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State of Erasure: Arizona’s Place, and the Place of Arizona, in the Mass Incarceration of Japanese Americans

Delivered on Inauguration Day 2017

The following is a talk given on Friday, January 20, 2017—Inauguration Day—at the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum, in Tucson, Arizona.

I want to start with a few acknowledgments.

In fact, I was thinking about spending the next twenty minutes just:


I want to acknowledge, first, that this is my first public presentation, of any kind, in 40 months. I gave a poetry reading in Toronto on September 11, 2013, after which I sank into a mood. The mood lasted 40 months. Today seems like an auspicious day to break that mood, and that silence. When Robert Snyderman, who is a Program Specialist here, invited me to speak, I told him that I was planning on spending today in silence. I was thinking about sitting somewhere in the desert and rolling my eyes all the way back in my skull. Today is Inauguration Day. One way to make sense of Inauguration Day is to acknowledge the word within the word: augur, to foretell events by interpreting omens. Some say augur comes from the Latin for bird, and that the definition comes from the foretelling of events by interpreting the entrails of dead birds, more specifically, the entrails of birds that have been killed by sacrifice. Inauguration Day, therefore, is a day to see, through all the entrails harvested by sacrifice, what is to come, all the entrails re/constituting what has been, much of which has not yet been digested.

I want to acknowledge that we are gathered on indigenous land on which the O’odham people have lived for thousands of years, and on which the Tohono O’odham tribe is still living.

I want to acknowledge that we are gathered above a poem. Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian Jewish poet, was executed in central Hungary in 1944, his body thrown into a mass grave. The poem layered in the floor on which we stand was discovered after Miklós’s body was exhumed. He wrote the poem in a notebook that was found in the front pocket of his coat. I want to acknowledge the devotion of the poet’s front pocket.

I want to acknowledge that we are gathered beneath the photographs of the ancestors of people in Tucson—Jewish ancestors, murdered in the Holocaust.

So, the ancestors are looking down.

The poet, and/or his poem, is looking up.

We are in between.

My name is Brandon Shimoda. I am a poet. I am also the grandson of a Japanese immigrant who was incarcerated in a U.S. concentration camp during WWII. My grandfather, Midori Shimoda, was born on an island off the coast of Hiroshima and immigrated to the United States when he was eight. That was 1919. During the war, under interrogation by the FBI, my grandfather, who was not yet an American citizen, forswore his allegiance to Japan. He did not have a choice. If he had not forsworn his allegiance, he would have been deported. And so he became: stateless. He did not become a citizen until after the Immigration & Nationality Act of 1952, which made Asians eligible, for the first time, following centuries of immigration, for citizenship. He was one of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American victims (targets) of what Congress ultimately acknowledged was:


To which I would add: ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION.

Failure is, in this instance, an interpretation. Political leadership does not fail. At least: not itself. Political leadership performs exactly the function for which it is designed. In other words, and as we strangle ourselves with entrails:


A friend recently asked me how the next four years might affect my creative work. In the process of reaching for a definition of the next four years, I thought of the triad of:



It occurred to me that these were apt definitions of the next four years, because they are, and have always been, the definitions of the United States.

My grandfather was an alien of the United States.

Then he became an enemy alien of the United States.

His alien registration number was: 1128762.

He was incarcerated in Salt Lake City under suspicion of blowing up a uranium mill in southern Utah. He was incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison at Fort Missoula, Montana, under suspicion of being a spy for Japan. Both suspicions were formed, in part, by the anxiety that was produced by even the specter of a Japanese man in the minds of his white accusers.

His brother, my great-uncle Makeo, was incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. His sister-in-law, my great-aunt Joy was incarcerated in Poston, in western Arizona. She was four when the United States deemed her an enemy of the state and considered it a military necessity to remove her, with her family, from her home in California, and incarcerate her in the middle of the desert.

On behalf of my great-aunt Joy, my great-uncle Makeo, and my grandfather Midori, I want to share with you some things I have been learning about Arizona’s place, and the place of Arizona, in the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans.

Here is a brief prehistory of Japanese internment: it did not begin with Pearl Harbor. The demonization of the Japanese in America is as old as the first Japanese immigrants in the mid-19th century, as old, even, as the first Asian immigrants, in the mid-18th century. The demonization was formalized by FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which converted the entire west coast into an exclusion zone, from which all people of Japanese ancestry were removed. End of prehistory.

Often forgotten is that the exclusion zone also included southern Arizona.

