In May of 2018, the Hashimoto family took my grandfather, Noboru Hashimoto, back to the Amache concentration camp site where he and over 7,000 others were forcefully detained during World War II. Every year, the survivors, their families, and various community organizations and foundations sponsor a pilgrimage back to the camp to keep the memory of one of the darkest hours of U.S. history alive.
Amache is located just outside of Granada, Colorado in the high plains about 3 hours east of Denver. The site sits atop a low knoll in the middle of vast, sprawling farmland. The trademark peaks of the Rockies have no presence here. Craft brews, gastropubs, cannabis vapes, and hipster coffee shops don’t grow in these parts. There are no definitive landmarks to be seen unless you are a local and know any of the old, likely abandoned farms and silos pockmarking the distant fields. Granada was literally the end of the line in the ’40s. The train line, that is. After being rounded up and corralled at one of the many fairground assembly centers on the west coast with only what they could carry, Japanese Americans were handed a tag listing their assigned camp and date of departure, then piled onto trains to what was going to become their home for the next 3-4 years (less, if you were drafted or thrown into actual prison for refusing to renounce a fictional allegiance to the Emperor of Japan and pledging unwavering allegiance to the U.S.A).
Grandpa told me once about how their family had just purchased a brand new Buick right before the attack of Pearl Harbor. All he could do was watch as his father sold it for pennies to neighbors. All he could do was watch out the window as they pulled away from their farm, their house, and his puppy – left alone on the farm because there was no time to find a proper home, no shelter to take it to, no Facebook to post on to seek help from the viral hivemind. Shikata ga nai. “Nothing to be done”, so was the prevailing motto of many of the issei – the first generation Japan-born immigrants.
Shikata Ga Nai.
For issei, fear of deportation was real (as they weren’t naturalized citizens), as was the fear of further ostracization via “rocking the boat”. Their method of cultural integration was to be model citizens, adopt as many American ways as possible, naturalize their children to the customs of the U.S., and get them as educated as possible for future success. For their nisei (second-generation) children, however, this proved to be a conflicting strategy and put serious strains on families – especially once packed together into thin-walled, barely sub-divided barracks. The nisei only knew American ways, loved American Food and American culture. But the older Nisei also knew American law, the principles of liberty and freedom on which the country was founded, and the supposedly unalienable rights of its citizens.
This led to small (but passionate) groups of nisei to resist the forced removal and loyalty questions imposed on each internee (google “Fred Korematsu” and “No-No Boys” for more historical information). Even more tension arose when the U.S. military had the gall to impose the draft on the camps. A number of young men leaned into Shikata ga nai and accepted the draft, eventually going on to form the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – the most highly decorated unit in the history of American warfare. A smaller number of men protested, refused the draft, and were sent into forced labor. Fred Korematsu once said of his forced labor conditions that “jail was better than this”.
Fortunately, Grandpa was a year too young to have to decide what he would have done in that situation, but life in the camps was no picnic either. Each barracks was subdivided into rooms equivalent to a small bachelor studio apartment in Manhattan, sans any amenities besides a cot for an entire family. The floors were exposed brick, walls were basic wood framing with no insulation and tar paper that did little to keep out wind and dirt, especially during notorious dust storms. The only privacy one could get was by hanging a sheet or blanket if your family packed an extra one that you didn’t immediately need to keep warm. Eventually, as the war dragged on, people were allowed to go outside the camp to work on farms or even go back to college on special waivers to avoid being drafted. Only then were the remaining internees able to spread out to other rooms left vacant. One thing I found fascinating was that even though there were over 7,000 people at Amache, Grandpa told us that they never really went outside their block. “The Japanese were very cliquey,” he said. “If you were from Merced, like us, you were in one block, but if you wandered over to another block across the camp, those guys would eye you like ‘what the heck you doin here? You’re not one of us.'” So in a camp that took up not much more of a footprint than my Northern California high school, they rarely left their single acre neighborhood.
One thing Grandpa seemed intent on doing before the trip was over was find the exact spot of their old barracks: 7G. There are 3 sites under the protection of the National Parks Service as official historic sites (Topaz, Manzanar, and Minidoka), and while there are efforts to add Amache to that list in order to aid preservation and upkeep, the camp primarily remains in a state of natural reclamation. Roads in and around the camp are unpaved (which made for some… interesting… rental car cleaning efforts later on). There are plaques at the entrance to the park, a single re-constructed barracks near the sole remaining guard tower, and the camp cemetery, but otherwise the hastily-poured concrete and brick foundations are largely over-run by brush and cactus. After a few loops around the site and using the reconstructed maps in calibration with Grandpa’s 91 year old memory, we finally came by what had to be the foundation of the mess hall of 7 Block. From there, he walked around intently through the thorny brush in his khakis, looking around trying to find reference points amidst a tangled, homogenized landscape that has been stripped in shame of the buildings and landmarks he would have known. Unable to find any signs, markers, or remnants, his best guess had to settle for near a lone dead tree about 50 yards from where the mess hall stood:
That’s all that’s left.
Of the roughly 150 or so people that attended this pilgrimage, only 3 of them were original Amache survivors. The rest were families, members from supporting organizations, and a group of local student volunteers that graciously organized and helped facilitate the event. I found this simultaneously disheartening and encouraging. Disheartening because the memory is fading, both physically and culturally. At a time when the government is once again isolating, detaining, and separating families based on ethnicity and country of origin, this is a particular lesson well worth preserving. The majority of strangers I talk to know nothing or very little about this particular stain on this country’s history, which is both shocking and infuriating, but also not surprising considering how many textbooks only include a paragraph (if anything) about the internment camps. The Supreme Court of the United States, even, just recently cited the Korematsu case. Justice Roberts claims the interment of the Japanese was unjust but also entirely different from the underlying motives behind the recent travel ban on Muslims enacted by the Trump administration. I can only sit reading these developments, mouth agape.
Shikata Ga Nai?
No. No Shikata Ga Nai. This is a lesson that should have been learned. And should still be learned.
What was encouraging, however, was the kindness and curiosity of the youth present, especially the student volunteers – none of which likely had any direct relationship to the camp – and the presence of Senator Cory Gardner vowing to fight to keep this memory alive and push legislation to add Amache to the National Parks registry (surprising, considering the current ideologies of the Republican party).
Knowledge, awareness, and empathy are the strongest weapons against tyranny. Stories are how we spread them. This is my grandfather’s – and mine.