Photography by Charles E. Mace, except for photograph above by the author 

Bayou Sutra

Phantom swamplands and the legacy of Japanese American internment

I’M RIDING in Richard Yada’s big white truck, heading southeast from Little Rock on the interstate. We’ve already gone through the town of Pine Bluff and past the neighboring paper mill. As we pass Cummins, a huge maximum-security prison, Richard gestures toward an area near the gate. “People line up when there’s an execution,” he tells me.

“I’m trying to imagine what the land would have looked like before the war,” I say.

“Swamp,” Richard says. “It was all trees and swampland.”

It looks similar to where I mostly grew up in the Midwest, except for the murky marshes tucked off to the sides of the road. Around here, the Arkansas, White, St. Francis, and other rivers flow into the Mississippi, carrying mineral-rich sediments—from the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Appalachian Mountains to the east—and depositing them into the floodplain. The alluvial (or stream-deposited) soil has made the Delta into one of the most lucrative regions in the U.S. for farming—largely on the backs of enslaved people and, later, repressive systems of sharecropping and tenant farming. After more than a century of draining swamps, clearing forests, and engineering the surrounding waterways to support large-scale agriculture, more than 70 percent of the wetlands that used to cover this part of the Mississippi River Valley has been lost.

“The inmates cleared a lot of the land,” Richard continues. He’s referring not to those incarcerated at Cummins, but rather to the Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated here after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

When you think of the so-called internment camps—a euphemism for the facilities where Japanese Americans were incarcerated—you might picture the barren desert landscapes of the American West. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the newly created War Relocation Authority (WRA) was tasked with setting up a network of camps where 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, mostly from the Pacific coast, were detained between 1942 and 1945. Dorothea Lange, hired by the U.S. government to document life in the camps, famously immortalized the starkness of Manzanar, located in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, in her photographs. But more than 10 percent of the evacuees found themselves confined in the humid, muddy Delta a few miles west of the Mississippi River, deep in the Jim Crow South.

This is the place I’ve come to see.

 

 

THE ENTRANCE to the former Rohwer Relocation Center is easy to miss, but Richard knows the area well. He turns into a small opening in the trees and crosses an elevated pathway where the railroad used to run. That railway carried Japanese Americans from the temporary assembly centers where they were first held for five months in California—sometimes in horse stables—before being loaded onto packed trains and transported to southeastern Arkansas. Just past the line of trees, the vista opens up on a narrow gravel road that splits down huge fields lined with puddles from last night’s storm.

Near the entrance, we stop at a small replica of one of the guard towers that would have stood along the camp boundaries. The armed white guards who occupied them were a concession to Homer Adkins, the virulently segregationist governor of Arkansas and former KKK member, who otherwise refused to allow this mass of Japanese bodies into his state, even behind barbed wire. The replica tower features some faded interpretive panels explaining what happened here. One of them is blank, a wire dangling from the panel. “Somebody probably wanted the speaker,” Richard comments. The panel at the other side seems to have survived, however. I press a button, and an audio recording of George Takei—arguably the most famous former resident of Rohwer—booms out into the wide silence. The sign features Henry Sugimoto’s “Our Bus,” a harrowing painting of the artist’s family being forcibly relocated to the camps in the back of what looks like a trailer for farm animals.

We get back in the truck and slowly traverse the gravel road that leads to a small patch of trees. We find more interpretative panels, a handful of well-tended gravesites, and several impressive monuments to the Japanese Americans from Rohwer who lost their lives serving in the 442nd segregated military regiment while their families were detained during World War II. These remains—along with the hospital smokestack in the distance—make up the main visible reminders on the landscape of the more than eight thousand people who were once held here.

Although I’ve read a lot about Rohwer and Jerome—a second camp located twenty-seven miles away—I hadn’t appreciated the complexity of the WRA’s project until now. Hastily built by private contractors under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, the total area covered around ten thousand acres, though the main living area was concentrated on five hundred acres. Families lived in tar-paper barracks with six living units to one barrack and twelve barracks to a block. Each block, made to accommodate around 250 people, had its own mess hall for meals and a communal latrine—the only buildings with running water.

