What We Forget When We Only Celebrate Japanese American “Success”

There is a certain narrative of “success” that punctuates the history of the Japanese American incarceration camps. Whether it is in books or at pilgrimages to these sites, or the museums that commemorate them, stories of perseverance, fortitude, and “making it” against this terrible backdrop are always there. And it is necessary, this narrative, because it gives folks pride. But at the same time, we must ask ourselves, especially as Asian Americans, what does a history and community built on pride of “success” leave out, and more importantly, who does it forget?

I take pride in my family’s story of escaping Vietnam and making “successful” lives in the U.S. and France. But it also makes me forget that the story is much larger than the ones who made it out, and the ones who made it in America. I get uncomfortable when I see the Cambodian homeless guy in my neighborhood, because it confuses this narrative. It expands what it means to be Asian American, upends stereotypes, and clouds the story of the successful Southeast Asian war refugee.

A narrative of success is cutting the unwanted weight of your own history. We don’t all make it.

A newspaper clipping tells the story of Tomoki Ogata, the sixty-one year old man who hanged himself outside the Amache, Colorado concentration camp.

The story of Japanese Americans is inextricably linked to ideals of immigrant success, to the model minority myth, and assimilation to white American values. It is something that younger Asian Americans who have the privilege to stand on our parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ shoulders can question, especially while so many other minority groups get the shaft.

The “despite it all, we made it through” narrative of the Japanese American incarceration obscures all the folks who didn’t make it, or who felt bitter after camp. It comes at the expense of Tomoki Ogata, the sixty-one year old man who hanged himself outside the Amache, Colorado concentration camp. He had come back from working on a railroad in Montana. One day, not soon after he returned, he snuck out of camp, walked a ways, and ended his life. He was not found for three weeks and, having no family, was likely not missed by anyone.

This is also the immigrant story. Stories of mental illness, of people who do not fit into the narrative of a successful immigrant turned American, get swept under the rug. There’s no memorial for Tomoki Ogata.

Earlier this fall, I attended a Defend DACA rally at the Rhode Island State House. Children who had immigrated to the United States without documentation—“Dreamers,” as they’re called—came up and spoke about their accomplishments as Ivy League grads or doctors. But who was missing? Is it only the exceptional, the “successful” whose stories matter? Is some kid who works at McDonald’s any less valuable, any less deserving of protection against deportation? These Dreamers were appealing to a model of success that was established long before their time, and if we continue to emphasize this narrow view of success in our own history, we too are complicit.

When I visited Amache this summer, one thing the local museum seemed to take pride in was that it was one of the “best behaved” and “most loyal” camps, meaning that the young men facing the draft did not resist in large numbers like the boys at Heart Mountain. And they certainly weren’t like Tule Lake, the camp of dissenters that still carries a stigma in the older Japanese American community. Streamlining the legacy of incarceration, focusing on the valor of the 442nd and the economic success and resilience of the Japanese after the war has been important for the community as a whole, to deal with this complicated legacy and to move on. But who are we moving on from? Who are we forgetting?

The author tours the remains of the root cellar at Heart Mountain concentration camp, Summer 2017.

The United States is famous for whitewashing our history of Asian immigration bans, Native genocide, and slavery. Japanese Americans might have received redress, but Black and Native folks have not received reparations. We do ourselves no favors by these acts of forgetting these complicated, dark histories. Does anyone in 2017 feel we are close to ending the racial prejudice that has plagued this country from its founding?

We have many stories about the heroism of the 442nd and the resilience of the Japanese American community after incarceration. These are true stories, and they are deserving of our pride. But there are thousands of other stories of lives that don’t fit into this narrative. These stories complicate  our narratives of resilience and success, and in doing so give us a richer understanding of what camp was actually like. It is not just the soldiers who helped America win the war who deserve to be remembered. We must also remember those who lost everything and then protested by refusing to fight in the 442nd, those who were unfairly deemed disloyal by a country that was not loyal to them. We must remember those who took their incarceration so hard that they did not come out the other side.

We can’t leave behind Frances Sakae Okasaki, who in the fall of 1942 was murdered by her husband in their barrack in Manzanar before he killed himself and orphaned their two daughters.

Nor can we leave behind John Yoshida, an introverted twenty-four-year-old who disliked the crowded atmosphere of the camp in Jerome, Arkansas so much, he had meals delivered to his room. On Monday, January 18, 1943, John walked a mile and a half north of camp before he paused beside the railroad track and laid his overcoat and hat on the ground, along with a letter written in Japanese: “I am going to where my mother and grandmother are.” He placed his neck on the rail and waited for the train to come.

And I think it is important to remember Tsuruzo Harada who came to the United States from southern Honshu in 1904 and made a life just north of Sacramento in Rocklin, CA. He was sent to the Tule Lake Concentration camp late in 1942, where he lived in a crowded room with other bachelors at barrack 4503-A. On the first day of December 1945, Mr. Harada was found dead in his apartment. The Newell Star reported, “His body was suspended from a beam by a rope around the neck… Harada was 77 years old and had no relatives here.”

[Editorial note: the Densho Digital Repository includes a photograph of Mr. Harada’s suicide death but due to it’s graphic nature have decided not to include it here. If you wish to see it, please follow this link.]

If we do not remember these lives, we forget the whole story.

When people bring up the success of Japanese Americans, when they regurgitate the narrative where there is a (wealthy) happy ending to this story, I think about Tomoki Ogata, swinging from a tree, three miles outside the most well behaved camp. I think of the bachelor’s body, unmissed by a family, swinging and decomposing, seemingly still unmissed today.

I also think about Dreamers and everyone else fighting for belonging in a country that repeatedly disenfranchises them. We owe it to them to shift the narrative away from “success” and toward a more honest reckoning with all the ugliness and hardship that our histories also contain.

Guest blog post by Julian Saporiti, a Vietnamese American scholar and musician from Nashville, TN. With his No-No Boy project, he transforms his research into music and tours the country doing workshops and performing concerts. No-No Boy (named for John Okada’s novel) combines music, storytelling and visuals to illuminate Japanese American Incarceration, and other lesser known chapters in American history, including Saporiti’s own family’s Vietnamese refugee story. He lives in Providence, RI where he is completing a PhD in American Studies at Brown University.

[Header photo: Young girls doing calisthenic exercises at Manzanar concentration camp, 1943, photo by Ansel Adams. Many of Adams’ photographs, along with other images sanctioned by the U.S. Government, depicted incarcerees thriving, but these images gloss over many of the harsh realities of their confinement.]

Single Comment
    • 30/11/2017 at 21:29

    Thank you for posting your thoughts in this article. I found it very interesting that as a Vietnamese American, you hear the narrative as a “success” story. As a Japanese American, I have never thought of the narrative of as being one of success, but one of deep shame and wanting society-at-large to be educated about camp actually happening, as many did not and still do not know about it. If any dark details seem to be left out of the narrative, I think that it comes from a place of deep shame within the JA community for allowing this to happen to our community, which is why it is being hidden (if it is being hidden conciously). Shame is a deep part of the Japanese culture that is very problematic, and is still very much part of Japanese American culture, unfortunately. Hopefully, critiques and feedback such as yours will be heard and can be used to help remind the JA community how our story is being heard by other communities, and how we can share our experience and stories in a more well-rounded way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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