When Fear Drives Us

On December 7, 1941, just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded-up over 1,200 Japanese American community and religious leaders, arresting them without evidence of wrongdoing and froze their assets.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 with the stated intention of preventing espionage on American shores. 120,000 people, the majority of whom were American citizens, were forcibly relocated. 

Most of us have heard so many stories about World War II that we think we know them all. But this is one few know and even fewer understand. I counted myself among the uninformed until I read the book, “Beneath The Wide Silk Sky” by Emily Inouye Huey. The book starts on Dec. 4, 1941, and is written from the perspective of a young Japanese American girl. Drawing inspiration from her own family’s experience prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor through the Japanese American relocation, Huey imbues her rich characters with heart, passion and depth. This story brought an untold horror of World War II to life for me and changed how I saw the past and the future.

In the anti-Japanese American hysteria following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, families were being moved out of their homes and communities before alternative housing could be set up for them. This led to many being sent to what were called, “assembly centers.” These centers were located in horse race tracks, and  families were housed in the horse stalls and other makeshift holding areas.

People who were used to the temperate climate and balmy weather of San Diego, Los Angeles,  as well as, San Fransisco, Portland, Seattle, and all along the Pacific Coast found themselves transported to what some described as “a glimpse of hell” in the deserts of eastern California, western Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona.

Topaz Relocation Center was located in one of the most inhospitable areas possible west of Delta, Utah. 

Image from the Topaz Japanese American Internment Camp in Delta.

My husband and I drove out to Delta to see the museum and walk around the camp. It is a trip I highly recommend. It isn’t a Disneyland trip because it isn’t the happiest place on earth. I would, however, say that it is an important trip  that will hopefully help us avoid the kind of fear and hatred that allowed this atrocity to happen.

We started at the Topaz Japanese American Internment Camp Museum in Delta. The museum has artifacts, stories, exhibits and artwork that tell the story of not only the relocation, but of the people, what they faced and the dignity they faced it with.

Army style barracks, with nothing more than tar paper on the outside and sheetrock to cover the walls inside, provided little privacy and little protection for harsh weather conditions at Topaz.

Throughout Huey’s book, the main character struggles with a phase many of her neighbors and family members keep repeating: “Shikata ga nai.”  This phrase is Japanese for nothing to be done, and the main character learns that those words are only part of their philosophy. She learns that Shikata ga nai should be followed by “Gaman shite,” which means patience, and reminds her to do just that. The families in the internment camps did just that.

The internees did what they could to make the camps feel like home. They had newspapers, markets, school, police and fire departments, art classes and more. Baseball, America’s Pastime, was a popular sport in the camp. For some, it was a way to show how “American” they were. Trying to create some sense of normalcy for students, the schools held dances, had yearbooks, even elected student councils.

Many artists in the camp used their talent to narrate the internees’ experiences. Artists like Miné Okubo, used the mediums of charcoal, drawing and painting. Rev. Shinjo Nagatomi, the lead Buddhist minister at Manzanar created beautiful postcards to send to friends back home.

Some of the internees had been illustrators for Disney and put their talents to use to try and entertain the children in the camp. Chiura Obata, a noted artist and teacher, taught art to internees of all ages.

I recommend reading “Beneath The Wide Silk Sky” and visiting the Topaz Relocation Center to gain a better understanding of what happened to these people during this time.

Submitted by Lorene Moore

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