By MICHELLE SCHMIDT
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were forced to leave their homes and places of work because of their ethnicity. Two of the camps where these people were sent were in Idaho. The largest, Minidoka, was near Twin Falls and a smaller work camp was located on the Lochsa River near Kooskia.
Teresa Tamura, a Japanese-American who grew up in Nampa, said she learned of the camp in college outside of class. It wasn’t until 2001 that she decided to tell the story as a photojournalist.
The book that resulted, “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp,” was published in 2013. The large hardback volume documents the camp through essays, stories of survivors and 180 black-and-white photographs, both historic and current.
Tamura will be in Moscow on Saturday, April 26, to discuss the topic and sign copies of the book. In an email interview, Tamura had this to say about her project:
360: What is Minidoka and why is its story significant?
Teresa Tamura: I’ll start with the name “Minidoka,” which is confusing to many people because this is also the name of several different places in Idaho, including a county, a small town, a dam, a wildlife refuge and even a street in Twin Falls. A portion of land now known as the Minidoka National Historic Site used to be called the Minidoka War Relocation Center or “Hunt Camp.”
The historic Minidoka site held more than 9,000 people under armed guard, behind barbed wire in hastily constructed tar-papered barracks from 1942 to 1945 without due process. I was born in 1960 and raised in Idaho. This subject was never mentioned in any of my classes.
360: What motivated you to complete this project?
TT: The people who lived through the incarceration experience will be gone in the not-too-distant future. It became important for me to learn what happened and make a lasting record in book form. My hope for the project is to reach an audience who has been unfamiliar with this story — as I was — to share what I learned and honor those who shared their stories with me.
360: What was it about this story that grabbed your attention — your proximity to the story, both physically and racially, the secret or “forgotten” nature of the story — or something else entirely?
TT: I was initially challenged by how could I photograph a place that no longer existed? How could I show what happened more than 60, now, more than 70 years ago? Those initial thoughts changed after 9/11 and as I met with and talked to more people. Then, it became more about what can we learn from this history? And, could photographs help prevent something like this from happening again?
360: In your research, you looked into government records and interviewed those who were in the camp. What discrepancies did you find in these two accounts?
TT: The U.S. government’s decision to not allow any photographs of barbed wire fences, watch towers and armed soldiers was a form of censorship that permanently distorted the reality of the situation. In several of the written archival government documents, “public relations” was mentioned more than once and seemed to be a primary concern.
Each survivor that I photographed and interviewed had a unique account. The person’s age was an obvious factor in what he or she experienced and remembered. Some of the people included in the book were born in Minidoka, others were children, high school or college-aged students then, or young adults who were recently married. I met only a few parents who bore all of those responsibilities.
360: What impact did the internment have on those in the camps?
TT: I would venture to say that everyone suffered from the traumatic events of being uprooted, displaced, and for many, financially ruined. When the “camp” was closed, there were some people who were more fortunate than others and they were able to return to their homes. Others had no place to go.
360: What do you hope to see happen as a result of telling the story of Minidoka?
TT: If people — regardless of race — recognized this story of forced relocation and incarceration happened to one group, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, is of interest and concern to all of us, not just people of Japanese ethnicity.
Tamura subtitled her book “An American Concentration Camp,” a term some might consider controversial.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, however, defines a concentration camp as “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.”
Because the public generally associates the term with Nazi death camps like Dachau, the American sites are most often referred to as internment or detention camps. During the 1940s, the U.S. government used the term “relocation centers” to describe the camps.
Tamura uses the term “American concentration camp” because she said she felt it is the correct term to use. Based on her research, she said detention stations were temporary locations and internment camps were for longer term, primarily for Japanese nationals who were arrested right after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Both came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Justice Department and not the War Relocation Authority, which is the branch over the camps such as Minidoka.
if you go
WHAT: “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp” — author talk and book signing
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday, April 26
WHERE: 1912 Center Great Room at 412 E. Third St. in Moscow
COST: Free, the book will be available for purchase through BookPeople for $27.95
Schmidt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 305-4578.