Our Ghosts: On Japanese Internment in Fresno

When I talked to her by phone last month, Gale Nakai, the director of the Central California Nikkei Foundation, a center for Japanese cultural heritage, reassured me that it was perfectly normal not to know much about internment in Fresno. This past is filled with heroism and resilience, baseball and women in natty dresses. Flow chart for intake of Japanese-American prisoners. “But I don’t really know for sure where they were,” she said, “or really any details about that time — we never talked about it.”
Now all but erased from everyday life, consigned to a strange silence, the two camps for holding internal enemies in my hometown were named, euphemistically, “Assembly Centers.” The term conjures an image of a warehouse, or Santa’s workshop, but it was meant to indicate that these were temporary facilities, holding pens. Under a newly created branch of the federal government called the “Wartime Civil Control Administration,” the United States declared an “exclusion area” on the West Coast, within which a kind of martial law obtained. Just days ago, after tracking down one of the few people on earth who know the detailed history of the Pinedale camp, David Rodriguez, I learned that the eastern fence of the camp would have been five blocks from the restaurant, in the neighborhood where kids would gather to throw rocks at the inmates. One of these temporary detention facilities, the “Fresno Assembly Center,” had been downtown, on the grounds of what is now called the Big Fresno Fair. My parents remember when Herndon was the far north of town: the country, the sticks. Perverse as they are, this picture and others like it bear witness to the resilience and strength of human beings forced to endure unthinkable hardship, in camps that were cheaply built, often without proper flooring or adequate medical facilities, and were, at Tanforan, California, anyway, infested with snakes. J.L. ¤
It is important to remember that the process of internal division and confinement in the 1940s, our American gulag archipelago, was set into motion not by legislative action or court decree but by executive order — a sovereign decision issued by a president acting outside of constitutional processes. Japanese Americans were rounded up, transported, and detained against their will, often with only days to prepare for departure and without being told of their final destination. How does it feel to break bread with our ghosts? Her mother had been a young girl in Gila River (Arizona), Gale thought; her father a teenager in Rohwer (Arkansas). — and we ate, I think, a noodle salad, a rice dish and…” She trailed off, paused for a moment. “Can you imagine that?” she said, “how strange that must have been for them? It is astonishing to reread this document now, at a moment when a new president has granted to himself the power to declare martial law in major cities; to pursue and detain anyone his deputies have “reasonable cause to suspect” is an immigrant “alien”; to suspend the health and reproductive rights of an entire gender; and, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, to issue a ban on refugees from Muslim-majority nations, splitting up families and leaving US allies, military veterans, and the parents of veterans stranded to die, an illegal measure for which Japanese internment has been offered as explicit precedent. Highway 99 is a ribbon running up the San Joaquin Valley: those living west of it went immediately to Assembly Centers; those to the east got more time, and were relocated directly to permanent camps. DeWitt, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1943). Note that the streets have been renamed. “You shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing about it,” she said kindly, wanting to put me at ease. “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry from the Western Defense Command and Forth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration.” April 1, 1942. Inside the fences, on the site itself, now sit tract houses, a Mercedes dealership, and a Consulate for the nation of Mexico. “I think a lot about what that must have been like,” Nakei explained to me on the phone, “the feeling of that journey. The feeling of not knowing at all where you were going, or what might happen to you.”
Families at Manzanar slept six to a barrack, so a family of five would have a stranger added to their group. He was born and raised in Fresno, California. My dad used to work at the Fair in the ’80s, and remembers a man named Robert Kanagawa who, as a child, had been incarcerated in the Fresno camp, where internees were detained in the horse stalls. By spring, American citizens would be arriving at the Fresno and Pinedale camps: our neighbors. “Oh,” she said, “oh, well, let me see. Across 75 years the boy looks to me like a victim of one of the most shameful lapses of American principles in our nation’s history. When I returned home I would go there for lunch sometimes, usually with my dad. Poster. I’m a Sansei [third generation] Japanese American, and even I didn’t know about the camps until much later in my life.” This seemed easy to understand until I learned that Gale’s own parents had been incarcerated. When I look at this photo I wonder what he must have been feeling at the moment the flash went off. The woman had never been back to visit the grave. In the 1940s, my grandfather sold seed to farmers in Burbank, California, and would talk later of how the Japanese growers he sold to, his customers and friends, “just dropped away,” as my mom remembered. “And can you believe it,” she said, remembering: “you know what — we had brought Jell-O too.”
