Japanese Internment during World War II
In 1976, my daughter was assigned a first-grade project on Japanese Internment Camps. We lived in Seattle and this was a time when there was renewed interest in the camps. By chance we found the book Citizen 13660, by Miné Okubo. Miné was interned shortly after earning an art degree and used her skills to create a book of black and white line drawings and straightforward, beautiful text about her family’s experience. It is the single most important book I have ever read on the internment camps and it gave me a life-long interest in the social context of this period of history. It was first published in 1946 so has an immediacy lacking in most other books I have read. In 1976 it was hard to find a copy of this book, but it has subsequently been reprinted.
The story of the internment camps is rich for discussion. The obvious topic is racism – only the Japanese were interned as a whole group of people, not the white Germans or white Italians. In addition to the immediate racism after Pearl Harbor, the history of the US with Japanese immigrants and citizens before and after the war is worth exploring. But there is much more, such as the concept of what is an American and what is patriotism, and if patriotism a good thing? One of my interests is the importance of social structures and how these change; the internment camps forever changed the structure of the Japanese family and had some disastrous consequences. In addition, most families destroyed most of their ancestral pictures and memorabilia – can you imagine having to burn pictures of your grandparents and other family treasures? The photographs and descriptions of the crowding, the lack of privacy and the severe terrain of the internment camps always make me think about how I would have survived in such places. Imagine what it would be like to have two weeks or less to sell or give you’re your home and belongs and pack everything into two pieces of luggage, not knowing when you would return. And always there is the question of how would you or I react to our Japanese neighbors or to the Japanese in the United States if we had been alive in 1941 and how can we judge those who hated the Japanese with only today’s eyes and sensibilities. Comparing the reactions to Pearl Harbor with the reactions to the 9/11 attacks (approximately the same number of people were killed in 9/11 as at Pearl Harbor) is a chance to see what our society may have learned since 1941.
In addition to the Okubo book, there are many excellent books on the Japanese Internment and you should explore what your library has available. Here are a few of the best. I have given the original publication dates, but all should be readily available.
Farewell to Manzanar, A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by James A. Houston and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. (1973)This is a first person narrative by a woman who experienced the camps as a young girl. Her writing is straightforward and honest and accessible to younger readers as well as to adults. I particularly like books that record personal experiences rather than researched stories or texts.
Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. (1994 ) This novel explores the Japanese removal and return to the Pacific Northwest. It is a lovely book and became a best seller and is used in many schools. It is definitely accessible to older students and probably to serious students ages 12 and older. I have not seen the film but hear that it is very good.
Hotel on Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. (2009) A new and sweet novel set in Seattle in Nihonmachi and China town during WWII and also in 1986. It tells the story of a young Chinese American boy and a Japanese American girl during the war and shows the conflicts and issues confronting cities like Seattle and its immigrant communities. It also is the story of fathers and sons and their relationship. The book is written in a simple straight-forward style but it is best for the serious teenage readers or adults.
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (2002) This book is one of my favorite books from any genre, but is for the serious teenage reader and adults. The story of one family’s internment is told very simply and gently but the story shows the devastating effect that the internment had on Japanese families. Notice that the people have no names – reflecting the dehumanized way they must of felt in the camps.
In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story, by Mary Woodward (2008) This is the story of the World War II removal and internment of the Japanese from Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the local newspaper editors who kept faith with their Japanese neighbors. The book uses pictures, newspaper clippings and oral histories and recreates the bigger story of Japanese-Americans during World War II using individual stories. The questions of patriotism and nationalism after Pearl Harbor are well addressed. I am always pleased to read about people like Walt and Milly Woodward who follow their conscience and do the right thing and keep their heads when all about are losing theirs. It always makes me wonder what I would have done and hope that in my own world I would do the right thing. It also shows how one couple did make a difference. It also shows how important our newspapers and media are in a democracy – something it is easy to forget.