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I Call to Remembrance

I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto's Years of Internment

Edited by Susan B. Richardson
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    I Call to Remembrance
    Book Description:

    Toyo Suyemoto is known informally by literary scholars and the media as "Japanese America's poet laureate." But Suyemoto has always described herself in much more humble terms. A first-generation Japanese American, she has identified herself as a storyteller, a teacher, a mother whose only child died from illness, and an internment camp survivor. Before Suyemoto passed away in 2003, she wrote a moving and illuminating memoir of her internment camp experiences with her family and infant son at Tanforan Race Track and, later, at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, from 1942 to 1945.

    A uniquely poetic contribution to the small body of internment memoirs, Suyemoto's account includes information about policies and wartime decisions that are not widely known, and recounts in detail the way in which internees adjusted their notions of selfhood and citizenship, lending insight to the complicated and controversial questions of citizenship, accountability, and resistance of first- and second-generation Japanese Americans.

    Suyemoto's poems, many written during internment, are interwoven throughout the text and serve as counterpoints to the contextualizing narrative. Suyemoto's poems, many written during internment, are interwoven throughout the text and serve as counterpoints to the contextualizing narrative. A small collection of poems written in the years following her incarceration further reveal the psychological effects of her experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4154-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-4)

    Toyo Suyemoto—poet, librarian, Nisei internee #13423—frequently spoke to groups about her World War II removal from the West Coast and internment in Topaz, the Central Utah Relocation Center.¹ Despite her small stature and soft voice, she commanded a riveted attention from her listeners whether they were schoolchildren, college students, colleagues, or a community group. Toyo’s report on her incarceration was forthright, yet remarkable for its absence of bitterness, its avoidance of accusation. While under no illusions about the losses she had suffered, most grievously the loss of her only son, she refused the role of victim and, instead,...

    (pp. 5-8)
    (pp. 9-15)

    Berkeley, encircled by rounded hills and sloping down towards the San Francisco Bay, has the self-assured air of a college town, unlike Sacramento, the state capital, which retains a sturdy relationship to the farmlands. To us from the flat valley region, the view of the bay and the hills was refreshing. The summer was free of the clinging humidity that we had known before. Even the cool fog that rolled in from the bay and lifted in the morning seemed different from the penetratingly chill tule fog that hugged the ground in Sacramento during the winter months in the valley....

  8. 2 APRIL 1942
    (pp. 16-21)

    The breath of flowering peach along the quiet streets of Berkeley ushered in the uneasy spring of 1942. Certain natural events like the punctuality of the changing seasons disregard the way people treat one another, and they enchant the observer with the perfection of the moment. So the wisteria bloomed again and purpled the exterior of an old church near the campus, and the new grass turned the winter-drab ground to a brisk green.

    Morning in our household began with clatter, the sounds of a large family waking, one by one. There was a steady procession to the bathroom, then...

    (pp. 22-28)

    The following morning when I awakened, rubbing sleep from my eyes, the early light was creeping in through the window and wiping the grayness from the bedroom walls. I glanced at the tall, brown-painted wardrobe in the corner of the room, with one door slightly ajar as usual. Drowsiness vanished completely as I recalled immediately what this particular morning impended. I would not have to push against that wardrobe door again before Mother reminded me, as it now stood empty.Empty—the word caught in my thought, like a dry, useless leaf stuck on the prong of a rake. I...

    (pp. 29-36)

    Growing up in my family world, located in aNihonmachi(Japanese town), of central California, was not entirely bliss, yet not a hardship either. I was secure in the circle composed of my father, my mother, myself, and my eight younger brothers and sisters. When very young, I did not think it strange that our family celebrated both Christmas, with tingling anticipation before its advent, and the more ritualistic Japanese New Year’s Day; both a firecrackery Fourth of July andHina-matsuri,the Dolls’ Festival for Girls, on March 3rd; Easter and Thanksgiving along withTango-no-sekku,the Boys’ Festival, on May...

    (pp. 37-43)

    A large, imposing grandstand loomed before us when the buses finally halted. At the racetrack gates there were armed soldiers to remind the Japanese evacuees that this was their entrance into protective custody. There were earlier arrivals standing and watching inside the fence, strangers peering out at strangers who were to live together in confined quarters. Caucasians working inside the center paused, too, for a hasty glance at the busloads. A guard came to check the passenger list with each driver, and the evacuees had to wait in the bus until we were given permission to get off.

    We were...

    (pp. 44-50)

    There was no refuting the fact that we were no longer free, but shadowed by suspicion. The barbed wire fences and the sentry towers around our enclosure testified to our detention. As the days and weeks merged into routine, a pattern evolved from the daily rising, eating, sleeping, and enduring the inconveniences of our stable-room existence in the Tanforan Assembly Center. Little by little we adapted to the restriction of our narrow living quarters.

    At times, we envied what the neighbors from San Francisco at the far end of the barracks had as furnishings which made their rooms more home-like:...