Since the camps weren’t finished when the first trains arrived, inmates were hired to work as lumberjacks for sixteen dollars per month. Families collected scrap wood to craft furniture for their sparse barracks and feed the potbelly stoves that provided their only source of heat in the winter. Many inmates found other ways to beautify their spaces and pass the time—such as going to school, writing for the camp newspaper, playing sports, going to Buddhist or Christian churches, or working at the community’s cooperative store. Others went swimming or fishing in the plentiful rivers and bayous, or practiced painting, sewing, dance, ikebana, or woodworking with cypress and other hardwoods from the swamps.

As we stare out at the open farmland, Richard takes out a map of the camp and points to where the auditorium, the library, and the field where kids played baseball would have been. Then he shows me a spot that’s circled on the map. “This was our barracks,” he says. “28, 10, F.” My eyes move from the map to the spot where he’s pointing in the distance, but it’s hard to imagine that density of life in this flat, empty expanse. Hard to imagine the swamps too. Where had it all gone?

 

Left: A Boy Scout camp for boys from Rohwer. Right: Residents harvest cucumbers grown on the center’s new farmland.

 

RICHARD WAS BORN in 1943 at the hospital that was built at Rohwer. In recent years he’s become the unofficial guide for pilgrims like me. I’d planned on taking my pilgrimage to Jerome and Rohwer in early 2020, but of course that didn’t happen. Instead, Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, the group that organizes the trips, arranged a series of online events as part of a 9-week virtual pilgrimage. They called the event Tadaima!—“I’m home” in Japanese.

What did it mean, I wondered, to refer to the camps as “home?”

Tadaima is one of those set phrases that everyone uses in Japan. It’s what my family would yell out during summers when we visited from the U.S., as soon as we arrived at the door of my grandparents’ house in Tokyo. It’s what we’d say when we returned for dinner after a day out exploring. The response from my grandmother always remained the same: Okaeri! Welcome home.

At the virtual pilgrimage, people shared pieced-together stories of their grandparents or great-grandparents having to burn or bury all of their Japanese language books, their family photos, their Buddhist prayer beads—anything that could make them seem “un-American.” They talked about the family farms and stores and homes and pets that they couldn’t carry with them. The Issei (Japanese-born immigrants) and Nisei (second-generation) adults forced to make their homes in the camps often felt displaced and deeply traumatized; many of them never even spoke about the experience with their children. Sansei and Yonsei—third and fourth generation Japanese Americans—are still trying to understand the silences and tangled lines in their family histories.

They’re also grappling with how, in exchange for their silence, Japanese Americans were granted a warped form of racial privilege. As the war went on and residents at Rohwer and Jerome were allowed day passes to journey into the nearby towns for shopping and other excursions, they realized they were viewed as “honorary” or “probationary” whites—at least in comparison to Black residents. Some would go on to reject the myth of the “model minority” that later emerged in the 1960s, pitting Asian Americans against other minority groups; Yuri Kochiyama, for instance, who was incarcerated at Jerome, would later become an iconic civil rights activist in Harlem and a close friend of Malcom X. But others accepted their relative privilege with more or less ease.

Many Japanese Americans born after the war grew up feeling isolated. When the incarceration ended, the WRA tried to break up the strong Japanese American enclaves that had lived on the West Coast by dispersing inmates throughout the U.S. FDR advocated an assimilationist policy of relocation into “normal homes”—implying white, Christian ones—with a limit of “one or two families per county.” And that was only after ensuring their loyalty to the United States through questionnaires distributed to inmates in all of the ten camps. Those who answered “no” to the loyalty questions were sent to the restrictive Tule Lake camp in California, or repatriated back to Japan.

