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On this day, February 19, Japanese Americans celebrate Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. This ordinance, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, resulted in the forced relocation and detention of over 100,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. Even as a Japanese-American, I’ve found that it’s only in the past few years that I’ve really started to learn about this piece of US history that I remember was often reduced to just a sentence or two in my school books. But instead of glossing over shamefully and being in danger of forgetting such terrible events, it is important to actually get to know them and to fight with them. Here are 11 books about the incarceration of Japanese Americans that I hope can help spread awareness and empathy.
Farewell to Manzanar from Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston shares the experience of her family being forcibly removed from their home and detained in Manzanar, one of the locations of camps set up by the US government to arrest Japanese Americans. The story follows a young Jeanne and her family during their years in the camp and also tells of their experiences in society after their release. This memoir, published in 1973, is one of the earliest published first-hand accounts of the incarceration of Japanese people and was also turned into a television movie in 1976.
When the emperor by Julie Otsuka was divine
This novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family who were evicted from their California home and imprisoned in a Utah camp. It is divided into five sections, each narrated by a different family member, and provides a lively and multidimensional account of the camp experience.
Gasa Gasa Girl goes to Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey’s camp
Between the ages of 10 and 13, Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey was imprisoned with her family at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in California and later at the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado. Havey is an artist and has painted a number of watercolors depicting her experiences. These are collected in this treatise, which accompanies short vignettes that capture scenes of life in the camps.
American yellow by George Omi
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Omi family were uprooted from their San Francisco home and imprisoned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas approximately 2,000 miles away. Young Minoru and his sister Shii-chan were forced to leave their lives as they knew them, and their parents lost the dry cleaning business they had worked so hard to build. These memoirs tell the story of the Omi family’s survival during the war and their journey back to San Francisco to rebuild their lives in the aftermath.
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The little exile of Jeanette Arakawa
This book of autobiographical fiction tells the story of Marie Mitsui, a young girl whose life was turned upside down when her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans were evicted from their homes and relocated. Each chapter begins with the title of a song along with the name of the artist, who not only creates a built-in soundtrack based on what Arakawa would have heard on the radio during that time, but also shows how Marie’s story is in fact one downright American.
Manzanar to Mount Whitney by Hank Umemoto
Hank Umemoto was a young teenager when he was imprisoned in Manzanar during World War II. From the barracks he could see Mount Whitney and vowed that one day he would climb the mountain as a free man. Umemoto recalls stories from his life as a Japanese-American in California before and after the war, and traces his journey from admiring Mount Whitney from Manzanar to finally reaching its summit decades later.
They called us enemy of George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker
George Takei, best known for his portrayal of Sulu in Star Trek, tells the story of his family’s imprisonment during World War II. Takei was only 4 years old when his family was evicted from their home and locked behind barbed wire. In this graphic treatise, he offers a glimpse into the camps by describing the experience of growing up in such dehumanizing conditions, observing how his parents react to the ordeal, and examining what it means to be American.
Displacement by Kiku Hughes
While on vacation in San Francisco with her mother, Kiku is suddenly transported to the 1940s from now on, when her grandmother Ernestina Teranishi was imprisoned along with other Japanese Americans during the war. Stuck in the past, Kiku has to live in the camp to experience and learn the suffering and survival of her ancestors and the Japanese-American community at large in ways she could never have imagined. This graphic novel beautifully blends history and fiction to shed light on the trauma between generations and the importance of memory.
Letters in memory of Karen Tei Yamashita
In this experimental work, Karen Tei Yamashita constructs a series of correspondence with personalities such as Homer and Vyasa to explore the archives of her family’s history. By sharing various documents, letters, photos, and other materials, Yamashita creates a picture of her family’s experience of imprisonment, but also examines them from various academic perspectives.
After the bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara
Rita Takemitsu, a single mother from the 1980s in Toronto, goes on a search for her mother Lily, who has disappeared. In the course of her investigation, Rita begins to uncover secrets related to her mother’s incarceration in a California camp during World War II, the family’s immigration to Canada after the war, and the mysterious father she never knew. In alternating storylines, this novel tells a family who grapples with their past and grapples with it.
We are not free from Traci Chee
This novel follows 14 Nisei teenagers who grew up together in San Francisco when their lives are ravaged by the mass incarcerations of World War II. While the outside world rejects them as an enemy, they must band together and form a community to survive. While it is a fiction, portions of the narrative are inspired by aspects of Chee’s family’s real-life experiences that she was told through interviews with relatives who lived through that period.
Also, check out this list of children’s books to learn about Japanese experiences during World War II.
Although the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is a past event, issues of racism and injustice of all kinds continue to permeate our societies and harm many communities. While today is a reminder of this specific injustice the US government committed against Japanese Americans, I hope that reading and learning about it will enable a more empathetic and accepting world as a whole.