Standing within a barracks reconstructed from the Midwestern camp where she and her family were incarcerated during World War II, Miyoko Eshita recalls the trauma of being forcibly moved from sunny Southern California, where her father had built a business as a gardener, to the chilly desolation of Heart Mountain, Wyo.
"We didn't even have winter coats," said the 75-year-old grandmother, a museum docent. "On the way to Wyoming, the train stopped in Denver. We wanted something to eat but the store manager said, 'We don't serve Japs.' It was so humiliating that for years I didn't even talk to my children about it."
As Eshita recounted her memories about this dark episode in American history--when, following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government imprisoned 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry, for fear they might collude with the enemy--the barracks' splintery walls almost seem to let in a blast of cold air. A barracks like this one, 120-by-20 feet with gaps between the boards and tar paper for a roof, had six small compartments to house 35 to 45 people.
The exhibit, donated by a Wyoming rancher, appears at the entrance to the second-floor galleries in Los Angeles's year-old Japanese American National Museum Pavilion, an 85,000-square-foot modern glass building that was added to the original museum building, a former Buddhist temple, which opened in 1992. Anchoring Little Tokyo, a downtown area of a few square blocks off the city's same-old tourist trail, it is one of several ethnic enclaves in L.A.'s historic area (Chinatown and the predominantly Mexican Olvera Street are two others).
Little Tokyo fits a lot into a small, clean zone. The New Otani Hotel services many Japanese visitors and has a number of tatami rooms, Japanese-style suites with futons instead of beds, deep bathtubs, shoji screens and a view of the hotel's fourth-floor Japanese gardens. The historic district is a short strip of storefront buildings, some of which were damaged in the Northridge earthquake in 1994. An outdoor plaza and surrounding streets have busy sushi bars and shabu shabu restaurants, a sort of Japanese fondue. The New Otani has a tempura bar, and the Miyako Inn & Spa, another smaller hotel, has a karaoke lounge. The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) stages Grand Kabuki in its 880-seat theater and also has a traditional Japanese garden.
If the JACCC's mission is to promote Japanese culture to Americans, the museum's is to tell the story of the Japanese in America. With spare exhibits and curatorial devices reminiscent of Ellis Island, it does an effective job--notwithstanding the perhaps unavoidably strong focus on a few horrible years in the community's 120-year history in L.A.
After the jolt of the barracks, where the docents are trained to approach visitors and tell their personal stories, the first exhibit takes you back to the early arrival of the Japanese in America. About 94 trunks and koire baskets--wicker "luggage" used by early immigrants to carry all their belongings--lie in an orderly heap. In California, the immigrants were mainly migrant workers, and photos and other artifacts show that life was hard. "I came to seek wealth but instead reaped poverty," a placard quotes one worker. It also documents the racism newcomers frequently encountered: "Jap Hunting Licenses Issued Here--Open Season Now--No Limit," reads one sign.
But the galleries manage to avoid excessive bitterness or finger-wagging. Instead, home video footage and old newspapers and artifacts, such as the Dodgers uniform worn by a Japanese American, show a familiar immigrant story of gradual Americanization.
Until, of course, World War II, whose events occupy the main gallery. It contains information about little-known episodes, such as the fact that the U.S. government went so far in its roundup to find and imprison Japanese living in Central and South America. Using the same nomenclature Franklin Roosevelt employed in private memos, the museum refers to "America's concentration camps." There were 11 government-run camps scattered from the Southeast to the Northwest. (The use of the term "concentration" describes the camps as places for imprisoned concentrations of a cultural minority, not the extermination camps Germany operated in Europe, which are also often called concentration camps.)
The exhibit's emphasis shifts from the injustice done to the Japanese Americans to the community's contribution to the war effort. Despite the roundups and imprisonments, some 10,000 Japanese American sons initially volunteered for combat and served with distinction. When a Texas unit, the 141st Infantry Regiment, got caught behind lines, the 442nd liberated them, sustaining 800 casualties to free 200 men. In all, the battalion won 18,000 decorations and seven presidential unit citations, an unmatched record for a battalion of its size and short duration of service. The 100th Battalion, the first Japanese American unit of the 442nd, became known as the Purple Heart Battalion for its disproportionate number of casualties. If all that was heroic, then it is perhaps sadly ironic that Japanese American members of the 522nd Battalion were among the first troops to assist abandoned inmates at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp in Germany.
Perhaps the most emotional exhibit centers on one family, the Saitos. Even as the family was carted off to what was euphemistically called a "relocation center," all three sons volunteered for military service. When the youngest son, Calvin, died fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific, another exhorted his grieving parents to be strong. "America is a damn good country," George Saito, the elder son, wrote his father, "and don't let anyone tell you otherwise." A short time later, the patriotic George would also fall in battle. The family petitioned for the third son to be discharged; the military refused, but he managed to survive the war.
The third gallery is about Japanese Americans reestablishing civilian life after the war, though the 40-year survey is thin until the campaign seeking redress in the 1980s, which resulted in official U.S. acknowledgment of and apologies for the civil rights violations, plus a small financial reparation of $20,000 per survivor. That, people within the community say, was a critical--if belated--step toward healing.
"They were fatalistic and took a Buddhist view that it couldn't be helped," says Chris Komai, a museum spokesman whose grandfather, Toyosaku, the publisher of Rafu Shimpo, a daily newspaper, was incarcerated through 1946. "They wouldn't talk about it, but eventually the redress campaign gave a sense of closure" that allowed them to open up.
For Miyoko Eshita's family, healing took a similar course. Having steadily cultivated a path leading to their American dream, her parents were financially devastated by their Wyoming "relocation" and spent years getting back on their feet. In 1952, people who had emigrated from Japan--the Issei, meaning "first generation"--were finally allowed to become naturalized citizens. But Eshita's father died before taking the opportunity. In what must have been an emotionally complicated choice, Eshita's mother eventually did become a U.S. citizen.
"I was angry for a long time, but it has gone out of me now," Eshita said. "It's part of my life. I want people to know, and I just hope this museum will help future generations remember."
Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90012, 1-800-461- JANM (1-800-461-5266), www. janm.org. By car, take Interstate 110 north and exit on Fourth Street east, drive two miles and take a left onto Central Avenue, which runs into First Street and the museum. Park between Central Avenue and First Street. A cab from the airport costs about $40 for the 20-mile trip to the down- town museum. Admission is $6.
Todd Pitock is a regular contributor to Travel.