When I finally do make it to Arkansas for my pilgrimage, everyone assumes I’m a descendant of camp survivors, and I have to keep correcting them. I don’t have camp stories of my own. My father didn’t immigrate here until the 1980s, until after he had met and married my white American mother, who was in Japan teaching British literature. Though we moved to the U.S. when I was a baby, more than three decades ago, he’s never given up his Japanese citizenship. He’s never had to prove his loyalty as a condition of remaining on U.S. soil.

Still, despite these differences, I do share with other Japanese Americans a resonant awareness of the contradictions at the heart of U.S. democracy. I too grew up knowing very few kids like me. If I had been born forty years earlier, I too would have been in those camps. So there is something about going to Rohwer that feels like coming home to me too.

 

THE TEN INCARCERATION sites across the U.S. chosen by the WRA were united in one way: the inhospitable quality of the terrain. In Arkansas, the WRA acquired two parcels of land from the Farm Security Administration, who in turn had bought the property from tax-delinquent landowners who had tried, and failed, to wrangle the land into growing cotton. When Japanese Americans arrived in Arkansas in the fall of 1942, they were faced with the backbreaking work of clearing and draining thick cypress and tupelo marshes. The authorities expected that the inmates, many of whom had worked as farmers in California and Hawai’i, could be counted on to grow their own food.

The irony of being displaced to these undesirable places and asked to farm was not lost on the residents. Even though the narrative of Japanese American displacement from the West Coast has often been framed as a response to wartime hysteria after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, scholars have shown that anti-Japanese hate had already been simmering for decades. As soon as Issei immigrants started arriving on the West Coast to work, white farmers and laborers saw them as an economic threat. And much of it was about land—about who was seen as American enough to own it and make a living from it. By the turn of the twentieth century, around twenty-four thousand Issei, mostly men, were working in the West on the railroads, on farms, and in mines, lumber mills, and canneries. Arranged marriages with “picture brides” from Japan led to the growth of a thriving Japanese American community. Little Tokyos up and down the coast created their own businesses, hospitals, churches, community organizations, and schools—due to segregation policies that denied Japanese the ability to participate in white spaces. Issei farmers became successful in large part by using agricultural techniques they learned in Japan to reclaim land that had previously been deemed unsuitable for farming.

But the backlash to this success proved swift. Anti-Chinese bias in the U.S. had already led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and it took little effort to project these “yellow peril” fears onto the new Asian immigrants. Over the next several decades, California passed a series of increasingly harsh policies to limit citizenship and restrict further immigration from Japan. White farmers and politicians conspired to pass the Alien Land Law in 1913, which barred Asians from owning land in California. (Other states, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Nebraska, and Delaware, soon followed suit.) Then, in 1924, the federal Oriental Exclusion Act halted all further immigration from the “Far East.”

But by that point, some of the Issei had already had Nisei children who were American citizens, able to own land. By the time Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the West Coast, they were producing more than 40 percent of the vegetable and fruit crops in California. Instructed to bring only as much as they could carry to the camps, many families were forced to peddle their farms in distress sales for ten cents on the dollar. While some had neighbors or friends who agreed to watch over their property, the majority ended up losing almost everything they had worked for decades to create.

Some came to find beauty in the Spanish moss dropping from Arkansas’s cypress trees, or the way the rich, alluvial soil ended up producing some of the biggest and most delicious watermelons they had ever tasted. But accounts from the time mostly comment on the forbidding landscape that greeted the prisoners. “We used to say that it was far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch Midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the rivers to be inundated by Mississippi Valley floods, and lush enough to be the haven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insect in the world,” recounted Eiichi Kamiya, who was six years old when his family first arrived at Jerome. “It seemed to rain all spring, be stifling all summer, have those sand flinging winds in autumn, and have the audacity to snow in winter.”

