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Barbed wire and free press

Their lives had been confiscated, but in World War II internment camps, Japanese Americans could mostly print what they saw fit.

May 03, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

"A combined throng of 600 dance lovers jammed the coronation ballrooms ... to pay tribute to queens Kideko Maeyama and Chiya Sokino in the Farm Management-sponsored 'social of the year.' " -- Gila (Ariz.) News-Courier, Nov. 28, 1942

"On tiny suede match covers bearing the inscription, 'It's a match -- Ruby and George,' the engagement of Miss Ruby Kanaya to Pfc. George K. Suzuki of Ft. Sam Houston, Tex., was made known before a group of 16 girls at the betrothed's home."-- Minidoka (Idaho) Irrigator, Feb. 27, 1943

"Little 2-year-old Virginia Fujii of 33-13-4 and her neighbor, 2 1/2 -year-old Kingo Hankawa, got the wanderlust last Sunday morning and gave their parents a nerve-wracking two hours.... The two kiddies were finally located at noon -- placidly eating their lunch in Mess Hall 21." -- Manzanar (Calif.) Free Press, Aug. 5, 1942

The items are redolent of Small Town U.S.A., but the newspapers that carried them weren't exactly published in Mayberry.

They were written and edited in the desolate internment camps of World War II -- fenced-off patches of desert that suddenly became home for the 120,000 Japanese Americans torn from their West Coast communities after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Each of the 10 camps had its own newspaper, staffed by people known in the bureaucratic parlance of the day as "evacuees." Published as often as three times weekly, the papers covered events great and small, featuring humble notes about flower shows as well as ringing locutions on the timeless themes of democracy.

Over the last few months, the papers' nearly 4,000 editions have been given new life on the Internet, posted by Densho, a Japanese American advocacy group based in Seattle.

"Our hope is that this will open up a new wave of interest and research in the camps," said Tom Ikeda, a retired software engineer who heads Densho, which translates from Japanese as "to leave a legacy."

The legacy many in the camps wished to leave was frustratingly similar to that of others in America's "greatest generation."

"We have steadfastly evinced our desire to be true, loyal citizens," an editorial writer at Manzanar's Free Press observed in 1944. "Buffeted by the vitriolic and unceasing attacks against us ... we admit that we, at times, have wondered whether the principles of democracy upon which our nation is founded are real and existent, or whether we are embracing and cherishing principles built upon the shifting sands of empty, meaningless words."

He was arguing -- futilely -- that Japanese American soldiers be allowed to fight side by side with their fellow citizens.

By war's end, 23,000 Japanese Americans were serving, mostly in segregated units. One of them -- the so-called Go for Broke combat team -- was the most decorated military unit of its size.

"MRS. Arikawa received a wire from Washington saying her son had been killed in action in Italy, but no one in the block knew of it for the whole day. She and Mr. Arikawa ate their meals unobtrusively and as usual at their table in the mess hall, he with his omnipresent cane laid against the bench and she quietly leaning over her plate.... Made homeless and their security jeopardized by the very agency to which they have given their sons, they must wonder what their reward will be." -- Manzanar Free Press, July 29, 1944

Until Densho's project, the camp newspapers -- which vary from crude, mimeographed handouts to professionally printed 12-page sections available at 2 cents a copy -- were scattered through museums and university libraries. Much of what appears on was discovered on microfilm in the Library of Congress.

To troll through the papers is to glimpse the day-to-day lives of a captive population just trying to make the best of things.

"You won't see a lot of bitterness," said Ikeda, who has interviewed more than 250 camp survivors. "A lot of people had this cultural attitude, shikata ga nai, which means, 'It can't be helped, life must go on.' "

Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the mass removal of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. They were stripped of their property and assigned to barracks in 10 remote "relocation camps" from California to Arkansas.

Their new homes weren't exactly prisons, but they were close. Residents could sign on to work details when manpower-starved farmers or factory owners needed help, but they weren't free to return to the cities where many of their families had lived for generations.

Meanwhile, babies were born, baseball leagues formed, crates of shoes were shipped in and Scout troops raised the colors. All of it was dutifully chronicled.\o7

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