Internment’s rural racializations: an interview with Rita Brogan, co-curator of ‘Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island’

“People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.” — Rita Brogan

Suitcases from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

White luggage tags mark a pair of battered, tan hard-cased suitcases. These tags indicate the suitcases’ owner, Tsuma Yoshima. But they also mark something more pernicious: internment, the forced government removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes. “So this was Executive order 9066,” Rita Brogan tells me speaking of these suitcases. “People were given two days’ notice and were allowed two suitcases,” she continues “so that’s why we have these suitcases here.” During World War II, President Roosevelt signed the executive order, forcing Japanese-Americans out of their homes and onto internment camps, and decimating once-thriving communities up and down the West Coast.  “Every family got a number matching the tag on the suitcase and a tag that topin on your clothes so they would know what belonged to what,” Brogan continues. She tells me of a Japanese-American student at Vashon High School who was “the valedictorian in 1942,” but “evacuated 13 days before graduation so he was, of course, never able to give his valedictory speech.” She also describes how “people wore many layers of clothing because they were only allowed what they wore plus two suitcases. It was really hot.”

Rita Brogan is a Japanese-American business owner and longtime Vashon resident, who has been a long-time activist in and around Asian-American affairs and civil rights in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. Brogan recently co-curated Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island, an exhibit at the Vashon Heritage Museum, which runs through Spring 2019.

Rita Brogan in front of the entrance to the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Vashon is an island the size of Manhattan with a population of 12,000, and is about two miles and a 20 minute ferry ride from Seattle. In 2015, the island was declared the “most liberal place in America” (many contested this declaration). The rural island is arts-rich, queer-friendly, and in 2017 was described by a Los Angeles Times writer as “one of the region’s experimental laboratories, a place where new strains of environmentalism and progressivism flourish, unencumbered by mainland reality. It presents an increasingly rare constituency: rural but not red.”

A 20th century map of Vashon Island from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

In Seattle, internment wiped out Japanese-American businesses at the famed Pike Place Market, which by the early 1940s, represented 80% of the market’s business. Although internment often conjures an idea of Japanese-Americans removed from West Coast urban centers, Joy and Heartache reveals the rural dimension of the devastating and dehumanizing forced removal of U.S. citizens. It brings to life stories of chickens and strawberries on Mukai farm, of Vashon Japanese-Americans planting cherry trees and curating dances and other cultural programs, and of anti-Japanese violence by white residents. I interviewed Rita Brogan who co-curated the exhibit, to learn more about the central role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon, and to think through the impact of internment, and racialized spatialization, in a rural area.

“Mama-san in the Strawberry Field” (2018), metal sculpture by Miya Sukune at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: How did you get involved with curating Joy and Heartache? What were some ideas and themes that you wanted the exhibit to communicate?

RITA BROGAN: I got involved because I have many decades of activism around Asian-American issues, Japanese-American issues and Asian-American studies and I had already been doing some pro-bono work with the Mukai Farm [& Garden] on Vashon Island on branding and outreach. The Mukai Farm is on the National Registry of Historic Places and has been called the best existing example of a Japanese-American farmstead in the United States, and it was an important community center. Through this, my interest grew in the larger historic role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon. I wanted to find out more about why Japanese-Americans played such an important role in the economic and social history of Vashon Island but also what happened to them. I got involved because there was a group that wanted to do an exhibit of Japanese-American history on Vashon, but they really felt the need to engage people of Japanese-American ancestry in creating the exhibit.

MAHMOUD: What’s the importance of having this exhibit on Vashon and what does the Japanese-American presence and then displacement mean for the history of Vashon and the Puget Sound area?

BROGAN: We wanted to cover the entire history of Japanese presence on Vashon Island. That presence changed significantly with the disruption caused by internment during World War II. The first Japanese settlers were mostly young Japanese males who were trying to find economic opportunity in America. That period of time at the beginning of the twentieth century and the latter part of the nineteenth century was a period of major economic upheaval in Japan. Many Japanese young men became intrigued by the idea of creating a new life in a new world, but also were being recruited as labor for various projects in America.  

We organized the exhibit around five stages of the Japanese socio-cultural evolution in America, which we called: Hope, Struggle, Trauma, Resilience and Identities. That first phase, when the young men first came to Vashon Island, we called Hope.  They and the picture brides they subsequently brought over, all had great hope for life in the new world. What occurred on Vashon, as was true in other communities as well, but particularly true on Vashon was that the Japanese-Americans community—despite major discriminatory laws such as the Alien Land Law, anti-immigration harassment and anti-immigration laws—began to make a life for themselves. They were very successful in farming. Their families placed a great deal of emphasis on education and on community, both involvement in the Japanese-American community but also involvement in the larger community. By the time that World War II came around, there was a really significant Japanese-American presence in Vashon Island society and Japanese-Americans in many ways dominated the agricultural economy. Of course, that changed overnight.