The artist Ruth Asawa, who was fifteen years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed and her family was sent to Rohwer, found the swampy landscape “enchanting, beautiful, and weird.” Her Issei parents had been truck farmers in California growing seasonal crops like strawberries and tomatoes, and when they were forced to leave California for Arkansas, the Asawas brought with them their prized seeds. Like many of the residents, the Asawas planted a victory garden full of vegetables outside their barrack and found that their seeds thrived in the Delta soil. Asawa, who would go on to become a successful artist in San Francisco, continued to garden throughout her life and often based the designs of her looped-wire sculptures on forms she had closely observed in nature, like the tendrils of trellised beans that she carefully tended before and while living at Rohwer.

Despite the difficulties that locals had in turning the swampy land into productive farmland, by 1943 the inmates at Rohwer had managed to clear and put more than 600 acres under cultivation. Using row crop irrigation methods developed in California, the farmers at Rohwer successfully raised more than 1.2 million pounds of vegetables, with surpluses going to the military at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the next year, the camp newspaper reported they were growing thirty-six different crops, including “onions, mustard, gobo, daikon, sweet potatoes, potatoes, Chinese cabbages, green beans, bean sprouts, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, spinach, sweet corn, and soybeans.” They also kept hogs and grew feed crops, including soybeans, corn, oats, lespedeza, and sorghum.

Local farmers took cues from these techniques. In a booklet compiled by a local historical society in 1979, Colburn Cox Stuart, then superintendent of schools in the nearby town of McGehee, remarked, “The Rohwer evacuees made a significant contribution … by teaching the people that fine vegetables could be grown in the Delta and also how to use irrigation in row crops, and especially on the acres of vegetables that they grew by the tons.” But even that level of increased productivity didn’t turn out to be enough. Like most parts of the Mississippi River Valley, swamps have continued to be destroyed and major waterways hemmed in by levees and manipulated by flood-gates and dams. Small-scale, diversified vegetable farming has given way to large-scale industrial agriculture: monocultures of genetically modified seeds, heavy pesticide use, sophisticated automated tractors. The entire time I’m in Arkansas, I don’t think I see a single person actually out in the fields.

 

Left: The residents of Rohwer planted gardens and built walkways and bridges. Right: Trucks carry furniture to the barracks.

 

FOR SEVERAL YEARS when I was growing up, my dad’s job as a Japanese literature professor took us to Alabama. During those years in the South, I spent hours gathering clover, honeysuckle, wild onion, mint, and blackberries. I looked for plants that smelled and tasted sweet, or sharp, or herbaceous, pinching off buds and stems and fruits and tucking them into the crook of my arm. I gathered mud, water, fireflies, bark, feathers, shells, roly-polies, stones, moss.

I don’t know why I gathered, except that it felt good to pick, to arrange, to mix, to taste. I liked to hold each thing in my palm, each with its own density, weight, texture, and scent. The heavy, mineral things tethered me to the earth; I kept them in a box in my room. Other things I crushed, or mixed together, or allowed to float or crawl away, or pressed for a time against my cheek.

Each thing with its own way of moving, of coming together, of coming apart.

Now in Arkansas, I keep picturing an older man who looks like my own father. I see this man crawling out of bed early in the morning and heading out to the swampland at the edge of camp. To his back he straps a saw and an axe. In his hand, he carries a two-pronged stick in case he encounters a snake. As he approaches the edge of the bayou at the back of camp, he feels the now familiar pull of mud on the bottoms of his feet, as if the Delta itself is pulling him down into an uneasy embrace. He’s on the hunt for a cypress knee to use for his next statue. They call them kobu in Japanese—lumps or bumps. He makes his way toward the mysterious field of knobby, irregular protrusions rising like tiny, steep mountains out of the water around the flared bases of the bald cypress trees. Once he finds a knee that he likes, he makes a few cuts with his ax and removes the knee swiftly with a few pumps of the saw. The lightweight, lumpy piece of wood stands about a foot tall and curves curiously. He’ll take it back to the barrack in the afternoon, boil it, peel away the bark, and polish until his arms ache and the hard wood shines like lacquer.

