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"Ghostly Camps, Alien Nation"--An Essay Review by Lawson Fusao Inada


DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL: The Japanese-American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II. By Page Smith. Simon and Schuster. 476 pp. $27.50.

For those of you unfamiliar with this subject matter, let me suggest a simple exercise: Make ten little X's on this page of The Nation. Spread them around, arbitrarily--here and there, side to side, top to bottom. There you go! Now, play "connect-the-X's" and see what emerges on the page. Does it make sense? Or resemble anything? (Hint: Oh, some snippet of something to contain cattle.) Then erase everything. Or try. You might rub holes in the paper. Or, if you used a pen, you might have to resort to Wite-Out. Either way, those defaced places remain, don't they?

I. A Good Read
This is a good book. A "page turner," as they say, and as narrative history, it has the feel of a documentary, a novel, a movie. It's just a book, certainly, and a history text at that, but as with anything else, its effect depends on what you bring to it. So with that in mind, let me suggest some simple and familiar and practical approaches to keep in mind as you peruse each page.

II. The Documentary
By the very nature of the genre--narrative history--it's natural to hear and see this book as a documentary, as in one of those high-quality, N.E.H.-funded PBS specials with assuring, convincing narration, evocative score, grainy photos, vintage and current footage, interviews with officials and former camp residents woven in, and actors re-creating voices, some in translation, of historical figures. As for sound effects, there'd be varieties of wind (sweeping, swirling, the winds of history, foreshadowinds), judiciously placed rumblings, thunderings, clicks, creaks, cr-racks, smashings, slammings juxtaposed against kids singing, oh, "Home on the Range" or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance amid mini-medleys of nostalgic forties pop tunes and war sounds culminating in The Bomb. Live footage of that--and the right director would include depictions of Japs in war and prewar movies, cartoons and comics--before winding down to where Page Smith concludes Democracy on Trial, with a burnished elder saying: "Somehow, the three years of suffering bore fruit.... It has become our pride in that we were able to add to the building of the American nation."

III. The Novel
In this approach, you have to read between the lines. Use your imagination to project into the lives of the characters, of which there are plenty, from peasants to presidents, old and young, male and female, of various regions and regimes of origin. Flesh out the lives, activate the events, make contact with underlying motivations and emotions. For this novel, despite its compelling plot (and boy, does it have plot) and despite its sweep of factual history rich with intrigue and irony and action and faction, is actually what might be termed a character-driven work, in that, underneath, it's really about people--and not necessarily about American people, either, or even people in time of war or from differing cultures; rather, it's simply about people (as in humanity): how people are. And: how people get. Period.

IV. The Movie
Or movies--for to do this subject justice, developing characters and history together, we'd have to employ the extended Star Wars approach. We're envisioning something that would be extremely expensive to shoot, perhaps as extravagant as the camps themselves, though with Japanese technology, computerization and special-effects studios it could be done. Still, for a proper saga---samurai become holograms--there'd have to be many locations, relocations, reincarnations of wars and peaces requiring everything from ships to Shinto to blue Studebakers, with so many costumed actors and so many years involved--longer than the camps-period itself--that, well, animation may be the way to go, the way of Pocahontas, but probably not a musical.

And imagine, if you will, a new genre--an eastern, somewhat like wagon trains heading in the reverse direction. And the pioneers or settlers would be Japanese: "Camp or Bust!" Like Indians, these people would have to be rounded up--not for a long march or drive but just a ride. Picture lines of railroad cars, gray grandfathers reflecting about gandy-dancing, laying track. "Who would have thought...?" Then, when one of the trains pauses in the prairie, soldiers say, "O.K ., folks, get out and stretch your legs--but don't try to escape!" A mother steps out, squinting, with her child. The crowd jostles her, but she holds him, squirming, and won't let go. You can see the fear in her face. This kid is a handful, not simply from being cooped up but from being used to freedom, roaming the neighborhood with his dog--and were he to make a run for it, he could get shot. Especially because he pestered the soldiers all along, asking questions--many that couldn't be answered--and tugging at their holsters, playing guns, playing war, going "Pow!" A slight smile comes across the mother's face as she scans the prairie, the endless horizon. There's something funny, and apparently memorable, about being told not to escape.

