WHOSE AMERICA, WHO’S AMERICAN?
A LOOK AT THE LIFE OF THE JAPANESE AMERICAN DURING WWII—JAPANESE AMERICAN NATIONAL MUSEUM CONFERENCE
By Mike Pugh
In July 2008, I was offered the opportunity to attend the Japanese American National Museum’s conference in Denver called The Japanese American Experience. As a college student majoring in Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics, I seemed to have found the opportunity of a lifetime by being able to become more knowledgeable about a piece of American history. I went to the conference expecting to see different pieces and sessions about how prosperous the Japanese Americans have become throughout the years, and the many joyous achievements that they have accomplished. I was wrong. Little did I know, this trip would be a tremendous eye opener for me, and lead me to the realization that everything that I had expected throughout my life, I had been taking for granted all this time.
My first day at the event had proven to me that I was in for a shock as I first went through the Youth Expo with all of the dioramas and projects made by students. From the different concentration camp exhibits to pieces on different things like the “no no boys”, I quickly realized that I was venturing into a piece of American history that I had never even known existed! Everywhere I looked, I was faced with the displays of the different hardships that the Japanese Americans of that time were forced to go through. Instantly I was being educated on a period of history that was gradually being “smoothed over” as generations passed. I had realized that throughout all of my years of schooling, this subject was something that was never addressed in any of the places that I had attended. How shameful I felt, not only because of my ignorance to this matter, but also due to the fact that the story of the Japanese American Experience was being slowly erased from American history. Or so I thought.
As the day progressed, there were a myriad of individual workshops that I could attend at will in order to get more of an understanding of what I was being presented with. With so many different venues available, I made a plan to visit absolutely every single event that the conference had to offer. Unfortunately for me, some of the times of the events overlapped so I wasn’t able to get to everything that I wanted to get to, but nonetheless, I tried anyway. On the first day, I decided to attend the Mini Media Festival, showcasing a number of different independent films about the Japanese American experience. Each film was used to tell the story in different ways about what happened during the times of WWII and how Japanese Americans were treated. It was a wealth of information to take in all at once. The many different views on the same story really helped to accentuate the lessons to be learned from the mistakes of the past and how greatly people were impacted by them. John Esaki, the director of the workshop, was gracious enough to let me take one of the films home with me as I wanted to be able to share it with others who might be interested. All of the knowledge I had received from the media festival was only to be a fraction of what I took away from the conference, as I would come to find out in the following days.
On Friday morning, I was excited to get back down to the conference as soon as possible. The more I learned at the conference, the more I found out how little I actually knew about the subject matter, only adding to my curiosity and making me more and more excited about the coming workshops. I was invited to join the discussion called The Future of JANM. The discussion was in regards to the changing times and what needed to be done in order to keep the JANM going for future generations to enjoy. While I may find information on the subject matter fascinating, I understand the dilemma that the JANM is being faced with due to the fact that others (younger generations especially) may not have the same level of interest as myself. One of the most important parts of the discussion in my opinion was on the prospect of changing the name of the museum to something more “inviting”, instead of the JAPANESE American National Museum, which seems to alienate everyone EXCEPT Japanese Americans. I understand the problem that they are going through, because this is something that I struggled with myself for a time. Being the president of my college’s Black Student Union, it sometimes makes it very hard to make people that aren’t black interested in participating in the events. I thought about changing the name to the Multicultural Student Union, seeing as how the emphasis of the group is celebrating cultural diversity and togetherness. However, then I thought about the most important message that the group is trying to convey. The need for people to understand and remember the hardships and struggles that African Americans went through those many years ago, and to use that as a catalyst to further feeling of togetherness in the American people today. Hopefully, the museum keeps the name, as I feel that the story that they have worked so hard to tell may be lost if its “foundation” is compromised.
I then attended the Special Veteran’s Panel which was a Q&A with 3 Medal of Honor recipients from the war. We were told their stories about how hard it was for them to get into the military during the war, being seen as the enemy, and the battles that they were involved in. How hard it must have been for those men to volunteer themselves to fight for a country who viewed them as nothing more than “Japs”. The enemy. Spies among us. It was so very moving to hear about their courage in the line of fire, their sacrifices for our freedoms, and the sadness of the loss of their friends’ lives. We were told the story of the 442nd battalion, and their heroic battles during the war and the decorations that they received for their work. Sadly for me, this was yet another aspect of our history that I had no prior knowledge of. Be it that I am no historian, I still could not help but feel ashamed that I knew so little about what had taken place in the past that has provided me with the comforts that I have come to know and love today. As the men continued their stories and answered questions regarding the war, I could not help but become more interested in learning even more about this dark past. At the end of the panel, I remembered something that I had been told in the past. “Now, if that didn’t move you or make you look at life differently, then you may want to check your pulse. You’re probably dead.”
