From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

March 2007 - The Genji Mihara Letters

From denshopd-p140-00039
"Thank GOD I am very well… No one knows how long we stay here. Also we don't know nothing about outside" (December 12, 1941)
"The war trouble brewing in many different way. You are fragile but please be bright and lively. You know I praying morning and nights. Please good care yourself" (March 18, 1942).

Densho recently digitized over one hundred letters written by an issei (Japanese immigrant) man, Genji Mihara, to his wife during the World War II incarceration. Genji, an accomplished poet and leader of the Japanese American community, was arrested immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and imprisoned in various detention sites around the country. Separated from his family for years, Genji's eloquent words often reflect a sense of longing for home and family, bringing to life a forgotten voice of the incarceration experience.

Genji Mihara's letters begin on December 12, 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor. His writing during this time reveals a deep sense of anxiety surrounding his arrest and detention. Katsuno, his wife, was forced to take over management of their restaurant as well as the additional responsibilities as head of household. Genji spent two weeks in the Seattle Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) station before being transferred to Fort Missoula internment camp, Montana at the end of December.

"I took leadership for bring…Japanese community to Christianize and Americanism or American way. I don't understand why I arrest even war break while other Japanese at business or at home? I done nothing wrong to U.S." (December 25, 1941).

President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the removal of civilians from any area without a trial or hearing. From Fort Missoula, Genji – newly elected camp mayor – wrote about the impending "evacuation" in Seattle, wondering constantly how his family would cope. Again, Katsuno handled all the preparations for mass removal, including selling the restaurant, packing away their belongings and managing all financial affairs. Katsuno and their two sons, Roy and Arthur, were sent to Puyallup assembly center, Washington, and then to Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho. George, Genji's youngest son, enlisted in the army.

"How is your Evacuation and its problems? I watch the news very carefully every day. I do only pray to heavenly father, 'please do not load any more on my dearest one's shoulder. She impose enough heavy burden for me. Ask thy strength help to her'" (March 9, 1942).

The government transferred Genji, along with hundreds of other issei, to Lordsburg, a U.S. Army internment camp in New Mexico. Genji arrived in June of 1942 and internees again elected him camp mayor. Though the authorities heavily censored all correspondence, Genji managed to create a vivid picture of life in camp. During this period, his letters became more expressive, highlighting his talent as a poet and artist.

"Now I hear a phonograph record playing in a neighboring barrack. What a sweet feminine voice. It is so charming and fascinating. 'It's so reminiscent,' says a friend near mine, 'It reminds me of Sixth Ave. & Main St.' I look up at the moon through the window, the record is still playing. A quiet night" (October 31, 1942).

Genji was one of the leaders who protested the poor labor conditions in Lordsburg as violations of the Geneva Convention. In retaliation, camp commander Lt. Col. Lundy threatened the internees and arrested Genji and two other camp mayors, isolating them to an unused barrack. Internees refused to work until their complaints were heard. On August 10, 1942, after weeks of protest, the Spanish consul and representatives from the State Department came to investigate and Lundy released the three mayors.1 Because of censorship, none of this appeared in Genji's letters. The only clue is a three week gap in his writing.

As the months passed, Genji became consumed with the idea of reuniting with his family. His son, Arthur, married a woman he met in camp. Genji could not attend the wedding. Rumors of a family camp in Texas circulated, prompting Genji to investigate the application process for what was later known as Crystal City. The issue of repatriation also surfaced, which was especially troubling to Genji and Katsuno.

"As you know you I permanent living this country with our three boys who is born in U.S.A. Our George wrote me last week from Robinson "THE ARMY LIFE IS SWELL." No doubt, this is our country. Why we should leave to. NO! We have no intention to leave" (November 2, 1942).

The letters stop in March 1943 when Genji was "paroled" to Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho. Although reunited with his wife, one of his sons was already married and the other two had left for the army. It would be years before they were all finally together.

Genji Mihara's writing gives us a rare glimpse into the experience and perspective of one issei man during WWII. Beautifully written, the letters are compelling in their honesty and passion, reflecting one man's struggle to maintain a sense of identity, family and community in the face of overwhelming barriers.

"Happiness is what we make of it ourselves. Remember that it is not conditioned by our surroundings. We know all that real happiness when love each other and build a sweet happy home darling!" (March 3, 1943).

1. Kashima, Tetsuden, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. 197-201. [ link ]

Note: The Genji Mihara letters are available in the Densho Digital Archive.

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