Flashback: Regular home, regular yard, regular neighbors, regular dog in regular California. The family's been there since 1907. Bobbed hair, college, marriage and now raising this regular son, named for a golfer: Lawson Little. Then the move across town, to barracks in the fairgrounds, and the questions and answers. "How do you know Jimmy is dead?" "That's what Joe Lai told Dad." "How come he died?" "Well, Joe said he wouldn't eat." "How come?" "Well, Joe said he gave him the best, even steak, but he still wouldn' t eat." "How come?" "Well, Joe says he must have missed us, he must have been sad." "Then did he get buried?" "I don't know. Dad will have to ask Joe when he comes again." "When?" "I don't know." "How come?" "Because. I just don't know."

You get the picture. To do it right takes time. Several thousand grandpa Geronimo types were rounded up and shipped off immediately following Pearl Harbor. Who knew the Feds had been preparing a "naughty" and "nice" list from way back? There were still more than 100,000 "settlers" soon to hit the trail. Hyah, git!

Ah, the ol' Nikkei Trail, which rambled around, surprising Okies going the other way, surprising Arkies staying put, causing Mormons to circle their wagons. Despite ample security measures, many Japs managed to escape--as far as South Pacific jungles and European theaters. Intermission. What time is it? Oh, getting late into 1945. The war isn't over, but the camps are closing. Still to come: President Ford rescinding Executive Order 9066 in 1976.

V. The Book Proper
For some, this book will come as news; for others, a worthy addition to the collection. No one work can adequately cover the complexities of the situation. Had there just been my immediate, multigenerational family in one mini-camp somewhere, or even if the government had just quarantined one house on Kern Street, things would still have been, and would continue to be, rather complicated, with national/international implications an d ramifications. Heck, I would have been home-schooled in a biosphere, with the Constitution delivered one morning with my milk, executive orders, paper. As for that great Dorothea Lange photo (Open Wide, in the Fresno Assembly Center) of my dad doing basic dental work on an extremely tense woman seated in a kitchen chair--well, Dorothea would have missed out on that Rockwellian shot, as Ansel Adams wouldn't have gotten that Manzanar camp assignment.

Page Smith is to be commended for his efforts, and I especially appreciate hearing so many voices in print, voices of friends, including the voices that come flowing out in poetry:

The crows fly straight through settling dusk,
The desert like an empty husk
Holding the small swift sounds that run
To cover when the day is done.

That's from "Topaz, Utah," by Toyo Suyemoto Kawakami, our major Camp Poet and Nikkei Poet Laureate. She reached prominence before the war but, as things would have it, even with her considerable body of work she has yet to find a publisher.

As for errors and omissions, I found only a few. Jerome Camp, my camp in Arkansas, was not "near an Indian reservation." The sixty-three men who were part of the resistance movement and were sent to prison because of their convictions were not Topaz Nisei but from Heart Mountain. And Michi Weglyn's breakthrough classic Years of Infamy isn't listed in the bibliography. (Also from our side, let me recommend: Yokohama, California, Toshio Mori's wonderful pre-camp stories; Nisei Daughter, Monica Stone's autobiography--a girl recovers from tuberculosis only to be sent to a camp; Citizen 13660, Mine Okubo's sketches and reflections from the Tanforan Assembly Center; and No-No Boy, John Okada's novel on the post-camp syndrome. Each is a classic, available from the University of Washington Press.)

