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D-Day: Love Day. Also, Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day, 1945. Company E of the 1st Marines has made the landing on Okinawa unopposed. They can’t believe their good fortune: a “stay of execution,” as it were. [Sledge 187]

Making their way cautiously across the empty landscape, the men of Easy Company come across a farmhouse, abandoned by all but a single pig, snuffling in the muck. The soldiers plead with their sergeant to let them butcher it and cook it up. Countermanding his first order, the sergeant agrees. Hard Luck Lineker–so named because he took a bullet in the butt on Peleliu only to recover in time to get sent to Okinawa–scrambled over the fence to execute the pig when–Pak!–a sniper’s bullet struck him in the back. He fell face-first in the muck. Hard Luck, indeed.

Thirty pages into the novel, Grenade, and Alan Gratz had me hooked. As in vintage Larry McMurtry, a colorfully named secondary character falls victim to the blindness of chance, setting an action-packed plot in motion.

Later in the book, as the close calls and brushes with disaster build up, I wondered if perhaps the plot were too tightly packed. Were all these encounters necessary?

On close review, they almost all were–and are. Gratz’s novel is finely crafted with an impressive attention to recurring details and threaded themes.


Grenade is told in two voices, one Okinawan, one American. Hideki is barely fourteen (the same as Rickenbacker when he lost his father and went to work fulltime!) and a recent inductee into the Okinawan Blood and Iron Student Corps. But at his class graduation, with American ship-born bombs going off in the distance, Hideki burns “hot with shame” for feeling fear. [4] He is well acquainted with this shame, for he has been teased often by his classmates. Cowardice is his destiny, brought on by the actions of his ancestor centuries before. Shigitomo surrendered to the Japanese without a fight leaving a curse upon the first-born son of every third generation of his descendants.

Ray is old enough to be a Marine, but only barely. At eighteen, he’s as green as a leaf bud in May. Love Day, the opening of Operation Iceberg, will be his first day under fire, and he feels “weak” and “shaky” at the thought. [15] Unlike his battle-hardened comrades, Ray feels a concern for the civilian Okinawans they eventually encounter. Coming from different worlds, these two protagonists share a heightened sensitivity and an outsider point of view.

The pig incident serves other purposes besides grabbing the reader’s attention. It introduces us to actual combat–the tension, the fatal consequences, and also the sounds: Thwack! Pak! Chu-chu-chung! Chu-chu-chu-chu-chung! Pa-kow! KA-THOOM! It plays a key role in character development, too, even if indirectly. As the only farm boy in the company, Ray leads the eventual butchering of the pig and, after the meal, earns his Marine nickname: Barbecue. Moreover, when the sniper turns out to be a twelve-year-old Okinawan boy, we experience with Ray the scrambled moral calculus of this war. Who is the enemy? What is right and wrong? This surprising scene, which starts almost comically, sets in motion the unavoidable hardening of Ray’s heart. And there is more. (See below.)

“God help me, I’m getting used to it!” Ray thinks a couple chapters and several encounters with the enemy later–and soon after having killed his first man. [75] A couple chapters after that, he shoots Okinawan civilians and realizes, to his horror, through the narrator, “In just a few awful seconds, he had become the monster these people were so afraid of.” The narrator adds, in light of backstory recently revealed: “More of a monster than his father had ever been.” [101] A photo received from his mother in the previous chapter stirred memories of his father whose violent anger he was only now beginning to understand. That day his father attacked him after Ray had tried to execute the pig, the second gunshot had triggered a kind of post-traumatic flashback. If his father was a monster–and at times he was–Ray understood it was because of his experience in the First World War. Now, in the Second World War, he felt himself becoming a monster, too. The pig butchering scene becomes a rich vehicle by which Gratz tours the reader through Ray’s back story.

The climax for Ray comes in the battle of Kakazu Ridge when a group of Okinawans, hands raised, march up the slope toward E Company’s line on the ridge. Ray’s gaze focuses on the woman in a blue kimono bearing a baby in her arms–and a string of dynamite strapped around her waist. In the ensuing confusion, Ray’s unit makes a disorderly retreat. Stumbling and sliding down the ridge, Ray is a whirl of emotion: “He just knew he never wanted to see another Japanese soldier as long as he lived.” [134]

Hideki’s hardening is, understandably, slower in coming. He is younger. He flees from his unit at the first suicidal encounter with the enemy, without a proper uniform or weapon (though  he does carry two grenades, one of breakable ceramic). In his aimless flight he trips over the dead body of his schoolmaster and recovers the fallen pictures of the Emperor Principal Kojima had been trying to protect. He finds his father, sitting wounded in the family tomb, and stays by him in his death. But the truly inciting event is his slide down a mud-slicked slope into a mire of writhing maggots. Hideki is so disgusted he pulls off all his clothes in an effort to escape them. It is a shocking scene.

But not far-fetched. E. B. Sledge in his memoir of Okinawa mentions the abundance of maggots at least three times. He says, “If a marine slipped down the back slope of a muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. Then he and a buddy would shake or scrape them away with a piece of ammo box or a knife blade.” [260] Hideki had neither buddy nor knife, so he stripped. In the two-and-a-half-month battle, maggots were rife because of the ubiquity of decomposing bodies swallowed by the mud. Gratz elides this graphic detail–but, after all, his is a children’s book.

In Gratz’s novel, the maggots are not used to underscore the putrid degradation of war as in Sledge’s memoir. They allow the author to have Hideki, in the next scene, be given a Japanese uniform which he will wear throughout most of the rest of the book. Thus clad, he will be seen as a Japanese combatant, however young, when he, quite literally, runs into Ray in the novel’s pivotal event. The dazed Marine cannot aim his rifle before the AWOL Blood and Iron recruit detonates his eponymous grenade. Unsure of the result, we, the readers, are forced to turn the page and enter Part Two.

Ray does not accompany us there. Hideki will be our only guide from here on out. This is shocking storytelling for a children’s book. I would love to be a fly inside young readers’ brains as they try to accommodate the sudden death of a character they have come to know intimately for 130 pages. I know I missed him desperately right away. But I am an old guy, experienced enough to take it. I read on.

Hideki still fears he is a coward, but now he is also a killer. The rest of the book traces the hardening of Hideki’s heart, followed, at the end, by its swelling with generosity and courage. The onslaught of inhuman incidents and images have led to a deepening clarity of understanding.

