In the summer of 2019, I made my annual visit to the Topaz Internment Camp and Museum in Delta, Utah. Not much had changed from years past, except this time I noticed a message scrawled in the gravel on the monument’s foundation. It read: “WE ARE SORRY, NEVER AGAIN.”
This message affected me deeply. It felt like the 80-year separation between visitor and prisoner had evaporated, leaving behind a call to action: “never again.”
My dad started taking me to Topaz when I was young, to deepen my understanding of our family’s Japanese American experience. It is a place that represents a great deal of pain in our family. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, as public hostility and suspicion towards people of Japanese descent reached a fever pitch, my grandmother recalled burning all of her family’s possessions that might indicate that they were Japanese.
I learned only later that her relatives had been forcibly incarcerated in “relocation centers” similar to Topaz. This period was significant in changing the course of my family’s history, and as a young person seeking to develop a concept of who I was and who I would become, I felt a growing need to connect with this past.
I am grateful to have seen that message on the monument while it remained; it is now, I expect, long gone, but is clearly etched in my mind and in the work that I have pursued over the last two years.
I was compelled to dive more deeply into the legacy of internment in America. The seeds planted during my visits to Topaz helped inform a project I began to bring the stories of those incarcerated to life, bridging language and cultural divides, in order to refine our view of the present and demand more of the future.
After seeing the message at Topaz, I began researching internment in earnest. I reflected on my grandfather’s service in the 442nd, an infantry regiment composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans that served during WWII. He fought for liberty abroad while his loyalty to his country was questioned at home.
During my research, I came across the Go For Broke National Education Center’s oral history archive, where those who had been incarcerated in internment camps gave moving interviews. I found myself drawn into their stories in a way that reading from a textbook could never reproduce.
The archive had the capacity to foster a deeper empathy between students, like myself, and the subject of their studies. This, I realized, was an essential element of bringing the lessons of the Japanese-American story to the global public for the good of all.
“My grandmother recalled burning all of her family’s possessions that might indicate that they were Japanese.”
Building on this realization, I founded an organization with the goal of making this material available to Japanese-speaking audiences. I partnered with the Go For Broke National Education Center to translate their transcripts into Japanese, in order to communicate this part of Japanese American identity with native-born Japanese students, and bridge the cultural gap between the two groups. By bringing students from the United States and Japan to work intimately with these oral histories, I hoped these translations would help communicate the universal lessons that internment can offer to Japan where the story of internment is not as well known. This past spring, we obtained funding that allowed us to bring students from Japan and across the United States to California to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
The students arrived in late July and represented International Christian University, Chuo University and Middlebury College. We met in Los Angeles to study the lesser-known aspects of Japanese American history but found we had to confront the painful present as well.
As we approached the Japanese American National Museum we were harassed with racial slurs and insults. I helped to usher students away but worried that the trip could quickly become too visceral. I was upset and unsettled, but when we discussed what had happened the next day, I found that the students had taken it in stride. One student, though initially shocked, felt it was an opportunity to witness the malignant presence of anti-Asian sentiment persisting in the area. The encounter callously demonstrated the need for the education we were working to advance.
One of our most impactful experiences took place at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Manzanar was the first of 10 internment camps to open and imprisoned over 11,000 at its peak.
Mia Kojima, a student on the trip, wrote “We, as a group, had spent a significant amount of time learning about and discussing the camps and what occurred within their barbed wire fences. However, walking through the remains and restorations of Manzanar was a completely different experience.”
In a similar vein, Maria Romero said “Historical places hold energy. Once you step into or see the site, the air just changes.”
Alisa Lynch, the team lead for interpretation and visitor services at Manzanar National Historic Site, told me they choose to use oral histories to tell the story of Manzanar, so people can see through the eyes of others, in the places where those experiences happened. In her view, visiting the site and translating the material are deeply intertwined. She told me that the student translators had offered a unique opportunity to share these experiences with Japanese-speaking audiences, in person and virtually. The National Parks Service provided segments from their oral histories to translate.
“We can hire commercial translators,” she said, “but they haven’t been here and experienced the site, nor do they necessarily have the personal ties that many of the students do. We are deeply grateful for the work they are volunteering to do.”
When we returned to LA, we were able to personalize our experience further. At the Go For Broke National Education Center our students had the unique opportunity to interview survivors of the camps. Paired with the oral histories at Manzanar, our conversation allowed students to gain an immense appreciation for the importance of such first-hand accounts.
For Jeffrey Ramos, one conversation stood out. “I saw a survivor breaking down in tears after remembering the effects of the camps,” he said, “something that initially seemed more distant suddenly became very real after seeing raw emotion from someone who went through it.”
“Something that initially seemed more distant suddenly became very real after seeing raw emotion from someone who went through it.”
In addition to this opportunity, our hosts at Go For Broke brought us together with community educators in a roundtable discussion. The students’ diverse backgrounds provided for rich conversation, as they related experiences growing up in America compared to Japan.
Ayui Ota, a student from Japan, explored the ways in which her upbringing as half-Taiwanese had influenced her perspective and inspired her interest in Japanese American history. She, along with Mitch Maki, the CEO of Go For Broke, discussed the nuances of the history of internment and the differing attitudes of Japanese Americans at the time. Mitch emphasized that Japanese Americans are not monolithic. No two stories are alike, and this history requires the consideration of many factors including nationality, ethnicity, age and individual experience.
For Romero, the changing beliefs surrounding citizenship were a cause for concern. As a child of immigrants, she feared extreme policies. Clearly, the questions of citizenship and loyalty posed to Japanese Americans 80 years ago are still relevant today.
Japanese American history is a shared history. As Maki put succinctly, “we didn’t get here alone.” Groups of Latino/a and African American members of Congress stood by Japanese Americans when they sought restitution for the crime of internment. The dynamics between groups were complex, and there was an initial feeling that 400 years of slavery should be addressed first. According to Maki, this was overcome by a feeling of mutuality summed up in the Hawaiian concept of “kuleana,” an honor-bound responsibility to those around you.
As I watched our students exchange phone numbers and information with our hosts from Go For Broke, I felt that we had built lasting relationships across backgrounds, borders and age groups. I hope these connections will continue to spawn new ways of telling and interpreting the history that I have found was so important to my own growth.
My hope going forward is we will continue to provide opportunities for students to experience history in a more personal way. It is this deeper, human understanding of our past that will prevent tragedies like the mass internment of Japanese Americans from reoccurring.
This is the commitment I have made, one written at the foot of the Topaz monument so concisely: “never again.”
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