Telling Our Stories

In 1978, over 30 years after FDR signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, more than 2,000 Japanese Americans rode National Guard buses, trucks, and cars from Seattle to the old grounds of the Puyallup Assembly Center. Advertised as A DAY OF REMEMBRANCE, the event gathered over 2,000 attendants to publicly recreate and commemorate the mass removals of the past, bringing together generations of Japanese Americans who lived through the trauma of concentration camps. As a community, they bore witness to each other’s truths by telling stories.

More than 40 years later, in 2019, these stories live on at Tufts through the love and labor of Asian American students. Japanese Culture Club (JCC) held our annual Day of Remembrance (DOR) in the Alumnae Lounge on Friday, March 1. Dating back at least 25 years, our event is one of the longest running annual college DOR events on the East Coast. We screened The Ito Sisters, an intergenerationally story of three sisters separated during Japanese incarceration. We then held a panel with the film’s director and granddaughter of one of the Ito sisters, Antonia Glenn; the director’s mother, Berkeley Professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn; and Wellesley Professor Elena Tajima Creef. The next Sunday, three JCC members told their family’s histories of incarceration in an open community meeting.

First-year Richard Nakatsuka, who works as a designer for the Observer, says his parents told him the story of his great-grandfather’s incarceration when he was just nine years old. Nakatsuka’s great-grandfather was a Japanese immigrant who lived in Hawai’i and worked in communications for the Japanese consulate before he was incarcerated in Santa Fe, New Mexico. By fourth grade, Nakatsuka created an award-winning historical research report out of declassified FBI files unearthed by his father on his great-grandfather that predated the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nakatsuka’s school commissioned him to teach fifth graders the history of Japanese incarceration. Learning and teaching this history from an early age strengthened Richard’s political resolve and helped him understand himself.

“On the outside, that might seem intense, but honestly, it saved me from a lot of cognitive dissonance in high school and college,” Nakatsuka said. “It saved me from a lot of emotional turmoil as well.”

First-year Makenzie Tomihiro also received early exposure to Japanese incarceration histories through her family’s involvement in the Japanese American community in San Jose, California. Her grandfather was incarcerated at Poston—a concentration camp forcibly built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation—and later released through his wartime service as a translator. After attending Stanford University on the GI Bill, Tomihiro’s grandfather was unable to find employment in the private sector due to racism against Japanese people, and worked in the government for the rest of his life. In third grade, Tomihiro attended a Japanese American summer camp that taught incarceration history through art projects, like making concentration camp barracks out of popsicle sticks. By middle school, Tomihiro began to ask her grandfather more about his experiences. By high school, she worked as a tour guide at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. During this time, she began to understand why her grandfather might have downplayed his hardships due to the culture of silence that ruptured Japanese American communities during and after incarceration. “That’s when I started realizing this was actually something that was really horrible,” Tomihiro said.

Sophomore Emily Taketa only began fully learning the implications of incarceration for her family in preparation for DOR this year. “It was always kind of a thing that we just brushed aside,” Taketa said. “I carried that mentality partly because when you talk to your parents or your grandparents you don’t want to make them sad, or infringe upon their privacy.”

But this year, impelled by student collaborations with United for Immigrant Justice at last year’s DOR and her grandmother’s recent passing, Taketa called her 96 year-old grandfather on his birthday to learn more about his incarceration at Camp Amache. Taketa was able to make greater sense of her family’s history, but was frustrated when her grandfather evaded her questions by laughing them off. She was conflicted, angry at the injustices her grandfather had faced, but at the same time did not want to push him to unearth histories he might have buried long ago.

“He just was like, ‘This is how it was, this is how you learned, and that’s it,’” Emily said. “So I was just sobbing in my room, by myself, just really frustrated. I muted the phone so they couldn’t hear me crying because I didn’t want to upset him. That was me being so angry at myself—the situation—that I didn’t know.”

At the open meeting, Taketa, Tomihiro, and Nakatsuka told their stories to a packed Eaton classroom of predominantly Asian American students. The setting was intimate and emotionally charged. For Nakatsuka, telling his great-grandfather’s story with JCC to the Asian American community was a supportive experience when compared to the time his school made him teach Japanese incarceration to fifth graders as a fourth grader.

“When I was telling this story in fourth grade, [I was] telling this to a bunch of White kids and none of them understood what I was saying,” Nakatsuka said. “To have some kind of community backing you is really important and made it a lot easier.”

Although the storytelling process was nerve-wracking for Taketa, she found comfort in knowing the experiences of Nakatsuka and Tomihiro. “I was super excited—and wanted to cry because I was so nervous,” she said. “Especially after seeing Richard and Mackenzie go… I could feel like their stories were connected.”

After the presentation, Taketa immediately received hugs and text messages of support and gratitude from friends. One gave her a letter of encouragement and another gave her chocolate. Telling her grandfather’s story required immense levels of emotional labor—more than she believed herself capable of. Taketa was proud to have told her grandfather’s story to a room full of friends and strangers with whom she now feels more strongly connected.

“I walk around campus and I see them now, and they know,” said Taketa. “It’s not some secret that I’m keeping to myself… because the hope of having all of these open meetings was that more people can know… things that we don’t want to happen again.”  

Before coming to Tufts, Tomihiro had never been part of a community that did not know the history of Japanese incarceration—that a student body lacked this critical knowledge was a shocking realization. Tomihiro saw the silence on these issues at Tufts as a result of the shortage of Asian American Studies courses offered and low retention rate for faculty of color; Tufts consistently offers only one Asian American-focused course per year during the Fall semester. Last year alone, at least 11 faculty and staff of color left the university.

“I think my high school had more Asian American classes than my college,” Tomihiro said. “The first step would be to find teachers—and Tufts is having problems with that already… Why are people of color the only people who care about teachers of color? It should be an entire student body-wide issue.”

Nakatsuka acknowledged that despite institutional barriers, he will continue to tell the history. “No, it should not be our responsibility [to teach the history of Japanese incarceration],” Nakatsuka said. “But the reality is that it is… if you’re not going to educate, who is?”

More than 70 years after the concentration camps were closed, we are still educating Americans about their history. At Tufts, the Asian American community bears the burden of histories told by Nakatsuka, Tomihiro, and Taketa. On our Day of Remembrance, the community bears witness to injustices against the living and the dead; and we do this in the spirit of resistance that brought communities together at the first Day of Remembrance more than forty years ago. A 1978 flyer states the intentions of the event:

Remember the concentration camps

stand for redress with your family

By 1988, the Redress Movement culminated in a national apology and $20,000 in reparations for each surviving detainee; but above all, it brought communities back together. Stories were told across generations in the hopes that the future might be more just for all. Today, many stories remain untold. But at Tufts, students are fighting to break the silence.

“There are so many people’s stories, so many Asian American stories that are just burdens on people,” Taketa said, “but if you can talk about them and use them in a useful way… It’s not a burden, it’s more like a weapon.”

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