Tearing down walls: Japanese ‘camps’ in WWII

“The walls we keep around us to keep sadness out also keep out the joy.” — Jim Rohn

After studying my family history, it’s reasonable to speculate that a good many spanning several generations have dealt with depression.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be inclined to make such a confession. But I’m going to make this disclosure, adding I have struggled with the question since I was a child.

I’m afraid at that tender age I was undiagnosed — so either you believe me or not. Furthermore, I already knew better than to tell anyone — thanks to mom and dad, who taught us life was tough and we needed to solve our own problems. Anyways, there I am: A little kid, the painfully shy grandchild of immigrants who arrived in the Northwest during the early 1900s, growing up in the south end of Seattle in the late 1950s through early 1970s as a person from a minority ethnic group and culture.

It might be easier to visualize why the topic of my American-born parents’ and Japanese immigrant grandparents’ forced imprisonment in the World War II internment camps by the U.S. government was not a subject I wanted to talk about.

For starters, even my own family avoided the topic. If they mentioned it all, they talked about “camp.” Within the community, most of my generation grew up thinking all our families attended the same summer camp — until we found out mostly as young adults that it was in truth a very different thing.

We’ve since learned that the reluctance of our people to talk about that difficult experience wasn’t too much different on a comparative basis than, say, with our nation’s own World War II veterans (including some members of my family) or World War II survivors of the Holocaust. The passage of time is often required to mentally process such events.

In my youth, written materials were scarce, and mention in school history books was non-existent in the same time period. We grew up in a historical period of awkward silence. So when Barbara Krohn, the friend about whom I’ve been writing (“Modeling a vision of culture,” Oct. 7; “Lifelong bonus from model career woman,” Sept. 24) first asked me a carefully-worded question about that era, I was less inclined to be candid.

However, it’s become one of those defining life moments that marked the crossing of a seldom-used bridge. That bridge physically separated and emotionally isolated my family and their experience during World War II from our fellow citizens.

More meaningful still was how she asked: Where did they all go? When she was growing up in Clark County, Wash., it was as if one day all of the Japanese people who lived in the area suddenly disappeared — and no one wanted to speak of them again.

As years passed, Barbara moved to Seattle with her mother, went to college, obtained her degrees. She started her career, marked many important personal and professional milestones, and read some of the history available. But the question of what happened to her former neighbors had lingered.

Anyways, what really impressed me about Barbara was that she wasn’t just asking for information. The question was not driven by mere adult curiosity, which could be satisfied by a cut-and-dried recitation of the facts.

Her query held a note of genuine and youthful concern about the individual fate and welfare of children, schoolmates and their families whose own beloved former ties to her community were broken and shattered. And some years later, I was pleased and astounded to learn, after she showed me a yellowed clipping she’d authored as a college coed at the University of Washington Daily, that she had stood up to “Jew-haters and Jap-baiters” as early as 1946.

Today, the older version of myself now sees more hope on the horizon than the little girl, whom I was as a child. This can be greatly credited to a woman whose attitude toward the subjects of diversity and community had always been one of mutual ownership.

Federal Way resident Mizu Sugimura:

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