Shikata Ga Nai – a new award-winning documentary

“Shikata Ga Nai” (しかた が ない) roughly translates to “it cannot be helped,” and is a phrase often associated with the discipline and determination exemplified by Japanese Americans who sacrificed and persevered through their persecution and unconstitutional incarceration during World War II. It is also the name of a documentary sent to me today by a coworker. This award-winning documentary was created by recent St. Mary’s Academy graduate, Lauren Yanase.

Lauren Yanase, ’19, St. Mary’s Academy, Girl Scout Gold Award-winning documentary filmmaker

“Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American,” follows the story of her own family members as they were forced first to the Santa Anita Racetrack horse stalls, then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming – the latter being where my own family was incarcerated for two years.

The documentary is filled with excellent archival photos and video clips narrated by Yanase’s family members who experienced it first-hand.

The documentary took Yanase two years to complete and was awarded the prestigious Girl Scout Gold Award.

It is 27 minutes long and excellent. You may view it here:

I highly recommend viewing “Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American” and have added it to my blog listing of recommended materials on the subject of Japanese American Incarceration.

Hometown Tax

I just learned from a friend about a novel form of taxation in Japan. It’s called “Furusato Nouzei” (ふるさと納税), which roughly translates to “hometown tax.” It allows people living in urban areas to contribute to rural areas in return for a tax credit.

Japan has one of the fastest-growing senior populations, and many young people move from rural to urban areas. In order to increase the number of children and provide tax revenue to rural areas, the “hometown tax” was created in 2007.

According to Wikipedia, anyone who voluntarily contributes Furusato Nouzei of more than 2000 yen (approx. $19 US at current exchange rates) can have their income and residence taxes reduced. The entire amount a taxpayer contributes to the hometown tax is deducted, minus 2000 yen. According to my friend, you can choose whichever city you want to give to.

Many cities offer gifts from their area to entice people to choose their city for the Furosato Nouzei. For example, my friend chose Nagano-prefecture and will receive 1kg of beef steak as a thank-you.

Japanese-grown wagyu steak

Not surprisingly, cities that offer gifts are more often chosen as recipients of Furosato Nouzei, although the practice has been criticized by some. Cities that offer no gifts or have nothing to offer typically receive fewer tax contributions.

In the U.S., where the mere suspicion of added taxes (regardless of overall savings, need for infrastructure and services, and/or the greater common good) can result in massive political backlash, the notion of paying a voluntary tax might seem far-fetched. But it may be worth examining as a potential solution to the great disparities in resources between urban and rural areas.

Euphemisms

Last weekend I attended the 2019 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, an annual event that takes place in Cody, Wyoming, and at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. I took my mom and we met many former incarcerees (nearly 50 attended, many in the their nineties) and their family members, saw several films, attended workshops, toured old and restored facilities, and met many dignitaries.

I am still processing the experience, and I anticipate writing several entries inspired by this trip. This is the first.

Euphemisms

When we study the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, we encounter numerous euphemistic terms used to describe the experience and those impacted.

I perceive a generational and cultural difference in how people refer to this history and experience. Generally speaking, the older a person is, the more likely he or she will employ the terms the government and history books used.

I also notice people outside the Japanese-American community generally accept and use these terms without considering the impact of the words and the possible motivation behind their selection in the first place.

I want to list the euphemisms and their definitions, explain why I reject them, and offer alternatives I believe are more accurate. I did not come up with these myself, and discussion and debate over these terms are ongoing within the Japanese-American community.

Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, photo by Maria Reyes/Rafu Shimpo

I’ve relied heavily on the excellent document “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans” by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.

She was the tireless researcher who uncovered the missing copy of a 1943 government report that refuted the Pentagon’s claim that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was a military necessity.

Assembly Centers

When tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced from their homes, the eventual “camps” where they were to be incarcerated had not yet been built. So they were sent to so-called “assembly centers.”

Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington, 1942 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection)

These were makeshift concentration camps located at fairgrounds, barracks, racetracks, horse stalls, and livestock pavilions.

The word “assembly” is benign, and the term belies the fact that thousands of people were forced into cramped and often unsanitary conditions, surrounded by barbed wire, and guard towers with armed guards and powerful searchlights.

