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 2010 - Japanese American Women Remember the World War II Incarceration

Tule Lake incarceration camp, ca. 1943, denshopd-p154-00005
"We were asserting ourselves, letting the broader community know that we're not going to be just meek, intimidated."
   -- Lillian Nakano

Last month's eNews article tackled the difficult topic of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and its role in promoting a sanitized version of the World War II incarceration. In keeping with the theme of power and the historical record, this month's article concerns the marginalization of Japanese American women's voices in the archive. Japanese American history, with its emphasis on military service and, recently, draft resistance, leaves little room for the stories and experiences of women. Based on a series of oral history interviews, this article explores how memories of the incarceration shaped the lives of four Japanese American women in the years following World War II, illuminating the central, though largely unacknowledged, role of women in postwar Japanese American history. Far from silent, these women, in various ways, all drew on their experiences as a source of empowerment and means for enacting social change.

Carolyn Takeshita grew up in Los Angeles and was incarcerated with her family in Poston, Arizona. A young child during the war, Carolyn's most vivid memories surround the period of resettlement when her father decided to move the family to Denver, Colorado, joining the thousands of other Japanese Americans the government deemed loyal enough to leave the camps. Colorado stood as one of the few states that allowed Japanese American settlement, and Denver became a hub for Japanese Americans awaiting the re-opening of the West Coast. After a few years, Carolyn's family moved back to California, settling in Boyle Heights, a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Los Angeles.

While Carolyn remembers very little of her time in Poston, several incidents that she experienced later in life triggered the trauma she had suppressed as a child. A friend once opened a can of condensed milk and she immediately felt nauseous, the smell sparking an "emotional memory" of the terrible food she ate in camp. A more severe incident occurred when Carolyn, then a mother of two and college student, attended a protest against the Vietnam War and the sight of the National Guard reminded her of the armed soldiers in Poston. Re-living this trauma prompted Carolyn to re-evaluate her life and she embarked on a career counseling child survivors of abuse. As she recalled, "I think that my own experience helped me understand in later life how things that happened to people when they were children really do, they don't go away."

Memories of the incarceration also guided Chizuko Norton's professional life during the postwar years. Chizuko, unlike Carolyn, was an adult when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast. Imprisoned first in Pinedale assembly center and then Tule Lake, Chizuko remembers the loyalty oath and segregation process as a particularly trying period for her family. Chizuko's mother became terminally ill during this time, which forced her to make the difficult decision between leaving camp for college and staying with her parents. Though Chizuko remained with her family in Tule Lake, she returned to Seattle after the war to attend the University of Washington, eventually receiving a Master's Degree in Social Work.

While Chizuko rarely spoke of the incarceration with her family, focusing instead on "becoming successful," memories of her mother's illness and death in camp stayed with her. Chizuko also started to witness a proliferation of physical ailments among Japanese Americans during the postwar years, which she connected to the suppressed emotional trauma of the incarceration. Motivated by these personal and collective experiences with loss, Chizuko co-founded the Separation and Loss Institute at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, a training center for medical professionals to better understand the impact of emotional and psychological trauma on physical health.

Kara Kondo was born and raised in Wapato, a small farming community in Eastern Washington's Yakima Valley. Like many other Issei in the area, Kara's father operated a produce farm on land leased from the Office of Indian Affairs. When Kara was young, white arsonists firebombed the porch of her house in one of many incidents of racial violence targeting Issei farmers. This violence escalated following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as whites vandalized the Japanese Association offices and burned other Japanese buildings and homes. "We were made aware, very much aware," remembers Kara, "that there was a great deal of hostility." This racial hostility lingered as the war ended and Japanese Americans began returning to Eastern Washington. Kara estimates that only 2 percent of the original Japanese American community remained in Wapato after the war, many of them unable to find homes or dissuaded by whites from staying in the area.

In the early 1970s, Kara helped organize a reunion of Japanese Americans who lived in the Yakima Valley before the war, bringing the community together for the first time since 1942. The success of the reunion motivated Kara and others to produce a community history, using the Japanese Association of 1935 census to track down all the Yakima Valley residents and their descendants. Kara furthered these efforts when she testified at the Seattle hearings for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). Unlike most witnesses who recounted their individual stories, Kara waived her personal testimony to discuss the impact of the removal orders on Wapato's Issei population. These memory projects - the reunion, community history, and testimony - enabled Kara and other Wapato residents to carve out a space for themselves and foster a sense of collective memory shattered by racism and forced displacement.

Lillian Nakano's involvement with the redress movement was also rooted in a vision of collective mobilization. Born and raised in Hawaii, Lillian was a teenager when the FBI arrested her father and imprisoned him in Sand Island, a Honolulu-based detention camp for people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and non-citizens alike. In 1943 Lillian and her family joined a contingent of Japanese American families sent from Hawaii to incarceration facilities on the continental U.S. and she spent two years imprisoned in Jerome and Heart Mountain. After the war, Lillian lived in several cities before resettling in Los Angeles, where she and her husband, Bert, became active in the emerging redress movement. Spurred to action by her son, Lillian joined the Little Tokyo People's Rights Committee, an organization dedicated to fighting the redevelopment of Los Angeles's Little Tokyo and a precursor to the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR). Nisei women like Lillian played a key role in grassroots organizing efforts, as they worked tirelessly within the community to gain the support of older Japanese Americans who were generally more skeptical about redress than their Sansei children. Lillian views the redress movement as a critical site of empowerment for Nisei women, a space where "we were asserting ourselves, letting the broader community know that we're not going to be just meek, intimidated."

These four interviews represent just a small sample of the diverse ways in which Japanese American women engaged with the past, drawing on their memories of the incarceration as a source of empowerment and action. As these stories show, a female-oriented narrative broadens Japanese American history beyond the well-worn tropes of military heroism, draft resistance, and male redress activism. Including the voices of women allows for a richer and more complex history, one that both enhances and challenges how we interpret our collective past.

This article was written by Megan Asaka, Yale University graduate student and former Densho interview coordinator.

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