From bitter landscape of war emerge healing ground, peace
By By Erika Niedowski
Dec 07, 2004 | 3:00 AM
Last of three parts
JEROME COUNTY, Idaho - The barbed wire and watchtowers are gone, the military police building reduced to a stone foundation.
For more than 60 years, the former Minidoka internment camp has remained etched in the memories and imaginations of many Japanese-Americans as a desolate and menacing place. But today, the site blends almost seamlessly into a serene landscape dotted by clumps of trees and low hills beyond.
On her way here this June morning, Jeni Yamada brushed a few simple strokes into her sketchbook to capture the scene. She has long wondered what her mother and grandmother felt as they arrived two generations ago. Now, finally, she will walk this ground herself, ready, she believes, to confront her own feelings.
Jeni's two uncles trudge through the high grass. A guide for what is now a little-visited national monument helps them explore the land on which they lived during World War II. But Jeni stays close to her mother, Mitsuye, close to the camp's one-time entrance, which contains the few tangible remnants of what used to be.
She rests on a basalt boulder in the ornamental rock garden, the handiwork of an internee who owned a landscape design business in Seattle before the war changed everything. The garden had disappeared in part until a recent excavation uncovered its stone-lined pathways. Other artifacts from the dig offered a glimpse into the world of those who called this place home: pieces of a white ceramic gravy bowl, a 1940 Lincoln penny, a few seashells that a Japanese-American soldier had sent his imprisoned father from overseas.
Jeni wonders: Could enough dirt and dust really have accumulated in just 60 years to conceal this place? It seems to her like a metaphor for this trip - the diggers' meticulous brushing away of the earth.
Nearby, Jeni's eldest son, Aaron, stands alone, absorbing the landscape through an artist's eye. The 24-year-old fills his pad as he looks past the irrigation canal toward a farmhouse, once part of the military police headquarters. Off in the distance is where his grandmother lived during her internment, in Barracks 4.
For newcomers like Jeni, it is difficult to envision Minidoka the way it was. Some who lived here and have returned on this pilgrimage are disappointed to find it now so fertile and green. They want visitors to see the bleakness and dust they knew, the place they felt was forgotten by God. This Minidoka doesn't seem so bad.
For Jeni, the feeling is more complex. It has taken her whole life to get here. Now she is not sure what it all means. This is her first day at the camp, and she will have to go further still before she finds out.
Jeni Yamada's journey to Minidoka began long ago - on Dec. 7, 1941, the date Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and killed more than 2,300 American servicemen. Within hours of the devastating attack, her grandfather, a self-made immigrant and veteran government employee, was arrested and later imprisoned because the FBI considered him a threat. The historic day set in motion a similarly historic act: the signing of Executive Order 9066, the decree that led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, during the war. Never before and never since had so many civilians been forcibly relocated on American soil.
For years, Jeni, who lives in North Baltimore, has wanted to see what remains of the place where the government held her mother and 13,000 others. She has wanted to feel what her mother felt, living in an uninsulated room in a crude, wooden barracks. Today, if only for a few minutes, she will.
The Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum is tucked near Twin Falls behind the Flying J Travel Plaza, at the junction of two highways, not far from the Minidoka camp. The machinery scattered around its grounds makes it look something like a junkyard, until it sinks in that these hulks of metal - an old tractor, a hay derrick, a harvester - are the heart of the exhibit. Approaching on the bus, those with Jeni on this pilgrimage peer out the windows at the windmill and the first log cabin in Jerome County, complete with outhouse.
Aside from visiting here, touring a barracks now is nearly impossible without trespassing. Though some were demolished after the camp closed in 1945, many were moved and converted into barns, other farm buildings or even homes.
This one is covered in black tar paper, restored to look as it did during the war. A hundred twenty feet long, it contains what would have served as six "apartments," some no bigger than 20 feet by 16 feet.
In one room stands an original potbellied stove, the only means of heat during Minidoka's unforgiving winters. Three child-size chairs, crafted from scraps of wood found around camp, are lined up by the front wall. In another room are five shaky cot frames, rusted and bare, set side by side, inches apart.
Walking around here, Jeni's Uncle Joe Yasutake, who was just a boy when interned, gets an eerie feeling he can't quite describe. The family finds it easier to talk about more concrete things: whether this was really the size and shape of their space (they think their room was a bit larger); how the cots were arranged (Jeni's mother remembers being in the corner).
The strong, silver-haired matriarch of the family, Mitsuye, 81, sits on a portable folding chair and holds court before her sons, daughters and grandsons. She recalls seeing her little brother crouched beneath the barracks on hot summer days with his friends, surely carrying out some kind of terrible mischief. But they were just playing cards, it turned out. It was cooler down below.
This day is warm, and after a short time inside, the building is stifling. Stepping outside is liberating.
At the hotel in Twin Falls that night, it seems somehow fitting that Mitsuye has been asked to open the storytelling session by reading some of the works that have made her a well-known Asian-American poet. But first she responds to a question posed earlier in the evening: Why do we care so much about the past?
