Today I’m turning My Wintersong over to guest writer, Eiko Ceremony, who writes of her experiences as a detainee in Utah’s Topaz Japanese-American Relocation Center located near Delta as a tribute to Japanese-Americans who sacrificed their lives in WWII in service to their country. Yes, that country was then and still is the United States of America. If you have questions, please jot them in the comments so that Eiko may comment directly, or in a later update.
Under sponsorship by various Japanese American organizations, this Day of
Remembrance is observed quietly around this time of year all over America wherever Japanese Americans live in moderate numbers. They gather to remember a traumatic event that occurred after Pearl Harbor when an Executive Order was issued by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, resulting in the forced evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 people on all three West Coast states without trial, including those only 1/32 Japanese, during World War II.
This upheaval meant closing well-established businesses and disposing of everything in our homes. We were given only a few weeks’ notice and told that when we left, we were allowed to take only two suitcases with us. We were San Franciscans, and most of us were first sent to the Tanforan Racetrack, of Sea Biscuit fame, in the suburb south of the city. People who lived in the Bay area, Berkeley, Oakland and outlying farm communities, were also sent to this racetrack.
Our small family of four was housed in a horse stall measuring 6 feet wide by 12feet long, a stall that previously held only one animal. Four Army cots fit snugly into these stalls. My mother and I slept in the inner stall while my father and brother were in the larger, outside one. We were fed in mess halls with Army food, pork and beans, bread, jello, milk or tea. The grandstand housed hundreds of bachelors. The office rooms were used for the administrative crew. Outside, above the barbed wire fence that surrounded the racetrack, stood tall guard towers with one soldier alertly looking down at us, next to a stand with a machine gun pointed into the campground.
During the five months we were there, we kept ourselves occupied. Old Grade B movies were shown weekly, and live entertainment performed by residents kept us amused. During the daytime, children attended make-shift schools in the mess halls, supervised as best they could by former teachers with books and supplies donated by church groups. Art classes were held, concert pianists and singers were heard practicing their art by people strolling by a room that surprisingly had a piano. A medical facility with former doctors and nurses was provided. The fire department of the city of San Bruno regularly came in to train the resident volunteers.
The few remaining older community leaders who were not imprisoned in more secure prisons tried to help govern the campground that was being run by a totally inexperienced crew of officers whose main concern was to keep order in the camp.
To add to our tumultuous lives, rumors abounded day after day, where we existed in an unsettled existence with no set purpose. Men would gather in the open fairway to have heated discussions about their dilemma, nearly crazed with worries about their families in Japan and the possibilities that their sons would be inducted into to U.S. Army killing or being killed by their own kin.
We were victims, but made to feel guilty and unworthy because of our race. We had just left an upset population where we became targets of angry, scared, white citizens who lashed out at us, calling us Japs, telling us to go back to our own country, spitting on us, and all but killing us outright. Still, I was fortunate to have friends there who were unafraid to speak out about the injustice of our being incarcerated without trial in these United States; they wrote or telegraphed men in Washington declaring their mortification of their manner in handling us.
For weeks in Tanforan, we waited to be transferred to more permanent quarters in the interior states, away from the coastal area. After five months, we were sent to a desolate area on the edge of the Mohave desert, within sight of the beautiful Wasatch mountains in southern Utah. There, the government had hastily built army style barracks which at first looked like an army base. These barracks contained six units, each unit being 20 by 20 feet, barely large enough to accommodate four or five people.Since we all left home with only two suitcases, our new quarters were bare, adding to the already depressing situation. Of the public buildings, there were mess halls, latrines, laundry rooms, and schoolrooms where certified teachers were hired from the outside.
It was ironic that camp life became one of leisure. For the first time in their lives the immigrant Japanese who had been forced to keep their noses to the grindstone before war erupted had no work to occupy them. Suddenly gone were household chores or errands to run. Only the laundry was done by hand. Other than that, we had much free time.
Art classes, craft workshops, flower arranging, odori (dancing), koto and shamisen lessons were given by resident teachers. The non-joiners stayed home to knit or crochet. Some people sat around reciting their favorite haiku and recalling happier times. Very soon, a self-sustaining garden was started along with a pig farm. Our meals became ones to look forward to whenever these crops came in.
A hospital was built to specification to care for basic medical needs, including a maternity ward. Physicians who were not inducted into military service worked in the hospital along with resident nurses, each one receiving a princely pay of $19 dollars a month, the professional scale, slightly less than the regular army private.
I was in Topaz for only a few months because there was an active group of UC Berkeley graduates who formed a committee to get all of us of college age out to Midwestern and Eastern colleges as fast as possible.With their hard work, I went to Chicago to a very fine music conservatory, and then on to Juilliard where I graduated to become a professional musician.
On viewing the positive side of things, as a poor immigrant’s child, I never would have even dared to hope to go to New York City. At that time, Manhattan sheltered many of the finest musicians fleeing the war in Europe, and for me, it was the most exciting period in my life to see and hear serious, dedicated performers, and be introduced to writers, dancers and fine artists of renown who talked to me as one of them about their ongoing projects.
Under duress, it is remarkable to me that the young men from the camps volunteered for the armed services, from barbed-wire camps where they were thrown in as questionable citizens. They were joined by thousands of Japanese-Hawaiian men who also wanted to show their loyalty to their country. With this deep sense of honor, their valor and sacrifices would be for me the underlying reason for the Day of Remembrance, this year being the 67th annual observance.
© Eiko Ceremony, February 17, 2009