Rowher. All photos in this post by author.
The Rowher Relocation Centerwas one of the two WWII era internment camps built in Arkansas to imprison Japanese Americans forced from the west coast due to so-called “military necessity.” According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History, from September 18, 1942, to November 30, 1945, the Rowher and Jerome camps housed over 16,000 Japanese Americans. It was one of the last of ten such camps nationwide to close.
Jessica Yamane, a recent intern at UALR’s Institute on Race and Ethnicity, recently visited what remains of the camp in Desha County and offers this reflection and call to action, reminding all of us where we can go from here.
Bright orange heels. Those shoes were the first things that caught my attention as Tamisha Cheatham rushed down a flight of stairs to let me into my first day of work at the Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Little Rock was experiencing an end-of-summer heat wave and the building the Institute was in was completely blacked out. So my first tour of the office was in the dark. In many ways that’s how I felt in choosing to plunge into Little Rock, Arkansas as the site of my first co-op. A Chinese-Japanese-American, born and raised in Los Angeles, California, I had no past experiences living in the mid-South. But a clinic with my law school in Boston over the summer had exposed me to the cultural differences of small town life in Georgia, and this internship offered me more opportunities to explore these nuances in a different region of the United States.
Since I didn’t get my bike fixed until a few weeks into my internship, Tamisha would take me home after work every day. It was through these after hour conversations that I learned that she was completing her master’s in Public History at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. I was beyond excited to learn that she was writing her thesis on the preservation of the site of Rohwer, one of the two Japanese American Concentration Camps in Arkansas during World War II.
This past summer, I went on the 2012 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Tule Lake was the Concentration Camp that the “no-no boys” were sent to. That is, these Japanese Americans answered in the negative to two questions on a “Loyalty Questionnaire” issued by the U.S. War Department and the War Relocation Authority (WRA): Question #27 asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Question #28 asked: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Noticeably, this questionnaire left no room for explanations to individual responses. As I came to understand through the stories that my elders shared at the pilgrimage, many of them (or their parents) had answered “no” to these two critical questions on the loyalty questionnaire for reasons other than a disloyalty to the United States. That is, some people circled “no” out of confusion, because they thought that the questions were a test. Many people had lived in the United States all their lives, and their children had been born in this country. Accordingly, “going back” to Japan would have meant deportation to a county completely foreign and unknown to them. Hence, asking individuals to foreswear an allegiance that they had never had was an irony without humor. In addition, some people answered “no-no” because they thought that it might provide the best chance for keeping their family together. For instance, some “Nisei” or second generation Japanese Americans answered “no-no” because their first generation Japanese Americans or “Issei” parents had answered “no-no.” Finally, some people answered “no-no” to protest their internment, a decision that they felt unjustly encroached upon their civil liberties.
As one of more than four hundred pilgrims that traveled to the Tule Lake site this past summer, I was moved by the number of Japanese Americans that had traveled from all over the country to reclaim memories integral to their cultural understanding of what it meant to be Japanese in America. I was equally moved by the people of different ethnic backgrounds that showed up to stand in solidarity with us. A Muslim American woman spoke during the memorial and made the connection between the labeling of Japanese Americans as “terrorists” during World War II and the current connotation of the term in a post 9/11 world. It meant the world to me that she was there – to make our connections tangible.
The positive experience that I had at Tule Lake was part and parcel to the excitement I could not contain when I found out that Tamisha was researching Rohwer. When I told Tamisha that I was interested in visiting the camps, she promised to make it happen and she stayed true to her word. Moreover, when the director of the Institute, Professor Adjoa Aiyetoro, heard about the trip, she reserved a work day for a field trip that the office could engage in together. This reciprocated enthusiasm was a delight for me. Tamisha, Professor Aiyetoro, and Donna Shelton, the Institute’s web designer, are all black, and our trip spoke to me on a personal level about interracial solidarity. I observed the thoughtfulness of my co-workers as we learned about the history of Japanese American incarceration, and I thought about how the United States’ historical fascination with prisons continues to translate into laws which disproportionately result in the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly black and brown people. The fluid ways in which the United States government has criminalized different bodies of color at different times in this nation’s history is frightening, yet it has also provided a foundation for coalition building between people of color based upon our lived experiences.