Hideki’s hardening starts when he meets the deranged Private Maeda, who holds him and a group of Okinawans hostage to his paranoid, erratic behavior. Hideki stands up to him using his remaining grenade to back up the threat: “I’ve killed a man. Have you?” [163] This is convincing character development.

In the exhaustion of his flight, Hideki passes out and is recovered by American medics. They give him food and water, stitch up a gash in his head and give him medicine to help him sleep. He sees the Americans at their best. Not monsters, but saviors. Maybe surrendering to them, as the propaganda leaflets prompted, would not be so bad. But Hideki has to find his sister, a nurse with the Japanese Imperial Army, and the only other member of his family still alive. She is also a yuta with powers to communicate with ghosts, who can help him escape Rei‘s mabui. He flees again.

Marching south with hordes of Okinawan refugees, he notices army boots underneath “women”‘s kimonos. If the Americans discovered the enemy hidden among civilians, they would all be in danger. Hideki abandons the road for the safety of the forest. That night, American bombers attack the road. Hideki knows innocent civilians have died along with Japanese infiltrators. But he hurries on, “his eyes dry and his heart hard.” [183] He is following the same trajectory as Ray before him.

Now he encounters the Miyagi family, hiding out in their ancestral tomb. After weeks underground, they look wasted away like ghosts. “We thought the Japanese Imperial Army would protect us,” they say, completely oblivious of Gratz’s irony. The reader is aware because Hideki has begun to realize, that Okinawa is a sute-ishi, a sacrificial stone in the game of Go. The Miyagi ask, ingenuously, “Is it true what they say? That the Americans are monsters?” Because of his encounter with the American medic, Hideki is able to say, “They’re monsters only when they’re afraid. Just like the Japanese.” [185-186] He convinces them to surrender–according to regulation–and continues on his odyssey.

Hideki stumbles upon a command post in yet another cave and–aha!–there are nurses. But none of them knows a Kimiko. The Americans have arrived and the Japanese with whom he has sought refuge will fight to the death. Hideki and Masako, the nurse he has befriended, survive the grenade blast by throwing themselves under a metal cabinet. I wasn’t quite convinced of the feasibility of such an escape, or why the event was necessary to the story. It underscores the ruthlessness of the Japanese army, perhaps. Also, the deaths of so many in his midst continues to harden him to war’s cruelty. Lastly, he develops a bond with Masako, whose role as foil is not insignificant in the story’s final scenes.

Another cave. Another command post. Another Japanese call for suicidal defense. Hideki speaks for the reader in his mind: No! Not again! But this time his bad luck merges with good fortune: He finds Kimiko! In one of the funniest–and most meaningful–scenes in the book, younger brother and older sister argue over who is saving whom. “‘You don’t have to rescue me!’ Hideki protested. ‘I’m rescuing you!'” [204] Neither one is quite right. They have to save themselves. More, they rescue a troop of Okinawan children, also caught in the war’s crossfire.

And so, another escape out the back of a cave through a secret exit, by squeezing past an unexploded bomb, the Mother of All Bombs, as it happens. Masako freezes in fear, and Hideki, fated from time immemorial to be a coward, now speaks the words of encouragement to help dispel her panic. It is a significant moment, made all the richer after Hideki achieves his escape and Masako cajoles him to use his grenade. He could use it, she says, to detonate the Mother of All Bombs and bury the cruel Japanese in their own tomb. Hideki ponders, but shakes his head. Then Masako goads, “You told me to be brave enough to slide past that beast, but you’re not brave enough to throw your grenade at it.” [216] Gratz asks us to consider again: What is bravery?

In their next trial, Hideki, Kimiko, Masako, and the children must sneak past an American machine gun nest to escape the vise of No-Man’s-Land. But how to do so without getting shot by the Americans? Will the Americans be monsters or saviors? Again, the cowardly Masako pushes Hideki to use his grenade. But after all Hideki has been through–and he has been through an awful lot!–he now knows that this is not his, not the Okinawans’, fight. “No, if we attack them,” he explains, “we’re their enemy. When they’re not under attack, when they’re not afraid, the Americans are human beings.” [228-229]

It’s time, at last, to surrender.

He follows all the guidelines he remembers reading in the propaganda leaflets–and then some. Knowing how war can turn human beings into monsters (as Ray had known before him), he instructs the children, his sister and Masako, to remove their clothes. No hidden bombs, no human shields to threaten the Americans. He remembers the nakedness he felt after his encounter with the maggots, and he knows he must feel it again here, now. He places the grenade on the ground under his helmet and walks out with his hands up, in only his underwear. “Defenseless. Exposed. Vulnerable.” [234]

The maggot scene, like larva into pupa, has fulfilled its purpose. Living through war as a civilian is to be naked and exposed. Even, young readers, far from the brutalities of war, can begin to understand that.

Oh, but Gratz is not through with us yet. A young American recruit panics in the moment and fires. An Okinawan child falls wounded. The American in charge, the big bear-man with the missing ear begins shouting in his strange language. Are they all going to die? No, the man the reader knows to be the heart-hardened Big John is berating his own private for lack of control. The reader sighs deeply, appreciating that even a hardened warrior can defend the good. Indeed, in war, only the strong, righteous soldier can ensure peace.


In the last chapter, Gratz finally allows his reader relief from the tension and a chance for satisfying resolution. None is more satisfying than the response his sister gives to his question, “Why do you keep looking at me like that?” “You’ve changed,” she answers. You’re more confident. Braver.” The reader knows this to be true, of course, but there is nothing so pleasurable as hearing the outspoken Kimiko say it aloud. Rarely does a character change so convincingly or as meaningfully as Hideki does in this book. Rarely does a character’s development give a young reader such hope that confidence and bravery are attainable for him, too.


Paris in the Present Tense

The journalist is a writer who carries out his education in public.

Someone said it. Maybe many people have. I don’t remember where I first encountered this thought. I just remember it was many years ago. I was reminded of it last month as I read Mark Helprin’s 2017 book, Paris in the Present Tense. And I asked myself, doesn’t a novelist expose his intellectual/social/emotional/spiritual/moral development even more to the scrutiny of his readers?

This was not my first encounter with Helprin. I had read him with some devotion (three titles) in the 1990s, so this time around was a bit like running into an old friend, at once distinctly recognizable yet also significantly changed. (Not to mention how deeply changed I was.) One feature unchanged: Helprin’s penchant for injecting social-political-economic observation/commentary into his narratives. Not so distinctive you might object, yet with views as unconventional and willfully nonconformist as his, the feature truly is distinctive. In Memoir from Antproof Case [1995] his character rails against the evils of coffee throughout the book.

