It’s been difficult to get online this week. . . My review of the internment memoir of Yasutaro Soga appeared last week in the Honolulu Advertiser, and appears in full below.
LIFE BEHIND BARBED WIRE: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai`i Issei
By Yasutaro Soga; translated by Kihei Harai
UH Press; 255 pages; $24
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser
An issei journalist, tanka poet, and former editor of O`ahu’s Japanese newspaper Nippu Jiji (later The Hawai`i Times), Yasutaro Soga was one of 1466 Hawai`i Japanese incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Because his name was on a longstanding U.S. government list of Japanese citizens who would be the first placed in concentration camps in the event of trouble (lists that were in 1943 deemed without merit), Soga was arrested on the evening of December 7, at age 68.
During his nearly four-year internment—first at Sand Island, where he spent six months in tents before barracks were built, then at Lordsburg and Santa Fe camps on the mainland—Soga kept a daily record of what he saw, which after his release he used to write a memoir. The first English translation of his story, released this month, is unusual, for though one third of Japanese interned were issei, ineligible for citizenship, most accounts focus on Nisei, who were American citizens. In his typically fair and truthful way, Soga explains that “[i]n the camps,” both generations “represented the Japanese community of the Americas in miniature,” and offers a more complete portrait of this past period of American injustice.
Soga’s account is a straightforward, thorough reporting that ignores dialogue and remembered conversations in favor of precise details about life in the camps. Amongst the myriad recorded information, which might seem wearisome at times in its volume but is above all fascinating in its intimacy, there are internee names and transfer dates, cuisine at each camp (eating was a primary pastime), details of how they governed themselves and took care of their own medical care, what he learned about life on the mainland from fellow internees, encounters with new animals like rattlesnakes and horned toads, climate, and experience with mainland fruit.
Though not a diary, Soga’s descriptions are nonetheless very personal, imparting a sense of Soga the man, such as his expression of irritation when others put themselves before the good of the group, his focus on beauty and enrichment in the face of severe injustice and deprivation, and above all his quiet endurance. From observations of the differences between Japanese and other German and Italian internees, the backgrounds and circumstances of mainland versus Hawai`i Japanese (for instance, Hawai`i Japanese were more settled but those on the mainland tended to wander in search of work), a general portrait of humanity develops, providing insight into how people managed to survive this painfully uncertain time.
At times there are even moving expressions of grief and pain, such as this spare but quietly poetic description of leaving Sand Island for the mainland:
“The day before I left, I asked Dr. Mori to give my wife the ninety poems I had composed while in the camp. I felt like the aimless wanderer in the old Japanese tales. … When we passed in front of the women’s barracks, they called out, ‘Good luck!’ I heard Mrs. Mori say, ‘Mr. Soga, be strong.’ A tear fell in spite of myself. We boarded the ship at four o’clock that afternoon.”
Throughout, America’s wartime internment program is revealed to be both tragic and illogical, seeming to inspire support of Japan and encourage anti-Americanism among internees even as the action was undertaken in the name of national security. It’s impossible not to think of today’s post 9/11 reactionary policies in the same light, and thus “Life Behind Barbed Wire” is a vital reminder that alternatives to visible and invisible barbed-wire fences do exist.