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Prison Counter Stories: A Poetic Personal Narrative From the Survivor of American Concentration Camps

While the government's euphemism for the camps was "evacuation centers," others call them concentration camps, places where political prisoners were housed.
Elyse Yamauchi

Issue #71, December 2004

There are many kinds of prisons. Some of them are not called prisons. Prison stories abound, but the keepers of the prisons and the keepers of the information tell very different stories from the prisoners. The stories told by "democratic" governments tell the masses that the imprisoned deserve to be incarcerated. The United States government leads us to believe that prisoners are incarcerated after their constitutional rights have been protected, and the notion of due process has been ensured.

1942 Sacramento Bee cartoonFor over 112,000 Japanese Americans, the majority who were children and elderly, there was no due process during their imprisonment in World War II. There were no constitutional rights. When they challenged the orders that imposed curfews on them and ordered them to leave the West Coast, the courts ruled against them and threw them in federal prison. The vast majority who could not leave the West Coast on their own were forced to "relocate" into concentration camps. The government said that in times of war, their removal was a "military necessity" and for their "own protection." The same agency in charge of the forced removal of American Indians onto reservations, the War Relocation Authority (WRA), was in charge of the camps. The same director of the WRA, Dillon Myer, went on to oversee the Indian boarding schools.

As a researcher, I conduct my work from a social justice perspective through the resistance, interrogation and deconstruction of hegemonic practices in our society. Often this perspective is advanced through the use of personal narrative, storytelling, counter stories, and historiography. As researchers begin to uncover truths through personal stories that counter the historical lies that have been told, we are better able to deconstruct the past through the use of historiography.

The methodologies of telling stories and counter stories, as well as analyzing narrative, are key research approaches utilized with critical race theory. The opportunity to expose racist decisions made by governments can reveal the voices of previously silenced or misrepresented populations. Counter storytelling, as a method of telling the same story from a different perspective, can lead to a new reality, especially as it pertains to governmental policies and presidential decisions. Through examination of the social construction of race, the social and economic superiority, advantage, and status of certain groups based on ethnicity, national origin, or skin color can be determined. In the process of weaving stories and counter stories together, and then deconstructing the history associated with the stories, researchers can determine where the stories intersect and where they shall never meet, in discovering how the privilege and status of selected stories can be different for different groups of people.

There is nothing new about telling stories. We all have stories to tell, our own or those of our elders. My purpose is to honor my elders and to support the work of scholars who value the importance of linking critical theory, oral history, and personal narrative in research. My goal involves a commitment to provide a medium for showing how the everyday story can be extraordinary, how the common person is powerful, and how the previously silenced have powerful voices.

My mother has a compelling story. At the turn of the 20th Century, her father, Yuzo, had a dream. Strong and handsome, he left his home in Yamagata-ken, not far from the town of Sakata. He was a legend in his hometown for having worn out many pairs of straw sandals, as he walked hundreds of miles to the port of Yokohama, to book passage on a boat to North America. Yuzo was determined to make a better life in North America, land of Gold Mountain and Asian dreams. The Asian immigrant laborers were lured by the false promise of gold and wealth, only to sweat, work and die for pennies in the fields, mines, fish canneries, and railroads. Asian men came in large numbers, leaving family and women across the ocean.

My mother told me that Yuzo means "steadfast in the face of adversity." I named my son after him. Soon after settling in California, Yuzo married Tomi, a picture bride. Her sister was supposed to wed Yuzo, but brave Tomi came to America in her place after her sister changed her mind. My mother, Ruth, was the second of Yuzo's and Tomi's seven children. Ruth tells her family's story, her Rashomon version of their dreams, hopes, hardships, sweat, incarceration, and persistence during their lives in concentration camps from 1942-1945.

Akira Kurosawa produced and directed "Rashomon" in 1950. In the story a woman was raped and her husband murdered. What happened? So many versions of the story are told by the characters in the film: the rape victim, her husband's ghost, the perpetrator, and a witness ... From this Rashomon perspective, there are many stories within a particular event or time in history.

The U.S. government tells one story about their prisons, the concentration camps, but the survivors of the camps tell another story. While the government's euphemism for the camps was "evacuation centers," Ruth calls them concentration camps, places where political prisoners were housed. Through poetry, I will relate my mother's story of incarceration in an American concentration camp.

