For Japanese Americans who lived through America’s concentration camps, the one thing many Issei and Nisei survivors shared in common after camp was silence.
“They didn’t talk about camp,” is what numerous Sansei and Yonsei have said.
However, over time, many did talk, maybe not to their families, but in the 1990s more than 900 survivors decided it was time to tell their stories. They recorded their oral histories with Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share the history of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.
For 25 years, Densho has been collecting these stories to pass on to the next generations. And last fall, Densho, along with brother and sister duo Hana and Noah Maruyama, came up with a unique and modern way to do just that.
It’s called “Campu,” a podcast written and produced by the Maruyamas that draws extensively from Densho’s oral history collections and explores some of the lesser-known aspects of the World War II incarceration.
“Over the past 25 years, Densho has amassed hundreds of oral history interviews and one thing I love about ‘Campu’ is that it gives listeners a sense of this rich collection of voices,” said Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda.
In each episode, Nisei voices tell their family stories, often in real and painful ways.
“Our parents could not vote,” a Nisei voice says in the first episode. “They couldn’t become citizens of this country.”
“Our front porch was set on fire,” remembers another Nisei.
The show hosts spin these narratives out of seemingly mundane things that gave shape to the camp experience. Things like rocks, paper, cameras and fences. In the fifth episode, the theme was latrines.
“I remember I hated to go to the bathroom,” says Nisei #1.
“You’re just sitting on these holes,” says Nisei #2.
As they delve deeper, several survivors recalled the chamber pots they used inside their barracks so they wouldn’t have to go to the latrines at night. One Nisei remembered that a woman in camp used to make tsukemono (pickled vegetables) in the family chamber pot.
“She gave us the tsukemono, but our mother told us not to eat it,” a Nisei voice says.
“Eww,” says Hana.
A native of Washington, D.C., Hana, 30, is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Minnesota. Prior to her studies, she worked for American Public Media’s Order 9066, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
A composer and the show’s audio engineer, Noah, 27, is based in Washington, D.C., and has worked with numerous professional musicians after graduating from the University of Maryland.
Descendants of family members who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., Jerome, Ark. and Gila River, Ariz., the siblings said that as hapa Yonsei, their parents didn’t hide their family history, and in fact, shared several books on camp with them as they were growing up.
Their Maruyama and Tsuji grandparents didn’t like to talk about camp, but instead shared their experience by taking them to places such as the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and to the former Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Two years ago, Hana had an idea to create a podcast and tell the camp story the way she wanted to tell it. In 2020, with the COVID-19 lockdowns, both Hana and Noah were looking for something to do and “Campu” was born.
She contacted Densho, who at the time was pivoting from in-person to digital programming due to the pandemic. Thus, an ideal partnership was formed. The Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation came on board as sponsors, and the show was good to go.
And from day one, both siblings knew that their target audience for the show was going to be Japanese Americans, many of whom are now ready to hear these stories.
“It was important to us that people who were actually there are telling their stories,” said Hana, in a recent interview from her home in Minneapolis. “We wanted it to be about how people lived.”
Reaction thus far to “Campu” has been positive, according to Densho’s Ikeda.
“This is Densho’s first podcast and we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to turn out, but we’ve been blown away by the work Hana and Noah have done,” he said.
“The feedback I’ve heard from friends, family, and other Densho supporters make it clear that it has really hit the mark for them as well.”
Throughout the first season, the siblings have also dealt with sensitive subjects such as sexual assault, rape, peeping Toms and murders that happened in camp. In the second episode, they dealt with the so-called loyalty questionnaire, in which the Wartime Relocation Authority asked wartime inmates if they were willing to serve in the U.S.’ armed forces, and whether they would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and forswear allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor.
They read their grandmother’s responses to the questionnaire.
Although these subjects still remain controversial, the siblings believe they need to be discussed in order to repair rifts and bring healing. “We want to bring it up in good faith and earnestly,” said Noah. “But we want to talk about it.”
In another unusual yet powerful move, at the end of each episode, Hana and Noah acknowledge and recite the names of some 60 Nisei whose voices appear in each episode. As they read each name, these people, many of whom are now deceased, are remembered and brought back to life.
“I don’t care if no one listens,” says Hana. “It’s important to recognize these stories and the way we can do that is by saying their names. They deserve that. We’re honoring them, and the work they did to tell their stories.”
And break their silence.
To listen to episodes of “Campu,” visit the Densho Website: https://densho.org/campu/.