Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Side Trip to Fort Snelling

Returning from a short trip to Minneapolis last weekend, I spotted a sign for Fort Snelling on the way to the airport. The fort is perched above the picturesque confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. During World War II, some 3,000 Nisei soldiers went through rigorous Japanese language instruction there to serve in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Graduates worked in Japan during and after the war as translators, interpreters, and interrogators.

The military opened the first MIS school at the Presidio in San Francisco after it became apparent that the average American could not learn the difficult Japanese language -- and that, contrary to assumption, the average American-born Nisei did not speak the language either. Densho interviewee Francis Mas Fukuhara points out the irony of the situation:

"The real linguists in MIS were guys educated in Japan. They were Kibeis. And that's kind of ironic, because jeez, you know, [Western Command General] DeWitt went on for a half a page justifying the evacuation of Japanese... one of the things that he pointed out was that these Nisei were, couldn't be trusted because they had all this knowledge of Japanese and Japanese culture, and Kibeis were the worst of all because they were educated in Japan. And it's kind of ironic to me that they took us and threw us into camp for that very reason, and recruiters came in, really, and were recruiting us for that very same expertise."

Tsuguo "Ike" Ikeda remembers his nine months of training at the Fort Snelling MIS school:

"After basic training, the order was to go to Minnesota, so off I went. I didn't think I had any choice of saying no to that. There were so many of us Niseis that had been drafted into the Fort Snelling program, that for two months we stayed in these, we call 'em turkey farms. There were four men in a real small house. Had potbelly stove to keep us warm... And we used to go out and report out in the cold weather. Minnesota's very cold. Stand attention and go through military procedures...Somehow it was suggested I knew more Japanese than others, so they had us ranked from first class to twentieth class level. I was in class five. Myself, I would have assigned myself to nineteen or twenty. But somehow we graduated. We spent night and day, Saturdays, studying Japanese, writing it, reading it, speaking it."

All told, nearly 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the MIS during and after World War II. This famous quote seals their legacy: Maj. General Charles Willoughby, Gen. MacArthur's intelligence chief, stated, "The Nisei saved a million lives and shortened the war by two years." And they did it while their parents and siblings awaited the war's end behind barbed wire.

Help Preserve Minidoka and Heart Mountain

The Friends of Minidoka, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and Conservation Fund ask supporters to urge their U.S. senators to vote for legislation that will fund the acquisition of lands for the Minidoka and Heart Mountain historic sites. The 2010 House Interior appropriations bill includes $350,000 to purchase and permanently protect 100 acres of the former Minidoka incarceration camp, but the pending Senate bill does not include the funding. Friends of the camps also support proposed legislation to acquire additional lands where the Minidoka and Heart Mountain camps stood.

You can help safeguard two historic sites that will preserve the legacy of Japanese Americans who endured injust imprisonment on this soil. Do not let such historically significant ground become commercial properties. Please read this letter for more information and write your senator today.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Words Do Matter: Join the Discussion

Anyone who writes about what happened to 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII immediately enters a debate about terminology, whether they know it or not. "Internment" is the most common designation. Scholars say "internment" can't apply to U.S. citizens for legal reasons. (Some 70,000 Nisei, U.S. citizens, were confined in the camps.) Officials euphemistically called the camps "relocation centers" at the time. A growing number today maintain that "concentration camps" is more accurate, if controversial.

So where does this leave us? This article contains 1940s examples of authorities' words that betray their unease: Camp administrators referred to the U.S.-citizen Nisei as "Japanese non-aliens." They declared, "People will be confined in the relocation area for the duration but in no other aspect will Minidoka resemble a concentration camp."

Densho's "Note on Terminology" cites historian Roger Daniels's fine article "Words Do Matter." We agree, historically accurate language matters. But how to determine what is accurate language? Tell us what you think.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

All About the Women

Densho is dedicating resources to record interviews with Nikkei women, whose stories are often less documented in oral history collections. This month Densho staff travels to L.A. to conduct new interviews with Nisei women. And the September eNews contains a "From the Archive" article that's all about women's experiences in the incarceration camps.

Shigeko had to figure out how to "carry" a crib for her newborn to the assembly center. Aiko raced to snatch freshly washed diapers from the clothesline before the duststorm caught up with her. And high school student Masako spilled her hopes and frustrations into a stream of letters sent from Manzanar to her big brother, free in Chicago.

Densho's Digital Archive is rich in personal stories full of detail and drama. Take a minute to sign up for the free monthly eNews to view selections from the Densho collection and learn about events you won't want to miss.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Happy Birthday, Monica Sone

Today is the 90th birthday of Monica Sone, author of Nisei Daughter. Written in 1953, hers was among the first books published about experiencing the forced removal and detention during World War II. Sone and her family had run a hotel in Seattle before Executive Order 9066 sent all West Coast Japanese Americans into exile.

While much more literature on the subject is in print today, teachers still assign readings from Nisei Daughter, perhaps because of the approachable voice of the author, who recalls her childhood and adolescence with good humor. The University of Washington catalogue entry for Asian American literature about the Northwest traces the shift in Sone's tone between the initial publication in the 50s and her foreword for the 1979 edition.

The UW library posted a chapter from Sone's book, about arriving at their Puyallup "assembly center," dubbed Camp Harmony (see the library's online exhibit). Amidst the "quiet hysteria" of the first days in camp, Sone reflects on her situation:

What was I doing behind a fence like a criminal? If there were accusations to be made, why hadn't I been given a fair trial? Maybe I wasn't considered an American anymore. My citizenship wasn't real, after all. Then what was I? I was certainly not a citizen of Japan as my parents were. On second thought, even Father and Mother were more alien residents of the United States than Japanese nationals for they had little tie with their mother country. In their twenty-five years in America, they had worked and paid their taxes to their adopted government as any other citizen.

Of one thing I was sure. The wire fence was real. I no longer had the right to walk out of it. It was because I had Japanese ancestors. It was also because some people had little faith in the ideas and ideals of democracy.

Thank you, Mrs. Sone, for your seminal contribution to J.A. literature. Happy birthday!