May 5, 2020

When we think of Japanese American memoirs of the concentration camp experience, most of us think of a handful of older classic titles first: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660, Monica Sone‘s Nisei Daughter, and Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile. They are certainly the most cited, the most anthologized, the most written about and the most taught. All are well worth the read, but many other memoirs published since provide a much broader range of experiences and perspectives. Here are a dozen of Densho Content Director Brian Niiya’s favorites from the last twenty years.

Translations of Works by Issei

Noburu Shirai, Tule Lake: An Issei Memoir, translated by Ray Hosoda, edited by Eucaly Shirai and Valerie Sampson (Sacramento, Calif.: Muteki Press, 2001)

Yasutaro [Keiho] Soga, Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai‘i Issei, translated by Kihei Hirai (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008)

Suikei Furuya, An Internment Odyssey: Haisho Tenten, translated by Tatsumi Hayashi, foreword by Gary Y. Okihiro, introduction by Brian Niiya and Sheila Chun (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, 2017)

For various reasons, Nisei voices of the incarceration have been dominant, even though community leadership largely remained in the hands of the Issei through the war years. But a number of recent translations of earlier Issei memoirs has opened up the door a crack for those unable to read Japanese language accounts. All three of these accounts are by Issei who played leadership roles in either pre- or post-war Japanese American communities and/or during their confinement. Shirai (1907–85) was a young and highly educated Issei (he had a master’s degree from Stanford) who played a role in Tule Lake community politics as the executive secretary of the pre-segregation community council, a role that cast him as a bridge between the all-Nisei council and Issei leaders. In addition to his unique first hand views of camp politics, he includes much rich detail on community life, everything from lumber pilfering to sake brewing to baseball.

The Soga and Furuya books are a product of the Resource Center at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. [Disclosure: I was on the JCCH staff during the time these books were being produced and played a role in the publication of each.] Soga (1873–1957) was a legendary journalist known as the publisher of the Nippu Jiji, one of the two most widely circulated Japanese American newspapers in Hawai‘i before the war. Immediately interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Soga dispassionately describes his four years of imprisonment both in Hawai‘i and in enemy alien internment camps in the continental U.S. run by the army or Justice Department in a work that was originally published in Japanese in 1948. Furuya (1889–1977), a businessman and poet, was also arrested on December 7th and was part of the first group of Issei internees from Hawai‘i to be shipped to mainland internment camps. Originally published in the Hawaii Times (the postwar version of the Nippu Jiji) from 1961 to 1963 and as a book in 1964, the translated versions include detailed stories of internment, including accounts of the eight different camps he was held in.

The three books share a similar Issei style in that they consist of many short chapters that can be read as vignettes about various aspects of internment life. (This may also have something to do with their origins as serialized newspaper pieces in the case of Soga and Furuya.) To one who is used to the more florid Nisei literary style, these can come across as a bit dry. All are also narrowly focused on the war years, though Soga later wrote an expansive memoir that covers the rest of his life in Hawai‘i. All include unique Issei perspectives on the war and incarceration. I’m struck by how Soga and Furuya—both of whom spend the war years in Justice Department and army run internment camps rather than War Relocation Authority camps as did Shirai—report on celebrating Japanese victories in the Pacific War while at the same time expressing pride in the Nisei soldiers in the U.S. Army. (Furuya’s son Hanzo was in fact guarding sites in Honolulu from attack by the Japanese as a member of the ROTC at the University of Hawai‘i, as his father was being arrested and later served in the U.S. Army.) These and other Issei accounts that have become available in translation in recent years are a necessary counterpoint to the many Nisei voices on the incarceration.

Works by Older Nisei

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

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

Kashiwagi, Starting from Loomis and Other Stories, edited and with an introduction by Tim Yamamura, afterword by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2013)

Kiyo Sato, Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream (New York: Soho Press, 2009)

Most camp centered memoirs have been written by older Nisei, a term that I define as those Nisei who were old enough to have experienced the incarceration as adults. There are quite a few memoirs by such individuals, of which these are my recent favorites. These post-redress books tend to differ from earlier books in that they are angrier and more frank in their descriptions of the incarceration experience. And perhaps because there is no longer a need to present a “good” front, there is a broader range of experiences in these books.

