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Project Helps Woman Tear Down a Wall of Silence

October 27, 1994|SHARON YAMATO DANLEY | The author recently traveled to Heart Mountain, Wyo., to dismantle two barracks used at an internment camp there to house Japanese Americans during World War II. One of the barracks has been reassembled across the street from the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, where it will be part of an exhibit slated to open Nov. 11 titled: "America's Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience." and

I learned that my family was interned in a concentration camp from my first-grade teacher, some 10 years after the war. Throughout my childhood, my parents, now dead, had managed to build a wall between me and the memory of that horrible time in their lives. So when I saw the plea for volunteers to participate in a project to dismantle two of the barracks in Heart Mountain, Wyo., and rebuild them at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, I jumped at the opportunity to grab whatever I could of the truth that I feared had died along with my parents.

I am a third-generation Japanese American living in Venice, where I write and and run my own transcription business. I was born in 1949, after my family was released from the camps. Four of my older sisters, however, lived through the forced detention and told me what little I knew about those three years. One sister, about 5 at the time, remembered eating frozen canned fruit cocktail as the only relief against the blistering heat. My family was sent to a camp in Poston, Ariz.--like Heart Mountain, one of a number of remote sites selected for the concentration camps. My mother, born and raised in the milder climate of Los Angeles, would only say that the camp was "so hot." My father, who moved to Los Angeles from Hawaii and opened a small travel and employment agency in Little Tokyo, would say nothing at all about his detention.

At Heart Mountain we were greeted by dry, 80-degree weather, but the temperatures seemed higher as we ripped through weathered tar paper, pulled up thousands of rusty nails from every corner of the hastily constructed barracks and dragged heavy wood planks to a flatbed truck. Unlike my sisters and parents, we were provided with bottled spring water and ice, fresh apples and oranges, sweet rolls and doughnuts as we toiled in the dust. There were 25 volunteers in all, most of them men in their 60s who had been interned at Heart Mountain. I was accompanied by two cousins, one of whom was born there.

The work was hard and long, though sometimes punctuated by laughter. So intently did we attack the job, in fact, I couldn't help thinking that we were trying to shelter ourselves from the truth of the concentration camp experience. As a contingent of Nisei men, all former camp internees, labored from dawn to dusk, I thought of my father. He was a proud and passionate man who despite two heart attacks refused to give up his hard life--his long hours of work in Little Tokyo, his frequent trips to the track, and his excessive fondness for drink. I reflected on how often I lose myself in my work or social life to avoid the demons that creep in when I stop. They ask: How could such a thing happen to my parents, whose only crime was being of Japanese descent? How could my parents allow this to happen? And how could I so easily inherit their shame?

Perhaps the deepest fear, the hardest to admit, was that somehow we deserved this. My parents' silence only emphasized what I felt inside, that the shame of what happened to them was something you didn't talk about. They taught me gaman, to grin and bear it in the face of adversity--which only made my feelings of sadness build inside me.

Still, sometimes that repressed shame raises its head in anger. Anger at an American Legion plaque along the Wyoming highway that implies that the barbed-wire enclave at Heart Mountain benefited those who were "loosely confined" there. Anger at governments that allow injustice. Anger at those who still hate Japanese people.

Sometimes the shame manifests itself in an overwhelming depression, a feeling that no matter how hard I try to be "good," to please others and to fit in--that I will always fall short. This is the legacy of my parents' wall of silence.

Yet, standing in the empty barracks for the first time, I knew why my mother and father chose not to speak. The raw wood floor, the cramped living space, the dust that crept through the walls, the emptiness--I imagined their first glimpse of a barracks like this, their new home.

"The pain is just too great," said one man who could have been my father, standing in the ruins and fighting back tears.

Although no one could deny that preserving these barracks fostered joyful camaraderie and a tremendous sense of accomplishment, this project meant so much more to him. The barracks were not just artifacts to be put on display in a museum. They were a tangible part of his life, a part that he would rather have forgotten but knew he could not.

"Now that I am near the end," he said quietly, there was no denying that his past, especially the painful part, was far too important to be allowed to rot and be thrown away. Thanks to this experience, he said, he was now ready to share his Heart Mountain memories with his daughter.

In the four short days it took to dismantle these barracks, I touched the silent pain of my parents' lives. At Heart Mountain, I took a hammer and tore down a wall.

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