Arizona had (at least) seven internment sites: in Florence, which was Arizona’s largest POW camp, and the future home of Arizona’s first state prison; in Dragoon (east of Benson), at the Triangle T Dude Ranch, which incarcerated 23 staff members of the Japanese consulate in Honolulu; in Mayer (outside Prescott), which was where all of the Japanese in southern Arizona were first incarcerated, before being sent to their individual camps; in Tucson (in the Catalina Mountains); in Leupp (outside Flagstaff), which incarcerated 80 men considered, in the official language, incorrigible; on the Gila River Indian Reservation; and in Poston, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation.

The geography of internment was more widespread than the 10 most frequently mentioned concentration camps suggest. I want to share what I have been learning about three of these sites: Poston, Gila River, and Tucson.

Imagine a state in which two of the four largest cities are concentration camps.

That was Arizona in the 1940s: Phoenix, Tucson, Poston, Gila River.

Poston and Gila River are ruins.

Though all the concentration camps were on indigenous land, Arizona’s were the only camps that occupied active Native American reservations. So it is in Arizona that a particular relationship unfolded: the relationship between the treatment of Japanese Americans and the treatment of Native Americans.

Here’s a crazy story:

There was a man named Thomas Campbell. Thomas Campbell was an agricultural engineer. He was also the Special Investigator of Native American lands for the Department of the Interior. He was, in other words, a land expert. He was obsessed with the enormous number of what he considered worthless parcels of real estate, that were, in the 1930s and 40s, spread throughout the United States, many of the worthless parcels being, in Thomas Campbell’s estimation, on Native American lands. He was also obsessed with the enormous number of projects to reclaim and rehabilitate those worthless parcels of real estate that either were under-funded or had been abandoned.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Thomas Campbell came up with a plan: what if the Japanese in the United States—American citizens, Japanese nationals, whomever, it did not matter to Thomas Campbell—were rounded up and detained in Army-style camps situated on exactly those worthless parcels of real estate, so that they could be used as free and captive labor for all those abandoned projects? Thomas Campbell noted the enormous number of irrigation projects and food production projects and soil conservation projects and road building projects that could benefit from just such free and captive labor.

The Japanese had established themselves as the most industrious and productive agricultural workers in the nation, a fact which should have inspired white farmers and landowners, but instead had the opposite effect: it enraged them. White farmers and landowners, adhering to the congenital tradition of xenophobia, wanted the Japanese eliminated. Yellow Peril xenophobia, which had been institutionalized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was, and in many ways still is, an inherent qualification of American thinking. White farmers and landowners were among the most fervent advocates for internment; they petitioned legislators to devise policies to progressively erode the rights of the Japanese to the point at which mass incarceration was not only possible, but impending. Thomas Campbell’s plan, meanwhile, accommodated both white anxiety and rage and Japanese industriousness and productivity. He shared his plan with the President. The pretext was ready-made. It was now up to the government to conjure a justification. And thus began the procedure known as Japanese American internment.

And with that, Thomas Campbell slipped out the back door of history.

It is always terrifying how figures like Thomas Campbell have no quantifiable body yet take up all the space. How easily Thomas Campbell interposed himself on an entire population then disappeared.

Poston, Arizona, was one of the beneficiaries of Thomas Campbell’s plan. The government, operating through the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which oversaw internment, collaborated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), to take over a section of the reservation, against the objections of the Tribal Council, the Chemehuevi, the Mohave, the Hopi, and the Navajo; the Tribal Council objected not only because it was their land, but because they refused to take part in the unjust treatment of the Japanese Americans.

Gila River occupied a section of the Gila River Indian Reservation, also against the objections of the Tribal Council, the Maricopa, and the Akimel O’odham.

The Leupp Isolation Center occupied Navajo Nation. The Japanese were incarcerated in a Navajo boarding school. Their treatment was, in the words of one of the officials, premised on Gestapo methods.

Another Thomas Campbell-esque figure was Dillon Myer. Dillon Myer was the director of the War Relocation Authority. He was known to routinely conflate Japanese and Indigenous bodies. It was not the Japanese and the Indigenous who were interchangeable, however; it was the War Relocation Authority and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The WRA was staffed primarily with agents from the BIA. And, after the war, Dillon Myer became the director of the BIA, where he coordinated the policy of forced relocation and assimilation of Native Americans that was referred to as:


It is not a stretch to assume that what Myer gained from his experience overseeing Japanese internment he directly applied to the coordinated erosion of Native American society.

He referred to the camps as indoctrination centers for Americanism. He says as much in the statement included in the exhibition in which we are gathered, Eight Elements of Genocide, in which he equates Americanism with patriotism, patriotism with support of the war.

