We Have Been Here Before

We Have Been Here Before

Japanese American incarceration is the blueprint for today’s migrant detention camps.


On Saturday, June 22, a group of Japanese Americans gathered in front of Bentley Gate, on the edge of Fort Sill, an army base outside Lawton, Oklahoma, to protest the Trump administration’s plan to use the base to incarcerate approximately 1,600 asylum-seeking migrant children from Central America. Among the Japanese Americans were several elders in their 70s and 80s, for whom the site possessed a harrowing correspondence to their own childhoods.

The first to speak was Satsuki Ina, a writer, filmmaker, therapist, and activist. “I am a former child incarceree,” she began. Seventy-seven years ago, “120,000 of us were removed from our homes and forcefully incarcerated in prison camps across the country.” Ina was born in one of the prison camps: Tule Lake, in California, which was one of the 10 main concentration camps, and served as a maximum-security prison for Japanese Americans classified as disloyal. Ina was born into the impossible status of being simultaneously a citizen and an enemy of the United States.

“We were in American concentration camps,” she continued. “We were held under indefinite detention. We were without due process of law. We were charged without any evidence of being a threat to national security, that we were an unassimilable race, that we would be a threat to the economy. We hear these exact words today regarding innocent people seeking asylum in this country.”

Her testimony was followed by that of other elders, each wearing a #StopRepeatingHistory T-shirt, and each stating the name of the camp in which they had been incarcerated. They were all, at the time, children, some of them infants. And though 77 years had passed, along with many cycles of traumatization and healing, the imminent resurrection of Fort Sill as a concentration camp for children exposed those years, and the history they held back, as a single, unrelieved wound.

Ina and the Japanese Americans were speaking not only on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of the 707 Japanese immigrants who were incarcerated at Fort Sill between 1941 and 1942. (“Interned” is the legal term for the imprisonment of noncitizens, but I prefer “incarcerated,” because Asian immigrants were ineligible, by law, to attain citizenship; “incarcerated,” therefore, emphasizes the impossibility of their situation.) That was far from the beginning of Fort Sill’s carceral history. It was established in 1869 to control the indigenous populations on the surrounding land. For 20 years, between 1894 and 1914, approximately 340 Chiricahua Apaches were incarcerated as prisoners of war at Fort Sill. Among them was the Apache leader Geronimo, who is buried there. Fort Sill was also the site of a Native American compulsory boarding school, which separated indigenous children from their families and communities, forcing them into a program of cultural erasure and reidentification. Opened in 1871, the school was not closed until 1980. Fort Sill also incarcerated migrant children during the Obama administration.

I enter history through its graveyard. I first heard of Fort Sill because of a man named Ichiro Shimoda. Shimoda—Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrant—was a 45-year-old gardener from Los Angeles who died in Fort Sill. His story, which exists in the historical record in contradictory fragments, is that he witnessed the murder of another Issei, Kanesaburo Oshima, a shopkeeper from Hawaii, who was shot and killed by the guards. According to one account, Shimoda suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, and was taken to the military hospital, where he died. None of the other prisoners were with him, and nothing else about the incident is known. Shimoda’s death, with Oshima’s murder, was folded efficiently into the oblivion on which the concentration camp system thrived. No guards stood trial or were otherwise held accountable.

I first heard of Shimoda because, prior to Fort Sill, he had been incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison in Missoula, Montana, with another Shimoda: my grandfather, Midori Shimoda. When I was young, I did not know my grandfather had once been classified as an enemy alien (#1128762) of the country I took for granted as my own. My grandfather was incarcerated in Fort Missoula under suspicion of being a spy for Japan. He was a photographer, and a Japanese immigrant, which made him congenitally guilty in the mind of the US government. Other members of my family had also been incarcerated: my great-aunt Joy in Poston, Arizona; my great-uncle Makeo, great-aunt Tsuruyo, and their daughters, Carole and Sally, in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. As a child, I was not aware of these foundational facts, nor about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in general. My family was silent on the subject. I was too young to understand their silence as the form of speaking they had chosen, or felt forced to choose—which cultivated in me a belief that the future not only meant more than the past but even required the obliteration of the past to be realized.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the culmination of a multigenerational fight to attain recognition and redress for those who had been incarcerated, allowed for reparations. Eighty-two thousand two hundred and nineteeen Japanese American citizens and legal residents each received $20,000 from the United States government as recompense for what they had lost. Or, because “loss” is, in this case, a euphemism for “theft,” they received restitution for a fraction of what had been stolen. My grandmother (Nisei, or second generation, who lived, during the war, in Utah, and therefore avoided incarceration) used my grandfather’s reparations to pay for one year’s rent at the nursing home where he spent the last years of his life. The check came with a boilerplate apology from President George H.W. Bush: “You and your family have our best wishes for the future,” it said. Five years later, my grandfather was dead.

