Students, employees and community members of all ages are invited to join together this fall in the 2016 “Brookdale Read,” a college-wide initiative centered around Julie Otsuka’s award-winning 2002 novel “When the Emperor Was Divine.”
Brookdalians and local residents are encouraged to read the novel – a moving account of four Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II – and participate in a series of free workshops and community events throughout October and November.
The initiative – co-sponsored by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange), Student Life & Activities, the International Education Center, the Center for World War II Studies and the Middletown Township Public Library – will culminate with a special presentation and Q&A hosted by Otsuka in Brookdale’s Collins Arena on Nov. 17.
“We chose the book ‘When the Emperor Was Divine’ for the Brookdale Read because of its focus on themes such as racism, prejudice, and the dangers of stereotyping,” said Chhange coordinator Deborah Degnan. “These themes are prevalent in the news – globally, nationally, and locally in our own communities – and they need to be addressed. We need to work harder to combat racism at all levels, and we need to do it together.”
For a full list of Brookdale Read events and more information click here.
The 2016 Brookdale Read kicked off in the Student Life Center on Oct. 6 with a free lunchtime presentation by consultant, entrepreneur and long-time human rights advocate N. Chiyo Moriuchi.
Moriuchi’s talk, titled “Recovery From Hate: What Tak and Yuri Found,” detailed her parents’ experience as second-generation Japanese Americans living in California in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
Her father Takashi and mother Yuriko were two of the more than 110,000 U.S. citizens who were imprisoned in internment camps throughout World War II, where they were forced to live in subhuman conditions for months or even years as a result of growing anti-Japanese sentiment across the country.
“Community leaders were taken away in the middle of the night, and family members had no information about their whereabouts until much later,” said Moriuchi. “All others were given one week to tie up their affairs, to sell or throw out all of their possessions, except what they could carry. What do you do with all the things that you have worked so hard for? The keepsakes from your parents, your piano, your house, your dog? … What will they do with us? What will they do to us?”
While the internment camps were said to be a direct response to the Japanese attack on American soil, they were made possible by decades of anti-Japanese and anti-immigrant laws, media reports and political rhetoric, Moriuchi said. Even prior to World War II, Japanese Americans often had to hide or destroy culturally identifying clothing and possessions and were subject to harassment and discrimination at school, work and in their communities.
When more than 110,000 citizens were forced out of their homes and imprisoned in barbed wire encampments across the western U.S., most of the nation turned a blind eye, Moriuchi said.
Takashi and his family were sent to a camp in Colorado, while Yuriko went with her family to an internment facility in Arkansas. In both camps, and others across the country, families often slept in ramshackle housing units or horse barns, four or more people to a room, and made their own “beds” out of hay and other spare materials.
Internees were forced to eat “disgusting” food, share public latrines with no partitions and endure the bitter cold of Coloradan or Arkansan winter using nothing more than a single potbelly stove, Moriuchi said.
Adults were also required to work. While each camp was overseen by a handful of government officials and a team of armed guards, day-to-day operations were carried out by the internees themselves.
Workers were forced to farm crops, order and distribute supplies, mend clothing, provide medical care, perform manual labor and other tasks for their fellow internees. Depending on their training and experience, internees earned between $8 and $16 a month – today’s equivalent of between $135 and $270 a month.
The only aid, Moriuchi said, came from the nation’s Quaker communities, which organized shipments of Christmas cards, children’s toys, letters and needed supplies to internees both young and old. Eventually, after a long and difficult security clearance process, internees were allowed to leave the camps and attempt to pick up the scattered remnants of their former lives.
Takashi sought farming work in the south and midwest – constantly interrupted by harassment and police questioning – before settling near a Quaker community in southern New Jersey in 1944. There he was introduced to Lewis Barton, a Quaker who employed Takashi on his farm for two seasons and ultimately helped him secure an $8,000 loan to buy a farm of his own. Another Quaker, Maurice Haynes, sold Takashi a badly needed tractor at a time when most equipment owners were unwilling to sell scarce equipment to Japanese Americans.
After two years in her Arkansas internment camp, Yuriko moved to Philadelphia to be near her brother. It was there, at a social event at Philadelphia’s International House, that she met Takashi. The couple’s first date, Moriuchi said, was on Aug 14, 1945, the day Japan officially surrendered to the allies, effectively ending World War II. They were married just over a year later.
Closing her discussion – which also included a Q&A session with Brookdale students and employees – Moriuchi said there are unfortunate parallels between today’s political climate and the sociopolitical factors that led to one of the darkest moments in American history, more than 70 years ago.
“Today, the media is again filled with stories to make people afraid,” she said. “We see the same sorts of poisonous hate talk, again in the name of national security. Again it is directed at immigrants, at refugees, religious minorities and those with a different shade of skin. The U.S. has a long history of hate, and it seems that we still suffer from it. Fear and hate beget fear and hate.”
Still, however, there is hope, Moriuchi said. Just as the Quakers’ kindnesses – both large and small – were able to change so many lives for the better in the 1940’s, contemporary Americans have the power to prevent history from repeating itself.
“The antidote is kindness,” she said, explaining that her parents went on to build successful careers and live long, fulfilling lives thanks to the support they received during and after the war. What do you choose to do?
“They found a community. They found people who treated them as people, not as ‘other.’ They found people who treated them with respect, as individuals, not lumped into a nameless group, and who tried to help in ways both big and small. They found friends; they found kindness and opportunity… The antidote is kindness. What do you choose to do?”
Moriuchi’s presentation featured introductions by Chhange coordinator Deborah Degnan and former Brookdale history professor Laura Neitzel, who now serves as coordinator of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Neitzel, who earned a PhD in Japanese History from Columbia and lived and worked in Japan for many years, echoed Moriuchi’s sentiments about personal responsibility in the face of polarization and intolerance.
“This is a story that should encourage us, living in a time when we sometimes feel like we can’t change things,” Neitzel said. “There are even small things that we can do in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice, and that is a powerful message we can all take from her presentation… It’s so important that we know the story of this shameful era of history. It needs to be heard by all of us.”
Brookdale communications major Anthony Donohue, one of dozens of students to sit in on the presentation, said he felt inspired by Moriuchi’s descriptions of “Tak and Yuri.”
“What she said about kindness really hit me,” said Donohue, who is working with a group of fellow students to promote the Brookdale Read to all members of the campus community. “You try to be your best person, and treat people the way you want to be treated. Even the little things can help, like being sold a tractor. Those messages are what this year’s Brookdale Read is all about.
“Each event focuses on those themes, and provides another layer to the story that goes beyond the book,” he added. “Most people don’t know about this period of history. They might know about World War II, but not this side, what happened at home. So it’s all about coming together, and learning together.”
Check out more photos from N. Chiyo Moriuchi’s presentation here.
[Photos contributed by Minh Connors, Brookdale journalism student]