Asian-American shares stories of yore

Ingrid Skjong

Wearing the 75-year-old servant jacket that identified her father in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Esther Suzuki said Friday the time she spent in the camp still haunts her.
Suzuki, a writer and storyteller of Japanese-American culture, told about 30 people at the Asian American Student Cultural Center in Coffman Union of the four months in prison-like conditions.
In 1942, the United States forced 120,000 Japanese immigrants, 80,000 of whom were American citizens, to abandon their possessions and relocate to “assembly centers.” Most of the camps were in California.
Audience members relaxed with cups of coffee and listened as Suzuki, who was born in 1926 to Japanese immigrants in Portland, Ore., explained how doubts about Japanese-American loyalty during World War II affected her family.
“Hysteria was rampant,” she said in the soft-spoken voice she used throughout her 45-minute presentation. The camps, she said, were encircled by barbed wire with armed guards keeping constant watch.
After a four-month internment in Oregon, Suzuki came to Minnesota to attend Macalaster College in St. Paul. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social services and worked as a social worker in Ramsey County for 25 years.
Suzuki’s speech was part of an outreach and educational effort through Theater Mu, a professional Asian-American theater company in Minneapolis. Through Theater Mu, she shares her stories with schools, community groups and corporations.
The stories, she said, resonate best with young people because they still have open minds.
“Little children can’t believe it,” Suzuki said. “They say, ‘The U.S. put its own citizens in prison?'”
Vanessa Audette, a sophomore in chemistry, said Suzuki’s speech could lead her to find out more about the Japanese-American culture’s history.
“Her stories give a sense of humanism and realism about what happened,” Audette said.
And what happened still factors into Suzuki’s decisions today.
Although she has been back to the West Coast several times, she does not want her grandchildren attending college there because of what it symbolizes for her.
Nevertheless, Suzuki continues to turn her memories into richly poignant accounts. She is in the process of writing a play with noted Japanese-American poet David Mura that will debut at Theater Mu this spring.
The play, in conjunction with Suzuki’s speaking engagements, is aimed at increasing awareness of what happened during the internment.
“I think it’s a nice way of presenting history,” Asian American Student Cultural Center Director Carolyn Nayematsu said. “People don’t know a lot about this. It can be both historical and entertainment.”