Helprin’s web site avers that the author “belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend.” We are to understand that he is deeply independent, yet on his Wikipedia page we learn that, in the political arena, he has cast his lot with conservative causes. He is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and in 1996 he signed on as Bob Dole’s speech writer and foreign policy adviser. He has a life as a conservative commentator, but in the pages of his fiction (or at least in Paris in the Present Tense), he comes across more as a traditionalist. Jules, the central character, tells his friend François, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t. …I wouldn’t make the turn. I’d rather be a rock in the stream, even if submerged, than the glittering scum on the surface.” [56] We get this kind of thing throughout the book.

The child of French Jews, Jules spends the first four years of his life hiding out, speaking in whispers, in the attic of a bakers’ shop in Reims. Just as the city is being liberated by American forces, he witnesses his parents be killed by a Nazi officer. We know of this tragedy from the book’s first pages. We are led to infer that it is the defining event in the seventy-four-year-old’s life. But Helprin makes us wait two hundred pages to learn the details, to appreciate the full painful irony of the event.  When we do, we suddenly understand why Jules is stunted, emotionally stuck in the past, unable to live fully “in the present tense.” And we sense the author shares some of Jules’s malaise.

There is, first of all, their (author and character’s) critique of modernity, specifically, “the illusion of security that modernity affords to advanced nations.” [105] Jules explains to his cello student (and latest infatuation) that “death, pain, and tragedy still rule the world,” despite the wont of rich nations to pretend they do not. [262] In case we (and Elodi) have missed the point, he later compares the world to a jungle, full of both wonderful beauty and great danger–“tigers, jaguars, and snakes lying in wait.” [296] This is Hobbesian state-of-nature conservativism softened by classical aestheticism.

In the inciting event of the story, Jules witnesses a man, a Hasidic Jew, being beaten by three young men, second-generation Arabs. What to do? Jules is physically fit, but there are three of them, they are younger, and one wields a knife. Through the narrator we hear Jules thinking how “well protected citizens” who “eschewed violence” would “close their eyes and wish to be done with it all equally and without the labor and risk of judgment.” [122]  After intervening, he poses his quandary more sharply as a rhetorical question: “Should he have abstained, as required of a good citizen, leaving the monopoly of violence to the state but allowing the murder of an innocent man?” [126] This is a direct challenge to liberals, limousine or otherwise, who talk a good game from afar but shrink from moral action when the situation demands it.

Other allegedly conservative critiques are more small bore. The pre-modern and modern-yet-religious belief in angels: “So what do you think fed [believers’] perfervid imaginations? Where did they get the idea? What were their models? Children, of course.” [129] The current mania for facial hair: “I suppose it hides their callowness. Instead of pretending, they should wait until they’ve suffered and endured.” [295] (Hobbesian realism again.) Cell phones: “Landlines did not double as television sets, pedometers, encyclopedias, atlases, travel agents, or teletype machines….” [323]

Yet other commentary seems standard conservative fare. Bureaucracy is “stupid and monstrous.” [332] “Federal government mismanage[s]” its billions. [167] The majesty of Versailles is a “tribute to humanity.” [257]  Yet Helprin’s “conservatism” is not mindless. He acknowledges paradox, holds opposing truths in tension. Versailles is also a “crime against humanity,” made possible by “the virtual enslavement of a whole nation for centuries.” [257] A private mega-corporation can enact more evil even than the leviathan of government. “Like a whale, [the Acorn insurance company] cruised the markets, sweeping up cash in its baleen.” [167]

Through his character and his narrative, Helprin makes the case for the individual and his capacity to find love and beauty in the world. More: to be loyal to one’s loves (people, art, values) even under the leveling press of modernity. Jules’s philosopher friend, challenges him to explain what he is loyal to…besides, perhaps, “being peculiar.” [136-137] “I’m loyal to a world that was destroyed,” Jules responds. If he is speaking for the author here, it sounds a lot like whining. But not so fast. Don’t we all, even if we did not lose both parents in the Holocaust, grow up into a world we don’t quite recognize? Don’t we all experience the loss of a world we thought we knew and loved? As eccentric as Jules is, he speaks, in a way, for all of us. Helprin gives us permission to stay loyal to our lost worlds. He exhorts us that we must remain loyal.


But let’s return to the casually-mentioned “latest infatuation” with Jules’s cello student. Any American not living under a rock cannot read of an older male mentor falling for a young, attractive female protégé–even in fiction–without cringing. Can this really be? In a book published as the Harvey Weinstein allegations were coming out? As a novelist, Helprin does his thinking out loud, for all to hear and judge. In fairness, Jules “falls in love” (pretty much at first sight) with at least six women–of all ages–over the course of the four-hundred-page book. Most of these are passing infatuations and Jules recognizes them as such. Two are significant to both the character and the plot. One, revealed in a flashback, becomes his wife and the love of his life. Since she has died, Jules remains steadfastly “loyal” to her memory, even if he conducts ephemeral, involuntary infatuations in his mind. Helprin gives Jules an uncanny ability to project alluring qualities on a woman within seconds of meeting her, as he did with Amina, his last infatuation which turned out to be more profound than expected: “mischievous, knowing, innocent, forgiving, loving, comforting, challenging, proposing, curious, seductive, and enthusiastic.” [370] Such quasi-objectification hardly fares better with the #MeToo crowd–or me, either, for that matter. I tired of it.

And yet,  after consideration, I’m not sure Helprin is so interested in romantic, sexual love, anyway. Falling in love may simply be a stand-in for human love more generally. Jules’s frequent love-at-first-sights may seem almost pathological but in Helprin’s fiction, I think, they point to a capacity for love. Others may fear that love “is an illusion that will not last,” but Helprin assures us “it does, and it will.” [104]

Helprin is not at all interested in newly orthodox views on sex and gender. In the first chapter (on the fourth page!), his narrator explains that the stewards and stewardesses are now called flight attendants, “as if they had no sex.” [16] This is a bold slap in the reader’s face, as if to say, Don’t expect the mindlessly politically correct from me. Helprin might consider that the occupation’s title is not so much a denial of sex as a denial of sex as the defining feature of the employee. In any event, if we don’t follow Helprin’s line of thinking, he soon devotes several sentences to a description of the “stewardess’ uniform”: “every line and angle of which knew with affection the beauty and charm of her body and the loveliness of her face.” [16] No, she is not sexless.

