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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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People who make pilgrimages to a World War II Japanese American incarceration camp and their stories

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JEROME, Idaho (AP) — The gnats are back, swarming near my face. But I am a visitor and can leave whenever I want. My grandfather couldn’t.

The expanse of sagebrush and farmland is fading in the dying sunset, broken up by a looming, reconstructed guard tower. It’s an echo of a former Japanese American incarceration camp that’s now the Minidoka National Historic Site. It’s where my grandfather’s family lived with thousands of others during World War II. I make one last photo and call it a night.

After years of wondering what this site was like, I’m visiting with the Minidoka Pilgrimage — a group of survivors, descendants and allies who return to the camp annually to connect, share stories and reclaim their own narrative in the place they were imprisoned. They’re reuniting after years of virtual gatherings during the pandemic, while the site faces what many feel is an existential threat: a proposed wind farm to be built nearby.

My grandfather Akio Ideta passed away when I was an infant. I never got to speak to him about his family’s camp experience. We saw my great-aunt May Ideta from time to time but like many families never spoke much about it. The Japanese phrase shikata ga nai — “it can’t be helped” — was often used by those incarcerated to help cope. It also meant many put the experience behind them when the war ended, and rarely revisited sometimes difficult memories.

This pilgrimage in July — the gathering and sharing of stories by younger generations, and even survivors in their later years — feels like a gentle rejection of shikata ga nai.

History books are one thing. It’s another to feel the unforgiving heat with sparse shade, the dust, the bugs. To see the flat, endless nothingness. To sweat in the cramped barracks beaten by midday sun. This is why I came to see it for myself. It makes it real. My family lived here.

Searching through records at the visitor center, I found my grandfather’s prison number and block — #11604G. Block 30, barracks 6, apartment E. My great-grandfather Kiyoshi listed in the Issei memorial. His daughter, my great-aunt May, amongst the photos in an educational exhibit. We were here.

Talking with many survivors only makes me wonder more what my grandfather’s time here was like. I wonder what he did for fun. I wonder who his friends were, what his family did to make their barracks more habitable. Who did he eat with in the mess hall? Did he ever talk with guards? I’ll probably never know. But being here is important. Being with the remaining survivors helps me imagine. It makes it real. We were here.

These are some of their stories —- Lindsey Wasson

JONNIE NARITA

The baseball diamond unlocked the secret history of Jonnie Narita’s family

Narita is a 24-year-old “Yonsei” — a diasporic term meaning fourth generation Japanese American. His grandfather, George Nakagawa, was relocated to Minidoka. Like many, Nakagawa, who died in 2017 at age 91, remembered the dust and bad food.

It wasn’t until 2016, when he traveled to Minidoka to celebrate reconstruction of the camp’s baseball diamond, that memories surfaced.

Japanese families had turned to baseball to help fill the time. And Nakagawa spent lots of his engaged in America’s pastime.

“He started talking to one of the park rangers,” Narita said, “and he just breaks out into this play-by-play story of one of his games where he hit this crazy home run. … He just came to life.”

The event forever changed Narita’s perspective on the past and the power of the Minidoka National Historic Site to free the stories of survivors who long had repressed them out of shame.

“Without that place, we wouldn’t have all these family stories from my grandpa,” Narita said.

For Narita, the experience compelled him to become involved in the pilgrimage to help create the space for others to connect with their families and community.

“Healing is a lot easier when you’re not doing it alone.”

PAUL AND MABEL TOMITA

Mabel Tomita sat with her grandfather on the barracks steps at Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona and watched for planes flying overhead.

“Every time a plane would fly by, my grandfather would say, ”Look up, Mabel, look! It’s the American soldiers flying overhead,” Mabel Tomita said. “We would just raise our arms up into the air and say ‘Banzai!’ — a traditional Japanese cheer — three times.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that her future husband, Paul Tomita, was imprisoned at another camp several states away: Minidoka.

They would later connect through their shared experiences, relating stories not just with each other but fellow pilgrims.

“It’s a sense of getting to know oneself more: ‘Why am I the way I am today?’ And it all stems back, of course, to childhood,” Mabel Tomita said. “And to get a better grip of what happened rather than hearing the stories from other people. It has more oomph when you actually can get there yourself and see the terrain and imagine and remember the stories you heard happening in those places.”

The Tomitas have visited many other sites to attend pilgrimages — at Gila River, Arizona and Tule Lake, California among them — to share their firsthand experiences while they’re still able.

KEN MOCHIZUKI

Ken Mochizuki, 69, is a descendant of Minidoka prisoners. His first pilgrimage was as a journalist for the International Examiner, an Asian American community newspaper. It was the only way he could begin reconstructing the past that shaped his family.

Mochizuki is the author of several books for young readers, most notably “Baseball Saved Us” — an imagining of what the national pastime meant to men and boys at Minidoka.