I read in archival copies of the Rohwer Outpost about inmates who became fanatical about searching for kobu. Working the rough knees down to reveal something glossy and beautiful was one of the few pastimes the residents were afforded, and many took their treasured statues with them when they left. But now that I’ve seen these swamps for myself, I wonder if this ritual isn’t about having a hobby or a keepsake. Maybe it’s another act of gathering a piece of earth and tending it with one’s hands. Acknowledging the ways that the land and water offer belonging, offer life—even when people don’t. Maybe that’s why the men who looked like my father went out into the cypress swamps along the edge of camp to look for pieces of wood to shape. Maybe that’s why, when descendants of camp survivors go on pilgrimages to Arkansas, one of the first things they often do when they get off the bus is walk out into the fields where their family’s barrack was and grab a handful of dirt to take home.

 

The wetland areas weren’t just “unfit” for agriculture; they also made it hard for those in power to impose order.

 

AS ROHWER was closing in 1945, the Wilson Plantation, one of the largest and wealthiest plantations in Arkansas, attempted to recruit Japanese American laborers. The sixty-three-thousand-acre plantation along the Mississippi River had created an immense operation of around ten thousand workers; most labored in the cotton fields under debt peonage systems as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, while others worked in trades or in the beauty shops, gas stations, mills, granaries, banks, and medical offices in the five towns also owned by the Wilson family.

In a bulletin given to Rohwer residents who were trying to decide where to go and what to do after the camp closed, the plantation’s general manager, J.H. Craig, wrote, “Evacuees have nothing to fear.” He also assured Japanese Americans of their place in the Southern race hierarchy: “Your children will attend the white schools.”

By early 1946, almost a hundred Japanese Americans had agreed to these terms and moved to Wilson. But, as historian John Howard recounts in Concentration Camps on the Home Front, others at Rohwer proposed a more radical vision of the future: a “cooperative group farming” model that would allow Japanese Americans to stay in the Delta and continue farming. Rohwer residents Saburo Muraoka, C. Sumida, and T. Takasugi wrote up a detailed plan for how it would work and shared it with Rohwer camp director Ray Johnston and WRA director Dillon Meyer. Instead of tenant farming or sharecropping, where farmers split profits with a wealthy landowner, all the profits would be shared. The proposed community would be on a similar or even larger scale than the Wilson Plantation—up to thirteen thousand people living and working on up to 100,000 acres.

The WRA refused. The prospect of allowing Japanese Americans to continue living and farming together went against all of their plans to assimilate them into “normal” American communities. The land where Rohwer was located, valued at around six dollars an acre before the war, had skyrocketed to sixty dollars an acre, mostly because of the improvements that Japanese American residents had made. Even though the group from Rohwer had proposed buying the property at the higher price—through a government loan that they would pay back with interest—the WRA opted to sell the land to local farmers at public auction for five to seven dollars an acre. They auctioned off the barracks and other buildings, too. They denied Japanese Americans who had labored on the land any chance of continuing to make a living there.

 

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RICHARD DOESN’T REMEMBER much from his time in the camps, but the deep twang in his voice attests to a life born, raised, and shaped in the South. His family was one of the few that chose to stay in Arkansas after the war ended—eventually settling near Little Rock in the town of Scott and working as sharecroppers for a white woman named Virginia Alexander, alongside five other Japanese American families.

Richard recalls getting on a bus from Scott to go into Little Rock at around four or five years old. He wanted to sit in the back so that he could look out the window. “The bus driver came back and said, ‘You can’t sit in the back. You’ve gotta come up front,’” he told me. “I didn’t understand that.” But as he grew up, he says, “I guess I just got used to it.”

Making a permanent home in the South meant navigating the racial and class dynamics of a deeply segregated area that was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression. The tar-paper barracks at the camp, though austere, constituted a major step up from the living conditions of most local residents, who lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. Most did not receive an education past the eighth grade or have adequate hospital facilities, and some looked at the plentiful food available at the camps with resentment. For Black residents, these conditions were deeply exacerbated by Jim Crow laws that systemically denied them their civil rights.

