The Vanishing Archive

Keeping Our Stories Alive

In Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory, the Yamashita family mourns the loss of their family history. They tell her,

Oh, you are missing Nobu’s letters to John from Italy. They were destroyed in that basement flood at Fifth Ave.

Nobu had served in the U.S. armed forces on the Western Front during World War II, enlisting to fight while most of his family remained incarcerated at Poston in Arizona. Yamashita, as the inheritor of her family’s expansive personal archives, doesn’t need Nobu’s letters to know he’d served; to know her family’s connection to World War II, or to know of the existence of the 442nd. The wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans is one of the most well-documented and oft-written about chapters of Asian American history, which means we have been able to piece together a vivid picture of what this experience must have been like, and what it has meant for our communities, that will hopefully endure for many generations to come. That picture, however, will not include Nobu.

Does it matter?

Well, yes and no. In broad strokes, our history does include Nobu–or at least, it includes an understanding of young men like him. Maybe we don’t need his exact words or thoughts; maybe they overlap with another soldier’s notions, and to have them both would be redundant. It’s hard to think about someone’s human experience as capable of being relegated to mere redundancy, but we do it all the time. Whether we are offering an anecdote of how our day went or a story of our ethnic community, we’ve decided which details are important for our audience and which can be omitted. If you’re telling a story about meeting George Takei, no one will mourn your omission if you don’t tell them what you had for breakfast.

But what if it’s the last breakfast you ever have?

Karen Tei Yamashita’s family brought a waffle iron to Poston.

Take only what you can carry. Pack only the necessities. This is a frontier community.

What place is there for a waffle iron? Perhaps it was a kitchen utensil used the morning they left for the relocation center, hastily washed and brought along because there was no place else to leave it. Maybe it produced contraband waffles in camp, lent some whimsy to dry and dusty days.

My point is, no one thinks about waffle irons when they think about Japanese American incarceration. (Except Karen Tei Yamashita. Except me. Except, perhaps, you too.) But there it is, strange and anomalous yet very much a part of the archive, if you’re looking in the right places. And I’d argue it’s actually an important part of the archive, because its strangeness is seductive. It spurs us to wonder, and allows us to begin to imagine the incarceration in new dimensions. Strangenesses like this compel us to imagine around corners–bring depth to flat photographs, listen for the bright, volatile humanity in the rosters of names of those imprisoned.

We’re lucky to still be living among JAs who lived the camps first-hand, who remember the strange things and are open to sharing. But as we press toward the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, that population is ever-dwindling. From the time the JACL Detroit Chapter began compiling its oral histories to their first publication, all but one of the interviewees had passed away. The voices of many others, whom the Chapter was not able to interview in time, cannot included in this exhibit.

Like Yamashita’s flood casualties, some of the Chapter’s records of Japanese American life in Detroit have been lost to basement mishaps. Boxes of records intended for the Bentley Historical Museum were sent instead to landfills; transcripts of oral histories were victims of cross-country moves, lost somewhere along the way. Entire museum exhibits–like this one!–moldered in basements until relatives, not understanding what they were, disposed of them.

We cannot recover past losses.

We can, however, endeavor to stymy future ones. By deciding that our history matters–not just the big ticket items like war and banquets and redress, but also the small moments that underpin and color the large ones, and perhaps also the strangenesses that seem to underpin nothing at all–we dramatically increase the likelihood of its survival. We remind ourselves that these are our stories to tell, and we should tell them. These are our keepsakes to guard, and we should guard them.

At the beginning of her 1991 documentary History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, Rea Tajiri intimates:

There are things which have happened in the world while there were cameras watching, things we have images for.

There are other things which have happened while there were no cameras watching, which we restage in front of cameras to have images of.

There are things which have happened for which the only images that exist are in the minds of the observers, present at the time, while there are things that have happened for which there have been no observers except for the spirits of the dead.

Our history is a combination of all of these things.

There’s probably a lot of people in Michigan–to say nothing of the United States, or the world–that have no idea Detroit has, or ever had, a Japanese American history at all. If you take a step back, it’s strange to think about, isn’t it? What are we doing in the Midwest, so far from a coastal port, in a city that has been so vividly defined in the popular imagination by its division of black and white? In the scheme of Japanese American history, we’re probably someone’s waffle iron. We don’t really get talked about.

Exiled to Motown is not an exhibit that seeks to prove Japanese Americans exist–or even to prove we exist in the Rustbelt! Rather, through this exhibit we hope to explore how our community has persisted, at the level of memory, of moment. We hope to linger over small things, like picnic days and bowling leagues, to get at the big ones: Detroit’s role in brokering relationships between Japanese Americans and other Midwesterners, as well as Japan and the United States. The development of a pan-Asian solidarity. The solidarities we owe our black and brown neighbors, our immigrant neighbors, our asylum seekers, and our indigenous hosts.

And always, we hope to celebrate our strangenesses, beating back the erosions of time by telling old stories in new ways, to new audiences, such that they can be told over and over again.

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