Filling In the Gaps:
Primary Voices of Japanese American Incarceration

Introduction: Voice, Emotion, and Japanese American Incarceration

Tangled barb wire at Manzanar
Pictured: A bramble of barbed wire sits in the foreground of a picture of the white-capped mountains in Manzanar. Photograph taken May 2015.

On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 called for all people of Japanese ancestry to be removed from their coastal homes and into assembly centers. Later that same year, upon learning that Japanese Americans would be incarcerated in a concentration camp near McGehee, Arkansas, a citizen wrote a letter to the editor in which she claimed Arkansas had been chosen as a "dumping ground for all that is undesirable" (quoted in Ward, 2007, p. 82).

On September 14, 2015, at a rally in Dallas, Texas, Donald Trump described the United States as a "dumping ground for the rest of the world." I share this comparison to illustrate what many have already noted, that the same anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric from 1942 has been recycled by modern politicians and public figures. I began studying this history in 2013, and in the years since, I've watched in dismay as the event seemed to become more relevant.

This project began when Dr. Carolyn Handa asked if my family had ever been "in camp," a question I did not understand at the time. Carolyn's mother was incarcerated in Poston, Arizona, during World War II while her father fought with the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a regiment of all Japanese American soldiers. While I am a person of Japanese descent, my own grandmother did not immigrate to the United States until the 1950s. Because of this, my knowledge of Japanese American incarceration was limited; it certainly was not talked about in an Alabama public school classroom. Partly, I think, because Japanese American incarceration was seen as something that happened far away, on the west coast, disconnected from southern histories, a belief that is entirely untrue. The two Arkansas camps were located only 340 miles from the town in which I grew up. But mostly, perhaps, this history has been neglected for the same reasons many histories of racism and oppression have long been neglected in public memory, though collectively remembered within and by those who suffered.

After my conversation with Carolyn, I began searching for information about Japanese American incarceration. I read a number of articles, but it wasn't until I found a video of a former incarceree sharing her experience that I became fully invested. I sat at my computer and openly wept. I recognized then that to tell this history divorced from narrative, from the ability to access the individual narratives of those who were incarcerated, would be a mistake. That the personal is this history. Such stories have been active in the social and collective memory of the Japanese American community, where persons known or unknown to each other share remembrance of an event, some with similar memories and others with conflicting accounts (Casey, 2004, p. 33). As digital technologies develop, oral histories of Japanese American incarceration have been recorded, circulated, and amplified to allow survivors to tell their own histories and contribute to the public memory of this event. The publication of and access to individual memory-narratives brings these stories into public internet spaces, such as the website and YouTube. These narratives function as public memory, in that they are both "attached to a past" and "[act] to ensure a future of further remembering of that same event" (p. 17).

Carole Blair et al. (2010) described public memory "as animated by affect. That is, rather than representing a fully developed chronicle of the social group's past, public memory embraces events, people, objects, and places that it deems worthy of preservation, based on some kind of emotional attachment" (p. 7). This webtext identifies how vocal rhetoric can contribute to this kind of "emotional attachment" and argues for the importance of voices to the history of Japanese American incarceration. I focus on two spaces in which audiences experience vocal rhetoric when engaging with this history:

1) A video from a digital space,, which is "a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity" (Denshō, 2020b). This nonprofit began in 1996, with the Japanese term "densho" meaning "to pass on to the next generation," in this case to leave a legacy of the history of Japanese American incarceration from the perspective of those who experienced the event (Denshō, 2020a). Over the past couple decades, Densho has developed an open-access database featured on their website that houses visual and oral histories collected by their staff. Tom Ikeda, the founding executive director, conducted many of the interviews himself and, over the past few years, has been an active voice fighting discrimination against Muslim and immigrant communities. Densho describes their mission as "to preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today" (Denshō, 2020a). While there are many texts that utilize primary voices, I focus on because of its importance to the history of this event and Japanese American community. I wish to amplify this resource to teachers, scholars, and students of rhetoric.

2) An audio kiosk at The Rohwer Memorial Cemetery located on the former Rohwer concentration camp site. I focus on the audio kiosks at Rohwer because the lack of physical evidence at the former campsite makes the voice on the audio kiosk a necessary component of imagining the former space. Without the voice or historical plaques, Rohwer is a cemetery, dirt road, and ploughed fields. Rohwer is also of interest because the audio kiosks utilize the voice of George Takei, a “culturally privileged voice,” which Amanda Nell Edgar (2019) defines as "voices that are widely familiar in mainstream media circulation […] that even when mediated separately from their visual bodies, prompt audience recognition" (p. 5). George Takei's voice is itself a cultural artifact, and his expertise in storytelling contributes significant pathos to the audio kiosks at Rohwer.

This webtext argues that aural and vocal rhetoric can help audiences fill in the gaps of this history, by which I refer to philosopher Jenefer Robinson's (2005) assertion that along with filling in causal and other kinds of inferences, readers also fill in gaps that require an emotional response. Robinson argued that some texts, particularly realist literature, cannot be adequately understood without the appropriate emotional response (p. 107), and I contend that understanding histories of marginalization, oppression, and violence against others requires a similar ability, particularly when audiences are trying to interpret the event from the perspective of those who experienced it.