I ask Richard if he knows why his dad decided to stay in Arkansas. “I asked him that one time,” he replies. He says his dad had told him that it would be a good place to raise children. “And I believed him for a long time. But there had to be something else. I think they were getting reports about people going back to California and their houses were being shot at, and they couldn’t find jobs, and they couldn’t find a place to stay, so several of them got together and decided that they’d farm.” Ironically, the Japanese Americans who stayed found the South, with its rigid Black/white color line, a refuge from the anti-Asian hate they had encountered on the West Coast.

A year before Richard was supposed to go to Central High School in Little Rock, the city was rocked with what would become one of the most vicious civil rights battles in the country. After the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision forced the school to integrate in 1957, rather than allow nine Black students to enter the school, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock for an entire year. Richard ended up going to North Little Rock. The few other Japanese American students that he knew who did go to Central High faced none of the violent vitriol spewed at the Black students.

Years later, Richard befriended one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford. Now in his seventies, he sees the parallels with what happened with Japanese Americans and the racial disparities the U.S. continues to reckon with today. The civil rights museum that’s located across the street from Central High School today includes a panel with a picture of Richard as a baby at Rohwer.

 

AT THE END of my pilgrimage, I board a tour boat that takes me out into the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. At around one million acres, it’s the largest river swamp in the U.S. and one of the last places where you can still be fully immersed for miles in bottomland hardwood forests, bayous, and backwater lakes. It’s also one of the only places where you can meet people who continue eking out a life in a place that’s not quite land and not quite water.

On the boat, while searching for alligators, I ask our tour guide about cypress knees. He tells me that the water’s too high to see them right now; it’s almost at flood-stage. A friendly woman who grew up nearby calls to me over the motor of the boat. “You want a cypress knee, honey?” she asks. “I can send you one.”

The woman, Ruby, tells me that she has several knees that a friend recently cut from her property. Harvesting knees is illegal on most public land now. Though no one really knows what function they serve, it’s clear that the trees need all the help they can get. Once considered almost indestructible, bald cypresses have started dying out at a distressing pace because of the degradation to their wetland habitats. Large swaths of Louisiana—like many parts of the coastal U.S.—are now home to “ghost forests,” haunted by the lives that could no longer survive the mix of rising sea levels, salination, overharvesting, dredging, and contamination.

Back home, I keep thinking about what else has been lost with the loss of the wetlands. I’d always assumed that the swamps in the Delta were drained because of typical American capitalist short-sightedness: most people didn’t see their value, so they destroyed them to create farmland. I knew, for instance, that in the mid-nineteenth century, Congress had granted Arkansas and other states along the Mississippi River millions of acres in swampland to be sold off to landowners to finance levees and drainage ditches. But I now realize that’s only part of the story. I read about how the swamps provided places of respite and refuge for enslaved people in southeastern Arkansas to escape the watchful eyes of white overseers. In the uncultivated areas where brush and grasses grew thick, and snakes, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and alligators made their homes, enslaved people acquired rich knowledge of the Delta landscape. They traveled through marshy back channels to visit relatives, share news and gossip, practice sacred ceremonies, and gather herbs, roots, leaves, and berries for medicine. Sometimes, they plotted their escapes.

The wetland areas weren’t just “unfit” for agriculture; they also made it hard for those in power to impose order over certain populations. They offered abundance, freedom, maybe even joy, under the most dehumanizing of circumstances. They offered life. What could be more threatening than that?

A few weeks later, a box arrives at my door. No note, just a piece of wood nestled in bubble wrap. I gather it in my arms, admiring the bits of moss still clinging to the peeling bark. I bring the knee inside, looking for a place where it will feel at home.

 

Emily Sekine is a writer, researcher, and editor at the journal Sapiens. She is working on a book about the cultural uncertainties surrounding seismic and volcanic processes in Japan.

 

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