In December 2015 I saw Donald Trump on CNN invoke FDR’s use of “internment” for the Japanese as a possible solution for the “Muslim problem”. At the time, I was on my way to Manzanar, CA, one of ten US internment camps created in 1942 to hold 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (eventually more than 120,000). Over the next five months, my husband and I traveled across America twice – more than 16,000 miles in total – to visit all ten of the World War II camps where Japanese Americans had been held.
With us were 120 hand-pinched yellow tea bowls, each representing 1000 individuals held in the camps. The idea was to photograph the yellow bowls at each site to document what had occurred there more than 70 years ago. For me, an American of Japanese ancestry and former journalist, this was the culminating act of three years of travel, reading and research. I had never really known nor ever asked about what had really happened at that time. It was my attempt, a lone ceramicist, to say to those incarcerated: you are not forgotten.
In a perverse way, the camps were part of FDR’s promise to the American people in his Third Inaugural address. This immensely popular President, who had authored the New Deal to help America dig out of the Great Depression, made a new promise as the country stood on the brink of war, the promise of Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. The mass incarceration of Japanese was FDR’s attempt to ensure Americans of that last freedom, Freedom from Fear.
When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, all those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were removed from their homes and sent to camps in the interior of the west. The problem was that two-thirds of those incarcerated were American citizens and a third were children, and none of them was ever proved to be a security threat. In fact, thousands of them would go on to fight for their country – the United States – during the war, despite having lost their freedom and their homes, and in the face of continued incarceration for their families.
Pearl Harbor is often cited as the justification for this act, but in fact much of the plan pre-existed that event because of growing military tensions between the US and Japan in the Pacific. Even more important was a widespread enmity toward those of Japanese ancestry – immigrants and citizens alike – in this country. After all, nothing like the mass internment of Japanese Americans happened to German Americans and Italian Americans, despite the war in Europe.
This has to do with the level of racism that existed before the start of WWII. Anti-Asian hostility had long been an integral part of American history. Legislation banning and curbing Asian immigration, rights of citizenship, voting, landownership, etc., had been on and off the books since 1875. Laws targeting people of Japanese ancestry date from the early 1900s, including the draconian Alien Land Laws in California. Japanese Americans looked different, had different cultural practices and were competitors to white farmers and workers.
This was a part of US history I didn’t learn in school and took many decades to face up to. (Editor’s note: Although famed FSA photographer Dorothea Lange was commissioned to photograph interned Japanese Americans, the Army censored the images.) Thus was born my “Freedom from Fear Project.” I wanted to show that those who were incarcerated were just as American and just as scared as those who feared them. I knew going in that this would not be an easy task. After all, FDR is a hero to many Americans and my fellow citizens would probably rather forget that their country once engaged in mass violation of civil rights to create concentration camps for its own citizens.
Yet, as a series of WWII anniversaries were approaching, and as the nation in the wake of the recent election felt more divided racially, spiritually and economically than ever, I wanted to go back to consider FDR’s Four Freedoms, to see where we are as a nation today. It’s easy to honor the fine words of FDR’s great speech in times of prosperity and peace, but how does today’s multicultural nation manage fear of ‘The Other’? If 75 years ago, it was Japanese, Germans and Italians who were to be feared, today it is Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese. The initial reaction to my project was an uneven mix ranging from shock to admiration, with a lot of stony silence in between. In some sense, it mirrored the mood of the nation.
In August 2016, as the presidential campaign heated up and the rhetoric of fear rose like a toxic plume, I decided to slightly amend the name of my work to the “Freedom From Fear/Yellow Bowl Project”. By adding a brief description of the project to the title I could somewhat dilute the notion of fear as its dominant message, and at the same time promote what I feel is essentially a message of hope and optimism, rather than of recrimination and blame. As a new President and a new administration takes over and the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 approaches, I hope to put my message out there – since this, too, is a part of the American story, whether we like it or not. If we choose to ignore our history, are we doomed to repeat it?
Setsuko Winchester, born in New York City of Japanese immigrant parents, worked as a journalist, editor and producer at NPR on shows like Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation before moving to Western Massachusetts in 2006 to pursue a life-long interest in the ceramics and the visual arts. Photographs from her latest project go on display at FDR’s former home and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, in February.