Aggressive Regionalism: Texts

15. Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter

Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (1953; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), xv-xvii, 147-48, 185-86, 198-201.

[The following comes from Sone's preface to the 1979 reissue of her memoir.]

As a result of years of reflection by the Nikkeis about their unique experience as Americans of Japanese ancestry, certain

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ideas and feelings have become distilled and crystallized into a strong determination. The Nikkeis are moving into the public eye, to attend to unfinished business with the government. Their primary goal is to have the government address the constitutional issue of the evacuation. There will also be a petition for redress from Congress.

In our bicentennial year of 1976, upon recommendation of the Japanese American Citizens League, President Gerald R. Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066. He acknowledged that the mass incarceration was a national mistake. This was a small, but significant step toward righting a wrong.

During Thanksgiving of 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League began its redress campaign by observing its first “Day of Remembrance” ceremony in Seattle. Similar public ceremonies followed in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

So that their story will not be forgotten and lost to future generations, the Nikkeis are telling the nation about 1942, a time when they became prisoners of their own government, without charges, without trials. This happened because the President and Congress yielded to the pressures of agricultural and other economic interest groups on the West Coast, which for fifty years had tried to be rid of the Nikkeis. Mass media assisted in molding public opinion to this end. Most astounding of all, the Supreme Court chose not the touch the issue of the Niseis’ civil liberties as American citizens. In the Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu cases, the Court carefully avoided ruling on the basic constitutional issue of curfew and mass incarceration of a particular group of citizens, selected solely on the basis of ancestry. The Court overlooked the vital American principle that consideration of guilt and punishment is to be carried out on an individual basis, and is not to be related to the wrongdoing of others. Jus-

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tice Robert Jackson, in dissent, wrote, “The Supreme Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure.”

The Nikkeis hope that this redress movement may discourage similar injustices to others. They aim to work together with white America, to carry out our mutual task which Professor V. Rostow of Yale delineated in his writing: “Until the wrong is acknowledged and made right, we shall have failed to meet the responsibility of a democratic society . . . the obligation of equal justice.”

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[The following excerpt recalls the Itoi family's reactions to the news of Pearl Harbor.]

With every fiber of my being I resented this war. I felt as if I were on fire. “Mama, they should never have done it,” I cried. “Why did they do it? Why? Why?”

Mother’s face turned paper white. “What do you know about it? Right or wrong, the Japanese have been chafing with resentment for years. It was bound to happen, one time or another. You’re young, Ka-chan, you know very little about the ways of nations. It’s not as simple as you think, but this is hardly the time to be quarreling about it, is it?”

“No, it’s too late, too late!” and I let the tears pour down my face.

Father rushed home from the hotel. He was deceptively calm as he joined us in the living room. Father was a born skeptic, and he believed nothing unless he could see, feel and smell it. He regarded all newspapers and radio news with deep suspicion. He shook his head doubtfully, “It must be propaganda. With the way things are going now between America and Japan, we should expect the most fantastic rumors, and this is one of the wildest I’ve heard yet.” But we noticed that he was firmly glued to the radio. It seemed as if the regular Sunday programs, sounding off relentlessly hour after hour on schedule, were trying to blunt the catastrophe of the morning.

The telephone pealed nervously all day as people searched for comfort from each other. Chris called, and I told her how miserable and confused I felt about the war. Understanding as

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always, Chris said, “ You know how I feel about you and your family, Kaz. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, feel the war is going to make any difference in our relationship. It’s not your fault, nor mine! I wish to God it could have been prevented.” Minnie called off her Sunday date with Henry. Her family was upset and they thought she should stay close to home instead of wandering downtown.

Late that night Father got a shortwave broadcast from Japan. Static sputtered, then we caught a faint voice, speaking rapidly in Japanese. Father sat unmoving as a rock, his head cocked. The man was talking about the war between Japan and America. Father bit his lips and Mother whispered to him anxiously, “It’s true then, isn’t it, Papa? It’s true?”

Father was muttering to himself, “So they really did it!” Now having heard the news in their native tongue, the war had become a reality to Father and Mother.

“I suppose from now on, we’ll hear about nothing but the humiliating defeats of Japan in the papers here,” Mother said, resignedly.

Henry and I glared indignantly at Mother, then Henry shrugged his shoulders and decided to say nothing. Discussion of politics, especially Japan versus America, had become taboo in our family for it sent tempers skyrocketing. Henry and I used to criticize Japan’s aggressions in China and Manchuria while Father and Mother condemned Great Britain and America’s superior attitude toward Asiatics and their interference with Japan’s economic growth. During these arguments, we had eyed each other like strangers, parents against children. They left us with a hollow feeling at the pit of the stomach . . . .

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[The following two excerpts depict scenes from within the "internment" camps as Nikkei considered their situation.]

Sunday was the day we came to an abrupt halt, free from the busy round of activities in which we submerged our feelings. In the morning we went to church to listen to our Reverend Everett Thompson who visited us every Sunday. Our minister was a tall and lanky man whose open and friendly face quickly drew people to him. He had served as a missionary in Japan at one time and he spoke fluent Japanese. He had worked with the young people in our church for many years, and it was a great comfort to see him and the many other ministers and church workers with whom we had been in contact back in Seattle. We felt that we were not entirely forgotten.

