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Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir

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During World War II, 110,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and incarcerated by the US government. In Looking After Minidoka the "internment camp" years become a prism for understanding three generations of Japanese American life, from immigration to the end of the twentieth century. Nakadate blends history, poetry, rescued memory, and family stories in an American narrative of hope and disappointment, language and education, employment and social standing, prejudice and pain, communal values and personal dreams.

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1 Issei

ePub

Japan and the United States face each other, but across the broadest ocean of them all. Once such a body of water was almost like the space between us and the moon.

EDWIN O. REISCHAUER, The United States and Japan (1950)

The Japan from which my grandparents came to the United States was post-feudal and eager to be part of the “modern world.” By the end of the nineteenth century, an economy and culture of farms and fishing villages was being supplanted by an economy based on manufacturing and commerce. Japan was in flux, and trying to catch up with “America.” Japan wanted factories and trains.

As a viable social force the samurai had been in decline since the seventeenth century, even as the intrigues and epic clashes of the shoguns came to dominate the culture. An ethos of loyalty, obedience, and honorable conduct persisted, but samurai prestige and power were drawn into the service of great political and military alliances—and centralized authority was flowing to Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka. By the early eighteenth century the samurai had devolved into a class of idlers and bureaucrats, and by the mid-1700s they were being stylized and memorialized in the kabuki theater. The last of the shoguns stepped down in 1868, and the samurai themselves were formally disbanded a decade later.

 

2 Nisei

ePub

Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country.

LANGSTON HUGHES, “DRAFT IDEAS” (1964), Collected Works, VOL. 9

My father was—in an intuitive, assertive, and surprisingly uncomplicated way—an American boy. When introduced for the first time he would simply say, “I was born here. My mom and pop were born in Japan.” This was important for him to clarify, and depending on the situation it was a description, an explanation, an argument, or a dare. He was neither oblivious nor unconflicted about being both Japanese and American, but he believed deeply in “America,” knew that he wanted live an American story. And in a society that would repeatedly ask a Nisei boy both to explain himself and prove he belonged there he was determined to claim his story for himself.

By contrast, my mother was a Nisei girl, born five years before the United States would ratify women’s suffrage, to parents raised in an oppressively patriarchal culture. Nisei women were doubly “sheltered”—some might say circumscribed—first by Japanese tradition and then by American discouragement of personal success and public or professional lives for women. A full-time job might be an early, temporary opportunity for a woman to avoid idle hands and to help her parents and siblings, but a career was hardly to be imagined. A “working woman” was often the sad creature who had lost or couldn’t find a husband, or the “damaged” woman who emerged from a failed marriage. Higher education was the stuff of dreams. Nisei men might be encouraged, even groomed to go to college, and they might be allowed to venture from the West Coast, but Nisei women belonged close to home. Stretching before Meriko Marumoto was a girlhood made up of lessons in the arts of domesticity, then courtship, marriage, and a family. Beauty and intelligence (she and her sister had both) could make the dance more interesting than otherwise, but in the end a Nisei woman was supposed to be a wife and mother—a “homemaker.”

 

3 Minidoka, 1942–1945

ePub

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity. . . . A grave injustice was done to Americans and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

FROM Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1983)

Don’t forget that a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?

THORNTON WILDER, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)

The Oregonian Hotel on the two upper floors at Third and Couch was a Japanese establishment situated on top of a Chinese business in a Romanesque Revival building and thus a paradigm of Portland’s lower Alphabet District and a reflection of its history. The “Marumoto Hotel” and the Sue family’s dry goods store downstairs also epitomized the goods-and-services economy and restricted livelihood options of an urban immigrant community.

 

4 Sansei

ePub

If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.

HENRY MILLER, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)

The Sansei were the second Japanese American generation born into citizenship. Some Sansei, including my cousins Michi and Yuri, were born before the war and spent three childhood years behind barbed wire. Some, like my lifelong friend Keith Nakayama, were among the 6,000 born in the camps (or nearby hospitals) and were toddlers there. Many Sansei, like my siblings, were Baby Boomers who grew up after the camps had closed, and some of us, by chance and the luck of geography, had only passing or oblique relationships with the camps because we grew up outside the West Coast exclusion zone. But over time most Sansei were alike in being both enveloped by the euphoria and prosperity of postwar America and nagged at by the censored memories of thousands.

 

5 Unfinished

ePub

that is the painful precision

of exile, details’ mound of exact increase,
not as one thought or read, of dimming vision

by distance, but its opposite.

DEREK WALCOTT, Tiepolo’s Hound (2000)

In 1967 my parents flew to Japan to visit relatives on both the Yamanashi and Wakayama sides of the family, my father for the first time. It was two years after my grandfather’s death in Yamanashi-ken, so the trip was also an important occasion to pay respects and affirm family ties. There was a medical convention in Hawaii that would get them halfway there, my mother pointed out, and if they didn’t go at that time, then when? My father, for whom international travel had all the attraction of a tatting circle (Belgium and Germany having satisfied any youthful cravings), knew that the convention was hardly the point. He was the older son of the oldest Nakadate son.

With Uncle Toru accompanying and my younger sister in tow, they made the rounds in Yamanashi—both the Ashizawas and the Nakadates—and everything went well enough. Except that my mother (ever sensitive to nuance and gesture) detected a bit more formality among the Nakadates than seemed necessary, even accounting for Japanese protocol and family members not having been in touch on a regular basis. As if an awkward question hovered over every polite conversation, yet no one wanted to acknowledge it. But during a bedtime conversation my parents figured out what was going on, and at the next dinner gathering they found a way to make Nakadate Denki a topic of conversation.

 

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