June 22, 2015

June is Pride Month—an opportunity to celebrate the LGBT experience and to highlight ongoing struggles for equal rights. While Densho supports and celebrates LGBT individuals and communities, a look through our own archives, Encyclopedia, and other resources shows that these stories are underrepresented. Indeed, this is a common problem for many archives since identifying as a sexual or gender minority has historically been illegal, punishable, and otherwise risky. Despite the challenges of uncovering these stories, scholars are slowly beginning to unearth instances of the LGBT incarceration experience and even finding that “incarceration provided unique opportunities to sexual and gender nonconformists.” [1]

In Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow, John Howard—professor and head of American Studies at King’s College London—argues that “even as the concentration camps foreclosed countless freedoms, they opened up new possibilities for same-sex intimacy.” These possibilities included a more densely packed living environment, the breakdown of traditional family units, new social liberties for young adults, sex-segregated clubs, and the placement of unmarried men in same-sex housing units, as seen in “Bachelor’s Row” at the Jerome concentration camp. Howard highlights the stories of Masao Asahara and Jack Yamashita, whose September 1943 public drunkenness and sexual encounter at Jerome were discovered and written up by the camp’s associate chief C.R. Felker. In order to draw attention away from their illicit same-sex encounter, the two played up their drunkenness and were punished with a night in jail and a small fine [2].

Howard also relays the story of Jiro Onuma—a story that Tina Takemoto, associate professor at the the California College of the Arts, explores in even greater detail. Onuma was  a gay man who migrated to San Francisco from Yokohama in 1923, just before immigration from Japan was officially banned. Takemoto’s work on Onuma will be the subject of a new Densho Encyclopedia article to be published later this summer and has appeared previously in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies [3]:

“Numerous vintage photographs [show] Onuma posing with his elegantly dressed Japanese American male friends and lovers around San Francisco. Amid these cosmopolitan images of prewar San Francisco, two photographs captured my attention. Both were taken while Onuma was imprisoned in the American concentration camp known as Topaz, located in central Utah. The first photograph shows Onuma and other inmate mess hall workers posing for a group portrait. The second displays three men sitting on a dirt mound with a guard tower in the distance. To my surprise, I learned that these might be the only known photographs of an adult gay Japanese American in the US incarceration camps.”

Takemoto presented these images and other fascinating details from her research, as well as a performance based on Jiro’s story, in a lecture at the California College of the Arts:

Aside from the stories of Masao Asahara, Jack Yamashita, and Jiro Onuma, there are few documented LGBTQ experiences of WWII incarceration. Greg Robinson—an associate editor of and frequent contributor to the Densho Encyclopedia as well as a Professor of History at Université du Québec À Montréal—chronicled the stories of a non-Nikkei lesbian couple who worked at Gila River in this Nichi Bei Weekly series:

“Monika Kehoe, who held the position of adult education director at Gila River and who produced a set of wartime articles on the education of Japanese Americans, had a long and varied career that climaxed in her work as a pioneering gay studies researcher. Karon Kehoe drew on her experience at Gila River in writing the 1946 novel City in the Sun, a notable work that has all but disappeared from the collective memory of Nikkei. It is not only the first full-length adult fiction about the camps to be published, but also stands as an early queer text that raises intriguing questions about alternative camp life.”

rafu shimp
Sumi Haru and Mako in East West Players’ 1970 production of “Tondemonai — Never Happen” by Soon-Teck Oh. From The Rafu Shimpo.

Robinson also contributed a recent article to the Densho Encyclopedia on “Tondemonai—Never Happen!” (1970)–a play that married incarceration history with LGBT themes:

“A two-act play written and directed by Soon-Tek Oh that premiered in Los Angeles in 1970, is a theatrical drama that portrays the experience of Koji Murayama, a Nisei who experiences flashbacks to his traumatic wartime experience in the Manzanar camp. Tondemonai is notable not only as the first professionally staged theatrical work to center on the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, but for its forward-looking discussion of race and sexuality.

Perhaps most remarkable is Tondemonai’s treatment of homosexuality. The play’s plot revolves around a pair of three-dimensional LGBT protagonists, and there is no suggestion that their sexuality is evil or that they are diseased. This was nothing less than revolutionary in 1970, a time when homosexuality was illegal in California, and mention of it was all but taboo in Japanese American communities.”

Although openly identifying as LGBT was once taboo, some of the most famous former Japanese American incarcerates are now drawing public attention to the rights of sexual and gender minorities. George Takei is not only gay himself but also a major advocate for gay rights. Representative Mike Honda (D-Calif.)—incarcerated at the Amache (Granada) concentration camp as a child—has also become an outspoken advocate for  transgender rights—first publicly supporting his own granddaughter and, most recently, calling for legislation that would allow transgender troops to serve openly.

Now, too,  it’s time to recover the hidden stories of the LGBT incarceration history. Densho will continue developing our collections as information becomes available and we encourage scholars and individuals to contribute what they can to this effort.

1. John Howard, Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 119.
2. Ibid., pp. 113-119.
2. Tina Takemoto, “Looking for Jiro Onuma: A Queer Meditation on the Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II,” GLQ 20.3 (2014).