THEY NEVER ASKED: – SENRYU POETRY FROM THE WWII PORTLAND ASSEMBLY CENTER

Translated by Shelley Baker-Gard, Michael Freling and Satsuki Takikawa (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2023, 200 pp., $29.95, paperback)


“They Never Asked: Senryū Poetry from the WWII Portland Assembly Center” brings some of the poems by members of the Portland Bara Ginsha Senryū group, who wrote and published two collections while incarcerated at the Wartime Civil Control Administration’s detention center in Portland, Oregon.

The Bara Ginsha group was roughly comprised of 22 poets, who wrote hundreds of poems while incarcerated at the camp. Collectively, they tell a story of unjust racism and imprisonment and allow readers a rare glimpse into the emotional turmoil and the literary resistance and defiance of our Issei ancestors. Among the collection, there are extraordinary moments of vulnerability, longing, fear and frustration, and it is incredible to remember that the senryū was written at the exact moment in time (Aug. 8-22, 1942) and behind barbed wire.


The senryū in “They Never Asked” were originally published in a notebook titled “W.C.C.A Assembly Center 1942- North Portland, ORE. No.2.” and discovered in the archives of Masaki Kinoshita, who was a member of the Bara Ginsha club and wrote poetry under the pen name Jōnan, during and after incarceration. (Volume 1, May to July 1942, was not discovered until the end of the project.) The poems in Volume 2 were written from Aug. 8-22, 1942, when the Bara Ginsha Senryū club met four times, where one or more topics were chosen as prompts for writing poems.


Editors Shelley Baker-Gard, Michael Freiling and Satsuki Takikawa worked with additional translators over six years and have presented the senryū in three formats: the original Japanese poem in kanji, kana, their romanized translations and finally the English version. The book includes ample essays, such as a brief history of senryū and haiku in Japanese American communities, notes on the translation process, and a timeline of historical dates relevant to the Japanese American experience.


Given that most Japanese Americans are incapable of reading Japanese, (partially as a result of the ban on Japanese language materials in the World War II camps and an overall disdain for Japanese traditional culture), I marvel at the gift of accessing these Issei voices for the first time. However, I do have questions about the translation process and decisions behind the editorial committee. It isn’t clear whether they translated all 450 senryū in the Volume 2 journal, or how they made their final selection of the 67 poems that are published in the anthology. It appears that the project lacked a bilingual copyeditor, since the book suffers from odd formatting, romanization errors (such as missing macrons for long vowels) and other inconsistencies, which leads the reader to question the overall reliability of the translations. I can certainly see the amount of effort put into this project, but caution those who might quote directly from the collection to double check the hiragana and romaji before reprinting or citing the work


It is worth noting that in the last 25 years, there has been a growth in translated Issei literature. In 1997, Nisei poet Violet Kazue Matsuda de Cristoforo translated and published a major collection of haiku written by Issei and Kibei in the anthology “May Sky: There’s Always Tomorrow.” More recently, a group of bilingual scholars and writers have translating Tessaku (鉄柵, Iron Fence), a literary journal published at Tule Lake between 1944-1945; I eagerly await its completion and welcome the addition of these long missing voices to the canon of Japanese American literature.

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