    (pp. 51-54)

    As soon as the prospect of evacuation became imminent, some of the public schools in California accelerated the teaching of their Japanese pupils to enable them to receive full credit for the spring term; others were not that concerned, and the children had to repeat the unfinished requirements later.

    For the young people who had grown up in closely-knit families and with school companions of other nationalities, camp life stripped away all that was familiar and orderly. Thrust so abruptly into a commune, they soon discovered that being in camp meant sudden freedom from parental authority and the regularity of...

    (pp. 55-67)

    During the hours I taught at the grandstand high school, Mother took care of Kay. I returned at recess and at noon to breast-feed him and to have lunch with the family in the mess hall before going back for the afternoon meetings. When he napped, Mother sat beside the cot and watched over him because I had had to leave his crib behind at evacuation.

    Kay had been a healthy, contented baby, but the mild cold he had caught before we left Berkeley lingered on at Tanforan. His chest began to sound raspy, and when I bathed him, Mother...

    (pp. 68-73)

    Rumors began to trickle through the assembly center early in August that we would be moved to a more permanent camp—a relocation center in Utah which would be much larger than our current arrangement. We heard that ten relocation camps were being established under the War Relocation Authority, which in March had superseded the Wartime Civil Control Administration.

    The thought of leaving California without prospect of return wrenched my mind. The Japanese idea offurusato(one’s native place), the sense of belonging to a place where I had been born, schooled, and grown up, was not mere nostalgia, but...

    (pp. 74-78)

    The permanent camp in west central Utah, where we were interned for three years, was located in the Sevier Desert, once a lake bed and now a forsaken, isolated area consisting of about 17,500 acres in Millard County. Mountain ranges stood far away in the distance to the west, and one prominent peak, Mt. Topaz, gave the camp its commonly used name. Topaz was the result of public domain: tracts of land that had reverted to local authority for nonpayment of loans and several parcels purchased from private individuals. Ground had been broken for the camp on July 15, 1942,...

  17. 11 SETTLING IN
    (pp. 79-86)

    The first week in Topaz was a series of adjustments—becoming acquainted with new neighbors, coping with the weather, following mess hall schedules, resigning ourselves to the inconvenient location of the laundry and the latrine. Inwardly, we appreciated the fact that we were no longer in flimsy horse stalls, but at the same time, we realized how deep was the feeling of isolation. This separation from our home state and the outside world was difficult for most of us. We kept talking about remembered places in Berkeley and of friends there who still wrote to us. Struck by the barrenness...

  18. 12 AS 1942 ENDED
    (pp. 87-95)

    Even as Kay grew, Topaz evolved in stages out of a stark desert compound into an organized settlement. Although we knew that we would be confined for an indeterminate period of time, as long as the war in the Pacific dragged on, we could not be resigned to being passive or purposeless. We would hear an outspoken Issei tell us, in the imperative, “Gambare!” which meant “Hold out—hang on—buckle down!” Though we inveighed against our internment, or whatever disgruntled us at the moment, we were aware that beyond the daily routine of living, our functioning as a group...

  19. 13 BLOCK 4-8-E
    (pp. 96-105)

    The residents of our Block 4 were mainly from the east side of the bay—Alameda, Oakland, and Berkeley—with some from San Francisco, but we were a conglomerate of personalities with dissimilar occupational backgrounds, and we had not known each other before the internment. Now, we were bound together by circumstance into an extended family or clan. For this disjointed period of time, we all practicedakirame(resignation, acquiescence). Sharing in the communal living, eating together in the mess halls, or meeting informally at night in the latrine building, wearing bathrobes and carrying towels, we learned of one another....

    (pp. 106-111)

    In Topaz, schools opened for the young people just a little over a month after the advance group arrived in the camp. The War Relocation Authority provided for the education of elementary and high school children in all the centers, and in Topaz registration for the schools took place on October 20, 1942. John C. Carlisle served as superintendent of the system for the first four months, until he left to resume teaching at the Utah State Agricultural College. He was succeeded by LeGrande Noble. Education was highly regarded by the Japanese, and the Issei parents were relieved when schools...

    (pp. 112-119)

    The Topaz Public Library provided a rich benefit both for the camp residents and for me personally as my experience working there, from December 1943 until my release from internment, led directly to my career after the war as an academic librarian. The library originated in October 1942, a time when the camp as a whole was not yet completed, and the library grew along with the camp. The library’s official opening was delayed until December, after the transfer of approximately five thousand books, cartons of periodicals, and boxes of supplies from the Tanforan Assembly Center. The books, crated in...

  22. 16 SENSEI
    (pp. 120-132)

    The Issei in our block understood my English better than I first imagined from their speaking skills. When I asked them questions in English, since I myself lacked a command of Japanese, they would usually answer me in Japanese, with a goodly mixture of English words. When I began to teach Issei and Kibei students in the adult classes, I found the same pattern.

