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Wake Up America: Citizen? Yes. Protected? Maybe Not.

Setsuko Sato Winchester
Setsuko Sato Winchester

With immigration and citizenship under scrutiny now in the U.S., a Japanese-American artist is drawing attention to a time when citizens were imprisoned because of their ancestry.  Hawai’i’s Honouliuli internment camp was the final stop in Setsuko Winchester’s Yellow Bowl Project, an odyssey linking these sites of infamy.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Ceramic artist Setsuko Winchester tosses rose petals in remembrance of the thousands of POWs and other prisoners held at Honouliuli.
Visit to Honouliuli Ntaional Historical Site with Setsuko Winchester and two fine docents from the Japanese Cultural Center, Jane Kurahara and Betsy Young.

The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i sponsors a tour of Honouliuli Camp monthly. Hear what that is like Friday at 11 a.m. on The Conversation.  Find information about Honouliuli on the JCCH website, where there is also more on the Yellow Bowl Project.   

“I really appreciate the Park Service because the local people are sometimes hostile, like by Tule Lake, the locals are hostile.”

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Here, one of Winchester's hand-built ceramic bowls, held by JCCH President and Executive Director Jacce Mikulanec.

Hostile locals? Not at Honouliuli Internment Camp, where ceramist Setsuko Sato Winchester was welcomed with open arms. The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i (JCCH) has been stewarding this site since members uncovered it in 2002.  On this somewhat overcast morning, two guides, Jane Kurahara and Betsy Fujii Young, provided pithy and colorful commentary as we bumped along on former cane roads, deep in formerly Monsanto/now Bayer country.

Winchester chose the tea bowl form for this series because of its resonance in Japanese culture, and with the idea that sharing a moment of tea might contribute to better understanding. 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
First rediscovered in 2002, in 2019 many of the structures at Honouliuli have succumbed to gravity. All 123 acres, once owned by Monsanto/Bayer, are now the property of the federal government.

Winchester has visited all ten major U.S. WWII camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated.  Honouliuli is the second internment camp that Winchester has visited with her Yellow Bowl Project.  She installs her hand-pinched yellow tea bowls to encourage dialog about being American.  Winchester has also installed her pieces in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and other sites, revisiting, each time, the fear Japanese-Americans felt leading up to WWII. 

“It all happened in the newspapers first.  Miller Freeman was a publisher he started the Anti-Japanese League. Hearst newspapers went after them. As a former journalist, I’m trying to show that what’s happening today, actually mimics what happened before,” says Winchester.

Winchester has a degree in journalism and worked for NPR in Washington, DC.

Credit JCCH

According to Winchester, “Japanese and Chinese originally came in like any other European, and slowly lost all their rights, while other groups have slowly integrated and become American.  Germans were not considered American.  Italians weren’t considered American, Irish were not.  But there was never any federal law that excludes white people.  There were laws against black people.  There were laws against Asian people. When it is the law of the land, it’s the government that has to go after you.  The government can’t protect you.”

Ultimately, 117 thousand people of Japanese ancestry were banished from their homes on the West Coast and elsewhere, two-thirds of them were citizens by birth. In Hawai‘i, 343 people of Japanese ancestry were picked up within a couple of days of the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. Efficiency was enhanced by a custodial detention list created in 1937.  By 1946, 2,000 plus people of Japanese ancestry from Hawai'i were interned. 

It was, essentially, as if an order were placed today, telling people of Japanese ancestry to walk away from their homes, lives and businesses into a detention camp. With 48 hours, how many would post everything on Craigslist and walk into incarceration? How many people of any ancestry would say, "This is wrong?"

“People say, 'Why don’t Asian people speak up?'” says Winchester. “What I found out is that 8,500 ended up at Tule Lake because they said, 'No.' They challenged the internment, they questioned it.”

Just as so many questioned presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 when he hailed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a great president and defended a proposed Muslim ban by comparing it to FDR’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans.

Standing on a cracked concrete slab, her yellow bowls in procession down to Honouliuli Stream, Winchester remarked, “That spring, by the time I got to Tule Lake, I asked Kenneth Dowd, with the National Park Service, 'Do you ever see any trouble?' He said, 'I can tell you one thing, since Mr. Trump invoked internment for the Japanese people,' he said, 'there’s been a lot of people coming specifically to find out how internment worked, because they heard it was a solution to the Muslim problem.'”

Winchester’s Yellow Bowl Project is subtitled, Freedom from Fear.

Winchester notes about those incarcerated, "In the end, evidence shows that they were Americans, they were loyal.  Nobody had every committed an act of espionage or treason. Ironically, there were 18 people who were tried for spying for the Japanese government. They were all Caucasian."

Official designation as the Honouliuli National Monument assures the preservation of Hawai‘i’s largest and longest operating incarceration camp site. Preparations and planning continue toward more public access.

Currently, once a month,JCCH guides bring the hardships of imprisonment to life with stories, poems, pictures, even a song.  In addition, JCCH has prepared a curriculum guide for high school students. Check the JCCH education center for more on that.

Setsuko Sato Winchester. Yellow Bowl Project. 120 hand-built ceramic tea bowls, site specific installation at Honouliuli National Historic Site. May 13, 2019

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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