Thursday, April 7, 2011

Japanese Americans in Utah: Opression and Art during WWII

This blog post is a photo and written word collage containing the following elements:
  • Photographs I took (with permission) during my visit to the Testament to Topaz exhibit, which was displayed at Pioneer Theater on University of Utah campus March, 2011. The exhibit held primarily artwork created by those California residents forced to reside at Topaz, the Japanese American internment camp in Southern Utah, during World War II. The art pieces belong to the J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections Department, and the Topaz Museum, Delta, Utah.
  • Facts quoted from exhibit posters and the Topaz Museum website.
  • Quotations from a couple of my favorite books by Japanese-American authors, The Strangeness of Beauty (set in Japan and California in the 1930s) by Lydia Minatoya, and When the Emperor Was Divine (set in San Francisco and Topaz Interment Camp in the 1940s) by Julie Otsuka.
Approach this blog post the way you would a museum. Browse. Take a few moments to ponder who these artists were, what they experienced, and how they responded.

Exclusion Order
 The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during WWII was one of the worst violations of civil rights in the history of the United States. The government and the US Army, citing "military necessity," locked up over 110,000 men, women, and children in 10 remote camps.

Fences and Poles
These Americans were never convicted or even charged with any crime, yet were incarcerated for up to 4 years in prison camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. 

 To be an American citizen and lose one’s constitutional rights and civil liberties because of racial bias, public sentiment, and wartime hysteria is almost unthinkable. Yet after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fifteen hundred Japanese Americans considered enemy aliens by the FBI were immediately picked up for questioning and imprisoned, although they were never tried. (Testament to Topaz)

"Now whenever [the boy] thought of his father he saw him at sundown, leaning against a fence post in Lordsburg, in the camp for dangerous enemy aliens. 'My daddy's an outlaw,' he whispered. He liked the sound of the word. Outlaw. He'd be thinking these things, and then the image would suddenly float up before him: his father, in his bathrobe and slippers, being led away across the lawn. Into the car, Papa-san." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

And in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 sanctioned the evacuation and internment of more than 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in coastal areas from Washington to California and as far inland as Southern Arizona (Testament to Topaz).

People Were in Shock by Mine Okubo
Within weeks, 40,000 Japanese immigrants, and 70,000 American-born U.S. citizens and third-generation Japanese Americans were forced to surrender their homes and possessions. Without legal recourse, and taking only what they could carry, these people were temporarily housed in horse stalls in overcrowded assembly centers, and then herded onto trains with the windows covered for transport to one of the ten remote and hastily constructed interment camps in the United States. (Testament to Topaz)

Mine Okubo
Some 11,000 stunned and bewildered people were confined in the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah’s Millard County. “When we arrived the camp’s Boy Scout bugle corps played, and an oversized banner greeted us with ‘Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert,’ but rifles were pointed at us, not outward,” said Grace Fujimoto Oshita. (Testament to Topaz)

Surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers with armed soldiers, Topaz was built on 20,000 acres of barren desert often plagued with mosquitoes and temperatures that soared above 105 degrees in summers and below zero in winter. (Testament to Topaz)

Where Would We Go? by Thomas Ryosaku Matsuoka
 "On a warm evening in April a man was shot dead by the barbed-wire fence. The guard who was on duty said the man had been trying to escape. He’d called out to him four times, the guard said, the man had ignored him. Friends of the dead man said he had simply been taking his dog for a walk. He might not have heard the guard, they said, because he was hard of hearing. Or because of the wind. One man who had gone to the scene of the accident right after the shooting had noticed a rare and unusual flower on the other side of the fence. It was his belief that his friend had been reaching out to pick the flower when the shot had been fired." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)
"The rules about the fence were simple: You could not go over it, you could not go under it, you could not go around it, you could not go through it. And if your kite got stuck in it? That was an easy one. You let the kite go." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

Life in the Barracks
Of the 42 blocks at Topaz, 36 were used for housing. Each block housed 200 people in 12 barracks and included a recreation room, latrines for men and women, and a mess hall. The 42 blocks were in an area less than one square mile. (Testament to Topaz)

Insulation for the barracks consisted of tar-papered walls and a single pot-bellied stove in each unit. There was no running water. Barracks were either 16x20, 20x25 or 25x25 feet and housed 3-5 people per apartment. (Testament to Topaz)

"Their old life seemed far away and remote to him now, like a dream he could not quite remember. The bright green grass, the roses, the house on the wide street not far from the sea--that was another time, a different year." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

"From inside the barracks the boy could not see the sun or the moon or even the next row of barracks on the other side of the gravel path. All he could see was dust. The wind rattled the windows and doors and the dust seeped like smoke through the cracks in the roof and at night he slept with a wet handkerchief over his mouth to keep out the smell. In the morning, when he woke, the wet handkerchief was dry and in his mouth there was the gritty taste of chalk." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

"She said she no longer had any appetite. Food bored her. “Go ahead and eat without me,” she said. She said she didn’t want rice. She didn’t want anything anymore. Not a thing. 

