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A search for place, pride

First of three parts

JEROME COUNTY, Idaho - The big, white Starline bus rolls to a stop and Jeni Yamada is the first to stand.

It has taken a long time to get to this place in the middle of nowhere, this place called Minidoka. Far longer than the 12-hour, 650-mile trip from Seattle just ended, or the flight from Baltimore days before.

More than six decades ago, Jeni's mother, uncles and grandmother lived here behind barbed wire, under armed guard, in a drafty, tar-papered barracks. With some 120,000 other Japanese immigrants and their American-born children, they were interned during World War II - summarily evicted from their homes and communities, rounded up, put on trains and buses, and sent here or to one of nine other hastily erected camps. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 63 years ago this week, they were suspects in their own land.

All this time later, nothing much remains of the Minidoka internment camp: a caved-in root cellar, an ornamental rock garden, the waist-high walls of a military police building. The former swimming hole is now just a gentle dip in the land.

Jeni steps down from the bus. With her are her mother and two uncles, her sister and brothers, her sisters-in-law, cousins and her three young sons - 18 of them in all on this journey into the family's past.

The day is not as hot as Jeni expected, the south-central Idaho landscape not as brown. She has heard stories about Minidoka's scorching summers, about the endless dust that blew through cracks in the barracks walls. But this terrain is different: green and fertile and, in a way, even beautiful.

Just as this place has changed, so has Jeni. She is no longer the talkative young girl who hated the sound of the Japanese language, the Asian child raised in white suburbs who found her heritage a handicap. She is no longer the young woman who sought out another identity as an adult, converting to Judaism, laboring over matzo balls and sending her son to Hebrew school.

"I felt the shame to be Japanese at first," Jeni will tell those with her on this trip, the emotion of the words making her voice catch. "It was only as an adult that I developed an amazing sense of pride."

It is a sentiment familiar to many here, the children of the men and women shipped off to the camps. Their generation escaped internment, but not its legacy. Even as their parents assimilated, and often succeeded, in a still-hostile country, they grappled with their very sense of themselves - uncertain not just about their place in America, but about America itself.

"All of this is a manifestation of a need to learn and know," says Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "In a real way, what happened to their parents also happened to them. It's as much about their identity as their parents' identity."

For Jeni, ignorance and denial of her family's past slowly gave way to curiosity, then to a mix of pride and anger. Pride in her Japanese roots, and in the resilience of her family during and after internment. Anger that America had betrayed the trust of her family and so many others. It has made it hard for her to trust her government.

As she makes her way around the site of the camp, Jeni links arms with her mother. She wants to hear every story; no detail is too small. She will use every means she can, from video camera to sketch pad, to record these moments. She longs for insight, for a sense of connection to what happened here, for memories she fears may have already been lost.

Jeni Yamada has never set foot in this place before, and yet, in immeasurable ways, it has shaped her entire life.

Getting here has taken a long time indeed.

Different and apart

By the time she started kindergarten, Jeni knew she was somehow different. Talkative and precocious, she would trot up to strangers and engage them in conversation. But soon she learned that some people didn't like her just because she was Japanese. "What are you?" her white classmates would ask. Telling them she was American didn't seem to convince them.

Jeni was born just after Thanksgiving in 1951, the year after her parents married. Yoshikazu "Yosh" Yamada and Mitsuye Yasutake had met in Chicago a few years after the war. With Minidoka behind her, Mitsuye had managed to work her way through college and begin graduate school. Yosh, who was born in Hawaii, had been spared internment, serving in the U.S. Army as a soldier and translator - even helping decipher a captured Japanese document that proved critical to the U.S. victory in the Mariana Islands. He was pursuing a doctorate in chemistry en route to becoming a research chemist.

Mitsuye and Yosh raised Jeni and her three siblings in comfortable suburban settings, middle-class communities, first on Long Island and later in Southern California. None of the neighbors looked like they did, and that was just fine. Something in their subconscious told them it was better to try to blend into white America.

