Monthly Archives: July 2012



I’m still trying to unpack it all.
The stories shared by the elders.

Loss of property.
Loss of pride.
Loss of dignity.
Loss of life.

Not loss. Stolen.

Stolen property.
Stolen pride.
Stolen dignity.
Stolen life.

Walking through the jail.
A prison within a prison.
The scribbles on the walls.
“Show me the way to go to home.”
The paradox of the permanence of these penciled notes.

Yet every time I let my mind swim with all the memories of the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, it always settles on Stephanie Miyashiro gracefully gliding in her wheelchair to the crooning of Toru Saito. She navigates around chairs, now nearly empty as most of have gone to bed, with one hand on the controls of her wheelchair and the other painting the air. Stan Shikuma, Tule Lake committee member and fellow taiko player, walks up to me as says, “Did you know Stephanie use to be a dancer?” I nod, not because of having the conscious knowledge of this part of her past, but because it’s so evident with her movements.

There are times when she closes her eyes, as if sight is hindering her ability to fully experience the moment. I try to imagine what it is that she’s thinking, feeling. Perhaps, she’s healing from her family’s experience of being incarcerated at Tule Lake and Topaz, another one of the 10 Japanese-American concentration camps set up in the U.S. during WWII. I wonder if she’s reliving her contributions to the efforts to obtain reparations and redress for those who had survived the camps? Or maybe, maybe she’s pulling in the all the energy of the pilgrimage and storing it away for the next fight for justice.

She opens her eyes, and we share a smile.

That’s where my mind come to rest.

-Lee Ann




photo by Laura Misumi

On the night that we returned from the pilgrimage, Laura’s dad  invited us over to dinner at the home of one of his old comrades. I found out that those present were among the first pilgrims to ever make the trek to Tule Lake. In their 50’s and 60’s now, these folks had traveled to the campgrounds in the early ’70s. They fought for Ethnic Studies on their college campuses and they fought for the truth at home. Thus, when their parents refused to tell them what life had been like in the Concentration Camps they decided to travel to Tule Lake to find out what had really happened.

On those first trips, they slept on the ground and had guards stationed 24/7 because the locals would harass them. People had never seen so many Asian Americans amassed together before. I was floored to be eating dinner with the forerunners, but as Pam, one of the Old Guard laughingly admitted, “We arrived– and had no idea what we were looking at.”

In more recent decades, it took later pilgrims  to Tule Lake years to verify the site where we held this year’s memorial. We looked out upon a field of mountain brush and different forms of flora, a stretch of land that had once held the bones of those that died in Tule Lake. This sacred location had been excavated and with all the bones included was used for gravel.  All that exists there now is a memory of what once was.

Tourists passing by could have understandably posed the question, “What are they looking at? What’s the point in returning to a space where bodies no longer remain?” Yet there are probably several ready answers. To me, a return to that site represents a refusal to forget what happened at Tule Lake. Gathering together in the shadow of Castle Rock, this year’s pilgrims honored those that had passed and also gave credence to the memories of those at Tule still with us. Our elders remember that a burial site was there, and we believe them.

Yesterday, I returned to Boston on a red-eye yet I found myself carried through the day on this strange sense of euphoria. I’ve never before experienced such openness and tender care from so many other Japanese Americans and community allies. On the trip, the question shifted from what you did to who you were and who you came from. Basking in stories that helped me fill in pieces to my own narrative buoyed my spirit. I know this is a feeling I’ll return to for days.

Nevertheless, I remember seeing an empty chair in one of our Intergenerational Dialogue Groups and fervently wishing my grandmother’s presence in that chair. I missed my family back in Southern California and my resolve has steeled that on the next pilgrimage in 2014 I will not be the only one of my Yamane clan present.

There is no guarantee that the same elders will return in two years. Most of the Issei who lived through WWII have already passed on and many of those journeying on pilgrimage now are Nisei and Sansei in their 80’s and 90’s. Life does not promise longevity, and it hit me hard on this trip that every missed pilgrimage is a missed story and a missed opportunity to fill in the shadows of my own history.

To which I say– there is too much at stake for us– the Yonsei, Gosei, and Rokusei– to be the generations to drop the torch. We would forever eviscerate legacies that help us to remember what was and to then recognize new forms of systemic oppression reincarnate today. On the bus ride home, elder after elder expressed that one of their deepest joys in coming on the pilgrimage had been the abundance of youth. They spoke to how our interest in their stories brought tears to their eyes, and that our presence gave them energy. In those moments, I could feel my own eyes welling up, full of love and tenderness for these aging bodies, these strong and resilient spirits. These are the people that I come from. I can only hope that in my later years, I’ll be able to return on this pilgrimage with our next generation and do justice in reconjuring these stories, these lives, this experience. I want to be able to explain– what we’re looking at.

