A couple pay their respect at ten former Japanese internment camps
Photos by Setsuko Winchester
February 19 saw the 75th anniversary of the signing of FDR’s wartime order condemning 120,000 West Coast Japanese—most of them American citizens—to years of detention in ten remote concentration camps. Setsuko Winchester, former NPR journalist turned ceramicist, expresses her disquiet at this near-forgotten injustice in a unique and strangely beautiful art project, as her husband Simon Winchester explains:
We set off from Sandisfield early on a November Sunday morning in 2015, bound for the Mississippi Delta, that floodplain-flat expanse of cotton plantations and pecan orchards and blues-and-jazz country that still is said to be “the most Southern place on earth.” Our car was fully laden—suitcases, hiking gear, maps, cameras, and one enormous box filled with the purpose of our marathon: 120 small yellow ceramic bowls, carefully packed in foam, made as memorials to a barely remembered American tragedy.
Born in New York City of Japanese immigrant parents, Setsuko came only late in life to an understanding of the wartime internment program. After much thought, she decided she would employ her ceramic skills to give substance to what she sensed was growing fear and intolerance in today’s America—and to use what had happened to the internees as an instance of the kind of injustice that could well happen again to other vulnerable minority groups.
For several weeks during the late summer of 2015, she laboriously hand-pinched 120 tea bowls, one to symbolize every thousand prisoners. She fashioned these bowls, symbols in Japanese culture of courtesy, gentility, and civility, into a variety of shapes and sizes—just like the prisoners themselves, a third of whom were infants and children.
She then glazed them in various shades of yellow—the Japanese were, not so long ago infamously regarded alongside the Chinese as constituting a “yellow peril,” who might overrun America with their widely-feared and alien ways.
Setsuko’s plan was to place and then photograph her collection in various configurations at each of the ten internment camps that had been constructed to house the Japanese. The camps, in remote and inhospitable corners of the country, were hastily and shoddily built by the War Relocation Authority in early 1942. Surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guarded by soldiers, the camps today are mostly unvisited and overlooked, and reveal little of their wartime history. We were off to visit them all.
We first arrived at the pair known as Rohwer and Jerome, built in southeastern Arkansas, where 17,000 internees had been held—George Takei of “Star Trek” fame, the best known. During their three-year existence, the camps were equal in population size to the biggest cities in the state. Now private farms, not much remains, just the chimneys of the old hospital building—though efforts to preserve evidence of what happened are popping up.
Interpretive kiosks have been built at Rohwer, a scale replica of the guard tower at Jerome. There is a scattering of grave markers, both for those who died while interned as well as memorials to the internees who served heroically in the U.S. Army. Those who died in battle were, in the cruelest of ironies, brought back to be buried in the camps since their family homes had been forcibly abandoned.
Where the barracks had once stood, there were now expansive fields ready for planting. We spent some hours in the damp warmth of early December imagining the mosquito-busy heat of summer, arranging the bowls, and Setsuko took her photographs. More than an occasional car whooshed by, none stopped.
Next morning we headed west across Texas, New Mexico, to the far edge of Arizona, the site of a second prison, the baking-hot Poston Camp. Just as in Arkansas, there was little to see—a rather handsome memorial a mile or so away, and behind a chain-link fence, a few half-broken barrack blocks used 20 years ago as a community center. Few locals knew much about the place, as though the sorry history needed to be erased from memory.
It was much the same at the three other camps we visited over the coming weeks of late fall. Gila River Camp, between Phoenix and Tucson, was on Native American land; Manzanar, in the mountains of southern California, was run by the National Park Service, but few visit, funds are scarce, and park signs bear gunshot scars. At Amache in southeastern Colorado, a local schoolmaster had raised funds to build a watchtower and restore a couple of buildings. His students, almost entirely Hispanic, visit the site often, though when we arranged the bowls on the grass, the site was deserted, too, and the soughing of the chill foothill winds was the only sound we heard.
We returned to the Berkshires for the winter, then set out in mid-spring to visit the final four camps in the north. Heart Mountain, Wyoming, near the cowboy town of Cody, had an impressive interpretive center. At Minidoka in southern Idaho, a young couple arrived while we were visiting: The wife’s Japanese parents had been interned there.
At Tule Lake Camp in northern California near the Canadian border, a ranger remarked that more people were visiting these days—but to see how internment operated after hearing Mr. Trump refer to it as a solution.
Finally, after a day-long drive over some of the emptiest desert territory in the West, we came to the vast wilderness of Topaz Camp in central Utah, all cactus, blistering heat, and nothingness. As we placed the bowls one final time, we could only imagine how it must have been for thousands who had been compelled to make their lives here until the war was over. And then, when peace returned, to be given $25 and a bus ticket, and told to get going.
After that, we went home, too. The 120 bowls, each intact and unbroken, were taken from their box and returned to the studio in Sandisfield where they had been made. What now remains is how my wife will use her pictures to help ensure that internment without trial is never used in this country again—not on Japanese, Muslims, Mexicans, anybody.
A selection of Setsuko Winchester’s photographs— titled “Freedom From Fear/The Yellow Bowl Project”—is on exhibit through December 31 at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, New York. On Saturday, March 25, at 5:30 p.m., she and her husband, Simon Winchester, will give a talk at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The event is co-sponsored by the Norman Rockwell Museum and Berkshire Magazine.
Photo: The Norman Rockwell Museum Four Freedoms Rotunda in Stockbridge.
Photo: U.S. Supreme Court building
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