Many chapters later, Jules enters a high-powered corporate boardroom with three women present. All three are dressed “expensively and elegantly,” and, after detailing their clothing and accessories, the narrator says, “They were pretty,” which the reader takes, instantly, as  damning with faint praise. “Beautiful” is used extravagantly throughout the book. The narrator explains: “Although these women had every attribute of femininity–delicacy, beauty [OK, he did use it here.], grace and more–they were patently unfeminine merely because they chose to be. Suspicion, aggression, self-assertion, and the sense that they were crouched to spring radiated from them quietly but unmistakably.” [168] Helprin appears to be taking a position on feminism post-#MeToo in line with Catherine Deneuve. Yet he inoculates himself against a charge of sexism by adding in the next sentence that the men present were just as unappealing and “radiated  the same suspicion, aggression, and self-assertion.”


In my first encounter with Mark Helprin, twenty-five years ago, I was shocked (and awed?) by the density of similes in his writing. (A dozen per page? More?) I asked my English professor friend if it were possible to have too many similes in fiction. Certainly, was his reply. Helprin didn’t worry. He belonged to “no school, movement, tendency, or trend.” The quantity of similes in this latest book is now well within the normal range, and they are all apropos and thought-provoking: “…the compassionate dead looking on were infinitely wiser than the living, so many of whom stopped for an instant as they thrashed through life like fish in a net.” [84]

But Helprin has a new device in his writerly repertoire. He composes delightful sentences that, in their final clause, turn in on themselves like a sock being pulled inside-out. When Jules disguises himself after the fatal encounter with the street toughs, we get: “Thus transformed, he would be anything but the man who had had the confrontation onto the bridge, although of course he was.” [128] Later, Jules attempts to put off his pursuer with a distraction “which had the irresistible air of a scheme, because that’s what it was.” [321] Approaching the heart of the matter, we read that Jules “so much wanted to live, and he so much wanted to die, but the conflict would resolve itself, because, without fail, he would do both.” And my personal favorite: “The worse it got, the worse it got.” [265]

My earnest, still-young adult self might not have appreciated Helprin’s humor the first time around. At least, I don’t remember it so much. This time, I smiled often and chuckled almost as much.

  • “After Jack inhaled his steak, he said, quoting Hemingway, ‘It was good.'” [73]
  • “Isn’t a jingle supposed to be irritating, so it becomes a brain worm and you can’t forget it? This isn’t irritating, it’s inappropriately beautiful. These days, people don’t like that.” [169-170]
  • “Though the [love]locks, in being too heavy in their collectivity, may have endangered the railings, they had been a boon to local hardware stores….” [368]

He takes advantage of humorous lost-in-translation opportunities:

  • An entire conversation in which the Texas billionaire is talking about a kid actor, and Jules, whose “English was entirely formal,” thinks they are talking about a goat. [71] (Helprin “milks” that goat for a full page and more.)
  • A brief confusion over Snickers: foot wear or a candy bar? [175]
  • A mis-remembered idiom: I’m having a whale time. [341]

He is not shy about using names as double entendres:

  • The psychiatrist called Dunaif
  • The billionaire Texans called Cheatham.
  • The sinister insurance investigator called Damien Nerval (“Who could tell if he had become the man he was because his name was Damien Nerval, or, because of the man he was, he had changed his name to Damien Nerval.” [316])

Some of he best moments are in dialogues:

“‘Oh, I see,” said Jules.

“What do you see?” Nerval pressed.

“What do you think I see?”

“I think you see, or should see, that we know what you’re up to.”

“And what am I up to?”

“You tell me.”

“No, you brought it up. You tell me.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything”

“Yes you do.”


“Because you came out of the blue. You have to initiate. All I have to do is sit here.”

“What other than guilt would prevent you from answering my question?”

“What question?”

“What you’re up to.”

“You didn’t ask me what I’m up to. You told me you know. That’s not a question.” [318-319]

(Not a dialogue that would happen in real life, perhaps, but one that playfully examines what might happen if we could break down the logical fallacies of ordinary speech in real time.)

Ultimately, though, Paris in the Present Tense is a serious book about serious themes: love and beauty, loyalty and time, as well as the most serious of all: death. The whole book is about ending Jules’s life, not just as a theme but literally the plotting of it, by both character and author.  But first Jules must come to terms with his life: accepting the past, “its reverberations and its sustain,” providing for the future, “the clarity and beauty of its promise,” [191] while learning to live fully in…wait for it…the present tense. As a septuagenarian himself, Helprin is approaching the reality of his own mortality. No more than the rest of us can he chose the where, when, or how of it. But as a novelist he can do it for the character of his creation.

Early in the book, Jules tells François, his philosophical interlocutor, “There’s joy in dying the way you want, by your own standard, in faith to what you see as self-evident. Enough joy to lift you over death as it comes to you.” [56] Jules accomplished this with the help of an adept novelist shaping his story. Helprin and the rest of us must struggle to find a way to do it on our own.

Surviving Topaz and Santo Tomás

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The physical suffering of the American detainees, most agree, was greater than their Japanese American counterparts. Psychologically, also widely acknowledged, the impact was the reverse.

Both groups suffered similar deprivations in the early months, and many of these were discussed in the previous post. Privacy was absent. Food was sufficient but not especially appetizing. Insects and vermin were a plague. Weather added to the discomforts of rustic accommodations. If anything, conditions at Topaz and other relocation centers improved. Infrastructure was upgraded and, according to Miné Okubo, the rules became “much less rigid.” [Okubo 202] Topaz had a bureaucracy and a growing, $2 trillion economy behind it. [] Santo Tomás was an afterthought for the Japanese military and by 1944 an unqualified burden. Providing for the Manila internees did not register as a priority when the Emperor’s warriors needed calories. Twice daily meals of stew, roll, tea, and banana gave way to a small palmful of rice once a day, at best. The internees withered to nothing.

Both Japanese and Manilan Americans felt anger and resentment toward their captors, but of a qualitatively different kind. At Santo Tomás, American anger was directed against an enemy. At Topaz (and the other nine camps), its object was the government they had once viewed as their own. Both groups learned to quash these feelings to varying degrees. The Manilans recognized their dependence on the good will of the Commandant and presented themselves accordingly. The Topazians were no less inclined to accommodate to their new life. Older Issei, first generation Japanese American immigrants, were more likely to submit obediently, even ingratiatingly, to their captors. They were driven by deep cultural mores of stoic acceptance.

