An Argument: On 1942

— for my mother

Near Rose’s Chop Suey and Jinosuke’s grocery,
the temple where incense hovered and inspired
dense evening chants (prayers for Buddha’s mercy,
colorless and deep), that day he was fired . . .

— No, no, no, she tells me. Why bring it back?
The camps are over. (Also overly dramatic.)
Forget shoyu– stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick:
You’re like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick . . .

Mostly we were bored. Women cooked and sewed,
men played black jack, dug gardens, a benjo.
Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers?
We were children, hunting stones, birds, wild flowers.

Yes, Mother hid tins of tsukemono and eel
beneath the bed. And when the last was peeled,
clamped tight her lips, growing thinner and thinner.
But cancer not the camps made her throat blacker.

. . . And she didn’t die then . . . after the war, in St. Paul,
you weren’t even born. Oh I know, I know, it’s all
part of your job, your way, but why can’t you glean
how far we’ve come, how much I can’t recall —

David, it was so long ago — how useless it seems. . .

— David Mura

March 1942: The owner of the store at 13th and Franklin Streets in Oakland, California, a graduate of University of California, placed a large sign in the window of his store on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed and the owner sent to a U.S. concentration camp.
Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

Poet David Mura is sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American. This poem grew from his desire to represent his parents refusal to talk about their interment in prison camps in the United States during World War II.

[Research note: David Mura’s website]


The time has come
For my arrest
This dark rainy night.
I calm myself and listen
To the sound of the shoes.

Toki wa kitarinu
Ame no yoi
Kokoro sadamete
Kutsu no oto kiku

— Sojin Tokiji Takei

Sojin Tokiji Takei moved to Maui, Hawaii, in 1922, with his parents. He was principal of the Paia Japanese language school on Maui and co-founder of the Maui Tanka Poetry Club. He was arrested two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and sent to a series of relocation camps. In December 1944, he was moved to the camp at Crystal City, Texas, where he was reunited with his family after a three-year separation.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of more than 120,000 American citizens.

[Research note: Keiho Soga, Taisanboku Mori, Sojin Takei, and Muin Ozaki, Poets Behind Barbed Wire, Jiro Nakano and Kay Nakano, eds. (Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1983), p. 13.]



Japanese American Historical Plaza, Portland, Oregon, February 4, 2012. Image credit: Another Believer / CC BY-SA 3.0

— Shizue Iwatsuki / Lawson Fusao Inada

Shizue Iwatsuki was interned with her husband and daughter first at the Pinedale Assembly Center (Fresno), then Tule Lake Prison Camp (California), and finally Minidoka Prison Camp (Idaho). Lawson Inada was four years old when his family was also forced into the Pinedale Assembly Center in 1942. This collaborative “mini-poem” comes from the Standing Stones of the Japanese America Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon.

[Research note: Lawson Inada talks about his work with Shizue Iwatsuki in Legends from Camp: Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1992), in a chapter called Poems in Stone (see page 51). For more on the lives of Iwatsuki and Inada see the Densho Encyclopedia.]


Mighty Willamette!
Beautiful friend,
I am learning,
I am practicing
To say your name.

Sure, I go to school
Same as you,
I’m an American.

Who? What?
When? Where?

Rounded up
In the sweltering yard.
Unable to endure any longer
Standing in line
Some collapse.

— Shizue Iwatsuki

Shizue Iwatsuki immigrated to the U.S. in 1916 with her husband. They settled in Hood River, Oregon, where she raised strawberries and apples to help feed their three children. In 1926, the Iwatsukis became founding members of Hood River’s Japanese Methodist Church. During WWII, Shizue and her husband were incarcerated at Pinedale Assembly Center. From there, they were sent to Tule Lake Prison Camp in California, then Minidoka Prison Camp in Idaho. These “mini-poems” come from the Standing Stones of the Japanese America Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon.


As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
lasting forever)
the Seattle Times
photographer said
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.

— Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan and moved with her family to Seattle when she was three years old. Her father was the founder and president of the Senryu (Japanese 17-syllable poetry) Society in Seattle. Mr. Yamada was arrested, accused of being an enemy of the state, on December 7, 1941. Mitsuye was imprisoned with the rest of her family in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho in 1942.

Healing Gila

for The People

The people don’t mention it much.
It goes without saying,
it stays without saying —

that concentration camp
on their reservation.

And they avoid that massive site
as they avoid contamination —

that massive void
punctuated by crusted nails,
punctured pipes, crumbled
failings of foundations . . .

What else is there to say?

This was a lush land once,
graced by a gifted people
gifted with the wisdom
of rivers, seasons, irrigation.

The waters went flowing
through a network of canals
in the delicate workings
of balances and health . . .

What else is there to say?

Then came the nation.
Then came the death.

Then came the desert.
Then came the camp.

But the desert is not deserted.
It goes without saying,
it stays without saying —

wind, spirits, tumbleweeds, pain.

— Lawson Fusao Inada

Lawson Fusao Inada was born in 1938 in Fresno, California. A third-generation American, he was four years old when his family was incarcerated by the U.S government. Along with more than 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from the Fresno area, the Inadas were kept at the county fairgrounds under armed guard before they were forcibly relocated to concentration camps around the U.S., including one on the Gila River Indian Reservation.

Barracks Home

This is our barracks, squatting on the ground,
Tar papered shacks, partitioned into rooms
By sheetrock walls, transmitting every sound
Of neighbor’s gossip or the sweep of brooms
The open door welcomes the refugees,
And now at least there is no need to roam
Afar: here space enlarges memories
Beyond the bounds of camp and this new home.
The floor is carpeted with dust, wind-borne
Dry alkalai, patterned with insect feet,
What peace can such a place as this impart?
We can but sense, bewildered and forlorn,
That time, disrupted by the war from neat
Routines, must now adjust within the heart.

— Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami

Tojo (Toyo) Suyemoto Kawakami was imprisoned with her husband and son in the Central Utah Relocation Center (Tapaz Japanese Internment Camp) for three years.