It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.
The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.
Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.
Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.
Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.
The Japanese American National Museum recently launched a new web resource, Exploring America’s Concentration Camps. Like our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which provides a key educational experience for 15,000 students and teachers every year, EACC showcases photographs, letters, artwork, oral histories, and moving images from our permanent collection. We selected and digitized artifacts from all 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps and organized them thematically for this new website. Our goal is to share our collection widely with students and teachers around the nation to help them learn more about the Japanese American World War II experience.
The above photo of a group of women making mochi in the Gila River camp in Arizona has a handwritten caption: “New Years a comin’.” At around the same time in Utah’s Topaz camp, artist Hisako Hibi painted two stacked pieces of mochi topped with a small citrus, a symbol of hope for a healthy and prosperous new year. On the back of her painting, Hibi wrote, “Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu. So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.” These artifacts, like many others in JANM’s permanent collection, speak to how important it was for those in camp to find ways to maintain their traditions, despite being incarcerated in harsh environments far from home.
Other artifacts speak to the idea of security. For example, this badge and identification card are from the collection of Norio Mitsuoka, the inmate who would become the fire chief at Idaho’s Minidoka camp. The WRA created and ran camp entities like fire departments to ensure standard protections for the Japanese American prisoners. Such artifacts not only give viewers a deeper understanding of camp life, but they also surface broader questions about security, both physical and psychological.
A handmade chest of drawers, meanwhile, illustrates the dignity with which the Japanese Americans endured the camps. The collection of Frank S. Emi, who is perhaps best known for his leadership in the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, offers us a glimpse at another skill he possessed: furniture making. In an oral history interview for JANM, he shared what the furniture meant to him:
I built this chest of drawers from scrap lumber in the fall of 1942 while incarcerated at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp. The barracks were bare except for a potbelly stove and a single light bulb dangling from the roof. I had also built a vanity with a 36-inch mirror (purchased from a mail order catalog), which was my pride and joy.
This weekend, Glennis Dolce will be leading an exciting new two-day workshop called From Moth to Cloth, which explores the Japanese tradition of silkworm rearing. Participants will work with actual silk cocoons, learning how to reel thread using a traditional silk reeling device (zakuri) and make silk hankies (mawata) out of them.
Legend has it that silk was first discovered in China in 2460 BC by the Empress Xi Ling Shi, who was drinking tea under a mulberry tree one day when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. She became fascinated with the shimmering thread and proceeded to study it. She soon learned how to cultivate silkworms, reel their thread, and weave beautiful garments out of the material. Silk clothing became the province of royalty for many years, before the popularity of the material slowly became more widespread, eventually reaching across the globe. Empress Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.
After being kept secret in China for hundreds of years, the silk making process finally found its way to Japan, with various sources dating its arrival between 200 and 400 AD. By the eighth century AD, sericulture was thriving there, with Gumma Prefecture rising to become the country’s principal silk producing region. During the 20th century, the silk industry experienced ups and downs; the advent of industrialization, the invention of nylon, and the popularization of Western tastes finally brought about a decline in the global silk market at the end of the 1970s. Silk remains, however, an important and popular fine fabric, and fascination with the process of sericulture continues.
We asked Dolce, who has traveled to Japan many times to learn about this subject, what silk production there is like today. This is what she told us: “While sericulture in the past was a cottage industry widely practiced by Japanese small-scale farmers in their homes, today there are improved techniques that even small-scale sericulturists practice that allow them to produce large numbers of cocoons. Regional sericulture groups hatch and raise large numbers of silkworms in laboratory-style settings with perfect environmental conditions, and deliver the silkworms to farmers once they have reached their third instar, allowing farmers to finish the process (feeding with fresh mulberry leaf) and the cocooning. This allows farmers to produce up to four readings in a single season. Most of these sericulturists are small-scale operations, with the farmer living near or on the same property.”
“Most commercial silk cocoons come from India and China these days,” Dolce added. “Japan’s production is rather specialized, focusing on domestic and high-end silk. I don’t think they export any silk cocoons at all. I believe that Japanese cocoons are almost exclusively reeled and used in Japan.”
This weekend, try your own hand at reeling silk, making mawata, and crafting and dyeing with silk cocoons. Sign up for From Moth to Cloth here. For inspiration, check out Glennis Dolce’s favorite silkworm website, Wormspit. You can also read about the history of sericulture in California, brought over by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. And if you can read Japanese, you can learn about Dolce’s teacher in Japan here.
Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.
This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.
JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?
Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.
JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?
SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.
In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.
JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?
SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.
I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.
JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?
SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.
JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.
SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.
Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.
Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.
I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.
There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.
The following guest blog post, announcing the launch of a new podcast exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, is contributed by Eric Muller, a law professor and longtime friend of the museum.
After the election of Donald Trump, many people were asking themselves: “How can I help counter what lies ahead?” I decided to create a podcast called Scapegoat Cities, which is launching today.
The idea is simple. Over the course of two decades of deep research in the National Archives for my books and articles, I’ve gathered many touching but unknown stories of the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II—stories that put a human face on the gross miscarriage of justice. Scapegoat Cities lets me tell a handful of those stories in an accessible and compelling way.
I believe that if we want to ensure that something never happens again, we need to first ensure that we really know what it was that actually happened. That’s what this podcast is for: to help listeners know in detail and also feel how Japanese Americans experienced unwarranted confinement by the US government. My hope is that this will contribute in some small way to resisting the dangerous religious and ethnic profiling that the policies of the Trump administration threaten to enact. It will remind people of the real human costs of these seemingly abstract policies.
The first two episodes, available now, give a good idea of what the podcast will do. “The Desert Was His Home” tells the story of the disappearance and death of Otomatsu Wada, an elderly Issei, from the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. In “The Irrepressible Moe Yonemura,” an extraordinary young man defies all odds and becomes one of the most popular and respected members of his class at UCLA. He brings the same indomitable spirit to his time at the Heart Mountain camp—and then he volunteers for wartime service as part of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both of these stories are based on real events that took place at those two camps. Each of the stories, in its own touching way, reveals something important about the nature and impact of confinement.
It’s surprising how much information survives that helps me tell these stories. I learned the story of the disappearance of the Issei gentleman from the records left behind by Gila River’s “Project Attorney,” the white government lawyer who both helped run the camp and who served as a legal adviser for inmates. The story was also extensively covered in the camp’s newspaper and in Arizona newspapers. I first learned about Moe Yonemura from the pages of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s newspaper, and then discovered the UCLA campus newspaper and yearbooks and the narrative records of his battalion’s service in Italy online.
There are lots of ways to listen to the podcast. The easiest is to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you like to find your podcasts. You can also go to the podcast’s website, which has each episode available for download along with additional background information, including photographs and suggestions for further reading.
I hope people enjoy the podcast, and that those who do will leave a review on iTunes and tell their friends!
Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Muller has for two decades focused his research and scholarship almost exclusively on the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He’s published two monographs and a third edited volume as well as many academic articles. He’s also proud to have led the creation of the main historical exhibit at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, which won museum awards.
On view through August 13, Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos form its substance.
To complement Instructions to All Persons, JANM has mounted an outdoor public art installation called Moving Day, which is on view in the museum’s courtyard daily from sunset to midnight, through August 11. The work consists of a series of projections of the Civilian Exclusion Orders that were publicly posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration. Each poster is projected onto the façade of the museum’s Historic Building, the site of Los Angeles’s first Buddhist temple and a pickup point for Japanese Americans bound for concentration camps during World War II, on a date that coincides with its original issue date.
The museum has also presented a series of public programs to grapple with various aspects of the WWII Japanese American incarceration. Below is a video of the first of these events, which took place on March 23. JANM volunteers Tohru Isobe and June Berk, both camp survivors, discussed what it was like to be forcibly removed from their homes as children. The discussion was moderated by Clement Hanami, exhibition curator and Vice President of Operations/Art Director. Video clips from a 2013 visit to Bainbridge Island, where the forced removal of Japanese Americans began with Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1, were also shown.
Holly Yasui is the youngest daughter of Minoru Yasui, the legendary Japanese American lawyer and civil rights activist. She is currently at work on a documentary film about the life of her father, titled Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM will be hosting the Los Angeles premiere of Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up until the end of World War II. Holly will be present for a Q&A with the audience following the screening.
Below, we present excerpts from an interview with Holly, who graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions via email. The complete interview will be published on Discover Nikkei shortly.
JANM: Your father was an extraordinary man. What was it like to grow up with him?
