Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time is unforgiving-ly constant

Reading diaries and autobiographies paint intimate stories not possible when told by someone other than the diarist or autobiographer. Collections of letters too, are marvelous in how voices come alive. It is through such books that pasts come alive.

The latest book I read is "Signs of Home" by Kamekichi Tokita. He and his young family were among the families from the Seattle area who were carted off to the Minidoka, Idaho, camp for Japanese internees in the spring of 1942. So-called "enemy aliens" - Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and their families were feared as possible spies, terrorists, and sympathizers. Mr. Tokita's voice reveals his thoughts, his fears come alive, relives his indignation, and then, inevitability, his resolute acceptance of what he could not change.

In spite of the "second class" treatment in general of Japanese immigrants over the decades previous to WWII, Tokita and his business and artistic partner were well-regarded inside and outside their community. Both of them were award-winning artists and were featured in galleries. All changed dramatically on December 7, 1941. Tokita began his diary on that day. He agonized about his native country's horrific attack. He wrote even as his stomach roiled in pain. As a diarist, he clearly describes the days' tone and environment. Although nothing happened immediately, the Japanese community soon was embroiled in fear and apprehension of their futures.

Tokita was highly educated and a classically-trained artist from a well-to-do family. He was 22 at the time of he arrived from Japan and in 1941, he was 43. So his voice is one versed in both cultures. His dignity in the face of fear, anger, and ultimate deprivation is on display page after page. (By the way, some of his paintings are currently on exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In this book, there are several excellent reproduction photos.) His diary ended when internment ended so his story does not include how he and his family re-assimilated back into everyday life.

Mr. Tokita's story jumped out at me from a newspaper article because on Bainbridge Island a well-established Japanese community had existed before WWII for many decades. That community was the first of all Japanese to be interned under President Roosevelt's orders. In March 1942 their evacuation by ferry at the Eagledale dock on the Island was hauntingly photographed. The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum features a remarkable gallery of the time and the many stories about it. From that history a folk hero has been chiseled into the bedrock of the Island - its weekly newspaper's owner and editor who vocally/editorially championed the rights of the incarcerated Japanese. Sometimes it seems there is no other history on/around/about the Island. When they eventually returned, the Japanese not only quickly became part and parcel of the community, they became mascots - even those who fought their return soon were mollified. After all, they were "true" Islanders. It was only the "newcomers" who left in droves - the clannish population had never been happy so many people crashed their gates. The chasm between "old-timers" and "newbies" continues to this day even as the population has exploded from between 3 and 5 thousand in the decade after WWII to now over 23 thousand! Hope the Island doesn't sink! The Bainbridge Island of seventy five years ago is gone.

But there are still those of us who remember and reflect on the innocense of our youth - not in small part because of the Island's isolation.

We who were part of what I call the "Quiet (Kids) Generation" entered school just before, during, and just after the end of WWII. It is a tribute to the stoic, close-mouthed cultures of not only the times, but to the majority population of Scandinavian, Croation, and British/Scottish/Irish who value privacy and family, to seeking revenge for grievances - those who were the primary group of Islanders. They cared more for "Islanders" than "outsiders."

My family were among those who immigrated to the Island for war employment. We stayed. Nearly as soon as Victory was announced, the number of year-'round residents dropped to pre-war numbers. The privacy and quiet once again blanketed the Island in anonymity.

It is now seventy years after the United States dove headlong into World War II. Interest in the War and its affects and effects remains constant as evidenced by ongoing stories in books, movies, TV, internet affiliations, etc. Photographs from then - most if not all of them in shades of black, grey, and white making the time look all the more somber, terrifying, and, yes, antiquated. The men almost all of them wearing hats - fedoras, "newsboy" style caps, Sailor and Soldier hats; not a baseball cap in sight. No jeans either. The women too in hats - and dresses or skirts, and - gloves. Not properly attired was unthinkable. It must appear to anyone under the age of forty or fifty to be images of another planet. Those images speak to me of the differences between now and then. I look at some of the "viral" videos on the Internet of service people and their children and parents. How remarkable it is for such ease of communication. Not that wars now are any less heart-rending - certainly not. It is simply that the vast technological changes since then were science fiction seventy years ago.

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