And while it may not be an error to say that the Arkansas camps were in the "proximity of the Gulf of Mexico," making it possible for internees to "enjoy shrimp tempura," I'd say we were actually in the Mississippi Delta region (the Delta of blues fame and slave plantation infamy), and I sure wouldn't call that stuff we gulped "shrimp tempura." Not to fault those of us pressed into kitchen duty, for the fact is, a lot of our supplies never made it into camp. Now, taste is one thing, nutrition is another, and I was surprised to find recently that, during my two years in Arkansas, I was hospitalized no fewer than sixty-one times! And I was a healthy child. And since it was my 83-year-old mother who paid $55.50 to get those records from the National Archives, I had to think about what all that did to her. Because medical facilities we re also makeshift, and people were dying from lack of care, and if you had dietary needs or allergies, or required medical attention--like my friend June, whose broken leg was amputated--or medication, period, you could be in trouble. It's interesting to think of folks on plantations and reservations observing the camps from a distance: guard towers, searchlights, barbed wire. Maybe, or maybe not, the stuff of lyrics and legends. Maybe just too eerie. Perhaps that's why the camps became opportune places for behavioral study, including behavioral modification. So much for "shrimp," eh, Forrest?

Perhaps Dillon Myer, director of the War Relocation Authority (after Ike's brother), did close Jerome in 1944 as a "kind of dry run," causing us to be re-relocated to Amache Camp in the desert of Colorado. But ol' "Pappy" Ellingson, a lifelong resident and our Jerome neighbor, told me different in 1971: "You all was good people, honest as the day is long. Why, when the mens went out to chop firewood--and you all cleared all this here part of the swamp--well, my boy would sell 'em sody pop just by leaving bottles out in a wagon, and there would always be the right amount of money, even extry. But them other fellas what they brought in later, they was mean--I swear they even trapped and ate my dog! It was like the whole German army was in there." I think I was too shocked to laugh. I was taking my wife and little sons on a long trip down Memory Lane, and here we were, among brush-covered foundations under a towering smokestack. I just wanted out, fast. Wouldn't even stay for a home-cooked catfish dinner. For although Pappy was very friendly, and the camp was also the event in his life, well, I just had this feeling of invading my own privacy. And, having once escaped, I didn't want to push my luck. Fortunately, Amache Camp, in the wide-open spaces, felt better. But it was a very chilling feeling to top a rise and see the camp still there! Ah, but "buenas dias, " it turned out to be a migrant labor camp....

A pertinent Smith fact: "Gila River and Poston were on Indian reservations." We also had a Citizen Isolation Camp on Navajo Nation land--a fact courtesy of Years of Infamy. These facts say something. Not mentioned by Smith, however, is the fact that Dillon Myer subsequently became commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where the Great White Father's policies included not just relocation but termination (see Keeper of Concentration Camps, by Richard Drinnon, California). Smith does note that Nisei troops (including my cousin Charlie) came upon and liberated Dachau: "a strange coda to a strange story."

A story that begins, as Smith suggests, on December 7, 1857--the opening of Japan. And perhaps it goes back to Columbus trying to reach "Cipangu" (Japan). Boy, people used to, and still do, go out of their way to open places for closure--money, power. Entire continents become camps.

So, no, I don't think "strange" is the right word for our story, and it is and isn't unique. Rather, if you envision the rest of the iceberg, it's pretty easy to discern patterns, icings, of business as usual. Which includes the business of racism. Smith doesn't think so. While acknowledging the "thirty-plus-year-old record of hostility toward the Japanese (as well as the Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Mexicans, and Filipinos)," he believes that it would have been "recklessly irresponsible" for commanders and officials to have ma de "a decision so costly in money and manpower on essentially racial grounds.... We can only say that it was based on military, not racial, considerations." That sounds nicer, but tell it to my 92-year-old aunt, Charlie's mother, who had been sharecropping in Steinbeck country for decades: "Military necessity!" ("Charlie, get the man a bowl of strawberries. And a glass of ice tea.") And, as Smith says, if "the Japanese Americans had not been evacuated there is no way of telling what their role might have been." ("Hand me those pliers, Charlie...") To Smith's credit, at least he doesn't serve up the old chestnut of "war hysteria," whereby the Hearst papers and Orson Welles made sane people go ballistic--because my grandfather's decades-long friend s, German and Italian neighbors, calmly told him they'd care for his house and store "for the duration," and they did. And that's America for you.

My only reservation about this book is that it didn't quite go far enough to show how American the experience was and is. For "our" camps, as Weglyn noted in Years of Infamy, included Latinos, African-Americans and other Asians "by virtue of their being married to Japanese." Thus, internee Estelle Ishigo, author of Lone Heart Mountain, was white. My Jerome Camp buddy, Buddy, was American Indian. Buddy and I used to go play in the Hawaiian sector, with kids of many extractions. And yes, there were Alaska Natives in camp (see Personal Justice Denied, Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians).

