Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

13. Iwao Matsushita, Poems

In 1942 the United States government incarcerated virtually all people of Japanese descent on the Pacific coast. The decision to imprison more than 120,000 people—most of them American citizens and none of whom had been proven to be a security risk—and the experiences of the Issei and Nisei internees have been the subject of a large and growing body of writing. (An introduction to the overall experience, focusing especially on political and legal matters, is Daniels 1993. For an overview of what happened to Issei and Nisei in Seattle, consult Daniels 1997). Communities of Nikkei (that is, people of Japanese descent) in the coastal portions of the Pacific Northwest were uprooted from homes and businesses and moved inland. Many went to a “relocation center” in Minidoka, Idaho, although Nisei and Issei from the Northwest became scattered after incarceration.  Some Nisei men enlisted in the U.S. military; some families and individuals were sent to camps in California or elsewhere in the West; some relocated away from the West to jobs and schools and homes in the middle and eastern parts of the country; a very small number were repatriated to Japan.

Iwao Matsushita, who had immigrated to Seattle in 1919 at age twenty-seven, took a still different path. Matsushita had taught English in Japan, and in Seattle became a successful businessman for Mitsui and Company. His prominence in the Japanese community brought him to the attention of federal officials in the hours after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. On the evening of December 7, 1941, he was taken into custody by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who turned him over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). By December 28, 1941, Iwao Matsushita was one of hundreds of Issei men who had been incarcerated in Montana at the Fort Missoula Detention Camp operated by the INS.  He would remain there for more than two years, separated from his wife Hanaye who herself ended up at Minidoka, Idaho, in August 1942. (This account of the Matsushitas’ experiences is based entirely on the forceful and compelling book Imprisoned Apart [Fiset 1997].)

The separation of Iwao and Hanaye Matsushita produced an enduring (and censored) correspondence as husband and wife wrote to one another from their respective prison camps in Montana and Idaho. The letter-writing proved rather one-sided. Hanaye felt isolated, sick, and depressed for most of her months alone at Minidoka; at times it appears to have been simply too difficult for her to put pen to paper. Iwao understood his wife’s vulnerability, and much of his writing seemed calculated to bolster her spirits and ensure that she care properly for herself. He regularly composed poems to include with his letters, no doubt meaning to cheer up Hanaye. Iwao’s letters and poems also frequently described nature. Before 1941, the Matsushitas had been avid hikers and photographers and spent a lot of time on Mount Rainier. In 1942 and 1943 Iwao enjoyed portraying the hills, mountains, and weather around Fort Missoula for Hanaye. 

For the duration of his stay in Montana, Iwao Matsushita toiled to be reunited with his wife, so some of his correspondence was taken up with strategizing to get the government to allow them to be together. He grew quite discouraged at the long time this process took and at the government’s recalcitrance to move him from Fort Missoula to Minidoka. Consequently, by late December of 1943 many of his verses became terse and sad. Finally, on January 3, 1944 the Matsushitas learned that they could be together once more, and on January 11 Iwao rejoined his wife in Idaho, ending their lengthy correspondence.

The Matsushitas remained at Minidoka until the end of the war. Iwao returned to Seattle in August 1945, where he worked for the War Relocation Authority to help Nikkei resettle around the city. By October he had found a house and sent for Hanaye to join him once more. Iwao Matsushita later became a student, teacher, and librarian at the University of Washington, and he eventually donated his and his wife’s papers to the University Libraries.

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