Japanese American Historical Plaza
What did Japanese people give the state while interned?
PORTLAND, Oregon, was the first city in the United States during the Second World War to fully evacuate its Japanese population. A headline in one of the local papers stated enthusiastically, “Portland to Be First Jap-Free City: Next Tuesday to Find Town Sans Nippos.”
THE second time I visited the Japanese American Historical Plaza, a small park between the Naito Parkway and the Willamette River in downtown Portland, a young white girl and a middle-aged white woman were chasing each other around the memorial stones and through the cherry trees. The girl was (maybe) ten, the woman (maybe) forty; they were chasing each other slowly, soundlessly, almost, except for when the woman giggled or the girl made a noise, over which, as if in a dream, she did not seem to have any control. Were they mother and daughter? They seemed distant from each other. The girl stopped and stood on the short slope of grass beneath the cherry trees and stared over the river. Then the girl began to scream. Her voice rose and fell and flattened out. That is when I realized the girl was deaf. The woman began signing. Then the girl left the trees and returned to running around the stones. She hid behind the tallest stone, upright in the center of the plaza, which is inscribed with the names of ten internment camps:
The list is deceiving. It does not include the assembly centers and Department of Justice prisons and prison and labor camps and isolation centers and INS facilities and army forts and installations in which the Japanese and Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens of the United States, were incarcerated. The omission rewrites history to minimize the complex and overwhelming system of racial profiling and incarceration into which more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were forced, and into which the United States so easily transitioned.
The sites of containment were meant to be invisible. The upright stone caps the sites of containment at ten. Which makes them easier to incorporate into the dementia of sentiments such as:
It must never happen again.
Because: it is happening again. The reinvigorated threat of a Muslim registry in the United States reinforces the possibility that memorials are, themselves, sites of willful closure and forgetting. They valorize the act of remembrance by foreclosing on what is being remembered.
Because: The sites of containment are everywhere. For the Japanese and Japanese Americans, the sites of containment were everywhere. Or I should say: it was everywhere. The mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans was the United States of America.
AT the entrance to the plaza are two columns into which are carved, or impressed, the faces of Japanese Americans. I assume they are Japanese American because it is the Japanese American Historical Plaza, but the faces are impressions; I am overly conscious of the sculptor’s hands. Is it my problem, my mistake, for wanting the faces of real people to overthrow the sculptor’s imagining? The old man carrying a child on his back, the women crossing a bridge, the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the child in the window of a train, the child standing beneath the window, look like they have been copied from photographs. The old man carrying a child on his back, for example, is from a photograph Dorothea Lange took at the Manzanar Relocation Center, July 2, 1942.
The faces are encased in the column. They remind me of the faces in Cuba’s contribution to the atomic bombing memorials in the Peace Park in Nagasaki: Sun Crane of Peace, by the sculptor José Delarra, in which the faces are also encased. The faces in Sun Crane of Peace–Cuban depictions of atomic bomb survivors–were meant, as the plaque in Nagasaki says, to symbolize the vital importance of peace. The burden of symbolizing the vital importance of peace was being handed to those who survived the atomic bomb, or the impression left on their faces. But who actually survived the atomic bomb?
The columns in Portland were made by Jim Gion, a white Vietnam veteran from Oregon. Gion was also commissioned to create the Portland Immigrant Statue, in the Parkrose neighborhood in Northeast Portland. He was commissioned to make an immigrant intended to represent all immigrants, past and present, who settled in East Portland, including Asian and Italian farmers. The statue was described in the East Portland News as standing with hands on hips, looking over the land that is becoming his new home.
That immigrant is indistinct, undifferentiated. He is a man though, that much is clear. Asian and Italian at once, the immigrant is no longer an immigrant, but the American fantasy of an acceptably assimilated citizen, cleansed of artifacts of difference. What is more, he is ready with hands on hips, looking over the land, to accept the mantle of colonizer. Portland was, until the arrival of the settlers in the 1800s, home to the Multnomah tribe of the Chinook people. This is the indigenous nation the undifferentiated immigrant is manipulated into believing might one day be his. He stands proudly surveying the land in which he wants to take part shaping and improving, in owning. Hands on hips: a posture he unconsciously inherited from his oppressors. He inherited also the illusion of choice: of becoming either the oppressor or the oppressed.
