June 4, 2015

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

As readers of this blog likely know, there is an enormous amount of literature on the World War II era forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans that can be difficult for newcomers to make sense of. Memoirs by Japanese Americans who experienced this trauma can serve as an effective introduction to the topic. content.lib.utah.eduHowever, relatively few such memoirs have been published compared to the many academic monographs, literary works, and Ph.D. dissertations that have been devoted to this topic and even though the last three decades or so have seen a dramatic increase in the willingness of Japanese Americans to talk about their wartime experiences, as evidenced by the large number of oral history accounts that have appeared.

Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey’s Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisei Youth behind a World War II Fence is a handsome and worthwhile addition to the corpus of Japanese American concentration camp memoirs, if not an essential one. In what the University of Utah Press calls a “creative memoir,” Havey’s book combines watercolor paintings and family photographs with her first person recollections of childhood before and during the war.

Prior to the war, the Nakais were in many ways a typical Issei/Nisei family. Lily Yuriko, ten at the time of the incarceration, and her older brother Sumiya lived with parents Kanesaburo and Yoshiko in Los Angeles, where the parents worked as home and garden keepers for the Harringtons, a kindly white couple. (There is some confusion about the author’s age, since the book’s verso lists her as having been born in 1938, while the book’s narrative clearly has the protagonist being between ten and thirteen while in camp. Wondering if this was behind the “creative memoir” designation, I checked the Form WRA 62 database, which seems to confirm her birth year as 1932.) Lily’s materially poor but relatively happy childhood is dramatically altered by the war, as the book begins with her initial excitement about going to “camp”—which she anticipated being akin to a summer camp—contrasted with the sad and dreary reality of confinement first at the Santa Anita racetrack turned “assembly center,” then at the Amache, Colorado concentration camp. The narrative ends three years later, when an unexpected gift from the Harringtons allows the family to leave camp and buy a small house in Salt Lake City. A brief epilogue describes an adult Lily and her mother visiting an uncle in Hiroshima in 1980.


“Only my Freedom,” from Gasa Gasa Girl goes to Camp.

The relatively brief text originated, as explained by Nakai in the preface, from captions to her paintings that were requested by curators at exhibitions of the paintings. Given this origin, it is not surprising that the text reads more like of a series of vignettes that have been stitched together as opposed to a single unified narrative. Though the narrative begins with the trip to Santa Anita and includes many details about life there and at Amache, just as much of the text is devoted to flashbacks to Lily’s prewar life and to the lives of her parents before and after their journey to the U.S. Lily’s resourceful mother Yoshiko is a particularly vivid presence. Shaped by the twin tragedies of her mother’s death when she was twelve and the death of a baby sister whom she cared for after her mother’s death, Yoshiko more or less brokers her own picture bride marriage to Kanesaburo in Lily’s telling. Life many Issei men, Kanesaburo medicates his disappointments in liquor and gambling, leading Yoshiko to take leave him, taking infant son Sumiya with her back to Japan, before deciding to return to America once she learns she is pregnant with Lily. Though reconciling with her husband, Yoshiko live almost independently, monetizing her sewing skills by both making clothing and by teaching sewing. By contrast, Kanesaburo is a distant presence in Lily’s childhood, though she cherishes the rare times when he does spend time with her.

Given the project’s origins in the art, the visuals are as important as the text in this publication. Augmenting the text are color reproductions of twenty-eight of Nakai’s watercolor paintings, most of them full-page. Painted years after the fact, the paintings are mostly impressionistic in nature, mixing realistic scenes of camp life that often include the author and her family with imagery that attempts to capture her feelings about the events depicted. “Camouflaging,” for instance, depicts faceless women and girls working on a camouflage net at Santa Anita, part of a project employing inmates to help with the war effort, while ominous shadows of war lurk in the background. Another painting inspired by the net project, “Persistent Threats,” depicts a distressed child (presumably the author) and images of dinosaurs trapped at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles; the smell of the tar at the net factory had reminded her of the tar pits. It is unclear if the child is distressed at being in a concentration camp or at a flying dinosaur seemingly about to attack her, while one can’t help but compare the dinosaurs caught in the tar to Japanese Americans trapped in the camps. In addition to the paintings, there are a like number of family photographs from before and during the war, along with a handful of archival images and some contemporary images of important objects referenced in the text.

In addition to the somewhat unique mixture of text and imagery, Gasa Gasa Girl sets itself apart from other memoirs by its relative frankness about family relations and budding sexuality. In this regard it is reminiscent of another recent memoir, Hank Umemoto’s Manzanar to Mount Whitney: The Life and Times of a Lost Hiker, which has a similar structure of juxtaposing wartime stories with prewar and postwar ones and which also began as a series of short vignettes. (I should disclose here that Hank is my father-in-law.) As Cherstin Lyon notes in her brief introduction, the book is particularly valuable as a coming-of-age story of a girl in camp and in painting a complex picture of a unique Issei woman of the mother-daughter bond between Lily and her mother.

The vast majority of the book focuses on the first year or so of incarceration mixed in with the prewar stories. The latter part of the incarceration and leaving camp are given short shrift. A good deal of recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of the immediate postwar period as a continuation of the incarceration story, and the book would have benefited from even a short additional chapter that covers those years as well as an epilogue that summarizes what happened after that. Having grown to know these characters, it would have been good to know what happened to them.

Though certainly a welcome and worthwhile addition to the literature on Japanese Americans in World War II, I can’t say it is indispensable reading relative to other recent memoirs such as ones by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Kiyo Sato, Toyo Suyemoto or the anthology From Our Side of the Fence:Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps, not to mention the many memoirs or the many works that include visual art inspired by the concentration camps. The visual elements of Gasa Gasa Girl do set it apart somewhat, it might be particularly attractive to more visual learners or to those with a specific interest in Santa Anita or Amache.

Books Mentioned

Dempster, Brian Komei, ed. From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps. San Francisco, Kearny Street Workshop, 2001.

__________. Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement. Berkeley, Calif. Heydey Books, 2010.

Gruenewald, Mary Matsuda. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps. Troutdale, Ore.: NewSage Press, 2005.

Kashiwagi, Hiroshi. Swimming in the American: A Memoir and Selected Writings. San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2005.

Sato, Kiyo. Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream. New York: Soho Press, 2007.

Suyemoto, Toyo, and Susan B. Richardson. I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Umemoto, Hank. Manzanar to Mount Whitney: The Life and Times of a Lost Hiker. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2013.

Art in Camp

Chang, Gordon H. Mark Johnson, and Paul Karlstrom, eds. Asian American Art History, 1850–1970. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Dusselier, Jane. Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946. Designed by Kit Hinrichs, Pentagram. Photography by Terry Heffernan. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.

The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, UCLA Wight Art Gallery, and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992.