Indoctrination centers, yes. I think of them also as conversion or assimilation camps. They were categorized officially as relocation centers. A government memo described the camps as pioneer communities. Internment is a euphemism designed to neutralize the reality of mass incarceration, as internment implies justification and consent. Dillon Myer preferred internment camp; he adamantly opposed the use of concentration camps. FDR himself called them concentration camps. As did the Japanese Americans.

Poston was the largest of all the concentration camps, and the first to open. It held 20,000 prisoners. It was proposed to the Tribal Council as an opportunity for their reservation to be developed. The Japanese established farmlands, made adobe, built an irrigation system that drew water from the Colorado, and built 54 schools for the Hopi and Navajo.

The Japanese also produced camouflage netting for the war, which many prisoners were against; whether or not, or how much, or in what ways, to support the war, was a source of divisiveness—between the issei and nisei, among family members and friends.

My great-aunt Joy does not remember the divisiveness or the camouflage or the irrigation system or the Native Americans. She was four when she entered Poston. She was eight when she got out.

She does not remember very much from before internment. Her memories were just beginning; there was not yet the understanding of freedom against which she could place her memories of being a prisoner.

She remembers dust. She remembers cold winters. She remembers eating bologna for dinner. At first there were no forks or spoons, only knives. She remembers playing with marbles and string.

Even though the guards in the guard towers were very close, they had distant, nondescript faces, less expressive than the guns they were holding, which were not aimed out, but in.

Joy’s father was a cook in the mess hall. Her mother worked in the elementary school. 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945. It was not as difficult for her, she said, as it was for her parents. But it was even more difficult after internment, when her family was released, and returned home to Los Angeles. The postwar atmosphere was even less kind. The veil of security separating the Japanese Americans from the multifarious expressions of white anxiety and rage had been lifted. They were welcomed home by anti-Japanese signs. Japanese houses were shot at. My great-aunt Joy was vilified by her classmates. Her mother was a maid for a white family in Beverly Hills. Joy remembers being fed the white family’s scraps. She remembers especially the fat from the white family’s meat.

The Gila River camp held 16,000 prisoners on 17,000 acres of the Gila River Indian reservation. Gila River was originally named the Rivers camp, after Jim Rivers, the first Akimel O’odham killed in WWI. That is a special kind of distinction: having your death, in the name of an already illusory freedom, memorialized in the imprisonment of citizens of the country you are defending.

The Japanese were forced, in many cases, in many of the camps, to provide the basic services for their own imprisonment. For example, at the time of their arrival, many of the camps had not yet been completed, so the Japanese were put to work constructing their own prisons. In the early days of Gila River, many prisoners slept in latrines.

The Gila River prisoners produced four million pounds of vegetables, which fed eight of the 10 main camps, including Poston.

The Japanese were not in friendly territory. Before the war, Arizona farmers had petitioned to eliminate Japanese farmers from the state. Arizonans, especially those surrounding the reservations, were already overflowing with bitterness and resentment.

Here’s another crazy story:

1943 was a big year for cotton. There was also a statewide labor shortage. Despite their animosity towards the Japanese, Arizona farmers now appealed to the WRA to release the Japanese from camp so that they could pick cotton. The WRA agreed to redraw the boundaries of the exclusion zone so that the Japanese could help bail out the cotton farms. 100 prisoners volunteered. The white Arizona farmers were not satisfied. They wanted more than 100 prisoners.

Arizona newspapers, at the urging of white farmers, began reporting that the Japanese were being coddled in the concentration camps.

Arizonans were enraged for other reasons: they were enraged that the camps were utilizing teachers from Arizona schools. They were enraged when the Japanese received milk before they did.

In April of that year Eleanor Roosevelt visited Gila River. She took a sip of milk in the mess hall and pronounced it sour. She, the First Lady of the United States, said of the Japanese Americans at Gila River,

I would try very hard not to have too many in the same place because I think that has been one of the mistakes of the past.

The Japanese that volunteered to pick cotton were not allowed to do business in town. Even after the war, if a free Japanese American wanted to stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant or buy a loaf of bread, he or she would first need to apply for permission through the Secretary of State. To the delight of white Arizonans, fresh milk flowed freely, and teachers were returned to their classrooms. Meanwhile, Japanese American children were banned from all state-subsidized schools.

Just past mile marker seven on the road up to Mount Lemmon are the ruins of the Tucson Federal Prison Camp. It has been renamed to erase its meaning. It is now called the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, but I prefer its other name, the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

It was a prison labor camp. It was built in a collaboration between the Bureau of Prisons, the Bureau of Public Roads, and the Arizona Highway Commission, so there is no confusion about its purpose. Its prisoners were war protesters, conscientious objectors, including: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hopi Indians from Northern Arizona, Mennonites, and 46 Japanese Americans, most of whom had been removed from other camps where they had been detained with their families, and transported, in iron shackles, by train, to Tucson.

