The article 5 Japanese-American Women Your History Book Ignored by journalist Nina Wallace piqued my interest.
Wallace leads off:
“From African American activists critical to the 1963 March on Washington to the Japanese American women among the 120,000 wrongly imprisoned by a panic-stricken and – let’s be honest – racist United States government after Pearl Harbor, history has a nasty tendency of suppressing the role women played in major social movements throughout the 20th century.
“As an antidote to this historical stifling of strong female voices, here’s a little herstory lesson about five women whose World War II incarceration inspired them to fight back. And no, they don’t care if they’re hurting your stereotypes about quiet, submissive Asian woman.”
Always thirsty for a herstory lesson, I read the article.
When my eyes landed on Michi Weglyn, I would not look away.
According to the Densho Encyclopedia, Michiko Nishiura was born in 1926 in Stockton, California to Japanese immigrants who worked a farm nearby. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, Michi (age 15), her parents, and sister were rounded up with thousands of other Japanese Americans and hauled off to what were called assembly centers, and from there to war relocation centers.
“On May 12, 1942, the Nishiuras were loaded on buses that carried them to a so-called assembly center where they found guard towers, guns, and barbed wire awaiting them”(Hong).
The Nishiura family ultimately ended up at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, one of 10 camps in the United States, and remained there for 3 years.
Michi, who “to prove to her father that she was just as valuable as the son he never had,”(Hong) completed high school at the camp as an outstanding student and leader. As a result, with the help of the National Japanese American Relocation Council, she was awarded a full scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She attended for a year as a biology major, but was forced to withdraw due to tuberculosis she had contracted while at Gila. Yet, it was at Mount Holyoke that she rediscovered an interest in set and costume design.
In 1945, Michi’s family resettled in Bridgton, New Jersey, her parents recruited as workers at a frozen food plant. While living with them in NJ, Michi attended Barnard College, again forced to leave due to a bout with tuberculosis, and then attended the Fashion Academy in New York City.
New York City was also where she met her husband, Walter Matthys Weglyn, a German Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany, his story an extraordinarily harrowing one as well.
Against all cultural and societal odds, Michi Nishiura and Walter Weglyn were married in 1950 and over the next 16 years, Michi’s career blossomed “as the first nationally prominent Japanese American costume designer”(Hong). After years as designer for the Perry Como Show, that production relocated to California and Michi started her own business.
But soon Michi’s life took a new twist, as she describes:
“As I look back, I would first have to credit both the Vietnam War (when the use of technological savagery on the lives, habitats, and ecosystem of a small Asian nation was shocking the entire civilized world), and the civil rights movement (when each day was filled with rage and racial violence) for the transition that took place within me.
“From an apolitical innocent I became a traumatized citizen. I was enraged by a democracy’s flagrant disregard for elemental human rights, especially as they related to ethnicity and skin color, and by America’s shocking disregard for a reverence for life which we had been taught to hold sacred.
“What startled me into disbelief during the heat of the antiwar and civil rights agitation was the preposterous lie spewed forth by the then-attorney general Ramsey Clark when asked on television if the protesters would be put in concentration camps. His astonished reply, that ‘we have never had, do not now have, and will not ever have concentration camps here’ was the catalyst.
“His blatant untruth convinced me that uncovering the probable lies of our long-revered wartime president Franklin Delano Roosevelt would surely lead me to the truth as to why we innocents had been consigned to prison camps”(qtd in Hong).
Michi spent the next eight years in an unwavering search for the truth and what she uncovered became her book Years of Infamy: the untold story of America’s concentration camps, published in 1976. This work is hailed as the “Bible of the redress movement,” fueling the “movement leading to reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II”(Wikipedia). (Redress meaning the “setting right of what is wrong.”)
When reading the book, instead of trying to imagine what it felt like for “them,” I tried hard to put myself in their place and ask myself what it would have felt like for me at age 15, my family, along with all other Italian-American families, to be rounded up, forced to leave everything behind and bused to another state to live in terrible, freezing and blistering conditions, with no privacy (even bathrooms were not private), forced to subsist on subpar food.
Worse than that, me being there with my family and not understanding why since we did nothing wrong; not understanding what to expect, and how long we would be held.
But Italian-Americans and German-Americans were spared, not wholly rounded up like the Japanese-Americans.
“The supreme irony of the evacuation-internment interlude was that while German and Italian aliens, blessed with more impressive political leverage than the army of tots and teenagers that the Nisei [first-generation Japanese-Americans] represented, were being lavished with the reassuring solace of the President, those firmly sequestered behind barbed wire were being provoked to greater despair and alienation”(Weglyn 134).
