A View from the West: Japanese Americans and the West as a Landscape of Confinement

The barbed fence protected us from wildly twisted sagebrush.

mitsuye Yamada, “Block 4 Barrack 4 ‘Apt’ C”

The critique of Turner’s Eurocentrism has led to correcting a tacit assumption that underlies many representations of the West, namely, that one arrives there from the east - arguably, North America was settled from west to east as well. The history of Asian immigration to America provides a view from the West on the West as East, so to speak, and thus the basis for a forceful rebuttal of the mythical West. Asian immigration to the US and to the ‘West’ was restricted by a series of exclusionary acts (e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917; the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924; and the Tydings- McDuffie Act of 1934) until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which marked the end of the National Origins quota system. Lisa Lowe and Mae Ngai, among others, have traced the way in which “Asian immigrants” have been defined in legal, racial, economic, and cultural terms in opposition and contradistinction to “American citizens” (Lowe, Immigrant Acts 4). The Asian American experience of the West is marked by “legal exclusions, political disenfranchisement, labor exploitation, and internment” (ibid. 9), which time and again affirmed Asian Americans’ status as ‘other’ and as ‘alien’ (cf. Ngai, Impossible Subjects). Against the backdrop of this history, the American West is, not surprisingly, often portrayed by Asian Americans as a space of restriction and confinement rather than of freedom.

I cannot provide a detailed history of Asians’ experience of the West here (for example as laborers in the mines and on the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century), but I would like to single out the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II as one of many examples that is at odds with and thoroughly challenges the hegemonic discourse of the West on the West. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese American population of about 120,000 - of whom about 80,000 were American citizens - came to be seen as a threat to national security by the US government, and was forcibly relocated from the Pacific coast to inland internment camps, or ‘War Relocation Centers’ (Gila River and Poston, Arizona; Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas; Manzanar and Tule Lake, California; Amache, Colorado; Minidoka,

Idaho; Topaz, Utah; and Heart Mountain, Wyoming). The ‘westering’ experience of Japanese immigrants (Issei) as well as second and third generation Japanese Americans (Nisei and Sansei) thus stood in stark contrast to the mythologized one that was propagated by Hollywood and American popular culture at large on an unprecedented scale in the 1940s (close to 100 Western movies were produced in 1942 alone). Yet, Japanese American internment was couched by the US government in terms of exploration, individualism, and mobility: “[T]he language of America’s frontier myth [...] frame[d] the relocation program. In their information material, government agencies referred to the Japanese Americans as ‘pioneers’ and to the camps as their ‘frontier’” (Streamas, “Frontier Mythology” 175). Alternatively, Japanese Americans were described as “colonists,” and the camps as “colonies” (ibid.). In a 1942 pamphlet titled The War Relocation Work Corps, a relocation center is defined as a “pioneer community with basic housing and protective services provided by the Federal Government, for occupancy by evacuees for the duration of the war” (qtd. in ibid.). In uncanny ways, this euphemistic rhetoric whitewashes the forced displacement and incarceration of the Japanese American population by “forcing concentration camps into the frontier myth” (ibid. 183).

It is perhaps somewhat surprising that texts by Japanese Americans about the internment experience also use the rhetoric of the frontier, albeit not without irony. In her autobiography Nisei Daughter (1953), Monica Sone relates that she was born in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, the very site of the city’s founding, from where she was relocated at age 22 with her family to Camp Harmony in Idaho. When permitted to leave the camp, Sone has to go east, as the internees were at first not allowed to return to the West Coast. The narrator inverts and appropriates slogans like ‘Westward, Ho’ and ‘Go West, Young Man’ in chapter titles such as “Eastward, Nisei” (216) and “Deeper into the Land” (226). Throughout her narrative, Sone appropriates American myths in order to describe her experiences, and thereby connects the internment of Japanese Americans to the racist and imperialist logic that underlies the ideology of manifest destiny (cf. Paul, Mapping 98); yet, the actual trauma of internment in her text remains an “articulate silence” (cf. Cheung’s book on Asian American and Asian Canadian women’s writing).

Whereas the desert is addressed in a variety of texts about internment (c.f. e.g. Yoshiko Uchida’s memoir Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family and Mitsuye Yamada’s poems and stories in Desert Run), there is also a strong focus on gardens and gardening in camp memoirs that documents a particular reaction to the arid landscape which has been read by Patricia Nelson Limerick as a form of resistance to internment, as the (traditional Japanese) gardens that the internees were cultivating in the camps under adverse circumstances added a new dimension to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal and to the garden myth of the American West (cf. Something 209) - gardening for the internees thus may have been more than a way to improve their bleak living conditions.

Illustration 4: The West as Prison

Anselm Adams, Manzanar Relocation Center from Tower (1943).

Not only in the context of internment have Japanese American writers addressed the West as a place of confinement. Hisaye Yamamoto’s short fiction (most famously “Seventeen Syllables”), or the plays by Wakako Yamauchi (cf. Songs) and Velina Hasu Houston for example often deal with the alienation, loneliness, and melancholia of Japanese American women in the post-World War II rural West. Houston’s play Tea for instance, which references Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916), focuses on Japanese women who live as “war brides” in Kansas in the 1950s and 1960s; these women’s “feeling of lingering exile is a far cry from the sense of boundless opportunity so often associated with immigration to the American West in our national mythology” (Berson, “Fighting” 266). The counter-image of the West as a traumatic and “grief-haunted place” (Proulx, “Dangerous Ground” 15) that is here articulated in subtle, culturally specific ways is also addressed in many other revisionist and more recent fictional and non-fictional texts and images which comprise what has been identified as “frontier gothic” (cf. Mogen, Sanders and Karpinski’s book of the same title).

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