Its namesake, Gordon Hirabayashi, was the first Japanese American to arrive. He was one of the three men who originally challenged FDR’s Executive Order. Gordon Hirabayashi was born and raised in Seattle, and was a student at the University of Washington when he refused to observe the curfew mandated by the Executive Order. He was arrested. He challenged his arrest, all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost. And was sent to prison.

Here’s another crazy story:

Gordon Hirabayashi convinced the authorities to let him hitchhike, alone, from Seattle to his imprisonment in Tucson.

I want to make some kind of documentary—book or film—about Gordon Hirabayashi hitchhiking to prison. I would call it: The Passion According to G.H.

The prison camp repackaged Thomas Campbell’s logic of free and captive labor as the more sanitized prison reform, in which prisoners would be given the opportunity to acquire work skills. The prisoners built the road to the top of Mount Lemmon. If you make the drive today, you will find at the top a café that sells ludicrously oversized chocolate chip cookies.

Being in the mountains, the prison camp was, even for the internment sites, in an exceptional location. The illusive qualities of the desert, achieved, in the mountains, above the cactus line, a natural prison; there were no fences, there was no barbed wire. The prison camp was representative of the desert as a deceptive space, the deception being that of openness, of a permissible frontier, the locus, that is, of freedom, but a freedom and openness that disguise a limit, however organic, by which a body becomes captive.

The first time I visited the prison camp, I noticed, first, the silence, then the lack of perceivable space. The sky was blue. Not the blue of atmosphere, but the blue of a changeless color, with nothing on the other side. The sky was a precipice. I felt like I was going to choke.

Maybe instead of the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, it should be called the Gordon Hirabayashi De-creation Site.

There were no fences or barbed wire because the prison camp was perfectly inescapable.

That was one of the horrors of the concentration camps:

There was no freedom beyond the fence.

Here is one last crazy story. Actually, this one is not crazy at all:

There was a man named Ichiro Shimoda, to whom I am not related, but in sympathy. He was a gardener from Los Angeles, 45, had a wife and kids, was arrested by the FBI the morning after Pearl Harbor, taken by train to Missoula, Montana; he tried to bite his tongue off and spit it out the window of the train. He was incarcerated with another Shimoda, my grandfather, before being relocated to a Department of Justice prison in Oklahoma, where he tried to escape. He climbed one fence, then tried to climb another, but was shot, two times in the back. The guard must have thought Shimoda was better off dead than free. Free, that is, on the other side of the fence. Free, that is, in the United States, a country that had already determined that Shimoda, and the thousands with whom he was imprisoned, was better off dead than free.

Death takes many forms. At least an entire generation of Japanese Americans were stripped of their civil liberties, their rights as citizens, their agency, their ability to defend themselves, and, in addition to their relationship to Japanese language and culture, to their ancestral land, their voices. They were exiled in remote America, where they were erased, in an effort, by their own country, to be rewritten.

I am telling this story not to suggest but to demand that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was not a military necessity, nor a military expedient, but a project, first, of wartime exploitation, mobilized through the fomenting and manipulation of white anxiety and rage, and second, of an effort to make legible, to the white imagination, a group of immigrant Americans and their citizen children and grandchildren. Japanese American citizenship, as that of all citizens of color and their descendants, has always been provisional and probationary, because it has always been contingent upon the comprehension and magnanimity of the dominant culture, that is: their willingness to comprehend and to have a soul.

These are basic forms of humanity.

One defense of internment was that it kept the Japanese safe during the war. There is an element of truth in this otherwise dubious defense, but only because it exposes a much darker truth. If the treatment of the Japanese Americans outside the camps was more hostile, more reactionary, more openly threatening than their treatment inside the camps, then where exactly was internment located? Internment was a facet of an even more pervasive and more barbarous national disposition. Which is why I locate the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in the heart—conceived and constructed, in the end, by the human heart, which is superlatively, endlessly capable of manifesting, out of inexpressible, often corrosive feeling, the longest, most convoluted, yet most comprehensive path to the grave.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the Holocaust History Center, and the work that it does: spaces like this are, like shrines, testimonial spaces, that both cultivate silence, and speak, in miraculously straightforward voices, not only the history of the unspeakable, but the history of civilization, and in doing so, sacrifice themselves before the ritual of public and national amnesia.

Which brings us back to the entrails.

A sign in the entryway here says: This exhibit works against erasure.

And it is, and it has to be: work.

Special thanks to Joy Endow, for sharing her memories with me.