He credits the pilgrimage for helping him paint a full picture of life there — and he doesn’t want a wind farm nearby.

“The scene of the crime needs to be left the way it is so it can be remembered for what it really was,” Mochizuki said. “Would they do this around the Gettysburg battle site? Would they do this around Valley Forge?”

For Mochizuki, whose mother passed away last Easter, this year’s pilgrimage held additional meaning. “For me it was like – Their spirits are still there.”

MARY TANAKA ABO, DAUGHTER JULIE ABO, GRANDDAUGHTER MAYA ABO DOMINGUEZ

Mary Tanaka Abo, 83, resolved to never pass down her shame. So when her daughter, Julie Abo, became grown, it came as a revelation that her mother had kept her despair hidden behind the stories of Minidoka.

“It was surprising for me as I was an older adult, my mom shared with me that she had this deep, deep shame. And I never knew that when I was growing up,” Julie Abo said.

Mary Abo’s father had been separated from his family, leaving her mother frightened, unable to speak English well and struggling to understand what was unfolding.

“I just cried all the time and I felt safe with my mother because I was her sole interest,” said Mary Abo, who was two at the time. “I was taking in my mother’s anxieties.”

She remembers going with her mother to the washroom to scrub the family’s clothes. The little girl liked to dip her hands in the soapy water and watch the drips.

Learning about Minidoka, Mary Abo’s granddaughter Maya Abo Dominguez came to realize the American experiment is not a given for all people.

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“It’s definitely an important part of my identity as a Japanese American,” she said.

SALLY KOBAYASHI

Born at Minidoka in April 1945, Sally Kobayashi was too young to remember the details, but she recalled during her first visit this year the shame that haunted her.

Her understanding of her family’s stay would come years later when she flipped through a book with camp photographs her mother kept.

“She would go with me through the book and point out different things,” Kobayashi said, “where we lived, where our family friends lived, … the hospital and the mess hall.”

Her mother worked in the mess hall, but she talked little of her time there, influenced by shame about being prisoners in a country that viewed them as enemies and a cultural Japanese tradition that encourages a focus on the present.

The book, now yellow and tattered, is still in Kobayashi’s possession — a treasure documenting the trauma that forever complicated her family’s relationship with their adopted nation.

ERIN SHIGAKI AND PARENTS POLLY AND JOHN

Erin Shigaki is a “Yonsei.” Returning to Seattle after years on the East Coast, she became a leading organizer of the Minidoka Pilgrimage and key activist fighting the proposed Lava Ridge wind farm.

Her father and grandparents were incarcerated at Minidoka. Trying to uncover her family’s past, Shigaki interviewed her grandmothers. But they shared very little.

“It wasn’t like they gave me information about their psychological state,” she said. “It was very practical, day to day information.”

Eventually, Erin Shigaki convinced her family to visit the high desert site together. Uncertainty about what emotions a return would arouse made them nervous.

But the pilgrimage helped unlock the family history Shigaki sought.

“(My father) has been able to open up and uncover some of that emotion,” she said, “trying to figure out why his parents behaved a certain way after the war.”

STEPHEN KITAJO

Stephen Kitajo, 34, never got to talk with his grandparents about Minidoka.

It wasn’t until Kitajo’s first pilgrimage there that his family’s buried narrative began to surface. The preserved buildings and photographs provided images he could trace back to his family’s time there.

“No matter how many chapters in a textbook you devote to it, having a physical site, having something that you can physically visit and interact with and experience is always going to be more impactful,” he said.

Attending the pilgrimage year after year, Kitajo, now a Pilgrimage co-chair, became part of a community that is growing as younger generations seek to understand the incarceration of their ancestors.

“I’ve met so many people over the years of all ages, all backgrounds that are all there for their own reasons,” he said. “But at the same time, we have so much in common.”

Preserving Minidoka is vital, he said, to healing and breaking the cycle of shame within the Japanese American community.

TESSA FUJISAKI and ROSE

Tessa Fujisaki, 24, learned about her grandmother Rose’s time at Minidoka years after she died. She had to dig up the story of her family’s incarceration, because it was not passed down.

“I think they were scared,” Fujisaki said, “but also it’s very Japanese thing to keep your trauma to yourself because you don’t want to burden anyone with it.”

Fujisaki began to build a picture of her family’s past with the help of her aunt, who kept her grandmother’s journal, pictures and newspaper clippings.

When Fujisaki attended the pilgrimage for the first time this year, she met others seeking to fill in their own stories and began to feel a deeper bond to the place that shaped her family’s American experience.

Storytelling, she said, is vital to healing — and younger Japanese Americans are recognizing their role in keeping those stories alive. Preserving Minidoka, she said, is key to remembering the stories of older generations who endured life in the camp.

“I know how hard it was not to say anything,” Fujisaki said.

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