Friday, July 01, 2005

Strawberry Days

I finished Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community by David Neiwert (aka Orcinus) several days ago (see a link about reviews at Neiwert's site here). I actually picked it up as part of one of the "buy this book and the author's other book and get a good discount" deals on Amazon (and by the time you buy two hard cover books, you're into free shipping and handling, which I hate paying, so it's too tempting to pass on). The other book was Death on the Fourth of July, but I'll discuss that one in a later post.

Let's start with a simple statement of fact: I really enjoyed Strawberry Days. Read it. If you're not an inveterate library patron or a friend of mine who will just borrow it, buy it to encourage David to write more. It wasn't the best book I've read about anti-Japanese (and more inclusively, anti-Asian) laws, but what it lacked in in-depth analysis of the laws and their history and a nationwide view (it's difficult to address the anti-Asian/Japanese history of the U.S. without talking about Hawaii and sugar), it more than made up for with actual interviews of the Americans affected (his book addresses first through third generation Japanese immigrants and citizens) and the focus on a single town, Bellevue, and how anti-Asian laws and Japanese internment dramatically affected a single community, allowing the reader to extrapolate for themselves how many similar communities were affected throughout the West. Neiwert has a habit in both of his books (that I've read) of alternating policy/legal history chapters with chapters that focus on discrete communities and individuals within those communities. The result, though simple and obvious, is a powerful, concrete, contrast between how Americans legislate their relations with minorities within their borders, and how those minorities flourish and contribute despite that legislation (or lack of it) and how, through their example, we gain the opportunity to learn from citizens who prize their citizenship and their opportunity despite the effort to stiffle their participation and economic advancement. And if, like Michelle Malkin, you feel this is an old story that primarily contributes as an excuse to lock up other minorities, you can get a hands-on parallel, and local, example here in Minnesota, by following the travails of the Hmong. Though they haven't been subjected to anything like WWII internment camps in the U.S., the arguments over their participation in Minnesota culture have been long and loud - arguments about the number of them, their language, their customs - all the while, new generations integrate into our local tapestry and bless us with their literature, their art, and most recently their leadership as our politicians. If there's something to be gained from Japanese internment, it's not a lesson about who to lock up and how to lock them, but that perhaps in some cases we're maturing enough as a people that it no longer takes three to four generations to make a difference, but just one or two.

Like Sasha at Left in SF, I wish there had been more about actual life in the camps. The focus was often more squarely placed on those who managed to escape the camps, whether to work on WWII labor-shorted farms in the Midwest (believe it or not, it wasn't always Hispanics), or to enlist in the army when the U.S. started allowing them to join a segregated unit (which, like segregated black units of the time may have been more casually thrown at dangerous, high-casualty situations), and on their activities before the War and after the War, when they came home to ongoing persecution, burned-out houses and confiscated farms. I agree with David that his sparse style, focusing on the people and not their situation, actually helps to move the book along and make it compelling in its way, and it's obvious that those who were interned in some cases do not want to discuss the experience in detail, but the reader is left longing for more about what it was like - not in Schindler's List detail, but more nonetheless.

The last chapter, "The Internment", is an attempt to contrast the internment of the Japanese in World War II with current apologists and their calls for the legality of similar actions versus other minorities, like post-9/11 American Muslims. As such, the chapter feels slightly "tacked on", but the inclusion is a valid one (and Neiwert is foremost a journalist), particularly because it resonates with Japanese Americans. There is a wonderful anecdote about a JACL employee being contacted numerous times after 9/11 by Japanese Americans having bad dreams about internment. When you read in a previous chapter that there were "claims that the Japanese internees were being fed better in the camps than were American G.I.'s" (p. 205) you get the willies and immediately begin thinking about Guantanamo and lemon chicken (excuse me for not linking to either Malkin's pages about internment or Coulter's diatribe about chicken, I find them both offensive). That's simply not a lot of forward motion since the Dies Committee (yes, it did evolve from criticizing minorities and Nazis into the persecution of communists and the New Left).

Finally, as a teaser to get you to buy David's book, I'm going to include one of my favorite stories from Strawberry Days (and it's not how Tule Lake was close to where my family lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon, yet they never took me there):

"The most incredible thing was when they produced childlike drawings of the Panama Canal showing...drawings of how the locks worked. The hearing officer took these out and asked, 'Mr. Yasui, what are these?' Dad looked at the drawings and diagrams and said, 'They look like drawings of the Panama Canal.' They were so labeled, with names of the children. Then the officer asked my father to explain why they were in our home. 'If they were in my home,' my father replied, 'it seems to me that they were drawings done by my children for their schoolwork.'
"The officer then asked, 'Didn't you have these maps and diagrams so you could direct the blowing up of the canal locks?' My father said, 'Oh, no! These are just the schoolwork of my children.' The officer said, 'No, we think you've cleverly disguised your nefarious intent and are using your children merely as cover. We believe you had intent to damage the Panama Canal.' To which my father vehemently replied, "No, no, no!' And then the officer said pointedly, 'Prove that you didn't intend to blow up the Panama Canal!'" (p. 149-50).

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