Arts and Culture | Local

Family memories of Japanese internment camps in U.S. spark Tucson poet’s talk

Local poet Brandon Shimoda speaks at the Holocaust History Center on Jan. 20. (Samuel Ace)

More than 100 people packed the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum on Friday, Jan. 20 for a gallery chat, “States of Exile: Arizona’s place, and the place of Arizona, in the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans,” with Tucson poet Brandon Shimoda. After acknowledging the ancestors of Tucsonans killed in the Holocaust, the fact that the group was gathered on what was originally Tohono O’odham land, and that the event was taking place on Inauguration Day, Shimoda spoke of his grandfather, a Japanese immigrant who was incarcerated during World War II.

He explained that his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, immigrated to the United States in 1919 at age 8. Asians would not become eligible for citizenship until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, so when the FBI interrogated him during the war, he foreswore allegiance to Japan to avoid deportation, and in the process became stateless.

The chat was part of a series of short programs held every other Friday that focus on one artifact in the museum — in this case, an object in the “classification” section of the elements of genocide exhibit. On display was a statement by Dillon Myer, who was director of the War Relocation Authority, referring to the internment camps as “indoctrination centers for Americanism.”

Shimoda’s great-aunt Joy was also incarcerated as an enemy of the state, in Poston, Ariz., at the age of 4, too young to understand the loss of freedom. She remembered only the dust, cold winters, bologna for dinner. She remembered playing with marbles and string. And she remembered the guards aiming guns into the camps.

Congress, Shimoda said, later acknowledged three factors leading to the camps: race prejudice, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership. He added another: economic exploitation, telling the story of Thomas Campbell, a land expert with the U.S. Department of the Interior, who drafted a plan to combine “worthless parcels of real estate” with abandoned projects for irrigation, agriculture and roads, using the free and captive labor of Japanese Americans, who had already established themselves as industrious and productive.

Both the Colorado River Indian Reservation at Poston and the Gila River Indian Reservation were used for internment camps over the objections of their tribal councils, Shimoda pointed out, noting the parallels between the treatment of the Japanese and Native Americans.

The road to the top of Mount Lemmon, he added, was built by captive labor from a camp that was later renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area after a man who had refused to obey curfew and was interned there, along with war protestors and conscientious objectors, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, and Hopi as well as Japanese.

Members of the Southern Arizona Japanese Cultural Coalition attended the talk, and founder Ross Iwamoto spoke of a trip he organized to the Gila River War Relocation Center. Ray Akazawa spoke of the irony of his father as a soldier in the U.S. Army visiting his mother when she was incarcerated there.

Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman, a program specialist at the museum, organized the event as part of the Holocaust History Center’s mission to educate the public on racism and injustice across cultures and modern human history.

A transcript of the talk is available at

Deborah Mayaan s a writer and artist in Tucson. She is a certified health coach with the Gupta Programme. Contact her at