Heart Mountain internment camp’s new interpretive learning center opens this weekend

Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming

It’s a fact: The 10 concentration camps built during World War II to imprison 120,000 people of Japanese descent — more than half U.S.-born and therefore American citizens, and most of them mere children — were all thrown together in godforsaken corners of the country.

No offense to people who live near the sites of these former “relocation centers” (a silly government euphemism that was easier to swallow than the words “concentration camp” that President Roosevelt himself used), but Camp Amache in southeastern Colorado is a forlorn, dusty expanse of whole lot of nothing for miles and miles. It takes four hours of driving through mostly flat, dull prairie to get to the town of Granada from Denver.

It takes nine hours on on the road from Denver to get to Heart Mountain, although the drive is a little more scenic, to the base of a towering peak north of Cody, Wyoming in the northwest corner of Colorado’s neighbor to the north. For years, like at many of the concentration camps from the war years, there has been only a couple of memorials erected by former internees, and only a couple of buildings, including several of the dilapidated barracks buildings within view of the camp’s namesake mountain. Most of the buildings and equipment were sold off to ranchers after the war; like many of the camps, non-profit groups have been tracking down and reconstructing buildings if they’re available and still standing.

Heart Mountain is notable for a couple of reasons: It’s where Bill Hosokawa, the journalist from Seattle, was interned for 13 months before getting a job at a newsaper in Iowa during the war. After WWII, Hosokawa moved to Denver andsoent the rest of his life as a reporter, editor, diplomat and civil rights leader. And, Heart Mountain is the camp where a group of draft resisters became notorious and were eventually sentenced to Federal prison for simply refusing to accept being drafted out of camp when their families had lost everything and were unjustly imprisoned by the US government. This is one topic that still needs to be explained and taught about (I’ll be writing a review of “Conscience and the Constitution,” an excellent documentary about the draft resisters, soon.)

We’ve driven to Heart Mountain, and were chilled by the desolate majesty of the locale.

The mountain itself is a powerful image, one that adds an iconic feel to this camp that Amache in Colorado doesn’t have (it’s just flat and empty all around). We stopped at a florist and gift shop between Cody and Heart Mountain where a woman who was interned at the camp still worked, decades later. I wish I still had her name and number.

But over the years, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation has been working diligently — and quietly — on building an 11,000 square feet facility at the former camp site that includes exhibition space and a theater. The Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center (ILC) opens this weekend with sold-out events that will be attended by some very high profile special guests.

Here’s a list of the speakers and invited VIPs for Friday’s All-Camp Get-Together and Pilgrimage Dinner at the Park County Fairgrounds, and saturday’s dedication ceremony at the ILC at the former camp grounds:
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Japan’s Ambassador to US visited Denver for 25th anniversary of Colorado-Yamagata relationship

Ambassador of Japan to U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki

It’s not often that Denver receives visitors at the highest levels of the foreign diplomatic corps, but the 25th anniversary of the start of the Colorado-Yamagata Sister State relationship brought Ichiro Fujisaki, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the United State of America, to the Brown Palace on August 6.

Fujisaki gave a keynote speech during a luncheon hosted by the Japan America Society of Colorado, which was also attended by Takashi Takahashi, vice governor of Yamagata Prefecture (state), and Kozo Taira, Chairperson of the Yamagata Prefectural Assembly. Also with the Yamagata delegation were several assemblymen, the assembly’s Chief Secretariat, and representatives of the Yamagata International Affairs Office.

The local speakers included Morgan Smith and James Terada, former chairs of the Colorado-Yamagata Friendship Committee. Smith helped forge the Sister State relationship when he served under then-governor Dick Lamm, who was not initially supportive of the idea. Smith recalled his efforts to get the relationship approved, and the accomplishments since then that have come out of the Sister State compact. Gov. Roy Romner, who followed Lamm, was much more supportive, as was Bill Owens after that, and Gov. Hickenlooper already has strong ties to Japan and with Yamagata through visits he made while he served as Denver’s Mayor.

