By RAY LOCKER
For most of her childhood, Shirley Ann Higuchi knew very little about the Japanese American incarceration, even though her parents met as children in the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Her mother, Setsuko Saito Higuchi, said very little about the experience, glossing over the details other than to imply it was her experience to describe, not her daughter’s.
“I think I had a very isolated and narrow view of the Japanese American incarceration, because there wasn’t a lot of information given to me on that topic,” Higuchi said. “My parents never said much about that experience… [My mother] made it seem like camp wasn’t that bad and kind of a fun place to be.”
Higuchi now has told the history of both her family and the incarceration in her new book, “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration.” The book, to be released Sept. 15 by the University of Wisconsin Press, is a memoir and a history of the Japanese American experience from the arrival of the first wave of Japanese immigrants through the incarceration to the present. The book is available for pre-order now at Amazon.com.
The book is rooted in Higuchi’s discovery in 2005, at her mother’s deathbed, that Setsuko wanted her koden, the traditional Japanese condolence gift, donated to the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. She had anonymously donated a substantial sum of money to the foundation’s effort to build a museum on the site where almost 14,000 people spent the war years living behind barbed wire.
Shortly after her mother’s death, Higuchi was invited by Heart Mountain officials to join them at a dedication of a walking tour at the camp site in her mother’s name. They then invited her to join the foundation board, and she became the board chair three years later.
The Sansei Effect
Through the last dozen years leading the foundation, Higuchi learned that her experience resembled that of other Sansei. Their Nisei parents often kept the details of the Japanese American incarceration from them, leaving the children to navigate the consequences of that ordeal on their own.
Higuchi calls this the Sansei Effect, the sense among third-generation Japanese Americans that they will never live up to the expectations and experiences of their parents while often understanding little about what these parents withstood.
She and other Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Heart Mountain detail their experiences growing up with parents who rarely talked about their time behind barbed wire.
“We did not know what the incarceration had done to my parents’ generation and how it created the various rules, spoken and unspoken,” Higuchi writes in “Setsuko’s Secret.”
For Higuchi, the Sansei who struggled the most was her older brother Ken, an engineer who worked for a defense contractor. He died in a 1986 car accident.
For Darrell Kunitomi, a Heart Mountain board member from Los Angeles, it was the feeling that he could never live up to the legacy of his uncle Ted Fujioka, a Heart Mountain incarceree who enlisted in the Army and died fighting in France in 1944 with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“Many Sansei feel lost, in part because they do not understand the events that shaped their parents and grandparents and that directed their behavior,” she writes. “They do not know why their parents were obsessed with propriety, worked all of the time, or carried an unspoken shame.”
Finding a better understanding of the multigenerational mental health trauma experienced by many Japanese Americans has led Higuchi to become more active in the series of healing circles led by Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychologist who was born while her parents were incarcerated in the Tule Lake, Calif., camp.
A Richer History
Higuchi also discovered more details about the lives of many of the people with whom she works at Heart Mountain, including Takashi Hoshizaki, one of the 85 men from Heart Mountain who resisted the military draft in 1944 and were sent to federal prison.
The story of the draft resisters was long obscured by community leaders who emphasized the valor of the Nisei soldiers who served in Europe and Asia with the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.
Hoshizaki, who is now a Heart Mountain board member, was 18 when he resisted the draft. After his release from prison in 1946, he earned a Ph.D. in botany and spent decades working on research for the space program.
“His career after the war included service in the Army and conducting research as a botanist in Antarctica,” Higuchi said. “I realized he was more than just someone who promoted civil rights and stood up for his own rights at Heart Mountain.”
She also learned more about the relationship of former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson and his family with Heart Mountain. Simpson’s father, Milward, was a World War I veteran who led the Cody, Wyo., American Legion post. Not long after the Heart Mountain camp opened, Milward Simpson visited Heart Mountain to welcome the legionnaires among the new incarcerees.
One was Clarence Uno, the father of Raymond Uno, who would later become the national Japanese American Citizens League president and the first minority judge in Utah.
“Milward Simpson also encouraged his sons Pete and Al to visit the Japanese American incarcerees at Heart Mountain, which led to the meeting of Al and Norman Mineta, which is well known and discussed in my book,” Higuchi said.
Alan Simpson met Mineta, who would later become a U.S. representative from California and a two-time Cabinet member, during a Boy Scout jamboree at Heart Mountain. Their 77-year friendship is one of the most cherished parts of Heart Mountain history.
Relevance for Today
Higuchi said the book is relevant to today’s political climate in which the current administration is promoting border and immigration policies similar to those that plagued Japanese Americans before, during and after World War II.
She recounted the story of what happened in the days following the 9/11 attacks, when Mineta was the secretary of transportation for Republican President George W. Bush.
“I think the book is a reminder of what the government, politicians and the media should not do during a wartime crisis or other dramatic moments that can occur in our nation’s history, like Sept. 11,” Higuchi said. “When President George W. Bush stood up with then-Secretary Norman Mineta and said, ‘We do not want to do to Muslim Americans what we did to Norm in 1942.’ That shows that at the greatest levels of our nation’s leadership, we can get support for other groups in times of crisis.”
Higuchi has used her research for “Setsuko’s Secret” as material for a series of columns she has written for a series of media outlets that includes The Seattle Times and The Salt Lake Tribune. She has seen multiple parallels between the incarceration and current policies involving private prisons and immigrant detention centers, family separations and the Muslim ban.
A Final Discovery
It wasn’t until the end of the writing of the book that Higuchi realized more hidden elements of her family’s history.
Last November, she traveled to Japan as part of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Up Close program to speak to students and government officials about the incarceration. Part of the program involved going to Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyushu to visit family members from where her father’s family had emigrated to the U.S.
There she met her father’s cousin Sumiko Aikawa, who recounted the time in 1957 when Higuchi’s grandmother Chiye Higuchi spent a night with Aikawa, her niece, and told her about the suffering the family endured during the incarceration. Until then, Higuchi said she never knew how her grandmother viewed the incarceration.
“I had spent my entire life believing that grandmother Chiye was a rock, someone composed who had few needs,” Higuchi writes. “She never expressed much emotion other than the love I felt emanating from her during my childhood. Like all of my relatives, I thought the incarceration experience for her, as well as for the rest of Japanese Americans, was just a blip on the screen. I never realized the extent of my grandmother’s anguish during the war and the years afterward.”
Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C. attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD The book’s Facebook page is at: https://www.facebook.com/SetsukosSecret/