Their Nisei, second generation, children heard this message clearly in the words their parents used most often: gaman, “patience” or “endurance;” fuben, “inconvenient,”  nasake-nai, “cold-hearted” or “unfeeling.” But the most common refrain of all: Shikata ga nai, “It can’t be helped.” [Harth 23, 32]

In January, 1943, Roosevelt issued another order that would profoundly affect Japanese Americans. He announced the creation of an all Japanese American combat unit to be filled with recruits who formally declared loyalty to the United States. All males over age 16 were to register by taking a survey. Question 28 stirred up both passions and controversy: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign power or organization?” [Okubo 175] The wording was tweaked even after the questionnaire went into circulation, but the contradictions inherent were never resolved. By renouncing their Japanese citizenship, Issei were officially declaring themselves stateless persons. (There was no “path to citizenship” for them in the United States.) Nisei–many of them–could only have resented the assumption that their loyalty was divided. Weren’t they American citizens?

Those who could not or would not affirm their loyalty were sent to the designated “Segregation Center” at Tule Lake, formerly one of the ten relocation camps. Carl Mydans’s first assignment for Life after escaping Santo Tomas and the Shanghai “Civil Assembly Center” was Tule Lake. (In fact, most of the 13,000 detainees at Tule Lake were not “disloyals” at all. Many were family members who relocated to the northern California camp to stay with their parent or sibling who answered “no” on Question 28. Six thousand were from the original Tule Lake internees who simply could not bear to relocate and opted to stay. [Fortune 61-62]) As a former internee himself, Mydans empathized with the prisoners, as he rightly called them, and remarked on the obvious ironies, especially in his interview with Yoshitaka Nakai. “I am an American like everyone else born in this country,” said Nakai. “And I would fight and die for this country like any other American. But because my eyes are different and my parents come from Japan, everybody looks at me and treats me as though I’m disloyal. And now–I am disloyal. How do you like that?” [C. Mydans 124-125]

Issei and Nisei were not the only designations for Japanese Americans. A third group made an outsize impact on the internment communities. Kibei were Japanese Americans born in the United States but educated in Japan. Their ties to the mother country were strong and their loyalty to it stronger, even, than their parents’. If the Isseis’ impulse was to accommodate their captors and the Niseis’ to hold onto American culture all the more tightly, the Kibeis’ was to resist. They were over-represented in both “riots” that occurred in relocation centers, the first following the Harry Ueno controversy at Manzanar, the second stemming from the James Wakasa incident at Topaz.

A Nisei didn’t have to be an outright accommodationist to resent Kibei agitation. Mild-mannered Miné Okubo appeared miffed when she wrote that “anti-administration rabble-rousers skillfully fanned the misunderstandings” in Topaz. [Okubo 176] John Tateishi believed the contradictions of their situation bred infighting: “Instead of directing our anger and hurt at the government, we directed it against ourselves and in some cases caused emotional chasms that can never be bridged.” That last clause intimates at a lasting pain that he confirms in the next sentence: “I don’t know if any of us children of the camps understood how profoundly the wound cut into the psyches of the Issei and Nisei generations or how unforgiving brother would be to brother when it was all over.” [Harth 137] The distrust lingered for a generation and more.

The Santo Tomás captives were not immune from infighting, either. Shelley Mydans’s fiction sheds light on the kind of internal tussles that took place in this inchoate society. Inequities of power and resources provoked resentment. Slacking stirred animosities. Rumors fomented mistrust. In The Open City we see the Committee become a lightning rod of grievance for those who feel their interests are not represented. (What else is new under the sun?) Lance Diamond irritates the Committee by selling his cot, moved into a dark, unused stairwell, for couples to fulfill their sexual desires. Everyone wants to know the identity of the army combatants hiding out in their midst. They’re willing to spread false information on the off chance that they get credit for a big scoop.

Nor were Topazian captives immune from the attraction and pitfalls of rumors. The basic human need for information was stymied, so they rushed to fill the gap. Though accusations of rabble-rousing or of appeasement, false and otherwise, made the rounds and tore at the community fabric, the rumors were not always sinister. Okubo warmly recalled “plenty of laughter in sharing discomforts, creating imaginative rumors and stories, and daydreaming wishful hopes.” [Okubo ix]

But Okubo was even more visual than verbal. It was the scenes she witnessed, full of “humor and pathos,” that prompted her to make her sketches. [Okubo 53] More than two hundred drawings became the basis for her celebrated book, Citizen 13660. The artist drew herself into every one of those drawings, underscoring the deeply personal nature of the work. The last one shows Okubo at the side of a vehicle which will take her away from the detention center she has called home for a year and a half. She is looking back at the residents who do not yet have the courage, the will, or the means of leaving. (They may do so as long as they do not go back to their lives in California.) At that moment, Okubo says, “I relived momentarily the sorrows and joys of my whole evacuation experience….” [Okubo 209]

It comes as a bit of a shock to read of “joys” in the context of an internment camp. Yet from October, 1942, to January, 1944, Topaz was Okubo’s home, its residents her neighbors and extended family. We can assume that she was not alone in holding such a seemingly heretical sentiment. Those Nisei who survived Topaz, or Manzanar, or whatever other camp, with their esteem more or less in tact must have understood, at some unconscious level, that the internment experience had become a part of them. They could no more extricate it from their identity than they could pluck out an eyeball. They were stuck with it. For good and for bad.


After pledging loyalty and passing the appropriate background check, Japanese American internees could apply to relocate outside the camps beginning in the spring of 1943. After removing them from society, the federal government now had a stake in reintegrating Issei, Nisei, and Kibei citizens and aliens. At least, on its own terms. No more Little Tokyos would be tolerated. (Of course, in establishing the relocation centers the government had created the ne plus ultra of segregation and non-integration. The ironies never cease.) Nisei were encouraged to apply to universities. Seasonal workers were sought to relieve the farm labor shortage. The Army offered its 442nd Regiment for Japanese Americans, as well as opportunities in defense plants and, most crucially, in the intelligence department.

Issei had lost their property and their youth. They could not resume their businesses, nor were they inclined to return to wage labor. The camps provided three squares and security. The Issei saw no reason to go anywhere. As Fortune magazine remarked, in their 1944 feature that included Okubo drawings, “He is a courageous father who dares to start a new life with these responsibilities when, at the center, food, shelter, education, medical care, $16 a month, and clothing are provided.” [Fortune 66] Many Issei and their families chose to remain prisoners months beyond the time they were, technically speaking, free to leave, as early as spring 1943. A year later,17,000 (mostly) Nisei had chosen to leave the camps. That still left 100,000 behind in the Manzanars and Topazes of America. (In the end, the government would have to force the last of the internees out of the camps. It would close the last detention center in March, 1946, seven months after the end of the war.)

