English professor explores poetic expressions of Japanese-American internment

In recognition of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Josephine Park, interim director of the Asian American Studies Program, discusses her analysis of ‘prison poetry’ related to the internment of Japanese Americans.

Japanese Internment--Library of Congress
A photograph of the Manzanar Relocation Center, located in California, from the perspective of a tower. Courtesy of The Library of Congress Print and Photographs Division


osephine Park, professor of English and interim director of the Asian American Studies Program, previously studied Asian-American poetics in her 2008 book “Apparitions of Asia,” presented as a sort of literary genealogy of Asian-American poetry. 

Now, she’s narrowing her research for a new journal article and book, examining poetry manifested from the condition of Japanese-American internment—putting it in the bigger context of prison poetry. 

Here, timed with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, designated in 1992 as a cultural celebration of the larger Asian American community and a commemoration of the first Japanese immigrants in May 1869, find a discussion of her research and the history of the internment of Japanese-Americans. 

Where does your interest in this come from?

I’ve been looking at Japanese-American poetry in the past, from the activist Asian-American poets of the late ‘60s early ‘70s who had the experience of internment, but as children. They’re typically born in the U.S., and that’s how they became artists. It’s not typically people who came from Japan and are laborers; the first generation of working-class people typically don’t become artists. It’s the second generation.  

For that reason, now, in returning to internment, I’m interested in the adult experience of it. There has been much more writing on the experience of children in internment, or in what literary studies we’ve come to call the ‘post memories’ of internment: subsequent generations who go back and look at their grandparents’ experience, something like that. There’s a lot of post-reconstruction or imagining, especially because the adults who endured internment didn’t always talk about it with their families, in subsequent generations. There’s been a lot of focus on that. Now, in my research, I’m interested in that adult. 

That’s interesting. It’s like a secondhand account even though there were firsthand accounts.

That’s very typical, the concept of post-memory. That’s very well-known through the Jewish experience of World War II. Right? The Holocaust, the fact that’s a memory that seems to linger in families even for a generation that hasn’t experienced it. You can see that among Japanese-American literature. It will often feature an account of internment even though they were born way after.

I’m surprised there are so many people doing poetry in the camps.

This is an important point. Internment was—it was a concentration camp and people were essentially prisoners of war, held by the military. But it was also a New Deal public works project. The War Relocation Authority, the WRA, who ran the internment camps, that followed the lines of the New Deal programs. The person who instituted the camps was FDR. It’s very interesting to think of internment as a liberal social policy—which it was. At the same time, it’s a wartime repressive formation. And a very important part of that liberal ethos, in a way, of the camps, disturbing as it is, there was an education system and there were classes on Americanization and culture, but the incarcerated population also set up their own schools. 

Of course, they had to put their kids in school. Internment lasted three or four years, but for them it could have been forever. They didn’t know. They were rounded up. They set up schools for the children, etc., but one thing really prominent was art classes. There were many art classes, you can find many cases of crafts in particular. Japanese-Americans tended to be in agricultural labor because of where they were recruited in Japan, largely to work in Hawaii on plantations. They tended to have a background in agriculture. And so, you see incredible examples of gardening and landscape work even in the camps, which often were in desert environments, which would be very hard to create these kinds of landscapes. 

But, in addition to that, there is a longstanding association with Japanese and aesthetic achievement, and the concepts of Japanese as aesthetes was quite a well-known assumption in the U.S., which I think lingers to this day. You might think a Japanese person has especially artful powers, but why? It’s very weird. But there are interesting reasons for that.

Japan is certainly known to export its culture. 

It’s also just that the aesthetic achievements of Japan were very highly regarded in the West. If you look at the late 19th century, there’s an obsession with Japanes crafts at World’s Fairs. To this day, we revere Japanese craftsmanship. And in the Gilded Age, Japan was a rising empire in the Pacific that would then be a major competitor, but there was a kind of romance between the U.S. and Japan, a sense of competition, that this is a place in Asia that modernized itself, and it didn’t feel like the more ‘differently’ orientalist presentation of China, [perceived] as a backward and dusty and ancient race. Instead, the Japanese were rendered as a highly aesthetic race. 

But one of the problems with that formation was you often see this idea of the Japanese as aesthetes, but also as warriors. The great anthropologist Ruth Benedict had this wartime study of Japanese commissioned, called ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.’ And that was a very typical characterization of Japanese, that they were great at flower-arranging but also very good with swords. 

Anyway, there was a real premium on poetry and the visual arts and crafts, and obviously that’s a characterization of Japan, but you can see that in immigrant populations. There were some very prominent artists within the Japanese-American community and there are examples of art schools formed. You have case after case of flower-arranging classes or painting; there was a lot of art. And there were Japanese language newspapers in the U.S., before the war, and they would typically have a poetry section. There would have been someone who was a tomato farmer who had also potentially written a haiku. This would not be crazy to think of. Even in the activist period there was a pretty lively attempt to collect Japanese poetry, composed in the camps.

