Rendition then and now

The Japanese American internments and their relationship to today’s renditions are explored in a Palos Verdes art show and a Torrance performing arts series
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published February 12, 2009

A course in creative writing can lead to many things – a collection of poems, essays, short fiction; even a novel. What Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz ended up with was none of the above; it was, instead, a series of watercolors. Dozens and dozens of them, 61 in fact, surrounding us during our conversation at the Palos Verdes Art Center.
The series – it’s on view through March 8 – is called “Camp Days 1942-1945,” and it records personal events as remembered much later from the three-plus years that Chizuko Sugita spent locked up in the Poston, Arizona relocation camp.
Most nine-year-olds are only locked up, so to speak, if they don’t complete their homework. But after Pearl Harbor even being one-sixteenth Japanese was enough to brand infants and the elderly alike as undesirables. Well, we just can’t be too careful: A few Japanese schoolgirls could have flown jets into the Empire State Building.
Down the hill at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, John Powers has assembled a multipart program entitled “Whose Story Now?” The latest in his ongoing Works in Progress presentations (see powerplayz.com), it evolved from a series in 2007 entitled “Executive Order 9066” that, as Powers explains, “focused on stories that explored the impact of the forced evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
“Among the reasons Japanese Americans – a small minority in the 1940s – were so vulnerable is that they had no voice, and they had no story of their own that was told outside of their community. So they were an easy group of people to target, blame, and then punish.”
Through five events, the first on Monday and the last in May, “Whose Story Now?” extends the narrative that begins in 1942 and carries it up through the present by way of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the ongoing crusade against infidels far and wide. “But the story doesn’t end there,” Powers says. “Another generation is emerging, and we’re waiting to see who claims it now.”

Desert Rose
In her writing class, Sugita de Queiroz was asked to set down her ideas in advance of weaving them into a narrative. She came up with 250 incidents or memories from her years in the internment camp. Her intention, she says, was to write a book: “I thought this would be something my family should have and know about me. Then I found myself sketching on the sides of my writing and I thought to myself, This is crazy; I’m an artist, not a writer.”
After she finished the course, and yes she did finish it, Sugita de Queiroz looked over those sketches in her margins and decided to elaborate on them for a show at the Sandstone Gallery in Laguna Beach. That was in 2003.
So in the end it turned out to be a visual memoir instead of a written memoir?
“All visual,” she replies, “but I have the descriptions of each thing. Even though these seem like long, long titles, I had a whole page on each one.”
The watercolors are richly saturated with color – there’s seemingly a wistful nostalgia to many of them – so I’m caught off-guard by the response to my next question: When you look around at them and take them all in, what is your overall feeling?
“Well,” Sugita de Queiroz says with a slight pause, “it was the most horrible time of my whole life.”
Chizuko Sugita was born in Sacramento not long before her family moved to Orange County. She was the youngest of seven children, but her mother died when she was a few months old. She was raised by an aunt and then by an older, married sister, before returning home to her family and starting school.
She wasn’t exactly off and running: “I was quite backwards, and I was quite shy and never spoke, unless it needed an answer. People just talked to me, and did things for me.”
Not surprisingly, then, the forced relocation of her family from California to Arizona “was really a shock to my whole system.” Although she still had her family in the evenings, her siblings went their own way and Chizuko was forced to meet young people on her own.
“I started making friends towards the end of camp, and so I had some good times. But I still spent a lot of time by myself, reading.”
As evidenced through her watercolors, Sugita de Queiroz remembers events both small and large. One day a famous photographer arrived and took pictures, but a disappointed Chizuko only found out about this later.
How come you didn’t tell me? she asked. How come you didn’t take me? Well, we couldn’t find you they answered. You were probably at the library. “A lot of things happened where I was left out,” she continues, “and so I felt really, really… abandoned probably is the best word. I was very unhappy in camp.”
There were bright spots nonetheless:
“Mrs. Perry, my fifth grade teacher, thought I was good in art, and that gave me confidence.”
It was a vital first step, even though “I never really came out of my shell until after we left camp. Then I decided I’m just going to act like I know everything and just be the most helpful person in the world, and I would prove to myself to be a really worthy person.”

