“For years we’ve been working on what’s just been historic,” remarks Lawrence Matsuda, a Seattle-based poet who endured Japanese internment. “And I personally feel really disappointed that it’s relevant today. It’s too relevant today.”
Seventy-five years ago, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 and imprisoned over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in internment camps throughout the United States.
Matsuda and artist Roger Shimomura were affected by the order early in their lives. Seattle-born Shimomura was incarcerated at Camp Minidoka when he was three years old, and Matsuda was born into the same camp, spending nine months there in his mother’s womb and nine months out.
This was a case of citizens who lived here, who were productive people. And in one day, they were in jail for no reason other than the fact that they were Japanese.
Together, the two produced their exhibit titled Year of Remembrance at the Wing Luke Museum. The exhibit is based off of their collaborative book, Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner, which features internment-based poems from Matsuda alongside artwork from Shimomura.
Both of them faced the long-term effects of the incarceration. To them, it was more than just a few years in camp.
“This was a case of citizens who lived here, who were productive people,” explains Matsuda. “And in one day, they were in jail for no reason other than the fact that they were Japanese.”
“That created a lot of internal strife and guilt. Anger, denial, depression, suicides, things like that. And most people don’t realize that. They think, ‘oh they went to camp, lived there in the barracks, and came home.’ It was a really emotionally trying time.”
Their parents, grandparents, relatives and friends were all forced to relocate. In the blink of an eye, the people they recalled driving hours to see were suddenly prisoners in the barracks next door. Matsuda described the atmosphere as funeral-like, “where someone has died and there’s a kind of pall in the air.”
Shimomura, too young to remember some of the camp clearly, recalls being quarantined with his mother when he caught chickenpox. They were tossed into a cabin with a mouse his mother could never seem to catch and fed through a slot in the door three times a day.
Even after their families were freed from the camps, the weight of their burdens didn’t lessen. Matsuda remembers his mother saying, “They took us and we didn’t want to go. And when the war was over, they let us go and we had nowhere to go.”
“It was almost worse being released than it was being taken,” she said.
As the two grew older, they continued to witness everyday discrimination. As a teenager, Matsuda attended a movie on World War II with his friends and remembered the captured heroine saying, “I’d kill myself before I let a Jap touch me.”
“And I thought, ‘Yeah, okay,’” nodded Matsuda, considering it in the context of the film. But his friend stood up and insisted they leave. He realized, soon after, that his friend had been right.
“For everyone else in the audience, it was just a show,” he says. “For us, it was personal. It’s about who you are. And as soon as we walked out into the street — that was who we were.”
Shimomura had to enter Broadmoor as a gardener, the only way he could get in, cutting the grass of his classmates as they sat around the pool.
“’Ay c’mere, mow the grass over here’ and all that stuff. It was just awful,” says Shimomura, recalling how he was treated. “There were a lot of scars that came from growing up at that time that never really made sense to me until later in life, when I looked back and all of a sudden, things started adding up.”
Shimomura calls his tribulations “tremendous fuel” for his art. Matsuda shares the same sentiment, adding that he wanted to capture the emotional content of the internment in his poetry.
The two met a few years ago, after Matsuda purchased one of Shimomura’s paintings. Shimomura sought him out and over lunch, they discovered the great number of things that they share — including the same middle name, Yutaka.
Both of the creators aim for the same provocative nature in their work. Their work openly remarks on the current political climate, featuring collages of news articles about recent acts of discrimination. Mounted opposite from the clippings of the modern era are eerily similar headlines from decades ago, reflecting Japanese Americans.
They took us and we didn’t want to go. And when the war was over, they let us go and we had nowhere to go.
Two summers ago, the two went with a group of others to protest the use of yellowface in The Mikado at Bagley Wright Theatre. They were handing out pamphlets meant to educate attendees on how they felt the show was offensive, but — much to their surprise — the majority of the ordinarily liberal and accepting Seattleites pulled away in disgust.
“That was such an eye-opener for me,” says Shimomura. “That, after all these years, people were still responding fundamentally in the same way — that this could have happened 30 or 40 years ago. And it was kind of depressing to think that things hadn’t changed that much. They’ve just become a little bit more politically correct.”
On the chain-link fence dividing the exhibit at the museum, visitors are encouraged to leave their own responses by writing on tags that were used to identify Japanese Americans during internment.
One prominent tag on the fence read:
“American/International media: stop asking if it can happen again, point out that it’s already started.”
With their exhibit, Matsuda and Shimomura hope to spread a message: let it not happen again.
Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner will be on display at the Wing Luke Museum until Feb. 11, 2018.
Aly Chu is a production intern at KCTS 9 and a freshman at the University of Washington. Currently a contributor at the UW’s newspaper, The Daily, she enjoys visual storytelling and hopes to major in communications. In her free time, she works as an illustrator and creates webcomics.More stories by Aly Chu