"For the Good of Our Country": Ruth Watanabe and the "Good That Is in Music" at the Santa Anita Detention Center

By Barbour, Alecia D. | Notes, December 2017 | Go to article overview

"For the Good of Our Country": Ruth Watanabe and the "Good That Is in Music" at the Santa Anita Detention Center


Barbour, Alecia D., Notes


ABSTRACT

Japanese Americans were involuntarily confined en masse during World War II. They were heavily scrutinized: their senses of belonging and identification were interrogated, contested, always fraught, and often ambiguous. During this tumultuous time, an American-born daughter of Japanese emigrants Ruth Watanabe (1916-2005), who would later become a notable and influential music librarian, head of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music, corresponded extensively with a former teacher. In these letters, Watanabe provides an imaginative soundtrack for her daily life at the detention center at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California, while demonstrating ways that she drew on the European classical music tradition, in which she was highly trained, in order to maintain a sense of self and purpose amidst the confusion and indignity of mass confinement. This article briefly introduces some of Watanabe's select activities at Santa Anita, contextualizing her work in the music department there against a backdrop of confusion and transience. The article includes large sections of text quoted directly from her letters in order to demonstrate that the sense of self and purpose expressed by Watanabe, and the resultant order and educational structures that she enacted in Santa Anita, can be understood to have been intrinsically aligned with her sense of belonging to her country--to "our country"--even as that very belonging was placed at risk by her involuntary confinement.

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The Eastman School of Music's highly-regarded librarian, Ruth Watanabe (1916-2005), for whom the Special Collections division of the Sibley Music Library is named, was in the last semester of her master's degree study for musicology at the University of Southern California (USC) in the spring of 1942. She was a Nisei, or a member of the second generation of Japanese Americans who were born in the United States to immigrant parents from Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, permitting the designation of a military area from which any or all persons could be excluded, was signed during Watanabe's final semester at USC, on 19 February 1942. The executive order did not specify ethnic ancestry. Nonetheless, this order granted the authority to the Western Defense Command of the U.S. Army to expel the natural-born U.S. citizens and long-term U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry, including Ruth Watanabe and her parents, from their homes within the designated exclusion zone along the Pacific Coast as a "wartime necessity." Much has been written about why Japanese Americans were subjected to this mass confinement: racial attitudes were key, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was galvanizing. (1)

Following an approximately month-long period in which ethnic Japanese residents were encouraged to "voluntarily" leave their homes and businesses in the exclusion zone, the U.S. Army's Western Defense Command formed the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) to manage fifteen "assembly centers" to temporarily detain the excluded Japanese Americans. A civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA), was then formed to oversee the continuing mass confinement within ten "permanent" camps in the Western United States (figure l). (2) The Densho Encyclopedia cites a 1942 U.S. Army report indicating that the last of the transfers from the WCCA to the WRA facilities was completed on 30 October 1942. (3) The orders excluding ethnic Japanese from the West Coast were lifted in early 1945, and the WRA camps gradually closed. (4)

The terms "evacuation," "assembly," and "relocation" appear throughout the historical record, and the latter two are formally embedded in the very names of the Japanese American sites of confinement. These war-era euphemisms obfuscate the forced upheaval of the West Coast Japanese American enclave and the involuntary confinement of some 120,000 Japanese Americans; they subsume this mass violation of civil rights into a kind of patriotic sacrifice. …

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