Photo: The author’s grandmother (bottom left) in her high school senior yearbook. Canal High School, 1943, Gila River incarceration camp.
Last month, TheAtlantic.com published the essay “What My Grandmother Learned in Her World War II Internment Camp,” by Helen Yoshida. In it she tells the story of her grandmother, who was one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government from 1942 to 1945. At Heart Mountain incarceration camp, Yoshida writes, her grandmother made the best of the situation by developing the sewing skills that later enabled her “to craft a comfortable life.”
“Like many internees, she did not talk about camp later in her life. Instead, she closed that chapter,” Yoshida explains. Later in the essay, she states her grandmother did tell her about the incarceration, but “did not dwell on the racism and mass hysteria that had driven her there.” Instead, she recounted the everyday: “how she’d spent the time.”
The Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) incarceration experience has been largely characterized by silence. Among a group of Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans) studied by psychology professor Donna K. Nagata, about three-quarters said their parents rarely or never mentioned that period. Children and grandchildren may have heard about the mundane — the everyday — but not the psychology and emotions.
Today, with the Nisei generation departing, many of us are left on our own to interpret these silences in our families.
My late grandmother was incarcerated during the war. She, her parents, and younger sisters were forced to abandon their home in Winters, California and bring only what they could carry to Gila River incarceration camp, in the Arizona desert. Fifty miles south of Phoenix, the camp was in a desolate area where summer temperatures soared over 100 degrees. The some 13,000 inmates lived one family per room in crude barracks — tar-papered, uninsulated, furnished with army cots, and susceptible to the dust and wildlife of the desert. Privacy was nonexistent. A guard tower kept watch.
Like Yoshida’s grandmother, mine seemed to rally and make the best of things. She threw herself into school: her high school transcript shows she was the Calendar Editor, a reporter for the school newspaper, and secretary-treasurer of the camp National Honor Society chapter. When her class of about 200 students graduated in 1943, she was the Valedictorian.
After the war, my grandmother rebuilt her life. She married and settled in Palo Alto, California. Her family managed to establish a chrysanthemum nursery there, where three generations worked side-by-side growing the big, heavy-headed flowers. The business did well enough that by the time my grandparents had three young children, they were able to buy a three-bedroom house in a neighborhood with good schools.
Like many others, my grandmother didn’t talk about the incarceration, referring to it rarely and simply as “camp,” as if it had been a pleasant place of capture the flag and swimming lessons.
But I don’t think that chapter ever really closed.
Although on the surface my grandmother may have appeared to make the best of her circumstances, leaving behind the war years to carve out her own American success story, her narrative — and her silence surrounding those years — seems to me more complex and opaque.
My grandmother is remembered by her children as overwhelmed and exasperated, critical and unhappy. She suffered from bowel issues and migraines so bad they made her vomit, and she was known to fly into rages—throwing things, wielding spoons and hairbrushes. At the end of her life, my grandmother revealed to my mother that she’d always felt as if she didn’t fit in — like “a square peg in a round hole.”
Researchers have found that the trauma of the incarceration — suppressed out of shame and a community-wide effort to forget — manifested in some former internees in physical and psychological ways. They have found high rates of low-grade depression among Nisei, along with psychosomatic symptoms such as ulcers, hypertension, and migraines.
I’ll never know for certain what role the camp played in my grandmother’s struggles. That aspect of her life is entangled with others: her individual disposition, larger structures of race and racism in the U.S., her lingering heartbreak over the man — not my grandfather — she’d fallen in love with in camp. Still, I can’t help but feel the weight of the incarceration on my family — even on me, two generations removed. I feel it on all the years, growing up, when I hated my first name and wanted to distance myself from anything Japanese. I feel it on the years I spent later, as a young adult, working to address that by immersing myself in Japan — learning the language, living there, discovering the history of World War II.
The incarceration feels implicit in my very genetic makeup. Since the war, Japanese Americans have married outside their ethnic group at the highest rate among Asian Americans. Over sixty percent of Sansei women and over fifty percent of Sansei men have outmarried. Many of us in the fourth and fifth generations are mixed — although, we’re finding, this has not necessarily translated into a lessening of our Japanese American identity.
What is certain is that we, as a community, as a nation, have a responsibility to keep that chapter of history open. Thanks in part to the efforts of oral historians like those at Densho, Go For Broke National Education Center, and Discover Nikkei, many Japanese Americans who were incarcerated have revisited that period in their final years, sharing their stories. Others, like my grandmother, never did.
We should not read these silences in simple terms, assuming there was nothing more to say. Instead, we can choose to dig deeper. We should continue to learn about, question, and critically examine all the complex effects of that great breach of American civil liberties.
For more on this topic, see Donna K. Nagata’s “Echoes from Generation to Generation,” in Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans, edited by Erica Harth.