Ruth's Story: Her Counter Story As Related Through Poetry

We settled down to life in the desert in southern California,
Mama didn't have to work like the other Issei wives,
The Japanese immigrants.
Because Papa worked hard,
Mama could stay home to raise their seven children.
She did not have to go to work in the fields.
All of us children went to college.
On December 6, 1941, I was a young adult,
Living the American dream.
The impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor hit me hard.
On December 8, 1941, I went to the office
That I managed at the Mikimoto pearl company.
Three FBI men entered the office and told me to go home.
I was scared.
I immediately obeyed their mandate,
Leaving behind all those lovely and expensive pearls,
Wondering today what the FBI did with them.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066,
Instructing us to vacate the west coast.
What did we do wrong?
We were American citizens; we were born here.
We became Christians to show how "American" we were.
Our parents gave us European American first names.
Hiroshi and I were dating.
We talked about our future, not knowing what would happen.
We listened to stories from Germany,
And we became frightened.
We decided to marry before we had to be "evacuated."
Although I was a U.S. born citizen, the Civilian Exclusion Order
Told Japanese "aliens and non-aliens" living in San Francisco
That they were to leave the area in a few weeks.
My parents were called "aliens."
They desired to become citizens,
After living in California for nearly 40 years.
But, they were considered ineligible for citizenship
Because of their race.
The FBI arrested my father only because he was a community leader,
And his brother had friends in the Japanese Army.
When the FBI men came, my mother told him,
"Goodbye, Papa, be a good citizen."
But, he was an alien ineligible for citizenship.
We lost our jobs and homes, as well as all of our belongings.
We were ordered to leave the west coast
By noon on Tuesday, April 7, 1942.
Before being sent to our more permanent concentration camp in Utah,
We were sent to "assembly centers,"
To live temporarily in horrible places
Like stockyards or fairgrounds.
We were tagged like cattle and assigned numbers,
Branded like the Jews in Nazi camps.
Our assembly center was the Tanforan horse track in San Francisco.
This is where we spent our honeymoon.
When I describe my living quarters I say,
"Where the horse put his head, that is my front room,
And, where he put his tail, is my living room."
There was no privacy.
We lost our dignity.
My friend was allowed to visit on Sundays.
She was Jewish, and she understood.
She admonished the guards when she visited me
About being like the Nazis.
They cowered in her presence and steered away from her.
Without inspecting it, they allowed her to bring me a cake
In a large, heavy wooden box.
I thought it was too heavy and I wondered if it would taste okay.
After bringing it back to my quarters,
I discovered three bottles of whiskey under the cake.
We weren't allowed to have liquor,
Or cameras, or radios, or Japanese language books.
In defiance, I invited my fellow inmates
To drink the whiskey.
For that one night, the pain of incarceration
Was reduced.
After several months in horse stalls, we were sent to Utah.
Though conceived in a horse stall, not born in a manger,
I gave birth to my son, Bryan.
Adding insult to injury,
The government made us complete loyalty questionnaires.
If we answered that we would
"Forswear allegiance ... to the Japanese Emperor,"
And our men would agree to serve the U.S. military,
We might get released.
As long as we were born in the U.S.,
And we did not practice Buddhist or Shinto religions.
Why were we required to prove our loyalty,
When Germans and Italians were not?
And what about the Issei,
Who were not allowed to be citizens?
If they forswore allegiance to Japan,
Would it be trouble if they were deported?
Those who responded that they would not forswear allegiance
Nor agree to serve in the U.S. military,
Were sent to federal prisons.
My husband was enlisted to work for
The U.S. Military Intelligence Service.
Finally, after nearly three years,
My family was released from the concentration camp.
As a member of the MIS,
My husband translated Japanese documents
And taught Japanese to U.S. military personnel.
We were sent overseas after Japan surrendered.
We lived near Tokyo on a U.S. military base
In officers' housing.
My apartment was huge.
It had four bedrooms.
I had a maid, a houseboy, and a seamstress.
We moved from the horse stall to the mansion,
It made no sense.
Not until the Civil Rights and redress movement,
Involving activist Sansei members of my children's generation,
Did I start telling my story.
My husband, son, and I were each awarded $20,000 in reparations,
And a weak apology from the government.
That was not enough to compensate for three years of our lives in prison,
Without having charges brought against us.
Without due process.
For thirty years after being released from prison,
I did not tell the entire story of the camps.
I was still emotionally and psychologically
Imprisoned and ashamed of my heritage.
My Sansei daughter started to ask questions about the camps
When she was a college student in the 1970s.
Growing up in the aftermath of WWII,
Many in her generation were also emotionally imprisoned and ashamed.
Although they did not know why,
Until the Civil Rights Movement
Opened up our consciousness.
Many Sansei did not speak Japanese.
They had few Japanese American friends.
Many rarely dated or married other Japanese Americans.
We all avoided conflict and negative attention.
Our healing has been long and difficult.
Telling our stories has helped us to recover.
We will not let what happened be forgotten.
We will not be silenced.
Today more than ever, we will fight for due process,
And the rights granted in the U.S. Constitution.
I cannot stand by without countering the government's story,
Or Michelle Malkin's defense of internment
And denial of due process.
Who are the true criminals?
I am an 89-year-old woman,
Who insists on telling my story,
As long as I am able.
I have gaman; I will not give up.
And, I will continue to counter the government's story
With my story.

Elyse Yamauchi is a daughter of a Japanese internment camp survivor, and teaches Asian-American Studies at University of Colorado - Boulder.

Copyright © 2004 by Elyse Yamauchi. Cartoon supporting Japanese imprisonment, from the Sacramento Bee, 1942. All rights reserved.