"I care about the past for the sake of my grandchildren ... my children and my grandchildren," she explains, looking into the audience, where seven of them are looking back at her. "We have a legacy to leave with them."
She leaves the past momentarily, though, to tell a contemporary story of internment about how, not long after Sept. 11, 2001, FBI agents stormed the home of a Middle Eastern family in Washington state and detained members for months. The circumstances weren't quite the same, but to Mitsuye, the injustice was.
"This is a very real thing in our communities," she says.
Mitsuye next holds up a copy of a newspaper photograph from 62 years ago. Jeni knows the image well. In it, Mitsuye, her brothers and their mother, about to board a bus to begin their internment, look like a happy family headed for a holiday. She reads a poem to explain:
As we boarded the bus bags on both sides (I had never packed two bags before on a vacation lasting forever) the Seattle Times photographer said Smile! so obediently I smiled and the caption the next day read: Note smiling faces a lesson to Tokyo.
Mitsuye, who has recited her works countless times on college campuses, in bookstores and on discussion panels, has selected tonight's readings with care. She has ruled out several, unsure whether she'll be able to get through them without breaking down. On this trip, she has felt sharply the absence of her mother's generation, the Issei, the immigrant generation that made those gathered here Americans. Now, as she prepares to read the next verse, the weight of that sentiment seems to swallow her.
The scene is vivid: She is a teenager at Minidoka, and her mother is mending her underwear in the weak light of the barracks while the other children sleep. It's the night before Mitsuye will leave camp for a job outside, the night before they will say goodbye - for how long they don't know.
Still sewing squinting in the dim light in room C barrack 4 block 4 she whispers Remember keep your underwear in good repair in case of accident don't bring shame on us.
'A lot of shame'
Jeni hasn't planned to speak. But when she finally does, what comes out seems part explanation, part penance.
"I was born after the camps were over and you all came home, and that was the period when there was a lot of shame ... a lot of shame and a lot of prejudice," she says, addressing the aging Nisei, the children of the immigrants, seated in rows before her at the hotel in Twin Falls.
"I believe that my mother and my father tried the best they could to escape the racism that they had to live with," Jeni says. "I felt the shame to be Japanese at first."
She stops. The words hurt. As the seconds pass, the audience seems caught along with her in a collective gulp.
"It was only as an adult that I developed an amazing sense of pride," Jeni explains. "My three sons here in the front, I think they've been able to slowly develop a sense of pride about being Japanese. We all as a family wanted to refind and rediscover that sense of pride that somehow we had to put aside out of what happened."
Born in the decade after the war, Jeni knows what it means to deny her identity, to see her heritage as a drawback, to exist in a world that has prejudged her as different. Her half-Japanese children, born a generation later, know something about that, too. There was the time, she recalls, when Aaron found a "Mr. Sushi" sign taped to his classroom chair.
But now, among these 150 people - many of whom experienced the internment, all of whom have been touched in some way by its legacy - Jeni can speak only of her pride.
The road here has been long. Most made the 12-hour bus trip from Seattle the day before, boarding with their pillows and their bags of snacks and a mix of expectations. This night, they have come to reflect on the meaning of it all.
When Jeni finishes and retakes her seat, everyone in the room claps. Even before the applause fades, a Nisei woman sitting behind Jeni's mother raises her hand.
"What you said," she says to Jeni, "speaks directly to my heart."
Each person who takes the microphone adds to the collective story of this journey - to Minidoka and through America. There are fond memories and bitter ones. There are tales of successes and defeats. There are accounts of straddling two worlds, one American, the other Japanese.
A woman in the second row describes growing up in rural Washington in a community of hakujin, or whites. Sixteen at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she never felt at home in her own skin.
"I thought I was American, but I was not treated as such," she explains. "But when I tried to do a Japanese dance in camp, it did not feel right. So for many, many years, I was in this sort of no man's land."
No man's land: The idea resonates not just with the gray-haired Nisei, but with those who came after, the Sansei and Yonsei, like Jeni and her sons. One legacy of the internment camps, Jeni has noted, is a whole generation of so-called hapa children - a Hawaiian term meaning "half." The percentage of Japanese-Americans marrying a white spouse, as Jeni did right out of college, is strikingly high. Her three siblings, as it turned out, did the same.
Toshio Kurose, a teenage hapa with broad shoulders and curly brown hair, relates a lesson learned from another of mixed heritage: There's no such thing as half a culture. That means he can be 100 percent Asian and 100 percent American, rather than half of each. "You can be two things and that's better than being one thing," he says.
Among the last to speak is a professor from Seattle University, Larry Matsuda. Born at Minidoka to parents who would never get over their time there, he says he came hoping for one thing: a healing experience.
In the audience, Jeni nods.
Matsuda had wondered whether the camp site would strike him the same way the Grand Canyon once did: Standing at the edge, he looked down into the vast space, not knowing what to feel. Instead, at Minidoka, he was struck by how the site had changed.