Image from ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

People were given two-days’ notice that they were going to be evacuated from Vashon to a place unknown. Besides the clothes on their backs, they were allowed two suitcases a piece. Unlike other Japanese Americans, Vashon evacuees were moved around frequently during the period of internment.  Some Vashon Japanese-American families moved up to five times. Vashon’s Japanese-American community was pulled apart in the process, moved to different locations throughout the United States. Only a third returned to Vashon after the war.

Luggage tags at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Even though many wanted to come back to farming, their farms had been neglected for four years and only a few could be restored. Also the agricultural economy throughout the nation changed because the interstate system which made it much easier to get produce from California. So even the those who were trying to make it in agriculture were ultimately not successful.

Image of an internment camp from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

MAHMOUD: Why is it important for people who often think about Internment only affecting Japanese-Americans in cities to also think about Japanese-Americans on Vashon and on rural areas?

BROGAN: It’s important to understand that everyone who lived on the West Coast was affected and what the disruptive impact of internment in rural areas was, I wouldn’t say that the rural experience was worse than the disruption for urban Japanese, but it did have a more significant impact for the island economy. It was bad for everyone, but sometimes people just don’t think about rural people.

Map of internment camps. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD: The exhibit had so much great photography, art, and poetry. How you did you think about those artistic aspects? What did this art communicate in the exhibit?

BROGAN: Photographs were particularly telling. For example if you look at the picture of an elementary school class in 1939 there were more Japanese-American students than whites. When you look at the class picture 10 or so years later there are no Japanese students.  This is a poignant example of how the evacuation changed the world for Japanese Americans on Vashon. We also included some of the anti-Japanese cartoons of the period, created by people like Dr. Seuss; a lot of people don’t realize how anti-Japanese he was. I think that the historic photographs certainly help bring the stories alive.

We also had a terrific opportunity to involve visual and spoken art. We asked Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to create a poem on the exhibit and so he organized his poem around the themes: “Hope,” “Struggle,” “Trauma,” “Resilience,” and “Identities.” [See this video for Pruiksma reading from his poem “Here” written for the exhibit.] His poetry brought so alive the issues that Japanese-Americans were dealing with, both culturally and politically. We also got a grant from King County’s 4Culture, and Miya Sukune, one of the Japanese-American artists on Vashon, was able to use that to develop six metal panels that depict the lives of the Matsuda family on Vashon Island such as having bon odori dances at the Tule Lake internment camp. There arts played a really meaningful role in communicating and message and making a visceral impact.

Image of a Miye Sukune’s metal sculpture “The Dust Storm (Mary and Ardith)” at the “Joy and Heartache” exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD:  What is the most interesting thing you learned from the process of curating this exhibit?

BROGAN: I would say that I had not really known or even thought about how the internment fundamentally changed both Japanese Americans who were evacuated, but also how it fundamentally impacted the entire Vashon community. Going through the sources really gave me a much more in-the-moment appreciation for the experience.

MAHMOUD: I’m curious what this history that you’ve excavated means for present day Vashon.

BROGAN: This has been the most popular exhibit that’s ever been shown at the Vashon Heritage Museum. It’s gotten a lot of attention on Vashon as well as off-island. There are a lot of people in the larger Japanese-American community who have come to Vashon to see the exhibit. It’s gotten great media attention as well.

This means many things. One is an appreciation for the historic experience of Japanese-Americans on Vashon Island, but a very current message about the continued discrimination against immigrants and people of color in this country.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other thoughts to add, Rita, or any other closing thoughts?

BROGAN: Well we didn’t really talk about the stages that much: “Hope;” then the “Struggle” phase went through the hardships that people had to endured in order to make their way in America. “Trauma” refers to the evacuation and internment. “Resilience” refers to the period right after World War II where Japanese-Americans tried to reintegrate into society and in doing so tried to become more American than American and more white than white. Many tried so hard to prove that they were not only equal to but that they had to be better than white Americans. And a lots of that thinking changed during the 1960s and 1970s, with the cultural disruption of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Third World Movement, where so many younger Asian-Americans were saying “no we need to be proud of who we are.” So that’s why the last stage is called “Identities.”

An excerpt from the program translated in both Japanese and English. In September, Brogan hosted a homestay with the Japan-American Society Grassroots Summit, a U.S.-Japan exchange that brought dozens of Japanese citizens to Vashon and the Pacific Northwest. With the exchange, many Japanese visiting the Pacific Northwest toured the exhibit which was translated from English to Japanese.

The Japanese-American community today on Vashon is very different from the Japanese community before World War II. The Japanese-American population on Vashon today includes few of the original farming families.  Today the community includes people who have moved to Vashon because of the schools; it’s made up of war brides, retirees, commuters– folks who haven’t had the same experience as Vashon’s Japanese-Americans prior to World War II. And yet we continue to face and combat discrimination and racism. For the “Identities” section of the exhibit, we tried to debunk the idea that the Asian-Americans are “model minorities.” We document continued discrimination, but also celebrate the fact that there are some really wonderful ways in which our culture is being embraced by younger generations.

People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.

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