Guard tower at the Fresno assembly center, possibly the one my mother remembers

My mother remembers the search lights being so powerful at night that even through her closed eyes she could see the light every time they passed over and shined in the window of her barrack. The impact was so powerful that it stayed with her when her family was moved to another camp that had no such light. The searchlight flash kept crossing through her mind when she tried to sleep.

Recommended alternative terms: temporary detention center, temporary prison camp

Evacuee, Evacuation, Relocation

About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced from their homes on the west coast. They are still called “evacuees” in many history books and documents. “Evacuation” refers to when people are removed from or leave a dangerous place. We typically see this term used when people are fleeing a natural disaster (flood, fire, etc.) or violence, war, disease, or famine.

Evacuation of Japanese Americans from West Coast areas under a 1942 executive order. Photo: Library of Congress

Although some have argued Japanese Americans were removed from the west coast “for their own safety,” I strenuously reject this narrative. Written word and actions clearly indicate the motivation was fear, racism, and greed that drove the removal of Japanese Americans. Although some were indeed threatened with violence from racist neighbors, that was clearly not the primary reason for their forced removal.

Relocation” is also benign. It doesn’t conjure up images of armed soldiers, police officers, and FBI agents ordering people from their homes, families compelled to bring only what they can carry, train rides of unknown duration to unknown destinations during which the passengers were compelled to keep the blinds closed and every car guarded by armed soldiers.

Recommended alternative terms for “evacuee”: inmate, prisoner, or incarceree
Recommended alternative terms for “evacuation” and “relocation”: mandatory or forced removal, banishment, eviction, or exile

Alien
Regarding “alien,” racist immigration laws prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. My grandparents had lived peacefully and lawfully for more than thirty years as legal aliens in the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Not until McCarran-Walter Act (aka The Immigration and Nationality Act) was passed in 1952 could they legally become naturalized U.S. Citizens. By that time, by grandfather was 72 years old, and my grandmother 60.

My grandparents

My grandparents had no allegiance to Japan or the Japanese emperor, nor did they have any intention of returning to Japan. They were and considered themselves American regardless of racist laws.

So although the term “alien” is technically accurate, it is essential to consider the unique situation in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans like my grandparents found themselves during WWII.

Non-Alien

The posters that announced “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” referred to “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien.” What is a non-alien?

A citizen!

There is no justification for using the unambiguously racist term to identify US citizens, which represented two-thirds of the 120,000 people forced from their homes and unconstitutionally incarcerated during WWII.

Recommended alternative terms: US citizen, American citizen

Internment, Internees

These are the most common terms used to describe the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Internment means confinement or imprisonment for political or military reasons and has traditionally been used for “enemy citizens in wartime or terrorism suspects.”

Since the term “alien” in the context of Japanese American (see above) is already problematic, and two-thirds of the imprisoned Japanese Americans were US citizens, neither term is accurate.
Recommended alternative terms for “internment”: incarceration, imprisonment

Recommended alternative terms for “internee”: prisoner, incarceree, inmate

Relocation Center, Internment Camp

There were 10 so-called “relocation centers” in which Japanese Americans were held. They are still commonly referred to “internment camps” today. I’ve already discussed the problems with the terms “relocation” and “internment” above. So what should we call them?

I call them concentration camps, and in doing so I acknowledge the charged nature of that phrase and the controversy both within the Japanese-American community and outside it with regard to the term.

Heart Mountain “Relocation Center”

Merriam-Webster defines a concentration camp as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.”

Some definitions make direct reference to mass execution. Apart from the sometime reference to execution, the definition fits the camps in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated.

It is true, when one hears the term “concentration camp,” the first image for most people is the camps in which Nazi Germany forced so-called “undesireables,” including Jews, political prisoners, Romani, disabled people, clergymen, and gays.

It is also true there are members of the Jewish community that vigorously object to the term being used to describe the 10 so-called Japanese-American “relocation centers”; they correctly point out that although there were deaths and shootings in the latter, those were relatively few. The Japanese-American camps were not designed or intended to exterminate people.

However, with deep respect and compassion for my Jewish brothers and sisters, I must point out that concentration camps existed before the Holocaust and have been created since. I would suggest that the camps in the Holocaust be distinguished as “death camps” or “extermination camps,” an extreme and gruesome subset of the more general classification of concentration camps.

