• Japanese American Incarceration for Children: Brandon Shimoda on Reading with His Daughter

    “I did not grow up with children’s books about Japanese American incarceration. There were not many.”

    I discovered something about my daughter’s relationship to books: if I cry the first time we read one together, it is likely she will not want to read it again. This has happened several times, most often with books written for children about Japanese American incarceration.

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    My daughter is three. She has seen me cry more times in the past year than I have seen my parents cry in four decades. When I cry, she is very comforting. She asks what is wrong or tries to be funny. But not when we are reading together. If I cry while reading a book with her, she becomes tense, sometimes scared, most often frustrated or annoyed.

    Then it feels like I have ruined the book and have taken from her the experience of developing, in her own way, a relationship with the story, which is, in part, an emotional relationship, therefore a relationship with her emotions. But sometimes my emotions take over, overwrite the story and my daughter’s experience, and I cry; I cannot help it.

    The protagonists of children’s books about Japanese American incarceration are, for the most part, children. A cat, a man who is lost; otherwise children. The subject is the children’s experience, which—prior to an awareness of the conditions of their citizenship—is that of being bewildered, of bewilderment, which manifests as a sadness the children are unable to name. The reader—assuming they are an adult ushering a child through the story—understands, or might understand, at least superficially, what the barbed wire and guard towers mean, which puts the children, in the books, in the position of having to catch up to the reader.

    The subject of children’s books about Japanese American incarceration is children coming into an awareness of being enemies of their country and being forced into an antagonistic relationship with themselves. Sadness is one way of portraying it. The children—occasionally helped by family members and friends, most ridiculously by white friends and neighbors, but most often and most mournfully by themselves—discover and invent ways of transforming their sadness into a bittersweet understanding that life is much longer than any individual trauma, even as trauma is much longer than any individual life.

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    I cried the first time I read Fish for Jimmy, written and illustrated by Katie Yamasaki. Jimmy, incarcerated in a dusty internment camp in a desolate land, loses his appetite.

    His mother and his brother, Taro, urge him to eat, but he refuses. He stops playing with other children, begins to lose his memory of life before camp. One night, Taro cuts a hole in the fence and runs to a mountain. A trickle of water led to a quiet pool, where still, black water reflected the night sky. He slips his hands into the water and pulls up seven fish, bright orange and yellow, with Jimmy, in miniature, curled up asleep on each one. The next morning, Taro gives the fish to Jimmy, who eats them and immediately comes back to life.

    Japanese Americans who were born or who were very young in the detention centers and concentration camps are now in their late seventies and early eighties.

    On the final page, Taro and his father—who has rejoined the family after being incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison—stare through the barbed-wire fence at the reader. When I reached their faces and the final sentence—Taro showed Father how, each week, he would creep beyond the fence to the free air of the mountains to find fish for Jimmy—I gasped, then started crying. My daughter, silent throughout, looked at me with a grave expression, pushed the book closed with her hand, and said, “No.”

    In A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, written by Amy Lee-Tai and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, Mari is walking with her father in Topaz. Mama and I are worried about you, Mari’s father says. We know things are tough here, but you barely talk or laugh anymore. Mari does not say anything. They keep walking in silence, beneath watchtowers where military police pointed guns at anyone they feared might escape.

    How is Mari supposed to talk or laugh with guns pointed at her? The book is about art, its redeeming encouragement. Mari takes an art class. The fact that there were art classes should suggest how long incarceration lasted: long enough for a civilization to rise from the dust and produce art education. Mari watches the other students fill their paper with colorful drawings, but her paper is blank. She is sorrowful, in a malaise. When her teacher encourages her to draw something from her life before camp, she draws her house and backyard in California, sunflowers touching the sky, and is proud, feels suddenly connected. The past achieves the horizon of the future.

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    In Flowers from Mariko, written by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks and illustrated by Michelle Reiko Kumata, young readers are introduced to the trailer parks where families resettled after camp. Resettlement is embodied by a father’s struggle to find work and his daughter’s attempt to take hold of that struggle and lessen it.

    Mariko’s father scavenges tools from dumpsters. He finds two packets of seeds and gives them to Mariko. She plants the seeds in the dirt outside their trailer. It takes time for them to bloom, but Mariko is committed, and the day they bloom, her father finds work. It is Mariko’s commitment, fortitude, and belief that bring life to the bleakness. They celebrate.

