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Opening old wounds unhealed after decades

by David Cozy

NISEI SOLDIERS BREAK THEIR SILENCE: Coming Home To Hood River, by Linda Tamura. University of Washington Press, 2012, 346 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

A minority group enters a community and through hard work and perseverance gains a measure of financial security and grudging toleration from their neighbors.

Then disaster strikes, the minority is blamed for it, and as a result faces discrimination and mistreatment, not only from the yokels among whom they live, but also from the highest authorities in the land. Members of the minority prove in every way — including with their lives — that they are not to blame for the disaster, and indeed are doing everything they can to help the country overcome it.

When they return home, they hope, in light of what they’ve done, to be received if not as heroes then at least as neighbors. Instead, discrimination and abuse are the norm, apologies are not forthcoming, reparations are not made — until, that is, decades later. This is the story of the Japanese-Americans who fought for the United States in World War II.

In “Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence,” Linda Tamura, focusing on the nisei from Oregon’s Hood River Valley, tells the story in exquisite, painful detail. She chooses the Hood River Valley in part because she has relatives there, but the area is well-chosen for another reason: It was one of the communities where the anti-Japanese plague was at its worst — though one hastens to add that it was not the only community infected. In 1942, with the signing of Order 9066, the act by virtue of which “all West coast Nikkei, even those who were American citizens, were confined to government-run concentration camps in desolate parts of the country,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that he stood with the Hood River bigots (and “concentration camp” was, Tamura informs us, FDR’s term of choice).

Tamura is a thorough guide through the whole history of the Hood River Nikkei (people of Japanese descent). Beginning with the first-generation immigrants who arrived in the United States believing that after a few years they’d be able to return to Japan wealthy, we advance with Tamura through the lives of the nisei, the American children the issei had when their dream of returning to Japan failed to pan out, up to the present day.

Tamura reminds us of the valiant service of nisei during World War II. This includes the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in Europe. Composed almost entirely of nisei, the 442nd is generally considered the most decorated unit in American military history, and that honor came at a price: “The regiment suffered the highest casualty rate of any in the U.S. army. The 9,486 casualties, all Purple Heart recipients (awarded to members of the armed forces who are wounded or killed in action), equaled three times the number of soldiers.”

Considering that many of these soldiers had family who had been incarcerated, and most faced discrimination even as they fought for the country that treated them as second-class citizens — or noncitizens — one can only stand in awe of the nisei who served in World War II. The awe increases when we learn from Tamura that, in spite of the virulent campaigns to expel them from their communities and the “No Japanese” signs they returned home to at war’s end, most of the Nikkei chose never to complain about the treatment they and their families received before, during and after the war. (Tamura had a hard time even decades later getting them to speak about it.)

As much as one admires this stoicism, one begins to crave acts of resistance. They are few and far between. The story of Fred Sumoge and others who served time in Leavenworth after being convicted in a kangaroo court of disobeying an order when they attempted to talk to an officer about the unfair treatment they had experienced reveals another kind of heroism.

“There was a problem,” Sumoge said. “We had to fight for democracy not overseas, but here in the United States,” and he did fight — and lived a life blighted by a dishonorable discharge and the time he had spent in prison.

Sumoge and others, both Nikkei and their non-Nikkei allies, didn’t give up, though, and thanks in part to their efforts, in 1976 President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation rescinding Executive Order 9066 and recognized the concentration camps as “one of our national mistakes,” and “a setback to fundamental American principles.”

Likewise, Hood River residents began to feel shame for what had happened in their community, and a series of apologies were offered, along with exhibitions and ceremonies, most recently on May 31, 2011, when “nearly 500 gathered at Hood River’s Idlewilde Cemetery to remember, to put the past behind them, and to move on.”

Tamura’s book, in its detailed recounting of this national mistake, is a significant addition to that effort.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and an assistant professor at Showa Women’s University, Tokyo.