Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes

Article excerpt

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a document that effectively granted General John L. DeWitt full authority to exclude persons of Japanese ancestry--both American citizens and resident aliens--from the West Coast. The Order indicated that this evacuation of the Japanese, and their placement first in "assembly centers" and then in concentration or "internment" (or, even more euphemistically, "relocation") camps, was a matter of utmost military necessity. The orders posted by the military for the evacuation instructed the evacuees to bring bedding, toilet articles, clothing, silverware, and essential personal effects; in every case, what they could bring would be limited to what they could carry with them. After a brief stay in assembly centers, 112,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were citizens of the United States by birth, were transported by train to internment camps. For some people, the internment lasted up to four years. Looking back on this event some fifty years later, we can see a disturbing irony in the fact that these camps operated at a time when Americans were expressing outrage at violations of human and civil rights occurring in German concentration camps, a time when we were ostensibly fighting to make the world safe for democracy.

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the substantial body of literature written by Japanese-American about the experience of internment during World War II: short stories by Hisaye Yamamoto and Toshio Mori; scores of memoirs, most notably by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Yoshiko Uchida; novels such as John Okada's No-No Boy; and a number of works by Japanese-American poets. This rich literature of the internment raises probing questions about the nature American identity by exploring the connection between, on the one hand, broadly framed constitutional questions pertaining to the definition and burdens of citizenship; and, on the other, the effects of racism and the experience of exclusion from American society. As the poet Lawson Inada has observed, "In the turmoil and uncertainty of the camps, the very strength of a people--their sense of identity and community, their sense of worth--was called to question and became subject to doubt by the people themselves.... Being American was no longer taken for granted. In the `double war,' they were all `aliens.' It was as if the term `Japanese-American' no longer signified a viable whole but denoted an either / or situation, a double bind"(1) (260).

For Mitsuye Yamada, a Japanese-American poet who was interned with her family in a camp in Idaho, the question of political and cultural identity devolves upon her development of a poetics that would help her account for the experience of internment. What is immediately striking about the lyric sequence entitled Camp Notes, which appeared in the volume Camp Notes and Other Poems in 1976, is that Yamada's thinking about identity is inextricably bound up with her exploration of an experience that political philosophers have generally described as "obligation"(2)--that is, the idea of willful membership that forms the basis for a citizen's sense of active support in matters of public interest, and the moral obligation to obey laws, as well as the range of commitments that arise between family members and friends, or in groups of a more religious or social nature. In Crises of the Republic, Hannah Arendt writes that "consent, not in the very old sense of mere acquiescence ..., but in the sense of active support and continuing participation in all matters of public interest, is the spirit of American law" (85). Another philosopher, Michael Walzer, observes that "Obligation ... begins with membership, but membership in the broadest sense, for there are a great variety of formal and informal ways of living within a particular circle of action and commitment" (7). As we shall see, Yamada's lyric sequence not only examines how the internment profoundly shaped Japanese-Americans' experience of their political obligations as American citizens--and their conflicting attitudes toward the duties that bound each internee to the government or State. …


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