I had jokingly explained to Tamisha that I would probably cry when we visited Rohwer – despite the fact that all that remains to remind us of the Japanese Americans that were interned there is three monuments, twenty-six headstones, and a few signboards. To which she, with somber seriousness replied, “Well, that land used to be all swamp before Japanese Americans were freighted from Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley during WWII. They made this land arable. They produced more than 75% of their own food supply. When you think about that, all those people – and look out at these wide open desolate fields that are there now – well – that’s enough to choke just about anybody up.”
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which allotted $20,000 to survivors of the concentration camps. Many of them were Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans. Eric K. Yamamoto, a law professor, addresses what might be next for Japanese Americans that have received reparations in his article “What’s Next? Japanese American Redress and African American Reparations”:
I suggest that the key to the legacy of redress is how Japanese American act when faced with continuing racial subordination of African Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Latinas/os, and Asian Americans. Will Japanese Americans draw upon the lessons of the reparations movement and work to end all forms of societal oppression, or will we close up shop because we got ours?
My grandfather fought in France during World War II as a member of the 100th battalion, a regiment that Yamamoto notes helps to reinscribe the “model/super minority” stereotype of Asian Americans. My grandfather is a hero, and not only because he came home a highly decorated war veteran with a purple heart, two silver stars, and a bronze star. I choose to believe that my grandfather did as much as he could to continue to live despite the heartache that he carried with him until the day that he died, the guilt of being one of only fourteen men from his original battalion that made it home. His stubborn resilience is something that I inherited from my father and a critical aspect of my identity. Many of the Japanese American men that fought abroad during WWII had something to prove in that while they were fighting for “freedom” abroad, their families were being interned back in the United States.
Integral to Yamamoto’s article is a call to action. That is, the reparations that Japanese Americans have received needs to translate into decisions to become members of movements that foster interracial coalitions. Only in doing this can Japanese Americans address the racist logic that allowed for their internment in the late 1940s and which still persists in marked ways when African Americans are projected to be inherently criminal or when Muslim Americans are viewed suspiciously as potential terrorists.
On our car ride to Rohwer, Tamisha recounted that a level of bitterness towards the Japanese Americans still exists among the people who remain there today. In the 1940s, most of the people in Rohwer and its neighboring cities were very poor sharecroppers. It seemed to them that Japanese Americans were being treated well by the United States government in that they were being fed three meals a day and had access to quality education for their children. My response to this new information was a deep sadness in that people in the United States have so little access to resources in this “great nation” that they would envy the lives of people in prison and carry that resentment to their graves and beyond. It is interesting to imagine what could have happened if the people that lived in these rural isolated areas where most Japanese American Concentration Camps were built could have seen something in the Japanese American experience that was more similar to than different from their own stories. Imagine what could happen if we drew upon these historical intersections of race and class to build forward today.
Only one Japanese American family stayed in the area after the concentration camp at Rohwer finally closed on November 30, 1945. Today, the maintenance and preservation of the site depends upon the recognition by people of different ethnic backgrounds that the Japanese American Concentration Camp experience at Rohwer is important to remember. Hence, it touches my heart that the Institute on Race and Ethnicity and Tamisha Cheatham in particular are engaging in the important work of site preservation. I am deeply grateful.
Jessica Yamane identifies proudly as 100% Chinese, 100% Japanese and 100% American. She recently spent the past two months and nine days in Little Rock, Arkansas as an intern at UALR’s Institute on Race and Ethnicity. This winter, she’ll be resuming her studies as a law student at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.