Lookout Towers and a Legacy Wall
by Edward Fowler
On the Mass Confinement of Japanese Americans Eighty Years On
In 1942, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s directive, the War Department ordered West Coast residents of Japanese descent (“Nikkei”), two thirds of them American citizens, to leave their homes. Most were sent to ten concentration camps in seven states. Of the more than one hundred ten thousand total, nearly two thousand came from Orange County. After Pearl Harbor, those with a Japanese surname had become suspect by default. None were charged with a crime. The government, media, and general public demonized them as “Japs.”
I speak of concentration camps by design. Confusion about labeling stems from our avoidance of the truth. “Relocation center,” the government’s official term, doesn’t conjure up images of barbed wire fences, lookout towers, searchlights, and armed guards – ubiquitous features of the remote plots of land that housed virtual prisoners of war.
That words profoundly shape our perceptions is shown in “Euphemisms,” an artist’s shrewd rendition of the infamous order to “all persons of Japanese ancestry.” The poster’s red-ink truths negate the government’s obfuscations – penned in black and backed by a panoptic tower.
I taught courses on Japan during my tenure at UC Irvine, but my interest in the Nikkei experience is rooted in personal ties with Japanese Americans. Some go back to high school, when I hadn’t the vaguest notion of what had transpired during the war. Decades passed before I understood the camps’ impact on people I know.
One of them is Jim Fujii, a colleague in East Asian Studies at UCI, who suggested we fold the Nikkei experience into a course we co-taught on Japanese society as presented through the lens of fiction. We juxtaposed tales of discrimination against the Japanese minority in America (Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar and John Okada’s No-No Boy) with tales of mainstream Japanese discrimination against minorities in Japan (Koreans, aboriginal Ainu, and other groups). The common element in all of these is forced relocation. The characters are uprooted and living on unfamiliar ground – ghettos, reservations, “camps.” A deep anxiety over their dislocation pervades the literature we read.
Teaching the course ignited my interest in this blot on American history. Yet while for me the Nikkei saga remains a story about others’ tribulations, for Jim it is deeply personal, albeit shrouded in mystery. His family history illustrates what the poet Garrett Hongo calls “the hurt of remembrance.” Hongo notes in his The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, “[T]hough the internment was . . . a stain on the psyche of just about everyone . . . there was never a mention of this experience, everyone in the community tacitly agreeing ‘to get on with it’.”
In the early 1900s, Jim’s paternal grandparents migrated from Japan to California. His grandfather and father, farmers by trade, followed the crops from Ventura to San Jose. Soon after the war began, the family was sent to the Salinas Race Track Assembly Center, then on to Poston, Arizona, one of the largest concentration camps. Like so many former confinees, Jim’s father, muting his memories, brushed off his son’s questions about camp life: “It wasn’t really that bad.” About the notorious heat: “It was okay in the shade.” He was able to leave Poston early and ultimately work for the postwar Occupation in Tokyo. He ended up staying in Japan, where he married a Japanese, and except for a one-week visit, never returned to the States.
Hard as it was for Jim to plumb his family’s past, it was harder still for Myrene Mimaki, a Sansei (third-generation) high school classmate of mine at a San Gabriel Valley high school. Her family hailed from Kumamoto, which, along with Hiroshima, produced the greatest number of immigrants to North and South America. Her parents, utterly silent about camp life in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, gave not even muted voice to their hurt of remembrance.
“Most of what I know,” she told me when I asked her recently, “I only learned when researching my graduation thesis at UCLA.” She discovered, among other things, that a Utah family helped her parents escape camp life. Her mother worked as their nanny; her father tilled fields far away. Myrene was named after the Mormon household’s matriarch. “Before the war, my father’s family lived in Arcadia, so they didn’t have to travel far to be detained at the Santa Anita Assembly Center. You could say my grandfather fed the horses with the money he’d gambled on the races, only to end up there himself. . . . Really sad.”
