by Grace “Megumi” Fleming

Story Summary

Jack was just 16 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He could not stop World War II or the U.S. Army forcing his family and 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans into concentration camps. Can Jack’s humor and sketches help him “make the best of it”?

Discussion Questions

  1. What happened to Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans during World War II that affected or abridged constitutional principles? Can a similar event happen today?
  2. Who were in positions of power to affect the forced removal of Japanese Americans? Who has the power to remove Americans of particular ethnic groups now?
  3. What ideas, attitudes and feelings did those in power have about persons of Japanese ancestry? Is there racism among people of power in the United States now?
  4. What economic, political or social developments in U.S. history precipitated mass stereotyping of Japanese Americans during World War II? Is there similar stereotyping today?
  5. How might art and artistic expression have relieved tension and provided outlets for creativity for incarcerated Japanese Americans? How does art educate the generations born after the incarceration?
  6. Although the term "internment" is often used in literature, technically, "internment" refers to the detention of enemy aliens during time of war. Since 2/3 of the population imprisoned in the U.S. camps were American, many feel "concentration" camps is more accurate. “Concentration” camp is the term many use to describe the imprisonment, torture and death of Jews and others by the Nazis during WWII. Others say the more appropriate term is “death camps.” What difference does it make what terms are used? Why would people want the most accurate descriptions of these camps?

Resources

  • Books: Poston Camp II, Block 211 by Jack Matsuoka. Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc. aacp@asianamericanbooks.com Pearl Harbor: Opposing Viewpoints by Deborah Bachrach Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans by Maisie Conrat and Richard Conrat Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress by Roger Daniel's, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, editors Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps by Deborah Gensensway and Mindy Roseman Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Houston Lone Heart Mountain by Estelle Ishigo Drawing the Line: Poems by Lawson Fusao Inada Obasan by Joy Kogawa, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, Dom Lee (illustrator) No No Boy by John Okada Citizen 13600 by Mine Okubo I am an American by Jerry Stanley Go For Broke by Chester Tanaka And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps by John Tateishi Journey to Topaz by Mitsuye Yamada Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps by Michi Weglyn Reminiscing in Swingtime, Japanese Americans In American Popular Music 1925-1960 by George Yoshida
  • Places Worth Visiting: Japanese American National Library - San Francisco, California Japanese American National Museum - Los Angeles, California Japanese American Museum of San Jose - San Jose, California Manzanar National Historical Site - the site of Manzanar War Relocation Center, with a visitor center - near Independence, California National Japanese American Historical Society - San Francisco, California Topaz Museum - a museum near the site of Topaz War Relocation Center - near Delta, Utah Tule Lake National Monument - a museum near the site of Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Butte County Fairgrounds in Tulelake, California War Relocation Authority Photographs 1942-1945
  • For discussions about political terminology and euphemisms addressing detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, please refer to: Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and Densho Project.

Themes

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript
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Hi, I’m Grace Megumi Fleming.

About 10 years ago, I got to meet Jack Matsuoka, a humorist and a sketch artist who authored a book called, Poston Camp to Block 211.  It’s because of him that I finally understood what the term “laughing in the face of adversity” meant.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941, Jack had just turned 16. He was powerless to stop World War II. He was powerless to stop the U.S. Army from removing 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps. So what did he do? He sketched.

When the FBI came for his father. Jack freaked out. He couldn’t do anything about it. But when he drew a sketch, he sketched the two agents as shady characters. One in a trench coat and one in a Nazi officer’s uniform. There was nothing funny about this. It was the beginning of a very hard time. But by drawing the two agents that way, he could continue to look back on the sketches and remember that terrifying, terrible day.

Hundreds of families faced the same thing: fathers and mothers being taken away because they were maybe spies? Maybe saboteurs? Dangerous people like ministers and priests and teachers of the Japanese language. Those people they could look at the funny sketches and laugh and chuckle and jab at the authorities.

The day Japanese Americans had to leave their homes carrying only what they could carry was a terrible day and a lot of Japanese Americans remember that with horrid detail. Jack drew himself in a train to Arizona, slumped in a chair, sweltering in the heat, but dreaming and fantasizing of popsicles and soda pops and hamburgers. And the guy sitting across from him, he was fantasizing about an ice cold mug of beer. So much better to be fantasizing and dreaming about popsicles and beer than remembering what they had lost – communities, life savings, pets. Yeah, people chuckle at that and they remember.

On the way from the train stop to the camp, the U.S. Army transported people in trucks and buses. Most of the people I’ve interviewed talk about being covered in dust, being bruised from knocking around in the trucks and, when they got there, they were dehydrated and completely miserable, depressed, contemplating suicide. Jack sketched that whole scenario with cute little rattlesnakes and cactus dancing.

I once interviewed a woman who just chuckled looking at those images. She just chuckled and giggled and I knew she was letting off all those miserable feelings.

There is a lot more to be said about Jack and I hope you read his book, but I know that his book helped the civil rights movement for the Japanese Americans. In 1988, they finally got President Roosevelt, President Reagan excuse me, to sign a Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which allowed for some money for education, public education, apology letters to each and every Japanese American who were relocated and a check for $20,000.

Those Japanese Americans who could not look at the scholarly reports and statistics – I knew they could open up Jack’s book and remember and revisit those days and fight for justice.

When I’m having a hard time, I remember Jack and about laughing in the face of adversity. And when I can chuckle, I, too, can stand up for justice.