Tempting as it is, I will spare you my eight solid pages of notes, as I urge you to read the book for yourself. Because, as Americans, if we don’t know and understand how this and other atrocities happened in our country, we continue to risk our collective livelihood and fledgling democracy.
I will share a few passages here, but know that none of what Michi reports in her book should be missed.
First, a little background: On February 19, 1942, a little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, under pressure from military and political advisors as well as furious demands from the public, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the removal of any persons considered a national security threat and inordinately impacted Japanese Americans, even though it was documented that they were not a threat. President Roosevelt delegated the enforcement of this order to the War Department, compounding an already poor decision. First-lady Eleanor Roosevelt was “completed floored by her husband’s action,” but was unable to change his mind(History.com).
The unjustified, illegal, unethical incarceration of these particular U.S. citizens didn’t spring from nowhere, and this is important to remember, always.
“Behind it all was a half century of focusing anti-Asian hates on the Japanese minority by West Coast pressure groups resentful of them as being hyper-efficient competitors. An inordinate amount of regional anxiety had also accompanied Japan’s rapid rise to power.
“In 1941, the number of Japanese Americans living in the continental United States totaled 127,000. Over 112,000 of them lived in the three Pacific Coast states of Oregon, Washington and California. Of this group, nearly 80 percent of the total (193,000) resided in the state of California alone.
“Significant for those maximizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was that although the Japanese minority comprised only a minuscule 1 percent of the state’s population, they were a group well on their way to controlling one-half of the commercial truck crops in California.
“It was common practice among the Issei [Japanese immigrants] to snatch up strips of marginal unwanted land which were cheap: swamplands, barren desert areas that Caucasians disdained to invest their labor in. Often it included land bordering dangerously close to high-tension wires, dams, and railroad tracks. The extraordinary drive and morale of these hard-working, frugal Issei who could turn parched wastelands, even marshes, into lush growing fields – usually with help from the entire family- became legendary. In the course of years, notably during periods of economic crisis, a hue and cry arose of “unfair competition” and accusations that “the Japs have taken over the best land!(35-37).
“For the majority of the Issei who had helped to make the California desert bloom, the rewards of a lifetime of zealous perseverance evaporate within a frenzied fortnight”(77).
Michi explains that many of those rounded up after the attack on Pearl Harbor initially almost understood why it might be happening, but could not comprehend or imagine what it would become. They expected the situation to be sorted out and that they, innocent, well-behaved people posing no threat whatsoever, would be released.
Why yes, I would expect the same.
“There was a sense that the Japanese Americans kept waiting for their President to clear this all up, that he “was being keep in the dark as to what was happening to them” but this was not true. Because they were not revolting and were trying to make the best of an unexpected situation, they were left where they were”(116).
For years, four long years. The last camp, Tule Lake in California, closed in 1946.
Michi factually and meticulously describes the unfair and dehumanizing events and atmosphere that invaded the camps, the “arbitrary arrests,” especially of those labeled “troublemakers,” for daring to speak up for themselves and their families.
She includes letters and statements of those imprisoned, and memorandums and responses from those in charge, from President Roosevelt, down to camp guards and janitors. Michi makes a point to leave no stone unturned because the words and actions of those involved tell the true story, the story of one of the most grave injustices our government and military have carried out on our own soil with our own citizens.
Innocent people unfairly imprisoned will eventually give way to some resistance, even with the most docile, want-to-do-the-right-thing people and that’s what happened.
“Passive deference was replaced by intensified disaffection and the attitude: ‘It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’
“But in many of the centers, parents, families, and relatives of persecuted political dissenters ran into powerful social disapproval and ostracism by residents in whom respect for authority was strongly enforced”(128).
Just when you think, it can’t get any worse for our fellow citizens, it does. Chapter 8: Loyalty –Disloyalty takes inhumane manipulation to a new level.
“Wrenched from their homes, shorn of their property, and forced into a state of abject emasculation, the vast majority of the Issei were gripped by fears for the future and morbidly in dread of what might happen to them on the “outside.” Of the young people left in the camps, most were school-age children or individuals unable to relocate because of aged or ill parents and others totally dependent upon them.
“Many among them had undergone the horrendous trauma of seeing wholly blameless parents led away without justification to FBI camps…ignoring the hurts, the wounds, the injuries inflicted in pitiless succession, Washington had suddenly decided that now was the time to give all detainees in the camps (excluding children under seventeen) an opportunity to concretely register their fundamental loyalty as a group by having them each swear his or her unqualified allegiance to the United States…the colossal folly of recording each inmate’s attitude toward America in a concentration camp, after all the damage had been done, was to be compounded by the WRA’s [War Relocation Authority] decision to conduct the mass registration in conjunction with an Army recruitment drive in the centers”(135).
