May 28, 2012

Embracing and Subverting Civil Religion in the American West: Japanese Americans during World War II

Part Two

By Anne Blankenship

Memorial Day offers a chance for me to conclude my reflections on the use of American mythology and civil religion by incarcerated Japanese and Japanese Americans in the 1940s. My entry today examines how incarcerees placed themselves within the narrative of pioneers taming the Western frontier. Identifying themselves as pioneers and pilgrims affirmed their role within American history, but Japanese methods of conquering land differed aesthetically from those of Euro-American pioneers. The construction of ornamental gardens and the use of alternative farming methods visually diversified the Western landscape and expanded the cultural and racial definitions of the Old West.

Steeped in the American mythology taught in public schools, the second generation of Japanese Americans readily identified parallels between their experiences and those of Euro-American pioneers and pilgrims. Named by incarcerees or white staff, several camp newspaper titles—the Granada Pioneer, the Rohwer Outpost and the Minidoka Irrigator—expressed this iconography. The inaugural edition of the Irrigator invoked the pioneer struggles of the Old West:
We can have but one resolve; to apply our combined energies and efforts to the grim task of conquering the elements and converting a wasteland into an inhabitable community…. Our goal is the creation of an oasis. Our great adventure is a ‘repetition of the frontier struggle of pioneers against the land and the elements.’ Our future will be what we make it, and there is no reason to despair.
A subsequent article promised that their pioneering experience would become legendary, emphasizing incarcerees’ responsibility to create an exemplary society. Japanese Americans would increase agricultural yields and erect democratic civilizations where there had been none before.

Camp staff and incarcerees both employed American narratives to motivate communities within the camps and raise morale. However, imprisonment and alienation ironically facilitated a claim to American land and an identity otherwise denied to them. Some incarcerees must have scorned this rhetoric, but such dissent has largely disappeared from the historical record. Japanese Christians extended these metaphors further. Hoping to do more than just conquer the wilderness, the Methodist minister Taro Gato urged incarcerees to make camp “a bit of [God]’s Kingdom on Earth” (Topaz Times, 17 Sept 1942). Poems invoked the ethnic community’s role in Christian America’s manifest destiny to occupy “the last frontiers” of the country. Japanese farmers concluded that their new environment was a “new agricultural frontier—one of the last land frontiers in the US” (El Joaquin, 28 Sept 1942). Developing land largely rejected by early settlers allowed Japanese Americans to close the final vestiges of the frontier and complete this chapter of America’s history.

The drawings, poems and essays of Japanese American children demonstrate a clear notion of being accomplished pioneers. Placing their lives within a pioneer narrative elevated their collective roles and responsibilities to those of American heroes. Two drawings by elementary students at Poston, a camp within the borders of an Arizona Indian reservation, portray the physical changes to the landscape. “Poston Before We Came” depicts a desert landscape void of people, cultivated fields and livestock.

"Poston Before We Came," Junior Red Cross Albums
Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, UC Berkeley

In contrast, an illustration to the essay “Poston Early Pioneers” shows workers clearing the land and building barracks. The young artist explained how their parents “worked hard to cooperate” and that the “boy and girl citizens” help “at home, in school and in [the] community . . . to make Poston a better place in which to live.” This rhetoric echoes can-do sentiments prominent during World War II, but the student then returned to their unique struggle: “Our pioneers have been here a year. We are proud of our progress on the desert.” Repeating notable agricultural achievements on the coast, their parents literally made the desert bloom during their incarceration.

"Clearing Up the Poston Desert," Junior Red Cross Albums
Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, UC Berkeley

But for many Japanese, conquering a new frontier through agricultural production and civic infrastructure was incomplete. The land had to be beautified as well. Japanese made their mark on the western landscape through the construction of ornamental Japanese gardens in and out of the camps. Japanese immigrants maintained a limited number of gardens on the Pacific Coast prior to the war (see Golden Gate Park’s Japanese tea garden), but greatly expanded their geographic range when forced into camps as far east as Arkansas. Creating, maintaining and enjoying camp gardens utilized creative expressions and provided mental therapy for the thousands of confined individuals. The gardens asserted Japanese cultural heritage and improved incarcerees’ living conditions.

Block 26 Garden and Pond, Minidoka Relocation Center
Bain Family Collection at
Highlighting their prominence in camps, gardens play a central role in the memorialization of the camps today Surveys conducted by the National Park Service identified gardens as one of the “most evocative, symbolic and identifiable features associated with the [camps’] story.” Such memorials demonstrate and commemorate the ways in which incarcerated Japanese Americans staked claims in and ultimately expanded the American West. Moving beyond the confines of the Pacific Coast—even through forced eviction—led to greater claims to America and exemplified the growing prominence of eastward migration within and beyond the West. Japanese Americans physically changed the landscape and, in doing so, changed the West.

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