Poet Comes To Terms With An Old Hurt -- Pain Of 1942 Internment Lingers

Writing poetry renews as it reconciles the bewilderment Mitsuye Yasutake Yamada felt when she and her family were ``evacuated'' from their Beacon Hill home during World War II.

In 1942, the Yasutakes were among an estimated 110,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans labeled potential enemies by the U.S. government and ordered into concentration camps.

Yamada recently shared that experience and others at a poetry reading at The Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle. About 40 people attended.

Yamada, who was born in Japan, lived in Seattle from 1927 to 1942, when her family was uprooted by the internment. The 66-year-old Irvine, Calif., resident still has strong ties to the area: her son, Stephen Yamada-Heidner, and mother, Hide Yasutake, live here; her brother, Dr. William Toshio Yasutake, lives in Bothell.

For Yamada, the memories of her departure from Seattle remain vivid, despite the passing of nearly five decades.

First, she says, came the notices tacked onto poles in her South Seattle neighborhood. The notices followed Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor. People of Japanese descent were ordered to report to a ``resettlement camp.''

The Yasutake family and more than 7,000 other Japanese-Americans in the Puget Sound area obliged, heading for what became known as Camp Harmony, at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Pierce County.

``I think that many of the Japanese-Americans at that time thought that it was the patriotic thing to do - that it was a way of gaining acceptance,'' says Yamada. But the evacuation still came as a shock, she says.

``With the evacuation, we suddenly realized we were not considered Americans,'' she says. ``It was a perception of being jarred back to your identity.''

Six months after their internment in Puyallup, the Yasutakes were sent by train to a concentration camp in Idaho. There, the family was greeted by armed guards.

``We were told that we were being put into the camps for our own protection, but the guns were turned inward,'' Yamada recalls.

Much of Yamada's life and writings revolve around this dichotomy of two cultures: Being a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, has sometimes meant being pulled between two worlds that clash.

The ravaging politics of World War II brought that dichotomy home to many Japanese-Americans when they were asked to forswear allegiance to Japan's emperor. Yamada's poetry mirrors those conflicting demands.

In the poem, ``The Question of Loyalty,'' she explores the dilemma of dual obligations:

I met the deadline

for alien registration

once before

was numbered, fingerprinted

and ordered not to travel

without permit.

But alien still they said I must

forswear allegiance to the emperor.

for me that was easy

I didn't even know him

but my mother who did cried out

If I sign this

What will I be?

I am doubly loyal. . .

In ``Mirror Mirror,'' Yamada writes with a maternal voice. A woman come of age, she passes on her ideas about cultural identity to one of her sons:

``People keep asking where I come from

says my son.

Trouble is I'm american on the inside

and oriental on the outside

No Doug

Turn that outside in

THIS is what American looks like.

Both excerpts were printed in ``Camp Notes and Other Poems,'' her first book of poetry.

``Camp Notes'' was published in 1976 by Shameless Hussy Press in Berkeley, Calif. ``Desert Run, Poems and Stories'' was published in 1988 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in Latham, N.Y.

Yamada was also co-editor of a poetry anthology, ``The Webs We Weave,'' published by Literary Arts Press in 1986. Yamada and Nellie Wong were the subjects of a PBS film, ``Mitsuye and Nellie: Asian American Poets,'' broadcast nationally in 1981.

Yamada, who graduated from Cleveland High School in Seattle, also studied at the University of Cincinnati from 1943 to 1945.

She received a bachelor's degree in English and art from New York University in 1947. Two years later, she received a master's degree in English and art from the University of Chicago.

She later taught English courses at several Southern California schools: Cypress College, Fullerton College, Long Beach State University, and was a visiting poet at Scripps College. She retired from teaching last year.

Yamada founded the writers' support group, Multicultural Women Writers of Orange County, and currently serves as a national board member of Amnesty International, USA.

She is married to Yoshikazu Yamada, an artist and retired research chemist. They have four children.

Yamada says much of her writing is about the internment because she thinks it's important that America confronts that chapter in our history. Many Japanese-Americans remained silent about that era because they felt a victim's shame, she says.

``There was very little written out of the camp experience. We'd put all of that behind us because of feelings of shame,'' she says.

``If you get arrested, people figure you must have done something wrong and in many ways I think that the Japanese have survived that experience because of that - just putting it behind them. But there's been some damage by internalizing it.''

Yamada's writings revisit that era with intent of reconciliation: Exploring that experience will help Japanese-Americans who endured internment come to terms with that hurt, she says.

``I've come to believe that writing is not a solitary journey. Writing is a communal activity,'' she says.

``Perhaps if we had been aware of our own human rights, if our neighbors had been aware of our human rights, perhaps history would have been quite different.''