Poetry in History: Japanese American Internment
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond. Today’s post centers around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
We’ve all seen the photographs: bleak desert landscapes, makeshift barracks, endless stretches of barbed wire fence. We’ve heard the euphemisms: “relocation,” “evacuation,” and “evacuees,” put into circulation by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and the infamous public notices that appeared shortly afterward, stapled to telephone poles and pasted in store front windows addressed “TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY.” For the Japanese American, Asian American — any American, really, regardless of “ANCESTRY” — what are we to make of this moment in our nation’s history, when approximately 110,000 men, women, and children were robbed of their rights, property, and due process of the law in the name of “national security”?
In an era of liberal personhood, when most — but certainly not all, recent legislation in Arizona being a case in point — citizens of the United States enjoy relative protection under the law, how are we to respond to the egregious moment in 1942 when crowds of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were herded onto fairgrounds, relegated to horse stalls and racetracks, and “relocated” to barbed-wire compounds and hastily constructed prison barracks throughout the nation? And all this, in response to sentiment like that expressed by columnist Henry McLemore: “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 part 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.”
Violet Kazue de Cristoforo’s article “Pre-War Japanese American Haiku,” available on the Modern American Poetry website of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne, offers a glimpse into the literary life of the Japanese American community before and during World War II.:
The Delta Ginsha [a free-verse poetry club] was founded in 1918 by Neiji Qzawa… Its members met monthly and submitted their haiku to the master of the month, who was usually the host or hostess for the evening. They submitted for consideration as many poems as they desired. The poems were then read and discussed and a vote was taken to determine the best haiku… It was an evening anticipated by the members—grape growers, onion farmers, teachers, housewives, bankers, pharmacists, and others—who had assembled for an enlightening cultural and social event.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the war, however, most — though not all — of these poetry clubs dissolved for fear of reprisal. Dozens of poetry collections were destroyed, along with entire libraries of Japanese literature: essentially an erasure of the community’s literary history. For more information on World War II era free-verse haiku by Japanese Americans, see de Cristoforo’s book May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow–An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, published by Sun and Moon Press (1997) and the anthology Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience (Heyday Books, 2000), edited by prominent Japanese American writer Lawson Fusao Inada.
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In the spirit of the Delta Ginsha and other free-verse haiku (or kaiku) poetry clubs that emerged in the early 1900s and went on to flourish in the interment camps, write a haiku that captures, through image, sound, sensory detail, and/or meditation on the seasons/natural world, a state of mind or being that illuminates far more than what it suggests initially. Consider the following examples, written in “camp” and published in May Sky.
California has now become
a far country
listening to rumbling train
we have come a long way
If you’d like to read more about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, here are some additional resources:
Camp Notes and Other Writings, by Mitsuye Yamada.
No-No Boy, by John Okada.
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, by Hisaye Yamamoto.
Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and a Memoir, by Wakako Yamauchi, edited by Garrett Hongo.
Nonfiction / History
Remembering Heart Mountain: Essays on Japanese American Internment in Wyoming, edited by Mike Mackey.
Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz, by Sandra C. Taylor.
Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona, by Richard S. Nishimoto, edited by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi.
Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, by Michi Nishiura Weglyn, with an Introduction by James Michener.
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If you write about the internment experience this week, please post an excerpt of your attempts in the comments. Also, if you live within driving distance of Manzanar, Tule Lake, Minidoka, or Jerome, etc., consider visiting one of the former internment camps, many of which have continued to remain open to the public.