In numerous instances, the phrase “concentration camp” was used by members of the US administration and military at the time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the 10 camps in the US “concentration camps” in 1942 press conferences. Attorney General Francis Biddle referred to our “concentration camps” in a December 1943 letter to FDR. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy referred to “placing American citizens, even of Japanese ancestry, in concentration camps” in a 1942 memo to Eisenhower.

Concentration camps existed well before WWII (for example, in the Boer War, US Civil War, Ten Years’ War in Cuba) and after (Bosnia, Cyprus, Croatia, etc.). I feel avoidance of the use of the term “concentration camp” minimizes the real suffering and inhumanity, and increases the likelihood it can be repeated (and ignored or minimized) in the present and future.

Favorite Blog Posts

With over seventy posts so far on this blog, here are a few of my favorites:

Children of Keishoji – The amazing family history of this Buddhist temple

Visiting the Sugihara Museum – Visiting the museum honoring the so-called “Japanese Schindler”

Searching for my Aunt – An emotional and logistically complex search for my aunt Masako-san’s gravestone

Unagi Pie – A popular treat with an unusual incredient

February 19, Day of Remembrance – A list of links to videos, articles, and pictures about Japanese American incarceration during WWII

Hiroshima – The emotional and visceral impact of visiting this infamous city

Nagoya Castle – Visiting the impressive castle with an emotional connection to my aunt, Masako-san

A question of attitude and altitude

Summary: Proper manners dictate height and depth when bowing and clinking glasses

Respect and hierarchy are paramount in Japanese society. In general, one should always show respect to one’s elders and superiors. This is demonstrated, for example, in toasting and and bowing.

Baggage handler bowing to a departing airport bus

Whenever people bow, which is often in Japan, it is proper for the “underling” to bow deeper to his or her superior. As a side note, if space is limited, bow to one side of the other person to prevent conking heads.

Similarly, when glasses are clinked, you should always click with your rim lower than that of your superior (elder, boss, etc.). When several people are clinking glasses together, you can observe this awareness of respect and hierarchy.

It is also good form never to fill your own cup. People should keep an eye on their companions’ cups and always refill theirs. Yours should be filled and refilled by someone else.

If you travel to Japan, people will notice and be impressed if you observe these simple customs of respect.

Some fun can be had with these customs. For example, if you are the boss or the respected elder, when several glasses are about to clink, you can suddenly lower your glass and enjoy the sight of everyone else having to hurriedly lower theirs as well before contact. This usually elicits laughter.

Mom had some fun in a similar way when we were visiting Keishoji. As honored visitors from overseas, we were shown great respect and gratitude everywhere we met. Being the eldest meant Mom typically occupied the position of highest respect in nearly any gathering we attended.

Mom, the Buddhist priest, and his brother, the fisherman

One evening, about a dozen of us were seated for dinner. As was customary, we sat on the floor next to a low table. The priest’s brother, a fisherman, had to leave early because he needed to rise very early the next morning to fish.

We were all seated on the floor, and upon taking his departure, the fisherman dutifully nodded and bowed his head to each of us. Turning to my mom, the most respected person in the party, he bowed low. Mom bowed low in return, which obligated him to bow lower.

Mom kept bowing lower and lower, and he kept responding until his body was basically plastered to the floor. He finally protested that he could bow no further. Everyone knew Mom was having a little fun with him and we all had a good laugh.

As for myself, I hope I am still agile enough to sit on the floor and bow low when I reach my 70s and 80s.

Getting My Own Kanji Name

Summary: My Buddhist Priest cousin invents a kanji name for me

In my immediate family, apart from my mother, I am the only one who has a Japanese name. My middle name, Asai (浅井), is my mom’s family name (it means “shallow well”).

My middle brother almost got a Japanese first name. My parents debated naming him Kenji, but decided against it at the last minute. So he is named Kenneth.

While poring over and translating our Japanese family tree at Keishoji, I commented that I wished I had a kanji name. My last name, Loftus, would be difficult, since the closest Japanese approximation would be something like, “roh-foo-tah-su”). But my first name, Toby, has sounds readily replicatable in Japanese.