THE plaza does not require that anyone remember. It is a suggestion, but the process of remembering is insular. The feeling I get is of the plaza remembering itself. A sign with text by Robert Murase, the landscape architect who designed the plaza, says that the plaza is dedicated to helping people recognize and remember how precious constitutional civil liberties are, and how serious are the consequences when these basic freedoms are forsaken, as they were for the Japanese in our state nearly fifty years ago.
I too want people to remember. But how could anyone who was not there? They might remember being in the plaza. They might remember that the plaza has meaning, but the meaning might escape them. The names of the ten internment camps are not transporting. They read like movie credits, or a poem, the evocations of which are hardly known. The person who stops to read the names stands in front of an upright stone, hard-pressed to recognize the meaning of each one of the places hidden behind, beyond, the name.
What in the plaza is helping people recognize and remember civil liberties and the consequences when they are forsaken?
The place on the Willamette is unrelated to the history to which the plaza’s dedication has been made. It is not a burial grave. No Japanese Americans were corralled there like animals, nor sent, from there, into the unknown, remote America. The Historical Plaza is a ritual grave, but its ritualizing is lost, incomplete. It does not mention, as if intentionally withholding, the more remarkable grave, concealed up the river, where the mass evacuation took place.
SEVEN miles north of the plaza is the Portland Expo Center. Formerly the Pacific International Livestock and Exhibition Center, it transformed, from March through September 1942, into the Portland Assembly Center, where 3,676 Japanese and Japanese Americans from northern Oregon and central Washington were held in livestock sheds surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and armed guards, before being sent to one of three internment camps (Heart Mountain, Minidoka, Tule Lake). The men, women, children, infants, and the elderly, lived, without privacy, in animal stalls. Instead of beds they were given straw-stuffed gunnysacks. The smell of cow shit rose up through the floor.
The Expo Center is located where Portland becomes swamp. I took the yellow line through the swamp until the end. I saw, as the train pulled into the platform, three large torii gates. A fourth and fifth stood separately above walkways into an enormous empty parking lot. The gates were made of gray wood; they looked like they had been weathered by the sea. Wrapped around the bottom of their posts were reproductions, in pressed metal, of local newspaper articles from 1942: Jap Exodus Starts Here Wednesday. Big Pavilion to Receive 4,000 Japs. Japs Hasten to Register in Portland. Portland to Be First Jap-Free City: Next Tuesday to Find Town Sans Nippos.
Hanging from ropes across the tops of the gates were metal identification tags. The tags were brushing against each other in the wind. The wind was slight. The tags were blank. They hung like fish. There were no names on them.
The silence felt appropriate. The installation, by Portland artist Valerie Otani, is called Voices of Remembrance. The sound of the tags in the wind evoked the presence of the people who had been evacuated, voices in the negative. So much more had been achieved, I thought, in that sound than all the elements in the Japanese American Historical Plaza combined. That is one of the Plaza’s primary failings: its conception overlooked, or was incapable of creating, an experience as simple as a sound.
The gates mark the threshold over which the Japanese Americans were not permitted to reclaim themselves: between the detention center and the unknown. From September 6 through 10, they were herded onto trains, with armed guards and window shades they were not permitted to raise. Now the blank tags remain.
I walked through the parking lot to the Expo Center. A white man named Ron, wearing a beige shirt, was blowing leaves off the sidewalk. He turned off his blower. He asked where I was going. I asked if he knew the buildings well. He said yes, then asked what I was doing. I told him I was looking for a plaque commemorating Japanese American internment. I had been told there was a plaque on one of the buildings. It’s inside A Hall, he said, and pointed to an older building set back from the newer, larger, fancier building. It’s closed, but I could take you in. We walked across another parking lot and entered A Hall through a side entrance. It was an enormous warehouse. It was empty. The floors were concrete and gleaming. I could see daylight in the floors. Ron walked me to the carpeted lobby. Hanging on a brick wall was a plaque detailing, briefly, the detention of 3,676 Japanese Americans from northwest Oregon and the Yakima Valley of Washington, May 2 to September 10, 1942. The plaque was illustrated with a sun rising above clouds and barbed wire cutting across the text. It hung above a bench between two fake plants and directly beneath a wide-screen television.
