BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Examiner Assistant Editor
In her newly published book, “Lost & Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” author Karen L. Ishizuka has written what she calls her “prolonged meditation” on being senior curator of the multimedia exhibit, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” produced by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit showed at the Museum from 1994-1995.
But rather than merely producing an exhibit catalog, what she takes note of the most during the exhibition’s 10-year existence are the stories told by National Museum employees, docents, volunteers and others affected by the American incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
One of those stories Ishizuka heard was from a Museum volunteer, 11 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Her mother, left to take care of three young children and a boardinghouse alone, sold the boardinghouse and furnishings for $300. The volunteer’s 16-year-old brother entrusted her to take care of the money throughout the family’s years in camp. She kept the money in a knapsack she had made.
“For over two years – she knew the exact length of time to the day – and without ever telling a soul, this little girl carried her family’s fortune, the culminations of over thirty years of her parents’ hard work, on her back, taking off the knapsack only when she showered and when her mother or brother needed to use some of the money,” Ishizuka recounts. Excited to use this story in the exhibit, particularly since the woman still had the knapsack, the woman told Ishizuka that it could not be used since her brother was reluctant to have the story told. The brother also told her that if anyone asked about her camp experiences, she should reply, “I forgot.”
Ishizuka considers this incident a valuable learning experience as she was developing the exhibit. In retrospect, she writes in “Lost & Found”:
“ … [T]his example of the woman’s brother and the fact that he had not yet recovered from history illustrates that, where survival is the ultimate resistance, we must also uphold the right to remain silent. And, in addition to silence, forgetting in an unequal world is also a method of survival. In our exalted efforts to recover history, to educate others, and to redefine ourselves, who would deny this man his right to silence? This is not the first story to go untold. I just happened to be present at the right moment to hear it ‘through the cracks.’”
As to the content of the exhibit, its senior curator describes “America’s Concentration Camps” as containing “the usual array of artifacts, text panels, photographs and displays” about 11 major incarceration camps. But also:
“What began as a standard exhibition curated and designed by a professional team of museum curators, designers and academic consultants became the backdrop for a much more engaging and potent exhibition that not only evolved but, in essence, was curated over time by the visitors themselves. By offering camp survivors simple opportunities for interactivity – signing their names and camp addresses in camp registries, placing their barracks on camp maps, adding their Polaroid portraits and memories to camp albums – the exhibition invited traditionally passive museums goers to dynamically alter and enhance a carefully considered but nonetheless static display. By engaging the audience in the presentation of its own history within the context of the exhibition, the show enabled visitors not only to recover history but to recover from it as well.”
A traveling version of “America’s Concentration Camps” also showed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum from 1998-1999, at the William Breman Museum of Jewish Heritage in Atlanta, Ga. in 1999, the California Historical Society in San Francisco in 2000, and the Little Rock Statehouse Convention Center in Arkansas during 2004.
Other highlights of the exhibit included the film, “Something Strong Within” – produced by Ishizuka and her husband, filmmaker Robert Nakamura – that showed home movies taken in the camps; and an actual barracks from the site of the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp, disassembled there and reassembled and displayed outdoors next to the National Museum.
The amateur film photography from camp edited together in “Something Strong Within” chronicles everyday life in camp. To summarize the film’s content and reaction to it, Ishizuka includes a 1994 review written by Joy Yamauchi for the Los Angeles Japanese American publication, Tozai Times which read in part:
“ … [A] girl runs through the high winds trying to outrace the oncoming dust storm; a baby cries soundlessly and is comforted by an adult; women make paper flowers for a funeral wreath; people trudge through the snow, their breath frozen plumes caught on film and frozen forever.
“Each time I saw the film, I heard people around me murmuring quietly, ‘Oh yes, that’s what it was like.’ ‘Remember how cold it was?’ ‘Remember the dust?’ ‘The mess hall – sometimes they gave us three starches for dinner, rice, potatoes and pasta.’ ‘A baseball game, everybody came out when there was a baseball game, Well, there was nothing else to do. Any diversion brought a crowd.’ ‘The lines, we lined up for everything. Remember getting sick and having to line up for the latrine?’ ‘That powdered soap in the laundry room, I used to wash my hair with that.’”
“People who went through camp don’t see themselves as victims,” Nakamura said when interviewed by Ishizuka. “They were consciously and deliberately trying to make the best out of a bad situation. This in itself is a form of resistance.”
Again, from personal interaction with docents and others who were there, Ishizuka also captured compelling stories of “resistance.”
Eiji Uragami, a Boy Scout leader at the Amache, Colo. camp, had his Scouts assemble on the camp grounds and play as loudly as they could – and wake up residents of a nearby town – when camp inmates who volunteered for the army “were transported from the local town’s train station in the wee hours of the morning in order to minimize the fact that they volunteered from an American concentration camp,” Ishizuka writes. She continues: “Uragami “voiced his resistance with drums and bugles and the authorities never knew it.”
Ishizuka’s real find was a two-page typewritten letter from the “Mothers’ Society of Minidoka” to President Roosevelt. The letter protested the military drafting of Japanese American men until their civil rights were restored. The Society also questioned the “so-called ‘military necessity’” as the reason for their incarceration. The existence of this letter, Ishizuka notes, defies the stereotype of the “supposedly more compliant Nisei woman.”
For all who engaged in some form of “resistance,” Ishizuka concludes: “They resisted the inclination to lose hope in the face of daunting challenges, to abandon the future of their children, to deny a cultural identity and community solidarity that had singled them out in the first place, and, most surprisingly of all, to abandon their commitment to a nation that had abandoned them.”
Ishizuka, during a presentation about her book at the Theatre Off Jackson on Dec. 2, described the exhibit docents as “living artifacts.”