What about our story?
“After the war,” says John Powers, “the Japanese [Americans] claimed their voice and began to tell their story for the first time. They led with the story of the 442nd regimental combat team, better known as the Go For Broke team. For its size and duration of service, the 100th battalion/442nd regimental combat team is the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.”
Powers also mentions the Japanese American Citizens League, a conservative organization that, he points out, “had developed ties within the Washington, D.C community, and lobbied heavily for the kind of constitutional rights that should have been theirs by birth but were denied by ethnicity. The JACL continued to tell this story repeatedly through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, to win these rights.
“However, the cost was that dissenting voices and other stories were not told at all. In fact, the true complexity of the camp experience was really not spoken about, even by family members, until the third generation came along, the Sansei generation. And motivated by what they saw going on with the civil rights movement and the peace movement in this country, they said, But what about our story? Instead of just trying to tie in to the general American experience, they really looked to their own ethnicity and to find pride in that heritage.
“The story of Japanese Americans continues to evolve as yet another generation comes along, the Yonsei generation.” Referring to the storytellers and performance artists and musicians he’s lined up for “Whose Story Now?” Powers is concise: “The camp experience serves as a lens in which these artists look through the experience of their parents or grandparents to examine contemporary events in American history today, specifically the change in the American quality of life in the aftermath of 9/11, and also in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib.”

Finding her inner strength
The backwards and shy girl who went into the internment camp at Poston was beginning to find herself by the time her family could leave Arizona.
“I became more aggressive and I became more resilient, and I think I began to grow up, between nine and 12,” says Sugita de Queiroz. “I saw the handwriting on the wall that I’d have to be a little more outgoing. I pretended that whole thing, day in and day out. Sometimes it was very discouraging, but it started to work and became my personality. It wasn’t a pretense anymore; it was who I was.” Or, as I heard her confide to some docents before our conversation, “There’s nothing wrong with pretending when you’re young” if it helps to get you through a difficult time.
In 1945, after three and a half years of confinement, the family returned to Orange County. Sugita de Queiroz recalls what her seventh grade teacher said to her: “Chizuko, your first name is too hard to pronounce; would you like an American name? And I said Yes! I thought she was going to give me one, in front of the whole class. She said, Well, what would you like to be called? I couldn’t think of any names; the first name I could think of was Judy… When I got home my oldest sister said, Ha-ha-ha, Punch and Judy; what a dumb name.” Even now, just through her pauses and intonations, one can picture the crestfallen little girl. “But,” she adds, “it stayed with me.”
Sugita de Queiroz says that her siblings had confidence in themselves, whereas she struggled with it. She knew she’d have to put up a good front; was it possible some of them were simply doing the same, especially in light of all they’d gone through?
“You had to pretend to be confident. I know that I felt like a second-class citizen because I remember my friend telling me, Don’t worry, Judy, you look Chinese; it’s okay… And that was the nicest thing somebody said to me, because I was so ashamed of being Japanese.” Having been in camp was a stigma that lingered: “You knew you were put there because you were Japanese.”
Then, through sheer determination, Sugita de Queiroz became more socially active. She was the art director of her college yearbook, joined a club and was elected its president, and pledged a sorority at a time when very few Japanese Americans thought of doing so.
“In college I came into my own, becoming the person I wanted to be from the person I really was.”

