The incarceration during World War II has left a scar on the Japanese American community. That’s not surprising, considering how traumatic being forced to leave your home and into a prison in the middle of a desert or swamp would be. But people are always surprised by how scarring it was. For many Japanese Americans, “camps” are still something that is talked about in homes and of course at community events, despite more than seventy-five years and many generations having passed.
As a fourth generation Japanese American myself, I admit it’s always at the forefront of my mind—especially now with all the rhetoric about immigrants and Muslim Americans. I constantly worry that we’re going to see “camps” once again in our country. Not with Japanese Americans but with another group of demonized Americans. In fact, that’s why I always tell my 5-year-old son that we as decendents of those who were imprisoned in these “camps” have a moral responsibility to speak out and make sure it never happens again to any other group.
That’s why books like The Little Exile by Jeanette S. Arakawa are so important. Based on the author’s life, the story follows a middle-school girl, Marie Mitsui, as she goes from a typical American girl to a prisoner in one of America’s concentration camps. Her story takes her from a family laundromat in San Francisco to a remote camp in the swamps of Arkansas to a crowded apartment building in Denver where they have to share a bathroom and kitchen and don’t have running water, and then finally back home again.
The novel is a must read for anyone interested in what it was like in the time after Pearl Harbor for Japanese Americans to what life was like in “camp” and then in the time after they were released. It gives us a peak into the racism and the hate Japanese Americans had to endure during those years—but also the small acts of kindness that they also experienced too. These kinds of stories are important. Not only because they remember the past and tell us the facts, but also because they are able to put a face and a name to what happened—a historical tragedy.
Having worked at the Japanese American National Museum for over ten years, I was exposed to countless books and films about the experience. But even I was surprised and entertained by a lot of the stories in the book. I was especially moved by how much the incarceration affected the family (the parents fought more) and by the compassion from some non-Japanese Americans (Marie’s former class sent her a radio with a card all the way from California to Arkansas or the guard/soldier “Arky” who treated Marie and her friend with kindness).
So put The Little Exile on your reading list and make sure to tell a friend about it. These are the kinds of stories that need to be told and maybe if enough people read it, we’ll avoid making the same mistake a second time.