When Five Seconds Is a Fence

26 April 2016 Written by   Mira Shimabukuro
A crowd of Japanese Americans stand behind a barbed-wire fence, waving to departing friends on train leaving Santa Anita, California. A crowd of Japanese Americans stand behind a barbed-wire fence, waving to departing friends on train leaving Santa Anita, California.

For Karen Ishizuka

A best-selling white man pushes past you to tell your family’s story, your life’s focus, your years of recovering history, of gathering, exhibiting, sharing. You have both been asked to speak on Democracy Now! He claims authority, but gets the executive order wrong. You correct him. You speak about the Justice Department. He cuts you off and runs with the ball. When the host gives it back, you have five seconds left.

* * *

I didn’t grow up being called a Jap. Little hapa haole girl who could pass for Latina or Native, I grew up during the 1970s in a place now called Portlandia, alternating my time between the pre-gentrified working-class African American neighborhoods of what’s now “Alberta Arts District” and the all-White working-class neighborhood known then, among some, as “Felony Flats.”

I grew up hearing other words. Learned the difference between the Dozens and the slurs; how, in different contexts, with different groups of people, words could include, or exclude.

“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” Words shouted right on the playground by kids I called friends and words shouted right past our fence by kids who never knew my name.

But I have never been called a Jap. Not directly.

I’m the daughter of a Japanese American redress activist. I was seven when I first saw the pictures in a book inside my home: On some pages, kids are my age, chawan cuts like mine standing in front of suitcases, white tags hanging from their coats. On other pages, guard towers shoot up from a barbed-wire fence and pictures of headlines and words: “Ouster of Japs,” “100,000 Japs Now Cleared,” “Japs Keep Out.”

And I was seven when I asked, when my father said, yes. They mean us. We’d have to go. Ousted. Cleared. Out.

And while still, to this day, I feel it in my bones, this is just one tiny sliver in the legacies of camp, one story spinning out of Nikkei “internment” during World War II, a mass incarceration, a legacy of people racialized and incarcerated en masse. A legacy of race, a legacy of words, a legacy of exclusion.

But there are other legacies. Other words. Buried beneath the stories we sometimes tell.

* * *

This is the story sometimes told:

Nikkei people did not protest their “internment” and didn’t resist the War Relocation Authority. They just became a quiet, huddled mass behind a fence, accepting oppression in silence. And young Nikkei men volunteered to die valiantly for the country that fenced them in. And the camps closed. And former incarcerees went about their lives. And today, their descendants are a success.

This is the story sometimes told. Even in Asian American communities, even among Nikkei. A story precursor and tandem to the Model Minority Myth. A myth so pervasive it weaves its way into all our bones: the Asian “F,” the quiet students, the people who never stand up, talk back, or protest, en masse.

But there are other stories to tell, other legacies buried beneath the myth of the model minorities. Legacies to relocate, legacies to claim.

All you have to do is ask.

And know how to listen.

* * *

A rhetorical education is supposed to prepare us to speak in public spaces, prepare us to use our voices to take part in democracy now. To know what words to use in different contexts, with different people. To refine what comes out of our mouths and onto the page.

But one of my fields, Cultural Rhetorics, reminds us we have always used our voices. Using words in our own ways, composing protest, our resistance and survivance, with our own symbolic means, our own materials and tools and genres and behaviors we recognize as our own.

And it’s there you will find other legacies. Other stories about camp. Told and untold. Written out of sight or ignored.

Diaries filled with silent swearings

Buddhist stones marked with the names of children dead behind the barbed wire

Public petitions to tear down the fence

Image-rich rage and sorrow knotted in tanka, compressed in haiku

A Fair Play Committee’s bulletins and manifesto

An All Center Conference list of redress demands

A Mothers Society letter protesting the draft of their sons

There are so many other stories to tell, so many legacies to uncover, so much authority to relocate and claim.

But you still have to ask.

And you still have to listen.

Because our history is more than five seconds.

* * *

Postscript: To learn more about alternative stories of Japanese American incarceration you can check out, among other sources, Densho, Conscience and the Constitution, and Relocating Authority.


Mira Shimabukuro is lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Bothell, where she teaches courses on the politics of language, literacy, and writing. Her creative work has been published in such journals as CALYX, Bamboo Ridge Quarterly, and Raven Chronicles, while her scholarship can be found in College English and Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric.

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