How are you finding these clippings?

I will say, first of all, I don’t [speak] Japanese. I’m an Asian-American and it’s a major weakness in my file. [Laughs] But I’m especially interested in—there were some newspapers published during internment and there’s a literary journal called Trek, up at one of the camps called Topaz. That was a camp that probably has had a lot of focus, because Topaz, Utah, is where most of the people from the Bay Area went, and the Bay Area had a class of literati, and Topaz had many more artists and writers. 

Trek [contains] art and writing. But there are many accounts of internment in diaries and autobiographical accounts of internment that include Japanese verse. 

I’m interested in how that poetry can be an active thing to do in that period. We can think of poetry as being politically quiet, or a diversion, or an aesthetic escape, all those things—it’s important for art to serve those functions if it needs to, but I think a lot of the poetry I’m looking at I see as an active way of working through their condition of incarceration.

More contemplative and quiet?

I’m resisting the sense that it’s quiet. I want to say I see it as a very active engagement with their situation and not an escape from it. I see it as a really important mode of thinking through the condition of incarceration.

What’s struck you from what you’ve found so far?

There’s an understudied poet named Toyo Suyemoto, and her poetry, she was an incredibly learned poet and a wide-ranging reader, knowledgeable about English and American, Western, poetry, and she published her poetry from behind barbed wire during internment. Which makes her really important. 

She was a young woman, in her 20s. She had her infant son with her. I’m really interested in her poetry for how she’s using strict verse form, in which she’s kind of thinking through the conditions of her incarceration. One thing I really appreciate about her is there’s a posthumously published memoir of her internment experience, a moving document, and that’s become really important in my research. In it, she talks about what it’s like raising a 5-month-old baby in the camp, but also about her mother. Her mother’s generation and some connections she sees between the third and first generations. She’s not the kind of poet we’ve read in Asian-American literature where we’ve learned of an activist poet who’s doing a really resistant, anti-governmental stance.

But [I’m interested in] poets like her. She’s using pretty strict verse form, writing about the environment of camps, really paying attention to the adult experiences of the camps. And then I’m looking at the second generation, or people writing in English, conveying the experience of the first generation and how attentive they are to the nature they encounter in the camps. I’m interested in this great artist named Chiura Obata, a professor at Berkeley and a fine arts painter before he was interned. He taught art classes and he drew for that literary art magazine Trek. And for him, after being interned, he said that, for him, he learned something about nature in that experience. And he was deeply moved by the beauty of the Utah mountains.

That’s telling he wasn’t more bitter.

Exactly. And he did paintings about the experience of internment, and you can see the barracks and it’s interesting, but he had incredible paintings of the mountains. Obata had this concept of Great Nature, and for him all of life—but especially for art—the teacher is Great Nature. And that’s the wellspring. And to see that this sense of Great Nature could be a resource for him at the camps is incredibly important. There’s a lot of scholarship on Obata, so it’s not that he’s been neglected, but scholars have been, for obvious reasons, attuned to that resistance to the camp experience—which is horrible, outrageous. 

But I think Obata’s management of his time in the camps through his aesthetic appreciation, that appreciation of one situation does not have to be—we don’t have to critique that as being apolitical or insufficiently attuned to the experience. If anything, the embodied situation of the camps becomes more acute, in a way, through this aesthetic work. And I also think it’s consoling, right? That there is a consoling benefit to it, and I think that we can be too hasty in thinking that consolation is also politically quiet or conservative. I don’t think it has to be. In fact, I think consolation is an active way of engaging with your experience.

In my research, I’ve looked at Western theories of consolation, which is an ancient genre that goes back to Greek and Latin roots. But in that case consolation is a highly reasoned set of arguments that work through grief. If you console someone on the death of their wife, it’s ‘Oh, she had a good life.’ You sit back and reason through. I see a lot of this aesthetic engagement as a reasoning-through—it’s not rationalizing, they don’t think they should be incarcerated. But it’s, ‘I’m in this situation. There’s a beautiful moon tonight.’ 

For me, it’s interesting to reconsider the expressions of internment. I’m interested in what kind of resources it can offer to have this aesthetic reaction.

I imagine few people have looked at this? It’s specific.

It is kind of specific. There are a lot of really important artists, Japanese-American artists, interned. So, there is a good amount of scholarship. Obata, certainly. But I’m hoping that the kind of framing I want to put on it is interesting.

Thinking about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is there room to educate the public about what this might all mean, broadly?

I think it’s really important. I’m thinking about ways to contextualize my interests to suggest ways it may be broader than my little interest. On the one hand, there is a whole universe of prison poetry, right? And poetry and incarceration go hand in hand. You can go back to the earliest ancient tradition and see poetry of exile, prison poetry from the start. And you will see that aesthetic expression is actually necessary. It’s not like a pastime. It is necessary. 

The African-American tradition, those are amazing poets. And the case of internment I can certainly fit into the larger category of prison poetry and think about the kind of function poetry had and why it may be necessary for that situation of incarceration.