During Nikki Nojima Louis’ fourth birthday party at her family home in Seattle, FBI agents arrived to arrest her father.
It was December 7, 1941, and the Japanese military had just bombed Pearl Harbor. Louis’ father, Shoichi Nojima, was a newspaper editor who had emigrated to the United States. He was one of the thousands of Japanese men interned in New Mexico as part of a national policy whereby more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated, mostly in the interior West, because they were perceived to be a security threat.
In reality, most were ordinary civilians stripped of their property and their businesses, and they were often separated from their families because of their ancestry.
The exhibit Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American WWII Experience, which tells this larger story, as well as the stories of Japanese Americans in New Mexico, runs through Nov. 3 at the Albuquerque Museum. The show is in the museum’s community gallery, which features rotating exhibits curated by local residents, in conjunction with museum staff.
Courage and Compassion focuses on many aspects of the Japanese American experience, including military service and forced relocation, and also honors people who challenged the war hysteria that demonized Japanese Americans and reached out to help their neighbors.
“You can certainly relate this to what is happening today,” said Megan Keller, director of education and exhibits for the Go For Broke National Education Center in Los Angeles, the organization behind the touring exhibit. “We have something in the exhibit that says this happened in the past and it can happen again.”
The organization is named for the slogan used by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a U.S. Army unit comprised of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the continental United States. Albuquerque is the tenth stop for the Go For Broke exhibit, which gives the larger perspective of these events. In each city, local historians and residents weave stories of their communities into the national exhibit.
Louis is the community curator for the New Mexico portion of the exhibit. The artistic director of the New Mexico Japanese American Citizens League theater group (JACL Players), she has spent years researching stories of Japanese Americans from this period and turning their oral histories into theatrical performances.
Her father was sent to camps in Lordsburg and Santa Fe, which only housed men. Louis was interned with her mother at the Minidoka camp in Idaho, and the story of those larger camps, operated by the War Relocation Authority, are what most people know, Keller said.
“What most people don’t know are the stories of prison camps in New Mexico, and that’s what makes New Mexico very unique,” Louis said.
In addition to Lordsburg and Santa Fe, the New Mexico camps were located in Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch. That’s according to Confinement in the Land of Enchantment, a book partially funded by a grant from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Site Program and published in association with the Colorado State University Public Lands History Center and the New Mexico chapter of JACL. Like Shoichi Nojima, the men in the Lordsburg camp were deemed alien enemies after Pearl Harbor.
The Lordsburg camp, in Southwest New Mexico, was open from 1942 to 1943 and held about 1,500 men. It was marked by labor disputes, unrest, and the shooting of two elderly Japanese men by an Army guard. By 1943, the men were relocated to civilian camps run by the U.S. Department of Justice or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Santa Fe camp held a total of 4,555 men over the years, including Japanese men from Peru. During World War II, a number of Latin American countries, including Peru, worked with the United States to deport 2,200 of its Japanese residents, who were incarcerated in U.S. internment camps.
Old Raton Ranch was an old Civilian Conservation Corps site and home briefly to Japanese Americans forced out of Clovis. Fort Stanton was used for detainees from other camps who authorities deemed “troublesome.” It also held German POWs.
The exhibit includes artifacts, such as carvings and other artworks made by men who were incarcerated, including a small fishing boat in a frame (both made from discarded pieces of wood) and a carved wood elephant. There are also sketches, newspapers started by incarcerated men, and photos of families who lived in New Mexico and ran businesses here.
By the start of the war, there were about 200 Japanese Americans living in the state, according to Confinement. President Roosevelt’s order of Feb. 19, 1942, authorized federal officials to detain people considered security threats. They could be excluded from 12 zones along the Pacific Coast.
Outside those zones, people’s experiences depended on where they lived. In Las Cruces, Roy Nakayama’s family was not incarcerated or forced out, but there were rumors among local residents that lights on their barn were installed to direct Japanese planes to nearby Fort Bliss. They were among a handful of Japanese Americans farming in the Mesilla Valley.
Nakayama, who was one of eight children, went into the Army in 1944. He was captured near the Battle of the Bulge and spent six months in a German prison camp. When he returned, he went into horticulture studies and became known as Mr. Chile for his work hybridizing chile varieties to create the meaty and mild Big Jim, which is now so ubiquitous in New Mexico.
Roy Nakayama died in 1988, but his niece, Jane Nakayama Cole, said a show like this is important because there is so much anti-immigrant sentiment in the country again.
“You can show people what kind of life we have lived,” said Cole, who lives in Albuquerque. “Whenever you start telling your stories to someone who might be willing to listen, we all find our common humanity someplace.”
Another story highlighted in the exhibit focuses on the Miyagishima family. Mike, who died last year, was a retired Air Force officer who had been incarcerated as a child in Arizona and later settled his family in Las Cruces. His son, Ken, is serving his third term as mayor of the city.
The Yonemoto family was farming in Grants and Arizona but gave up the Arizona land because of racist attacks by white farmers, Louis says. They built several thriving businesses in Albuquerque in the years that followed, including the first Japanese restaurant in the city, Taro’s Gardens.
“So New Mexico is kind of unique in that way,” Louis said. “On the whole, it does have this reputation for tolerance.”
A database of everyone held at the camps is included in the exhibit. This proved invaluable for Les Hamasaki, whose grandfather was taken from their home in Hawaii when Hamasaki was three years old. He returned when Hamasaki was five, but like many Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, he never talked about it. Hamasaki didn’t know where his grandfather went until he found his name on the Lordsburg list.
“We all have stories to tell of how our lives were affected,” he said. “Those environments shape who we are and what we have done and why.”
Hamasaki grew up to become a Los Angeles city planner. His mother helped point him on that path, saying, “You better work for the city because they can’t fire you because you’re Japanese.”
As part of the second generation, he recalled going through a period of not wanting to be Japanese.
“It’s like Mother Japan and Father American were fighting to the end and you had to choose one or the other.”
Finding his grandfather’s path helped him understand his own story, said Hamasaki, who plans to travel to Albuquerque to see the exhibit.
Louis said many people of her father’s generation stayed silent, internalizing the racism and psychological guilt of that time. She said that her theater work often touched emotions buried deeply in people, even bringing them to tears.
Younger audiences are hungry for information on how her generation survived incarceration, she said.
“We’ve had 70 years of knowledge and education and information about the injustices, but you can’t get stuck there. That’s the message I want to put out because hatred and bitterness are so damaging to ourselves.” ◀
▼ “Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American WWII Experience”
▼ Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain Road NW
▼ Through Nov. 3
▼ Admission $3-$6; 505-243-7255, albuquerquemuseum.org