The Manilan American internees experienced much the same fear of the outside. Shelley and Carl Mydans jumped at the chance to relocate to Shanghai but could convince few of their friends to go with them. These internees were unwilling to trade the devil they knew for one they didn’t. Mydans called it a “psychosis” in his memoir of twenty years later,” which made the world “outside the fence into a frightening unknown and drawing prisoners closer and closer together for comfort and security.” In their degraded state, these previously strong, independent Americans, were too fearful to make a bold move toward freedom. [C. Mydans 82-83]

They stayed in Santo Tomás. And they suffered.

In late 1944, Carl Mydans returned to the Philippines, embedded (as we would say today) with an invasion unit assigned to liberate Santo Tomás. Mydans barely recognized the men and women he had lived so closely with for eight months. One former comrade, he tells us, “was a skeleton stretched with skin.” His legs and arms were “thinned to the bone,” his legs and ankles “swollen with beriberi into clublike appendages.” [C. Mydans 199] Almost four hundred internees had not survived long enough for rescue. (The death rate at Santo Tomás was three and a half times greater than for Japanese Americans at the ten internment camps.)

The survivors would struggle to regain their health, and they would be haunted by the memories of incarceration. But they had the advantage over their counterparts in the States by having an ennobling narrative in which to place themselves. They had held out under extreme duress and provided inspiration for the determined “return” of MacArthur and his forces–not to mention the hopes of an entire nation. Santo Tomás was a chapter in the wider saga of Bataan and Corregidor, a story that begins in perfidy but ends in redemption. After visiting Tule Lake Segregation Center, Santo Tomás survivor Carl Mydans realized that for all the hardships he and his fellow inmates endured, they had an intangible the Japanese American internees did not: “a deep and comforting conviction that we were part of the great national emergency and that we were all playing a part both toward victory and our own salvation.” [Mydans 124]

Japanese American internees had no uplifting narrative in which to place themselves. There was no final triumph to wash away the shame and guilt. For Issei there was no “old life” to pick up where they had left off, nor even a home to return to. They felt no eagerness to leave the camps.

Nisei, while not unaffected by mixed emotions, were yet eager to get on with their lives and more hopeful of what the world (America) held for them. They led the way out of the camps and back into society. Greater Chicago was the most popular destination. New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona were the next most common destinations (though Arizona turned out to be notoriously unwelcoming).

Those who relocated (the same term was used for the other side of the “evacuation” experience) were supplied with railroad fare, $3 a day in travel expenses, and $25 in cash with which to start their new lives. As eager as they were to get on with their lives, these Nisei knew a world of prejudice and hatred awaited them “outside the fence.” Some were surprised at what they found. “We can eat in any restaurant,” one wrote back to the camps. “I attract very little attention on the train,” wrote another. [Fortune 64] Such was Mitsuye Yamada‘s experience—at first. In the dorms at the University of Cincinnati Yamada was “just one of the girls” and felt “almost a teenager again.” Then while walking down the street, she was spat upon by an angry passerby who reminded her that she was still a “dirty Jap.” [Harth 39, 42] Even among the friends Yamada there were awkward moments. When asked about her experiences, she heard herself say more than once, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” (Emiko Omori captured the sentiment memorably in her 1999 documentary, Rabbit in the Moon: “It wasn’t bad enough.”) Conflicting emotions settled into shame when a Jewish friend (so many of her friends were Jewish) said something to the effect of, Well, at least YOU weren’t gassed or anything. [Harth 40, 49]

Postwar, no matter how successful or filled with reconstructed family joys, would always be clouded by memories of the camps. The survivors would always be haunted by a sense of betrayal and “scarred by feelings of shame and inferiority.” [Harth 191] Fifty years after leaving Manzanar, John Tateishi’s childhood memories still had the power to stir “the feeling of isolation and abandonment” as if he were right back in the desert surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by guards in watchtowers. [Harth 130] Few spoke of their memories. Kodomo no tame, they said: “for the sake of the children.” [Harth 36] Those children, thoroughly assimilated, grew up ignorant of their parents’ childhood trauma and their country’s Constitutional betrayal. Yet, by the 1980s, the fact of Japanese American internment had entered the national dialogue. Gerald Ford formally rescinded FDR’s Executive Order 9066 in 1976.  Manzanar was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and National Historic Site in 1992. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting each surviving internee $20,000. Amid this activity in the public square, third generation Japanese, Sansei, started to ask questions. They became politically aware.

Political awakening helped dispel the silence and the shame. Political action helped build self-confidence and a more positive narrative. In a survey given in the 1990s, most Sansei responded that their family’s historical experience helped sensitize them to other forms of injustice in the world. Nisei Sue Kunitomi Embrey turned her Manzanar experience into the focus of her life, working for three decades to get Manzanar preserved and classified a National Historic Site, to convince Congress to pass a reparations bill. Said Kunitomi, “I have reaped benefits I never expected.” [Harth 184] Among them: meeting “extraordinary people,” participating in “wondrous events,” traveling widely, receiving recognition, and being invited to dine in the White House. Manzanar was an integral part of who Embrey was, and she would do nothing to deny that part of herself. Nor would she accept that the wrong her country committed go unacknowledged, unaccounted for, or un-righted.

This view makes sense within the context of Asian philosophy, in which good and bad are bound together, like the black and white paisleys in a yin-yang circle. American complacency led to a Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor and their capture of the Philippines. These offenses led to both a thirst for vengeance–facile and impulsive–but also a determination to stand up for justice–patient, concerted, and nationwide. The latter freed 3,000 mostly American internees from three years’ captivity and established the independence for a former colony. The former led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of innocents, the denial of their rights as Americans, and a stain on the national image.

The good and the bad all balled up together. That is the reality of our past, and best kept in mind when we shift our gaze, like Okubo at the end of her book, toward the future.


Hartendorp, A.V.H. The Santo Tomás Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1964.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave: 2001.

“Issei, Nisei, Kibei.” Fortune, April 1944, in Hynes, Samuel, et al. Reporting World War II, Part II. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Mydans, Carl. More than Meets the Eye. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Mydans, Shelley Smith. The Open City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1945.

Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1983 (1946).

