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Book Review – Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration

Rocky Mountain Review on Minidoka: unforgettable, monumental

Russel M. Tremayne and Todd Shallat, eds. Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration. Boise, Idaho: Boise State UP, 2013.

Joy Landeira
University of Northern Colorado

Both a memoir and a memorial, Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration combines detailed photos, poetry, multimedia artwork, and compelling profiles of survivors into a collage of unforgettable images that tell the story of more than 13,000 souls who lived in the Hunt Camp Relocation Center in Jerome County in south-central Idaho from 1942 to 1945. The sixth largest of ten relocation camps, and now a National Historic Monument, Minidoka is an indelible reminder of U.S. national hysteria and fear that Japanese American citizens would sabotage and undermine the security of their adopted country. German and Italian Americans were not similarly corralled into detention centers for presumed disloyalty. In compliance with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Executive Order 9066,” a total of over 110,000 Japanese American immigrants, both first-generation Issei and second generation Nisei, including Japanese orphans in the care of white foster families and mixed- race peoples, were forced to leave their homes, farms, businesses, and belongings along the Pacific Coast and were relocated to inland confinement centers across the nation. Over fifty percent were children.

Abundant photos from the National Archives contribute to the scrapbook- like quality of this glossy, well-structured depiction of life at Minidoka Center. From interior shots of a woman shopping for yarn and buttons in the camp dry goods store, to families wearing destination tags and seated on their luggage waiting to be transported, to small children reciting the pledge of allegiance, to a teenager wearing white tasseled majorette boots, the individual faces tell us more than statistics ever could about the anxieties and adaptations that whole families had to endure while living suspended lives. Documenting camp structures, food, medical and dental services, and loyal workers who were released back into society east of the exclusion zone, many images are sourced from the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive and Calisphre-JARDA online, which offers thousands of photos pertaining to Minidoka, including those of only one Japanese American, Hikaru Iwasaki, who was hired as an official photographer.

Ten essayists discuss the historic background of xenophobic policies restricting Asian immigration, intermarriage, and voting rights that contributed to segregation and loss of Constitutional rights. Hollywood tackled the intermarriage taboo in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) before WWII. Following the war, stories of patriotic Nisei soldiers who were awarded over 9,400 Purple Heart medals while their families were incarcerated were dramatized in films like MGM’s

1951 Go for Broke, starring Van Johnson, about the 442nd regimental combat team in Italy and France. It is these heroic sacrifices which helped ease bitter attitudes and heal suspicions; Japanese American soldiers proved their loyalty.

Artistic responses by the Japanese interned there—poetry, painting, landscape design—round out the picture, giving us a sense of the individual responses and coping mechanisms that helped them survive. A series of tender poems by Lawrence Matsuda are interspersed throughout the multimedia-style book, converting clear images into symbolic reminders of life on the dusty Idaho plains, where the War Relocation Authority sought to protect its sense of security by “corralling the fear.” Childhood visions of his father “chucking potatoes at the pot belly stove” in the General Store and his mother scrubbing diapers on a metal washboard combine with reminisces of gardens cultivated by residents who sought to preserve an oasis of beauty irrigated by wastewater runoff from the laundry. Poet Mitsuye Yasutake Yamada conjures up her memories of those polished white majorette boots swaggering through ankle-deep dust. Linked to civilization by Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs, freedoms were limited to planning gardens with mail-order seed and strutting around the compound pretending to be leader of the band. Lawson Fusao Inada’s verses explain, “There was no poetry in camp. . . The people made poetry.” The people also responded with other artistic media: paintings by Roger Shimomura, a camp youngster who grew up to be a Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas and US Fellow in Visual Arts, and Hatsuko Mary Higuchi’s “Executive Order 9066 Series” turn camp scenes into visual stories. Using materials from the earth, Woodworker Marion Nakashima reflects the philosophy of earning a living with the natural world and harmonizing the rhythm of work and world order.

Supported by Boise State University College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, the College of Southern Idaho, the National Park Service, the Idaho Humanities Council, Idaho State Historical Society, and Friends of Minidoka, Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration presents a historical, artistic and poignant picture of life in this remote internment center on the plains of Idaho. The volume is an important contribution to retelling the history of the state and nation, opening our consciousness and our consciences to the human rights violations of innocent citizens that so often accompany war. The editor, Russell Tremayne, from the College of Southern Idaho, will be one of the featured speakers at our upcoming 68th Annual Rocky Mountain Modern Language Convention in Boise, Idaho. His presentation, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, October 9, 2014 at Boise’s Grove Hotel will discuss Minidoka’s story and its part in the largest forced relocation of an ethnic group in U.S. history.

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