"Honoring their experiences" -- Mizu Sugimura recalls her testimony at the 1981 redress hearings in Seattle for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II

  • By Mizu Sugimura
  • Posted 1/11/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21136
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Mizu Sugimura (b. 1955), a Seattle-area artist and arts educator, is one of several Sansei (third-generation) Japanese Americans who testified before the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in Seattle in September 1981. The Seattle CWRIC hearings, among several nationwide, were part of a campaign for redress for Japanese Americans that lasted more than a decade and culminated with President Ronald Reagan's signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. In these vignettes, emailed to historian Tamiko Nimura in 2020, Sugimura describes her memories of a preparatory mock hearing in Seattle in May 1981, testifying before the CWRIC in September 1981, and the deep generational silence around the subject of the World War II internment camps, in both her family and overall Japanese American community.

About Mizu Sugimura

Mizu Sugimura was born in 1955 to Frank Susumu Aoyama and Susie Aoyama. During her youth, her parents joined with other Nikkei on the East Side of Lake Washington to found a new chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. They suggested Mizu apply for membership. During one of the chapter meetings, Mizu volunteered to serve as an alternate on the Community Committee for Redress/Reparations (CCRR), which met in Seattle. During her work with the CCRR, she met community leaders and activists such as Cherry Kinoshita, Chuck Kato, Sam Shoji, Chizuko Omori, Gordon Hirabayashi, Wayne Kimura, Ken Nakano, Hiro Nishimura, Karen Seriguchi and Frank Abe. (As an aside, early redress activist Shosuke Sasaki was one of her family's relatives by marriage.)

Given Mizu Sugimura's work with the CCRR, her recent immersion in Asian American studies at the University of Washington, and her attendance at the first Day of Remembrance at the Washington State Fairgrounds in 1978 (the former location of the temporary assembly center "Camp Harmony" during World War II), she became interested in testifying at the 1981 hearings. She did so under her married name, Jane Anne Yambe. These are her written recollections in 2020, nearly 40 years later:

Mock Redress Hearing, May 1981
Mizu Sugimura: The news that Seattle would be on the nationwide schedule of the newly formed CRWIC was quite exciting. CCRR and other organizers were determined that Seattle should make the most of this historic opportunity. A decision was made to hold a mock hearing to encourage a solid community turnout and participation when the actual proceedings took place. There was also an interest in reaching a sizable group of proud, reluctant, conservative or even alarmed Japanese American community members, who equated an ask for redress as a shameful request for special treatment or a handout, and were anxious not to appear as if they were demanding anything, calling undue negative attention to the community, or feeding existing or residual white anger or public backlash.
The Nisei Veterans Hall was secured for the event. Three volunteers were secured to play parts as witnesses. A few notable others, including Judge Charles Z. Smith, were recruited to play the roles of the visiting commissions and staff.  

Two volunteer witnesses were men. The third, was an older Nisei woman of mixed Irish/Japanese ancestry, by the name of Theresa Takayoshi. I can still see the image of her wiry frame, tanned complexion, and wavy, light-colored grey hair in my mind's eye. I hear the sound of her distinctive and throaty cadence. She was riveting. Her raw and powerful testimony at the mock hearing made a huge impression. Very few Japanese American females, aside from a handful of activist women, often educators, were comfortable talking in public about a lot of things, much less the camps, even more their deeper, personal feelings. As a follow up, Takayoshi went on to effectively share her testimony at the official hearings in September.

However, the highlight of the mock hearings for me was an unplanned and possibly unscheduled appearance by crusading young Sansei attorney who happened to be in town. He was Dale Minami, who hailed from California. After being introduced to the crowd, Minami waded right into the heart of the unspoken controversy in the community, between those who were gung-ho about the upcoming hearings and those with cold feet. I wasn't taking notes and 40 years have passed, so I'll paraphrase as best as I can. Minami said he was aware there were some in the crowd who yearned for justice, but felt it demeaning for the Japanese American community to organize and ask for the government for money. If it was truly justice, the scuttlebutt went, the government ought to come to this conclusion independently.

Minami flatly shot that idea down. While you may feel that you deserve justice, he told them, no one -- including the U.S. government -- will ever just give it to you. You must be willing to take the first step and make the commitment, to roll up your sleeves and step outside your comfort level, and going out into the world to see what kind of justice that you can obtain for yourself. In other words, justice and activism were interconnected. From that day forth, Dale Minami was my hero!
Hearings in Seattle, September 1981
I'm a post-World War II baby, born into a family of hardworking, responsible and mostly data-oriented, engineering, science and business people. Standing up in a public setting, spilling their feelings and giving an address to a room full of strangers, much less to a U.S. Congressional Committee, was simply not our family's cup of tea.

But, like many Sansei, I'd begun to understand that the camp experience was as undeniable a historical family legacy as my Japanese surname, the color of my skin, and straight black hair, which connected me to my parents and grandparents. I'll go so far to say that the air we breathed every day was thick with unspoken memories. While I was growing up, there wasn't a birthday, anniversary, family gathering or visit by out-of-town relatives where the subject of "camp" did not come up. It was the elephant in the room, and it never went away. Over the years, for the most part, everyone learned to navigate around it.

