This is a powerful poem written by an anonymous Japanese American imprisoned in the internment camps. The poem was popular with the internees, and sums up many of the injustices that the Japanese Americans had to deal with in the camps. The Japanese were persecuted simply because they were “Japs,” not because they meant to harm Americans. They were just regular civilians, but they had numerous armed soldiers watching their camps surrounded with barbed wire fences. The poet likens the internment camps to “concentration camps,” calling up images of the Holocaust and exemplifying the lack of freedom for the Japanese Americans and the inhumanity of the American government dictating their new lifestyle. “With machine gun nests just over there / And sentries and soldiers everywhere / We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage.” (3-5)
Parts of this poem inspired my poem, Barbed Wire. In my poem, a Japanese family is transported to an internment camp and has to adjust to close quarters and the barbed wire fence that separates them from the real world and all the freedoms that the should not have lost. The lines “That DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy / Destroying our youth and making us lazy,” got me thinking about the loss of traditions for the Japanese living in America. (15-16) They traveled to the U.S. hoping for a better life, and were loyal to their new home, but living behind that “damned” barbed wire fence disrupted their family lives and personal goals in America.
THAT DAMNED FENCE
They’ve sunk the posts deep into the ground
They’ve strung out wires all the way around.
With machine gun nests just over there,
And sentries and soldiers everywhere.
We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage,
To fret and fume with impotent rage;
Yonder whispers the lure of the night,
But that DAMNED FENCE assails our sight.
We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But that DAMNED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal quest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do,
We feed terrible, lonesome, and blue:
That DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy,
Destroying our youth and making us lazy.
Imprisoned in here for a long, long time,
We know we’re punished–though we’ve committed no crime,
Our thoughts are gloomy and enthusiasm damp,
To be locked up in a concentration camp.
Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die, perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.
We all love life, and our country best,
Our misfortune to be here in the west,
To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE,
Is someone’s notion of NATIONAL DEFENCE!
My heart is proud,
My soul is glorious and free.
You, young Nisei, are fighting for
our lives, our country, future,
and everything we stand for.
We are right behind you.
You are proving that we are loyal
in Italy and wherever you go.
You will come back victorious and free,
and we will be waiting for you
in this land of liberty.
Be Like the Cactus
Let not harsh tongues, that wag
Discourage you. In spite of
Be like the cactus, which through
And storm, and thunder, can
Oh God, I pray that I may bear a cross
To set my people free,
That I may help to take good-will across
An understanding sea.
Oh, God, I pray that someday every race
May stand on equal plane
And prejudice will find no dwelling place
In a peace that all may gain.
These poems were written by children that were in the Japanese Internment camps. I find their use of language to be astounding, though I am not sure how old one is classifying a child in this source. The first poem is incredible in that it invokes upon the Nisei (Japanese children who are born in the new country- second generation,) to fight for US freedom. The writer is emphatic in expressing loyalty to a country that has her/him imprisoned. One of the reasons that we chose the banner for this page was to express the same irony- that those who were interned did not generally waver in their faith of The United States. They pledged their allegiance to a country that denied them basic liberties. The poem is is simplistic but its spirit is mature. The second poem is less enthusiastic but still does not offer resistance to the child’s situation. The use of a cactus that stands still in the desert is emblematic of the large Japanese sentiment. It is an object that is in a arid, desolate place (symbolic to the camps’ locations) that survives not by acting, but by standing. It is beautiful in its simplicity as an image, but complex in its implication that if one holds their head high they will weather any challenges. The last poem is the most divergent of the poetry that I have read. It actually has a narrator that wants to act to move forward. The use of religion is interesting here because it emphasizes that there was at least some faith in a higher power’s intervention. What results is a wish for equality. These poems combined convey that the children understood that they were facing hardship, but this did not create a hate or a rebellious desire. The feelings were largely a desire to just be treated as equals (Friedler, “Children”).
This is our barracks, squatting on the ground,
Tar papered shacks, partitioned into rooms
By sheetrock walls, transmitting every sound
Of neighbor’s gossip or the sweep of brooms
The open door welcomes the refugees,
And now at least there is no need to roam
Afar: here space enlarges memories
Beyond the bounds of camp and this new home.
The floor is carpeted with dust, wind-borne
Dry alkalai, patterned with insect feet,
What peace can such a place as this impart?
We can but sense, bewildered and forlorn,
That time, disrupted by the war from neat
Routines, must now adjust within the heart.
Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami
The desert must have claimed its own
Now that the wayfarers are gone,
And silence has replaced voices
Except for intermittent noises,
Like windy footsteps through the dust,
Or gliding of a snake that must
Escape the sun or sage rustling,
Or soft brush or a quickened wrong
Against the air, -Stillness is change
For this abandoned place, where strange
and foreign tongues had routed peace
Until the refugee’s release
Restored calm to the wilderness,
And prairie dogs no longer fear
When shadows shift and disappear
The crows fly straight through setting dusk,
The desert like an empty husk
Holding the small swift sounds that run
To cover when the day is done.
Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami
I have dredged up
Hard fragments lost
I thought in years
Of whirlwind dust.
Exposed to light,
And broken shards
Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami
The author of these poems is Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami, though it is unclear through various sources if her first name was actually Toyo. She was an adult woman with a husband and a son when she was interned in Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) for three years. Of particular interest to me, is the masters degree in library sciences she earned at the University of Michigan after she left the camp. She eventually went to work at the Ohio State University of Libraries for 21 years and left as an Associate Professor. The above are three poems that she wrote during her time in the Topaz internment camp.
The first is particularly striking in its emotional contemplation of home. There is no sense of being able to return to the life that she had. The imagery of the barracks conveys the desolate qualities of the people living conditions and the particular use of “dust” really impresses that it is not in their capacity to satisfactorily fix their abode. One can not simply work to improve their surroundings, it is their inherent condition that will render them incapable of being made comfortable. It is about adjusting rather than working, protesting, or fighting the lot given. The second poem echos the sentiment of the vapid, barbaric atmosphere. The rhyme scheme in the poem is essential to note, because it means that the poem was originally written in English and therefore can be looked at more critically in terms of syntax and precise word meaning. In this poem she continues her employment of “refugees” which is shocking as it implies by definition the choice to flee. Instead of using captives or prisoners, she confers a sense of decision upon herself and the people in the camps. The last poem continues to emphasize the dust. It is a powerful image, because again, it is something that seeps through cracks and is moved by the wind. They cannot shield themselves against it because they are not even given that basic of a shelter. I thought the last poem was important because it ends with the word belief and it does not illuminate what was being questioned. It leaves the reader questioning what she held true before she entered the camp (Friedler, “Adult”).