Finding Photos of My Grandfather in a Japanese Internment Camp
Brandon Shimoda on Seeking Ancestral Connections Through Remnants on the Wall at Fort Missoula
The first time I went to the ruins of Japanese American incarceration, I found Midori’s face. It was hanging on the wall of the barracks in Fort Missoula, Montana. Fort Missoula was the first incarceration site I was conscious of visiting. Conscious, because you cannot step foot anywhere in the United States without crossing a site where people have been targeted and detained.
The fort was originally built to protect white settlers from the Indigenous tribes—the Salish, as well as the Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet, and Shoshone—who had lived in the valley for thousands of years. It was an open fort. There were no walls. The walls were assumed into the settlers’ commitment to vigilance. In 1941, the Department of Justice transformed Fort Missoula into a prison. The prisoners were Italian and German nationals, and Japanese immigrants. The Issei were 50- to 60-year-old men—religious leaders, teachers, business owners, gardeners, husbands, fathers, grandfathers—the majority of whom, propagandized as fifth column terrorists and classified as enemy aliens, had been detained in the days—hours, even—after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Midori was the youngest. He was in his early thirties.
Fort Missoula was not difficult to transform into a prison; it already possessed the qualities. In order for the settlers to be soothed by a sense of being protected, the fort had to establish the locus of power, cohesion, and sanctity on the inside. The outside—the landscape, its people—were, to the logic of the fort, illegible, dangerous. This was the land the settlers were occupying. White settlers were the original aliens. They sought to diffuse their alienation by claiming the land and controlling the movement and rights of the people for whom the land was not alien but ancestral. Fort Missoula did not need to be turned inside-out to become a prison. It only needed to reframe its identity.
It is now a historical museum. A hodgepodge of buildings and outbuildings—schoolhouse, carriage house, root cellar, church, train, tipi-burner, fire lookout, arranged across a field soft with prairie dog tunnels—that attempts to articulate the triumphal narrative of Manifest Destiny. It has the blinding quality of an abandoned amusement park. History collapsed into a single sprawling diorama. June, Susie, and Risa were the first in the family to return. They took pictures in front of the barracks, where a memorial stone had been planted.
I have a memory of June telling me, when I was young, that she visited Midori in Missoula. She was a teenager then, living with her family in the Elm Hotel in Salt Lake City. Midori lived down the hall. He was working for a photographer and was on parole. He was obligated to routinely check in with the Immigration Bureau, which was keeping track of his movements. Asano befriended Midori. They were close in age. Susie and Saburo and Teddy visited Midori in his apartment. He had a record collection. Susie remembers “The Donkey Serenade”: Though she may try to hide it / She cannot deny / There’s a light in her eye / Oh the charm of her smile . . .
Midori lived in the Elm for five months, until he told the Immigration Bureau that he was going to move, with or without their permission, to New York City. I remember June telling me that she and Susie, six years younger, rode the train to Missoula. Would two young Japanese American women have been allowed such freedom?
I asked June recently to tell me the story again. It had been awhile since I heard it. I never went to Missoula, she said.
She painted a summery picture. He played baseball, she said. Then added: with the guards. There was no scene without the guards. That Midori played baseball with the guards proclaimed the camaraderie of prison existence. That the war was out there, not circumscribed by the barbed wire fence, guns, the guard towers. He went fishing with the guards, June said. That Midori could stand side by side with a guard on the banks of the river, that he could sit side by side with a guard in the Minnehaha, the prisoners’ boat, not only illustrated his exemplary character (kind, optimistic, resilient) and provided proof he was a model prisoner, but made me feel like I was being protected, lied to. And angry. I did not know at what: June for withholding from me the true story, or censoring it; Midori for withholding from June the true story, censoring it, or for standing side-by-side with the guards; or the guards. I imagined a field of blond dirt in a landscape so desolate and at, the horizon, in every direction, was below the field of view. So at, it curved. And a mass of men, in silhouette, compelled by an ambiguous hunger, an ultimatum, casting long shadows that expressed what remained of their spirit.The question was not the legality of the men being in the United States but their allegiance to it, the extent to which they had been drawn successfully away from Japan, their history, and, in no small part, themselves.
Censored from a letter Midori wrote from Fort Missoula to his sister-in-law, Hide Shimoda, in Springville, Utah, are the following nine words: set up impresses me as a slave labor so.