Wikipedia: “Internment of Japanese Americans,” “Manzanar,” “Santo Tomas Internment Center,” “Topaz Relocation Center,” ” Tule Lake National Monument


Internment at Topaz and Santo Tomás

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Ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor Naval base, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which banned persons of Japanese descent from living in West Coast states. Four weeks after that, Congress put the order into law and more administrative proclamations followed shortly after. The end result: 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, were rounded up and placed in ten different concentration camps hundreds of miles from their homes. They carried on with their lives, such as they were, behind barbed wire and guard towers, for as long as three-and-a-half years.

It seems incomprehensible from our perspective today, especially when we learn that Japanese Americans constituted just one percent of West Coast population (and less than one tenth of one percent of the total American population). Through the Depression years that preceded the attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans had assiduously avoided making  use of social welfare programs. They created their own, pooling funds into a community chest for the use of families struck by hard times. The Japanese were simply too proud to accept handouts from the government. Now, ironically, they were being made wards of the state against their will.

Was the incarceration of Japanese in World War II an example of straight out racism? Certainly the Hearst press’s drumbeat against the Yellow Peril supports that view. Other groups in the Pacific west–Fortune mentions the American Legion, the Associated Farmers of California, the Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, and assorted politicians–had been calling for the exclusion of Japanese for years. The war bolstered their racist cause. And Hearst amplified their message in his papers. But why were FDR, his Brain-Trusters, and his generals–the majority of them Easterners–moved to act on Western hysteria?

In mid-February, 1942, when Roosevelt signed his executive order, Americans learned that Singapore had just fallen. What they did not know was that the Philippines and the American forces there were already given up as lost by both civilian and military leaders. “They were expendable,” as the best-selling book (W.L. White, 1942) and the even better-selling movie (Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, 1945) had it. Among those sacrificed to strategic necessity: three thousand civilians, most of them Americans, already held in a Manila detention facility, known as Santo Tomás.

This fact alone must have made American officials seethe. Combined with the devastation of Pearl Harbor, it would have left them with a powerful tangle of emotions, including helplessness, guilt,…and a desire for vengeance. If so, what has been called the most shameful breach of the U.S. Constitution in our history, becomes explicable if not excusable. To Roosevelt and his fellow Americans, who were feeling deep anger and no small amount of fear, action was called for, concrete action. It made no sense to punish a hundred thousand loyal citizens, but, apparently, it satisfied the need to take action.

We saw in the previous post how internment in a Japanese concentration camp was remembered by one American prisoner. How did the experience compare to internment in an American concentration camp for Japanese Americans?

Most obviously, the numbers in each instance were of a different order of magnitude. Americans detained in the Manila and other Japanese-occupied cities of the Pacific numbered in the thousands. Japanese Americans held in inland concentration camps numbered in the tens of thousands, more than a hundred thousand in all. Though ostensibly similar, the situation for each was distinctly different. Americans abroad found themselves unexpectedly in hostile foreign territory. Japanese Americans found themselves unexpectedly treated as if they were hostile foreigners.


The Process of Internment

In the United States, the internment of Japanese Americans was drawn out and far from orderly. The initial order was for all persons of Japanese ancestry to vacate the coastal states, voluntarily, at their own expense. Relocation was slow and those who did move were met by fierce resistance as they traveled east. Inland Americans wanted no more to do with perfidious “Japs” than their countrymen on the coast. So the federal government stepped in to take control. Relocation became mandatory and supervised. By the end of March, Japanese Americans were being bused to one of fifteen temporary “assembly centers.” (At least two were famous horse tracks hastily converted for their new purpose.)

Months later the evacuees, as they were called, were removed to one of ten more permanent Relocation Centers in isolated locations. (California and Arkansas held two each; Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, one each.) Miné Okubo and her brother were sent to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. She describes all aspects of life there and at the Tanforan assembly center in her 1946 book, Citizen 13660.

The action in her graphic history (sketches with brief text) starts a few months before internment, as Okubo is finishing a two-year period of study and travel in Europe. After she returns home to Berkeley, we learn that she has been hired to create a mural for the city of Oakland. When the order is given to report to the Tanforan assembly center, Okubo is given extra days to complete her work. And when she and her brother finally “ship out” by Greyhound bus on May 1, friends came out to see them off. The message is clear: Okubo was highly educated, securely on the upper end of middle class, and thoroughly integrated into American society. And yet she was locked up in a concentration camp as if she were a threat to American security.

The internment of Americans expatriates in Manila took place in a much more expedited fashion. They and other foreign nationals–British, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Latin American, Russian, Chinese–were rounded up beginning the second day of Japanese occupation. (Americans made up roughly two-thirds of the interned population. [Hartendorp, xiii]) They were held in temporary confinement just a few days or even a few hours before being transferred to their permanent residence at the University of Santo Tomás detention center. Unlike their Japanese American counterparts, these internees avoided the anxiety that came with not knowing and the disruption that came with repeated relocation. The Americans hated their status as prisoners, resented the Japanese takeover of their adopted home, and were critical of the lack of American military response. Yet they understood their position and accepted it as a fact of war. The interned Japanese Americans were confused by their position, and torn between an impulse to ingratiate and a desire to defy (or vice versa).


Administration and Infrastructure of the Internment Camps

The American government was deeply involved in the establishment of its internment camps. The military hastily constructed the temporary assembly centers, but a civilian bureaucracy was created to construct and administer the ten more official relocation centers. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) operated within the Department of the Interior despite some critics’ calls to place it within the War Department. It had an operating budget paid for with tax dollars. Bureaucrats in Washington met, discussed, and communicated rules to onsite directors who implemented them. Health care professionals, social workers, and, in at least one case, an anthropologist were employed to operate the relocation centers. Though the first purpose of the camps was to remove Japanese Americans from society, a secondary purpose of reintegrating them into society became more important as the war progressed.

The camps themselves were created ex nihilo, as it were, in areas specifically chosen for their isolation from civilian populations who, it will be recalled, wanted the “Japs” out of sight, if not, due to war news, out of mind. Topaz, where Okubo went, was located in the middle of a Utah alkali desert. Forty-two “city blocks” of barracks in one square mile comprised the residential heart of the camp within a total grounds of 19,000 acres. Much of the remaining land was set aside to grow crops and raise livestock, with the goal of making the camp self-sufficient. The prisoners could not leave the camp without permission, but they did have space in which to wander when they needed solitude.