Sad, too, that it took me so long to inquire about family histories like hers. That realization made me engage more readily in a conversation with Glenn Tanaka, a bronzed, well-weathered Sansei, who with his wife Shirley runs Tanaka Farms, a private enterprise on Irvine city land just off the 405 freeway. It is known for its produce, agricultural events, and its celebration of New Year’s, Japanese style, with plenty of mochi pounding and saké quaffing.
Glenn kindly took time out during an event last fall to elaborate on his own history, which is posted on his website. Glenn’s grandfather emigrated from Hiroshima to California around 1910 and settled in the Central Valley, home to many Japanese. His son later established himself driving a produce truck in Orange County. Then came Pearl Harbor and, eleven weeks later, FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which laid the groundwork for the removal of Nikkei residents, citizen or not, from the West Coast. To avoid being sent to a camp, Glenn’s father sought refuge in Utah, where a friend lived and worked and where he met his wife. After the war he returned to Orange County, where Glenn was born.
Glenn and I stood near the Legacy Wall, a three-sided wooden structure resembling a barrack and covered with a hundred illustrated narratives by Nikkei families who farmed up and down the West Coast. We chatted while watching perhaps a thousand guests riding wagons, picking pumpkins, and dining on corndogs from the grill.
“Japanese immigrants and their descendants operated some six thousand small farms before the war. I’d like to add another hundred histories to the ones we already have. It gets harder every year, though, since more and more are dying off.“
The Legacy Wall roster does not represent the entire Nikkei experience; those in fishing and small business naturally go unmentioned. Nevertheless, these family stories collectively offer a rich sample of immigrant life.
One such family, the Kannos, settled in Talbert, east of Huntington Beach, in the early 1900s. They were sent to Poston in 1942. Because of “relocation,” son Jim could not finish high school. After the war, Jim entered politics, worked to incorporate Talbert as Fountain Valley in 1957, and was elected the city’s first mayor. He spearheaded the effort to turn a naval airfield, built in the center of town the year his family was incarcerated, into Mile Square Regional Park. At long last, in 1999, he received his Santa Ana High School Class of 1943 diploma.
Then there are the Masudas. Three of the family’s sons served in the European Theater during World War II with the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Kazuo, the eldest, died in battle. In December 1945, his elder sister received the Distinguished Service Cross on his behalf from General Joseph Stilwell at the doorstep of her Talbert home, where she had faced threats (as did many others) upon her return that spring from camp. Later that day at a rally in Santa Ana, a U.S. army captain, hand-picked for the ceremony, recited his lines:
Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.
The captain retired soon thereafter and resumed his acting career. Four decades later, in 1988 and as the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act (H.R. 442), a congressional bill named after the 442nd, which provided restitution to each living camp survivor. Reagan had long opposed the bill. No more federal spending, he said. It took a letter from Kazuo’s younger sister reminding him of the Santa Ana rally to prompt him to reconsider (Footnote 1).
The Kannos and Masudas attended church in Wintersburg, a residential and farming community (now part of Huntington Beach) and site of a Japanese mission, established in 1904. It still stands. The C.M. Furuta Gold Fish Farm owned the mission and church in addition to its own facilities. In 2004 the Furutas sold their property to a waste disposal firm, which sold it to a similar firm that sought to rezone it for commercial use. Its strategy of demolition by neglect was opposed by preservationist groups, but may have been enhanced by a fire in 2022 that destroyed two buildings, both of which were razed before an investigation could be launched. Wintersburg is in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s portfolio of National Treasures.
Like the Kannos and a great many other Orange County families during the war, the Furutas ended up in Poston, which appeared so frequently in my readings that I resolved to have a look. On a road trip to the Southwest in the fall of 2021, my wife and I traveled to the sprawling site, just east of the Colorado River. We had already visited Manzanar, one of two California camps.
Present-day Poston is nothing like Manzanar. The latter, a National Historic Site, boasts a ranger-staffed visitor center, reconstructed barracks, and spectacular if desolate Sierra Nevada backdrop. For years it has led the way in presenting a dismal episode in our history.
Poston, by contrast, is a poster child for history’s disappearance. Its well-kept Memorial Monument, erected long after the war, stands tall on the highway but doesn’t point the way to the camp. I relied on instinct, and when that failed my wife stepped inside the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) office, which we’d stumbled upon, and emerged with a Google Earth map that a clerk had kindly printed out. The map shows the monument (in red) and, to the northwest, Poston Elementary School, its classrooms at a slant.