The river is the Bitterroot, named after the flower, which grows white and pink and purple along the ground. I went to Fort Missoula for the first time in August 2004, when I moved to Missoula from North Carolina and had just arrived. The barracks were long, white, and removed from the rest of the museum, at the opposite end of the field. The building’s abandonment reminded me of Dorothy’s house being thrown down on the outskirts of Oz. Two small trees obscured the windows. The soil around the memorial stone was fresh, recently dug.
From 1941 to 1944, Fort Missoula served as a detention center for more than 1,000 Italians, more than 1,000 Japanese, and 22 German nationalists. The Italians were world’s fair workers and civilian seamen whose ships had been impounded at the outbreak of the war in Europe. The Japanese were prominent in their west coast communities and were considered potentially dangerous. None of either group were ever charged with being, or proven to be, enemy agents.
This memorial is dedicated to those men who were interned and held at Fort Missoula without trial during World War II. May this event be remembered.
Inside the barracks is the kind of starveling, patchwork exhibition you find in countless small-town museums across the country, in which any opportunity for critique is undone by hope, optimism. The building is one of the original barracks, yet I could sense neither the presence nor even the absence of the men. Their memory had been replaced by front pages of newspapers—Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 7, 1941: WAR! OAHU BOMBED BY JAPANESE PLANES; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 1941: JAPAN, U.S. AT WAR; again the Post-Intelligencer, April 13, 1945: PRESIDENT IS DEAD! The Winona (Minnesota) Republican-Herald, August 14, 1945: JAPAN SURRENDERS! WORLD WAR OVER—and dozens of photographs providing an idyllic narrative of incarceration: men in suits and hats eating noodles, men and women (although there were no female prisoners at Fort Missoula) on horses, men beside a boat, men performing judo in front of an audience of men, a man holding a trout, men at a funeral, a man crouching in strawberries, men on stage.
The caption above the men on stage: While Alien Hearing Boards were investigating the loyalties of the hapless Japanese, Immigration Service immigrant inspectors were busy interrogating many Japanese at Fort Missoula who they suspected were in the United States illegally. Hapless, as if their incarceration was bad luck. The hearing board included INS and FBI agents, and interpreters, many of whom were Korean. The question was not the legality of the men being in the United States but their allegiance to it, the extent to which they had been drawn successfully away from Japan, their history, and, in no small part, themselves.
Three photographs stood out. In each, a man was wearing a light-colored dress, white gloves, stockings, high heels, and a wig of curly black hair. In one photograph he was holding a purse. In another he was lifting up his dress to expose his stockinged leg. A third photograph showed the man in a slip, sitting in front of a mirror. In two of the photographs he was surrounded by other men, all in suits and ties. He was the only man, in all the photographs on the walls, in a dress, therefore, to my mind, in disguise.
I went to the ruins expecting to see Midori’s face, but I did not think I would see Midori’s face, so when I saw Midori’s face, I felt sick. It was the kind of uncanny recognition that registers first as nausea. I turned away. Then turned back, leaned closer, and touched him. The wall fell back. The roof of the barracks lifted off. Midori’s face was brighter than daylight. And though I remember it being warm and round and full of love—I was a part of it—I remember it being gray and soft and unaccountably sad, of a sadness I could not name. I saw my father’s face, for the first time, in the frame of incarceration. I saw Kelly’s face. The sun had fallen to earth, revealing its exact size and dimension.Sometimes his smile is a wave. Sometimes a wound. Sometimes not entirely his.
Who has the nerve to touch the sun?
Midori was staring through the mirror. Through the photographer. Through the guards. Through the mountains surrounding the valley. Through the clouds washing down the faces of the mountains. I felt like I was being thrown, through Midori’s face, into the immediacy of a history that was, until then, remote, more or less extinct.
I ran across the field. The only person in the museum was the woman in the gift shop, Sharon. I told her I had just come from the barracks, that Midori was hanging on the wall. I described him. Out of breath. She told me to wait a minute then disappeared. She returned with a three-ring binder and an envelope. The binder contained photographs of the prisoners, mostly Italian, a few Germans, some Japanese. The Italians called Missoula Bella Vista. They were from Europe, lived in Europe. They were not immigrants. Some of them stayed in the valley after their release, so beautiful was their view.
The photographs depicted the interstitial, less photogenic moments that illuminated incarceration as wasteland, arbitrary, confusion. The envelope contained five photographs from the binder Sharon had photocopied. All five were of Midori. They were taken by Peter Fortune, an INS agent in Hawaii, called up to Fort Missoula, where he worked in food service and, in his free time, took photographs. In one of the photographs, Midori is wearing a bra and white slip, skin-toned stockings rolled down his thighs, and black shoes and is posing alone, smiling.
