This week (December 13, 2016) my husband and I attended the showing of “Allegiance” with George Takei, in Sugarhouse, Utah. Allegiance is the filmed version of a Broadway musical about the Japanese internment camps that were created after the attack on Pearl Harbor and used during World War II. It gives us a glimpse into what life was like for those who were “of Japanese ancestry” during a time when tensions were high, fear ruled, and injustices were served.
(This show was rich with emotion and humanity and many things were brought to my mind as I watched it. If I compile them all into one post it will be hard to digest, so I plan to write separate posts about the various subjects and treat each one with the attention I feel it deserves.)
An integral part of my journey has been recognizing human rights violations wherever they occur. Though we all have differences in where and how we experience them, I believe that we all have much more in common than we have differences. We are all human. We all have human emotions and if we choose to, we can put ourselves in the place of our neighbor and be compassionate and empathetic. Through this effort we can come to feel each other’s pain and work for equity and freedom for all of humanity. If we choose to allow ourselves to categorize everyone into groups of “others” that will allow atrocities to continue.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
We need to learn the lessons of the past so they aren’t repeated. I believe that this is accomplished, in part, by talking about what has happened, why it happened, and how we can reach our goals of safety and security with the least harm possible. This was something I noticed in the interviews at the end of the film – many of those who spoke said that their family who had experience internment didn’t talk about it. As painful as these experiences can be, I truly feel that it’s important to talk about them. Lest we forget….
When I was a child my father loved watching old World War II films, and as a result I watched a lot of them. My father was born in 1944, and there was no question that he held onto a hatred for the “Japs” as he called them. The movies certainly portrayed them effectively as an enemy – only showing military action. We were shown the human side of the American soldiers. Their dreams of making it back home, their letters from loved ones, and their moments of vulnerability as they faced their deaths on a daily basis and watched their buddies die. I can’t remember when I first came to realize that the “enemy” had the same stories, the same emotions, the same hopes of going home to loved ones. They weren’t so different – they all believed they were fighting and dying for their country, their families and their freedom.
I don’t remember when I first learned of the internment camps, I know I was pretty young, and I remember feeling sad about it. I was glad that we weren’t Japanese. My father would have been born in an internment camp, if he had been born at all! Which could have meant that I was never born either.
The internment camps seem to be a chapter of history that was never really portrayed – as far as I saw – in the movies. But then, movies do a great job of portraying people in very distinct roles, and often with a purpose. We aren’t led to understand both sides, and so we eagerly cheer for those we are told are heroes and loathe those we are told are the enemy with hardly a thought for the humanity on both sides. Actors are either good or bad, it’s all black and white, with no in between. But real life is never that simple.
During this time, those of Japanese ancestry fell into a difficult to define gray area and were thus necessarily suspect, dehumanized, gathered up, and dismissed. Yes, the U.S. Government was in a tough spot, and they justified their actions, but there is always at least two sides to every story.
I have done a lot of reading in my life. I love books. When I was growing up books were my only real escape; through their pages I could travel the world and experience lives that were very different than my own was, or could ever become. My library card was my passport to the few choices and freedoms that I claimed as my luxuries. The movies we watched at home weren’t my choice, they were my father’s. But at the library I could sneak in a book or two that piqued my interest. I could choose what I read and where it would take me. Stories like Nancy Drew pulled me in and as I read I could be Nancy. I had freedom, a supportive and adoring father, an exciting, dangerous life and a boyfriend! (gasp!) My imagination was my best friend as I became someone else. I think that reading helped me learn to put myself in other people’s places and try to see things from their perspective. It has been an amazing thing to practice. Although it’s not always pleasant, I feel that it has helped me to develop a greater empathy for my fellow members of the human race.
I have been doing a little bit of research today, and as I have read documents and studied pictures, I put myself in the place of those who were “of Japanese descent” during this time period and it’s hard to really imagine how difficult those days must have been. Even in a moment when their loyalty was being scrutinized, it would be next to impossible for them not to feel some degree of connection to their motherland. Even those who were most patriotic and loyal to America must have had family in Japan, and they must have worried a lot, and done a great deal of soul searching.
