Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mysteries and Myths

There were a slew of motivations for my recent photo safari to the left coast.  Among them were the continuation of my long look back at the places of my early childhood and a second visit to Fort Ord where I spent the summer of sixty in basic training and less sanctioned but equally instructive adventures at Main Beach in Carmel and a cabin in the redwoods above Santa Cruz. Then there was the pursuit of fog which quite naturally led me to the Marin coast where I left at least part of heart, apologies to San Francisco.
Farm in Fog, 1969
Credit where credit is due, the fog series was reignited at the Presidio of San Francisco three years ago but the real genesis was a flawed little number from Mendocino County in 1969. Blemishes notwithstanding the moody image stirs memories and melancholy like few other images have. 
Presidio Pines #1, 2010
The Bridge to Nowhere, 2010
Forty years later pea soup crept into San Francisco Bay producing a wondrous backdrop for wind bent pines and a mysterious bridge to nowhere.  

Then last month at Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore I pursued the fog and other muses. I meandered through the rolling pastures and nineteenth century dairy farms that cover much of the Point Reyes Peninsula as I headed for the lighthouse.
Dairy Cattle at Drake's Estero, 2013

Dairy Cattle at Drake's Estero, 2013
Farm #1, 2013
At land's end Point Reyes Light was cloaked in fog and as invisible as the crashing surf. So instead I photographed the gnarled Bishop Pines along the path to the lighthouse, the moisture literally dripping from the canopy above me.  The fog's thick wetness enveloped me and masked the mysteries ahead and the Pacific a hundred feet below.
Pine Canopy at Point Reyes Light, 2013
Bishop Pines at Point Reyes Light, 2013
The trajectory of the alleged fog series has been long and shallow but lives again in West Marin.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bitter End

I’m winding down the Internment Camp series for now. I’ll leave you with some factoids that are poignant, perverse, baffling and downright amazing. 
Born in Peru, Arturo "Art" Shibayama was deported to the US in 1942 at the age of 13. Art holds a 1939 photograph of his family in Lima. He's the child on the right front fender of the family car.
As if we didn’t have enough mainland Japanese to warehouse in Outer Mongolia we actually imported 1,800 more of them from Peru, 250 from Panama and trace amounts from other Latin American countries.  Bully boys that we are, we cajoled and bribed Peru among others to give us your tired, I mean your Japanese and we’ll give you loans to build steel plants and such. Those banana republic dictators were all over it. The cool plan was to stockpile Japanese so we could trade them for Americans stuck in Japan. Ultimately, not much of that happened so the whole bogus operation was justified as being “in the interest of hemispheric security.”

At the war's end most of the Latin American Japanese who were imprisoned here were repatriated to Japan even though most were born in Peru and had exactly zero interest in being sent there. A few returned to Peru which wanted them like a root canal. Several hundred stayed in the US as; get this, “illegal aliens.” Then to add insult to injury in 1988 the United States government proclaimed that it wasn’t responsible for deportation and incarceration of the Latin American Japanese. Yeah, we did it to you but it wasn’t our fault. You can’t make this stuff up.

Though classified as an illegal alien Art Shibayama was drafted and served in Germany during the Korean War. He was denied citizenship until 1970 because he didn't have legal entry into the US and was also a "stateless Person" since his Peruvian documents had been confiscated when he was deported to the land of the free. 

Fifty percent of internees were under 17.  Yes folks, that’s about 60,000 kiddies to imprison, cloth, feed and school. But, hey, we did keep the family unit intact.
Pledging allegiance, Manzanar. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
More than 5,000 babies were born in the camps, a fact that seems laudable since barracks privacy constituted of bed sheet hung from the ceiling.
Newborns, Tule Lake.
5,600 Japanese Americans were so resentful of the mistreatment by their own government that they demanded to be repatriated to Japan. Some 1,500 got their wish while the rest found themselves in a no man’s land, scorned and mistrusted by absolutely everybody.

The threads of this story lead to a tangle of injustices that seem to circle the globe.  While this is the last about the camps for now, new angles are certain to emerge.  More later.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Behind barbed wire

Wood Block, Heart Mountain, Artist Unknown
To think it was a BLT and a black coffee at a cafĂ© in Delta, Utah that started the whole thing.  There on the counter was a tourist rag listing things to do in Millard County. That’s Millard as in Fillmore. Don’t ask me how our good Mormon brethren came up with that moniker. But I digress. What's important is that Topaz Concentration Camp was 16 west and so our journey began.

