Author Teresa Tamura, ’96, captures snapshots of Japanese internment

Teresa Tamura captures poignant stories of hardship from a World War II relocation center in her book “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp.”

“If I had lived through World War II, the one thing I would have wanted to keep, as a Japanese-American, is a camera. Cameras were listed as contraband.”

The book is dedicated “in honor of the Issei (first generation) and Nisei (born in the U.S.) who showed us ‘shiren,’ Japanese for trial, test, challenge, hardship—the school of adversity. By enduring, one becomes stronger, better.”

“I chose black-and-white photographs and personal essays because I thought they were the best means to tell a story that people in the Japanese American community didn’t acknowledge, much less talk about, for a long time. Silence is a coping mechanism for many people who have experienced trauma.”

The name Minidoka was first used in 1883 to designate the Union Pacific Railroad’s spur in the middle of the Snake River Plain. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, 127,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated, 9,000 of them at Minidoka. It was one of the worst civil rights violations in American history.

“I was filled with mixed emotions when I finally drove through the Magic Valley in southern Idaho to see the Minidoka site for the first time. It was, coincidentally, Oct. 25, 2001, the day before the USA Patriot Act became law.”

“People did start coming out and talking about it a little after the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was formed in 1980 to look into what happened. Within my own family, my siblings and I didn’t know that some of the parents of children we grew up with had been in Minidoka.”

“The people depicted in the photographs evolved in an organic way. As I learned more, I thought it was important to show examples of different aspects of the incarceration story such as draft resisters, volunteers in the military and people who repatriated to Japan.”

“What I came to understand in the making of the book is that the dislocation, hardships and suffering only made stronger and more resilient the spirit of those who were incarcerated.”

Minidoka’s environment was harsh with temperatures ranging from 30 degrees below zero to 115 degrees in the summer. Choking dust storms and ankle-deep mud caused by heavy rains also plagued the area.

Most of the people sent to Minidoka were from the Pacific Northwest, including more than 7,000 from Seattle and Bainbridge Island. Many internees were first housed at the Puyallup Fairgrounds before being sent by train to Idaho.

The irony is that Tamura’s father, whose family lived outside the military’s “exclusion zone” in Caldwell, Idaho, was a member of Company C in the U.S. 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese soldiers. He celebrated his 22nd birthday in a foxhole in southern Italy, wondering if he would make it home.