I am not a data-oriented person. A math brain was never mine. I fall more on the intuitive side of the ruler. I was convinced that someone in my joint family needed to participate in this unprecedented opportunity, and when no one else volunteered, I decided to do so. I wanted to tell my fellow Americans that putting my parents and grandparents in the World War II concentration camps wasn't just a one-time bad thing, that the wartime injustices that they'd been subjected them to did not end when they walked out of camp or dissolved with the passing of time. Those former prisoners ended up taking some of those issues, like adapting to uncertainty, by adopting problematic communications styles. What they couldn't solve got passed along as family baggage for the future generations.
There was the time in elementary school that I overheard my father ask my mother, while both looked out at our backyard through a kitchen window, if she had the same worries as he, that another Japanese American family inadvertently posed by moving into the neighborhood. Apparently, Dad believed there was a safe number, which was in danger of being breached. He said, "Haku-jin (white people) will say this area is becoming a ghetto. What will they say? What will they do?" She didn't have an answer, and they both looked concerned.
Other times, like my late teens and early 20s, I found myself slamming into someone's unresolved past. I don't remember the exact incident that provoked my exasperated Mom to unload a one-time analogy to me that, "I could never navigate adulthood, until I learned to read between the lines, because people will turn on you overnight." It should be added that she never spoke of this again, nor offered any tips on how to go about doing so, so I was stuck. Apparently, it was a situation where every man, woman or child was expected to figure it out for themselves.
Given my family's reluctance, I did not expect my parents or anyone in both sides of my family tree to come to see me deliver this written testimony at the Seattle hearings. Was it worthwhile? I wasn't prepared for the big surprise after my Sansei panel concluded our presentations, and we all exited the stage to head back to our respective seats among the audience. Suddenly there was a blur in front of me. As the blur dissipated, I became aware that a hand attached to a nearby someone, who had grabbed mine, and who was pumping my hand up and down in a vigorously congratulatory way. What a surprise to see that the person the hand belonged to was none other than my own grinning Dad. By the time I recognized it was him, he was gone, because the next panel was beginning, and we all needed to be seated. I don't even recall what he was wearing that day, or if my Mom was with him. But it was the closest he ever got to bestowing an "Atta Girl!" moment. There are days I still look at my hand and marvel.
On the Power of Images: Collage Artwork
For two full decades, I have enjoyed sharing collage artwork about my family's World War II experiences in America's concentration camps with audiences outside the Japanese American community as a way of educating my fellow citizens and honoring their experiences and sacrifices. I came to express my feelings about this period in my family's history by total accident.

I had a run-in or two with my Mom in my 20s trying to talk about the camps, that tried her patience. One day, she decided that she had enough. She told me she didn't want to hear me bring up the topic again, because having not lived in one, I had no qualifications. And, as far as she was concerned, that was that. I'd been raised to respect my elders, so I knew better not to argue. But I never dropped my curiosity.

Ten or more years later, I took a collage workshop during a Family Day event from Filipino American artist, Romson Regarde Bustillo, at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. He incorporated family themes in artistic collages as part of his work. During this public workshop, he shared his philosophies, and provided a pile of magazines, glue sticks and clear packing tape for those parents and kids who attended to create a little something to take home. I did one. He complimented me, and suggested I do some more.

By 1999, I had finished six or seven story collages revolving around the theme of my family's World War II imprisonment. It was an experiment. I had a particular audience in mind. I tried to show I had a subliminal understanding of the camps, having grown up among a cadre of adults who were still immersed in processing the experience when I met them.

So, I took what I made over to my Mom's house. The beauty of using collages to start a conversation was that Mom wasn't required to say anything if she chose not to. All she need do is take a look. I would watch. If she said nothing and walked away, that would be fine. If she stopped to look, I'd time her gaze. If she wanted to make a remark, I'd note that. Whatever she chose to do, she could keep her privacy. I, in turn, could keep that old promise. It worked! She looked at every single one. After a long silence, she said but seven words, "I think that you have something here."

Those seven words were all I needed. I took it from there. I showed a few to my equally reluctant aunts and uncles. Then I took them all out into the world. Several shows, workshops and newspaper articles later, I was more than convinced that it was a great tool, inside and outside the Japanese American community, because images have a special power and connection, to access feelings, especially for people who may not have had, then or now, the right words to describe what they had felt.

Our families had been taught it was responsible not to hurt or inconvenience others. Everyone's duties included ministering to their own hurt and their own pain. One should not burden others with yours, if it can be so avoided. Taking complaints outside the family was also frowned upon. Individuals with strong feelings and emotions often had no one to turn to, so much was suppressed or minimized. My own theory is that over the course of many years all of this baggage became a larger and larger burden.

Camp was a chapter of life no one in our family had ever experienced before. No one, not even our immigrant grandparents, had any handy coping skills when it happened, to share with their children. My grandparents didn't all speak fluent English, and their children could only speak baby Japanese. They didn't have tradition or a shared vocabulary to talk about their hurt, fear, shock, and worries. Worse still, the information that they needed to cope was either unavailable or often purposefully withheld by their government jailers.

In the end, I may not have attempted this experiment with collages had I not recalled one more scene from the Seattle hearings. The day of my panel, I watched a group of Nisei, who looked as if they'd stepped from the pages of my own family photo album. With great dignity and purpose, they left their seats in the audience, mounted the stairs to the stage, and quietly sat down with composed faces until their turn came to speak. When each individual was called, they carefully unpacked both their stories and faces, held together until that very moment by frayed mental rubber bands and twine, and oh so briefly let only a flash or two of long suppressed grief, pain, hurt, disbelief, loss and shame, before they concluded.

Then, as quietly as they'd begun, they folded their recent trauma in a dazzling demonstration of generational origami, allowing the tense plains of their facial muscles to slowly relax, until they looked as serene and composed as the same faces that my Mom, my Dad, and my relatives presented to the outside world every normal day of their lives.

In that moment, I understood the burden and the crazy amount of energy that must have to be employed to carry on like this for decades without release. And I knew that it was part of the reason I had long felt that what was going on in front of me as a child and a teenager wasn't always about my life then or my parents, but something more. From that perspective, situations from my childhood and puzzling family events suddenly began to make sense.

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