To close off the 2nd evening, I attended the 2nd Mini Media Festival titled “Redress Relived”. Featured were a number of movies focusing on the Japanese Americans’ quest for justice for the crimes that America had committed against them. As congress debated back and forth about their stance on if what they did was correct or not, many of the people that were forced to lose all of their possessions because of the internment were beginning to pass on. There were many stories about how this time had all but destroyed the Japanese American society, and the many successful people that were released into absolutely heartbreaking poverty. The government finally decided to accept responsibility for its actions against the Japanese American people, providing reparations for the people that were taken in, and also giving a public apology for the wrongs that they had committed. In my opinion, for the American government to stand up and admit that it was wrong helped to prove without a doubt that this is the strongest country in the world.
Day 3 was yet another day in which I found out how little I had known about this time in history, as was no longer a surprise to me. The Enduring Communities session shared the stories about how the internment of the Japanese American people affected other communities around the nation in areas that they were sent to, and those that they were now absent from. In some states, the Japanese Americans were exploited covertly as a free labor force. I remember a story about a camp in New Mexico that had been positioned so as to help develop the land. There were stories about certain states that fought against having internment camps built there in fear that the Japanese people would contaminate their people or that they would all attack and there would be nowhere to escape to. However, the parts that stood out most about this panel were the stories of how some people were able to benefit from the help of the Japanese camps in their areas. One man told of how an Indian tribe in New Mexico was barely able to survive until the Japanese Americans were forced to work the lands there, consequentially bringing water and other things to their villages. The story that interested me the most, however, was that of Bronzeville. This was the area that Little Tokyo in California was changed to due to the absence of the Japanese Americans. Many African Americans moved there from the south and settled the area in the interim. However, the lack of knowledge of how to maintain the area was evident, as it was regarded to as a slum where living conditions were far less than adequate. As time passed, and the Japanese Americans returned to the area, the majority of the African American people moved out to other surrounding areas. However, the ones that stayed mixed cultures with that of the Japanese Americans creating a new type of subculture as a result. While not much is remembered or written about this culture, it seems just as important a part of the Japanese American experience as any of the other topics that were covered. African American culture as well. Hopefully one day someone will be able to do more research on the topic we will have a greater insight as to the rest of the story of this area, or else it may be lost to time.
Finishing up the evening with the banquet dinner was a great experience and honor. Hearing speeches from the many Japanese American people who had overcome the adversity of the past, and achieved greatness in the country, was very inspiring. From senators, the Secretary of Transportation, corporation presidents, doctors, and even superstars like George Takei, Japanese American people have proven that even with all of the hard times that they have faced, they were still able to rise above the hate and violence and become some of the most powerful and influential people in the nation. Truly these are people that all Americans can learn something from.
The final day at the conference was something that I can honestly say made me change the way I think about life. It was a day that I will always remember and look back on whenever I feel that my life is too hard or that I am stressed out about my situation. This was the day that I visited Amache. It was hard enough for me to come to terms with my ignorance on the majority of the subject matter of the conference, but now I was being faced with something that made me feel worse. Not only did I not know that there were internment camps in America, I had no clue that there was one right in my own backyard! Amache, located in Granada, CO, is a mere 3 hours from my city. Visiting the camp was a completely humbling experience. The place was an absolute desert, slapped right in the middle of nowhere. “How could anyone possibly live in a place such as this?” I asked myself this question over and over, not being able to comprehend how hard it must have been for the people there. It was harder, still, to hear the people on the tour with me saying “this is where our family was,” pointing to one of the spots on the map. How could we do such a thing to so many people? I remember thinking to myself, “how dare I sit at home on my nice couch, in my air conditioned house, complaining about not being able to eat a steak dinner tonight and have to settle for home cooking? These people had absolutely nothing to speak of, and they survived far worse conditions than I could ever imagine!” As we waked around the camp, I began to realize that this was the reason that these stories needed to be told. This was the reason that organizations like JANM and great programs like the one at Granada High School needed to be around. Without the students and staff at Granada High School, Amache would have been “erased” from the history books. Without JANM, the entire story of the Japanese American people would be gone forever. America wouldn’t be the same.
In closing, I would like to sincerely thank the Japanese American National Museum for giving me the opportunity to attend such a spectacular event. It has been a great honor and privilege for this humble college student to be able to share a part of your history with you, and it has made my determination to advocate multicultural diversity that much stronger. The question, “whose America, who’s American?” has clearly been answered. This country belongs to all of us. Not just whites, or blacks, or Indians, or Asians, but everyone. It is our greatest duty as American citizens to make sure that we keep it that way, even in the face of the greatest adversity. The scope of the service that you are doing for everyone in America is absolutely astounding, but it is evident that sharing the story of the Japanese American experience is in more than capable hands. I hope to be able to attend more of the museum’s events in the future, and wish for their continued success in keeping stories like this alive in the hearts and minds of others throughout the nation.
Mike Pugh is a Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics double major focusing on Japanese and Spanish. He is currently attending Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs and is 5 classes away from receiving his Associates of Arts. His goal is to spread the understanding of different American cultures and bridge language barriers between peoples in the US and other countries.