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Feedlot plan opens WWII wounds

Proposed site is a mile from Minidoka camp where Japanese were held

By Anna Webb - The Idaho Statesman
Edition Date: 10/02/07

When Japan attacked the United States in 1941, Gus Tanaka was 19, a student at Reed College in Portland, the son of an American-born doctor.

"The FBI was ringing our doorbell four hours after Pearl Harbor," he said.

The agents took Tanaka's father into custody that night. They spent six hours searching the house for radio transmitters and receivers — allegedly for communicating with Japan — that weren't there and never had been there.

They took family photo albums and cameras instead.

"I was afraid to even own a camera until about five years after the war ended," said Tanaka, now a retired surgeon in his eighties who lives in Ontario, Ore. "Our efforts were to stay super clean so nothing would happen to us."

Hear former Minidoka internee Gus Tanaka talk about his transport from Portland to the Minidoka camp in the desert near Jerome, Idaho.

Hear Gus Tanaka talk about his wartime experiences, including what happened to his family right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Stories like Tanaka's, from a time in American history when a presidential order imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans at ten camps for the duration of the war, are getting new attention.

The Jerome County commissioners are deciding whether to approve a 13,000-head cattle feedlot one mile from the former Minidoka Relocation Camp, which President Bill Clinton renamed the Minidoka Internment National Monument in 2001.

Detractors say the feedlot would deface the monument with dust, germs and odors, discouraging visitors and harming the sanctity of the site, which is one of the few reminders of an era that not only continues to haunt many Japanese Americans, but helps define their identity and is a powerful part of family mythology.

Tanaka was one of the former residents of the camp who testified against the proposed feedlot before the commissioners in Jerome last week.

Knowledge of the internment of Japanese Americans during the war is more widespread than it used to be.

Gail Chumbley, a history teacher at Eagle High School, teaches her students about the camps, like she teaches them about Rosie the Riveter, Native American code talkers, Mussolini and the other faces of World War II. And often, her students return to class with the memories from older relatives of living near the Minidoka camp, or knowing someone who did.

But Chumbley believes awareness of the camps has not sunk as deeply into Americans' collective cultural memory as it should — making the protection of sites like Minidoka all the more urgent, she said. "I think that what we suffer from, and it's not just Idaho, is amnesia, a terrible curse on our collective memory," she said. "If we do undo Minidoka and forget about it, it will be a footnote, both the memory and the mistakes."

Idaho Statesman photo

Karen Yoshitomi, the regional director of Japanese American Citizens' League in Seattle, offers to submit a photo of her mother's family for the record during the proposed feedlot hearing that would operate near the Minidoka Internment National Monument in Jerome County Tuesday,
Sept. 25, 2007, in Jerome, Idaho.

A childhood in art

Artist and retired professor Roger Shimomura, a Seattle native, was interned with his family at Minidoka when he was 3 years old.

His experiences there and those fastidiously detailed in his grandmother's journal continue to inform his painting and printmaking, 65 years later.

"Contrary to how some people see it, it's not a theme in my work, but an integral part of what has driven me all these years," he said.

In November, the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle is exhibiting "Minidoka on my Mind," 32 of Shimomura's recent paintings, all of them about the internment. Boise Art Museum showed a collection of Shimomura's Minidoka-inspired work in 2001.

After the camps closed in 1945, Shimomura's family continued to face post-war racism.

He recalls a family trip to Cannon Beach, Ore., in the family's new, 1946 Chevrolet. When the resort owner saw the Shimomuras were Japanese, he blanched at renting them a cabin. Eventually he relented, but gave them a cabin deep in the woods that hadn't been used for a long time.

"I remember my parents going to the store to get cleaning supplies," Shimomura said.

They spent the first days of vacation cleaning the cabin.

"My parents were so proud," he said. "I can guarantee that I wouldn't have reacted that way."

The resort owner later sent the family an apologetic letter.

Shimomura lives in Kansas and lectures around the country about his work and the era.

"I've had the occasion, living in Middle America, of talking to every junior high student in Lawrence, Kansas," Shimomura said. "It's amazing how many kids have no idea this happened. And even when you explain it, you're not sure if they'll retain it and be able to place it in contemporary context."

Many people believe in preserving sites like Minidoka precisely because of their power to make ties to the present.

This summer, Brandon Mayfield, the lawyer wrongly accused in the 2004 Madrid train station bombing, spoke about the violation of his civil rights at the 2007 Civil Liberties Symposium in Twin Falls, hosted by the Friends of Minidoka and the College of Southern Idaho.

Shimomura and Tanaka see a tie between the anti-Japanese sentiment after the Pearl Harbor and the anti-Muslim sentiment of recent years.

"All Americans, even fifth-generation WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), can, under certain circumstances, become regarded as a minority in one sense or another," Tanaka said.

Tanaka wears an American flag pin on his lapel. He's quick to call the United States "the greatest country in the world" and to note that he's been able to have the life he wanted. He went to medical school on the GI bill. He and Teddy, his wife of 53 years, raised their three children. Tanaka even understands the need for feedlots. "I like meat, too," he said.

But he questions the wisdom of putting a commercial farm operation close to a place he and others consider a "national shrine."

A part of identity

While many Japanese Americans are vocal about the need to preserve sites like Minidoka, their opinions about the internment are varied and nuanced.

Tanaka bristles when Japanese Americans like Karen Yoshitomi, regional director of the Japanese American Citizens League, refer to camps like Minidoka, and Tule Lake in Northern California, where her family was interned, as "concentration camps."

"Those were Hitler's extermination camps," Tanaka said. "There was no hint of that kind of intent. I resent people referring to relocation as concentration. It reflects on their mindset of continuing bitterness."

"When I think of the good things that happened to me in spite of the war mentality ..." he continued, "I thought the world had come to an end when the evacuation came. That experience was a test of my loyalty. I came out more loyal. The negative things didn't harm me, but the good things advanced my future and helped me achieve things that I thought I wouldn't."

Yoshitomi traveled from Seattle to testify in Jerome. She believes the term "concentration camp," and the term "forced removal" rather than "evacuation," are accurate.

If the internment era isn't as familiar to young people as it might be, Yoshitomi said their interest in the subject is strong. She fields multiple requests from students and teachers who want to speak with Japanese Americans who were interned.

"But that's getting more difficult. At some point in time these people won't be available," said Yoshitomi. Americans who were adults during the war are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.

Though there's not much to see at Minidoka — a potato cellar, a memorial, some building remnants — Minidoka and the former Manzanar camp in California are the only two sites of ten that have anything to see at all, Yoshitomi said.

"For a lot of my generation, the third generation in the U.S., there wasn't discussion or information about our own families' internment experiences until very late in life," she said.

For her, it wasn't until an Asian American studies class at the University of Washington in the 1980s, even though both sides of her family were interned during the war.

"The family didn't talk about it. It wasn't covered in high school as part of Washington state history ... there was a lot of bitterness as far as my grandfather was concerned. He would not talk about it. Before she passed away, my grandmother started talking a little, but it was difficult because there was so much shame and guilt."

Now, for the younger generations, said Yoshitomi, talking about the internment experience is a question of identity. She grew up with the message that she should assimilate and blend in to mainstream society.

"I am in a generation where it's not unusual to not speak Japanese, to not know the culture. Now the paradigm is more of a mosaic. It's OK to identify with your past."

Anna Webb, 377-6431, awebb@idahostatesman.com