– Jessica

Why does it matter/el pasado es hoy día


In 2008 hundreds of la migra came in buses and vans, helicopters hovering, surrounded the Agriprocessors plant in quiet Postville, Iowa.

They arrested nearly 400 workers that day, mujeres y madres, jovenes e hijos, hombres y padres todos, líderes y breadwinners of sus familias, herded them “like the cattle they processed” into the National Cattle Congress in a town nearby.

We watched the film “abUSed” in Immigration Law today, and the scene of the fairgrounds me dio chills down mi espalda.

Hay otros ejemplos en la historia de este país donde la gente were rounded up, arrested on bogus charges, (si aun hubiera ningunos putos charges) and detained in places meant for livestock?

For me, healing is hard because all these heridas/wounds se quedan tan fresco, reincarnated, repurposed, llevando otra máscara, Japanese American, Guatemalan, Mexican, Brazilian, ya no serás tú, ahora, eres nosotros.

We are one and the same, same struggle, same fight/la lucha, hasta victoria siempre.

La migra forced the workers, without assistance of counsel, to accept plea bargains–to sign away their rights (también sus vidas estadounidenses) and ser culpable de identity theft.

Like fraudulent loyalty, fraudulent claims: renounce your right to try your case on the merits, renounce your citizenship to this country. Former incarcerees and affidavits speak of insurmountable pressure, de familia, from one’s peers, to conform, and through uncertainty state no-no, renounce to keep the family together.

“Nadie firme, y vamos a ver lo que van a hacer a nosotros” but ten by tens they signed, they came for the purpose of providing for their children and to fight is so uncertain, to fight could lead to indefinite separation. The faster you plead, the faster you’re out, with a brand new GPS anklet.

They kept them in the fairgrounds, surrounded by chain link fences.

Ellos los mantuvieron en los centros de concentración, rodeado de alambradas.


It is not enough to heal for ourselves alone, it is not enough to simply move on. Nuestra experiencia es una advertencia, una señal, del futuro, de lo que podría pasar.

And who suffers? Y quien gana? We were a threat to white-owned agriculture in 1942, and today huge corporations profit off the backs of the exploited, the unprotected, los que tienen miedo de la amenaza de la migra. The “browning” of our prison systems, fear of the hordes streaming over the southern border, like the fear of the “yellow peril” from the east.


Divided, somos pocos, but together, jamás será vencido. Levántate! Stand juntos, y nunca forget, nuestras historias son nuestra fuerza.





In a documentary on the bus ride over to Tule Lake, a former incarceree commented that he loved watching the clouds as a child and wanted to take pictures of them, but he had no camera because they were not allowed in the camp. Looking at those clouds for myself, I could see what he meant–fluffy white sheets floating serenely across the sky at their own pace, in their own time. It’s hard to imagine that such cruelty could take place under such a peaceful sky.

At the end of the Tule Lake memorial service, when I was sitting next to Monique and taking it all in–letting my feelings run free after bowing three times (as I learned to do from my grandma, for my Chinese ancestors) with my red carnation in front of the makeshift altar, a scene with a line of model-scale barracks, one for each of the WRA internment camps–I looked around behind me for other Genki Spark friends and noticed one of the elders sitting in the corner of the very back row, with no one around him, bent over forward with his hat inclined to cover his face. I was touched by the sight and went over to him to keep him company, hoping that by sitting next to him and talking with him about our emotions, I could help him feel better by letting him loose his feelings with me, to pop out the thorn in the demon’s side and let all the pus and pollution out to leave him clean, refreshed, and whole.

I sat next to him and asked him what he thought about the service. With eyes slightly red and watery with unfallen tears, he told me about how, yes, he thought the service was wonderful and short. He appreciated its brevity. But he said that he still couldn’t help feeling angry and bitter about what the U.S. government did to his people, his family, his friends.  How, at the cemetery on the other side of the low ridge where we all sat in white folding chairs under the sheets of white clouds floating freely in the sky, the U.S. government had uprooted the bodies buried there because they needed the gravel. How he was saddened that his mother, who had recently passed away, had to endure the pain and suffering of raising her family in a prison surrounded by barbed wire, in hardship. How he was angry that even Japanese Americans today would tell him to move on, forget about it, and stop hanging onto and feeling bitter about old memories.  He felt like he could never forgive the injustice that was served. Of course, we can move on—he felt like he has moved on, but he can’t forget. We must remember, he said.

And throughout the pilgrimage, I could see how people have remembered the injustices while moving on in their own ways, by celebrating the spirit and its ability to endure and flourish even under the most difficult of times.

