Inmates’ historical narratives for the layperson



By Gail Y. Okawa (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020, 272 pp., $26, paperback)

Back in 1980, very little had been written about the World War II imprisonment experience of more than 5,500 Japanese American aliens (Issei) within the hodgepodge of 24 U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Army concentration camps as against what some 120,000 aliens and Nisei/Sansei citizens of Japanese ancestry underwent in the 10 War Relocation Authority-administered concentration camps. Accordingly, the former confinement sites were often carelessly dismissed as “those other camps.”

During the succeeding 40 years, a profusion of studies — the most comprehensive of which was Tetsuden Kashima’s “Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II” (2003) — have appeared to provide greater understanding of what the mass incarceration entailed for the continental population of Issei deemed potentially dangerous. But not until the last decade, has the mass incarceration of hundreds of Hawai‘i Issei in mainland detention facilities been accorded in-depth autobiographical treatment, such as that found in Yasutaro Soga’s “Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawaii Issei” (2008); “The Internment Story of the Otokichi Muin Ozaki Family,” edited by Gail Honda (2012); “Taken from the Paradise Isle: The Hoshida Family Story, edited by Heidi Kim” (2015); and Suikei Furuya’s “An Internment Odyssey : Haisho Tenten” (2017). The beautifully written book under review here by Gail Y. Okawa, a professor emerita of English at Youngstown State University in Ohio, both nicely complements and greatly enriches the content of this quartet of estimable volumes.

Beginning in 2002 and extending over the next 18 years, Okawa devoted herself to tenaciously researching the World War II mainland concentration camp experience of her maternal Issei grandfather, Rev. Tamasaku Watanabe, a Protestant minister, along with that of a correlated cadre of Hawai‘i-originated prisoners, within an assortment of detention facilities (but primarily the Santa Fe Internment Camp in New Mexico). Driven by her dedication to her family and the Hawai‘i Japanese American community, she resourcefully explored a proliferation of archival holdings of primary sources and she undertook interviews with numerous informed people, including a few surviving Issei inmates, to produce in ordinary language “a multivocal, multigenerational, and multigenre narrative” (pp. 7). The targeted readership which she hopes to reach with her book is assuredly not specialists fully conversant with the incarceration history of the Hawai‘i Issei deemed “potential dangerous aliens,” but rather those individuals like herself “who want to research personal encounters with such major historical events” (pp. 7).

One of the many laudable achievements Okawa scores with her bountiful volume, richly enhanced by a plenitude of illuminating illustrations and maps, is to make clear that those Hawai‘i Issei men that the U.S. government rounded up, arrested, and imprisoned in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941 — Japanese language teachers; Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian clergy; journalists; and businessmen — were not only leaders of Japanese-ancestry communities in Hawai‘i, but they were also “educated and highly literate and understood the significance of the written and spoken word” (pp. 105). As a consequence, this “immigrant intelligentsia” developed in their respective camps of confinement a panoply of cultural performances in which to enact their literacy (theater, art, music, Noh chanting, funeral services, sermons), to forge expressive communities within camp society and to mobilize overt and covert forms of resistance to their oppression.

Although Okawa doesn’t herself treat the experience of the eight Hawai‘i Issei women who were incarcerated on the mainland as alien enemies during World War II, she does tell readers that six of them were imprisoned at the camp for women in Seagoville, Texas, with the other two in New Mexico and California, and thus implicitly urges future researchers to pursue this and other neglected dimensions of her research topic.

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