Nature Behind Barbed Wire

After some nudging from Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, I read Connie Y. Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese Incarceration (2018). The book was pretty enthralling, in part, because I was not particularly familiar with the details of Japanese internment during World War II, but largely because Chiang manages to weave the environmental context for this internment throughout her narrative in a compelling and intriguing way.

Chiang divides her narrative into three basic sections: the pre-internment landscape of Japanese settlement in on the Pacific coast; the landscape of internment at four camps, Manzanar, Minidoka, Topaz, and Gila River; and the post-internment return of the Japanese to the Pacific coast. As per usual, I won’t offer a review here, as the book is outside even my casual knowledge, but I’ll make some observations that intrigued me or coincided with my own work on short term settlement in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Bakken and Japanese internment were in any way equivalent, but there were some intriguing parallels between Chiang’s careful consideration of the space of the internment camps and the strategies that Japanese residents used to make them comfortable (and in some cases livable) despite the harsh surroundings. 

1. Environmental Expertise. Before the relocation process began, Japanese farmers, gardeners, and fishermen found diverse ways of engaging with and making a living from the Western landscape. They developed a range of regionally specific expertise in growing crops in the various microclimates and microenvironment present on the Pacific coasts and played a key role in the agricultural economy of the Western states.

The specific environmental understanding acquired from cultivating backyard gardens in San Francisco, working the peat soil of the San Joaquin Delta, or growing strawberries in the dry soils of the valleys of Southern California had limited applicability in the new environments of the internment camps. The response of these farmers to their new conditions was not simple, of course, and ranged from adaptability to problems adapting to their new surroundings with unfortunate results.

2. Camps and their Environments. Chiang is at her most evocative when she describes the various environments of the internment camps. The high deserts of Minidoka and the arid valley of Manzanar receive the most attention with their settings offering the greatest challenges to both the War Relocation Authority (WRA) who ran the camps and their reluctant residents. The setting of the camps challenged the design and construction of the buildings which were often inadequate to keep out the dust, heat, or cold of the desert environments. Their setting made difficult large-scale agriculture designed to make the camps self-sufficient and to allow them and their residents to contribute to the war effort (and demonstrate their patriotism). At the same time, the residents found ways to engage their new environments by hiking and fishing and leaving the camp grounds without permission. In effect, the story of the camps cannot be told outside their environments.

3. Camps and Patriotism. The desolate surroundings of the American West created a distinct environment for the interned Japanese – many of whom were American citizens – to “demonstrate” their patriotism by supporting the war effort. While it remains challenging for me to grasp the need to force American citizens to demonstrate their patriotism, Chiang makes clear that the environment formed the backdrop to these demonstrations of patriotism and if the Axis powers were the enemy in the theater of war, the arid landscapes of the camp served as an opponent to the interned Japanese. The landscape itself intensified the call to grow crops and endure hardships as ways to show their commitment to the war effort. 

It is hardly surprising that the interned Japanese Americans demonstrated a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the use of patriotism to motivate their work and in some cases complained about this rhetorical strategy explicitly. More than that, the landscape of the camps became a place for the interned residents to both demonstrate their continued person freedom through acts of resistance which involved things like leaving the camp for night fishing expeditions. In a sense, these person acts of freedom represented a commitment to patriotic ideals that the rhetoric of compliance within the camp sought to suppress. 

4. Camps and Identity. One of the things that I struggled with on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is understand how individual interventions in the space of temporary workforce housing sites in the Bakken served as expressions of individual identity despite the functional arrangement of the camps. While the circumstances of Japanese internment and a boom-time work force are clearly different, both situations revealed how the use of gardens could act a way to assert authority over the environment and express identity. 

The development of personal and even community gardens in the internment camps served not only as expressions of individual or communal identities, but the shared experience of these gardens by all residents in the camp created shared awareness of the diversity in these communities. Carving out spaces of expression in a public way, in effect, authorized individual responses to these expressions. 

On a more practical note, it was intriguing to see that camp residents used the spaces between units as the sites of gardens and in this way navigated the boundary between public space and private spaces. Similar strategies appear to be used in the Bakken as well suggesting a similar challenge to make the private visible as an indication of personal identity, while at the same time, retaining a sense of control over the space.

5. Returns. The final section of the book explored, in parallel, the struggles of the interned Japanese Americans to return to their communities and their return to recognize the sites of the camps many decades later. The ambivalent experiences of these returns are haunting, as they should be. The failure of the government to protect the rights of citizens and residents in the aftermath of internment compounded the inexcusable failure of internment itself. The separation of the interned from their environment in the camps by barbed wire was continued through discriminatory statues and attitudes after the internment ended making it often impossible for these individuals to return to their former landscapes and communities.

I wonder whether the metaphor of “closure” is inappropriate to describe the return of former camp residents to the sites of their camps. While in most cases, the camps were removed and the sites returned to their barren conditions, the memory of their experiences there (and the monuments marking the camps’ cemeteries) re-opened the often suppressed memories of their wartime experiences. Far from closure, then, the willingness of former camp residents to return to the sites of their camps allowed them a chance to publicly and privately re-appropriate their experiences and save them from oblivion and forgetting. Whereas the failure of the U.S. government their wartime policies and in their unwillingness to protect interned Japanese Americans after the war made reintegration with American society challenging, the voluntary return of interned residents to the former sites of their camps marked these spaces as sites of public memory and reflection for the entire nation. This return inverts the cynical effort to promote patriotism through work and confinement during the war time internment by urging a nation explicitly to recognize its failures and perhaps become better for the future. 

One Comment

  1. Great non-review, although the çonsistent autocorrect from ‘intern’ to ‘inter’ helped to stop and think, maybe interring is somehow appropriate in this context.


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