CLARA BREED BEGAN SERVING as a librarian in San Diego in 1929. The region housed many Japanese American children, many of whom frequented the library and befriended Breed.
Two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to move anyone to anywhere at anytime without a trial. By March 1942, any Japanese American in California, Oregon or Washington was to be relocated to Spartan, dusty camps in Wyoming, Idaho, Arkansas and other remote, inland places. They were fenced in and guarded by armed military. Around 120,000 Japanese Americans were shipped to these internment camps, including dozens of young friends of Breed.
Breed, who was 35 when the war started, gave stamped envelopes, paper and journals to her young friends before they were relocated. She then corresponded with numerous internees during their years of captivity.
In 1993, the year before Breed passed away, she donated her collection of 300 letters, journals and cards to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. In recent years, the museum has scanned many of the documents – most of which are several pages long. There are currently 243 records available for online viewing.
The result is a haphazard but intimate insight into life behind barbed wires, state-sanctioned xenophobia and blatant racism.
Louise Ogawa, then 18, wrote to Breed shortly after arriving in Poston, Arizona from a temporary holding facility in California:
“A friend who returned from Colorado related the following incident to me. He said, while in town a few boys entered a restaurant to have a bite to eat. The first thing the waitress asked was ‘Are you Japs?’ When they replied, ‘Yes,’ she turned her back on them and said they don't serve Japs.”
The same young men, who were sent to Colorado on a work detail, were harassed by police officers as well, according to Ogawa’s letter.
Letters are presented as scanned images. They are also transcribed for easier reading. However, several of the transcriptions contain typos.
It’s difficult to locate material – the search function actually serves 13 of the museum’s archived databases. There are few keywords to assist the average visitor. On the home page, there are individual documents but the order is completely random despite two viewing options – one by date and another by object number. Once a document is clicked, there are subject tags for each post on that page. Those will help find similar documents but nothing else.
There is a link to the bio of the letter writers. But the bios only provide birth dates and the camps the writer inhabited. There is no further information about them – how long they lived in the camp, whether they enrolled in the American military, where they went once the camps were evacuated, etc.
The visitor must stumble across material. But often, what is found is stunning. For instance, Yukio Tsumagari, who had been studying at Berkeley before the war broke out, wrote that American military investigators searched the internees’ barracks at random, without asking permission.
“Huge mob of infuriated people gathered to ask for the reason of such doings,” she wrote to Breed’s sister, Eleanor. “Frightened by the large crowd and excited by pointed questions directed to him, the investigator drew his gun and threatened to shoot anyone who might molest him.”
For the most part, the museum allows the letters to speak for themselves. There is little interpretive information accompanying the documents. The museum occasionally labels the internment camps as “concentration camps,” a term that is rather controversial. Anyone who seeks out this material, however, is likely to sympathize with the language.
It would be amazing to see the museum link their image, oral history and video collections to the letters, creating a multimedia experience.
(Photo at the Manzanar War Relocation Center by Jack Iwata via the Japanese American National Museum)
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