Not get­ting stuck in in­jus­tice


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Ja­panese Amer­i­can cit­i­zens in WWII-era New Mex­ico

Dur­ing Nikki No­jima Louis’ fourth birth­day party at her fam­ily home in Seat­tle, FBI agents ar­rived to ar­rest her fa­ther. It was De­cem­ber 7, 1941, and the Ja­panese mil­i­tary had just bombed Pearl Har­bor. Louis’ fa­ther, Shoichi No­jima, was a newspaper edi­tor who had em­i­grated to the United States. He was one of the thou­sands of Ja­panese men in­terned in New Mex­ico as part of a na­tional pol­icy whereby more than 100,000 Ja­panese Amer­i­cans were in­car­cer­ated, mostly in the in­te­rior West, be­cause they were per­ceived to be a se­cu­rity threat.

In re­al­ity, most were or­di­nary civil­ians stripped of their prop­erty and their busi­nesses, and they were of­ten sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies be­cause of their an­ces­try.

The ex­hibit Courage and Com­pas­sion: Our Shared Story of the Ja­panese Amer­i­can WWII Ex­pe­ri­ence, which tells this larger story, as well as the sto­ries of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans in New Mex­ico, runs through Nov. 3 at the Al­bu­querque Museum. The show is in the museum’s com­mu­nity gallery, which fea­tures ro­tat­ing exhibits cu­rated by lo­cal res­i­dents, in con­junc­tion with museum staff.

Courage and Com­pas­sion fo­cuses on many as­pects of the Ja­panese Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice and forced re­lo­ca­tion, and also hon­ors peo­ple who chal­lenged the war hys­te­ria that de­mo­nized Ja­panese Amer­i­cans and reached out to help their neigh­bors.

“You can cer­tainly re­late this to what is hap­pen­ing today,” said Me­gan Keller, direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and exhibits for the Go For Broke Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter in Los An­ge­les, the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind the tour­ing ex­hibit. “We have some­thing in the ex­hibit that says this hap­pened in the past and it can hap­pen again.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion is named for the slo­gan used by the 442nd Regimental Com­bat Team, a U.S. Army unit com­prised of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans from Hawaii and the con­ti­nen­tal United States. Al­bu­querque is the tenth stop for the Go For Broke ex­hibit, which gives the larger per­spec­tive of these events. In each city, lo­cal his­to­ri­ans and res­i­dents weave sto­ries of their com­mu­ni­ties into the na­tional ex­hibit.

Louis is the com­mu­nity curator for the New Mex­ico por­tion of the ex­hibit. The artis­tic direc­tor of the New Mex­ico Ja­panese Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens League theater group (JACL Play­ers), she has spent years re­search­ing sto­ries of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans from this pe­riod and turn­ing their oral his­to­ries into the­atri­cal per­for­mances.

Her fa­ther was sent to camps in Lords­burg and Santa Fe, which only housed men. Louis was in­terned with her mother at the Minidoka camp in Idaho, and the story of those larger camps, oper­ated by the War Re­lo­ca­tion Au­thor­ity, are what most peo­ple know, Keller said.

“What most peo­ple don’t know are the sto­ries of prison camps in New Mex­ico, and that’s what makes New Mex­ico very unique,” Louis said.

In ad­di­tion to Lords­burg and Santa Fe, the New Mex­ico camps were lo­cated in Fort Stan­ton and Old Ra­ton Ranch. That’s ac­cord­ing to Con­fine­ment in the

Land of En­chant­ment, a book par­tially funded by a grant from the Na­tional Park Ser­vice’s Ja­panese Amer­i­can Con­fine­ment Site Pro­gram and pub­lished in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Colorado State Uni­ver­sity Pub­lic Lands His­tory Cen­ter and the New Mex­ico chap­ter of JACL. Like Shoichi No­jima, the men in the Lords­burg camp were deemed alien ene­mies af­ter Pearl Har­bor.

The Lords­burg camp, in South­west New Mex­ico, was open from 1942 to 1943 and held about 1,500 men. It was marked by la­bor dis­putes, un­rest, and the shoot­ing of two el­derly Ja­panese men by an Army guard. By 1943, the men were re­lo­cated to civil­ian camps run by the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice or the Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice.

The Santa Fe camp held a to­tal of 4,555 men over the years, in­clud­ing Ja­panese men from Peru. Dur­ing World War II, a num­ber of Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, in­clud­ing Peru, worked with the United States to de­port 2,200 of its Ja­panese res­i­dents, who were in­car­cer­ated in U.S. in­tern­ment camps.

Old Ra­ton Ranch was an old Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps site and home briefly to Ja­panese Amer­i­cans forced out of Clo­vis. Fort Stan­ton was used for de­tainees from other camps who author­i­ties deemed “trou­ble­some.” It also held Ger­man POWs.

