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San Francisco Bay Area Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens, board busses for Tanforan Assembly Center in 1942. Luggage was limited to what internees could carry. (Photo courtesy of Grace Oshita)
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #39 (September 21, 2004), page 10.
New anthology records memories of Internment
From Our Side of the Fence:
Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps
Edited by Brian Komei Dempster
Kearny Street Workshop, 2004
Paperback, $15.00, 132 pages
By Dave Johnson
On Saturday, September 12, the grand opening of the relocated Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center was highlighted by readings of From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps, a collection of essays and memoirs by Japanese Americans who were among 120,000 shipped to concentration camps in western states during World War II.
Authors who read were Florence Miho Nakamura, Ruth Y. Okimoto, Michi Tashiro, Harumi Serata, and Sato Hashizume. Born and raised in Portland, Hashizume was warmly received with fond regard by old friends and family.
Also at the event was writer and educator Brian Komei Dempster, who edited the anthology. He explained that the book grew out of workshops at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC), located in San Francisco. Dempster recalls that a group of his senior writing students approached him in 1999 and said, "We want to write our internment stories … we want our children and grandchildren to know what happened to us during World War II. Will you help us?"
Dempster’s response was to offer Internment Autobiography Writing Workshops that gave his students a chance to courageously document their years in the camps.
Comprised of the reflections of eleven workshop students as well as sixteen lesson plans for others who want to break their own silence, this well-written, well-crafted book is suffused with endurance, tragedy, humor, and tender tales of coming of age in a strange world.
Kiku Hori Funabiki talks about "The Gap." During a dance in the recreation hall at Heart Mountain, the lights were turned off, and the snuggling and smooching commenced. Mr. Sato, the "block moralist," flipped on the lights, demanding to know what was going on.
"A roomful of teenagers squinted from the cruel flash of light … boys with lipstick smears on their acned faces, girls who wore their hair in perfect pompadours, now undone, stood stunned ...."
Hashizume gets to the nitty gritty of camp life with her essay, "The Food." Used to home-cooked rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables, she recalls that C-rations in #10 cans, mealy hominy, mushy corned beef hash, and blanched wieners severely tested her tummy.
Fumi Manabe Hayashi poignantly recounts the military evacuation of her family and thousands of others from Tanforan Assembly Center in South San Francisco to Topaz, Utah. "I had never taken a train ride before … traveling with family and friends and seeing new places should have been great. However, it soon became boring and tiresome. The curtains were drawn to keep the public from seeing us."
Many of the contributions reverberate between the Internment era and life today. In the first stanza of her poem, "Topaz, 1993," Daisy Uyeda Satoda writes:
Ghosts from a distant past lay buried in these desert sands
Where we return to retrace the saga of our youth.
Three tumultuous years stripped us of innocence.
We were banished behind barbed wire,
Held captive in this one-mile square:
Topaz, "Jewel of the Desert."
Toru Saito also revisited Topaz, where he found remnants of the camp. Breaking through the crust of the desert, digging through soft sand, he was astonished to find "Twenty-six sparkling marbles! My boyhood gems, my most cherished possessions."
Instantly, he was transported to 1944, a four-foot circle, a cluster of marbles in its center, and his red agate "lucky shooter" tightly tucked against his thumb. As that memory faded, he felt again, "The catastrophic results of that unjustified imprisonment, the psychological and emotional damage we had suffered and endured in silence throughout our lives. I felt a painful lump swell in my throat … my eyes watered, blurring the brilliantly colored marbles gleaming in my cupped hands."
In an eloquent summation of the Internment experience and the years of silence and suffering that followed, Harumi Serata penned this short poem:
The War is History.
We are living in the future.
We are driving Toyota cars
and watching Sony TVs.
We visit Japan and even
speak their language.
Have we forgiven them?
It is hard to tell since we have
the face of the enemy.