Over libations a couple of days before the first Topaz post I mentioned the importance of the art in the camps to painter and photographer John Farnsworth.  John asked, “Where’s the art?  Why don’t we ever see it?”

Where Would We Go? Thomas Ryosaku Matsouk, Topaz
When Can We Go Home? Henry Sugimoto
Well, as it happens just three years ago the Smithsonian mounted an exhibition called The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-46.  Now a traveling exhibition, the show visited Santa Fe in July 2012. I wish I had known then but then again it might not have registered had it not been for my encounter with a certain semi-precious jewel in the Utah desert.
Tanforan, Mine Okubo
Slate Teapot, Homei Iseyama, Topaz
Author Delphine Hirasuna on whose 2005 book the Smithsonian exhibition was based writes of finding a bird pin in her mother’s belongings and how the pin made her wonder about other art created in the camps. She asked friends and family and soon items began appearing on her doorstep. She says, “I was astonished by the variety, artistry, imagination and craftsmanship they brought. The objects made of scrap and found materials ranged from ordinary things like a handmade wooden washboard and containers woven out of twisted crepe paper to an intricately decorated teapot carved out of slate.”

Further she submits that, “The objects that the Issei and Nisei made in the camps are a physical manifestation of the art of gaman.” Gaman is a Zen Buddhist word meaning “To endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” It seems that the Japanese American prisoners they did exactly that and art may have been the vehicle that made such patience and dignity possible.
Mine Okubo
Ruth Asawa
Water Park, Manzanar, Ansel Adams
Without doubt, art proved indispensable in making life in the camps tolerable. Art as manifested by water parks, murals, gardens and furniture softened bleak surroundings while painting, printmaking and sculpture served the human need to create beauty for its own sake. At each camp a specialty emerged. At northern California’s Tule Lake Camp intricate flowers were crafted from shells found in the ancient seabed. The Poston and Gila River Camps in Arizona produced carved figures from native ironwood. Heart Mountain in Wyoming was known for fine embroidery, Amache in Colorado for miniature landscapes and Jerome in Arkansas for hardwood furniture.

In her book Citizen 13660, Mine Okubo remembers that within weeks of their internment at Tanforan Race Track internees who were landscape architects on the outside had moved trees, dug canals and built a water park replete with a bridge and islands.  Another shown above was built at Manzanar to entertain Japanese American orphans. 
Chiura Obata, Tanforan
Chiura Obata, Topaz
Within twenty days of his incarceration at Tanforan Chiura Obata from UC Berkeley had opened an art school where 25 artistic disciplines from figure drawing to fashion design were taught in a mess hall.  Classes were held 9:00am to 9:00pm daily. Manzanar had a flourishing art school in a recreation hall and the Topaz art school had 600 art students. In every camp art became a life affirming pursuit. Art alone yielded something beyond survival.
Art Class, Manzanar
Much of the art in the camps was made by the “Issei”, internees born in Japan and who were primarily farmers and shopkeepers back home. Yet at the war’s end Issei artists gave their work away or simply left it behind in the camps and never practiced their art form again. To them the art was simply a device to cope with boredom and frustration and had no greater importance than that. It was a way to “gaman” but also a painful reminder of a time they wanted to forget.

When the camps were closed nearly all of the art made in the camps was left to wither in treeless barrens. What has been found is but a glimpse of what was created behind barbed wire.

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna is available through Amazon.  It's a beautifully produced book that provides a moving look at a tragic period in our history.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Ugly Truths

Here in Taos I run with a heady breed of well read, multi-degreed academics and lapsed lawyers. Sure don’t know what those overachievers see in me. But it’s amazing how little the very large collective brain of this group knew about our World War Two Japanese American internment camps.  Most of us were tiny tots or not yet a gleam in somebody’s eye at the time of the camps.  I turned four as the war came to an end so my knowledge of them was sketchy at best.  And when the war ended the camps were quickly leveled, the internees sent back to the West Coast to start all over and most Americans were none the wiser.  My guess is that the perpetrators of the great relocation tragedy had just that in mind when they struck the camps from American consciousness and left the land of the free and home of the brave in blissful ignorance.