What would it mean to share a meal with other human beings across 75 years of time? “They disappeared.” The camps in Fresno operated through the late spring and summer of 1942, just for a season, but the emotional and political residue of those disappeared places and people, their trace, lingers still. But in the foreground another figure, just a kid, looks back at us. We should look this history in the eyes, because it is us. Like the one at the Fairgrounds, the Pinedale facility opened in May 1942, the same month Jimmy Cagney debuted in Yankee Doodle Dandy. The Order granted the president “and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate” unimpeded authority to
prescribe military areas […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. At midday, the group ate in a reconstructed mess hall, not unlike the one pictured above. The curtains were white sheets. They are our ghosts. Because I came home to Fresno only once in a while, and since I saw, every time I returned, how much the place had changed since my last visit, at some point I got curious about the city’s history. I asked Gale what she’d eaten for lunch, in the mess hall. But the most striking, the thing that haunts me now more than ever, was that my hometown had hosted not one but two Japanese prison camps. Like our president’s own poorly written and error-filled executive orders, the bureaucratic prose of EO 9066 shows us a racist government bestowing total sovereignty to itself. I learned all kinds of things. The other camp, the one buried under the Mexican restaurant, was the Pinedale Assembly Center, selected for its proximity to railroad lines and power generators and purpose-built, on an old lumberyard, for the containment of internal enemies. The black-and-white images show people smiling “in natty blue dresses”; receiving medical care; dancing or playing baseball; marveling over “modern-type shower bath equipment.” One of the photos, taken in the Fresno camp, shows two boys — both imprisoned, anonymous, from who knows where — rifling through what looks like a pile of trash. In fact, the writ that set this racist process of internal containment into motion, the infamous Executive Order 9066, would not mention the Japanese at all, either by nation or race. 1, May 23, 1942. Beyond the normal circuits of life. It is a particular form of erasure. ¤
I now live outside of Washington, DC, and at the Library of Congress they hold an archive of photos from the Pinedale and Fresno camps. Because of something called “the fiscalization of land use,” whereby existing infrastructure can’t be paid for without tax revenue from new development, growth in this formerly agricultural town is rapacious. Fig trees turned over to make parking lots, whole orchards uprooted for box stores, on and on. Under the extra-constitutional authority seized in World War II, all latitude was granted, anything possible, since its only limits were “whatever restrictions” the presidentially appointed military leader “may impose at his discretion.” President Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, almost exactly 75 years ago. Getting off of a bus in who knows where, not knowing anything. I’d never heard of these camps, never talked about them, had no recollection of any detailed lessons about them in school. With Jell-O in their rice?” When Gale herself first visited Manzanar — a high-desert camp in Lone Pine, California, four and a half hours from Fresno by bus and almost impossibly remote — the group she’d traveled with had included a woman who’d been interned there, and whose small brother had died in the camp. The disjunction was jarring, even perverse. Collection of Oakland Museum of California. Looking into this young boy’s face, it’s easy enough to see why commentators since the 19th century have associated photography with loss, with elegy, with the spirit world. “Really, don’t. These are propaganda pictures, government-made images intended to showcase the humane treatment received by what the captions call the terror-camps’ “evacuees” (the euphemism suggests the prisoners are being saved from something). By the time my dad knew him, Kanagawa had been elected president of the Fresno Fair Board, serving by appointment of the governor of California. ¤
Nathan K. When his eyes meet my own I wonder what I do, now. 1 no. But it is charged, too, with the catastrophic suspension of rights, with racialized violence on industrial scale, with barbarism perpetrated on our own neighbors in the name of making America great. But the photo that haunted me most was taken in Pinedale:
“Pinedale (Calif.) Assembly Center – Evacuees enjoying a hearty meal in Center dining hall” Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-137387
It shows a group of Japanese prisoners eating in a kind of rough-hewn cafeteria: the caption describes “evacuees enjoying a hearty meal.” Most of them look away from our gaze, close their eyes, or continue eating — too tired or distracted, perhaps, to object too strongly to being used for propaganda purposes. This isn’t about the food. MARCH 5, 2017

WE ATE THERE for years before I realized the place was haunted. Gazing upward, slack-faced, he is a citizen stripped of due process, a child without rights, an American held against his will, subject to a military dictatorship in a country founded on liberty. We brought obento boxes, you know — do you know an obento box? It did not need to, since the power to detain and relocate was entirely and without restriction granted to the executive branch. ¤
I am grateful to Gale Nakai, David Rodriguez, and the Honorable Dale Ikeda for sharing their experiences and considerable knowledge with me, and Tammy Lau, at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, for her guidance with CSUF’s archival materials relating to internment. They were intended to contain Japanese Americans while the sturdier and more permanent concentration camps in Tule Lake, California; Poston, Arizona; or Manzanar, California, were being built. Gale, at the Nikkei Foundation, told me that upon their arrival at Manzanar, the disoriented new detainees were fed a meal of sauerkraut, rice, and Jell-O. More precisely, I learned that the Mexican restaurant I so often came back to when I returned home — the space whose tastes and smells I associated most with my return trips — was built on top of a concentration camp. The government caption tries to pull happiness from this image of children in forced captivity: “Two Boys Find a Gold Mine of Interest in Scrap Heap of Discarded Magazines, Periodicals, and Newspapers” (LC-USZ62-127891). “Pinedale at a Glance.” From The Pinedale Logger, v. “I was never at the camp myself, that was much later.” I assured her I had the timeline down, but wondered what she’d eaten for lunch, when she first visited this iconic concentration camp. I had left Fresno, California, for college and stayed east for work, then for more school. Hensley is assistant professor of English at Georgetown University and the author of   Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty. Still from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). They wept there. Together this group of survivors and their descendants toured the camp and its buildings, including what they imagined to be the boy’s burial site, marked by a wooden post. A family of seven would be broken up. He thus presided over the very buildings in which he’d once been held prisoner. “No, no,” she said, eager to correct a misconception. In this sense, Gale’s meal might do something like what Roland Barthes says photographs do, which is to generate a kind of temporal hallucination, since what the photograph contains is an image of an event or time that is always, necessarily, not-there. It’s a Mexican restaurant now, on Blackstone a little north of Herndon, California; no need to name it. But he’s also just a kid eating lunch. So I began to wonder about what had existed before the strip malls: about what had been paved over. “But,” as Barthes says, “it has indeed been.”
For me, Gale’s meal and the Library of Congress photograph challenge us to become intimate with a history from which many of us would rather stay separate, of which we’d almost rather remain unaware. The circuits connecting then to now link concentration camps to strip malls and the Mexican restaurants built in them: they press us into commonality with the past and remind us of our distance from, and kinship with, what has once been.