Poston, where a quarter of the families on Glenn Tanaka’s Legacy Wall were confined, was actually three camps (Poston 1, 2, 3), nicknamed by its occupants Roaston, Toaston, Duston – neologisms that perfectly capture the region’s harsh climate. The CRIT Council, which saw the WRA doing unto others what had already been done to them, strongly opposed the Nikkei’s forced relocation in 1942. As one tribal member put it, Nikkei confinees were living “on a reservation within a reservation.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs overruled objections (Footnote 2).
The Poston camp was hastily built by Del Webb, whose mammoth construction company later gained fame for Sun City, Arizona, America’s first retirement community, as well as several Las Vegas hotels, the Beverly Hilton, and the Angels Baseball Stadium and Anaheim Covention Center. Needless to say, these all were a cut above Poston’s warped, knot-holed barracks, which let in wind, sand, heat, and cold. The camp’s total area was huge: half again as large as Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast. Its nearly 18,000 confinees made it the third largest “city” in Arizona after Phoenix and Tucson.
We drove down a dirt road that appears on the map my wife had obtained and came upon what is left of Poston 1 Elementary School, built by the confinees themselves: a row of dilapidated classrooms and an auditorium rendered a carcass by arson and the elements.
The ruins lingered in my mind long after our return to Irvine. One year later, we revisited Poston for a workshop-cum-pilgrimage hosted by Poston Preservation and the Poston Community Alliance. We visited the elementary school by bus caravan. This time the fence was open. Two dozen of the two hundred participants were former confinees, ready to share memories of their forced relocation.
Still, the gathering was festive, the result, surely, of the returnees’ willingness to accentuate the positive. They had, after all, made a life for themselves under extremely trying conditions. Inside the auditorium’s roofless walls, Kokki Shindo, ninety-one, recalled the building he knew as a youngster. “It wasn’t used just for school, you know. We held religious services here. Theater productions. Dance parties, too. I remember people spreading slick stuff on the floor, making it easy to glide across.” He also spoke of tensions lying just beneath the surface. His Issei father, born in Japan and thus ineligible for U.S. citizenship, admonished him in no uncertain terms: “If the Japanese reach the mainland, I must fight with them. You, though, are an American, so you will fight for your country. We cannot do otherwise.”
For many confinees, the question of loyalty was fraught with anguish. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, the daughter in Farewell to Manzanar, imagines her Issei father being grilled by a detention camp interrogator:
“Who do you want to win this war?”
[His reply] “When your father and mother are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?”
FDR’s Executive Order, the Poston camp ruins, and stories of family tragedies are reminders of the fragility of human rights, the import of which is this: it’s not that a great wrong happened to Japanese Americans, many right here local, but that it happened at all.
A shorter version of this essay appeared in OC Writers, on March 27, 2023. Hearty thanks go to those who appear in this essay for their time and insights; to Adriana Briscoe, Richard Draper, Barbara Fujimoto Petino, Lynne Miyake, Ann Sakai, Jordan Sand, Andrew Tonkovich, Kris Troost, and Steve Weller for their suggested course corrections on the essay’s journey to completion; and to Yukari Nobumoto Fowler for her support on this and so many other journeys.
1 http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/11/23/masuda-family-1/ parts 5&6. Reagan quotes his 1945 remarks in his 1988 signing speech. “What the President did not say was that he had been assigned temporary duty as an aide to Stilwell for publicity purposes and that the script had been written by the War Department’s publicity people, or by the Office of War Information.” Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang, 2004), p. 103.
2 Don Estes, “The Road to Poston: A Brief Historical Summary,” an essay on this useful website: https://www.postonpreservation.org/poston-internment.
Edward (Ted) Fowler, a 2019 alumnus of the Community of Writers, has written mostly about Japan. He taught at UC Irvine until his retirement. “A View from the Ridge,” part of his memoir, appeared in issue #1 of Citric Acid.