"One day she couldn’t bear it anymore. The wind. The dust. The endless waiting. The couple next door to them constantly fighting. She hung a white sheet from a rope and called it a curtain and behind the white curtain she lay down on her cot and she closed her eyes and she slept." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

In Japan, white represents the absence of life. It is the color worn by the dead. (The Strangeness of Beauty, Lydia Minatoya)

The main buildings at Topaz consisted of a hospital, two elementary schools, and a secondary high school. (Testament to Topaz)

The Mess Hall
 Meals in the camp contained very meager portions. Topaz did have a working cattle ranch as well as pigs and chickens that were raised for food. The animals from these areas were the only source of meat for the internees. (Testament to Topaz)

Internees were employed at different jobs around the camp and were paid wages ranging from $12 to $19 per month. (Employment was optional.) Internees could obtain passes to work in nearby Delta, Utah. (Testament to Topaz)

One Day the Canteen Sold Yard Goods by Mine Okubo
"On days when there was hot water she went to the laundry room and washed all their clothes on the wooden washboard. Otherwise she had no tasks. She did not apply for a job as nurse's aide at the hospital, or as a timekeeper down on the project farm. The pay--sixteen dollars a month--was not worth it, she said. she did not give blood to the Red Cross or sit with the other mothers knitting wool socks and mufflers for the GIs who were fighting for freedom oversees. Most days she did not leave the room at all." (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

Topaz Art School
Untitled (Iris) by Chiura Obata
The genesis of the art school began with one artist, Chiura Obata, at Tanforan, the horseracing track just outside of San Francisco, where over 8,000 people of Japanese descent were confined until Topaz was built. At the time, many of the internees, including Obata, were living in horse stalls turned into makeshift barracks with just a hurried white-wash over the walls and linoleum ove the manure-covered floors.  

As a child in Japan, Obata studied traditional sumi-e painting, a brush technique using various shades of black ink. Years later after immigrating to the U.S. he became an art instructor at University of California, Berkeley. 

When World War II broke out, Obata could have relocated early by going to S. Louis to live with his son, but instead he chose to remain with his Japanese friends who were sent to Tanforan. He felt he could help them in their time of need.

Obata started the art school because of his desire to continue painting but also to give people distressed by internment the opportunity to immerse themselves in the beauty of art and its creative healing power.

The school burgeoned to over 600 students ranging in ages from 6-70. Students could attend five levels of instruction from elementary to adult education classes. Sixteen teachers taught 95 classes per week on 23 subjects, including figure drawing, still life, architectural drawing, anatomy, and commercial art. 

Throughout the course of this shameful injustice, the internees remained resilient. In the spirit of shikataganai, or “It can’t be helped,” they strived for normalcy. Men built furniture from scrap lumber, women swept out the endless dust, and children carried coal-filled buckets to tend the pot-bellied stoves. School classrooms were set up, dances were held, dates were made and sports were played. Fossilized seashells found in the dirt were glued and painted into blooming flowers; and artists painted their enduring testimony to Topaz. (Eileen Hallet Stone, Salt Lake Tribune Living History.)

"But every once in a while she got a faraway look in her eyes and he knew she was thinking of some other place. A better place. “Just once,” she told him, “I’d like to look out the window and see the sea.” (When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka)

“Training in art maintains high ideals among our people, for its object is to prevent their minds from remaining on the plains, to encourage human spirits to dwell high above the mountains.” (George Hibi, Topaz Art School)

"I know my bias, my Japanese American predilection to be pathologically cheerful." (The Strangeness of Beauty, Lydia Minatoya)

"Myo--the strangeness of beauty--an idea that transcendence can be found in what’s common and small. Rather than wishing for singularity and celebrity and genius (and growing all gloomy in its absence), painters recognize the ordinariness of their talents and remain undaunted. 

"And therein lies the transcendence. For as people pursue their plain, decent goals, as they whittle their crude flutes, paint their flat landscapes, make unexceptional love to their spouses--in their numbers across cultures and time, in their sheer tenacity as in the face of a random universe they perform their small acts of awareness and appreciation--there is a mysterious, strange beauty." (The Strangeness of Beauty, Lydia Minatoya)

1 comment:

  1. Those poor people so used to fog and being near the ocean. I was at Topaz in June--so hot, so inhospitable a place. I can't imagine it.