Holly Yasui: Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an amazing experience to grow up with my dad, to be Min Yasui’s daughter. He was kind, loving, and patient. He taught me how to read before I started school, by reading out loud to me every night in bed before I went to sleep. He bought me books and a special illustrated encyclopedia, and when I showed interest in writing, he gave me my first typewriter and money to buy my first word processor. Though he worked almost all the time—he was a community activist, and like housework, that kind of work never ends—he was always home for dinner and he was always interested to hear from his family about our day. It never occurred to me that it was unusual that he went out to meetings and events nearly every night after dinner. For me and my sisters, that was normal—we thought everyone’s dad did that.
JANM: What inspired you to make this documentary?
HY: In 2013, JANM invited me to participate on a panel with Jay Hirabayashi and Karen Korematsu to talk about our fathers and their legacies at the museum’s National Conference in Seattle, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. I met up with Janice Tanaka, who was filming the event for JANM and who had been a classmate at film school in the 1980s. (I dropped out, but Janice made good!) We got to talking, and the idea for a film about my dad was planted in my mind.
After the conference I went to Portland to visit Peggy Nagae, who was my dad’s lead attorney in the reopening of his World War II legal test case. We discussed the conference and my dad’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, and we hatched the idea of a Minoru Yasui Tribute Project. Peggy took on the task of getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom for my father, and I took on the making of the film. Peggy was successful in mobilizing a nationwide campaign to endorse the nomination, which resulted in a posthumous awarding of the medal by President Obama in 2015.
On my father’s 100th birthday, we screened a work-in-progress in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon. On March 28, 2017, we premiered Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up to the end of WWII. March 28 is Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and this past year was the 75th anniversary of the day he deliberately broke a military curfew to initiate his legal test case. I’m still working on completing the film, hopefully in 2018.
JANM: Most documentaries are made by third parties. You are about as close to the subject as you can get. Does this make the process easier or harder?
HY: I think that the best films are made by people who have some kind of personal investment or interest in the subject. Yes, I am very close to the subject of Never Give Up! and that has made the process both easier and harder. Easier because I have access to wonderful materials that our family archivist, my aunt Yuka (Dad’s youngest sister) has saved—mostly photos but also documents. Harder because I idolized my dad in life, but that’s not an effective approach to portraying a complex human being.
JANM: If your father were alive today, what would his take be on the Trump administration and its policies?
HY: I think he would be appalled by the thinly veiled racism and bigotry inherent in many current initiatives such as the Muslim ban and the wall between Mexico and the United States, as well as anti-democratic efforts like supporting charter schools, taking away Medicare from thousands of people, and putting the fox in charge of the henhouse on environmental and civil rights enforcement. I have no doubt that he would vociferously oppose any and all policies rooted in discrimination based on race, religion, and/or national origin. I remember in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Iran hostage crisis sparked xenophobia and hate crimes against Iranian students, legal residents, and persons who “looked like” Iranians, he spoke out and unequivocally condemned such attitudes and actions.
JANM: What kind of advice do you think your father would give to young activists today?
HY:Never give up! Keep on fighting, stand up and speak out! Work for the common good, help to make the world a better place in whatever way you can, according to your own convictions and passions and life experiences.
Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice will be screened at JANM at 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 29. JANM members can also attend an exclusive pre-event meet-and-greet with Holly at 1 p.m.
JANM welcomed new Archivist Jamie Henricks to the staff in May. In her first blog post below, Jamie updates us on one of the many projects she’s been working on—completing museum finding aids for the Online Archive of California.
Alhough JANM is fortunate to have a vast collection of materials, only a fraction is on display at any one time. To make more of the collection accessible to the public, the museum’s Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit is an active contributor to the Online Archive of California (OAC), which provides access to descriptions of archival collections held at more than 200 libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies throughout California.
On JANM’s OAC page, there is a list of collection finding aids. Click on any link to read about a collection, including its contents, background information about the people and organizations involved, and other details. Some finding aids link directly to digital copies of materials (such as diaries or photo albums), and others offer the chance to learn more by coming to JANM for a research visit.
Two recently processed collections provide insights that bookend the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience. The Japanese Farm Survey for Defense Records demonstrate how Japanese Americans and other enemy aliens were viewed before and shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, while the E.O. 9066 Inc. Records show the wide range of opinions from Japanese Americans about their treatment and what types of reparations should be made.