    The Adult Education Department, directed by Dr. Laverne Bane, started its Basic English Division when the public schools opened. A small group of Nisei, interested in teaching adults, first met together in Dr. Bane’s living room...

    (pp. 133-140)

    New Year’s Day 1943 came quietly after a fresh snowfall during the night. The morning chill of the barracks was laced with anticipation for the start of a new year. Long icicles, glistening like glass pendants, fringed the eaves of the barracks. The sun touched the transparent spears with a wand of light and created a sparkling beauty. Breakfast that morning was not the usual cereal and toast and coffee, but traditionalmochi,small round cakes made from steamed glutinous rice that had been pounded into thick dough. The pleasure of havingmochiserved to start the new year was...

    (pp. 141-148)

    From the previous autumn of 1942, the atmosphere of our camp had gradually stabilized as in a remote Japanese town and had acquired an even tenor from our daily routines. Thus the news, as reported in theTopaz Times,of the possible military induction of Nisei volunteers from the ten relocation centers, the no-evacuation zones, and the Hawaiian Islands had the impact of a huge boulder hurled into placid waters. The ripple effect rocked the sensibility of every block.

    Until now in our fence-bound world, momentous happenings on the outside were like the mountains we could see in the distance,...

    (pp. 149-159)

    Throughout the turmoil of the registration, ordinary activities continued, even as the temperatures dropped below thirty degrees. Church groups sponsored meetings for their youth groups. The camp hospital appealed to all the residents to return any prescription bottles they might be keeping, since new ones could not be ordered. High school seniors contemplating college after graduation met periodically in each other’s barracks to talk of their future; they kept in touch with friends who had preceded them to colleges outside. The schools remained in session, and I kept busy with teaching. A memo went out from Superintendent of Schools LeGrande...

    (pp. 160-166)

    Spring slanted quickly into summer. The weather turned intensely hot, the temperature rising during the day to 105 degrees, sometimes even higher. The morning was pleasant, but as the sun ascended, the black tar-papered barracks without trees around them for shade absorbed the heat. By noon the mess hall was a veritable oven, and I wondered how the kitchen crew managed to cook at the old-fashioned stoves.

    During the afternoon, as I looked down the road, I could see heat waves blurring the distant blocks. When it became unbearably warm and I had to be out in the sun, I...

    (pp. 167-178)

    In the length of days in camp, we arrived at the camp’s first anniversary on September 11, 1943. A week after that milestone, the day came for the separation of families and the removal of people to Tule Lake. Originally scheduled for July 13, the process of segregation was postponed until September 19. Twenty-two repatriates left camp for the long overseas journey back to their homeland, and the number of transferees to Tule Lake increased to 1,466. At the beginning of September, provisions were made for the residents to send telegrams to Japan if they wished to contact their relatives....

    (pp. 179-185)

    As we tried to foresee the future, our imagined relocation was as clear as the attempt to sight our barracks in a dense dust storm or a blinding blizzard. No amount of wishful thinking could clarify the unknown. In my family, we talked about the possibilities of homes and jobs outside, but could only guess what they might be. The New Year of 1944 began with crisp, cold days and snow, and an acceleration of concern about the approaching upheaval. Mae was finishing her requirements for a degree in dietetics through correspondence courses with the University of California. Masa was...

    (pp. 186-195)

    On the first day of 1945, we taught Kay, now a lively, talkative three-year-old, to say “Happy New Year,” and he practiced repeatedly without comprehending its significance. That morning, as he bounced into the mess hall and met the other residents of Block 4, he greeted them with his childishly jubilant “Happy New Year.” The day had been granted us as a holiday although we had to take this Monday as vacation leave. The mess hall served only two meals, which eased the work of the kitchen crew. I was groggy with a cold, but I welcomed the clear day,...

    (pp. 196-204)

    A year after we had been in camp, incoming evacuees received copies of a mimeographed booklet entitledWelcome to Topaz.A guidebook prepared by the Historical Section of the Reports Division, it was designed to provide residents with general information about the organization of the camp: services, schools, recreation, hospital, the vicinity just outside the fence. It also included lists of “do’s” and “don’ts.” On its cover was a drawing of what looked like a heraldic shield, the outline enclosing a sketch of barracks in a block and resembling the shape of a pine tree. In January 1943, the design...

    (pp. 205-206)

    In her essay “Camp Memories: Rough and Broken Shards,” Toyo Suyemoto introduced the following poem in this way: “Conjecture and wonderment remained long after my family had moved to Cincinnati, and still more time had to pass before I could write farewell to our internment camp” (qtd. in Daniels, Taylor, and Kitano 1991, 29):

    The desert must have claimed its own

    Now that the wayfarers are gone,

    And silence has replaced voices

    Except for intermittent noises,

    Like windy footsteps through the dust,

    Or gliding of a snake that must

    Escape the sun, or sage rustling,

    Or soft brush of a...

    (pp. 207-208)
  33. Back Matter
    (pp. 209-210)