At this point, misleading propaganda, along with horrific accounts of violence toward Japanese-Americans on the outside had confused and paralyzed those in the camps when it came to decide whether to pledge their loyalty or not. Pledging loyalty and being relocated somewhere in the U.S. sounded terrifying to them, renouncing citizenship as a disloyal and being returned to Japan didn’t feel safe or even what they wanted. Making this decision, which they believed was mandated, became traumatizing and split families. The fear, the not wanting to leave because of what they felt they would face, the not wanting to stay because of unbearable conditions, the indecision about returning to Japan, was sheer torture.
Honestly, the missteps, manipulation, mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government and military that Michi reports in her book is horrifying. So often what unfolded at the camps was a botched mess.
“A job which authorities had hoped would take ten days took two months in Tule Lake, where registration pressure did not cease until April 7, 1943. By then, arrests had climbed to the 140 mark.
“To the end, the community was never informed that threats of severe penalties had been a mistake and unwarranted. This and the extraordinary ex post facto discovery that the War Department regarded the filling in of the loyalty questionnaire as a wholly voluntary matter thus became more of the egregious secrets withheld from the evacuees throughout the war – especially the Nisei [first generation], Kibei [second generation], and Issei [immigrants not allowed citizenship] languishing like common criminals in isolation pens, FBI camps, and various county jails throughout the land”(151).
Michi fairly points out those U.S. government and military officials who treated the wrongly imprisoned with respect and tried to mitigate the situation by telling the truth, by explaining the unfolding of events, by trying to right an enormous wrong the best they could from their place and rank.
Harold L. Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior at the time, is quoted here and given the credit he deserved:
“I will not comment at this time on the justification or lack thereof for the original evacuation order. But I do say that the continued retention of these innocent people in the relocation centers would be a blot upon the history of this country”…By his blend of compassion, insight, and talent for “straight talk,” Ickes had started the momentum for liberation”( 220).
In addition to individuals who spoke up, there were a few publications doing the same:
“A May 19  issue of the Christian Century, one of the few publications which had taken a sympathetic pro-Nisei stand from the onset of the war, roundly hailed the judgment: “The day is steadily drawing closer when the Court will hold that the treatment of accorded citizens of Japanese extraction was unconstitutional, a betrayal of American traditions, militarism out of legal control and race prejudice run wild”(261).
The repercussions of such injustice cannot be denied or ignored:
“Though to all outward appearance the recovery of Japanese Americans has been good to remarkable, the rejection and social isolation of the war years have left scars which have not entirely disappeared…A behaviorism summed up by Nisei activist Edison Uno: ‘We were like the victims of rape. We felt shamed. We could not bear to speak of the assault.’
“It is little wonder that after being released back into society like a pack of ex-convicts, Japanese Americans sought with a vengeance to restore their demeaned honor and extricate themselves from the pariah status imposed – to “make it” by becoming “better Americans than the regular ones because that’s the way it has to be when one looks Japanese.” The sense of giri [duty] handed down to them by their parents, to clear their name of insult and shame, became the Nisei’s driving force”(273).
But the 1960s civil rights movement and Michi’s book did much to empower Nisei and Kibei, to release some of the pent-up shame, and allow for healing to begin. The reparations of the 1980s and 1990s, although severely overdue and never as much as they should have been, also helped.
Michi, not able to complete her undergraduate college degree, was awarded 3 honorary doctorates: Mount Holyoke College, Hunter College, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, which has this to say on their site:
“Her [Michi’s] determination to uncover the truth became a watershed experience, not only for those who suffered the inhumanity of the concentration camp experience, but for Americans in general, and humanitarians world-wide. Through her literary work, and her vocal and active efforts to achieve redress for those who had their rights summarily revoked, Ms. Weglyn played a critical role in the campaign to have the U.S. government atone for its treatment of Japanese-Americans”( https://www2.calstate.edu/impact-of-the-csu/alumni/Honorary-Degrees/Pages/Michi-Nishiura-Weglyn.aspx).
It is fact that Michi continued her dedicated work for justice up until she passed in 1999 at age 73.
Michi Weglyn is a Nasty Woman Writer and Activist. I am so grateful to her.
© Maria Dintino 2021
Densho Encyclopedia: a free-online resource about the history of the Japanese American WWII exclusion and incarceration experience. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Michi_Nishiura_Weglyn/
History. FDR orders Japanese Americans into internment camps. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fdr-signs-executive-order-9066
Hong, Terry. Notable Asian Americans: Michiko Nishiura Weglyn. http://smithsonianapa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2009/10/weglyn-michiko-nishiura.pdf
Wallace, Nina. 5 Japanese-American Women Your History Book Ignored. Yes! online newsletter. 23 Oct 2020.
Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: the untold story of America’s concentration camps. NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976.