So there's "exclusion," "inclusion," and then there's life--which isn't always neat. Now I'm remembering blind people in camp, and Buddy and me playing with a deaf kid, whose en tire family was deaf. Or: Pat Morita of Karate Kid fame had to be shipped to camp as a kid, hooked up to contraptions because of a spinal illness. And numbers aren't as neat as they seem, either: "only" about 100,000 interned in various camps, with "only" thirteen states (shades of the colonies) directly involved. Heck, our population would have been only a fraction of Woodstock, but we would have filled the Rose Bowl for several years running. The concessions alone created a ripple effect, and the staging of the camps had to involve nationwide support. Then, too, we sent out promoters, with each enlistee (men and women sent here and there to train), each student (Michi Weglyn, for instance, went from the Gila, Arizona, camp/reservation to Wellesley), each worker (my grandparents harvested crops in Colorado and Kansas, while my father was sent to work in a munitions factory in Chicago, where he lived on the South Side; for Birdseye frozen foods, they created an entire, and still-existing , colony of us in Seabrook, New Jersey) doing a kind of P.R. for the camps.

So the camps didn't simply affect us or the entire West Coast or our campsite neighbors. Oh, no, it wasn't that neatly contained. Rather, it spread to include anybody, anywhere, thus haunting America to this very day. Moreover, we "aliens" welcomed visitors--as in "Hello, Eleanor" and the many representatives of churches (as noted by Smith)--and I'm grateful for the toy libraries they established and stocked for us.

VI . July 4, 1995
Ah, a mild summer day in southern Oregon. I've got my independence, and if I choose, I could drive over the mountains and be at the Tule Lake Camp site in an hour (18,000 internees on the site of the so-called Modoc Indian War--in which some were killed and the rest shipped to Oklahoma).

I thought about driving down to Fresno to visit my folks, but it's so hot there, and flat. Now, the interesting thing is, in contrast to those of us who escaped Fresno (Sam Peckinpah, Tom Seaver, Tom Flores of the Seahawks, Lee Brown of the Clinton Administration), the Hmong people of Southeast Asia moved into the area--45,000 "relocatees." They smile in the heat and, like the Irish, Jews, whatever, immigrants to America, they're organized, resourceful, proud of their heritage, while also contributing to the mainstream. You'll smile driving by the Fresno County Fairgrounds, seeing that these brightly garbed people have rented the entire site for a traditional, festive celebration. That's America for you. And the Hmong are American people. Meanwhile, my mom is pointing out where our barracks were--the livestock area.

Which gets me to my actual Uncle Sam--the late Isamu "Sam" Saito, my mom's kid brother. Fresh out of dental school, this citizen went to volunteer for the Army following Pearl Harbor, and was rejected because of "alien" status. Then he re-volunteered from camp, and served not only in World War II but in Korea also. We're talking down-home American values here --love of home, love of the land--Japanese extraction or not.

This is not to say we're a rah-rah people, but doggone it, we always had grit, gumption, guts, an industrious, outreach mentality and, if America denied us, we went ahead and joined her anyway, in our own way. By 1941, 70 percent of us were natural-born Americans. So now let me share with you some parts of a government document: An Index of Japanese Organizations in the United States, Western Defense Command, Civil Affairs Division, Research Branch, June 1944, Restricted:

The Japanese racial group in the United States, although it represents only about one tenth of one percent of the total population, had a highly developed and well integrated economic and social life. Over ninety percent of them resided along the Western Coastal Strip, and mostly in compact groups within that area. There is no better illustration of their highly integrated social life than the fact that there existed prior to Pearl Harbor more than 3,500 Japanese organizations within the United States.