The ex­hibit in­cludes ar­ti­facts, such as carv­ings and other art­works made by men who were

in­car­cer­ated, in­clud­ing a small fish­ing boat in a frame (both made from dis­carded pieces of wood) and a carved wood ele­phant. There are also sketches, news­pa­pers started by in­car­cer­ated men, and photos of fam­i­lies who lived in New Mex­ico and ran busi­nesses here.

By the start of the war, there were about 200 Ja­panese Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the state, ac­cord­ing to Con­fine­ment. Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt’s or­der of Feb. 19, 1942, au­tho­rized fed­eral of­fi­cials to de­tain peo­ple con­sid­ered se­cu­rity threats. They could be ex­cluded from 12 zones along the Pa­cific Coast.

Out­side those zones, peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences de­pended on where they lived. In Las Cruces, Roy Nakayama’s fam­ily was not in­car­cer­ated or forced out, but there were ru­mors among lo­cal res­i­dents that lights on their barn were in­stalled to direct Ja­panese planes to nearby Fort Bliss. They were among a hand­ful of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans farm­ing in the Me­silla Val­ley.

Nakayama, who was one of eight chil­dren, went into the Army in 1944. He was cap­tured near the Bat­tle of the Bulge and spent six months in a Ger­man prison camp. When he re­turned, he went into hor­ti­cul­ture stud­ies and be­came known as Mr. Chile for his work hy­bridiz­ing chile va­ri­eties to cre­ate the meaty and mild Big Jim, which is now so ubiq­ui­tous in New Mex­ico.

Roy Nakayama died in 1988, but his niece, Jane Nakayama Cole, said a show like this is im­por­tant be­cause there is so much anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment in the coun­try again.

“You can show peo­ple what kind of life we have lived,” said Cole, who lives in Al­bu­querque. “When­ever you start telling your sto­ries to some­one who might be will­ing to lis­ten, we all find our com­mon hu­man­ity some­place.”

An­other story high­lighted in the ex­hibit fo­cuses on the Miyag­ishima fam­ily. Mike, who died last year, was a re­tired Air Force of­fi­cer who had been in­car­cer­ated as a child in Ari­zona and later set­tled his fam­ily in Las Cruces. His son, Ken, is serv­ing his third term as mayor of the city.

The Yonemoto fam­ily was farm­ing in Grants and Ari­zona but gave up the Ari­zona land be­cause of racist at­tacks by white farm­ers, Louis says. They built sev­eral thriv­ing busi­nesses in Al­bu­querque in the years that fol­lowed, in­clud­ing the first Ja­panese restau­rant in the city, Taro’s Gar­dens.

“So New Mex­ico is kind of unique in that way,” Louis said. “On the whole, it does have this rep­u­ta­tion for tol­er­ance.”

A database of everyone held at the camps is in­cluded in the ex­hibit. This proved in­valu­able for Les Ha­masaki, whose grand­fa­ther was taken from their home in Hawaii when Ha­masaki was three years old. He re­turned when Ha­masaki was five, but like many Ja­panese Amer­i­cans who were in­car­cer­ated, he never talked about it. Ha­masaki didn’t know where his grand­fa­ther went un­til he found his name on the Lords­burg list.

“We all have sto­ries to tell of how our lives were af­fected,” he said. “Those en­vi­ron­ments shape who we are and what we have done and why.”

Ha­masaki grew up to be­come a Los An­ge­les city plan­ner. His mother helped point him on that path, say­ing, “You bet­ter work for the city be­cause they can’t fire you be­cause you’re Ja­panese.”

As part of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, he re­called go­ing through a pe­riod of not want­ing to be Ja­panese.

“It’s like Mother Ja­pan and Fa­ther Amer­i­can were fight­ing to the end and you had to choose one or the other.”

Find­ing his grand­fa­ther’s path helped him un­der­stand his own story, said Ha­masaki, who plans to travel to Al­bu­querque to see the ex­hibit.

Louis said many peo­ple of her fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion stayed silent, in­ter­nal­iz­ing the racism and psy­cho­log­i­cal guilt of that time. She said that her theater work of­ten touched emo­tions buried deeply in peo­ple, even bring­ing them to tears.

Younger au­di­ences are hun­gry for in­for­ma­tion on how her gen­er­a­tion sur­vived in­car­cer­a­tion, she said.

“We’ve had 70 years of knowl­edge and ed­u­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion about the in­jus­tices, but you can’t get stuck there. That’s the mes­sage I want to put out be­cause ha­tred and bit­ter­ness are so dam­ag­ing to our­selves.”

Photos of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans are dis­played on lug­gage at Kings­burg His­tor­i­cal Park in Cal­i­for­nia, photo Me­gan Keller

A wood carv­ing of an ele­phant made by Ku­ni­taro Takeuchi while he was in­terned at the Santa Fe camp, cour­tesy Masa Sa­mukawa and the New Mex­ico chap­ter of the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens League

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