    Mariko and her father dance, Mariko with a flower in her hair, her father with a flower tucked into his shirt. Everything was going to be fine, Mariko decided.

    Because it was up to her to decide. Mariko, Mari, and Taro have all been drawn into the work of making things better. Their parents are not absent but are not afforded the agency or the ability to bring their children’s stories to a place where they might feel everything is going to be fine. Feeling fine is a decision reached by the children, through the persistence of their efforts and the endurance—against dementedness—of their memories. The parents are guides, also part ghosts. Their struggles are only as explicit as the impact they have on their children.

    I cry when stories end. I cry that stories end. I am startled by endings.

    Emi didn’t want her big sister to see her cry is the first sentence of The Bracelet, written by Yoshiko Uchida and illustrated by Joanna Yardley. Emi and her family are being forced from their home. It is their last day there. The doorbell rings. Emi opens the door to find not military police but her best friend, a white girl named Laurie Madison, on the porch, holding a small box. A gift—a bracelet. Emi swears never to take it off, but shortly after arriving at the Tanforan detention center, it goes missing. Emi fears that without the bracelet she will forget Laurie and therefore life before camp. Laurie is Mnemosyne. Emi’s mother encourages her to look beyond the bracelet, to understand that what we love and leave behind we carry with us. As if it was Laurie who was left behind. The last sentence of the book is And Emi knew she would never forget Laurie, ever.

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    The menace of the dangling ever . The book concludes with the white friend as the means of daily endurance. Laurie Madison is not the only white friend but a recurring character—in films (Dennis Quaid’s character in Come See the Paradise, Ethan Hawke’s in Snow Falling on Cedars, Keri Russell’s in The Magic of Ordinary Days) and in children’s books.

    In Ann Malaspina’s A Scarf for Keiko, the white friend is Sam, who knits Keiko a scarf, which she wears in camp. In Cynthia Grady’s Write to Me, the white friend is a librarian, Miss Breed—based on Clara Breed, children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library—who sends books to the children in camp. The children are dependent upon their white friends for release, however momentary, from the reality of their incarceration, and to stay connected to the world beyond the barbed wire. The white friends appear at the beginning of the stories to say goodbye, become the stewards of Japanese American memory, then project themselves into a future that they, through their gift-giving, make possible and where they are magnanimously waiting.

    When the children arrived in camp, the schools had no books, and there were no schools. I learned this in a poem by Heather Nagami, “Acts of Translation,” which was the first poem I read about Japanese American incarceration written by a descendant, more specifically a grandchild. In it, Nagami returns to Poston, where her grandparents were incarcerated and where her mother was born, and attempts to make sense of their experience and her relation to it. Nagami’s family speaks between lines drawn from history books (primarily Confinement and Ethnicity).

    Since no arrangements had been made, evacuees built their own classrooms.
    “But mom didn’t know if there was going to be one where we were going.”

    I saw Nagami read “Acts of Translation” on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066, at the Tucson Desert Art Museum. The museum used to be a mall. The galleries had been stores. The event was arranged as if for a wedding, rows of white folding chairs divided by an aisle. In the next room, an 8 mm film of Poston’s construction was being projected on the wall. White men in white shirts and overalls poured concrete, unloaded bed frames from a truck. The film was silent but emitted an obsequious energy. Nagami stood in the aisle and read slowly:

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    Since no arrangements had been made, evacuees built their own classrooms.
    “But mom didn’t know if there was going to be one where we were going.”
    West of Blocks 19 and 30.
    “So, she brought . . . ”

    Her voice cracked. She read the line again, So, she brought . . . but her voice cracked again. She stared into her poem like she was searching for herself in a mirror. So, she brought . . . Poston was being built—pluckily, grotesquely—on the other side of the wall.

    A crew of 5,000 men worked from March into May 1942, when they were joined by hundreds of Japanese American volunteers, and yet no arrangements had been made for schools, so it was left to mothers to bring and invent everything. I say Nagami’s voice cracked, but she cried. Her mother was sitting in the front row.

    I tried to imagine what it might have felt like for her to listen to her daughter recite, and have difficulty reciting, a poem about the place where she was born a prisoner. It felt like the memorial and everything we were meant to understand was distilled into how Nagami’s mother might have been feeling and into Nagami crying through her mother’s words, then recomposing herself to go on. “So, she brought . . . encyclopedias . . . for us and for the other children.”