The silence in which he passed suggested, to me, that the price of citizenship was forgetting, and that forgetting was annihilative. Yet his death released in me a torrent of questions about his struggle to become a citizen, and exposed the gravity of my citizenship as both the legacy and the purgatorial afterlife of his experience as an enemy alien. My grandfather struggled his entire life to establish for himself and his family a place in the American scenario, and achieved some version of that place, but at the expense of permitting himself an understanding of the American scenario as a myth predicated on the extinguishing of souls.

Today’s migrant concentration camps are incontestable proof of the myth, and of the extinguishing. The migrant children—many of whom crossed the US-Mexico border with family members, half of them with parents already in the United States, and yet who are classified as unaccompanied minors—are proof. What happens to migrant children in a place like Fort Sill? What happened there to the generations of indigenous children, to the Chiricahua Apaches, to the Japanese immigrants? What is happening in the concentration camps and prisons and jails and incarceration and detention sites that extend across the country?

Concentration camps are basic units of space the United States has devised for the populations it sees as unassimilable, incongruous with—and threatening to—its self-image. Concentration camps can be, and have been, invented, at will, from sites—military bases to empty box stores—retained for use in the event of a crisis, sometimes real, though more often manufactured. They are outposts of the border wall, therefore materializations of the white settler hatred and rage by which the border wall, and its innumerable chimeras, are motivated. And we are, right now, watching the United States resurrect, with frightening ease, its system of concentration camps, and all the crimes against humanity such a system entails. With this resurrection, the government is coordinating, in the digestible guise of bureaucratic chaos, the disintegration of communities, families, individuals, languages, cultures, physical and mental health, futures. Reliant upon the prevention-through-deterrence method of control, this approach to migration should be considered a form of ethnic cleansing by attrition.

Children are being taken from their families by the US government. They are being held in cages. They are being moved from these overcrowded cages to more indefinite, less visible—and apparently, for some, more acceptable—concentration camps. And they are being deprived of the basic dignities—clean water, warmth, safety, sleep, stimulation, health care, the assurance of being reunited with their parents, their families—that might, in their isolation, remind them that there is, beyond the care they are able to offer each other, a world, and that the world cares.

The Japanese American elders are among the centuries of oppressed peoples of this country who have absorbed and remember this truth. I wrote to Satsuki Ina to ask her how she felt being at Fort Sill. “I found my suffocated voice,” she wrote back. Though she was not incarcerated there, it was as though her childhood, having been arrested at Tule Lake, had been fractured and dispersed across the nation’s geography of incarceration, and that her voice, preceding her, was waiting. “Anger rose to the top of the sorrow.”

A month after the Japanese American elders gathered on the edge of Fort Sill, they returned. On July 20, a coalition of more than 400 protesters, including Buddhist priests, immigrant youth, and members of indigenous, Latinx, black, Jewish, and Asian American activist communities, gathered to protest. Four days later, on July 24, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe announced that the plan to use the base to incarcerate migrant children was being put on hold. Two days after that, the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that, due to a decrease in migrant children crossing the border, there was no longer “an immediate need to place children in influx facilities.” It is important to define these reversals, for the protesters in particular, as victories, which they are. But it is also important to consider that as much as they are victories, they are also occasions for the machinery of incarceration, under cover of false appeasement and bureaucracy, to retaliate, shape-shift, and keep running.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr., on scraps of paper and a newspaper smuggled to him in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. The intercoalitional protests at Fort Sill—along with Japanese American-led protests in the ruins of the Department of Justice prison in Crystal City, Texas; at the detention center in Dilley, Texas; in Japantown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, everywhere—are the expression of traumas and their echoes that are as much a source of solidarity as they are the coordinated product of American violence. The elements that made possible, and inevitable, the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens during WWII, are, as Satsuki Ina reminded us, still operational. They are still being deployed, in both flagrant and subliminal ways, across the spectrum of American existence.

As I think about my grandfather, and the ways he was forced into silence; as I think about the ways my grandfather’s silence haunts my understanding of what it means to be a citizen; as I think about the elders, and the ways their voices have, by the present conditions of their trauma and witness, been newly compelled; as I think about the descendants, like myself, who are uncovering, within the capacity of our inheritance, those facets of injustice which are, in this country, despairingly constitutional; and as I think about the migrants, the people, who are attempting, with tremendous hope, to fashion a future out of their desperation, I am led to believe that Japanese American incarceration, as one example, one blueprint, in an unremitting and interminable system, has not ended. It has entered a new phase.

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