By Diego Luis, PhD Student, Latin American History
Over the summer, I traveled with eight other Brown University PhD students across multiple departments—including Takuya Maeda, a first-year in the history department—to sites of Japanese incarceration during World War II. Nicole Sintetos, a second-year in American Studies, organized this mobile workshop. We were joined by the musician Kaoru Ishibashi (alias Kishi Bashi) and his documentarian. Beginning in Phoenix, Arizona, they drove up the West Coast and ended in Bainbridge Island, Washington, where the first Japanese Americans were deported to concentration camps.
How could something so terrible happen in such a beautiful place, I thought at Manzanar, where eleven thousand Japanese Americans lived as prisoners in a country fighting for liberty and freedom against two of the most brutal authoritarian regimes to ever exist. Just a few hours from Los Angeles, Manzanar is now a national park under the auspices of the National Park Service, complete with a 5-star distinction on Google Reviews. A cluster of barracks, rebuilt using original materials, stands in the shadow of formidable mountains to the east and west.
A survivor we spoke to on Bainbridge Island told us she had never noticed how beautiful Manzanar was—the land, the mountains—until she revisited the site several decades later. Standing there now, this seems unimaginable, for the mountains command our attention. Of course, my experience on site was leisurely in a way hers could never have been. We were visitors, tourists, not prisoners. Oral testimonies we collected and listened to comment on the dust that would blow up through the creaky barrack floors. They note the biting wind that would race through the valley. They lament the scorching summer heat and the bitter frosts of winter. The mountains then were like bigger guard towers, warning against the futility of escape. What was transcendent scenery for me was near-unlivable terrain for them.
We knew, though, that prison hadn’t blinded the incarcerated to aesthetics. Musicians lit up the mess halls when they could with the latest swing numbers. Two of our entourage, Julian Saporiti and Kaoru Ishibashi (goes by K), paid homage to these bands and the camp dances by playing popular songs of the era in the rebuilt mess hall.
It was hardly a stretch to imagine the commotion, the raised voices, the shrill notes, that would have emanated from such a structure seventy-five years ago, to imagine the Issei (first-generation Japanese) listening outside or in their barracks while their children tore up the dance floor. To quote one of Julian’s songs entitled, “Instructions to all Persons” (referencing Executive Order 9066), “They felt good for a moment or so.”
Further evidence of aesthetic sensibilities comes in the form of Japanese gardens. Nearly every block had its own. Witnesses still remember the gardens and their dutiful caretakers on their commute to and from work. They were simple assemblies of stone, wood, plants, and water, but they have stood the test of time. They are assertions of an identity, of a philosophy—the creation of mini-oases—on the drab, uniform landscape of the camp. Survival meant more than sustenance. To survive was to endeavor to preserve the spirit.
Still, there is plenty of evidence—from oral testimonies after the redress movement to material evidence from the camps—that indicate the harsh realities of life in a concentration camp. Standing in the Manzanar cemetery, we witnessed the buried traces of a violent past, the silent stone markers of adults, children, and pets, incarcerated six feet under, enshrined in hundreds of colorful paper cranes. In total, 135 Japanese died in Manzanar during the war years.
Sharing our research and inspirations with a non-academic audience has been the highlight of my academic career thus far. Like never before, I felt that ideas have cultural currency and that intellectualism still has a stable home in this country. I remember discussing how the experiences of Japanese incarceration force us to think about the Asian American experience as hemispheric, rather than tied to a national identity. Further, this perspective forces us to not only engage the larger Asian diaspora, but also confront the longer history of Asians in the Americas, stretching back to the sixteenth century in Mexico. Asian American history includes a long legacy of slavery, of struggle against colonial hierarchies, of assimilation into colonial Spanish societies, and knowing this requires us to redefine what being Asian in America means to individual and community identities.
Our journey was a pilgrimage because it was spiritual, spiritual in the sense that our senses of self could not be the same after we flew home, spiritual in the sense of feeling a greater connectedness with those who tread that land before us—white homesteaders, incarcerated Japanese Americans, Mexican ranchers and farmers, African Americans fleeing southern slavery to a free Mexico, uprooted Native American communities. It would not be too much to say that the trip began to collapse the distinction between academic and archive. For us, the mobile workshop as a methodological and pedagogical entity worked brilliantly and in ways that we are still discovering, and it will continue to be a guiding and unifying force in our future research.