For Jeni, that wasn't always easy. In third grade, she longed to be Cinderella in the class play, even though she knew she didn't fit the part. Princesses didn't have dark complexions, Asian eyes and black hair. The next year, when another Japanese-American girl joined her class, she stared in wonderment at seeing another child like her.

Jeni was enormously proud of her father, whose job as a researcher with the Bell & Howell camera company prompted the family's move from the East Coast to Sierra Madre, Calif. One afternoon, Jeni went along to pick him up from work, stopping at the front gate to have someone call him.

"Oh, is your father the gardener?" she recalls the guard asking.

As was true of many households like the Yamadas', there was little talk of the war, or of internment. After leaving the Minidoka Relocation Center, Mitsuye had tried to do what many others did once they regained their freedom: forget and move on. There was a Japanese saying: Shikataganai - "it cannot be helped." There was no use dwelling on what had happened, she felt.

"You just got on the train," she says now, "and that part of your life is over."

From time to time, though, the word camp did come up. Jeni heard about the white majorette boots her mother had once ordered from Montgomery Ward - in camp. She knew that her grandmother's wooden jewelry cabinet had been handcrafted - in camp. But to Jeni, where the box came from didn't much matter. She just loved to open its drawers and look inside.

She was 11, she thinks, watching television when she first saw pictures of people who looked like her parents being shepherded onto trains, to be taken to new lives they had neither asked for nor deserved. Mitsuye has never forgotten her husband's words to her daughter.

"Your mother was in one of those camps," he told her. And Jeni's eyes started to fill with tears.

It would be many years, though, before she would piece together the details and feel the full sting of the injustice.

Within months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Jeni would learn, her mother, grandmother and uncles became subjects of a mass exclusion order posted on telephone poles in Seattle and up and down the West Coast: "All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area." Because the government perceived them as a security threat, their lives were suddenly no longer their own: Gathering in groups was discouraged. A curfew kept them off the streets after dark. Finally, they were forced to box up their belongings, abandon their home and resettle hundreds of miles away in a military-style barracks.

Jeni would also learn that her grandfather, a self-made immigrant who had attended Stanford University and worked for two decades at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, had been dealt an even harsher fate: Picked up by the FBI hours after the attack in a sweep of suspected spies, he was detained for months in the same building where he had worked. Government questioners interrogated him on everything from his property holdings in Japan to his membership in a literary society. Then, separated from his family, he was sent to a series of internment camps, having never been tried or convicted of a crime.

Pictures from the past

At age 53, Jeni Yamada finds herself juggling identities.

On any given day, her roles as scholar, activist and mother overlap. She might be shuttling her youngest son to martial arts practice, pursuing her work as an independent linguist or carrying a protest sign at an anti-war march in Washington. Or, if she can find a quiet hour, she might escape to her study for what ultimately may be her calling: writing the story of her family's history and the path she has taken to embrace it.

She has methodically collected the details. A few years ago, video camera in hand, she shadowed her 97-year-old grandmother, trying to learn about her early days in America and her life at Minidoka. She has peppered her uncles, cousins and siblings with e-mail, asking whether they remember talk of the internment growing up. She has filled half a dozen plastic binders with photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and government documents that chronicle her family's journey through America, a journey that began almost a century ago.

Among these relics is a passport photo, dated 1918, of her grandfather Jack. There is a picture of his wife, Jeni's grandmother, Hideko, seated with 10 other girls dressed in elegant kimonos with their hair pinned just so. There is the first formal portrait taken of the young couple in America after they were married in Japan.

And there is another picture, taken years later during World War II and now browning with age. In it her grandfather stares at the camera from his spot amid two rows of Japanese immigrants at an internment camp in New Mexico - a prisoner of the government he had served for 20 years.

The picture makes her sad - and angry. Sometimes she comes across that way, as a woman with a jaded eye and unkind words for anyone unwilling to take a stand against injustice.

Her mistrust has grown along with her understanding of what happened to her grandparents and mother and uncles, and to thousands like them. But telling her story isn't about personal satisfaction; to her, it's a matter of raising awareness. She has spoken to students, in a school seminar called "They Said My Grandfather Was A Terrorist." This fall, she shouted down an author whose book defended the internment.