    Children’s books about Japanese American incarceration are burdened with the obligation of also being history books. The history has experienced a strained, frustrated life. The more it is told, the less the public seems to remember, so the frustration comes from having to start, with each telling, all over again, to appease a citizenry that is not listening, that is defined in equal measure by its refusal to listen and its inability to remember.

    Even more haunting is the illustration of the children as one large body with many eyes.

    The repetition of violence into themes, themes into oblivion, begins to sound like a song. Is that how my daughter hears December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor; FBI; barracks; barbed wire; guard towers; guns? The sounds precede meaning, but I imagine the meaning forms out of the sounds, their repetition, and out of the illustrations accompanying the sounds, the repetition mimicking the effort to combat willed forgetting and mimicking the way trauma converts facts into affirmations; and I imagine that the realization of meaning will come, if it comes, when the sounds are repeated outside of the books, in life, where they are unexpected and where they will seem even more naked, cruel, and disarming; but what is it that makes us remember?

    I did not grow up with children’s books about Japanese American incarceration. There were not many. But if there were, someone might have used them to tell me our family’s history, about which I knew nothing: that my grandfather was incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison under suspicion of being a spy for Japan, that my great-uncle and his family were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, that my great-aunt and her family were incarcerated in Poston.

    My daughter has fourteen books about Japanese American incarceration. She will not let me read Fish for Jimmy, So Far from the Sea, A Scarf for Keiko, The Bracelet, or Home of the Brave and has not gotten through—and seems bothered by—Baseball Saved Us, Blue Jay in the Desert, and The Cat Who Chose to Dream.

    In Home of the Brave, written and illustrated by Allen Say, a man goes kayaking down a river and ends up in the ruins of a concentration camp. He sees two children and offers to help them find their way home. They walk through a dust storm and arrive into rows of barracks set against a ghostly mountain. A group of children stood before him like one large body with many eyes. Dozens of children, all the way to the mountains. Then all at once the small mouths opened. The children cry out for the man to take them home. Then two beams of light slashed at the children. Guard towers, in which the guards are invisible. The children, illuminated by the excoriating lights, run, but in the illustration, only the man is differentiated. Even more haunting is the illustration of the children as one large body with many eyes. They stare directly at the reader, eyebrows arched, mouths open, in a way that looks less like they are chanting, more like they are apparitions, possessed, their tongues about to turn into snakes.

    The children the man first encounters are based on Hiroko and Miyuki Mochida, sisters and two of the subjects of a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange on May 8, 1942. The Mochidas—nine family members, each wearing a name tag, four duffel bags between them—are in Hayward, California, awaiting the bus to take them to Tanforan.

    Out of everyone, Hiroko’s and Miyuki’s expressions come closest to evoking the kind of sadness that might satisfy someone who would like to reduce the experience of dispossession to that seemingly accessible condition—which is probably why the sisters’ image, cropped from the family photograph, has been reproduced so many times—except that they look like they are wondering why there is a woman taking their picture. In Home of the Brave, they look weather beaten, abandoned. “It occurred to me to lift the two girls out of the photograph and introduce them into my book,” Say said in an interview.

    I did not grow up with children’s books about Japanese American incarceration. There were not many.

    He was inspired to write Home of the Brave after seeing an exhibition about Manzanar at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. He had already written the pages where the man goes kayaking down the river and had intended to put the man through a much different journey but, after seeing the exhibition, decided to send him instead to camp. On the final page, the man throws a handful of name tags into the air and, surrounded by children, watches as they fly over the mountains.

    They went home,” says a child.

    Yes, they went home,” says the man.

    Hiroko and Miyuki are also on the cover of Susan H. Kamei’s When Can We Go Back to America? It is not a children’s book but a seven-hundred-page history book, although it is classified as YA. Lange’s photograph is wrapped around the cover, Miyuki on the front, Hiroko on the spine, barbed wire superimposed across their bodies. Also, Miyuki is cut off below her eyes. Hiroko and Miyuki did not, on May 8, 1942, know where they were going. The camps did not yet exist because they had not yet been built. Hiroko and Miyuki are, as they are in Home of the Brave, rushed into incarceration and preserved there.

    On December 7, 2021, the eightieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I moderated a conversation between Kamei and George Takei about their books on Japanese American incarceration. Takei’s book, They Called Us Enemy, is a graphic memoir about his experience in camp. He was five when he and his family were incarcerated in the Santa Anita detention center in California, then in Rohwer, in Arkansas. Takei related a story about a conversation he had with his father years after the war that, he said, “still haunts me to this day.”

