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‘Treasure Trove of Invaluable New Inf(o)’ on the WWII Camps

In the interval between 1973 and 1988, thanks to some enterprising undergraduate and graduate students of mine affiliated with the Japanese American Oral History Project (JAOHP) of the Oral History Program (OHP) at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), an archive of oral history interviews was compiled with World War II residents of the small towns located in close proximity to four U.S. War Relocation Authority (WRA)-administered concentration camps incarcerating evicted Americans of Japanese ancestry—Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, Poston in Arizona, and Jerome in Arkansas. All of these interviews were later made available to researchers through primarily CSUF history student-edited publications: Jessie Garrett and Ronald Larson, Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley (1977), and two 1993 volumes, co-edited by Nora Jesch (with me), devoted to the taped reminiscences of “guards and townspeople” in the Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project (1991–1995). Each of the JAOHP interviews within the archive sought to capture the perspectives of nearby community residents from all walks of life toward their respective neighboring camps throughout their wartime duration.

The book under review here, Community Newspapers and the Japanese-American Incarceration Camps, both complements the Fullerton research model yet differs markedly from it. First, while it too focuses upon the WRA camps, its purview encompasses nine of the total ten facilities, leaving unexamined only the Poston one. Second, those responsible for the book’s production (a Drexel University professor, Ronald Bishop, and three of his former students, Morgan Dudkewitz, Alissa Falcone, and Renee Daggett), while nominally journalism historians, are now (or once were) institutionally affiliated with the Philadelphia-sited Drexel’s Department of Communications. Third, although the book’s four authors employ interviews as information-gathering research tools, they are far less dependent upon community-based oral history fieldwork for the aggregated data upon which they garner their insights, construct their chapter-by-chapter and overarching narratives, and posit their assorted conclusions. Fourth, and most importantly, the Drexel study pursues, in depth, the sharply delineated objective of assaying how local community journalists (and, to a lesser extent, public relations professionals) covered the wartime period embracing the construction of the WRA camps and their subsequent peopling by Nikkei incarcerees.

As the superb introduction by Ronald Bishop makes clear, the book’s chapters embody a common mode of inquiry and underscore a preponderantly shared set of research conclusions. With respect to the former, Bishop details the following questions as those guiding him and the other three authors: What main themes about the incarceration and construction of the camps were emphasized by the respective local newspapers covering them? How did the local journalists describe the incarcerated populations upon their arrival at and during their early settlement within the WRA camps? Was the local newspaper(s) coverage of the imprisoned Japanese Americans positive or negative? Did the local journalistic treatment of the confined Nikkei “echo the bigoted coverage found in large West Coast dailies?” In compiling their stories, what sources did the local reporters utilize primarily? Did these reporters pay any attention to “the civil rights violation committed against the incarcerees?”

To my mind, the chapters that adhere to these guidelines most faithfully and fully (and hence to better overall effect) are those dealing with the two California camps at Manzanar and Tule Lake, plus the Wyoming and Utah camps of Heart Mountain and Topaz. Likely this qualitative difference is due to a combination of two factors, Bishop’s involvement in all four of these exemplary chapters and the availability of considerably more historical documentation and interpretation on these sites as against those of Gila River (Arizona), Minidoka (Idaho), Amache (Colorado), and the two Arkansas camps of Rohwer and Jerome.

With respect to the major research conclusions of the assorted camp chapters they, with some variation, are registered by the book’s authors in a remarkably similar vein―that is, while the community journalists (and public relations officials) duly reported on the site selection and establishment of the camps, they did so in a way that permitted them to support their community of service by shoring up its social order, building and sustaining its spirit of operation, promoting its civic and economic sectors, and steering clear of “unpleasant happenings” and controversial issues. At bottom, this provincial orientation reduced journalists into being unabashed community boosters more concerned with consensus as opposed to conflict, tension management rather than constructive criticism, and palatable fictions instead of objective truths. The collateral damage inflicted by this modus operandi was that local journalists and public relations purveyors “rarely wrote about the violation of the incarcerees’ civil rights” (p. 8).

Over and beyond its methodology and conclusions, the book under review provides a treasure trove of invaluable new information about the remote rural areas in which the WRA camps were located and in which their local newspapers functioned. It also endows its readership with richly textured life-histories of the publishers, editors, and prominent reporters for these newspapers. This grounded information, in turn, permits academic and lay camp researchers into this topical area to at long last transcend the shallow stereotypes that have heretofore passed muster as “local knowledge.”

There are naturally some flaws to be found in such an ambitious undertaking as Community Newspapers and the Japanese-American Incarceration Camps. Mostly we find “the devil is in the detail.” Several of the camp-sited studies (e.g., the Gila River and Minidoka chapters) are flawed by information that is both excessive and confused. There are also problems owing to inaccurate name and place designations (e.g., “Darwin,” not “Derwin”), factual errors (e.g., the Jerome camp closed on “June 30, 1944,” not “June 30, 1942”; Amache was not the only camp sited on non-federal land, as Manzanar was situated on land leased by the U.S. government from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power), irregularities in editorial protocol (e.g., the first names of two significant journalists, Todd Watkins and Henry Dworshak are unmentioned anywhere in the text, only in the index); and incorrect source attributions (e.g., this author is alleged to have refuted a scholarly assessment relative to Manzanar that he never, in fact, did; moreover, the chapter endnotes correlated with this allegation refer not to my work, but rather to that of another Manzanar researcher, Karen Piper). A more consequential concern, one of omission rather than commission, is that this lengthy, closely-argued book lacks any photographs, maps, or illustrations of any kind to aid readers in their digestion and comprehension of its very useful content.

Notwithstanding such comparatively minor liabilities, what demands paramount recognition here are the signal achievements of this book, not the least of which is it being a study that resulted from a truly collegial partnership between a distinguished university professor and his dedicated students, an arrangement that is often lauded in theory yet is at a severe discount in practice.

 

COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS AND THE JAPANESE-AMERICAN INCARCERATION CAMPS: COMMUNITY, NOT CONTROVERSY
By Ronald Bishop, with Morgan Dudkewitz, Alissa Falcone and Renee Daggett
(Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2015, 372 pp., $110, hardcover)

 

*This article was originally published on Nichi Bei Weekly on January 1, 2016.

 

© 2016 Arthur A. Hansen / Nichi Bei Weekly

book review camps community incarceration japanese americans journalists newspapers World War II