"If we turn away from it, it's going to happen again. It is happening again," she says, pointing to the current-day detention of foreign prisoners and Muslims.

She has come to embrace this anger, just as she has come to cherish the fragile bits of family history she has gathered. In the old stone house in North Baltimore she shares with her husband, Johns Hopkins University scientist William S. Agnew, and her three sons, a home filled with books on every imaginable subject and works of art painted by her and her children, they are among her most valued possessions.

But it has taken more than half a lifetime to know - and accept - the stories they tell.

As a child, Jeni was thankful her parents didn't speak Japanese to her; she didn't like the way it sounded. She played with brown-haired dolls with blue eyes. She preferred hamburgers and fries over soba or sushi.

"Even though my face was Japanese, I didn't feel Japanese," she would later write in Last Witnesses, a collection of essays on the legacy of the internment. "I didn't know how to be Japanese."

Through junior high and high school, Jeni simply wanted to fit in. Most of her friends were white; many were Jewish. When it came to dating, she gravitated toward Jewish boys, who seemed more accepting. She would be outraged to learn, though, that one adoring suitor felt he had to hide her from his disapproving father.

By the 1960s, with the turbulence of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement escalating, Jeni's mother had become increasingly activist. When her daughter was young, Mitsuye had dutifully sewed dresses and made cream puffs; now she was reading The Feminine Mystique and writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience around the globe.

With Mitsuye as a model, Jeni became more involved. She protested the war and marched in Take Back the Night events to denounce violence against women. She joined Amnesty International and became a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. There seemed so many wrongs to right. But even as her awareness of injustice against others grew, her family history remained blurred.

She was in her first year at the University of California, Riverside, when she met Philip Hanff. He was a senior at the time, bound for UCLA to earn a doctorate in microbiology and immunology. He was the son of German Jews who had fled their homeland during World War II. His grandmother had died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Jeni transferred to UCLA, earned a degree in linguistics and began her own doctoral studies. In 1973, at age 21, she married Phil at an outdoor ceremony in Southern California. According to Jewish custom, the bride and groom shattered a wineglass during the service, but they shunned anything else conventional. Jeni, disillusioned with her Christian upbringing, hadn't wanted any references to God and spurned the idea of being given away; she and Phil walked down the aisle together.

Not wanting to lose herself, Jeni kept her last name. But craving the sort of cultural connection she'd never felt growing up, she began to embrace her husband's faith and its rituals. She and Phil went to synagogue for the high holidays; she learned to make matzo balls and studied Hebrew. When she was pregnant with their first child, she stood in the Pacific Ocean and took part in a ceremony of conversion to Judaism.

Finding herself

Jeni's new identity surfaced even in dreams. In one, she stood in a museum before a painting of Russian peasants. Suddenly, she was swept into the artwork, transformed into a peasant herself, a fearful Jew destined to die in the pogroms. In another, she was caught in the Holocaust, bound for one of Hitler's death camps. As she stood naked in a shower stall, a man cut off her long, dark hair.

"Yet I've never had a dream," she says, "about going to an internment camp."

The couple would have three boys - Aaron, Jason and Adam. Though she would raise them as Jews, she decided that their last names should retain their Japanese heritage. No matter the clumsiness of hyphenation, her sons would be Yamada-Hanff.

The family moved outside Boston for Phil's work, and when first-born Aaron was old enough, Jeni and her husband started him in Sunday school at a local temple. When he began third grade, they sent him to Hebrew school - or tried to. After a few weeks, the 7-year-old declared that he was not going back.

"Aaron began to realize he wasn't a Jewish boy," says Jeni. "He was someone else."

As she watched her children grow, each with his own sense of self and ethnic identity, Jeni found herself on a parallel path. Something, she felt, was missing in her life, and theirs.

"Here I was trying to raise my children Jewish. I felt a nagging sense of betrayal to my own background," she says. "I realized I was losing myself, bit by bit."

