Walking the dry, parched dirt I couldn’t believe that my family lived here in the west central Utah desert for three years. Moreover, my dad and his family were imprisoned behind barbed wire.
I wished that Dad was still alive to tell us more about their lives during this era in American history: life as a Japanese American living in a U.S. concentration camp in Utah.
Instead, we could only imagine what it was like; my husband, two daughters, son-in-law and my sister trudging under the hot Utah summer sun, stopping every now and then to examine an artifact more closely, remnants of the past left behind when Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the concentration camps after World War II was over and return home to the West Coast.
We saw half-buried buttons, two marbles, hundreds of rusty nails, what looked like a pomade container. We were careful not to disturb anything, mindful that these were historical artifacts that tell the story of the 11,000 people who spent a part of their lives here as prisoners at what the government euphemistically named the Topaz Relocation Center, but which in reality was an American concentration camp.
My father, Junzo Fukami, was a 14-year-old boy wrenched from his life in San Francisco when the U.S. government ordered the eviction of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
When my sister and I were growing up, he would talk of his “camp” experiences, wandering the confines on their side of the barbed wire fence with his teenage peers, returning “home” only when he felt like it.
“Home” was Block 26, Barrack 7, Room E, a 20x20 foot room where he lived with his parents, a brother, and two sisters.
I shake my head when I think how limiting it was to self-restrict my own movement during the COVID quarantine, which was no comparison to sharing a single room with five other people for several years.
When we were kids, Dad regaled us with stories of playing basketball till dark, eating his meals with his friends in the mess hall, and his schoolboy pranks; it wasn’t until we got older that we realized those stories masked darker truths: the breakdown of the nuclear family structure, patriarchal heads of families emasculated, inequitable education and career opportunities lost — in short, destroying the lives of 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Topaz, which is how my family now refers to the relocation center, is located in a desolate part of Utah, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Topaz is 15 miles from Delta, the nearest town, made up of just more than just three-square miles with a population of just under 3,500 according to the 2010 census. We began our family pilgrimage in Delta to visit the Topaz Museum there, right next to the Great Basin Museum.
There are videos displays, exhibits, and artifacts as well as a re-creation of a typical housing unit in a barrack, such as the one my father’s family lived in, complete with potbelly stove, army cot beds, period furniture and books and magazines. At the museum my sister searched for some evidence of my father’s existence other than the official government listing of the Fukami family. She found his name listed in a basketball roster, but not much more than that.
We have no family scrapbook or album that includes his teenage years; officially cameras were not allowed at any of the camps and there are no school mementoes of his junior high days.
My eldest daughter, who is a TV news producer, was amazed to see a home movie camera on display, owned by the late Dave Tatsuno, who was given tacit approval to take home movies in Topaz for personal use only. His film footage documents life behind barbed wire and is the second amateur film to be selected for the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress (the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination is the first).
My younger daughter was amazed at the creativity in the form of jewelry and art on display at the museum. Centuries ago, the Topaz site had once been underwater and enterprising incarcerees had found bits of seashells to use for projects.
What amazed me the most was at the Topaz concentration camp itself. The land is dry and dusty and flat with greasewood bushes resembling sage brush scattered throughout. The barracks themselves only occupied one square mile of the more than 19,000 acres of the government site. There were 42 blocks of 12 barracks, each barrack home to 250–300 people.
I had hoped to see skeletal foundations from where the barracks stood, but all that’s left are signs to remind us of what used to be: a baseball field…Buddhist Church…Block 26.
If it weren’t for Topaz Museum Board President Jane Beckwith as our guide, we wouldn’t know exactly where Barrack 7, Room E really was. As it turned out, it was physically unremarkable. No artifacts to be found. Just dry, dusty, cracked ground and scraggly greasewood bushes.
Not too far away we found a small pile of heels from shoes and scattered insoles, which were initially a mystery, but then I remembered reading that there was a shoe repair shop in Block 26! Supplies left behind for ghost feet that had not walked there for nearly 80 years.
“Home” is what you make it and it broke my heart to see what people did to create a home for the three years they were forced to live in this unforgiving place.
The love and care still exist in the form of gardens, which had not dissolved with time. There are no plants or flowers that might have cheered the residents during their incarceration, but you can still see signs of rock gardens.
Hundreds of small pebbles placed to look like a streambed. Big rocks weighing hundreds of pounds that had to be lugged miles away, carefully designed to resemble rock gardens from Japan. These gardens are sprinkled throughout the Topaz site, a silent testament to beauty and endurance behind barbed wire.
I thought I would cry, but I didn’t, at least not outwardly. Instead, I got mad. 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. Six of them were my dad and his immediate family. Another six were my 11-year-old mom and her immediate family.
Their lives were destroyed and a generation later, I’ve been shaped by their traumatic experiences, which leads me to the year 2021, trying to reconcile my family’s history with the future of our country as Americans.
Here we are 79 years later and we’re still battling racism and fighting for inclusion.
We need to learn to appreciate each other’s histories and background. We need to work together to end injustice and racism. We need to teach our children to be kinder and respectful people.
This is why we co-developed a free online curriculum with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education at Stanford University to delve into important issues: immigration, civil liberties and equity, civic engagement, leadership, and justice and reconciliation.
As you browse through the pages of What Does It Mean To Be An American?, you will find more history about the Japanese American incarceration, view images and testimonials of people who were imprisoned during WWII, hear from Muslim American students still working to battle racist stereotypes created by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and discuss what it means to be civically engaged, the characteristics of leadership, the elements of an authentic and effective apology, why people move to new countries, and how matters of justice don’t always seem fair.
“What Does It Mean To Be An American?” is a question for us now and a legacy passed down from the souls of our families who were not really allowed to prove how they were American.
Dianne Fukami is a third-generation Japanese American, who partnered with Debra Nakatomi to co-produce the award-winning PBS documentary “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story” and co-develop the “What Does It Mean To Be An American?” curriculum with SPICE at Stanford University.