HOW does the “historical” in the Japanese American Historical Plaza work? Where does it exist? The forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes and their subsequent incarceration in livestock sheds then in (so-called) relocation centers in remote America, was, among many things, a violation of familial and intimate space. It cast Japanese Americans into the open wilderness, where they could be exposed and dissected, while simultaneously confining them, with little orientation, in concentration camps, where they, their kinship and community structures, could be disassembled and disintegrated.
Open wilderness, i.e., the pasture.
This is the land the sculptor’s undifferentiated immigrant is looking over. And yet, he does not recognize himself in the open wilderness, because he has already been effaced. He recognizes, or does not, instead, the alien-other from which he has descended, yet from which he refuses all traces.
He is ashamed. But he has been shut up.
The land he is looking over is empty.
The undifferentiated immigrant, monolithic, obtuse, occludes the ability, the attempt even, to see immigrants, constantly being forged by endless war and exploitation, by conceiving of them as alien. Made alien, the procedures–the forms of exclusion and detention–through which people are forced, in order to be more fully comprehended and controlled, become alien too. Shadow realities; how to memorialize that which has been withdrawn from sight, comprehension? The memorial would have to incarnate a statement of disbelief.
The undifferentiated immigrant becomes, meanwhile, in full light of the state, the assimilated citizen; he stands as the beacon, the standard, in the shadow of which all alien-others must orient themselves, or risk nullification, being erased.
IN the Japanese American Historical Plaza, on each of the several large stones standing upright on the slope beneath the cherry trees, there is inscribed a three-to-five line poem. The poems are by four Japanese Oregonians: Lawson Inada, Shizue Iwatsuki, Masaki Kinoshita, and Hisako Saito, but their names are not listed. One must leave the plaza and go elsewhere in order to find their names.
Only two names appear in the park: Robert Murase and Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s name appears on a plaque; he was given the honor of expressing the sentiments of the State. The State said:
Japanese Americans have made invaluable contributions in all areas of our national life, including business, the arts, government, science, space exploration, and education. They have placed themselves in the ranks of America’s extraordinary heroes by faithfully answering the call to defend freedom. In World War II, the brave Nisei of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team made American military history on the beach at Anzio and in difficult campaigns across Italy and France; their courage made them one of the most decorated combat teams of the war, and the 18,143 individual decorations and seven Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations they received will always testify to their bravery and sacrifice. Their deeds, and those of Japanese Americans who served our Armed Forces in so many other roles, gave life to the soldier’s credo: Duty, Honor, Country.
What about the Japanese Americans who did not make American military history? What about the Japanese Americans who did not make invaluable contributions to national life? What about the Japanese Americans who did–nothing? The sad chapter (Reagan’s words) in American history of Japanese American internment is worth reflecting on, Reagan says, because of the benefits America has reaped from the contributions made by people who have come here from virtually every nation on Earth (also Reagan’s words).
Did Japanese and Japanese Americans make an invaluable contribution to national life by being evacuated from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps across the country? Was their incarceration, for people like Reagan, their contribution? Maybe this was, to him, a more complex and profound contribution than was ever made, for example, by advancements in business, the arts, government, science, space exploration, and education.
The poems, meanwhile, express sentiments in which emotion has been muted, if not erased. And without the poets’ names, they fail to suggest more than the experience of an undifferentiated mass. And yet the stones–seemingly intended to evoke rock gardens in Buddhist temples (ishi wo tateru koto: the act of setting stones upright)–stick out like horns or cankers, inflammations.
I visited the plaza during the dry season. The cherry trees, which are made, throughout the year, to do so much of the plaza’s work, were colorless and bare. I saw, in their place, the faces of the people who occupy the plaza. Not the tourists or passersby, walking and cycling on the sidewalk, eating lunch, with or without children, taking pictures of the river; but the homeless, who sit or sleep in the grass, on blue tarps, in wheelchairs.