Our cousin, the Buddhist priest, Gensho-san, and my mother

My cousin, the Buddhist priest at the temple where we were doing our family research, overheard this. I noticed him thumbing through a Japanese dictionary and scribbling notes over the next day or two. On the last day of our visit, he handed me a piece of paper with a kanji name he created for me. He used these three characters:

飛 Toh
美 Bee
維 Ee

Two of the kanji are quite clear. The first one is associated with flying. The second one, Utsukushii, means beauty or beautiful. That character is in my mother’s name, as well as my Aunt Mika’s and late Uncle Min’s, and I am happy to share part of my name with them.

The third kanji is a bit more difficult to translate. My cousin the priest translated it as “support,” but potential meanings associated with this character are more broad. Another cousin informed me that this character is used in “fiber” (繊維), “maintain” (維持), and “restoration” (維新). By itself, it can mean connect, support, make bigger, and more.

For example, a single thread or piece of yarn (糸) can be wound and spun into something bigger: a rope (維). He also found a cool word, “Ten-i” (天維), which means “An imaginary net that exists to keep heaven (or sky) from falling to the earth.”

Apparently my interest in researching the family tree and strengthening family ties across the Pacific Ocean impressed my Japanese relatives. Everyone in Japan with whom I shared my new name deemed it to be a very good and fitting one for me.

Humbled, I hope to live up to my Japanese name.

Kanji Family Names

Summary: Discovering the Japanese names of my aunts and uncles
As I’ve written, kanji, one of the main writing systems for Japanese, is non-phonetic. Therefore, one may be able to read it on the page, and grasp what it means, but have no idea how to pronounce it. Conversely, unlike English, you could hear a Japanese word and have no idea how to spell it in kanji.

The same goes for names. You may know how to say someone’s name, but there may be a variety of ways to write it, and you wouldn’t know which was correct until you saw it.

This is one reason why the exchange of business cards in Japan can be so formal: Until you see someone’s name written in kanji on their business card, you would have no way of knowing how it was written and what that person’s name might mean.

Mom has often explained how for many years she didn’t know the meaning her own birth name, Mitsuko. Not knowing how it was written, for many years she assumed “mi” related to three or third, since she was the third daughter.

Taro, Matsu, Mitsuko, Sagoro, Itsuo, Gene
Her father once overheard her say this and immediately corrected her: “No, that’s not how we write it!” Instead, it is written with these three characters, 美津子 and it means “beautiful child.”
Family members often wondered why my Uncle Gene was the only member of his generation to receive a Western-sounding name. Since all the children had been delivered at home by grandfather, none had birth certificates until later when my grandfather had to apply for them.
Masami and Gene
Years after my uncle’s birth, everyone learned that grandfather had spelled his son’s name “Jin.” Uncle Gene stuck with the Western spelling, and there have been many laughs in subsequent decades over the fact that neither he nor anyone else (other than his father) knew how to spell his name.
I realized that all my mom’s immediate family members must have kanji names. More than half had passed away by the time I started asking my numerous cousins if anyone had any record of what those names might be. None did.
I finally called my nonagenarian Aunt Mika to ask, and a few weeks later I received a handwritten note in the mail with all the family names written in kanji.
Several of my uncles had gone by names other than the ones assigned at their birth. Uncle Taro was known as “Tot,” and Uncle Masami was always known as “Min.” Uncle Itsuo was known as Dick or sometimes just “Its” (pronounced “eats”). Of Uncle Masaaki, mom, in her book, Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon writes:
“[Masaaki] was short for his age and graduated from high school when he was fifteen. No wonder that he was nicknamed “Half Pint,” a name that was later shortened to “Half,” which stuck until his life ended at age twenty-nine. Some knew him as “Ace” in the U.S. Army and later at Oregon State College, but that was not a name used by our family.”
Masaaki “Half” on left

Mom changed her own name from Mitsuko (“mee tsu koh,” which all her classmates pronounced “mitt soo ko”) to just “Mitzi.”

I’m very glad to have obtained this list of names, since I know of no way we would have figured them out without my aunt’s assistance.

Mom and Aunt Mika share a laugh on Aunt Mika’s 90th birthday