War is always a time of fear and doubt, and having war reach across the ocean and touch your shores is terrifying. If you have reason to feel attachment to both sides it’s even more difficult. Like the child of parents who are involved in a bitter divorce who have love for both sides, and just wish that everyone could get along and they didn’t have to choose.
I imagine that once Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, the atmosphere in neighborhoods and communities shifted. People became more cautious, more watchful. The intensity of fear rose – on both sides. It’s one thing to hear and read of war that is happening on foreign soil far away across the sea, and another when it has reached your borders.
On February 19, 1942: “Ten weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of any and all people from military areas ‘as deemed necessary or desirable.’ The military in turn defined the entire West Coast, home to the majority of Americans of Japanese ancestry or citizenship, as a military area. By June, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to remote internment camps built by the U.S. military in scattered locations around the country. For the next two and a half years, many of these Japanese Americans endured extremely difficult living conditions and poor treatment by their military guards.”*
(So here’s the thing. I can understand the fear and the motivation for taking such “precautions,” but why not make it as comfortable as possible? Why not give them the benefit of the doubt, treat them humanely, with the necessities of life, and allow them to be “innocent until proven guilty”? Incarcerating them in internment camps with the restrictions they were under should have been enough to give a reasonable guarantee of safety, why allow the military guards to treat them poorly?)
On Friday, April 24, 1942, public notices were posted with the orders of evacuation and instructions for those “of Japanese ancestry.” One of the requirements of this notice was that they go to the specified location of a “Civil Control Station” where they would check in and be given further instructions. This check in had to be completed either on the 25th (Saturday) or 26th (Sunday) between 8:00 P.M. and 5:00 P.M. That no affected person could relocate after 12 o’clock noon on that day – April 24th – and that evacuations would be complete by 12 o’clock noon, Friday, May 1, 1942.
Their entire lives had just come crashing down around them and they had, at most, two days notice to get registered, and one week to prepare to walk away from their lives, their property, their homes and everything they had, and be whisked off to a future that was unsure at best.
They were in an impossible, and extremely vulnerable, situation. Everyone around them knew that they had to leave, and even if they could find someone to purchase their property, the likelihood of getting fair market value was pretty slim.
As they began arriving at their destinations – concentration camps, really – their hearts must have sunk. Everything they had worked so hard for was far behind them and they were now required to live in desolate areas and poor conditions. Uncertainty must have turned to anguish and despair as they looked at the bleak barracks, pulled their loved ones a little closer, and tried to garner strength for whatever lay ahead. Their “American Dream” was shattered.
There were 10 internment camps in total, one of them was located in Central Utah at a place called Topaz, near Delta. My husband stumbled across some of the foundations from the barracks there while on a high school field trip. Someday soon we are going to drive out there as a family.
I have read descriptions of the construction of these barracks, that left much to be desired for battling the dust, heat and cold – extremes that these people were not accustomed to, and that made daily life even more difficult. But considering the size of the camps and the short period of time between the signing of the Executive Order and when evacuations were complete (just over two months) it’s not surprising that they weren’t of very high quality.
Coal stoves heated these dwellings, but cooking in them was discouraged. Family bonds must have become strained as mothers tried to maintain order while shuttling their children between barracks, the mess hall, and latrines. Even if the people had been given luxurious, private accommodations, the loss of freedom is a difficult thing to bear. During the first 20 years of my married life, we shared living accommodations in some degree or another for the majority of that time. I know about the added stress and trouble that shared facilities lend to a family – no matter how accommodating everyone tries to be. Although I never experienced anything this extreme, I can only imagine what these people endured.
I admit that other than watching Allegiance I haven’t read or studied much about the conditions of the camps, though after looking at pictures and reading some descriptions I can imagine them. I believe that Allegiance gave a good and fair basic idea of what it was like. So for now, I am going to base my comments from what I watched and felt during this production, and I intend to study into this more and I will change my views if warranted as I do research. So there will definitely be more to come.