The first time I visited the Japanese American Historical Plaza, two white male police officers were hassling the people on the grass. They had driven their car over the curb across the sidewalk and onto the hill, where people were sitting and resting, some sleeping, on blankets, in sleeping bags, beneath the evergreens.
The police officers stood with their hands on their hips, with their Tasers and guns, in the same pose as the statue of the immigrant, surveying the rewards of endurance.
The third time I visited the Japanese American Historical Plaza, a Walking Tour, led by a white man with a red beard and wireless headset, was paused in the shadow beneath the Burnside Bridge. Six tourists, all white, each with a white name tag, were gathered around the tour guide, who said, as I was walking past, There was basically a lot of crime here … and stuff like that.
Would the land that underlies the plaza function differently if there was no historical monument? The tour guide implied that because of the beautification of the area, crime dissipated. People gather–to rest, sleep, eat, read, stare at the river; chase each other in slow, silent circles, to shout–free from present-day crimes. The historical plaza, by virtue of its civic duty, justifies not only the idleness that takes advantage of it, but the surveillance, in the form of law enforcement, which imposes itself automatically wherever people gather.
The Japanese American Historical Plaza is also called the Bill of Rights Memorial, for a stone that features a bronze plaque reproduction of the Bill of Rights, or so I first imagined. The stone, carved with a rectangle of where the Bill of Rights is supposed to be, is blank.
THE fifth time I visited the Japanese American Historical Plaza, a man was shouting. He sounded like he was shouting at someone, fighting with someone, but when I entered the plaza, I saw he was alone, shouting at no one, or no one apparent. He was fighting: moving in wide circles around the center of the plaza like a boxer. The man, white, was wearing jeans and a black button-down shirt. And he was barefoot. His black high tops were on the ground, three feet apart, pointed towards the tallest stone, the stone of ten internment camps.
He was gesticulating, clapping his hands together; he was figuring something out. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled up to his shoes then put his hands in his shoes and slapped the ground. He could not stop slapping the ground with his shoes. Then he sat cross-legged on the ground, shoes still on his hands. Then he fell onto his back, thrust his right leg into the air, rolled his pant leg down, and waved his bare leg in the air. Then he sat up and started slapping the ground again, shouting without losing breath. The content of his shouting rose and fell, came in and out, swallowed occasionally by the sound of traffic, a train once, the wind.
The man put his face to the ground as if to kiss it, or peer through a hole no one else could see, and started shouting at the ground. He looked like he was shouting down a well. His body extended over the edge of the hole down which he was yelling, into the ground. He threw his entire being into the hole as if he might, for once, escape to a place where he could shut up and take a breath.
I thought of Hold These Truths, a play by Jeanne Sakata, which I had seen in early October at Portland Center Stage at the Armory. The play reenacts the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American from Seattle, who resisted FDR’s Executive Order 9066–the curfew, the evacuation, and the eventual incarceration. He took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which initially ruled against him, a decision that was, forty years later, overturned. In the play, Hirabayashi, played by Ryun Yu, was alone on a small square stage. He moved around the stage like a prisoner reenacting his life in a prison cell. And though it was Yu doing the voices of all the people–family and friends and allies and enemies–in Hirabayashi’s life, it became, through Yu’s empathic, often manic, translation, Hirabayashi too, so that I was witnessing a person whose lifelong fight to demonstrate his basic rights as the citizen of a country that perpetually questioned that citizenship, had resulted in their fracture, their fragmentation, manifest now in the ceaseless reiteration of voices in an otherwise empty cell.
Most of the people who passed by the man did not even so much as look in his direction; so willful was their intention of getting to where they were going. Was anyone listening?