Midori’s body and face are a map describing a territory I know, think I know, or have known, but which looks, from the vantage of this graphic projection of him, unfamiliar, another territory altogether. I try to locate myself. Every landmark and place name, every feature, is visible, if not accessible, at once, but the cardinal directions have switched places, gone missing.
I have always associated hair that stands straight up off a person’s head as evidence of the restlessness of their thoughts. Midori’s ears are large. When I squint, his ears move. His right leg is up on a wooden bench. His right hand is cupping his knee. His left leg is bent. The back of his left hand, pressed against his hip, covered by the waistline of the slip, hanging mid-thigh, evokes restraint. Two veins run the length of his left forearm. The vein in his right arm, corresponding to the vein on the underside of his left, is visible, originating in the terminal of his elbow, snaking to his wrist. That is where I see myself most clearly. In his veins. And arms. His right arm straight, partially obscured, at his bicep, by his bra and chest. His left pectoral visible between his shoulder and the top of the bra. Two eels are swimming beneath his skin. His stockings are rolled down his thighs just below the hem of the slip. The slip is tight, though soft. The waistline of his slip is folded in above his navel. The hem of his slip is a fringe of wide circles. Around each circle is a wider circle. A black line beginning at the top of his right thigh swoops at his crotch. The line tapers, disappears, into whiteness.
Midori’s eyes are clear, almost wet, with the flash of the bulb twice-reflected. His eyebrows are slightly raised. It is there that I begin to sense skepticism, concern. Distrust, and its corresponding lack of agency. Resignation. Two lines on his forehead form a pediment. He is smiling, but the lines around his eyes are unmoved. His upper lip is straight, unconvinced. Sometimes his smile is a wave. Sometimes a wound. Sometimes not entirely his. If not, to whom (how many people, entities, institutions) does it belong?He posed in several dimensions at once. Half-naked, proud, even triumphant, he is, against a wall of thick timber, performing.
Midori did not know Peter Fortune. Nor did he know who would see this photograph. He posed in several dimensions at once. Half-naked, proud, even triumphant, he is, against a wall of thick timber, performing. But the longer I stare at his body and face—his eyes and his smile—the less convinced I become that he is actually sharing, or free to share, any part of himself. Who he is, and what he is feeling, is being sublimated, suppressed, by his outward appearance, pushed down the deep well of his throat, into his chest, but beyond the reach of his heart.
When I left the museum—the barracks, the fields—I felt infused with the spirit of connection. Midori and I had been reunited! But the feeling did not last. There was no sense that Midori had been waiting. For me, his grandson, anyone. Almost as soon as the body and face of incarceration were revealed, they were replaced with an unconquerable loneliness. The sky was low and tyrannically white. The mountains, in the distance, were suddenly very close, cliff-like and impenetrable. I called June, then my father. Their voices were soft, underwater. It was not that they did not seem interested in the photographs, but they did not ask any questions, which caused me to doubt what I had seen. It was true: the barracks, isolated and staged, manifested an alternate universe, one in which my desperation had been appeased. I had reduced the history of incarceration not only to Midori’s face, but to my desire to understand.
I slept for one year with Fortune’s photograph of Midori. Under my pillow, sometimes under my body. I wanted to sink with Midori through the bed, through the floor, into the ground, to commingle with what of him had been arrested.
At night, Midori slipped out of bed. I woke to see him climbing the wall. I watched him rise up the wall and curve onto the ceiling. I watched him slide down the wall and curve onto the floor.
The moment Midori touched the floor, two voices emerged: the voice of a young woman and the voice of an old man. The voices emerged from behind my right ear, as if out of my shoulder. The woman and the man were talking to each other. Their voices were clear, I could hear every word. Sometimes they talked about me, and though I wondered what they made of me, I never discerned any judgment, only a kind of subtle expectation. I wondered if the young woman and the old man were related. I had the feeling they were the same person, in two different phases of being: the young woman at the furthest limit of herself as an immigrant before becoming a citizen, the old man at the furthest limit of himself as a citizen before becoming a corpse. I tried, every night, to write down what they were saying, but whenever I shifted, or fell further into sleep, their voices became softer, blurred together, then dissolved. Only shadows, rising and falling.
I refer to this photograph as Midori’s grave, because it is an icon of his arrest and was the first, most accessible place I could go to visit him after death. It is ironic, fitting, and utterly infuriating that his grave revealed itself to me on the wall of the barracks in which he was held under the pretext of being a threat to the national security of the country of which I am a citizen.
From The Grave on the Wall. Copyright 2019 by Brandon Shimoda. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Publishers.