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Essay: A ‘Doubly Strange and Bewildering Day’: Views of July 4th From Behind Barbed Wire

Manzanar Relocation center, Manzanar, California. Street scene of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority Center. The windstorm has subsided and the dust has settled. July 3, 1942 Dorothea Lange / Courtesy of Densho.org

This post appears courtesy of Densho.

Ah, the Fourth of July, that special day when we celebrate the wealthy colonialists who birthed our nation by drinking several tons of "America" and making stuff go boom. All jokes aside, for minority groups whose history in America is defined by state-sponsored exclusion and violence, there's a certain irony to the freedom-loving fanfare that surrounds Independence Day.

Japanese Americans celebrating the Fourth of July inside the concentration camps of World War II were especially familiar with this irony. A Manzanar Free Press editorial marking Independence Day 1942 sums up how many inmates felt about the festivities behind barbed wire: "For American citizens of Japanese ancestry herded into camps and guarded by the bayoneted sentries of their own country, it will be a doubly strange and bewildering day."

Accounts from the inmate-staffed, but largely government-controlled camp newspapers were positive in their recognition of the holiday, featuring quotes from the Declaration of Independence, or praising Nisei soldiers fighting for democracy and love of country. Acknowledgements of injustice are weighted against hope for the future, anger tempered with a renewed appreciation for "liberty denied":

"Yes, cuss it out; say it's a hell of a country. But only a democracy can correct its own mistakes. They're not being righted as rapidly as we would like to have it, but the machine is pointed in the right direction despite the jolt received when the West Coast curfew and the exodus were ruled constitutional.

…We remember some of the carefree, joyous Fourths of our childhood and feel sorry for these evacuee tots. We hope July 4, 1944-5-6 and others to follow will not find them in the same plight."

-Richard Itanaga, Denson Tribune, July 2, 1943

"Independence and freedom mean more to us now than it ever did before. Having been confined for three years, having been deprived of many of the privileges which we thought were ours by right, we now know that our lot is going to be an uphill fight that will continue long after the nation's present struggle is over."

Gila News-Courier, July 4, 1945

Others make subversive digs at camp life. Yuk Kimura, writing for the Santa Anita Pacemaker, describes the building costs of the former race track and concludes, "So we are living in a $2,000,000 home. Boy, what class!" Ruth Ishimine, reminiscing in the Turlock TAC over "weenie bakes on the beach" and "colorful displays of fireworks as used to be on the Fourth," jokes that there is "one consolation" to the subdued celebrations: "it's hot 'enuff." And the Manzanar Free Press staff, winking at the underwhelming holiday menu, writes, "By next week we doubt whether there will be an able-bodied man left in Manzanar who can look a hot dog in the eye without flinching."

Patsy Yorita performing a flag salute at the Tule Lake concentration camp at the Independence Day parade. (1943) Courtesy of the Bain Family Collection via Densho.org

While the public dialogue in camp papers paints a mostly happy picture, the diaries and field notes of researchers for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (a massive — and controversial — academic study of the incarceration) offer a more candid perspective.

"I get so tired of the flag waving. This war must mean more than that. It is supposed to represent a way of life to us.

…It is difficult to reconcile some things that have happened with true Democracy. Negroes are sent out to Australia to fight for Democracy; at home they don't get a full share of it. Nisei boys serve faithfully in the army; their parents are sent to Tanforan."

Charles Kikuchi

"[Camp director Elmer] Shirrell read a prepared speech on Independence Day and Democracy, but it did not click with the audience at all. He might as well have been talking over the radio because he was not talking to the Japanese people here. He did not mention once the plight of the Japanese, and hence could not show any sympathy for them."

James Sakoda

My personal favorite comes from Togo Tanaka:

"An unscheduled dust storm forced cancellation of the Fourth of July picnic Saturday, driving nearly 7,000 would-be picnickers into the shelter of their barrack rooms for the afternoon… Residents retired that evening, anticipating a windless Sunday, when the remaining half of the July Fourth program was to be staged. However, meat used in the sandwiches from several kitchens, was reportedly spoiled by the heat. Over 200 cases of diarrhea were reported in one block alone."

Independence Day is a time to celebrate the many freedoms we are fortunate to enjoy in this country. It is also a day when we remember the struggles of the people who came before us, people who fought and bled and endured so that one day all Americans can fully participate in a true democracy. We celebrate camp survivors' legacy of resilience and hope (and, of course, the subtle art of poking fun at "wardens" and administrators). We celebrate their efforts to ensure the mistakes of WWII are not repeated.

On this Fourth of July — as Muslim and Arab Americans are targeted for surveillance much like Issei community leaders, as rhetoric echoing war-era anti-Japanese crusaders is leveled against refugees fleeing violence and extreme poverty, as immigrant families are being detained at the highest rate since World War II — let us also remember that the work's not done until we all get free.

Nina Wallace is the Special Projects Coordinator for Densho, a nonprofit organization working toward preserving the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

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