THE following is a list of concentration camps and assembly centers and Department of Justice prisons and prison and labor camps and isolation centers and INS facilities and army forts and installations in which Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated during the Second World War:
Asheville (enemy alien internment camp), Buncombe County, North Carolina
Bedford Springs Hotel (diplomat relocation center), Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania
Camp Blanding Internment Camp, Starke, Florida
Camp Forrest Internment Camp, Tullahoma, Tennessee
Camp Livingston Internment Camp, Alexandria, Louisiana
Camp McAlester, McAlester, Pittsburg County, Oklahoma
Camp McCoy Internment Camp, Camp McCoy, Wisconsin
Camp Roswell, New Mexico
Catalina Federal Honor (Prison Labor) Camp, Tucson, Arizona
Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio (temporary detention station)
Cow Creek Camp, Cow Creek, California
Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility, Crystal City, Texas
East Boston (INS) Detention Station, East Boston, Massachusetts
Ellis Island (INS) Detention Station, Ellis Island, New York
Florence Internment Camp, Florence, Arizona
Fort Bliss Internment Camp, Fort Bliss, Texas
Fort Devens (POW camp), Ayer/Shirley, Massachusetts
Fort Howard Internment Camp, Fort Howard, Maryland
Fort Lewis Internment Camp, Fort Lewis, Washington
Fort Lincoln (Department of Justice) Internment Camp, Bismarck, North Dakota
Fort McDowell, Angel Island, California
Fort Meade Internment Camp, Fort George Meade, Maryland
Fort Missoula (Department of Justice) Internment Camp, Missoula, Montana
Fort Richardson Internment Camp, Fort Richardson, Alaska
Fort Sam Houston Detention Facility, San Antonio, Texas
Fort Sill Internment Camp, Oklahoma
Fort Stanton Internment Camp, New Mexico
Fresno Assembly Center, Fresno, California
Gila River War Relocation Center, Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona
Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado
Greenbrier Resort (diplomat relocation center), White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Griffith Park Internment Camp, Los Angeles, California
Haiku Internment Camp, Maui, Hawaii
Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Cody, Wyoming
Honouliuli Internment Camp, Honouliuli, Oahu, Hawaii
Ingleside Resort (INS detention center), Staunton, Virginia
Jerome War Relocation Center, Denson, Arkansas
Kalaheo Stockade (detention facility), Kaua’i, Hawaii
Kansas City INS Detention Facility, Missouri
Kenedy Alien Detention Camp, Kenedy, Texas
Kilauea Military Camp, Hawaii, Hawaii
Kooskia (Department of Justice) Internment Camp, Idaho
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas
Leupp Isolation Center, Leupp, Arizona
Lihue Plantation, Kaua’i, Hawaii
Lordsburg Internment Camp, Lordsburg, New Mexico
Manzanar Relocation Center, California
Marysville Assembly Center, Marysville, California
Mayer Assembly Center, Mayer, Arizona
McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, McNeil Island, Washington
Merced Assembly Center, Merced, California
Minidoka War Relocation Center, Hunt, Idaho
Moab Isolation Center, Moah, Utah
Montreat Assembly Inn, Montreat, North Carolina
Nyssa (Farm Labor) Tent Camp, Nyssa, Oregon
Old Raton Ranch Internment Camp, Lincoln, New Mexico
Omni Homestead Resort (diplomat internment camp), Hot Springs, Virginia
Pinedale Assembly Center, Pinedale, California
Pomona Assembly Center, Pomona, California
Portland Assembly Center, Portland, Oregon
Poston War Relocation Center, Colorado Indian Reservation, Arizona
Puyallup Assembly Center, Puyallup, Washington
Rohwer War Relocation Center, Arkansas
Sacramento Assembly Center, Sacramento, California
Salinas Assembly Center, Salinas, California
San Francisco (INS) Detention Station, San Francisco, California
San Pedro (INS) Detention Station, San Pedro, California
Sand Island Internment Camp, Sand Island, Oahu, Hawaii
Santa Anita Assembly Center, Arcadia, California
Santa Fe (Department of Justice) Internment Camp, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Seagoville (Department of Justice) Detention Camp, Seagoville, Texas
Seattle (INS) Detention Station, Seattle, Washington
Sharp Park (INS) Detention Station, Sharp Park, California
Stockton Assembly Center, Stockton, California
Stringtown Internment Camp, Stringtown, Oklahoma
Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California
Topaz Relocation Center, Delta, Utah
Tulare Assembly Center, Tulare, California
Tule Lake Relocation Center, Tulelake, California
Tuna Canyon (INS) Detention Station, Los Angeles County, California
Turlock Assembly Center, Turlock, California
Waiakea Prison Camp, Waiakea, Hawaii
Wailua County Jail, Kaua’i (detention facility), Hawaii