Like many Japanese Americans during WWII, members of my family were held in U.S. concentration camps. Throughout my own life, I’ve read books, watched films, and attended all sorts of events about these camps. Before now, however, I’d never heard of Michi Weglyn.
Michi was incarcerated at Turlock and Gila River, and went on to get married, become a costume designer, and write a book, Years of Infamy, that exposed a deep lie perpetrated by a racist government. But the book I’m writing about is not that book. Instead, Ken Mochizuki’s Michi Challenges History is the story of her life, and of the truths she first discovered.
Prior to this, I’ve read other kids’ books on this history. We Hereby Refuse featured stories of resistance, as did Fred Korematsu in Speaks Out — my dad quoted me for an IE article about a reading we saw with Stan Yogi, one of the authors. Those Who Helped Us was also written by Mochizuki, and illustrated by Kiku Hughes, who wrote and illustrated Displacement.
Those books, though different from each other, tell more personal stories, focusing on individual accounts of camp. Michi Challenges History taught me about the facts that the government covered up, focusing more on politics and what happened afterwards. Neither is better or worse, but the existence of both types of book teaches a more complete history.
Michi Challenges History follows her experiences through camp and the writing of her book, but uses her life to translate the facts she uncovered into a story. This makes it a good all-ages book — it’s easier to remember and understand a memorable story than lists of facts.
Reading about her research and the facts she uncovered was pretty neat. From earlier books, I knew the camps were created because of political pressure and racism, not actual proof, but I hadn’t known about the Munson report, carefully conducted for the government, which proved that Japanese Americans were loyal, only for its evidence to be disregarded and hidden to appease the racist public.
I also didn’t know about the renunciants at Tule Lake, who renounced their U.S. citizenship to go to Japan, pressured by camp officials and groups like the Hoshi Dan, nor about Wayne Collins, the lawyer who took on their cases. He stopped their deportations and spent fourteen years restoring their citizenship, helping thousands. Years of Infamy is dedicated to him.
I learned, too, about the treatment of the draft resisters — young incarcerees who refused to be drafted into the Army because they did not have their rights as citizens. They were arrested and convicted, and most served up to three years in prison. After being pardoned in 1947, many were ostracized by their own communities.
I also learned about Seabrook Farms. When the government began resettling incarcerees, Seabrook Farms took advantage of Japanese Americans looking for jobs, including Michi’s family. They were forced to live in barrack-like housing with many similarities to the camps: poor living conditions, extreme temperatures, a high fence to prevent escape, schools and jobs only inside the grounds, work with long shifts and low pay. Worse than the camps, people had to buy and cook their own food, paying more than they would outside.
Of course, the book is about Michi, and there’s a lot of cool stuff about her. Before the war, Michi’s parents told her to not call attention to herself; she had to “know her place,” and not offend her white peers. However, in the camps everyone was in the same situation. Most were sharecroppers, fishermen, or ran small businesses, and all had been forcibly removed from their homes. She started to excel because she could finally stand out.
Later, after redress was secured, Michi continued fighting for the “forgotten ones,” like railroad and mine workers unfairly fired for being Japanese American, and Chol Soo Lee, wrongfully convicted of murder. She also wrote to the New York Times to suggest that restaurants give excess food to families that could not afford it.
Michi’s husband Walter has an intriguing story, too. Walter was a Jewish child in prewar Germany. After the anti-Jewish violence of Kristallnacht, Walter escaped with the Kindertransport, a child-rescue effort, and was taken in by a wealthy Jewish family in Holland. When the Nazis invaded, they were sent to a concentration camp, but Walter escaped again. He spent the next three years in hiding, helped by various people and sleeping anywhere from a closet to a hole under a goat stable.
After Allied forces drove Nazi forces from the Netherlands, Walter could finally come out of hiding. In 1945, he was reunited with his parents, who had been sent to a ghetto, Theresienstadt. He and his parents were among few survivors — his parents were among the 19,000 Theresienstadt survivors out of 144,000, and Walter was one of two out of 2,000 in his Kindertransport group.
I found this interesting because although, unlike the Nazi death camps, the U.S. concentration camps weren’t intended for killing, both inflicted deep psychological damage. Walter encouraged Michi to keep going in her research because he understood what happened, and he wanted the people who had suffered to have justice.
Reading this story today makes me think of the protests at the Northwest Detention Center, since it’s essentially a modern version of a camp. My dad and I went to a “solidarity day” there, organized by La Resistencia on Father’s Day. Many of the people imprisoned at NWDC are fathers, and one of the Japanese American so-called “troublemakers” was a father of fifteen, separated from his family.
In the camps, “troublemakers” were organizers of strikes and protests, or anyone seen as disloyal, favoring the enemy, or just maybe having done something wrong. They were separated and held in more heavily guarded prisons. Like them, the people at NWDC are separated from their families and do not deserve to be imprisoned. They have done nothing wrong, they live in inhumane conditions, the food they receive is often inedible, and many people on the outside don’t know or care that they’re inside.
There are a lot of connections and parallels between both groups. The purpose of Michi’s book was to let the public know what had happened, and that’s one thing we can do for people in NWDC and similar detention centers.
Yuuna Tajiri is entering the 7th grade. He is a fifth-generation Japanese American, second-generation Korean American, and a fourth-generation contributor to the ethnic press.