In looking at the cover picture of “After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics,” Greg Robinson’s collection of essays, one might get the impression that life was very good for Japanese Americans after their experiences living in a prison camp. Three young persons, well dressed, attractive, and in a good mood, are pictured sauntering down a city street. They are, according to the credits, Julie and Tai Tanji, sisters, with George Ono, strolling down Fifth Avenue in New York City. They had just arrived from Granada Relocation Center in October, 1943. What a sunny and optimistic presentation this is of some young people who had come to the freedom of a major city, a year after they had been incarcerated. On seeing this, my first reaction was what lucky people they were!
I comment on this because to me the title, After Camp, coupled with this picture, is slightly misleading since Robinson doesn’t particularly focus on the lives of former camp inmates but rather, he covers a wide range of subjects in these essays which are of general interest and deal more with relations of this particular minority group with other minority groups.
A perusal of the table of contents will give a better idea of what is to be found here: Part 1 is Resettlement and New Lives: FDR, Japanese Americans, and the Postwar Dispersion of Minorities. In this essay, Robinson examines Pres. Roosevelt’s ideas about the value of a policy of dispersing and mingling minorities in small groups across the nation, and in particular, the Japanese Americans who had lived in clusters along the West Coast. Breaking up the communities was a way to assimilate them into mainstream American life. In the next essay, Forrest LaViolette: Race, Internationalism and Assimilation, features the life of a Canadian academic who spent six months at Heart Mountain Relocation camp working for the War Relocation authority as a community analyst.
The rest of the book, including “Japantown Born and Reborn: Comparing the Resettlement Experience of Issei and Nisei In Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles,” concerns Japanese Americans and their relations with Mexican Americans, Jews, and African Americans. Interspersed within the broad essays are stories about individuals like S. I. Hayakawa, Ina Sugihara, Larry Tajiri, and Hugh Macbeth, black attorneys who championed Japanese Americans.
These essays are far ranging, full of information and are wonderful reading. The historical coverage certainly enriches our understanding about Japanese American life from prewar times and up to the present but, ultimately, this is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of the larger story of how most Japanese Americans fared.
Robinson is very aware of the brutalization of camp inmates due to all their losses, leading to “widespread trauma and interpersonal conflict within the camps.” There were great pressures to assimilate, to quietly join the mainstream, but all were faced with questions such as “Was it possible to be American and Japanese?” These complex issues are still part of the mentality of Japanese American contemporary life. Though most returned to the West Coast and reformed Japanese American communities, the ghosts and effects of the camp experience still remain, as exemplified by the continuing interest and study of these topics and issues. It will take several more generations to rid ourselves of them.