Pretty incriminating, eh? That's 3,500 units ready to be mobilized. But let's take a look at some of those subversive, secret societies blacklisted (dispensing with repetitive "Japanese" prefixes): American Citizens' League, American Committee for Democracy, Fishermen's Club, Horticulture Society, Women's Society, Young Democratic Club, Anti-Axis Committee, Baptist Union, Barbers' Association, Baseball League, Boys' Club, California Farmers' Association, Camera Pictorialists, Cannery Workers' Association, Chamber of Commerce, Chess Club, Children's Home, Christian Church Federation, Church League of Northern California, Christian Church Women's Society League, Christian Federation , Confectioners' Association, Cultural Center of Southern California, Cultural Publicity Association, Farm Produce Association, Fish and Wild Game Conservation Society, Flower Retailers' Association, Friendship Circle, Fruit Growers' Association, Girl Reserves Inter-Club Council, Green House Plant Growers' Association, Grocery Association, High School Students' Association, Holiness Church, Hotel Association, Humanity of Woodland, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Junior League, Lunch Room Association, Magic Club, Meat Dealers' Association, Methodist Church, Military Reserve Corps (some elders had served in the U.S. Army in World War I), Ministers' Association, Musicians' Association, News Reporters' Club (we have a longstanding American journalism tradition), Nurserymen's Association, Railway Workers' Association, Red Cross Society, Restaurant Association, Shoe Repairers' Association, Skeet Club, Society for Pacific Peace, Strawberry Association, Students' Christian Association, Tennis Club, Theatrical Association, Union Church Choir Society, Vegetable Growers' Association, Volunteer Corps, Wild Life Federation, Women's Athletic Association, Young Christian Association--and then there's the (just plain) Negroes' Progress Society.

Suspicions confirmed! Yes , it's all revealed in this expensive document: the extensive cover-up, the dues-paying memberships. Skeet Club... (Still, they didn't uncover the underground "Nisei Golf Club," what with frontmen collaborators like Charlie Seaver sneaking my dad and troops around strategic power lines.) Alas, after all that effort to infiltrate America, deceive America, lull America into thinking we were Americans.

VII. The Hidden Agenda
"Present Era," "Make," "Teaching," "House," "Scent," "Male," "Greed ," "Young," "Seed," "Buddha." What have we here? Better alert the authorities.

Sure, the war was over, but the rancher who found these mysterious stones, a fifty-five-gallon drumful, turned them over to someone. Well, what the hey, wouldn't be much use as weapons; still, we better get 'em translated. So they figured it was some sort of mumbo-jumbo game, something quaint for kiddies.

Other stones revealed "Nothing," "Everything," "Change," "East," "Listen," "Respect," "Mind," "Pray," "Parents," "Leave," "Away," "Knowledge," "Shine," "Universe," "Country," "Up"--and so on, as displayed in a little case in a corner of one of many rooms in the famed Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. This was a temporary exhibit of camp artifacts I stumbled upon this spring. When I saw the stones from a distance, I thought they were arrowheads, in keeping with the displays of wild Injuns, the Glorious West and room after room of weaponry. But, no, they were just stones. Still, in an adjoining case, there were arrowheads, darned good ones, chipped by internees. Shucks, a couple more years and they'd have developed bows for buffalo hunting.

It didn't take a rocket scientist (or camp social scientist--careers were made at our expense) to put two and two together. Even a poet could surmise that these goodies were probably the product of Nyogen Senzaki, the pioneering Zen master who journeyed to America in 1905 to become an internee, and who called Heart Mountain the "Mountain of Compassion." Since Buddhists tend to put a positive spin on things, he called his barracks quarters the "Meditation Hall of Eastbound Teaching." He was quite a guy--"laid back," as they say. So laid back, in fact, that the authorities passed him over in their 1941 roundup. He was just some dishwasher, sitting around quietly on the floor of his humble Little Tokyo pad. (His apparent goal in life? To be "a happy Jap in the streets.") Buddhists, as you may know, tend not to be "ambitious" in the Western sense; they don't proselytize. When's the last time a Buddhist came a-knockin' on your door?

