Seeking the histories of Japanese Americans with disabilities


LOS ANGELES — The Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages (JAMP) presented as part of its Tadaima virtual program on Oct. 15, “Hidden Memories: Seeking the Histories of Japanese Americans with Disabilities,” focusing on the little-known stories of disabled Japanese Americans left out of incarceration and military histories. In many cases, even their families know little of their experiences.

In recent years, disability has become much more visible, with activists Sam Mihara, Selena Moon and Andy Aoki raising their voices about previously hidden histories of Japanese Americans with disabilities.

Mihara talked about his father who went blind in camp, Moon explained her work on the history of Japanese Americans with disabilities, while Aoki shared the story of his son Chuck, a disabled elite athlete. In this conversation, Mihara, Aoki and Moon discussed how the disabilities affected their family members and what they did to overcome them.

His Father’s Story
Sam Mihara, who as a child, along with his family, was imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, reported that his father’s vision problems started many years before, while studying English at Waseda University in Japan, and he was diagnosed with early-stage glaucoma. Despite the handicap, his father was able to go to San Francisco and work for a bilingual newspaper before the war.

“In camp, my father (Tokinobu Mihara) saw that his vision was getting worse,” Mihara said. “In San Francisco, he had been seeing the head of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of California in San Francisco. That doctor performed a procedure to ensure that my father retained his eyesight well beyond the 20 years given by the Waseda doctors. He was able to see because of that doctor’s skills. In camp, Gen. (John) DeWitt would not let my father go back to see the specialist. As a result, lack of medical care in camp resulted in my father becoming blind.”

Learned Braille in Camp
Mihara pointed out that after his father became blind, he learned Braille in camp and invented a Braille system for blind people in katakana. The elder Mihara also wrote a 30,000-word dictionary — all in English with equivalent Japanese words written in romanized form. “For example, in his book, the word ‘toilet’ means benjo in Japanese. Now, if you were around in 1942, you understood what a benjo was. In those days, that was the language, and that’s the book he wrote for people who could read English but didn’t want to learn the 30,000 characters of the Japanese kanji.”

After the war, Mihara’s father couldn’t go back to San Francisco immediately, so the family went to Salt Lake City, where they operated a bookstore for three years before returning to San Francisco. “My father continued writing books. He also created a school in San Francisco for people from Japan who wanted to learn English to become citizens. He opened a store and sold books. Then he opened up another store in the heart of Japantown, the Paper Tree, one of the better stores in the country that carries origami paper.”

In recent years, Mihara has gone on speaking tours at Department of Justice offices nationwide, and also to history teachers, educating people about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. “As of last month, I’ve done over 500 speeches to more than 90,000 students of all ages,” he said. “I tell people the government incarcerated only Japanese, but why not Germans and Italians … A lot of people don’t know this history.”

Absolutely Stunned
Selena Moon, a visually impaired hafu (biracial Japanese American) who has been researching Japanese American mixed-race and disabilities history since attending the Manzanar Pilgrimage on a college field trip 15 years ago, is currently focusing on mixed-race and disabilities in the wartime concentration camps, including research on disabled children in the camps.

“One of the Manzanar exhibits was on education in the camps for disabled children,” Moon recalled. “I was absolutely stunned … Most of the camp experiences were not very good for disabled people, and especially for the children who languished in the camps without an education for many years.

That piqued my interest, given the difficulties I would have had if I had been born in that time and place.”

That interest developed into research on Japanese Americans with disabilities, which largely left out Asian Americans and especially Japanese Americans, Moon related. “In military history, it leaves out disabled Japanese Americans’ voices, about their military experiences. I’m really happy that

I’ve been able to connect with so many wonderful people who have been willing to share their experiences.”

Moon noted that the first Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. around 1868. By 1870, there were disabled people who had been working on the sugar plantations. “They just don’t show up in the records unless they’re in an institution. Even though the census records occasionally talk about disabilities … even finding stuff about camps with all its documentation was hard to find.”

