Southern Oregon University’s own professor Precious Yamaguchi recently became published. Her book, entitled Experiences of Japanese American Women During and After World War II, is the culmination of 8 years of research and interviews, hits a very personal note, as all four of Yamaguchi’s grandparents were in the World War II Japanese internment camps. Her book, half academic analyses and half personal tales, aims not only to illuminate history, but inspire curiosity in readers about their own family history.
Yamaguchi’s grandparents, along with 120,000 other Japanese American citizens, came under suspicion after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and on Febraury 19th, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that gave the army permission to exile the Japanese Americans into the internment camps. They were forced to leave behind their pets, their homes, and their lives.
Yamaguchi’s new book shares the stories of not only Yamaguchi’s grandparents, but 16 other women that live across the nation, from California to Michigan. The women, who are now in their 80’s and 90’s, have seen many of their peers begin to succumb to time, and they realized the importance of sharing their story. While interviewing the women, Yamaguchi discovered that many of them had never even told their children or grandchildren, and those women hope their children will read this book to better know their history. As per Japanese unwritten culture, they were brought up very modestly, and according to Yamaguchi, children are taught that “it is rude to talk about yourself too much, boast, or have people feel sorry for you.” She feels very honored that these women entrusted her to take their stories and use them to make history become something that is living and not so far in the past.
During her research, Yamaguchi’s grandmother passed away, and several months after, her father past away. Although this was heartbreaking, she used the pain she felt to keep writing, and it gave her an even stronger desire to finish the book. She realized even more how when people pass they take their stories with them and create a gap in history. When Yamaguchi told this part of her story, I imagine she did it in the same way that the 80 and 90 year old women told her their stories. She acknowledges that it was a tragedy, but is able to smile about it now. The women she interviewed had experienced pain and tragedy, but were able to “laugh about sadness, and racism even.”
Even though Yamaguchi is accomplished, she remains humble and finds it difficult to brag about her accomplishments. She isn’t used to promoting her work, and indeed the book is not meant to be a bestseller but successful in the fact that it shares so many stories. When she talks, she discusses her grandparents, how grateful she is that the women were able to share and that she is able to print it, and that her book is not meant for an exclusive audience. She hopes that people will question their roots, and she added that “I don’t think that there is any family throughout history no matter what your socioeconomics are or your race or gender that has not overcome challenges.”
It’s always surprising how close history is to us, and not just something to be read about in Textbooks. SOU’s new president, Roy Saigo, spent three years as a child in an internment camp in Arizona. I felt particularly close to Yamaguchi’s story because I personally have an uncle who was born in an internment camp. These are stories that aren’t always spoken or shared, but it is important that they are kept alive. Yamaguchi will continue to teach here, but her insatiable curiosity will no doubt lead her down many interesting paths, and we look forward to many stories to come.