A search for place, pride

Decades later, a Japanese-American hopes to reclaim a piece of family history, and her identity, at the site of the Idaho camp where relatives were interned during World War II.

December 05, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

JEROME COUNTY, Idaho - The big, white Starline bus rolls to a stop and Jeni Yamada is the first to stand.

It has taken a long time to get to this place in the middle of nowhere, this place called Minidoka. Far longer than the 12-hour, 650-mile trip from Seattle just ended, or the flight from Baltimore days before.

More than six decades ago, Jeni's mother, uncles and grandmother lived here behind barbed wire, under armed guard, in a drafty, tar-papered barracks. With some 120,000 other Japanese immigrants and their American-born children, they were interned during World War II - summarily evicted from their homes and communities, rounded up, put on trains and buses, and sent here or to one of nine other hastily erected camps. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 63 years ago this week, they were suspects in their own land.

All this time later, nothing much remains of the Minidoka internment camp: a caved-in root cellar, an ornamental rock garden, the waist-high walls of a military police building. The former swimming hole is now just a gentle dip in the land.

Jeni steps down from the bus. With her are her mother and two uncles, her sister and brothers, her sisters-in-law, cousins and her three young sons - 18 of them in all on this journey into the family's past.

The day is not as hot as Jeni expected, the south-central Idaho landscape not as brown. She has heard stories about Minidoka's scorching summers, about the endless dust that blew through cracks in the barracks walls. But this terrain is different: green and fertile and, in a way, even beautiful.

Just as this place has changed, so has Jeni. She is no longer the talkative young girl who hated the sound of the Japanese language, the Asian child raised in white suburbs who found her heritage a handicap. She is no longer the young woman who sought out another identity as an adult, converting to Judaism, laboring over matzo balls and sending her son to Hebrew school.

"I felt the shame to be Japanese at first," Jeni will tell those with her on this trip, the emotion of the words making her voice catch. "It was only as an adult that I developed an amazing sense of pride."

It is a sentiment familiar to many here, the children of the men and women shipped off to the camps. Their generation escaped internment, but not its legacy. Even as their parents assimilated, and often succeeded, in a still-hostile country, they grappled with their very sense of themselves - uncertain not just about their place in America, but about America itself.

"All of this is a manifestation of a need to learn and know," says Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "In a real way, what happened to their parents also happened to them. It's as much about their identity as their parents' identity."

For Jeni, ignorance and denial of her family's past slowly gave way to curiosity, then to a mix of pride and anger. Pride in her Japanese roots, and in the resilience of her family during and after internment. Anger that America had betrayed the trust of her family and so many others. It has made it hard for her to trust her government.

As she makes her way around the site of the camp, Jeni links arms with her mother. She wants to hear every story; no detail is too small. She will use every means she can, from video camera to sketch pad, to record these moments. She longs for insight, for a sense of connection to what happened here, for memories she fears may have already been lost.

Jeni Yamada has never set foot in this place before, and yet, in immeasurable ways, it has shaped her entire life.

Getting here has taken a long time indeed.

Different and apart

By the time she started kindergarten, Jeni knew she was somehow different. Talkative and precocious, she would trot up to strangers and engage them in conversation. But soon she learned that some people didn't like her just because she was Japanese. "What are you?" her white classmates would ask. Telling them she was American didn't seem to convince them.

Jeni was born just after Thanksgiving in 1951, the year after her parents married. Yoshikazu "Yosh" Yamada and Mitsuye Yasutake had met in Chicago a few years after the war. With Minidoka behind her, Mitsuye had managed to work her way through college and begin graduate school. Yosh, who was born in Hawaii, had been spared internment, serving in the U.S. Army as a soldier and translator - even helping decipher a captured Japanese document that proved critical to the U.S. victory in the Mariana Islands. He was pursuing a doctorate in chemistry en route to becoming a research chemist.

Mitsuye and Yosh raised Jeni and her three siblings in comfortable suburban settings, middle-class communities, first on Long Island and later in Southern California. None of the neighbors looked like they did, and that was just fine. Something in their subconscious told them it was better to try to blend into white America.

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