History rhymes
Last year, Works in Progress presented four staged readings that dramatized key events from 1968, these being the circumstances surrounding the murders of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the Olympics in Mexico City.
“While these events took place 40 years ago,” Powers says, “there was a lot of resonance between what happened in 1968 and what was going on in 2008. The quote that I would use frequently with our audience is from Mark Twain, which is that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
What made you decide to do “Whose Story Now?” at this time?
“While the U.S. apologized and made redress to the Japanese American community for how it treated them,” Powers replies, “it has not put away a lot of the tools that it used at that time, words like rendition, secret prisons, the elimination of civil liberties and due process. This is what the Japanese American community experienced, and that is what we’ve seen going on, that our government has been carrying out these policies once again – in our name, ostensibly for our security – against this vague enemy that supposedly hates our way of life and wants to destroy us. But what we have found is that it has degraded America’s standing in the world. We’ve embarrassed ourselves because it cuts against our core values.
“By looking at a group of people that comprise a great deal of our South Bay community,” he says, “to see what effect this kind of policy made on them over a course of time, provides a valuable lesson. We can begin to see that those kinds of tools are unlawful, immoral, and fundamentally ineffective. All of us, in this community, are striving towards a more perfect union. Through a performing arts series like this that involves a number of people we can examine what has happened to this specific group of people in our name. And we can try and imagine what the rhyme is going to be, if you will, on a generation going forward on the abuse of civil liberties, or the elimination of due process, ostensibly in the name of national security.”
During World War II Uncle Sam realized that these able-bodied young men sitting in camps could contribute to the war effort on the European front. So they were drafted or allowed to enlist, which was clearly an insult in some ways while it did enable each soldier to prove that he was 100 percent American. What an irony, then, to be serving the cause of freedom while back home their families were imprisoned solely because of their ethnicity.

Indian summers
After returning from Poston, Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz and her family reintegrated into the general community, although they had to start over from scratch.
“We were really good servants,” she says of neighbors who weren’t relocated. “My dad did the gardening for them, and we did all the ironing and washed their dishes. They gave us little jobs. That was wonderful because they didn’t have anything.”
Someone gave them his storage building and the family converted it into living quarters.
Did she sense prejudice? Yes she did, but says she pretended not to be hurt and that she has always looked on the positive side of life.
“I hung out with people who liked me, and vice versa.” They were, she points out, people of all races, too.
When you speak with Japanese Americans who were in other facilities, are their experiences similar to yours?
“They were identical,” she replies, “whether they were in Arkansas or Idaho, because [the government] took the most Godforsaken places that nobody wanted to live, and that’s where they built the camps. And most of them were on Indian reservations.” They chose those sites, she says, because the Japanese on the West Coast were known for their farming skills, and thus, “They wanted the Japanese to build all the aqueducts and all the infrastructure on that camp so that when the war was over the Indians would have all the farming facilities at their disposal.
“But the government didn’t think. They didn’t educate the Colorado River Indian tribe there; they brought in Indians from all over, and from different tribes, that weren’t used to farming. So it didn’t work. But the Colorado River Indians celebrate with us each time we have our reunion, and they have their program that they do with us because they have such an affinity, and we have such an affinity towards their part. They have been discriminated against so much more than we were, and they have been destroyed completely as a nation. It’s always a dual kind of get-together when we have a Poston reunion.”
There were nearly 18,000 internees at this camp (and about 120,000 overall, in ten camps), but reunions happen less frequently as the survivors grow old and join the big powwow in the sky.
Are the children doing enough to keep the memory of it going?
“No,” Sugita de Queiroz replies, “because they’re Americanized, and you can’t really blame them because that’s how a country is. For years [Asians] couldn’t own property; you couldn’t become a citizen of this country. But in 1952 when they [passed] the law where Asians could become American citizens my father immediately became an American citizen. He identified with this country.”