Voices are particularly suited to help us fill in these emotional gaps because of the intimacy of the "grain of voice" (Barthes, 1977) and relationship of sound to affect and emotion. While scholarship in multiple fields has focused on the relationship between music and emotion (Juslin, 2010), recent work in rhetorical studies has explored the pathos of voice and sound in argument (Eckstein, 2016; Edgar, 2019; Goodale, 2011; Gunn, 2010). Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher (2012) have also shown that the aural aspects of narrative are significant contributors to meaning, that transcriptions could not accurately convey the "multilingual abilities of speakers […]; the rhythm and pace of their voices as they talk about particular incidents […]; the vocal emphasis they place on some words and phrases as they tell their stories […]; the revealing gestures and facial expressions they use" (p. 44). This webtext builds on such scholarship and examines the importance of voice and emotion to further contextualize and disrupt the previously sanitized history of Japanese American incarceration. By illustrating the rhetorical significance of vocal rhetoric, this webtext aims to provide an argument for scholars and student writers to include voices when appropriate in their own research.

Public memory of this event has often included censored images, euphemistic language, and the kind of government propaganda as seen in Japanese Relocation (Eisenhower, 1943), a wartime propaganda film featured in this webtext. This sort of rhetoric has been explored in much scholarly, creative, and personal writing (Daniels, 1993; Gessner, 2007; Howard, 2008; Nakadate, 2013; Uchida, 1982). Recent work from rhetorical scholars has focused on resistance that challenges such public memory (Shimabukuro, 2015; Wheeler, 2018). This webtext has a similar goal, but instead of identifying the ways Japanese Americans resisted during their incarceration, I focus on recent circulation of oral histories and individual memory-narratives from the perspectives of those incarcerated. Memory-narratives of this kind invite sonic self-representation for Asian Americans, something Jennifer Sano-Franchini (2018) described as needed to resist "the unrelenting stereotype of the silent, submissive, and compliant Asian body." Sound has often been at the root of Asian American identity and stereotypes (Sano-Franchini, 2018), thus oral narrative, a highly accessible form to both enact and view (Barthes, 1977; Fisher, 1999; Ong, 2012), is well suited for self-representation.

The notion of self-representation of community members has long stumped scholars as we struggle with representing subjects of research, and too often we have spoken for communities rather than with them. While the inclusion of primary voices cannot hope to address this problem in full, it does invite subjects to tell their stories in their own words. Individual memory-narratives, however, carry the burden described by Hayden White (1987), that we often dismiss the accuracy of narrative because we "view narration and narrativity as the instruments by which the conflicting claims of the imaginary and the real are mediated, arbitrated, or resolved in a discourse" (p. 61). This mediation of the imaginary and real, however, is a necessary component of memory.

Most memory studies scholarship agrees that "our understandings of and investments in the past change as our present conditions and needs change" (Blair et al., 2010, p. 7). Oral historians have also identified that individual remembrance often tells us more about the speaker and their understanding of the event, along with a series of many other complexities involved in oral histories as explored recently by Alistair Thomson (2015). We cannot re-watch memory like film, and so with each remembrance, we create an event anew, always through the lens of our present consciousness. Similarly, Caterina Albano (2016) described individual memory as a space we inhabit "socially and culturally," and thus vital to the construction of history because of its ability to "add the feeling and sensation of what happened" (p. xiv).

This notion of "feeling and sensation" has obvious implications for this webtext, in which the vocal rhetorics of individual memory-narratives are analyzed to identify how the voices contribute to the emotional investment of the viewer. The vast majority of oral histories from come from those who were children during incarceration, as the earlier generations are no longer living. George Takei, for example, was five years old when he was incarcerated at Rohwer. While there is much more to be said about the relationship between memory and oral history, particularly as it relates to childhood memory and trauma, I focus rather on the rhetoric of sound, how the inclusion of primary voices are critical contributions to the public memory of Japanese American incarceration. I am most concerned with how, through vocal rhetorics, these narratives add this "feeling and sensation" of what happened, and why this feeling and sensation is an important part of the public memory of the event.

Navigating the Site

The Methods section describes the specific approaches I take in analyzing the narratives, including the ways different disciplines and fields of study overlap to inform my interdisciplinary approach.

In the "Core Story"" section, I analyze the video from and compare the vocal rhetorics between the propaganda film Japanese Relocation and a film.

In the ""The Rohwer Soundscape" section, I share my experience at the physical space and analyze the inclusion of the audio kiosks on the former Rohwer concentration camp site. All voices in both the previous sections are recorded from videos using SoundTap from my laptop and then WavePad for listening, the same technology used by Edgar (2019) in Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in a Mediated Culture. I include videos captured by Kaltura to provide visuals of the audio as a way to make them more accessible. This visual contributes to the embodied experience of the audience, as it provides another sensory element in which audiences can experience the vocal rhetorics. The "America's Concentration Camp" video was streamed through the site, while the videos of audio kiosks at Rohwer were recorded by me in 2018 and streamed through YouTube.

In the Conclusion, I consider what sorts of implications this work has on future research and pedagogy. I consider more fully what it means for scholars to utilize not just primary sources, but primary voices within our digital scholarship. I also offer heuristics for helping students ethically engage with oral histories and other genres not traditionally categorized as academic.