on the prewar surveillance of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, and the production of terror at the University of Arizona.
The following is a talk that was given on Saturday, October 21, 2017, as part of Everywhere It Is Other: Love in Landscapes of Surveillance, a panel/discussion included in the third Thinking Its Presence conference, held at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, in Tucson, Arizona. Caitie (mentioned in the first sentence, below) is Caitie Moore, who organized the panel, which also included Duriel Harris, Youna Kwak, and Saretta Morgan.
Caitie asked me to talk about the mass incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during WWII, and its relationship to, or genesis in, surveillance. I should start by striking WWII, since the war, in my opinion, was only the operation of a phase. I have been writing, for the last 13 years, about incarceration. It begins, for me, with my grandfather. He was born in Hiroshima, immigrated to the United States in 1919. He was classified as an alien, then, after Pearl Harbor, an enemy alien—of a country to which he was, as an Asian immigrant, ineligible by law for citizenship. His name is Midori Shimoda. He exists at the beginning of what and why I write, as I exist at the end of what he endured. I am not here as a poet, but as the grandchild of an enemy alien. In other words, the ghost of my grandfather’s struggle to become a citizen, of which my citizenship is the fruition. To be the ghost of my grandfather’s struggle is to define citizenship as reincarnation arrested. It is purgatorial. It takes two generations, often fewer, for the government to go from combing lasciviously through your entrails to holding you in complete disregard.
Disregard is not romantic, but administrative. The restitution check my grandfather received from the government was accompanied by a stock apology signed by Bush I. The last sentence read: You and your family have our best wishes for the future. The future, fruition, or fruit: the death of the flower. Endured is not the right word. My grandfather did not endure so much as he did not die.
Writing about incarceration, reciting its history, especially in fragments, runs the risk of letting it pass into the biblical realm, the danger being that the suffering of injustice becomes allegorical, therefore instructive, assuaging future suffering with the moral of survival. If Japanese immigrants were not embalmed by the psychosis of white anxiety and rage in 1917, 1920, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1940, 1941, then they have been embalmed, in the years since, by the usefulness of their example. The reinvigorated specter of concentration camps—which is, given the inherent structure of the United States, neither exceptional nor shocking—has, in turn, reinvigorated storytelling, by which the lives of human beings, living and dead, are offered up for dissection, towards an understanding of who we are now, which is who we are constantly and intrinsically failing to become.
I am also here as a resident of Tucson. I occasionally substitute at a high school downtown. Recently, one of the ninth-graders told me that embalming fluid smells like cinnamon.
1917: FBI surveillance of Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii. 1920: FBI surveillance of interactions between Asian and Black radicals. 1920: Defense plan created for a Japanese registry in Hawaii. 1932: FBI surveillance of entire Nikkei population following dissolution of U.S.-Japan relations. 1936: FDR recommends concentration camps to control the Japanese in Hawaii. 1937: Office of Naval Intelligence surveillance of all Japanese American fishermen. 1940: Alien Registration Act, requiring all non-citizens over the age of 14 to register (be fingerprinted, carry papers at all times), delivering to the United States a comprehensive surveillance database of its non-citizen Japanese.
The surveillance of Japanese immigrants did not begin with Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is a euphemism for the mask of innocence the United States wears to conceal its monstrousness. What seems like the appeasement of white anxiety and rage is their conversion, via fantasy production, into entitlement and pride. The incarceration of 9,000 Japanese immigrants and 120,000 Japanese American was underway well before Pearl Harbor. It was only lacking the kind of deus ex machina that would provide its justification.
Deus ex machina: in which an actor, playing a god, is introduced onto a stage by way of a machine. Pearl Harbor is also a euphemism for American fortitude and resilience, which are also masks, concealing the retributive face of xenophobia. Xenophobia is a handmaiden of citizenship, and an essential qualification of Americanism. Americanism is not a virtue, but a malignancy. It elucidates a set of cognitive dissonances and defects which produce an animalistic anger that can only find resolution in the treatment of other people as animals.
300-500 immigrants die in this desert every year. 1200 times that many immigrants are apprehended by Border Patrol. Every weekday afternoon as many as 75 undocumented immigrants are prosecuted in the federal courthouse downtown. The majority are Mexican. The majority of those have lived, in some cases for many years, in the United States. They are sentenced 30-180 days in prison. There are seven prisons in the town of Florence alone. There were, in southern Arizona in the 1940s, seven Japanese American incarceration sites, including two of the largest concentration camps, Poston and Gila River, both of which occupied native reservations, and a prison labor camp on the mountain just north of Tucson.
