Two of our mentees, Fatima and Jing Ling, attended the event, and were also given the exciting opportunity to interview former Japanese internees.
The Things We Remember
By Mentors, Bernice and Theresa:
On April 9th, 2011, there was an event held at the Japanese American United Church in remembrance of the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned and killed in the Internment camps during WWII. The event also focused on the parallels between the post September 11th treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans in the United States and the post-Pearl Harbor treatment of Japanese Americans.
One of the speakers was Janan Delgado. She currently lives in NYC and is the Program Coordinator at Park51, the planned community center in Lower Manhattan. The center is dedicated to providing cultural, social and recreational programs and services to the Lower Manhattan community and help to “weave the Muslim-American identity into the pluralistic fabric of the United States.”
After hearing Mrs. Delgado’s moving speech, I spoke with her briefly during the Potluck luncheon after the program. I asked her how she got involved in the program and she told me Michael Ishii, one of the organizers of the event, read her article titled “Learning to See” (http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/4129).
A WWII veteran named Kazuo “Kaz” Yamaguchi was also in attendance at the Day of Remembrance event. He was born and raised in NYC. At the age of 19, during WWII, Mr. Yamaguchi was drafted into the US Army. While training, he also went to language school where he learned Japanese and became an Interpreter. Mr. Yamaguchi expressed the Americans’ dislike towards the Japanese American soldiers in the military. He felt that the imprisoned Japanese respected him more than his fellow American soldiers. One very moving story Mr. Yamaguchi told, which to this day still gives him nightmares, was about a little girl. After the bombing in Japan, Mr. Yamaguchi met a little girl in a hospital. She was suffering from radiation poisoning and was in a great deal of pain. He tried asking a doctor for medicine but the American doctor refused and called Mr. Yamaguchi a traitor. Even today, after seventy years, this experience still haunts Mr. Yamaguchi. He also mentioned that many Japanese Americans had to fight against his cousins and other family members who lived in Japan.
The next person we interviewed was Satoru Tsufura. We sat next to Satoru Tsufura and immediately noticed his kind face. He had on glasses, a cap, a blue jacket, and a radiant smile that made the white beards on the side of his face crinkle up. As I settled down next to him, he was engaged in an animated conversation with another woman about their High School Class of 1946. The two had graduated from the internment camps the same year. Satoru gestured at me to look at the photocopied pages of his high school yearbook. It was a scrapbook that triggered in Satoru a great deal of sadness intermixed with a conflicted nostalgia. “You don’t ever forget something like that,” he would say over and over again. The pages were worn, the faces of his classmates buried under the signatures that Satoru had gathered over the years. It initially surprised me that there were lively images of health, happiness and smiles. I was expecting to see desolation and sadness because the internment experience had been explained to me as one of great tragedy. But Satoru told us, with a twinge of pride, that the camps had schools and hospitals to provide basic medical care. Adults could leave the camps, supervised of course, to harvest vegetables at nearby farms. It was a fully functioning community but for the basic, inviolable freedoms that every other U.S. citizen had at the time. Listening to Satoru speak, I marveled at the Japanese Americans’ resilience despite their having to uproot themselves from their homes and start a life in captivity. Fatima and JingLing had questions about how Japanese Americans reintegrated themselves into society and back in their home communities after internment ended. Satoru was released earlier than his parents through a “relocation” program. The interned Japanese were not allowed to return to their Pacific Coast homes, and as a result, dispersed across the United States via the relocation programs. The Americans who Satoru confided in upon his release were not aware that the Japanese had been interned in their very own country. Satoru’s mother and father eventually joined Satoru on the East Coast after they watched their son leave on his own a few months before. Satoru stared somberly at the yearbook page when he told us that his mother lived a hard life after internment. She never quite overcame the traumatic effects of leaving her home and her roots in California. Though the interview was sprinkled with moments of sadness, I got the impression that the Day of Remembrance was ultimately an uplifting occasion for Satoru and his peers. Their final rebellion against that dark era of the past was the annual celebration of their years of triumphant life together. They rejoiced in each other’s company, ate food, laughed merrily – it was a community gathering that defiantly stood up against injustice and demonstrated that it could not break the bonds of a community.
I did not know a great deal about the history of the Internment Camps. Going to the Day of Remembrance program gave me the opportunity to see and speak to people who experienced the suffering during that time. It gave me a better understanding of the history and the personal lives affected by the Internment Camps. It was also interesting to see the parallels between what the Japanese Americans went through during WWII and what the Arab Americans and Muslims are experiencing after 9/11. During the program, there was a creative performance piece that incorporated poetry reflecting on the experiences of Japanese Americans and Arab and Muslim Americans by Janice Mirikitani and Suheir Hammad. The music component was performed by composer and flutist, Nobuko Miyazaki, on the oud-Arabic lute was John Vergara, April Centrone on the percussions and Olivia Oguma and Nora Armani. At the end of the performance, both poets recited the same lines to represent the unity of both cultures.
At the end of the day, we were literally grinning from ear to ear. We got the chance to talk to so many amazing individuals in the Japanese and Muslim communities. And just when we were about to call it a day, Corky Lee, long-time photographer in the New York Asian American community, invited us to a viewing of his latest photographs to be displayed at the Queens Museum of Art in June. We sat with him in a nearby Mexican restaurant and looked at colorful photos of Asians and Asian Americans, some recent immigrants, some born and raised here in the U.S., situated in ethnic enclaves, Holi celebrations, military parades, lion dancing festivals. The snapshots showed vibrant life and unique stories in the New York landscape of increasingly diverse Asian communities. We all went home afterwards talking excitedly about how much we had learned, experienced and seen.