Karen L. Ishizuka
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When pressed, Sansei give lip service to the obvious fact that we are now old. But we don’t really believe it. In the cosmology of Issei, Nisei, Sansei — Issei are old, Nisei are middle-aged and Sansei are forever young. But here I be, with the honor of having been asked to write on the “Legacy of the Sansei.” The juxtaposition of those two words — Sansei + Legacy — is an undeniable clue that Sansei = Old. Old enough to leave a legacy. A legacy of Never Again!
I was raised by three sets of grandparents, a father, a mother, a stepmother, and 15 aunts and uncles, as well as an entire community who spent over three years behind barbed wire. Although I was too young to have been in camp, I inherited it. Unintentionally yet unconditionally, they bequeathed me the immensity of camp.
In 1994, I curated the exhibition, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” for the Japanese American National Museum. By that time, I had written a master’s thesis, a stage play and a short narrative film about the wholesale incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It was part of my effort to crack the code — to not only understand what camp was about but, once exposed, to come to grips with the immensity I had inherited. Despite the fact they had done nothing wrong, my entire family and community had been convicted of being a threat to national security — potential terrorists in today’s parlance — without any due process of law and summarily incarcerated in 10 concentration camps from California to Arkansas for the duration of World War II.
Why? Because of the color of their skin. Even though the U.S. was also at war with Italy and Germany, besides Japan, and that some Germans and Italians were detained, only the Japanese — men, women, elderly and children — were subjected to mass incarceration.
Growing up, Nisei never talked about camp, but they were constantly talking around it. Therefore, although we Sansei didn’t know what this thing called “camp” was, we knew it was a thing. They spoke in code: What camp were you in? Where did you go after camp? Before camp, we lived in Los Angeles. After camp, we lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Before camp, I went to college to become an engineer. After camp, I became a gardener. Before camp (fill in the blank), after camp (fill in the blank). Their lives were forever after dichotomized into “before the war” and “after the war” with this thing called “camp” in-between.
It was as if everything about my parents’ lives had been informed by camp, including their child-rearing practices. While I didn’t grasp the broader sociopolitical implications of camp, I nonetheless got the message that I needed to be 200 percent American in order to retroactively prove, as my mother said, that it was wrong for the U.S. to have put Japanese Americans “in camp.”
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Karen L. Ishizuka is the author of “Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Sixties,” (2015), “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” (2006), and co-editor of “Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories” (2008). Ishizuka is an award-winning documentary writer/producer and museum curator who helped establish the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. She received a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. A third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, Ishizuka lives in Culver City, Calif., with her husband, filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura, and has two children and three grandchildren.