The Girl

The Girl

Otsuka’s character, “the girl,” narrates the journey from assembly centers to Topaz as the family travels on the train. Her wide-eyed observation of the passage seize on many aspects of Americanness—wild mustangs, popular American tunes, billboard signs, all while being watched over by soldiers. When they finally arrive at Topaz, in Utah,

she saw telephone poles and barbed-wire fences. She saw soldiers. And everything she saw she saw through a cloud of fine white dust…He pressed the scarf to his face and took the girl’s hand and together they stepped out of the bus and into the blinding white glare of the desert. (p. 48)

Items in this exhibition case:

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Boris Michev and Johannes Plambeck. When the Emperor Was Divine: The Road to Internment. GIS-generated map, 2013.
 

This map follows the family’s route to the Topaz internment camp as described in Julie Otsuka’s book. All places referenced in the map are mentioned in the novel. The cartographers have based this route on comparisons with two maps published by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936 and 1943, assuming that the train carrying the family followed the same tracks.

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Boris Michev and Johannes Plambeck. Japanese American Population Change, 1890-1946. GIS-generated map, 2013.

The Immigration Act of 1924 set European immigration by quota per country, but all “aliens ineligible for citizenship” were barred from immigrating, effectively excluding Japanese. Thus, the bulk of Japanese immigrants came between 1885 and 1914. This short time period of Japanese migration to the United States gave the community distinct generational groupings. Different generations of Japanese Americans are referred to as Issei, Nisei, and Sansei. Translated, these terms simply mean “first generation,” “second generation,” and “third generation,” respectively. Michev and Plambeck have used data provided by Wendy Ng in Japanese American Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide to create this map.

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Boris Michev and Johannes Plambeck. Japanese Americans Affected by Internment, 1942. GIS-generated Map, 2013.

In 1942, the U.S. government evacuated all persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast and incarcerated them in War Relocation Authority (WRA) relocation centers. Approximately 110,000 people were interned, 65% of them American citizens and the remaining 35%, Japan-born resident aliens. The internees constituted 87% of the Japanese population in the continental United States and 97% of the Japanese population in the West Coast enumerated in the 1940 Census. At the same time, only 1% of Japanese Americans in Hawaii and the rest of the U.S. were interned. Many have speculated about reasons for such disparate policies toward the Japanese. If, as officially claimed, evacuation was a military necessity, Hawaiian Japanese Americans should have been evacuated ahead of West Coast Japanese Americans. Michev and Plambeck based this map on data found in Aimee Chin’s article, “Long‐Run Labor Market Effects of Japanese American Internment during World War II on Working‐Age Male Internees” (Journal of Labor Economics).

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Boris Michev and Johannes Plambeck. Internment Camps Population. GIS-generated map, 2013.

The War Relocation Agency administered 10 camps located in isolated parts of the country, away from large cities, industries, railroad lines, and military installations. In Japanese American Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide, Wendy Ng points out that each of the ten sites selected posed different climatic problems and challenges for the residents. Manzanar in California, and Poston and Gila River in Arizona were in dry desert areas; Minidoka and Heart Mountain in Idaho and Wyoming had problems with harsh cold winters and summer dust storms, as did Granada in Colorado; Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas were located in swampland with drainage problems. Topaz in Utah also had cold winters, and the land was covered by greasewood brush, making it difficult to cultivate crops. Tule Lake in California, located on the site of a dry lakebed, had the most potential for development. According to statistics provided by the WRA in 1946, it was the largest camp with 18,789 residents. The smallest was Granada in Colorado with 7,318 residents.

 

Ansel Adams. Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943. Adams photographs of Manzanar War Relocation Center. Prints and Photographs Division,  Library of Congress.
Ansel Adams, better known for his nature photography, spent a summer at the Manzanar Relocation Center as the guest of the director, Ralph Merritt, who gave him special permission to photograph there. Photography was not generally allowed in the internment camps, but Manzanar employed Toyo Miyatake, an internee, as its official photographer, subject to close scrutiny by camp administrators. Adams concentrated on portraits and (not surprisingly) landscape views. Here, he creates an artistic view of a mundane fact of the internee’s life: endless waiting in lines, especially for food.

Three times a day the clanging of bells. Endless lines. The smell of liver drifting out across the black barrack roofs. The smell of catfish. From time to time, the smell of horse meat. (p. 50)

 

 
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Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. Dust storm at this War Relocation Authority center, where evacuees of Japanese ancestry are spending the duration, July 3, 1942. National Archives and Record Administration ARC Identifier 539961

Internees were not allowed to own or use cameras in the camps. With few exceptions, most surviving photographs taken on location during the war were taken by official government photographers such as Dorothea Lange. Even she was subject to a number of restrictions, carefully watched by guards and repeatedly cautioned as she worked. Many of her “camp” images use landscape imagery to represent the emotional devastation suffered by internees.

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Excerpt from letter (written by an internee). November 9, 1942. (Copied July 6, 1943 by War Relocation Authority personnel for inclusion in archival descriptions). Collection 3830. Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, 1935-1953. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection

A Japanese American internee recalls seeing the internment camp at Manzanar, in California, for the first time: “[dust] creeps in through closed window ledges, creveses [sic], gets into your food and leaves a fine coating of dust over everything.” Similarly, Otsuka’s characters are interned in a dust-covered location, battling this insidious enemy.