Narratives of Japanese Internment: Changing Beliefs and Building Bridges

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In the summer of 2019, I made my annual visit to 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 said, “WE ARE SORRY, NEVER AGAIN.”

This message touched me deeply. It was as if 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 lot of pain in our family. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when public hostility and distrust of people of Japanese descent reached a fever pitch, my grandmother recalled burning all of her family’s belongings that might indicate that they were Japanese.

It was only later that I learned that his relatives had been forcibly detained in “rehousing centers” similar to Topaz. This period was important 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 this message on the monument while it remained; it is now, I think, long gone, but it is clearly etched in my mind and in the work I have pursued over the past two years.

I was compelled to delve deeper into the legacy of internment in America. The seeds planted during my visits to Topaz have helped inform a project that I have begun to bring to life the stories of incarcerated people, bridging linguistic and cultural gaps, in order to refine our view of the present and demand more of the future.


Mitch Maki, right, asks students if they would volunteer to fight for the United States from an internment camp like members of the 442nd during a tour of the Go For Broke National Education Center in Los Angeles, California, July 27, 2022.

After seeing the message to Topaz, I started to do some serious research on internment. I reflected on my grandfather’s service in the 442nd, an infantry regiment made up almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans who served in World War II. He fought for freedom abroad while his loyalty to his country was questioned at home.

During my research, I came across Go For Broke National Center for Education‘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 a textbook could never replicate.

Archives had the ability to foster a deeper empathy between students, like me, and the subject of their studies. This, I realized, was an essential part of bringing the lessons of Japanese-American history to global audiences for the good of all.

“My grandmother remembers burning all of her family’s belongings that might indicate they were Japanese.”

With this realization, I founded an organization with the goal of making this material available to the Japanese-speaking public. I partnered with the Go For Broke National Education Center to translate their transcripts into Japanese, to communicate this part of the Japanese-American identity to 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 that these translations would help communicate the universal lessons that internment can offer in Japan where the history of internment is not not as well known. Last spring, we secured 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 we also had to deal with the painful present.

As we approached the Japanese American National Museum, we were harassed with slurs and racial slurs. I helped send the students off, but I was afraid the trip would get too visceral. I was upset and confused, but when we discussed what happened the next day, I found that the students understood. One student, although initially shocked, felt it was an opportunity to witness the malignant presence of lingering anti-Asian sentiment in the region. The meeting clearly demonstrated the need for education which we were working to advance.


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Japanese students read the inscription on the back of the monument at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Inyo County, California on July 28, 2022.

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 people at its peak.

Mia Kojima, a student on the trip, wrote: “We as a group spent a lot of time learning and discussing the camps and what happened inside their barbed wire fences. However, walking through the remains and restorations of Manzanar was a completely different experience.

Along the same lines, Maria Romero said, “Historic places hold energy. Once you enter or see the site, the tune changes.

Alisa Lynch, team leader for interpretation and visitor services at Manzanar National Historic Site, told me that they chose to use oral histories to tell the story of Manzanar, so people can see through the eyes of others, in the places where these experiences happened. According to her, the visit to the site and the translation of the material are closely linked. She told me that the student translators offered a unique opportunity to share these experiences with a Japanese-speaking audience, both in person and virtually. The National Park Service provided excerpts from their oral histories for translation.

“We can hire commercial translators,” she says, “but they haven’t come here and experienced the site, and they don’t necessarily have the personal connections that a lot of students have. We are deeply grateful for the work they volunteer to do.

When we returned to Los Angeles, we were able to further personalize our experience. At the Go For Broke National Education Center, our students had the unique opportunity to interview camp survivors. Combined with the oral histories of Manzanar, our conversation provided the students with an immense appreciation for the importance of these first-hand accounts.

For Jeffrey Ramos, one conversation stood out. “I saw a survivor burst into tears after remembering the effects of the camps,” he said, “something that initially seemed more distant suddenly became very real after seeing someone’s raw emotion. ‘one who crossed it.’

“Something that initially seemed more distant suddenly became very real after seeing the raw emotion of someone walking through it.”

In addition to this opportunity, our Go For Broke hosts brought us together with community educators in a panel discussion. The diverse backgrounds of the students allowed for a rich conversation as they recounted experiences of growing up in America versus Japan.

Ayui Ota, a Japanese student, explored how her half-Taiwanese upbringing 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 the same, and that story requires 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 politics. Clearly, the questions of citizenship and loyalty posed to Japanese Americans 80 years ago are still relevant today.

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Students compare two political cartoons – one depicting Japanese Americans in the 1940s and the other depicting immigration today – at the Go For Broke National Education Center in Los Angeles, California on 27 July 2022

The American-Japanese story is a shared story. As Maki succinctly put it, “we didn’t get here alone”. Groups of Latin American and African American members of Congress supported Japanese Americans when they sought redress for the crime of internment. The dynamic between the groups was complex and there was an initial feeling that 400 years of slavery had to be addressed first. According to Maki, this was overcome by a sense of reciprocity encapsulated in the Hawaiian concept of “kuleana,” an honor-bound responsibility to those around you.

Watching our students exchange phone numbers and information with our Go For Broke hosts, I felt 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 story that I have found so important to my own growth.

I hope that in the future 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 ever happening again.

This is the commitment I made, the one written at the foot of the Topaze monument in such a concise way: “never again”.

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Students walk between reconstructed barracks at the Manzanar War Relocation Center at the Manzanar National Historic Site in Inyo County, California July 28, 2022.

Visit http://history-in-translation.middcreate.net/ to learn more about the history of the translation.

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