At Sunday night’s Open Mic, and from backstage at Monday night’s concert, I watched and listened to a woman play the koto, a long Japanese zither that her mother had learned how to play at Tule Lake, on a makeshift instrument made from found materials. Poetry was read, songs were sung–beautiful works imbued with passion, memories, meaning, and a love and appreciation for life and how far we have come today from 1943, when the loyalty questionnaire was sent out, asking Japanese and Japanese Americans whether they would pledge their loyalty to a government that treated them like second class citizens and stripped them of all their possessions.

What couldn’t be stripped away was their spirit, which showed in full force at Monday night’s concert with the beat of the taiko, with songs and words and the cheering of an audience moved by love, passion, and strength.

Just like the clouds, we move on and change into wonderful, whimsical new shapes as we gain new experiences–being mindful and retaining some of our shape from the past while living fully in the present and looking ahead to the future.




Tule Lake Pilgrimage: I sit in my dorm room after midnight, our last night of the Pilgrimage.  I knew when I set out to come that this experience would be life changing. I have yet to discover how much so. This will be revealed in the days, and months, to follow. What I know now is that my heart has been opened wide by the courage, resilience, and love of this community. A community that is healing itself from the inside out, one conversation at a time. A community I feel part of, included, and welcomed into with open hearts and minds.

The beautiful faces of the elders who endured imprisonment in this so-called “relocation” camp, who had their lives turned completely upside down and inside out because of their Japanese ethnicity, reflect the hardship and the joy of long, fully lived lives. They remind me of my Dad, my aunts and uncles who did not have to suffer the loss of their livelihoods and belongings because they lived inland. However, they did endure racism, confusion, ostracism, war on the front lines and the challenge of making sense out of a senseless time, perhaps the darkest in the history of the U.S.

I miss my Dad deeply. I feel a deeper understanding of him as the result of this amazingly incredible pilgrimage.
Now its time for bed!
Genki Sista, Monique

“Where we were born.”


I heard this as my bus was approaching a reminisce of a latrine.  Apparently there was a hospital somewhere around and there were several people on my bus who were born at Tule Lake.  During this trip, I constantly need to remind myself that there were, at one point, real people, my people, living in this desolate environment.  While there are still people living in the area, they are not living in shaky barracks surrounded by barbed wire and snipers.

The last 48 hours or so has been super special.  On the bus ride up from Berkeley, a camp survivor read two narratives she wrote in her writing class.  They were personal narratives about her life in Tule Lake and her life immediately following incarceration.  Listening intently, I occasionally got lost in her narrative, imaging someone going through this experience. Then it hits me, “She is this person.  She lived this. This is her story.”  My heart swelled, my eyes moistened.  I’ve known about these concentration camps for over a decade, visiting the camp in Topaz, Utah, where my family was incarcerated back in 1993 when I was 9 years old (the same age my grandmother was when she was incarcerated).  I learned a lot about what it was like through my mother recounting her research and the children’s books like Journey to Topaz and A Journey Home, by Yoshiko Uchida, a former Topaz internee.  But I never really got first-hand accounts of life in the camps from my grandparents.  They either gave a passive response like, “Oh, it was fine. I don’t remember much, I was a kid,” or “No, I’m not going to talk about it.”  My knowledge was always second-hand until now.

“Where we were born.”  I try to imagine what it was like to begin your life in a place that your family was imprisoned because they shared the same heritage as your country’s enemy. How did you perceive the world?  What did you think of it?  How did you feel?  And what was it like to return to this prison, the first place you ever lived?  As I’ve interacted with many of these former internees, my first question is, “Do you have any early memories of this place?”  I’m delightfully pleased when they always say, “Yes,” and tell me what they are.  With every memory I hear, the lighter I begin to feel.  The weight that I’ve been carrying around for not knowing more about the camps and my family’s experiences is slowly lifting.  I’m beginning to understand “where” I was born–the memories and experiences that have shaped my life and the person I am today.  I look forward to the day where I can share my story and inspire others to find out where they come from.


just some things


morning saturates landscapes like an artist’s palette

heady scents of sagebrush and wildflowers remind of simpler times

Castle Rock: escape from the tedium of camp/symbol of an unattainable freedom/indelible image of this experience/glorious challenge/…swallow sanctuary

Start genki, feet won’t fail me now

perilous precipice,

delivers all it promises–sit quietly? not this sisterhood, smiles and panoramic poses all around.


graveyard: sacred space, where our ancestors were laid to…rest…behind barbed wire

“just those japs” bones worth less than the gravel around, we remember these among all other injuries in honoring those who have passed before us.


sobering occasions broken up with moments of life: this is also a time of reunion and joy, appreciation and laughter.


they came on trains with covered windows, covered the windows so that future prisoners could not tell where they were, could not see the place that would be “home”


owl pellet.

first time taiko player shows her genki