Eight decades after incarceration, Japanese Americans reflect on its legacy
By Adán Quan, AAJA JCamp 2022 — Los Angeles
Editor’s note: The j-slur is used several times throughout this story. We would like to recognize the historical context of the word and the harm it has caused, as well as how it is unacceptable to use now. It has remained in the story either because it directly relates to an experience, or because it is a direct quote.
A slip of the tongue in post-war America. Something shouted by kids playing war. But it’s a word that still jars Chiyoko Niimi to this day. It has followed her throughout her life- from before World War II, to the camps, while she was growing up. An echo of the wartime hysteria that took hold of so many Americans, but a powerful one.
The legacy of the camps is one that affects many Japanese Americans deeply. Over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, the ally of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Niimi’s family, along with over 17,000 other Japanese and Japanese-Americans, were interned at Poston War Relocation Center, a concentration camp located in Arizona on the lands of the Colorado River Indian reservation, following the attack as well as Executive Order 9066 and related actions.
The camp was also run jointly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who saw the camp as an opportunity to get free labor to improve the reservation for the post-war period. To Niimi, now 84, the injustice of incarceration was only made worse by this- a continuation of a long history of erasure and oppression of various cultures, with one forcibly relocated population being moved aside for another.
“It was sad because already they have the Native Americans living there. They had to relocate them so that they could make room for us,” Niimi said in an interview.
In the words of the Poston Community Alliance, a historical preservation organization focusing on the camp, “During those war years two disenfranchised peoples were held under the watchful eyes of both the Office of Indian Affairs and the War Relocation Authority.”
Uprooted from their homes and incarcerated by their government, Japanese-Americans faced many issues, the most obvious of these being economic troubles resulting from fast sales of their land and property. Before being forcibly relocated inland by the U.S. government, Niimi’s family had owned a local hotel — one that they had to sell for almost no money, and would never return to post-war. Many others shared the experience of returning to strangers living where they once did, without the financial ability to buy back their property.
The time in the camps themselves took a toll on many Japanese Americans, especially children who didn’t fully understand what was happening. Niimi, whose surname at the time was Togawa, was one of those children.
While in the camp, she did “everything that most Americans” did — she was a girl scout, went to school, and played with her friends. She never questioned why she was there. But it was hard to ignore the harsh conditions. Razor wire and armed guards surrounded the facility. Beds were made of hay. And day-to-day life was in complete isolation from the outside world.
Despite never feeling in danger, the strict rules and harsh punishments when camp officials were disobeyed still left a lasting impression on Niimi. On top of that, she was told by her mother not to speak Japanese with her family. Eventually, Niimi stopped completely.
“My biggest regret is that I lost my language, my first language, because we just kept speaking English,” she said in an interview.
The loss of language has followed the Japanese American community to this day. A significant number of Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo “don’t care” about speaking their ancestral tongue, according to Shelly Niimi, the daughter of Chiyoko and a volunteer at the Little Tokyo Visitor Center.
Decades of discrimination and cultural erasure on the part of the U.S. government, including the usage of concentration camps, has pushed many non-english speaking or bilingual people toward English. Yet some prefer to preserve the Japanese language, considering it an important part of honoring their heritage, she said. Chiyoko thinks it is important to preserve native languages, and still hears Japanese spoken in Little Tokyo- although not as much as she used to.
“Before, Little Tokyo was mainly for the people that spoke Japanese like my father, a place where they could go and eat their food and you know, talk to people in their language. But as time passes it’s becoming where other people are interested in,” Niimi said. “And I think it’s good. It’s always good for people to learn about other people and other backgrounds. And a lot of times they learn to appreciate it.”
Japanese Americans face a tug-of-war between two parts of their identity. Many appreciate the initial opportunities offered to them upon arrival in the U.S. For instance, Niimi’s immigrant father built a business after starting with very little, having left his family behind in Japan. On the other hand, it’s difficult for many to forget being called “aliens,” imprisoned by their own government because of their heritage, being called non-American and dehumanized despite their sacrifices. This has created a challenge in the way many see themselves.
Shelly said she sees this often in the Japanese American community. Shelly has connected with her heritage and taught others about it by volunteering for the Little Tokyo Historical Society. But not all Japanese-Americans make as much of an effort as she does. Some would prefer to assimilate, another ingredient lost in the U.S. melting pot.
“Many say, ‘I’m an American, I speak English,’” she said.
For Shelly, being Japanese American places her in a unique spot — not fully Japanese nor American. Instead, she’s stuck in between. Shelly previously identified more strongly as Japanese, but this changed when she visited Japan when she was younger in an attempt to rediscover the language and culture of the country.
“I thought, ‘Why are these people so different? The culture is very different,’” she said.
Visiting Japan made her realize she was in a unique spot, not just American and not just Japanese.
Back in America, stereotypes have followed her mother throughout her life, even after wartime hysteria wore off. One that has shadowed her worklife is the myth of the model minority, the idea that Asian-Americans are how all minorities should be: respectful, quiet, hardworking. It pushed Chiyoko to try to prove herself more than her co-workers. Slowly, she changed her own mindset.
“Why should they judge you and what you do? Who has the power… who has the right to do that,” Chiyoko said.
Changing her own thought process still didn’t change how others saw her. Yet instead of standing by and allowing stereotypes to flourish, Niimi chose to combat prejudice. As a school counselor, she was often asked by the history teacher to speak when the class reached the topic of incarceration. One exercise is etched in her head.
Handing out copies of the evacuation order, Niimi would ask one thing: How would the students feel if it was their identity on the page in the place of “Japanese” and “both alien and non-alien”?
Students felt angry. Scared. Still, they left out the one feeling Niimi almost always felt — shame.
Shame was the “underlying feeling” following her out of the camps, only made worse by insensitive questions and insults thrown her way. Shame bubbled up inside when someone gave her a weird look, or worse, called her a “jap.” It has never truly gone away.
As she grew older, Niimi took greater pride in her identity. Shaped by her experiences, she encourages everyone to learn more about their cultures — especially those who are multicultural.
With multiracial Chinese and Japanese American grandchildren, Niimi hopes that they will be able to learn about the contributions made by immigrants of both countries and recognize the work done by their ancestors to create a space for themselves in the U.S., as well as staying connected to their heritage.
“It’s important for them to learn both, you know, the history of the Chinese culture and the contributions that the Chinese have made and Japanese have made here and in their own country, and it just it just gives you a sense of appreciation for your ancestors.”