Last week’s entry about the Topaz Concentration Camp in drew comments and questions that prompt a follow up. 
Last day on the farm
The Mochida family awaiting transport to Tanforan
Early last Monday Daryl Black informed me that there had been two camps in New Mexico, one in Santa Fe and another near Lordsburg. Yes, there were two camps in New Mexico but they were not so-called relocation camps.  These were Detention Camps for previously identified male “enemy aliens” who were rounded up within two days after Pearl Harbor. These imminent threats to hearth and home were imprisoned in camps operated by the Department of Justice according to the terms of the Geneva Convention, read prisoner of war camps, rather than by the US Army in gated desert communities. The Santa Fe Camp held nearly 5,000 male prisoners many of whom were lawyers, doctors and religious leaders and had an average age of 52.
Leaving San Francisco
One bag per person
Tanforan with track in the background
Nancy Enderby pointed out that the Supreme Court found the internment of the Japanese Americans to be constitutional.  That’s sadly true. On December 18, 1944 in the case of Korematsu v. United States, a 6-3 decision, the court stated that the exclusion process in general was constitutional.

Some of you wondered how long were the internees were held at the race track and county fair assembly centers and, for that matter, why racetracks and fair grounds?  The answer is that they spent six to nine months in their horse stalls, tents or barracks while the more permanent camps were built. Race tracks and fair grounds were chosen because they had ample space and existing infrastructure like water, electric and sewer hook-ups not mention those handy multi-purpose housing units.

When the internees finally arrived at their semi-permanent digs in places like Broken Pelvis, Wyoming and Dry Spit, Arizona they found the camps unfinished and were hired to build their own barb wire fences and guard towers for the munificent sum of $12 a month. That’s not quite as bad as digging one’s own grave but is still a seriously dystopian situation.

Since we know that each internee was given a week to settle his affairs and was allowed one bag of personal items, I've been asked what happened to their homes, businesses and other property?  The answer is that they left everything back home to be stolen, vandalized or bought for a pittance. Right before the great inland exodus bottom feeding snakes slithered through Japanese neighborhoods buying refrigerators for $5 and cars for a dime on the dollar. Your loss is my gain.
The record shows that the US government suppressed findings from the FBI and military intelligence that there was no threat from the Japanese Americans. And by late 1942 camp officials recognized there was no threat whatsoever from the internees yet they remained incarcerated until the end of the war.

No person of Japanese ancestry in the US was ever charged or convicted of espionage.

Dorothea Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the camps but was discouraged from interacting with detainees and was not allowed to photograph armed soldiers, guard towers or any conflicts between guards and internees. Her work was heavily edited and what remained was secreted away by the authorities until being revealed under the Freedom of Information Act many years later.  Many of her images of the camps have never been found but those that have are rich, enduring and heart wrenching. Some of them support this text.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert

The terms relocation, internment and concentration have been used to describe the camps uses to incarcerate as many as 120,000 Japanese during World War II. But by 1998 the term concentration camp had become widely accepted.  According to a joint statement by the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Museum, “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed but simply because of who they are.” In fact, none of the Japanese Americans imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II was ever charged with a crime let alone convicted of one.  It’s one of the most egregious breaches of civil rights in American history.

For an American to lose his constitutional rights and civil liberties is almost incomprehensible today or is it?  That’s precisely what happened in February of 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Within a couple of months 40,000 Japanese immigrants who had already been denied citizenship by the anti-Asian U.S. Naturalization Acts of 1870 and 1920 and 80,000 full-fledged American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced to surrender their homes, possessions and freedom. People who were at least one sixteenth Japanese were covered under the order including children, the elderly and the mentally ill.  One sixteenth.
That German American Caucasians didn’t endure such indignities suggests that race played a greater role in the treatment of the Japanese than any plausible military risk.  Race was beyond doubt key to the anti-Japanese hysteria that swept the country.  Lt. General John L. Dewitt who was placed in charge of the War Relocation Command said that, “A Jap’s a Jap” and testified before congress that “They are a dangerous element…It makes no difference if he is an American citizen, he is still Japanese…we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped of the map.”  Emphasis applied. Substitute Jew and see where that thinking leads. Earl Warren, then Attorney General of California and later Governor of the state and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court led efforts to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast.

