942, community members at the Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camp congregated for a concert of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” played on a phonograph in the center of the mess hall. A sign was hung outside the hall to notify guests to wait between pieces to enter. At the end of the session, inmates were asked whether the concerts should continue. One respondent from Block 24 wrote, “What else would I have to look forward to on Sundays? Especially in view of the fact that there are no other avenues open for Sunday evening enjoyments (theater) I think they should be continued — after all, we do have a large audience each Sunday evening.”

Meanwhile, as Japanese Americans moved from the Assembly Centers to the 10 WRA camps, officials began to officially request musical instruments with which to hold music classes. In an interview many years later, Mae Hara, who worked with education, explained that the music program began with no budget, relying mostly on donations of pianos by local churches. WRA officials reached out to local schools to donate instruments to the camp as part of the school curriculum. Once instruments became readily available, choirs, pianists, and string groups could organize as part of school classes and provide a new outlet for both children and adults. Interestingly, the quality of music programs varied along the lines of state educational standards operative in each camp. Thus, while Manzanar had a vast curriculum on music education available, funded by the state of California, Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas could offer less funding for music appreciation. (When Jerome closed its doors in 1944, the camp instruments were then forwarded to the Topaz camp in Utah.)
Performances of classical music, while less prominent than those of the big bands that provided music for social events, were common in camp. For example, either piano or violin soloists were featured at countless graduation ceremonies. Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” remained a commencement staple in camp schools, and John Philip Sousa’s marches were performed on different occasions. The Manzanar High School band even played excerpts of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” then only a few years old, for the Christmas ceremony. By the later years of camp, full orchestra concerts appeared. The Manzanar Free Press on Feb. 21, 1945 reported a concert by the Manzanar Symphony Orchestra, featuring selections of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser Overture,” Grieg’s Peer Gynt “Suite,” excerpts of works by Johann Strauss, and a composition by inmate Harry Tashima.

In the postwar years, a number of Japanese Americans rose to prominence within symphonic circles. Helen Matsunaga Shaw, who was confined at Santa Anita in California, before relocating to Rockford College, was a renowned violinist who performed with the National Symphony Chamber Orchestra.

Violin prodigy Kazuko Tajitsu (Kawamoto) shined as a soloist and opened up a studio in the New York area.

The percussionist Tom Tsuji, who started as a jazz drummer in the Topaz camp and played alongside George Yoshida, went off to become the principal tympanist of the New Orleans Symphony and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, becoming in the process the first Japanese American to play with a national orchestra.

Lyric soprano Ruby Yoshino (Schaar) founded a multiracial band that accompanied her on a national tour. Some ties proved even more durable. Kazue Sekiya, who started listening classes at the Fresno Assembly Center, served as a choir pianist in the Fresno area after the war, and would receive an honorary music degree from California State University, Fresno 68 years after her forced departure in 1942.

Kent Nagano, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, has traced his own interest in classical music in part back to the experiences of his parents in camp — Nagano lists his mother, pianist Ruth Okamoto, as a major influence on him.

Even as Nagano’s symphonic work “Manzanar: An American Story” (with narration by Philip Kan Gotanda) evokes the wartime experience, the talented violinist Kishi Bashi’s recent album “Omoiyari” pays tribute to those who suffered in the camps.

All these examples point to the importance of further research on the central importance of music to those who endured the camp experience, and the role of the camps in furthering the continuing tradition of Japanese Americans as successful classical musicians that remains today.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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