Transcript of a speech delivered by Jami Nakamura Lin at Chicago Writers Resist (January 15, 2017)

When my grandfather, Tom Nakamura, entered the US Navy in 1946, he was like many other enlistees, if, at the age of 17, a bit on the young side. But like many American boys he grew up on a farm. He loved adventure. He’d just lived through the horrors of the war. And like many, he wanted to leave the place he’d come from. There, of course, lies the difference between my grandfather and most enlistees: he wasn’t leaving a home behind. He was leaving Amache Relocation Center. A camp. 

Among young Japanese-Americans today, when you say “camp,” you’re never talking about your sleepaway summers with the Girl Scouts, or the place you take your tent in Wisconsin. Most people my age are yonsei, or fourth generation– our great-grandparents came to the US around the turn of the century. We don’t ask each other, “Were your grandparents born here?” because we know they were. We ask, “Were your grandparents in camp? To us, “camp” can only and ever refer to the incarceration camps. What we’re really asking is, were your grandparents also forced to leave their homes, leave their friends? Were they labeled the enemy, locked up for years? We are yonsei, but camp is in our blood, in our cultural inheritance. 

And yet the incarceration camps are not part of most Americans’ consciousness. We learn about it in school. We know it happened. And we know, because of what they tell us, that this is in the past, that this, of course, would never happen again. We would never make the same mistakes. And we don’t talk about it.

But when my grandfather was 16, and still in camp, he wrote an “autobiography” as a school assignment, a 30-page typewritten story. He writes of his boyhood growing up in Northern California, where he straddled the Japanese culture of his ancestors, and the American culture he belonged to.  He writes, “I would sometimes show mom how to cook cakes, doughnuts, cookies, pies, etc. The only thing she knew how to do was cook Japanese food, and I was a victor over the American style of cooking. The majority of the family wished me to cook more often.” He had a rambunctious, typical childhood, with his dog Boots, “my best and most trustworthy pal.” Until 8th grade.

“May 18th, 1942, AD,” my grandpa writes. “This day, this morning was the day that changed the course of the life of all Japanese, and the Japanese-American, for this was the day that the Army commanded the Japanese and the Japanese-Americans from their peace loving home to be huddled into a 14 by 20 barracks.”

During the early war, FDR commissioned two studies looking into whether Americans of Japanese descent were a threat. Both found that, “the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.” Both studies were ignored, as America was in a frenzy of fear and xenophobia. So in 1942 FDR signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the Japanese-Americans to evacuate to camps where they could be guarded. It only takes one, the president said. Better safe than sorry, the president said. And still they try to tell us that this is in our past. 

Of evacuation, my grandfather writes, “As we were going through the streets all the people were waving good-bye to us… close friends would depart with eyes filled with tears.” They were only given three days’ notice. They tried to sell all their belongings, including a new $700 car the entire family had saved up for years to purchase. Their neighbor paid them $70 for it. And then, left only with the bags they could carry, they got on the train. 

He drew a picture of their route here.  “It was in the afternoon when we reached the town of Granada,” my grandfather writes, “and from there we first got a glimpse of the center. As I kept on looking at the camp it was very small… I was wondering how will they ever put all of us in a small place that small… What surprised me most was why did the soldiers have to stand guard with guns… and to tell you the truth the way some people stared at us it chilled me a bit.”

In 1980, Congress commissioned a report on the legacy of the camps. The report called the camps a “grave injustice, motivated by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.” And still they try to tell us that this is in our past. But let us look at ourselves. At our country. Sixty years after the camps were closed, the faces of our enemies has shifted but our fear is static, our hatred frozen. 

Photo (courtesy of author) of Tom Nakamura

This was the face of the enemy in 1946, right after enemy alien Tom Nakamura joined the Navy after four years in camp. He enlisted because wanted to escape, but he also wanted to serve his country. His country, for America was–is– his country. If only America knew it. He is 88 now, and he’s writing a new autobiography. He painstakingly types his story on his Windows 7 desktop computer. Trauma, they say, settles into your bones. Your body remembers what the newspapers forget. 

But this happened. This happened. Not just the camps– all our country’s self-inflicted wounds we pretend are in our past. They say this terrible thing happened, and they say but it is over. They say: this was a cancer. They say: we took it out. But: the world rotates and rotates back, we return to where we were once before. The same fears cling to us like carcinogens. So what do we do? I don’t know, I never know. All I know is, as the musical Hamilton states, we can’t control who lives, who dies– but we can tell our stories. All I know is when my grandfather’s computer crashed and he lost thirty single-spaced pages of his story, he typed them out again. He lost the document again, and he wrote his story out again. This happened, and this happened, and this happened. Say it. Say it again. Say it again. Say it again until others finally hear, until others finally listen, until the shouts in our throats burst through our strangling fears.

  • Jami Nakamura Lin (she/her/hers) is a Japanese-Taiwanese American writer. She received an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant from We Need Diverse Books and a Creative Artists’ Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Japan–U.S. Friendship Commission. Her stories and essays have been published in The Baltimore Review, Passages North, [PANK], Bat City Review, and other publications, and she will be featured in the upcoming anthology What God is Honored Here (University of Minnesota Press, Fall 2019). She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from The Pennsylvania State University.