So, during trips to California to visit family, Jeni would dress the boys in cotton kimonos and take them to an annual Japanese festival in Los Angeles. They would wander through Japantown, eating teriyaki and slurping rainbow snow cones. By the time Adam was in elementary school, the family not only lit candles for Hanukkah, but trimmed a Christmas tree and celebrated Japanese New Year.

Jeni began studying the language that had grated on her ears as a child and became involved with a group that encouraged high schools to examine issues of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in history class. She held teacher-training sessions and lectured students.

In 1995, doctors found that Phil had cancer. Within a year, he had died. Suddenly, Jeni was faced with rebuilding her life, in ways large and small.

Feeling a responsibility to maintain the family's faith, she still went to temple sometimes and celebrated the Jewish holidays. But going to services without her husband made her feel, once again, like an outsider.

Four years later she remarried. Bill Agnew, whom she had met at UCLA decades earlier, was head of physiology at the Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Nearly 6-foot-3, he towered over Jeni - yet he never kidded himself that his presence was any bigger. Their lives were busy and vibrant: Dinners were full of discussion, often lasting well beyond the meal. Conversations with Jeni, Bill would come to find, never really ended.

He also watched her change.

"Her ethnicity, instead of being her primary identity, was a kind of richness at the root of who she was," he says of the earliest days of their friendship. "In recent years, with her taking on the mantle of family historian, she realizes how deep those roots are."

Adds Jeni: "When I think about ... how much I still don't know about my mother's life, about my uncles' lives and about my grandparents, I panic. I worry that somehow we won't get a chance to hear it all, to get it down and to preserve it."

The road to Minidoka

For once in her life, on the bus to Minidoka, Jeni Yamada is surrounded by people like her. People who have struggled as she has to navigate the blurred landscape of their identity.

She might have made this trip nearly 25 years ago, when her mother traveled here in 1980. But she was pregnant at the time and couldn't go. When Mitsuye told her she was planning to return this year with her brothers, Jeni was resolute about going too - and taking her three sons.

As her bus pulls out of Seattle early one morning in June, Jeni finds herself part of a three-generation contingent that dwarfs any other on this pilgrimage of 150. The oldest member of her group, her Uncle Tosh, is a spry man of 82 who wears a baseball cap and a pair of hearing aids. The youngest, her son Adam, is a home-schooled kid of 15 who plays the saxophone and is armed with an iPod.

A trip organizer urges those aboard to try to imagine what the original journey was like, which is possible only to a point. The bus has air conditioning and overhead TV screens. The passengers have brought too many comforts: pillows and cell phones and enough snacks to feed a hungry Boy Scout troop for several days. A lively game of bingo - using not letters and numbers but names - helps get everyone acquainted.

"I wanted to come because it was all sort of abstract," says Jason, Jeni's middle son. "It wasn't something that I really knew."

Jeni felt the same. Sitting in her living room hearing her mother tell stories was one thing. Walking the land, taking in the terrain where a generation of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were forced to live, would be another.

Pilgrimages such as these have been taking place in one form or another for years. Those who were in the camps often have a jumble of reasons for returning, reasons that sound deceptively simple: I wanted to see where I was born. ... I wanted to see what I left behind.

Some travel with their families, as part of larger, more organized groups. Some go alone to confront the silences and anger that lingered long after the war - anger that wasn't directed outward so much as it was channeled inward. Those who return now walk freely where they once moved under the watchful eye of guards, taking in what's left and looking for closure, for peace or for something they can't quite explain.

For Jeni, the aim is different. She isn't trying to close a door; she wants to open one. She is keenly aware that there won't be much left to see at the old camp. But the point, she thinks, isn't really to see anything. It's to reclaim what happened here for herself - and for the sake of her sons.

On the day she finally arrives at Minidoka, Jeni Yamada is two years older than her grandfather was when the FBI arrested him. Jason is about the age of Jeni's mother when she was uprooted from her Seattle home and interned here. Sometimes Jeni thinks about that, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be told to pack two suitcases - only what you could carry - and leave her home, not knowing if she would ever return.

"It was prison," she says, "for nothing."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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