The books by Gruenewald (b. 1925) and Sato (b. 1923) do perhaps the best job of any books in painting detailed pictures of the forced removal process, incarceration in various camps, and the difficulties of the post-camp period in a manner that goes beyond the basic narrative template established in some of the early works and repeated in many subsequent ones. Sato begins her story with farm life in the Sacramento area before the war, before going on to her incarceration at Pinedale and Poston. She leaves to go to college in Michigan in September 1942, but rejoins her family in Colorado in 1944 to pick sugar beets and subsequently plays a leading role in the family’s move back to California in 1945. Gruenewald’s story begins on a family farm on Vashon Island in Washington, before the war years take her to Pinedale, Tule Lake, and Heart Mountain. In addition to her detailed descriptions of camp life, she covers some unusual aspects of the story, such as her family’s mixed experience with the caretakers of their farm and her own experience as a Nisei in the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Playwright, poet, and actor Kashiwagi (1922–2019) produced two memoirs, both of which tell his story that begins in rural Loomis, California, then goes to Marysville and Tule Lake during the war and to San Francisco after the war, where he works as a librarian while becoming a pioneering Nisei playwright. The first, Swimming in the American, consists of many short prose vignettes that capture significant moments throughout his life, juxtaposed with poems and photographs and ending with his play, The Betrayed, which is partially set in Tule Lake.  Swimming large skips over the details of his incarceration, though it does include his 1975 poem “A Meeting at Tule Lake,” written for the 1975 pilgrimage, his CWRIC testimony, and a tribute to lawyer Wayne Collins. Starting from Loomis and Other Stories includes some of the same stories about his prewar life, but includes a lot more on his wartime experiences, including a nuanced discussion of why he was among the Tule Lake Nisei who decided to renounce his citizenship and the impact that decision had on his future life. Kashiwagi is a wonderful storyteller, and both books are joys to read.

Works by Younger Nisei

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

Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey, Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisei Youth behind a World War II Fence, foreword by Cherstin Lyon (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2014)

Jeanette S. Arakawa, The Little Exile (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2017)

I’ve already reviewed two of these, so I won’t say as much here, except that all continue on the theme of greater frankness and anger relative to pre-redress books. Arakawa (b. 1932) tells a story that becomes unexpectedly dark after her family leaves Rohwer to settle in Denver, while Havey’s (also b. 1932) is augmented by her evocative watercolor paintings and family photographs. Umemoto’s (1928–2019) book is colorful and often bawdy in going from his childhood in Florin, California, to Manzanar, post-war Los Angeles and to mountain hiking adventures inspired in part by his curiosity at the majestic mountains that loomed as a backdrop over Manzanar. And it is the only Nisei memoir that literally begins with the “F-word”! (Another disclosure: Umemoto is my father-in-law.)

Sansei Memoirs

Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013)

Karen Tei Yamashita, Letters to Memory (Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 2017)

And then there are these two, camp-centered memoirs by Sansei with no direct memory of the war years. Both Nakadate (b. 1943) and Yamashita (b. 1951) mine family document collections and family lore to creatively tell larger family histories. Nakadate, an emeritus professor of English at Iowa State University, takes a more chronological approach that begins with his grandparents’ lives in Portland, Oregon, his mother’s family’s incarceration experiences at Portland and Minidoka, and his parents’ lives as young parents during and after the war before moving on to his own story. He does an excellent job in vividly bringing out the personalities of his parents and grandparents, while incorporating just enough of the historical context. 

Acclaimed novelist Yamashita (who also teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz) takes a more eclectic approach, using letters to five different historical or mythical figures as a framing device to relate vignettes of her family’s history, much of which focuses on the family’s incarceration at Tanforan and Topaz and on her father, John Hiroshi Yamashita (1912–84), a Christian pastor. The book came out of the family archive that the author and her cousins had assembled and also includes reproductions of photographs, letters, and other documents from it. She even created an online family archive to accompany the book ( Both books are carefully researched, thoughtfully written, and ultimately quite moving and can serve models for future Sansei family history chroniclers.

By Densho Content Director Brian Niiya

Most of the books on this list are available for online reading via the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration, a collaboration between the Internet Archive and Densho.

[Header photo: High school girls reading in front of the English and Social Studies barracks in Minidoka. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.]