There is a unique psychology among the Nisei, the American-born children of Japanese immigrants, most of whom came of age during World War II. I have witnessed it in my own family, in my community, and in almost every other Nisei I’ve met. It is a psychology of silence, of persevering through an unspoken trauma, a trauma that was dormant for decades. The trauma is, of course, the forced removal and incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II.
While we reflect this year on the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the incarceration, we should also remember those Nisei who broke that psychology of silence to speak out against the incarceration and to share their experiences with their communities. As the 90-year old poet Suma Yagi writes in the preface to her collection of poems titled, A Japanese Name: An American Story, “My Nisei disposition sometimes makes me uncomfortable when sharing personal experiences about my cultural heritage, and yet I feel a special responsibility to both past and future generations.” It is this gift of sharing that gives me the sense that not only do I know Yagi’s life and family after reading her collection, but that I know my own family more intimately as well.
Yagi’s publication is almost a mixed genre in that in addition to her poems, she includes family photos, autobiographical snapshots or micro-essays, and extensive notes of the historical references in the poems. If you know nothing about the Japanese American experience during World War II, one thing that will come with reading A Japanese Name: An American Story is an understanding of that time in our history. That was one of the goals for Yagi. When I asked her about this, she said she feels that “it’s important to write because the community outside is unaware, and younger people need to know about it.” In reference to the notes section, Yagi’s son Victor said: “These histories didn’t come out a lot. We made a decision to put it into the notes.” This inclusion speaks to the focus of Yagi’s poems as well. Yagi said that all of these experiences are part of our history and that it is important to speak about them “in an honest way.”
Yagi speaks about these histories as reflected in her own experience through seven sections of poems. The sections focus on different parts of her family’s life, including her parents’ struggles as immigrants and the aftermath of the incarceration. For me, Yagi’s sections titled “Camp Harmony” and “Minidoka” lingered for days. Camp Harmony is the Puyallup Assembly Center, where Yagi and other people of Japanese ancestry from Western Washington were held until they were moved to the incarceration camp at Minidoka, Idaho. The indignity of the communal living, which I knew about before reading Yagi’s poems, became even more horrendous to me through Yagi’s description in poems such as “The Day After.” In this poem, she describes lining up in the communal showers “like cattle/in front of a trough.” Yagi continues with the image of being treated like cattle in “Solitude.” In my conversation with Yagi, she admitted that it was just embarrassing to have someone right over her at those times of bathing and going to the bathroom. However, it is a horror-filled symbol of the way our government and military treated people of Japanese ancestry, like cattle hemmed in by the ever-present barbed wire.
Yagi’s narrative poems are endearing, filled with memories of her father bringing in the washtub each night and her mother’s pride at gaining citizenship and the right to vote. But her poems about the indignity of confinement are the ones that stand out most to me. And perhaps in this age of travel bans and sanctuary cities, Yagi’s book is really a gift of remembrance, a reminder of what humans are capable of, of “man’s inhumanity/toward man.”