There seemed to be more deaf Japanese Americans than blind Nikkei, judging by the number of children enrolled in deaf and blind schools, she reported. “Mentally disabled people were left out of records in certain institutions. Physically disabled people didn’t really have the same sort of institutions to attend. They’re not really in the records, so it’s only in the camps that I’m finally finding examples of lists of kids with physical

The stories about Asian Americans hiding disabled people are “not true,” she stressed. “Parents helped their kids through school. A lot of deaf children said their families were insistent their kids be treated as normal. There really wasn’t that stigma about disabled people.”

Moon, who was born premature and visually impaired, said her parents “were instrumental in getting accommodations for me in school, getting me to the right kind of program … to live my life as a disabled person.”

When she was in Japan for a couple of years, the teachers there were “very accommodating, they did what they could,” Moon stated. “I didn’t need a lot of accommodation … I wasn’t discriminated against because I was disabled. The discrimination from the kids was because I was hafu. My school had a class for disabled students, they weren’t completely shut away. Coming back to the United States was a culture shock, with memories of my teachers not wanting to accommodate me. They would get irritated at having to provide me services.”

Racial Slurs Common
Andy Aoki, a political science professor whose parents were imprisoned at Minidoka in southern Idaho and Amache in Colorado, related that his family moved to Portland after the war, where the post-World War II racism in the region was “so thick you could cut it with a knife. In the neighborhood where I grew up … the racial epithets being heard in school … were just like the weather, there was no point in even complaining.”

Aoki, speaking in place of his son, elite Paralympics athlete Chuck Aoki, admitted that when his kids were born, racism was “a real concern of mine. But as Chuck started to grow, other issues came up. About 18 months after he was born, we discovered that he had a rare genetic condition. He had no sensation in the elbows and knees and he injured himself a number of times. By the time he got to the seventh grade, the doctors thought he should use the wheelchair full time … The fears I had about race were really much less when he got to school … The disability really set him apart.”

Aoki pointed out that the Paralympics, an elite event for the disabled, “is a nice opportunity for athletes like my son … It’s given a wonderful outlet and role models for disabled people. When Chuck was little, he loved sports, but he didn’t see people that looked like him … Now, there’s been some gains.

Sports Illustrated featured Paralympians on the cover for the first time … There’s recognition for this whole segment of the population that had been ignored. His ancestry continues to be an important part of his identity, but the disability component has really shaped him much more.”

Digitization Helps
Aoki noted that digitization of records of Nikkei with disabilities has really helped gain access to those records. He said if people can push for more digitization, it “would change the world of access for a lot of people.”

Moon added, “I’ve been looking at all the digitized stuff and I’m sure I’ve exhausted everything. Without digitization, I would not have been able to view even a fraction of what’s out there. Now, I’ll have to go to the archives … The archives need to label their stuff that’s disability-related to make things easier to access … Just to get these stories out there is very important.”

She hasn’t found any cases of deliberate neglect of disabled children, Moon added. “Some families were separated from their disabled offspring — not only minors — when the camps started. There weren’t facilities for severely intellectually disabled people … Some kids didn’t go to school, partly because of the distance from the institutions that would have accepted them in the 1940s and ‘50s. There weren’t facilities, especially for mentally disabled children. It wasn’t neglect, it was just nothing they could do … In the postwar years, there was a lot more focus on getting help for disabled children who needed it.”

Densho, among several community organizations, has been very helpful in the search for records of disabled Nikkei, Moon said. “I’ve found so much through Densho. JANM has archives; Go For Broke obviously has all the military records but doesn’t single out disabled veterans. I’ve gotten access to the Military Intelligence Service as well, because they’re military records and because I’m in Minnesota and they’re in St. Paul, although their archives are all in D.C.

The marginalization of disabled Nikkei continues, Aoki stated. “But it’s less than it used to be, with people speaking out and pushing back against it …

I’m so happy to see what people are doing to really fight against that.”

Tadaima is a collaborative undertaking, involving representatives from many different sectors of the Nikkei community along with scholars, artists, and educators committed to actively memorializing the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Tadaima means ‘I’m home!’ in Japanese. Tadaima is JAMP’s way of expressing “we are all home and acknowledging the important concepts centered around being home.” Tadaima also celebrates the history, diversity, strength, and vibrancy of the Nikkei community.

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