Unknown discoveries written by Japanese Angel Island immigrants come to light

VOICES OF ANGEL ISLAND: INSCRIPTIONS AND IMMIGRANT POETRY, 1910-1945

By Charles Egan (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, 342 pp., $108 hard cover / $86.40 ebook)

The Chinese poetry carved in the walls of the former U.S. immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay is known by visitors and scholars, and played a large part in the buildings being saved for future generations. What is less known is that Japanese, Korean, Russian, Punjabi and other immigrants also left their marks on the walls. 

San Francisco State University professor Charles Egan uses these writings as a starting point, adding translated prose and hundreds of poems written by Angel Island immigrants from the Nichibei Shimbun, the predecessor to the Nichi Bei Times and Nichi Bei Weekly, and Korean poetry from the Sinhan Minbo, a San Francisco-based Korean language newspaper that was read in the U.S. and Korea. 

“Voices” is thoroughly researched, providing fascinating insights into the lives of many of the writers from Asia and Europe who left their marks on Angel Island. Of particular interest to Nichi Bei readers are the Japanese writings that Egan identifies.

Thousands of Japanese immigrants were among those questioned by Angel Island immigration inspectors between 1910-1940, when the island processed several hundred thousand immigrants, mostly from Asia, and their American-born children. These include the writer of the oldest identifiable writing, Hawai‘i-born Masaru Miyamoto, who carved his name, hometown and year of arrival on a barrack wall. Miyamoto and his mother were on their way to join his father in Fresno, Calif., but he was held on the island while he underwent treatment for uncinariasis (hookworm), which was grounds for deportation if not treated. Egan was able to find his descendants, who traveled to Angel Island to see their ancestor’s writing and add to his narrative through family accounts and oral histories. (https://www.nichibei.org/2015/09/nikkei-angel-island-chronicles-nikkei-family-makes-historic-visit-to-see-ancestors-inscription-on-angel-island). Labor activist Karl Goso Yoneda wrote a series of poems that were published in the Nichibei Shimbun in 1927 and included by Egan. Though born in California and a U.S. citizen, he was held on the island for two months because his family members from Los Angeles were unable to vouch for his identity. 

Angel Island-

What a beautiful name.

Yet today, surrounded by wire fences,

The sadness of prisoners.

Due to his work as an advisor on the renovations in the immigration station, Egan also had access to writings which are no longer viewable by the public. Several inscriptions by Japanese immigrants incarcerated by the Department of Justice as “enemy aliens” (by law, they could not become naturalized U.S. citizens) during World War II are in a closet that is now part of an elevator shaft. Fortunately, Egan photographed them, including an engraving by Takuji Shindō.

June 4

As a prisoner

Hilo City

Shindō

Egan detailed the interrogation Shindō had to go through, his World War II detention, and return to Hawai‘i.

“Voices” is an invaluable addition to literature on immigration and Asian American and Japanese American history, in the words of those who lived through it. Its cost may discourage readers, but the publisher is considering a paperback version that should be more accessible. 

Full disclosure: Egan’s research is a part of an exhibit on World War II detention of Japanese immigrants for which I am a consultant.

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