Neil Nakadate's new memoir, Looking After Minidoka, documents the "internment camp" years as they became a prism for understanding three generations of Japanese American life, from immigration to the end of the twentieth century. Nakadate blends history, poetry, rescued memory, and family stories in an American narrative of hope and disappointment, language and education, employment and social standing, prejudice and pain, communal values and personal dreams.
In this interview, Nakadate reveals the importance of Minidoka and what he learned about himself and his family through his research.
What is Minidoka, and why is it important to you and your family history?
“Minidoka” is the familiar name given to the “internment” or incarceration camp at Hunt, Idaho to which members of my family were “relocated” during World War II. Minidoka was one of ten such camps to which over 110,000 Japanese Americans were exiled after being forcibly “evacuated” from their homes on the West Coast, primarily due to prejudice and fear—and in the absence of formal charges and judicial process.
What insights did you learn about yourself while researching your family’s history?
I became aware of ways that I am a product of commitments and choices made by others, as far back as Japan in the nineteenth century.
What new discoveries did you make about your family while working on the book?
I gained an increased understanding of female members of my family as they negotiated their identities and their families’ lives in various times and places and under often trying circumstances—in turn-of-the-century Japan, in 1920’s Portland, at Minidoka during WWII. . . .While working on the book I was also struck by the diversity of individual experience, both across and within various Japanese American communities.
What does it mean to you to be a Japanese American?
Well, among other things, it means having a sense of origins and identity, and it means being Asian American.
Do you see today any of the prejudices that were evident during WWII against Japanese Americans or Japanese immigrants?
What we still see today in discussions of such matters as immigration, citizenship, and employment is a tendency to let ignorance, stereotyping, and racial profiling substitute for knowledge and informed decision-making. And as in 1942, narrow political agendas, economic motives, and religious and racial bias seem part of the mix. . . .
Explain the significance of the poems that are woven throughout the book.
The poems were among my earliest efforts to address the topic of “Minidoka,” beginning with fundamental questions and feelings. The poems contribute a subjective and expressive element, a more internal and contemplative note than what you see elsewhere. Like the photos, they add another dimension to the book.
What do you hope readers will learn from your story?
I hope they see an interesting and compelling narrative of individuals and families embracing multiple cultures as they become part of twentieth century America. I hope readers see that in the process of claiming their lives “average” people create history, contribute texture and meaning to “large historical events.”