The first Japanese Farm Survey was conducted in 1940 by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commission, at the request of the Home Protection Committee of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Most of the 147 properties inspected were Japanese-owned (although other “resident aliens” surveyed included Germans, Italians, Filipinos, and Chinese) and located along major power transmission lines and aqueducts. It appears officials were worried about sabotage or tampering of the nation’s infrastructure by non-citizens. The reports include observations about the individuals and their land holdings, their proximity to power lines, their level of English proficiency, and their personal backgrounds. Inspectors often commented with surprise on how intelligent the interviewees seemed.
After the first report concluded that 80 to 90 percent of farms owned by Japanese individuals were run by non-citizens, a second survey was conducted in January 1942. This survey contains details about each farm owner, including names, ages, genders, citizenship, registration numbers, and ports of entry, and their business, including farm location, workers employed and their citizenship status, number and type of crops, whether they will seek loans to try to buy more land, use of pesticides, marketing and membership in organizations, and whether or not the farm expects any labor shortages or financial troubles. Some of the questions feel ominous in retrospect, considering how many thousands of people of Japanese ancestry would be forced to drop everything and abandon their farms, some within just two months of responding to this survey.
In 1975, E.O. 9066, Inc. was formed as an outcome of a reparations panel sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Chapter and the Pacific Southwest District of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The nonprofit’s goals were to educate the public about the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans, propose legislation to compensate those affected by Executive Order 9066, and ultimately have the Supreme Court review the constitutionality of the order as well as the landmark Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States cases.
After conversations within the Japanese American community, a survey of the LA area was circulated in The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and handed out by the JACL (though responses were tallied from around the United States). It asked for details regarding the respondents’ incarceration experiences and their opinions on what and how reparations should be paid. The results indicated general support for redress efforts, and many responses came in the form of handwritten or typed notes. The comments are extremely wide-ranging and fascinating to read, and even the labels assigned to various groupings (e.g. “cynical”) give a good indication as to common threads of thinking.
Requests to access JANM’s permanent collection can be made by contacting the CMA Unit at firstname.lastname@example.org. Appointments must be scheduled in advance and documentation as to the purpose of the research visit is required. Fees may apply.
JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.
This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.
JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?
Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.
JANM: What’s your family’s background?
JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.
JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?
JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].
JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?
JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.
JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].
JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.
JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!
JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?
JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.
JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.
JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)
JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?
JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.
JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?
JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).
JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?
JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.
JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?
JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!
JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?
JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.
JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?
JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.
JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?
JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.
JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?
JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.
JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?
JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.
It’s summer, and to many in the Japanese American community, that means camp pilgrimage season. To honor the experiences of their forebears (and in some cases, their own experiences as children) and to help ensure that they never forget the grave injustices committed against their community during World War II, Japanese Americans and their allies are paying visits to the sites of several American concentration camps where persons of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without due process following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The vast majority were held in ten main camps run by the War Relocation Authority and located in remote, desolate areas throughout the United States: Amache (Colorado), Gila River (Arizona), Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Jerome (Arkansas), Manzanar (California), Minidoka (Idaho), Poston (Arizona), Rohwer (Arkansas), Topaz (Utah), and Tule Lake (California). (Additional camps and detention centers run by the Department of Justice or other government agencies confined special populations or served as holding centers.) As of this date, five of the ten main camps hold formal pilgrimage events. The pilgrimages to Manzanar and Amache have already happened; below are links to complete information about the pilgrimages yet to come.
While the other five sites don’t hold formal events, they are also open to visitors. Topaz, in fact, has just installed permanent exhibits, and will have a ticketed grand opening for their museum on the weekend of July 7–8, 2017. With the exception of Gila River camp, permits are not required.
Not able to make it out to a camp site? Last month, the Library of Congress announced on their blog that newspapers self-published by Japanese Americans while they were imprisoned are now available online. These newspapers are amazing historical artifacts, offering up-close, first-person glimpses into what life was like inside of a camp. You’ll find accounts of daily activities, official camp announcements, editorials about important issues, reports on the exploits of Japanese Americans in the US military, and more. More than 4,600 English- and Japanese-language issues published in 13 camps are available and can be accessed here.
On April 29, a group of JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to attend the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage together. Check this space next week for an exclusive interview with one of JANM’s youngest volunteers, 16-year-old Joy Ormseth, who made the pilgrimage with us.