Each block consisted of pine and tarpaper barracks, enough to house about 250. (Later sheetrock and Masonite were added  to the walls and floors, respectively, which improved the insulation only marginally.) Four-to-six family members, or four same-sex strangers, would be assigned to each 20 ft. x 20 ft. unfurnished room. They slept on cots with mattresses they stuffed themselves with straw ticking. Resourceful evacuees (they all became resourceful to varying degrees) scavenged scrap lumber and procured tools to craft their own rudimentary furniture. They hung fabric as a partition to create a semblance of privacy. Each block had its own mess hall, recreation hall, and laundry/shower/toilet facilities. The latter, to repeat, provided little or no privacy.

Santo Tomás was built into an existing facility and housed a third of Topaz’s population. The Japanese military commandeered the University of Santo Tomás campus and, for the most part, gave the internees the task of converting it into an internment camp. Santo Tomás official historian, A.V.H. Hartendorp, reported that men of the sanitation committee installed toilets, showers, and dug pit latrines to accommodate the three thousand new residents on the campus. The toilets and other supplies might have come from the Japanese, though more likely they came from the Philippine Red Cross. I just don’t know.

The internees at Santo Tomás did not have private rooms for a family or even a small group of strangers. Twenty-to-thirty bedded down in former classrooms, with mattresses rolled out on the floor or sometimes on cots. Privacy was hard to come by while sleeping or showering or toileting. (“IF YOU WANT PRIVACY, CLOSE YOUR EYES,” read a sign on one toilet. [Hartendorp 31]) The walled-in campus did cover sixty acres, enough for internees to seek out secluded corners or shaded arbors, but privacy was still at a premium. A few took the initiative to construct their own private shanties in front of the main building. Many others, wanting to keep up with the Joneses, as it were, followed suit. Before long there were several hundred packed together on the grounds. Japanese authorities allowed them only if they were open to the air–no walls, only roofs–so they would not become dens of iniquity, or otherwise sources of immorality.



“Authorities” in this case meant the Commandant, a one-man rule that was as hands-off as he could make it. On the very first day of internment, even before a commandant had been appointed, Japanese military officials asked for an American who could step forward as leader of a committee tasked with operating the camp. Earl Carroll, the man selected, was told to appoint a representative from each of the ten rooms. Carrol simply chose the men he knew. (The representatives were all men, even though the rooms were sex segregated. Women internees lacked representation. But what else is new?)

The organizing committee quickly identified four “pressing needs”: sanitation, food, discipline, and keeping the children occupied. Subcommittees were formed. [Hartendorp 8] The Sanitation Committee was soon directing the work of six hundred internees; Food, two hundred kitchen workers, Discipline, one hundred and fifty “police,” Children, twenty-three teachers, among others. Subcommittees for fire prevention, medical needs, and adult entertainment followed shortly. The inmates ran the prison (or, rather, the internees ran the internment camp.)

All within the dictates of their Japanese captors, of course.

The organizing committee, later elected and re-formed as the Advisory Committee, later as the Central Committee, and later still as the Executive Committee, served as liaison between internees and Commandant Tomayasu and his successors. They brought requests and carefully worded grievances to Tomayasu, and he, in turn, called Carroll and committee chairs to his office whenever he heard reports of transgressions or abuses of privileges. Often the Central Committee negotiated compromises in the face of threatened crackdowns, such as the issue over the proliferating shanties. Tomayasu might have razed them all, but, in negotiations, the Central Committee promised that all exterior walls would be removed.

Japanese American internees obtained only the pretense of self-government. In the Tanforan assembly center, internees organized their own advisory councils, giving Issei (first-generation Japanese American non-citizens) a vote for the first time in their lives. The Army shut them down.

In Topaz, under the auspices of the WRA, internees elected representatives, block managers, from each residential block of two-hundred and fifty internees. At first, only Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) were permitted to hold these positions. WRA officials quickly realized that this was untenable. Many Nisei were too young to be leaders and certainly younger than the Issei they represented. The rules were changed to allow the natural leaders of the community, the elders, to serve as block managers. Together the block managers made up the camp’s council, which really could “do little more than listen to new rules, new plans of WRA, handed down from Washington.” [Fortune 58] Block managers and the council mainly existed to respond to individual and community problems: a shortage of toilet paper, a leak in a building’s roof, complaints of an internee playing the radio too loud and too late at night. In this regard, the Topaz block managers were no different from Santo Tomás’s Central Committee.

Japanese American internees were at least as active in building their community as those of Santo Tomás. While still in the Tanforan assembly center, they organized the rudiments of a school, despite inadequate infrastructure and supplies. Okubo taught art classes–and experienced the poor behavior of the interned children. (In Topaz, the WRA made sure education was provided, using the approved curriculum from the state of Utah.) Also while in the assembly center, the internees enhanced their grounds by digging a lake and landscaping its perimeter. They created “a miniature aquatic park, complete with bridge, promenade, and islands.” [Okubo 99] The poignancy of the effort is brought home when one recalls that the residents had just two months to enjoy their work before relocating to the Utah desert.

Once in Topaz, internees were given jobs both to keep them occupied and to aid in the running of the camp (to keep operating costs down). Internees could select the work that appealed to them and apply for the position. Okubo worked for a while at the Topaz Times newspaper before breaking away to found a literary and art magazine of her own, called Trek. Toyo Suyemoto‘s family were all well-educated. Her brother and two sisters worked at the hospital or in the medical lab. Her father, an engineer, kept his skills to himself. He chose a job as a furnace tender which gave him more time to pursue art in his off-hours. Her mother cared for a young son and grandchild. Toyo herself tried teaching in the school but found the unruly children too stressful. (Traditional Japanese discipline and respect were undermined in the camps. Children roamed freely, and parents had little control.) She transferred to the Topaz Public Library for the final eighteen months of her internment. All her family members (save her mother whose work, typically, went uncompensated) earned an average of $16 a month ($19 was the highest). In addition, all were given $3.75 clothing allowance each month. Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs were indispensable.


The impact of these internment experiences, physically and psychologically, was significant on both groups. Despite similarities, though, the differences were pronounced. More on that in the next post.


Hartendorp, A.V.H. The Santo Tomás Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1964.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave: 2001.

“Issei, Nisei, Kibei.” Fortune, April 1944, in Hynes, Samuel, et al. Reporting World War II, Part II. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Mydans, Carl. More than Meets the Eye. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Mydans, Shelley Smith. The Open City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1945.

Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1983 (1946).

Wikipedia: “Internment of Japanese Americans,” “Manzanar,” “Santo Tomas Internment Center,” “Topaz Relocation Center,” ” Tule Lake National Monument