When Objects Speak

February 27, 2018

Tags: Japanese American incarceration, WW II, JACL, redress campaign

2018 is the 76th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which began the post- Pearl Harbor round-up and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese American civilians on the West Coast of America. Property was confiscated, families ordered out of their homes at gunpoint, men, women and children herded and then detained for the duration of the war into ten detention camps surrounded by barbed wire fences, guard towers, searchlights and armed military guards. Conditions were more than difficult, they were horrific. My dear college friends, John Tateishi and Carol Shinoda, never spoke about it. We were all English majors, we discussed Chaucer. John was my husband’s room-mate; both had served in the military, Jim in the US Navy, John in the US Army. The four of us, on separate coasts, married on the same day. Later, John and Carol came to live in London for two years while we were there. A long, abiding, friendship. How strange, then, that in its earliest days, Jim and I never knew about their family’s experience of the camps, that this painful piece of their back story, like my Holocaust story, had been expunged from conversation, or lay buried somewhere in our psyches and collective memories.

And then, one day, many years later, Carol mentioned on the phone—or was it in a letter?—that John was working for the Japanese American Citizens League, that he was in Washington DC as a lobbyist for the “redress campaign,” testifying in front of President Carter’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, that, in fact, he was the director of that campaign which, in 1988, culminated in an apology from President Ronald Reagan and a reparation pay-out to all survivors and/or descendants of the mass incarceration. Truth and reconciliation. I often wonder if that model might be used for our African American and Native American descendants and/or, more immediately, for our Dreamers. But that’s a sidebar here, or perhaps a flash forward.

With formal, governmental apology and monetary albeit token reparations, John, Carol and others of their generation had found their voice. John eventually became the Director of the JACL, and Carol became the Director of the Bay Area Writing Project @ UC Berkeley, our alma mater. Both, by now, have written extensively about their histories which are still being excavated and expressed in a myriad of projects. John edited an oral history of the camps called “And Justice for All,” (https://www.amazon.com/Justice-All-Japanese-American-Detention/dp/029597785X) and Carol is now on the editorial staff of “50 Objects.”

https://www.facebook.com/50objectsNikkei/

http://50objects.org

First up in the year-long 50-Objects digital “journey” are paintings by Gene Sogioka, an established Disney cartoonist imprisoned in the Poston detention camp in Arizona. Using watercolors as his medium, he documented intimate, candid scenes of suffering and resilience, which have never been seen before. I thank his daughter, Jean Sogioka La Spina, for allowing me to use the image of a young boy resisting his father’s arrest by the FBI for this post. She has also collected the paintings into a book:

http://www.blurb.com/b/7959845-an-american-family-album

Sadly, they feel both resonant and current.

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