Here is a story about something even more local. This story takes place here at the University of Arizona: at 12:07 pm on the 3rd Wednesday of every month, a bell is tolled seven times on the University campus. The bell is installed on top of the Student Union, overlooking the main lawn—specifically, the part of the main lawn being occupied by a memorial to the USS Arizona. The USS Arizona was the battleship that was bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. It sank to the bottom of the ocean. Actually, it sank through the bottom, and landed, 75 years later, on the University of Arizona campus. The memorial has converted the main lawn, and by extension the university itself, into the ghost of the sunken battleship. It is comprised of the ship’s bridge, containing medallions commemorating the crew members who died, as well as, most ludicrously, a full-scale outline of the ship’s deck, imprinted in rubber in the grass. Everyone who steps foot on the grass becomes one of the distinguished dead, or a vessel for their suggestive resurrection. The bell was originally installed on the USS Arizona. Not that anyone within earshot at 12:07 on the 3rd Wednesday of every month, would know that. Its alleged use is memorial. Its actual use is nostalgic. Anyone within earshot is incorporated into, and organized by, the bell’s nostalgia. Subliminality is not a modification of the truth, but a testament to the ways in which we are being infected by, and made to worship and perform, the national disposition. The bell was tolled on the 1st anniversary of 9/11.
French historian Alain Corbin writes about the prophylactic virtue of bells—that bells preserve the space of a community from all conceivable threats. Demons were horrified by the sound of bells, he writes. Bells were credited with the power to cleanse the air of every infernal presence.
In 1893, the United States, led by 13 white businessmen and politicians, overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, and the Kingdom of Hawaii. The naval base at Pearl Harbor was established. The memorial is as much a memorial to the naval base and ship, as it is to the tradition of converting occupied land into an armory. For me, however, it is an anti-memorial to Japanese American incarceration, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
One of the early proposals for deploying the bomb on Hiroshima was to release, in the seconds before the bomb, a siren, so loud that everyone on the ground would hear it, look up, and be blinded, a second later, by the flash. By blinded I mean: their eyes would melt.
What could Pearl Harbor and the bell possibly mean in southern Arizona in 2017? Ten miles down the highway from here the University has a second, 1,345-acre campus, on which it is facilitating the development of the most advanced border-security and border-enforcement technology in the world. It is important to acknowledge institutions that summon old, entrenched atrocities, while actively dreaming and preparing for new ones. The University was awarded a $17 billion grant from the Department of Homeland Security, which they used to create the Center for Excellence on Border Security and Immigration. Todd Miller writes, in Border Patrol Nation, about how students in the Aerospace Mechanical Engineering department have been studying the wings of locusts to develop miniature surveillance drones that can fit through cracks in walls. This renders anachronistic the methods used against Japanese immigrants—wiretapping, opening mail, breaking into bank accounts. But anachronisms are the rhetoric of revisionism, which enable, by comparison, the production of more terroristic forms of technology.
The bell, meanwhile, functions through what Simone Browne describes in Dark Matters as: ceremonial terror. Part of the ceremony is the suggestive resurrection of the dead, whose footfalls form the erotic undertones of, in this case, academic existence. The stretch of highway that leads to Tech Park is called the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. The bell is Tech Park’s ancestor, calling—faithfully, angelically—into the future, where it is being answered by technology that is satisfying the bell’s dream of a decontaminated (white nationalist) paradise—in which anxiety and rage are enshrined in the transmutation of the ashes of women and children on the banks of rivers, of the bones of immigrants in the desert, into souvenirs. It is only within the reality of these conditions that a person might be able to stride onto the bridge of the ghost-ship USS Arizona and, infused by the emanations of its panoptic bell, feel the entitlement and pride of being an uncontested citizen of what is, in essence, a rapidly and relentlessly expanding graveyard.
SOURCES: Nina Wallace, Of Spies and G-Men: How the U.S. Government Turned Japanese Americans into Enemies of the State (Densho blog). Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-century French Countryside. Stephen Walker, Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima. Todd Miller, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security. Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.