Reaching for the playbook
“When America is attacked or senses that it’s under attack,” John Powers is quick to stress, “among the first things that it does is turn inward and says, How could this have happened? There must have been an enemy among us – and we have to put severe restrictions on your society and figure out who’s with us and who’s against us.”
This kind of thinking had its heyday in the 1950s with McCarthyism.
“‘America on Trial,’” an earlier Works in Progress series that Powers was behind, “looked at how sometimes people, who are in positions of authority within our government, will put forward – as our current president has said – a false choice between our ideals and security. In fact, it is a false choice. They go hand in hand. Our greatest security comes from our ideals, and our support of due process and civil liberties, even when we are under a threat. So often these things are hysterical; they are blown out of proportion by people who are seeking to enlarge their own power.”
Is it that things haven’t changed in this country or that in recent years they’ve regressed?
“I don’t think things have changed since the Puritans,” Powers replies. He refers to one of his presentations, “The Examination of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson,” about a woman tried in court over religious issues.
“They banished her from the Massachusetts colony, and they wrote up a document following that banishment that essentially defined what a Puritan is, but more importantly, what a Puritan is not.”
Jump forward well over two centuries: “So many of the ways they define [a Puritan] have shown up again in the Patriot Act that came in existence and so hurriedly in 2002. It’s stunning. How we react as a people has not changed. No matter that we make an apology and a monetary redress to a group of people, when push comes to shove certain people in positions of authority will just reach on the shelf and pull that old playbook off again and apply those same principles, despite the fact that they’ve been shown to be unlawful. Of course, they will pass a law and suddenly say, Well, they’re lawful now because I said so. But they’re ineffective and immoral, and they continually create more harm to ourselves as a community, as a nation, and as a member of the global community.”
Powers then hones in on one word: rendition.
“We’re hearing it a great deal today. We go and pick up somebody that is suspect or who has been turned over to us without any evidence; it’s just on someone’s word. And suddenly we are transporting them across the world to a black site where they’re beyond the reach of anyone who’s a family member or friend who can bring any kind of assistance to them. They are given several interrogation methods, I’ll use the term torture, and they’re just forgotten about.
“The term rendition goes right back to the 1940s,” Powers continues, “when the U.S. went down to Latin America and persuaded governments, particularly in Peru, to turn over their citizens of Japanese ancestry, and we rendered more than 600 people to our country and put them in prisons up here. Their passports were taken away; their citizenship was revoked; and they became non-citizens of the world. Our intent was to use them as hostages with the government of Japan for any Americans or allied forces that were taken.
“Once the war was over, those people had no place to go back to. Those governments refused to accept them. A number of them immigrated to Japan, but many of them remained here in the United States as a stateless person until accommodations were made for their legal residency. But the government has never made redress, or apologized to this specific group of people. So, when it comes to serving our interest, we just wash aside the Constitution and all that it stands for.”

And the beat goes on
In the years after Sept. 11, 2001, have you seen anything in the public mood that reminds you of that time in the 1940s?
“Sure,” Sugita de Queiroz replies. “After 9/11 they took a lot of Muslim Americans away; that’s why I give all my proceeds from my book to the Japanese American National Museum. They they have a democracy center that works for due process and justice for those who [lose their rights]. Even in Irvine, a doctor was taken away. It was in the back of the Irvine newspaper one day and I said, Oh my God!
“He was sending money home to his parents in Iraq, and he was an American citizen. The family had no real contact with him. We didn’t know where he had gone. But he did come back, after about two and a half years.”
“Camp Days 1942-1945, watercolors by Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, is on view in the Beckstrand Gallery of the Palos Verdes Art Center, 5504 W. Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. She’ll talk about and sign her book on Sunday, Feb. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. In the Norris Gallery there are paintings from the Henry Fukuhara Manzanar Workshop Group, and in the Walker Gallery a collection of photographs, “Japanese Americans and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, 1905-1945,” culled from the 40 Families Archive of the Palos Verdes Library District. Through March 8. Call (310) 541-2479 or go to pvartcenter.org.
“Whose Story Now?” begins on Monday with a free screening at 2 p.m. of Emiko Omori’s “Rabbit in the Moon” that recounts the experiences of a family forced to spend the war years in an internment camp. Tickets handed out on a first come basis. It screens in the James Armstrong Theatre. Afterwards, there’s a Q&A with people who were involved with the film. The other events take place on various Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in the George Nakano Theatre. On Feb. 25, Alton Takiyama-Chung tells the stories of two brothers in the 100th/442nd, and of Torrance’s Ted Tanouye. On March 25, Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin, two of the founding members of Yellow Pearl (the late Chris Iijima is the other) perform music and tell stories of the emerging Asian American movement during the 1970s. On April 29, Denise Uyehara, in “Big Head,” conveys stories of Japanese Americans during World War II and then looks at the treatment of certain groups of people in this country in the wake of 9/11. Lastly, on May 27, performance artist Dan Kwong presents “It’s Great 2B American,” a multimedia work about the ironies of having an American passport and an Asian face. Tickets for the Wednesday events are $25 general, $23 seniors, students, and $20 for subscribers. The James Armstrong and George Nakano theaters are in the Torrance Cultural Arts Center at 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance. (310) 618-6342 or go to TorranceLive.us. ER