Seeing those stones, and looking back, Senzaki strikes me as a pretty wise person, even hip. And I can just see citiZen Senzaki through wind, rain and snow, smiling, calm.... "Sensei, what are you doing?" "Oh, looking for stones." "What for?" "Oh, because they're there." Or: "Sensei, what are you doing?" "Oh, writing." "Writing what?" "Oh, words." "What for?" "Oh, because I was washing dishes in the mess hall." "Oh. Mind if I look?" "Have a seat. Or, go get your own stones. The right stones--heh heh heh..."

Now, as an erstwhile "Buddhahead" (that's what we called ourselves; ever wonder what we called you?), albeit one raised in the (Japanese) Congregational/Methodist Church, but one who has recently become a student of Buddhism, with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher (call me Protestant-Buddhist, if you will; "no big deal," says my teacher, whose students include Catholic-Buddhists and Jewish-Buddhists: "Zen Judaism"), it occurs to me that there's a thing or two we Westerners can stand to learn from these people.

Which gets me to my hidden agenda, or the reason I took on this assignment. (Obviously, I'm not a "real" reviewer or a trained historian; just a "camp poet " who welcomed the opportunity, the privilege, the outright honor of stretching in the sunlit space of The Nation.) So, in my circuitous way, the way of the camps and poetry, allow me to unveil my relocation plan.

Go ahead, laugh, even scoff, if you will--because my idea is so stone-simple it's ridiculous. Not only is it cheap, but it just could be profitable, in all respects, for the government. Folks, we're talking win/win situation for the U.S. of A.!

First, though, you've got to buy my premise--that this nation is not exactly, or entirely, or always, a cozy, feel-good place in which to reside. O.K.? O.K. Or, doggone it, despite giving it our best shot, like, oh, freeing the slaves and honoring the Indians with so many names of states--we're haunted by the camps.

So how about if we bring in some consultants? How about if we flip through the Yellow Pages for some help? Our house may be in need of some professional intervention. The camps, for instance, are like history going to waste. They don't exist, but still loom large on the landscape, like condemned disposal sites in need of decontamination or just plain purification (and outright blessing).

Which may be fitting, because what is there to do, after all , with former concentration camps? Those are some rugged, formidable and forbidding places--sweltering swamps, simmering deserts and windswept mountains.

Now, who in the world could not only survive but might actually thrive in such places? (Count me out; I'm a wimp.) I mean, do you know of any people who might actually be "into" altitude and aridity and snow and cold? Or heat and humidity and density of foliage? People who might actually welcome being remote? Sure you do--for I'm speaking of our recent Americans from Southeast Asia and Tibet, people to whom these camp locales would be a piece of cake. Or a bowl of rice.

And, since we previous residents were of the Buddhist tradition, I'm proposing that these Buddhists be granted the opportunity for occupation. Or at least let them consider possible re-relocation. After all, if it weren't for us, most of them wouldn't be here. And this wouldn't be any "free ride" for "boat people," either--there'd just be some land, some space, for some deployment or another.

Like what? Well, I'd invite His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh to chair the Peace Relocation Authority. (Hanh, as you may know, headed the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation during the Paris Peace Accords, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr.) And I'd guess these gentlemen would not want to establish gambling casinos or cult centers but cultural centers, retreat centers, peace centers--staffed by Buddhists (Smokey the Incense Caretaker), open to the public. And under the auspices of the Department of the Interior (Interior!), these parks could turn a profit. And prove a blessing.

Myself, I'd donate money to the cause, and contribute to the construction of the buildings--perhaps semi-barracks, but with decent construction and planning, with respect for privacy and convenience. I'll be there with tools, alongside Jimmy Carter. Volunteers? Just ask the Nikkei people! (We're great landscapers, as still-existing camp rock gardens and concrete ponds will attest.) And, yes, we'll have to ask the Indians if they want our presence. But, ah, I can just see it now--busloads of schoolkids on field trips, tourists just dropping by for exotic eats, touring the yurts, enjoying the exhibits, the interactive videos, and of course buying souvenirs, handmade artifacts, clothes. And, underneath, something spiritual would be happening, something would be changing, transforming, in this country, the world--something that, were it not for the camps, would not be happening at all.

Copyright 1995, The Nation Company, L.P.
Online Source: http://past.thenation.com/issue/950918/bk_rev.htm


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