With battered spirits we met in the dimly lighted makeshift room which served as our chapel under the baseball grandstand, and after each sermon and prayer, we gained new heart. Bit by

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bit, our minister kept on helping us build the foundation for a new outlook. I particularly remember one Sunday service when he asked us to read parts from the Book of Psalms in unison. Somehow in our circumstances and in our environment, we had begun to read more slowly and conscientiously, as if we were finding new meaning and comfort in the passages from the Bible. “‘The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee . . . Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help . . . The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’”

As we finished with the lines, “’Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever,’” the room seemed filled with peace and awe, as if walls had been pushed back and we were free. I was convinced that this was not the end of our lives here in camp, but just the beginning; and gradually it dawned on me that we had not been physically mistreated nor would we be harmed in the future. I knew that the greatest trial ahead of us would be of a spiritual nature. I had been tense and angry all my life about prejudice, real and imaginery. The evacuation had been the biggest blow, but there was little to be gained in bitterness and cynicism because we felt that people had failed us. The time had come when it was more important to examine our own souls, to keep our faith in God and help to build that way of life which we so desired . . . .

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Then one day a group of army personnel marched into our dreaming camp on a special mission and our idyllic life of nothingness came to a violent end. They made a shocking announcement. “The United States War Department has decided to form a special combat unit for the Nisei. We have come to recruit volunteers.”

We gasped and we spluttered. Dunks Oshima who had brought the news to us was on fire. Dunks had grown into a strapping young man with a brilliant record for high-school sports. He eyed us fiercely as he cried, “What do they take us for? Saps? First, they change my army status to 4-C because of my ancestry, run me out of town, and now they want me to volunteer for a suicide squad so I could get killed for this damn democracy. That’s going some, for sheer brass!”

That was exactly the way most of us felt, but the recruiting officers were well prepared to cope with our emotional explosion. They called meetings as we flocked to them with an injured air.

An officer, a big, tall, dark-haired man with formidable poise spoke to us. “You’re probably wondering why we are here, recruiting for volunteers from your group. I think that my explanation is best expressed in the statement recently issued by our President regarding a citizen’s right and privilege to serve his country. I want to read it to you:

“No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this

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country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and the heart. Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. Every loyal American citizen should be given the opportunity to serve this country wherever his skills will make the greatest contribution . . . whether it be in the ranks of our armed forces, war production, agriculture, Government service, or other work essential to the war effort.”

It all sounded very well. It was the sort of declaration which rang true and clear in our hearts, but there were questions in our minds which needed answering. The speaker threw the meeting open for discussion. We said we didn’t want a separate Nisei combat unit because it looked too much like segregation. We wanted to serve in the same way as other citizens, in a mixed group with the other Americans. The man replied, “But if the Nisei men were to be scattered throughout the army, you’d lose your significance as Nisei. Maybe you want it that way, because in the past you suffered with your Japanese faces. Well, why not accept your Japanese face? Why be ashamed of it? Why not capitalize on it for a change? This is no time for retiring into anonymity. There are powerful organizations who are now campaigning on the Coast to deport you all to Japan, citizens and residents alike. But there’re also men and women who believe in you, who feel you should be given the chance to stand up and express yourselves. They thought that a Nisei combat unit would be just the thing so that whatever you accomplish, whatever you achieve, will be yours and yours alone.”

We saw that the speaker was sincere and believed earnestly in this cause. Then we asked him another burning question. “Why had the government ever put us here in the first place? Why? Why? Why?”

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The man looked at our wounded faces and said, “I can’t answer that question. I can only repeat what you already know, that the government thought evacuation was necessary. The evacuation occurred, and right or wrong, it’s past. Now we’re interested in your future. The War Department is offering you a chance to volunteer and to distinguish yourselves as Japanese-American citizens in the service of your country. Believe me, this combat unit is not segregation in the sense you think it is.”

The tension in the mess hall eased, and questions and answers flowed more naturally. After the meeting we returned to our barracks to continue the debate. Dunks came with us.

“What’s a fellow to do?” Dunks said wryly. “They’ve got us over the barrel. If we don’t do our bit, you can bet your boots there won’t be much of a future for us here. Those racists on the Coast will see to that.”

I put in, “I’ll wager, though, that some of those characters will be dead set against a Nisei combat team.”

Henry snorted, ”Those scrooges will be agin anything which might make us look good.”

Dunks said, “It’s the general public I’m thinking about. They’re the ones who count. They want proof of our loyalty. Okay, I’m giving it to them, and maybe I’ll die for it if I’m unlucky. But if after the war’s over and our two cents don’t cut any ice with the American public, well, to blazes with them!”

The next day Henry announced, “Tomorrow I’m going down to volunteer.” No one said a word. Father stared down at his veined hands. Mother’s face turned into a white mask.

“Please don’t feel so bad, Mama.”

Mother smiled thinly, “I don’t feel bad, Henry. In fact, I don’t feel anything just now.”

Father spoke to her tenderly, “Mama, if Henry had been born

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in Japan, he would have been taken into the army and gone off to war long ago.”

“That’s right. And I guess it’s about time we all stopped thinking about the past. I think we should go along with our sons from now. It’s the least we can do.”

Father said, gratefully, “That’s what I wanted to hear. At least we’re together on this matter. Imagine what Dunks must be going through.”

Mrs. Oshima had refused to speak to her son ever since he had decided to volunteer. “Is this what we deserve from our children,” she said, “after years and years of work and hardship for their sake? Ah, we’ve bred nothing but fools! They can be insulted, their parents insulted, and still they volunteer. The Nisei never had backbones!”

Early the next morning, Dunks, and George and Paul, sons of Mr. Sawada, the clothing salesman, swarmed into our apartment on their way to the camp hospital for their physical.

“Let’s go, Hank, before the crowd gets there.”

They left with a great clatter and boisterous shouting. Father, Mother, Sumi and I sank to our cots feeling as if we had emerged from a turbulent storm which had been raging steadily in our minds since Pearl Harbor. The birth of the Nisei combat team was the climax to our evacuee life, and the turning point. It was the road back to our rightful places.

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