    He and his father were at the dinner table talking, as they had many times before, about incarceration. “Daddy,” Takei said, “why did you go? It was wrong. You should have spoken up, stood up . . . Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter.” Takei’s father, Takekuma, was silent. After what felt to Takei like an eternity, Takekuma said, “Well, maybe you’re right.” He got up from the table, went to his room, and closed the door. Takei felt ashamed, wanted desperately to apologize. He wanted to knock on his father’s door. But he did not. He went to bed, thinking he would apologize in the morning. But he did not. “I never apologized,” Takei told us, near tears. “And now I can’t apologize.”

    I cry when stories end. I cry that stories end. I am startled by endings. It is beautiful to see Mariko dancing and Mari drawing and Jimmy eating, but it is heartbreaking to know that the children are only at the beginning of their sentence and that the burden of releasing themselves from it is theirs.

    Japanese Americans who were born or who were very young in the detention centers and concentration camps are now in their late seventies and early eighties. They are the final generation of camp survivors, the final generation who can speak directly from the experience. And yet because they were newborn, one, two, three years old, they are also the generation of survivors least likely to remember. The Japanese Americans who are able to share what they remember were also children, so their memories, filtered through their perspective as adults, now as elders, are the memories of children. We have entered the phase of historical remembrance that is reliant almost entirely upon the experiences and the memories of children.

    My daughter has visited the ruins of one incarceration site: the Catalina Federal Honor Camp on Mount Lemmon, north of Tucson. It was rebranded the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site because it was where Gordon Hirabayashi, Nisei from Seattle, was incarcerated for refusing the curfew imposed on Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans on the West Coast and in southern Arizona, for refusing the exclusion order, for refusing to register for removal. He was the first of forty-two Nisei men to be incarcerated. My daughter visited twice.

    It is an easy drive from downtown, where we used to live, up Catalina Highway—which was built by the prisoners—to mile marker 7 and left onto Prison Camp Road. It is now a campground. Where the prisoners slept are camp sites. The foundation of the administration building is broken but intact. My daughter learned to walk in that desert, hike in that desert, identify cactus and trees in that desert. She collected acorns and seeds, “treasures,” she calls them. Crickets jumped out of the grass. The madrone, with its iridescent crimson bark, looked like mummified flames. I noticed, from the hills, that the voices of people below—walking, hiking, having picnics, setting up trailers, tents—were perfectly clear, which made me realize that the administrators were listening and could hear every word.

    My partner, Lisa, told me that when I read children’s books about Japanese American incarceration with my daughter, my voice changes, lowers, goes flat. The books are meant to be full of hope and redemption, children needing only to turn the world in their hands and redeem, with the boundlessness of their youth and the light of their inextinguishable minds, the darkness passing through it. I try to read in a more inviting voice, but what I want to invite my daughter into and include her within is the experience of being the descendant of incarceration.

    When we cry, our tears are drawn from three hundred feet below ground, where a river flows and connects everyone. Crying is the drawing of tears from that river and the momentary surge we each experience. The moments are constant, uninterrupted, overlapping. If someone cries once every four decades or once every night, does that mean their portion was given to them, shared, or taken away from someone else?

    I thought I would try Fish for Jimmy again. Actually, it was my daughter’s idea. She saw it leaning against the wall behind my desk and picked it up. “Let’s read this!” she said and brought it to storytime.

    It seemed to be going okay at first. Maybe enough time had passed. She was silent, listening—through the barbed wire and guard towers, the guards and their guns, through Jimmy refusing to eat, becoming depressed, through Taro escaping camp, pulling fish out of the water. But when things began improving for Jimmy, my daughter let out a long sigh, said, “This story is too hard . . . ” Then she turned away from the book, rolled off the bed, and ran out of the room.

    Are all children’s books about Japanese American incarceration—are all children’s books—manuals preparing children for the moment in their lives, and for the time after, when they will be left behind or abandoned?


    This essay is excerpted from issue 109 of Brick Magazine.

    Brandon Shimoda
    Brandon Shimoda
    Brandon Shimoda is a yonsei poet/writer, and the author of several books, most recently The Grave on the Wall (City Lights, 2019), which received the PEN Open Book Award. He has two books forthcoming: Hydra Medusa (Nightboat Books, 2023) and a book on the afterlife of Japanese American incarceration (City Lights, 2024), which received a Creative Nonfiction grant from the Whiting Foundation.

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