There were also remarks by Colorado state officials including David Thomson, Director of Global Business Development in the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade; Sen. Brandon Shaffer, President of the state Senate; and Rep. Frank McNulty, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

But the luncheon never felt like a dry political summit.
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Denver pays tribute to Bill Hosokawa, a Japanese American leader

Denver Botanic Gardens' current Japanese Garden

The Japanese Gardens as it currently looks at the Denver Botanic Gardens

Many Japanese Americans – especially older JAs – will be familiar with the name Bill Hosokawa.

He wrote a column, “From the Frying Pan,” which was a running commentary on Japanese America that ran in the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a civil rights organization, for decades. In 1969 he published the first comprehensive history of Japanese Americans, “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” that included information about internment. In 1982 he published “JACL: The Quest for Justice,” a history of JACL. He also published a collection of “Frying Pan” columns with added observations in 1998.

His final book, published in 2005, was “Colorado’s Japanese Americans: From 1886 to the Present,” which most Japanese Americans across the country probably aren’t familiar with, but was well-received here in Colorado. Even at age 90, when he wrote the book, he was an agile wordsmith and a witty and straightforward storyteller, a gift that served him well in his long career as a journalist. He died two years later, in 2007.

bill hosokawa-denver press club 2005I was interviewed for an obituary in the LA Times when Bill died, and the reporter couldn’t understand how important “Nisei” was to a JA kid in northern Virginia in the early ’70s, where my family lived when I first read Bill’s landmark book. Being in a multicultural place like California with Asian faces everywhere you look, a book about the history of Japanese Americans may seem unremarkable. The Times’ obit even pointed out that to the emerging third-generation activists who were radicalized and beginning to actively seek their identity, “Nisei” seemed tame and even reinforced stereotypes of the meek, accommodating model minority.

But to me, a kid in a northern Virginia suburb with no Asian friends — a banana if there ever was one — “Nisei” was like an electric jolt of identity. The radicalism came later; the first step for me was realizing that there were other people like me with an Asian face and Japanese values, but American heart and spirit.

Colorado is more like Virginia when it comes to Asian population and JA identity. I’m much more a part of an Asian American community now, but it’s a small and disparate one. So having a historical giant like Bill Hosokawa in the area was like having a lighthouse in a fog.

Bill Hosokawa was well-known nationally as one of the foundations of the Japanese American community’s national history.

He’s also remembered in Colorado, and not just by Japanese Americans. His legacy looms large in Denver and throughout his adopted state for his work as a writer and editor, and a diplomat who built lasting bridges with Japan. He was, as he quite accurately used to quip, “The most famous Japanese American in Japan.” And Colorado, too.
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Watch “Vincent Who?” documentary about Vincent Chin free online through July

Too many people don’t know who Vincent Chin was. He’s the young Chinese American man who was brutally killed in 1982 in a hate crime by out-of-work Detroit autoworkers who blamed the Japanese auto industry for their woes. After getting into a fight with Chin, who was celebrating his upcoming wedding, in a strip club, two men beat him with a baseball bat on June 15. He died four days later of his injuries. His last words before slipping into a coma were, “It’s not fair.”

That sad and terrible attack in a very real sense was the spark that led to the modern Asian American Pacific Islander movement.
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3D role-playing online game simulates experience of JAs in WWII concentration camps

Drama in the Delta screen shot

Japanese Americans know about internment. My wife Erin’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides were rounded up from Sacramento County, Calif. and eventually imprisoned at Rohwer, one of two concentration camps in Arkansas built during World War II to house Japanese Americans out of fear and racial hysteria. There were 10 in all, including Camp Amache in desolate southeastern Colorado. (Note: There’s been a gradual move towards the use of the term “concentration camps” because that’s the term the U.S. government used for them when they weren’t using euphemisms like “assembly center” or “relocation center.”)

For many older Japanese Americans, the first thing they ask of each other when they meet other JAs is, “what camp was your family in?” and they’re not talking about summer camp.
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