Karen L. Ishizuka
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When pressed, Sansei give lip service to the obvious fact that we are now old. But we don’t really believe it. In the cosmology of Issei, Nisei, Sansei — Issei are old, Nisei are middle-aged and Sansei are forever young. But here I be, with the honor of having been asked to write on the “Legacy of the Sansei.” The juxtaposition of those two words — Sansei + Legacy — is an undeniable clue that Sansei = Old. Old enough to leave a legacy. A legacy of Never Again!
I was raised by three sets of grandparents, a father, a mother, a stepmother, and 15 aunts and uncles, as well as an entire community who spent over three years behind barbed wire. Although I was too young to have been in camp, I inherited it. Unintentionally yet unconditionally, they bequeathed me the immensity of camp.
In 1994, I curated the exhibition, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” for the Japanese American National Museum. By that time, I had written a master’s thesis, a stage play and a short narrative film about the wholesale incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It was part of my effort to crack the code — to not only understand what camp was about but, once exposed, to come to grips with the immensity I had inherited. Despite the fact they had done nothing wrong, my entire family and community had been convicted of being a threat to national security — potential terrorists in today’s parlance — without any due process of law and summarily incarcerated in 10 concentration camps from California to Arkansas for the duration of World War II.
Why? Because of the color of their skin. Even though the U.S. was also at war with Italy and Germany, besides Japan, and that some Germans and Italians were detained, only the Japanese — men, women, elderly and children — were subjected to mass incarceration.
Growing up, Nisei never talked about camp, but they were constantly talking around it. Therefore, although we Sansei didn’t know what this thing called “camp” was, we knew it was a thing. They spoke in code: What camp were you in? Where did you go after camp? Before camp, we lived in Los Angeles. After camp, we lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Before camp, I went to college to become an engineer. After camp, I became a gardener. Before camp (fill in the blank), after camp (fill in the blank). Their lives were forever after dichotomized into “before the war” and “after the war” with this thing called “camp” in-between.
It was as if everything about my parents’ lives had been informed by camp, including their child-rearing practices. While I didn’t grasp the broader sociopolitical implications of camp, I nonetheless got the message that I needed to be 200 percent American in order to retroactively prove, as my mother said, that it was wrong for the U.S. to have put Japanese Americans “in camp.”
Whenever we Sansei asked about camp, Nisei waved us away with shikata ga nai, let bygones be bygones, don’t cry over spilt milk. But maybe it wasn’t that Nisei wouldn’t talk about it as much as they couldn’t talk about it. Amy Iwasaki Mass, a social worker who had spent three years of her childhood in camp and a lifetime trying to understand its psychological effects, pointed out that Nisei used the defense mechanisms of denial, repression and rationalization to keep from realizing that their own country had not only failed to protect them, but had acted against them.
And not only were the Nisei silenced, the entire country was silent. To this day, there are otherwise well-educated adults who know nothing about the camps.
Enveloped by this smog that lay over our generation, we set out to clear the air and find out for ourselves what camp was about. In 1969, Sansei organized the first pilgrimage to the ruins of Manzanar, one of the 10 camps run by the War Relocation Authority. Like subversive archeologists excavating an ancient dig, these dissident detectives exhumed rows of broken concrete foundations that had once supported tar-papered barracks — stand-ins for homes; remains of ponds and gardens — attempts to camouflage the punitive reality of confinement; a graveyard of broken Army-issue dishes — artifacts of a colonized existence. Stout-hearted, they cleared the brush, cleaned the monument and tended to the graves of those who had died in camp — ohakamairi. It was the first public commemoration of the mass incarceration in the country, and the Manzanar pilgrimage became an annual event, now in its 38th year.
Soon thereafter, Sansei spearheaded a nationwide effort to obtain an official apology from the U.S. government and, because wrongs are redressed monetarily in this country, reparations for the remaining survivors of America’s concentration camps. It was only because of the determination and fortitude — the grit — of the Japanese American community, fueled primarily by Sansei, that the U.S. issued a rare formal apology. After studying the issue and hearing testimonies across the nation, the U.S. government also admitted that the incarceration was not, in fact, justified by military necessity as it was professed, but instead was a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” For Sansei, the long struggle to achieve redress and reparations was never about crying over spilt milk and everything about proclaiming Never Again!
We had taken to heart Pastor Niemoller’s warning that “First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out.” We understood that when innocent Americans were herded into what the government itself called concentration camps, it was a failure of democracy that affected all Americans. We felt it was our responsibility to speak out and declare that never again should anyone else’s grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, communities be stripped of their civil rights and treated like ours had been.
After 9/11, 2001, we were infuriated when — despite our conviction of Never Again! — the same racial profiling that had targeted Japanese Americans during World War II was again unleashed. And now, amidst the Muslim ban and deportation of immigrants, we again cry out Never Again! We third-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry, now so smugly safe in our model minorityness, must remember that not so long ago, AJAs were accused of being such a threat to national security and the American way of life that we were locked up for no reason other than looking like the enemy.
If the Issei legacy was to endure hardship, forging a life in this country for us, and the Nisei legacy was to prove their loyalty in blood for us, the Sansei legacy is to declare Never Again! It’s the least we can do. It is our debt to generations past and our duty to generations to come.
Karen L. Ishizuka is the author of “Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Sixties,” (2015), “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” (2006), and co-editor of “Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories” (2008). Ishizuka is an award-winning documentary writer/producer and museum curator who helped establish the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. She received a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. A third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, Ishizuka lives in Culver City, Calif., with her husband, filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura, and has two children and three grandchildren.