Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Two Books on the subject of "Japanese Internment"

In this book the author, Julie Otsuka, deals with an important, although sometimes forgotten, period of American history---the internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. The style of writing is minimal and understated,but beautiful and touching in its simplicity. The story concerns a family deployed at a relocation camp in Utah in 1941, but we never get to know their names because they are supposed to represent any and all families affected by the internment. And yet, the author provides such details about their emotional and physical states that one comes to care for them deeply, like one would with close friends.

The author has based the book on the experiences of her family. Her grandfather was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor, while her grandmother, mother and uncle were interned somewhat later. This is her first novel.

History and Background:

Immediately following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American government began to arrest prominent Japanese-Americans in communities throughout California. Most of those seized in the days following the attack were businessmen and other community leaders, and many had been under surveillance for almost a year. When the United States extended World War II into the Pacific, the scope of the country's security agencies moved beyond businessmen and local officials. Ordinary citizens were perceived as threats to the country, and evacuation notices were delivered to anyone who was 1/16th Japanese and above. They were given no more than one or two days to arrange their affairs before being relocated to internment camps in the West. Eventually, some 120,000 people were forced into the camps, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.

Japanese Internment in Canada and David Suzuki's new book:

Also, this wasn't a uniquely American practice, Canada, too, invoked the iniquitious "War Measures Act" which deprived Japanese living in Canada of rights of citizenship. David Suzuki, famed scientist and environmentalist, in his new autobiography, explains what it was like to be a 6-year old boy in a British Columbian internment camp and unable to speak a word of Japanese (after all, he was third generation Japanese of Canadian-born parents). His family, along with several other Japanese families (22,000 Japanese in all) were moved to Slocan City in Nelson, BC, an abandoned silver mine and were housed in in rotting buildings with glassless windows.

As if it wasn't bad enough being shunted away because of your race, but even inside the camp there was discrimination. Children born to Japanese people who had married Canadians(or non-Japanese) were referred to as "Ainoko" or "half-breeds" and those kids were never welcomed into the Japanese community. Suzuki, being third generation Japanese, and because of his linguistic deficiency, also felt discriminated against in the same way. He says it took him a long time to overcome his mistrust and resentment of Japanese Canadians as a result of the way he was treated in the camp days.

The other wave of discrimination against his family came as the war was ending. About 95% of the Japanese people at the camps decided to demonstrate their anger against Canada by signing up to "repatriate" to Japan. The ones that didn't (and this included Suzuki's immediate family) were castigated as "inu" or "dogs".

Once the first boatloads of people (including Suzuki's grandparents) arrived in Japan, word quickly spread that Japan had been flattened by the bombing and since food and shelter were very hard to find, people were struggling to survive. Hearing this, people who had initially signed up for repatriation now fought deportation and stayed in the camps so long that the Canadian government finally allowed them to stay in Canada and resettle wherever they wanted. This group of people were contemptuously referred to as "repats".

Immediately after and for some years after that, too, Japanese people were never thought of as Canadians - it was always "them" (Japanese) and "us" (Canadians). Suzuki writes, "...For me, the alienation that began with our evacuation from the Coast of British Columbia has remained a fundamental part of who I am, all my life, despite the acquired veneer of adult maturity."

It's true isn't it? Our childhoods do shape who we are and what we become whether we like to admit it or not.

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