'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, June 27, 2005

Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community 

[This post is by guest blogger Richard Estes. Richard lives in Northern California, and co-hosts a radio program, with an emphasis upon peace, civil rights, labor and environmental issues, on KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, CA.]

Some of you may be familiar with David Neiwert's excellent free lance Internet journalism on the subjects of hate crimes and contemporary white supremacy. He is also an accomplished author, and his most recent book, Strawberry Days, describes the role of Japanese Americans in the creation of Bellevue, Washington, now a suburb of Seattle, in the early part of the 20th Century. Relying predominately upon the voices of the Nisei descendants of the Issei who originally settled there, he portrays their transformation into truck farmers, and the subsequent destruction of their community by the internment during World War II. Some of them are no longer alive.

Perhaps, Neiwert's most impressive achievement is an understated tone that allows the experiences of his Nisei interviewees to shine. In this instance, narrative style possesses an importance beyond the literary. Anyone with the most glancing familiarity with a Japanese American community is aware that a publicly low-key, modest demeanor (regardless of the actual truth in private) was considered de rigeur. Modernist and post-modernist methods of storytelling may be a creative way of producing a ground breaking biography of John Brown, sociological insight into the history of Los Angeles or a compelling oral history of the Spanish Civil War, but utilizing such techniques to describe the Japanese American community of Bellevue would have been a grave cultural error.

Through the diverse experiences of people like Tom, Kazue and Rae Matsuoka, Cano and May Numoto, Toguro and Ed Suguro and others, such as Seichi Hayashida, Neiwert reveals the complexity of the internment as lived by individuals. Some, like Tom Matsuoka, acted quickly, getting himself and his family out of the camps by agreeing to work as agricultural laborers in Montana, where workers were in short supply. His daughter Rae described initial conditions there:

I know that when we went out there to live, and we went up there where the farm was, and he took us to where we were going to live, I wonder what my mother must have thought. There were two rooms and seven of us. One room was the bedroom. We had three little beds and a crib-like thing. We got no heat with that room. And the other room was where Ma did the cooking. And she would try to mop that floor, because she was so fussy, she would try to mop that floor and it would freeze.

Meanwhile, Toguro Suguro, an Issei, was a "no-no", refusing to serve in the US military and swear loyalty to the United States, so he and his Nisei son, Ed, remained at the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California, living through the conflict between the Japanese American Citizens League and a pro-Japanese faction, as did Hayashida, associated with the JACL. Not all "no-nos" were pro-Japanese, but some were, and the conflict between these pro-Japanese "no-nos" and the "yes-yes'", personified by JACL leadership and their perceived privileges, sometimes escalated into violence

By this time, the close knit prewar Japanese American community of Bellevue had already been irretrievably shattered when its members were separated into separate housing complexes within Tule Lake. Cano and May Numoto accepted a transfer to a camp in Minidoka, Idaho, where May died from lupus as a result of inadequate medical care:

Cano, at the doctor's suggestion, telegrammed the Mayo Clinic to see if she could be admitted there. "I got a telegram right back: Stop! Stop! We can't help her. Oh, boy. That's when my heart really sank. I knew that they couldn't do anything. They can't help her. There's no hope, you know. That was the worst news I could get."

But the book is valuable for social insights beyond the internment. For example, Neiwert confronts the corrosive consequences of racism, frequently in unpredictable ways. For example, Nisei uncharacteristically spoke with him about how they were sometimes embarrassed by their Issei parents during the prewar years, people who either did not or could not conform to emerging white middle class norms:

I almost died when when I found out that one of my teachers had visited my parents to let them know how well I was doing in school. In those years, if you made honor roll or got a special recognition . . . , instead of writing a letter, they would visit home to bring the good news. Well, I just about died. I mean, of mortification, when I found out that this one teacher [had visited]. I said, "you didn't feed her anything" and she says, "Yes", yes she did. She had served sembei and those dried cherries and, oh my God--tea, not coffee!

Nisei internalized racism as a form of social ostracism, haiseki:

I was the best speller, I remember, a couple of years in class. And she admonished the rest of the class for not being able to spell better than me, since I was Japanese.

Haiseki found its most symbolic expression in the prewar Bellevue strawberry festival, an event that drew thousands, an event created for whites, with, naturally, a white 'strawberry queen', while Japanese Americans grew and harvested almost all of the strawberries served there. The internment not only signaled the end of the festival, but also, less predictably, the disintegration of a paradoxical social world where whites could simultaneously perceive Japanese Americans as both friends and inferiors.

Neiwert portrays, with an unflinching banality, the internment as the logical, possibly inevitable, consequence of a deeply ingrained white racism against Japanese Americans. Whites in Bellevue, as along the rest of the West Coast, were appallingly consistent: they didn't want Japanese Americans to come there, they didn't want them to permanently settle there, they agitated for the internment and they even resisted their return after the war. As a 1945 Bellevue flier said:


Throughout the years, a supportive media and political establishment amplified their bigotry, creating periodic hysterias that reached their apogee in the days and months after December 7, 1941. No wonder legendary Senator Henry Jackson was so supportive of the Vietnam War, and the massive loss of life inflicted upon the Vietnamese (just as his present day disciples, the neoconservatives, enthusiastically justify the occupation of Iraq, despite its baneful consequences for Arabs): as a congressman, he agitated for the internment and, later, with the end of the war in sight, opposed the return of Japanese Americans. Neiwert maintains that he has never been able to find any statement of remorse by Jackson during the course of research.

Jackson merely followed the lead of an entrepreneurial business class that envisioned profit from the happy conjunction of economic self-interest and racism. Neiwert puts flesh on the bones of this aspect of the story by emphasizing the role of xenophobic civil icon Miller Freeman. Arriving in the Puget Sound region in 1889, Freeman's malign presence lurks throughout the narrative, as, in marked contrast to the hardships encountered by Japanese Americans, he successfully moves from farming to newspapers to politics to land speculation, playing an integral role in the transformation of Bellevue from an agricultural community into an upper middle class suburban metropolis. All along the way, Freeman missed few, if any, chances to foment hatred towards Japanese Americans, ultimately enriching himself at their expense. Only towards the end of this process did whites begin to express significant opposition to Freeman's demagoguery.

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