Written by Audrey Fong
Graphic by Gracelyn Prom
Growing up a fourth generation Japanese and Chinese American, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII looms over my family’s history in the U.S. But here’s the thing – my family wasn’t incarcerated during WWII.
This is because only Japanese Americans living along the West Coast were incarcerated. The idea was that the population of Japanese Americans was too high on the coast, making it easier for them to commit subterfuge against the U.S. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans in Hawaii, also home to a dense Japanese American population, were not incarcerated because moving them was deemed too difficult.
And then there’s the Japanese American side of my family, who lived and worked on a farm they rented in Nebraska. There, my grandmother grew up with nine siblings, living the life of an average farmer including learning how to drive a tractor before a car.
While Pearl Harbor and WWII definitely worsened the family’s reputation in town, life as a Japanese American farmer in Nebraska was never easy to begin with. A telltale sign of this is that as the youngest sibling in her family, my grandmother is the only one without a Japanese middle name. Her older siblings begged their mother not to name her something Japanese, wanting to save her from the taunting they faced at school.
What WWII did was up the ante of the discrimination my family faced in town. Additionally, many of their relatives, who lived along the West Coast, moved in with them to avoid incarceration. In response to the change in the times and wanting to prove his family’s Americanness, my grandmother’s favorite brother, Harley, enrolled in the 442nd Infantry Regiment – an entirely Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) regiment and the most decorated regiment in U.S. military history. He died in service.
While her family was not incarcerated and was free to continue farming, WWII and the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans has remained a critical part of our family’s history. Each year that my grandmother visited me as a child meant a visit to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, a trip through the history of the Japanese in the U.S. and largely, their incarceration. Afterwards, we’d pay our respects at the Go for Broke monument, a monument behind the museum recognizing the soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regiment.
We Are Not Free, written by New York Times best-selling author Traci Chee, is a young adult historical novel, telling the story of 14 young Nisei. It is established early on in the novel that these 14 Nisei grew up together in San Francisco’s Japantown and have therefore formed tight bonds as friends, lovers, and mentors. Together, they are sent off to desolate regions of the country to be incarcerated in one of the ten camps scattered across the U.S. – each one built shoddily and in an otherwise undesirable location.
What makes the novel unique is that it is told through the perspective of all 14 of the Nisei, who range in age from 13-20 years old. Each character narrates their own chapter, yet the story flows forward to create one cohesive narrative. In this way, all 14 of the protagonists are the main character.
The story begins in San Francisco and takes us through the children’s lives at school, afternoon hangouts, and intimate moments at home. From piano practice to fathers being torn away from their families by government agents, who suspect them of having had something to do with Pearl Harbor, the reader gets a look at their lives right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The timing of their introduction is critical. We meet the characters right after it’s announced that Japanese Americans along the West Coast will be incarcerated and moved to different parts of the country.
While the story takes place under terrible circumstances, it follows two common themes – what does it mean to be a teenager and who gets to be American? During the protagonists’ time at a horse racetrack turned into a camp overnight and other desolate camps across the nation, the characters continue to experience very normal, stereotypical, teenager experiences like dances, dating, making new friends, and family drama. Chee does this purposefully to illustrate their normality as American teenagers and to show how inhumane locking up 120,000 innocent civilians was. It’s the everyday quality to their stories that remind us of the obvious fact that everyone is human.
While this story is a work of fiction, Chee includes key moments that many Japanese Americans remember from their years incarcerated such as when they were forced to answer a loyalty questionnaire, sat through military recruitment presentations, and witnessed camp riots. This not only lends the work an air of historical authenticity, but also informs young readers of what life was like in the camps. Her characters also experience many of the same thoughts and doubts – What does it mean to be American? Am I not American? How could the U.S. lock up innocent American citizens? – that repeat again and again in other memoirs and novels about Japanese American incarceration.
On top of including the more well-known bits of history, Chee also mixes in personal touches from survivors’ experiences, including familial anecdotes from her family both at camp and after WWII. For example, one of the girls, Bette, wears a blonde wig for the first few chapters – an ode to Chee’s grandmother sporting a blonde wig when she came home from a day at cosmetology school after the war.
These personal details are just one way Chee helps tell the true story of Japanese Americans during WWII and after – a history we are not often taught in school and in many ways, whose horror is understated when it is told. This history is critical to understanding the U.S. and its long history of white supremacy.
While my family did not personally experience incarceration, they did face discrimination, blame for the war, and lost loved ones in the war much like the characters in We Are Not Free did. I am grateful for Chee’s novel because it presents an opportunity to teach a younger generation about one part in the history of Japanese Americans and about how we can do better as a country.