Columnist Harry McLemore fueled anti-Japanese fever when he wrote, “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior.  I don’t mean a nice piece of the interior either.  Herd’em up, pack’em off and give’em the inside room in the badlands…Personally, I hate the Japanese.  And that goes for all of them.” McLemore got his wish.

A Los Angeles Times editorial also embraced this view.

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents…notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with rarest of exceptions grows up to be Japanese not American. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion…that such treatment…should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.” Emphasis applied.
Topaz Concentration Camp 16 miles west of Delta, Utah consisted of 42 blocks. The use of prison nomenclature is chilling. The 36 residential blocks were comprised of 12 frame and tarpaper barracks with cots, mattresses, a single electric light and no plumbing.  Living conditions were so crowded and noisy that privacy was impossible.

Unlike the Manzanar Concentration Camp in California where a number of buildings still stand, little of Topaz remains.  Yet Topaz was four times the size of the better known Manzanar.  At its peak population of 8,400 it was the third largest city in Utah a dubious honor enjoyed by camps in Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, as well. I could identify the foot print of just one building though the 20,000 acre site is cris-crossed by cinder roads.  Two elevated non-residential structures are the only ones standing. Architecture and artifacts cannot tell the Topaz story so the sheer desolation of the site will have to speak for the 11,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned there.
“When we arrived the camp’s Boy Scout bugle corps played and an oversized banner greeted us with ‘Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert,’ but rifles were pointed at us, not outward.” remembers Grace Fujimoto Oshita.

Harry Kitano from San Francisco arrived at Topaz with six siblings and his parents.  He was sixteen. They lived on block 34-3. Harry was the starting fullback on the high school football team and played trombone in the school band.  He was senior class president and voted Most Popular Boy along with Tsuki Takaha who was Most Popular Girl.  The sound of it is achingly American. When Harry graduated high school the war was in full swing so he moved inland to Milwaukee where he worked as a farm hand and played in a jazz band. When the war ended and he could legally move back to California he earned his Ph.D in psychology at UC Berkeley. He was a professor of Social Welfare and Sociology at UCLA until his retirement. Harry Kitano wrote more than 150 books and articles the last being “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Achieved Redress” (2000) which was being revised at the time of his death in 2002.

Julie Otsuka heard stories of her family’s internment from her mother and grandparents.  Julie’s mother was ten when her family was among those “assembled” at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno.  Her mother tells the story of how her nine year old cousin was told that the family was going “camping” so he wouldn’t be afraid. The boy brought a canteen for the hiking and camping he expected. That night they slept in horse stalls.  

In Julie’s words, “When I was a child my mother would occasionally mention ‘camp’ to me in passing. ‘That rusty fork in the back of the silverware drawer, we used it in camp,’ her mother would say. There was the story of the mess hall cook who mistakenly used Ajax instead of baking soda in the biscuits or the boy who fell through the roof of the women’s bath house while sneaking a peak at the bathers below.  Julie’s mother told her that camp was ‘an adventure.’

But tragedy occurred at Topaz on April 11, 1943 when James Wakasa, age 63, was shot and killed by an overzealous guard when he was too near the southwest section of the fence. It was the only killing of a prisoner reported at Topaz. While the record is unclear it is estimated that between six and twenty internees were killed by guards in the ten main camps. That there is no verified count is in itself telling.

Despite the injustice, the internees were amazingly resilient and in the spirit of shikaganai meaning “It can’t be helped,” made the best of the injustice that had befallen them by making life as normal, indeed as American as possible. The women swept and dusted incessantly to beat back the dirt that filled their porous barracks.  Children hauled coal for the pot-bellied stoves.  The men built furniture from scraps of lumber. Gardens were planted. Schools were established and sports were played. An art school taught by established Japanese American artists grew to more than 600 students. It may have been the largest art school in the United States.

Sociologist and Psychiatrist Alexander H. Leighton spent fifteen months in the camps before writing the 1945 book The Governing of Man. Paraphrasing from the book; Time magazine wrote that “many an American simply fails to remember that U.S. Japanese are human beings.” 

Topaz was raised immediately after its closing in late 1945 as if to excise its existence from history.

Upon release from the camp each internee was given $25, roughly the monthly wage paid an Army Private.

While widely discredited, our World War Two Concentration Camps have defenders. And there are those who see the camps as models for the treatment of dangerous racial elements in the American population today.