‘Minidoka’: remembering the Japanese-American internment
Teresa Tamura’s book of photographs and essays, “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp,” captures the trauma of upheaval and resettlement experienced by Japanese Americans during World War II.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp’
by Teresa Tamura
Caxton Press, 305 pp., $27.95
Perusing photographer Teresa Tamura’s book on the Japanese-American experience at Minidoka, Idaho, during World War II is like wandering through a poignant museum exhibit.
Flipping back and forth to different sections of this loosely organized collection of photos and narratives is as good a way as any to take it all in. “Minidoka” includes historical and contemporary photographs (taken by Tamura), captions that tell the stories of the photographic subjects, and several essays, which provide historical and personal context.
The history of the Japanese-American internment has been well chronicled in the past 30 years. Less than six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forcibly removed and incarcerated 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry who lived along the West Coast. Two thirds of them were American citizens.
Located in southern Idaho, northeast of Twin Falls, Minidoka was one of 10 government “relocation centers” where the Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry) were imprisoned during World War II. Most of the 9,000 residents were from Seattle and Puyallup.
History records mass movements of people. Yet as Tamura reminds us, for each individual and family, the upheaval was uniquely experienced.
Seattle-born poet Mitsuye Yamada’s remembrances are particularly moving. In one section of her essay, she recalls the panic in the family after FBI agents took away her father on Pearl Harbor day.
As in many families, her father was the sole breadwinner, and after discovering that his bank accounts had been frozen by the government, her mother and the children wondered where they would find money to pay for groceries and other basic necessities. They ended up scraping together loose change, their own savings and cash from a family safe, which a friend with safecracking skills helped open.
Tamura provides many glimpses of the wartime trauma with archival photos of the barracks, guard towers and the bleak Idaho landscape. Mixed in with these images are contemporary portraits of former Minidoka prisoners.
One memorable section pairs historical photos with recent shots of the same people 60 or more years later. One previously published photo shows three young boys eating hot dogs in the Minidoka mess hall, and the opposite page features the three subjects photographed in their 60s.
Other images reveal the creativity of incarcerees, who used wood collected in the Idaho desert to make exquisitely rendered pieces of furniture and elegant sculptures. Among the notable Seattleites were George Nakashima, who became a renowned furniture maker in Pennsylvania after the war, and Tom Kubota, whose father created the treasured Kubota Garden in Southeast Seattle.
Two countervailing themes emerge: the losses suffered, both calculable and incalculable (homes, property, businesses, education, careers), but also the perseverance of incarcerees that was abundantly evident both at Minidoka and in the years that followed.
The episodic, sometimes random quality to the story line reinforces the notion that there is no one narrative to this history; there are thousands. And the testimony of Yamada and other photographic subjects give the collection an “Our Town” kind of feeling: the beauty and dignity inherent in ordinary people’s joys and sorrows, births, marriages and deaths.
Tamura’s book makes history personal and is a worthy addition to the numerous existing accounts of the incarceration.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”