Los Angeles, 1942. A teenage girl returns home from school one day to find her mother screaming at her father. "Pack your suitcase," mom says. "We all have to leave."
Soon they’re dragging their bags down a dirt path alongside other families, trailed by the yelping of dogs left to fend for themselves. They board a bus bound for Poston, Ariz., and as it begins to pull away the girl looks out the window.
“The image of a boy waving, almost mechanically, as the buses depart stays in the girl’s mind as the stagnant landscape of Brawley and the Imperial Valley fades into the distance under a black night time curtain.”
That nightmare scenario and what followed — life in a Japanese-American internment camp — is the focus of Precious Yamaguchi’s first book, “Experiences of Japanese American Women During and After World War II — Living in Internment Camps and Rebuilding Life Afterwards,” a 114-page work of nonfiction that can be purchased at Amazon.com and rowman.com ($75 hardback, $74.99 e-book).
Yamaguchi, Southern Oregon University’s assistant professor of communications, wrote a version of the book as her dissertation at Bowling Green State University then re-tooled it for public consumption, cutting redundant accounts and improving the narrative flow. For Yamaguchi, 34, it was both a requirement for her doctorate and a labor of love. The teenage girl she describes in the opening pages is Toshi Tabata, Yamaguchi’s grandmother. The black-and-white cover photo shows Tabata standing next to her daughter, Patricia Yamaguchi. And on Patricia Yamaguchi’s right hip, wearing a white dress with her hair done up in pigtails, is 1-year-old Precious Yamaguchi.
“I’ve always been interested in it from when I was a child but when I entered into my doctorate program I felt that if I didn’t research this very important subject that I would be doing an injustice as a researcher,” Precious Yamaguchi said. “So I really tried to focus on this because I’ve always felt like this is a field that a lot of books and research didn’t go very far into depth. And what I wanted to get across to people was that it wasn’t just about the internment camp itself, it was about after they were let go from the camps and how they were able to rebuild their lives.”
Though personally connected, Yamaguchi didn’t know what life in an internment camp was really like nor did she understand the obstacles her grandparents faced post-camp until after she rounded up 16 subjects and started asking questions. What she discovered was both jarring and inspirational.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, through executive order 9066, authorized the forced relocation from the West Coast of all people with Japanese ancestry. Most of the estimated 120,000 people affected by the order moved during the spring of 1942. In a mass exodus, Yamaguchi writes, they “were forced to leave their homes, businesses, and all their belongings except for one suitcase or what they could carry, and were placed in barbed-wire camps patrolled by armed police.”
The War Relocation Authority closed the camps two years later on June 30, 1945, but with no homes or jobs to go back to, most of the Japanese-Americans who were finally set free struggled for years to carve out a meager existence. Those struggles and the resiliency required to overcome them became a prominent theme in Yamaguchi’s book, which took roughly eight years to complete from the time she began researching to its printing in January.
Using a digital voice recorder, Yamaguchi, who started teaching at SOU seven months ago, conducted each of the interviews in person. Talking to her subjects face-to-face, she said, was necessary in order to gain trust and reach a certain comfort level with the interviewees. But even then, it was difficult to draw out every painful memory and acquire the sort of details that Yamaguchi hoped would separate her book from the dozens of others already written. For one, most of her subjects were 80 to 90 years old and, in some cases, confronting a painful part of their history in depth for the first time. A second, and in some ways larger barrier was the deeply ingrained Japanese belief, a sort of cultural watermark, that equates any recounting of hardship with whining.
Yamaguchi overcame both those obstacles with perseverance, conducting multiple sit-downs with each subject wherever they felt most comfortable.
“Most of the time I came into their homes and it was a very good experience,” she said. “Many of them had pictures, documents, journals, and sometimes they would share that with me.”
Many of her subjects were reluctant to open up initially, but in time most of Yamaguchi’s questions were answered. Sometimes, it took some convincing.
“The Japanese culture is very much modest and humble,” she said, “so they would say, ‘My life is so boring, I don’t think you want to hear about it.’ I would say, ‘No, I just want to listen.’ So I’d ask about their childhood and then they’d tell me a really interesting story about their life in an internment camp. Some of them had miscarriages while in the camps, and all of them had really interesting stories to tell. They were just young girls themselves who had no idea how to take care of a family or cook or anything.”
But they had to learn, quickly. The stories of how they accomplished that against a tide of anti-Japanese sentiment were transcribed from recorder to word processor over the course of several months, a process that was exhausting for Yamaguchi both physically and emotionally. Her grandmother died while Yamaguchi was in the throes of that transcribing and, following a break to recover, she revisited the pain of that loss with every press of the “play” button.
There was also a certain amount of pressure which, for somebody whose goal was to humanize an entire generation of Japanese-Americans, could not be avoided.
“It was so exciting, but at the same time it’s hard to write about your family,” she said. “We are what you would call a collectivist culture, so when one person speaks it’s not only one person who’s speaking, they are really trying to speak for a collective group. I wanted to do justice to my family and other families represented in the book, so I was a little nervous about that.”
Was she satisfied with the finished product? Yamaguchi says she’s proud to have completed the book — her second, which will dive deeper into the same subject, is already in the works — and is pleased with how it turned out, but was most encouraged by some of the reactions to the stories inside. Some of the children of her subjects were introduced for the first time to their parents’ suffering, and their responses provided Yamaguchi with a resounding confirmation.
“A lot of the children, they had never heard the stories and didn’t know how much their parents had struggled and all the things they had accomplished,” she said. “Some of them said that they had never thought of their parents as accomplishing much because they weren’t famous or wealthy. But they said when they think about it now they’re like, ‘Wow, they had nothing at all and were able to rebuild their lives.’”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.