A Place For Healing: New Book Says Museum Can Offer Closure To Interned Japanese-Americans

Sep 25, 2020

Credit Shirley Ann Higuchi

Nestled in between Cody and Powell in northwest Wyoming, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center tells the story of over 10,000 Japanese-Americans who were held in the internment camp against their will during World War II. It turns out, the museum wouldn't exist if it weren't for the formerly incarcerated and their children's' dedication.

Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Shirley Ann Higuchi just released her new book Setsuko's Secret, which tells these stories. To start, Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska asked Higuchi how she learned about her parents' time at Heart Mountain.

Shirley Ann Higuchi: I always knew sort of in the back of my mind that my parents spent time at Heart Mountain Camp. But my mother always framed it as a fun place to be. A place where she met my father and never really talked about the negative aspects. Even the issues of having her appendix removed in the barrack dusty in Wyoming. She kind of glossed over it as sort of going to a doctor's appointment and getting her appendix out. So I always feel that in a lot of ways, Japanese-American incarceration has been whitewashed in our society. And I think the Nisei, the generation that my parents are, second generation Japanese-Americans, have been sort of whitewashed and told to sort of minimize that experience.

Kamila Kudelska: Yeah, and one of the things that stood out to me the most was that one of your mom's dying wishes was to have an actual museum on the site. Why is that significant for Japanese-Americans?

SH: After Ronald Reagan had signed the reparation bill, which really kind of apologized to the Japanese- Americans, I think the Japanese-American community felt permission to actually speak about this experience. And so the idea of building something to remember, that experience, memorialized not only their feelings and thoughts, but also the fact that event actually occurred. So I think the building of the Heart Mountain museum as well as what we do, in Cody, Powell, Wyoming is a real significant step, not only for the state of Wyoming, but I think our nation to recognize an injustice that basically our government has acknowledged as being wrong, which is a really important step that a country is brave enough to apologize for missteps in the past. So it's very important.

KK: How is the story that you tell in the book different from the traditional Heart Mountain story?

SH: Well, I really think that this book is extremely effective, because it's a combination of a memoir, and a well-researched, historical, academic book. But I think the concept of being a memoir, it explores the area of the multi-generational trauma effect on my generation, my generation being the daughter of an incarcerated, who was never incarcerated herself, but has been able to sort of experience it through the lives of my family members and my parents. And I think the problem is, when any kind of trauma occurs, and you're taught or told not to talk about it, it really informs the way you are as an adult. And those qualities or those attributes are passed down to their children, but the children don't understand why your mother is controlling, or why your mother has this need for perfection. I remember my girlfriend, my best girlfriend who lived across the street while I was growing up, he told me I can't believe what your mother told my mother. But what she said is that my mother told the next door neighbor, that if Shirley can't be a doctor or a lawyer, it doesn't matter because she could marry one. And to hear that from your girlfriend, when you're only age 11, what does that do to your confidence or your desire to be somebody but somebody's wife? And then there's nothing wrong with that. But it's really not about what other people want for young girls growing up. It's really what that young girl wants, and just sort of kind of not get what you want, because of what your parents had to go through or didn't have. And that shapes who you are, you know, I think that can be very damaging.

KK: And you mentioned that this has a lot to do with the present day and news. How do you hope people will receive it today?

SH: If you look at the current immigration policies, if you look at the rounding up of children, and being placed in detention camps because of their immigration status, and what's happening in their lives, those experiences are not that much different than what happened to the Japanese-American. So you know, the United States and the world has this uncanny ability to continuously repeat over and over again, the same mistakes, which is really unfortunate. So hopefully, this could be a learning tool on what not to do, during wartime crisis during a COVID crisis, during any form of crisis where we have the tendency to turn on each other, and on others when things are stressful. And we have to really step back from that impulse.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.