THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: An intriguing elegy for Topaz

One of the people who enriched my life was the journalist and educator Guyo (Marion) Tajiri, whom I was fortunate to get to know near the end of her long life. I was further blessed to receive an additional gift from her years after her passing.

I first met Guyo in 2003. She agreed to let me interview her about the years during and after World War II, when she served with her husband Larry Tajiri as columnist and co-editor for the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Citizen. (I subsequently described this visit in the afterword to “Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era,” my anthology of the Tajiris’ writings). That first encounter with Guyo led to several further meetings, and a warm friendship blossomed between us.

In 2007, shortly after I began writing for the Nichi Bei Times, I learned from a mutual friend that Guyo had been hospitalized, and had not long to live. I devoted one of my first “Great Unknown” columns to revealing her career and accomplishments, and immediately sent the manuscript on to her family members to share with her in her last days.

Following Guyo’s passing, I kept in sporadic touch with different family members, such as her niece Karen Okagaki and her nephews Gregg Nakanishi and Jon Funabiki. They kindly offered me documents and granted me assistance with family photos and rights for “Pacific Citizens.”

In early 2016, I received a message from another of Guyo’s nephews, Alan Okagaki. Alan told me that he and his wife Donna would be traveling from Seattle to Montreal for a vacation, and we agreed to meet for coffee. I was glad for a chance to get together with one of my old friend’s relatives. During our chat, Alan mentioned that he had at his house a box of material from Guyo’s house that he had inherited after her passing, and asked whether I could give him guidance as to its scholarly value.

Thus, when I visited Seattle in 2016, Alan visited me at my hotel, and brought Guyo’s box. It contained a number of books on diverse subjects, including a volume on gardening and an album of protest songs by the famed folk singer Woody Guthrie (who had once written columns for the Pacific Citizen).

One of the books in the collection was a slim volume of poetry, “The Parents and Other Poems” by Iwao Kawakami. I had never seen the book and knew nothing of it. (I later discovered that a pair of copies were already housed in public collections — at Smith College and at the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota). I examined the book, and saw that it had been published in 1947, right after the end of the war. The publisher was the (then) newly-founded Nichi Bei Times — the very newspaper for which I had subsequently written my own columns — for which Iwao Kawakami was a sports editor and columnist. While Kawakami was primarily known as a journalist (and as one-time husband of the better-known poet Toyo Suyemoto), I knew that he had written poetry as well, and I recalled seeing his work in numerous anthologies of Asian American writing.

Even before opening the book, I found its existence intriguing, as it represented a rare work of Nisei literature from the early years after the war. Whereas before Pearl Harbor the young Nisei on the West Coast and elsewhere had produced a dizzying amount of poetry and short fiction, they largely ceased in the years after camp, when the mass of previous writers struggled to make a living and recover from the trauma of their experience.

Even among such works as they produced, the camp experience remained all but untouched.

Yet, as I started reading through the poems, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that even though Kawakami had been confined at Topaz in Central Utah during the war, and had edited the weekly Topaz Times, none of the poems seemed to reference the wartime incarceration. Then I came upon “The Paper.”

This poem was an intriguing elegy for Topaz (which the author compares to Nineveh and Virginia City as ruins of abandoned cities lying bare in the desert). It centered on a horrid act of injustice — the shooting of a man who violated regulations by straying too close to the barbed wire fence surrounding camp. I realized that the work was inspired by the 1943 shooting of Issei inmate James Wakasa. I had seen artworks by Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata that depicted the events of the shooting and Wakasa’s funeral, this was the first literary treatment of it that I had found. By citing regulations in bloodless parenthesis, Kawakami conveyed through understatement the horrible inhumanity of life behind barbed wire, and the waste of people’s time and lives that it entailed.

I told Alan that I was excited to learn more about the Kawakami book. Upon seeing my enthusiasm, Alan generously offered to give me the book, and any others from the box I wanted, saying that he knew that Guyo would approve, and that I would make good use of whatever I had. In the end, I took a selection of books that I thought would be helpful or good additions to my library.

Since receiving “The Parents,” I have tried to find further  information on the background of its writing and publication, but have not had much success. Kawakami died in 1976, and seems not to have left behind archives, so the sources of “The Paper” and its eloquent protest over confinement, so rare in the postwar years, remain unclear. I am nonetheless grateful to Guyo and her family for bringing me the volume, which serves as a final echo of the generosity my friend showed me during her lifetime.

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. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

***

‘The Paper’ 

By IWAO KAWAKAMI

(the desert wind blows and sand covers the barbed wire posts—here was once a city a mile square : Topaz, “Jewel of the desert”–a city of ten thousand people, aliens and citizens bound by barbed wire)

reconstruct now the first days of Topaz—

In the grayness following a sunset an old man shuffles along the road near the barbed wire fence

focus the lens of imagination upon an unshaven face beneath a shapeless straw hat—

the face of a Japanese seventy years old

a blue working shirt—patched denim trousers—brown boots

that rise and fall, leaving small craters in the dusty road

(this is the beginning of a Utah night and a wind springs up)

Two pieces of paper start to flutter in the hands of the old man—

His lips are moving

(what are you reading, sir? Even if it is the camp’s mimeographed newspaper it cannot be as absorbing as the sight of purple mountains resting on white sands of the desert)

This is a man who once had a celery ranch near San Diego—

He remembers the wet green stalks on frosty mornings

The Mexicans who said “La Golondrina” as they slashed at the

roots with long knives

the imperturbable young Japanese American truck drivers

the fat Italian commission merchants who kidded him in a market jammed with vegetables

(war has forced an evacuation—harrows and discs begin to rust)

a sheet of paper flies out of the old man’s hands

the wind carries it along like a white lifeboat bobbing in the 
middle of an ocean

a few yards beyond the fence the paper swerves to rest upon 
the sand

(regulation of the War Relocation Authority : all residents of

The center are hereby warned not to go near the fence)

The old man stops, looks at the watch tower some distance away—

Surely guards would not mind if he went after a piece of paper

Slowly he walks toward the fence, bends down to go through

The wires

A buzzard circles lazily above him—swings away in alarm

As a shot shatters the silence of the approaching night

Dust rises in a cloud as the old man falls sideward in the road

The body twitches—grows still—blood seeps through the hole

in the back of the heart

(order of the military police : fire if necessary if any resident

is seen going through the fence)

a GI with a Garand runs down the stops of the watch tower

“Christ, was he trying to escape?”

He sees a mimeographed paper clutched in the dead man’s hand

but does not notice the wind beginning to push another

piece of paper beyond the fence

(Topaz is now with Virginia City and Nineveh—the paper,

buffeted by the rain and wind, has crumbled into dust—

only the mountains and the desert remain)

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