Ms. Breed and ‘her Children’

Our class has just finished up most of their presentations on their WW2 letters from Muhlenberg Alumni, and now the class was approaching the war from a different angle. We were assigned to read letters from the Japanese American National Museum, specifically the Breed collection.

Clara Breed was a child’s librarian of the San Diego Public Library. She actively wrote to the Japanese-American people, both young and old, as America entered WW2 officially in December 1941. Within the letters she wrote, Ms. Breed would send the children books and inquire about their lives as well as give them hope for their future and the possibilities outside of the camp.

I chose Louise Ogawa’s letter to Ms. Breed. It was written on August 14, 1942, and at this time, Louise was living in Santa Anita where she and her family would be kept along with many other Japanese-American families under suspicion for the possibility that they are a threat to the US. Here, she expresses how fortunate they are to be given clothing and free coupons for food. She also thanks Ms. Breed for sending her a book, which Louise read earnestly throughout her time at home despite her mother’s commands to go to bed early. There was also a following letter as well, written in August 1942, that was Louise’s final goodbye to Ms. Breed from Santa Anita. She details how she will be relocated with her family to Parker, Arizona. She hopes to see Ms. Breed in person and how she is already homesick for California and nervous to leave. The people around her were “in an uproar talking about evacuation,” and despite their recommendations for her to delay her writing, Louise still sent Ms. Breed her letter with a pair of ‘geta,’ or Japanese slippers.

When originally reading this, I thought Louise was still living her normal life with her family, and she was suddenly starting to move. However, because she mentioned how she was originally a “San Diegans,” it made me realize that she and her family were placed under surveillance in California even before the order for Japanese-Americans to be sent to Arizona. Looking into Louise’s background, I found out that she was 17 to 18 years old and was on the verge of graduating high school when she and her family were sent to Arizona. It was noted that when asked if she could be interviewed, Louise declined until she was written a letter by an interviewer. It also revealed that she had a close friend, Margaret Ishino, whom Ms. Breed also wrote too. To me, it was becoming more clear the impact and comfort this librarian gave to these children was essentially to their humanity and even childhood in some cases. These children were essentially separated from their family and eventually from their friends they made in the camps.

Additionally, these letters made me think a lot about America’s values and the panicked state both the government and citizens must’ve been in this context. As an Asian-American, it made me very concerned that this was simply allowed within our country, and it made me question where the boundary was when it came to living one’s life freely and having the opportunity of happiness/liberty. Many of these families that were sent to internment weren’t even directly Japanese, but third or even fourth generation of Americans with Japanese roots. I understand the panic of going to war, but I believe it to be full hysteria to have someone incarcerated or suffer worse because they share the same ethnicity as an enemy. Additionally, the idea that many Japanese people came to this country to either flee the state of war their original country was in or for other reasons only to be put in an interment camp seems very hypocritical of the US since it was this country that was built on ideas of freedom, liberty, and equality. This whole order strikes me to be purely based on looks and stereotypes heightened by mob mentality. It saddens me to think that this carries even into modern day, where in today’s news, there is an influx of Asian hate crimes happening because of COVID-19 and the US’s relationship with China.

However, there is still hope, as it was clear that Ms. Breed became a big advocate and protestor against the injustices the Japanese community went through. Today, more students and citizens of America are recognizing and learning about these internment camps, and are using this knowledge to fight against the racism and racially-motivated crimes happening within their community locally. Hopefully, the US does not enforce any atrocity like those camps in their history again.

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