Authors Naomi Hirahara and Heather C. Lindquist focus on the Nikkei ‘resettlement’ era.
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor, Digital & Social Media
In the forward to 2009’s “Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens,” former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta wrote: “The publication of this book is a milestone, if only because the history of Japanese American ‘resettlement’ is relatively unknown.”
That book, by Lane Hirabayashi, Kenichi Shimada and Hikaru Carl Iwasaki, was a collection of the photos taken by Iwasaki, who served as a WRAPS or War Relocation Authority Photography Section photographer.
Its focus was on Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and released from the 10 WRA Centers to join the workforce or attend school.
Fast-forwarding nearly a decade later is the latest work to examine how Japanese Americans fared during post-World War II resettlement: “Life After Manzanar,” a 208-page hardcover book from Heyday Books (ISBN: 978-1-59714-400-1, SRP $28) written by Naomi Hirahara and Heather C. Lindquist.
As the title reveals, Hirahara and Lindquist’s book focuses on what happened to some of the people who were incarcerated at Manzanar, the largest and likely best-known of the 10 American concentration camps for Japanese Americans.
At a packed multimedia and spoken presentation sponsored by Friends of the Torrance Library on April 12 at the Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance, Calif., the authors explained the genesis of the book and why they focused on Manzanar.
According to Lindquist, the idea came about when Maggie Wittenberg, former executive director of the Manzanar History Assn., and Art Hansen, professor emeritus of California State University, Fullerton, and initiator of a Japanese American Oral History Project, wanted to develop a book for general audiences that told the stories of “what happened after camp.”
Using original interviews and the existing oral histories, the authors faced the problem of distilling the myriad stories — some 10,000 people who had been incarcerated at Manzanar, with each person having different experiences, circumstances, perspectives, attitudes and dispositions regarding what happened — down to 20-25 people to represent the overall picture.
“It turned out we followed about 50 people,” said Hirahara, who noted that one of the book’s subjects was the Ichisuke and Ume Fukuhara family, whose photo appears on the book’s cover. Shot by Stone Ishimaru, the photo shows the Fukuharas post-Manzanar, when they lived in Farmingdale, located in Long Island, N.Y., a continent away from their former home in Santa Monica, Calif.
Three of the Fukuhara siblings — Willy, Jimmy and Grace Niwa — were in attendance that night, with Niwa shown in the cover photo, being held as a baby.
Hirahara, noting how she and Lindquist faced a “huge task” in producing the book, said they believed that Wittenberg, who died in December 2016, did not want it to be “an academic book,” but rather for the focus to be on the people who had gone to Manzanar and their stories.
Another obstacle was where to start. Hirahara said the book’s editor, Gayle Wattawa, suggested on focusing first on the “last people to leave Manzanar.” By November 1945, not only was WWII over, incarcerees at all the camps had been free to leave for months. Still, there were some 200 people still at Manzanar, many elderly or very young, with no place to go, even with the promise of 25 bucks and a one-way bus ticket to somewhere.
“One person who decided to stay was Rev. Shinjo Nagatomi, a Buddhist priest,” Hirahara said. “He felt it was his duty to see all the people through.”
One of his daughters, Shirley Nagatomi, was quoted by Hirahara as writing: “The gates were closed after us. I still remember the loud clang of the gate closing as the station wagon drove off. Off to the free world.”
According to Hirahara, Shirley Nagatomi also recalled that her family ended up living in a modest home in Gardena, Calif., near the Gardena Buddhist Church — but they were fortunate compared with the many other people living in the church’s sanctuary (converted into a hostel), sleeping on cots.
On the topic of the chronic housing shortage faced by Japanese Americans trying to resettle, Lindquist said there were up to 4,000 people living in converted Army barracks, boarding houses and trailer parks, including one in Burbank, Calif. For some, conditions were worse than the camps.
Some Japanese Americans, while fortunate to have a place to return to, others who were former denizens of Little Tokyo found it had, during the years of the war effort, become known as “Bronzeville,” where many African-Americans from the Deep South settled while they worked in the defense industry. Fortunately, the transition back ended up being smoother than it might have been.
The federal government, meantime, didn’t want Japanese Americans congregating again in Japanese American enclaves, according to Hirahara, but, rather, spread out amongst the greater American population.
“One of the places that was identified for people to move from a place like Manzanar was Chicago,” Hirahara said. “Chicago went from a city with about 400 Japanese Americans to 20,000 in just a few years. The city wasn’t prepared.” That spawned its own host of problems, from crime to a spike in out-of-wedlock births.
Other places new for Japanese Americans were Colorado, New York City and in Bridgeton, N.J., at the Seabrook Farm, where Birds Eye frozen foods were processed and packaged.
While Japanese Americans who relocated there were provided with employment opportunities, housing and schools, Lindquist said, “There was persistent discrimination. … Caucasians were always being favored for advancement.”
About midway through the presentation, Lindquist’s laptop, which powered the slideshow, crashed — but if afforded an opportunity for some audience members to relate their own stories.
Jimmy Fukuhara said he returned to Santa Monica in 1950, following his older brother, Frank, who had a five-acre nursery there. “So many white neighbors helped us get back on our feet,” he said.
“I play golf, and some of the golfers — they’ve even apologized to me, and I say, ‘There’s no room for apologizing, what happened, happened.’ I always say, ‘It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play golf!’ and they say, ‘You’re right!’”
Iku Kiriyama, a leader of the now-defunct Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, who is also in the book, recalled that she and her brother never talked about camp.
“It was because of Naomi, when she came to interview me, I didn’t really know the answers to some things, so then I emailed my brother,” she said. “When he emailed me back — he’s in New York — I was really shocked. He told me he had fights every day at school (in Torrance, Calif.) and that experience led to where he was very angry all the time.”
She and her late husband, George, who charitably described Iku’s brother’s personality as “assertive,” eventually concluded that it was residual anger from being in camp.
“I was angry all the time, too. I didn’t show it like my brother, but I was always angry. I was like 40 years old when I discovered it was the camp experience,” Kiriyama said. “It just stays with you, even if you were just a kid.”
Later in the program, Kiriyama’s daughter, traci kato-kiriyama, did a live reading of her poem, “No Redress.”
Other stories from “Life After Manzanar” were also discussed, but as Lindquist pointed out, there isn’t a single story that exemplifies everyone’s resettlement experience.
On that point, Hirahara added, “There just hasn’t been that much scholarship about that particular time. There are some works out there, but there needs to be more. We don’t pretend to be experts. This is not a comprehensive book. It’s just a start.”