"It looks like nature has healed the land," he offers. "Healing for me is moving ahead, but always knowing that there are pieces and parts left behind."
The landscape at Minidoka does look beautiful the next morning, a mixture of hay brown and shades of green. Rows of chairs and a lectern have been arranged near the rock garden for this, the pilgrimage's closing ceremony. Jeni can't help but think the swallows dipping and swerving above her mean something.
A five-man color guard, including Japanese-American veterans of World War II, enters slowly; one bears an American flag. The service begins with a moment of silence.
This day is about honoring the Issei who are gone and the Nisei who remain, about remembering the sacrifices both generations made for their children and their grandchildren and the great-grandchildren they'll never know. It is also about the journey they have taken to get here.
Jeni crouches next to Mitsuye and listens as her mother's former camp mate, Tama Tokuda, carries them back to the mass evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from Seattle.
"Sixty-two years ago, many of us made a journey together that was unprecedented in the history of our country," she begins. "We who sit here share the common bond of memories. Do you remember the day we left Seattle in 1942, a half year after Pearl Harbor Day?
"The last night in Seattle, our family slept on the floor of our homes because everything was either packed or in storage. In the morning, my parents, my brother and two sisters, the six of us, lugged our bags to the street corner on 10th and Lane Street where the bus waited. A group of friends were there to see us off. We boarded the bus and I sat beside my mom. We were all too tired to think or worry."
These are the stories Jeni longs to hear, the ones that will remain forever in her memory. Up above, the swallows are still diving.
Tokuda goes on: "As we settled down, this unfriendly terrain became our home. 'Sumeba miyako - if we stay long enough in a place, it starts to feel like home,' as Papa said. Some nights we sat on the stoop and gazed at the stars. All the stars in the universe seemed to be sparkling, and the sky was never so clear or immense."
Jeni's Uncle Tosh Yasutake is by himself, behind the rows of chairs, in a blue T-shirt that lists the names of all 10 Japanese internment camps. Uncle Joe and his son Paul, from Tokyo, stand together. Her son Adam, 15, documents the scene with a video camera, while his 19-year-old brother Jason moves unassumingly around the grounds, seeking just the right angles for the pictures he is shooting.
Jim Azumano, a city administrator in Idaho whose mother was interned at Minidoka, thanks the Nisei with words that Jeni is now feeling inside: "You've given us the strength. We're now proud of ourselves."
The land, he says, is no longer a scar. It no longer bears the stigma of incarceration. In a way, the working fields represent the successes and achievements of those once held here.
"That is the most meaningful part of coming back," he says. "It isn't as evil as it once was."
Still, Azumano wonders if the same thing that happened to a whole generation of immigrants and their children could happen again.
"Is the Patriot Act another Executive Order 9066?" he asks.
One by one, the names of the dozens of young men who left Minidoka to join the Army and fight for the nation that had imprisoned them - only to die in combat - are read aloud.
The sun edges out from behind thin clouds, bringing warmth, as if on cue.
Six riflemen from a local American Legion post, dressed in white shirts and black pants and caps, move away from the crowd, point their guns to the sky and fire.
Birds of peace
According to Japanese legend, folding 1,000 paper cranes will make your wishes come true.
The pilgrimage organizers have folded their own tsurus, in purple and blue and yellow and red and pink. The birds represent peace. The tall, tattered, Japanese-style umbrella planted in the dirt beside them represents life at Minidoka.
Jeni reaches down for a yellow crane and approaches with her mother, who has to stand on the tips of her toes to reach the umbrella's underside. The rest of the family gathers around, each member in turn hanging another colorful bird inside the canopy.
It is the Minidoka pilgrims' final act before they leave, and Jeni finds herself overwhelmed by the emotion that has been building inside. She thinks of her grandparents, Jack and Hideko, and of her Uncle Seiichi, all gone. She steps away, tears on her face, to kiss Uncle Tosh and fall into the arms of her son Aaron.
So much of this trip has taken place in her mind, her heart. Besides touring and listening to stories, there has been little to do at the site - nothing to tear down or build up. There will be talk of erecting a permanent memorial, perhaps one inscribed, as Mitsuye suggests, with the values of the immigrants once imprisoned here: Enryo. Restraint. Gaman. Perseverance. Ganbatte. Hang in there. Or one that complements the natural elements, rock and water, something physical that might change over time from the touch of those who visit.
For now, there is only the paper memorial. But to Jeni, even this small gesture seems momentous. It bears witness, as she finally has, to this place in the middle of nowhere that is part of her mother, part of her family, part of her.
The pilgrims board the bus again for the ride back to the hotel, and then back to their daily lives. Jeni takes a seat next to her sister, Hedi. As the bus rolls along, they flip through the pages of Camp Notes, their mother's first book of poems. They have read these lines countless times before, but so many of the words have new meaning.
It took Jeni Yamada a long time to get to Minidoka. But now, as her journey continues, she will always take it with her.