Journey to Topaz

Journey to Topaz

A long-awaited family reunion at Topaz, a World War II Japanese internment camp in remote Utah, reanimates a swell of memories from the past.

This is dedicated to the memory of my brother-in-law Dean Hedani.  He may have been a founding partner of the San Francisco law firm Hedani, Choy, Spalding & Salvagione, but he is lovingly remembered as the father who ensured family continuity with the passing of his partner, Melainie. Dean may have been a big sports fan of the Warriors, Giants and 49ers, however, this enthusiasm was unmatched when it came to the passion for the 2022 Hedani family pilgrimage to Topaz, which is recounted below.  

Reflections on a Journey to Topaz: “Jewel of the Desert”

“We rode through seventeen miles of alfalfa fields and greasewood-covered desert…the Central Utah Relocation Project was stretched out before us in a cloud of dust. It was a desolate scene. Hundreds of low black barracks covered with tar paper were lined up row after row. A few telephone poles stood like sentinels, and soldiers could be seen patrolling the grounds.” 

Miné Okubo, from Citizen 13660, discussing the bus trip to the “Central Utah Relocation Center,” the euphemism for the Topaz Concentration Camp

two people look at each other while driving into the sun.
Illustration by Mabel Weber

Part One: Salt Lake City to Park City to Delta

The last time we visited Salt Lake City was in 1975 during our cross-country road trip relocating from the Bay Area to the Big Apple. Already young veterans of the definitive Asian American movement, we were radical community activists rooted in the Chinatown, Manilatown, and Japantown communities. With New York’s Chinatown in our line of sight, we were excited, nervous, and full of anticipation for a new life in an unfamiliar place. 

Of course, this uprooting came with trepidation: What kind of impoverished environment would play host to a gang called the Crazy Homicides? Gulp. I thought that having encounters with Chinatown street youth and other “close calls” would be enough preparation. (Some of those days, some of us would be armed.)

My sister saw us off from our hilly alley flat on Bernard Street, just north of Chinatown. Janet and I got into our 1973 Datsun 610 and crossed the familiar Bay Bridge, making short requisite stops in Oakland and Sacramento to say goodbyes to our families by way of Interstate 80 and its tributaries. Janet would always be teary-eyed leaving her close-knit Nikkei (Japanese American) family. And then off we went, straight east. Although she and I had traveled to Phoenix to see my mother’s family after we had married, I had never traveled beyond Nevada that far north. At the time, I-80 was the northernmost West-East cross-continental highway in the United States and it would eventually lead us to New York City. I opted against traveling the more southerly transcontinental route because the South in those days was still very much The South. My gas mileage was about 20-odd miles per gallon, and memories of the 1973 gas crisis were still fresh. We were guarded, yet felt relatively comfortable. Still, as Asians, we often felt like oddities at gas stations, restaurants, and truck stops. 

After crossing the Sierra Nevada (and the infamous Donner Pass), our first proper overnight stop was Salt Lake City. Arriving late in the evening from the west, looking down on the Great Salt Lake as rain danced on the windshield and lightning flashed in the distance. Burning the brakes down the mountain road, the eerie panorama of a well-placed movie scene. In those pre-GPS days one used an AAA Triptik for precise directions. Janet and I were amidst our own journey of a lifetime, just like a movie, and with dramatically placed distant lightning at that!  

To make a long story short, our road trip and arrival to New York City indeed was a memorable experience replete and populated with stories of struggle and activism.  Janet and I homesteaded ourselves in the Lower East Side and became New Yorkers. Our relationship with our families in the West was never broken while we expanded our own family on the East Coast.  

Fast forward to late 2022.  

The flight from JFK landed two hours later than scheduled at Salt Lake City International Airport due to a forced layover in Denver after all the onboard restrooms failed. Picking up the rental car at the airport, we traversed the Wasatch Back region of the Rocky Mountains, towards Park City, a ski resort community 32 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The old mining town sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level, but these days it’s most well-known for Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. By the time we arrived, Bay Area members of the Nikkei side of the family had already arrived and settled into their rooms at the hotel.

This trip was a four-year effort in the making—a pilgrimage to the site of the Topaz concentration camp, euphemistically named by the U.S. government as the Central Utah Relocation Center. An endeavour spearheaded by our daughter, we were ultimately able to meet up with our extended family of Nikkei, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese from Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and various points in California. The gathering was a highly anticipated opportunity to commemorate my Nisei in-laws (the Hedani’s and Takei’s).  

rows of communal housing sit in the middle of a desolate desert
Illustration by Mabel Weber

Part 2: Topaz – A Desolate Memory on a Foundation of Dust 

Four years ago, before the pandemic, bringing up a family journey to Topaz would inevitably trigger a series of conversations ricocheting between the East and West coasts.  There always was a quiet persistence when the topic was broached by our adult children. Topaz concentration camp is the site where both of my wife’s Issei (first generation) grandparents and her Nisei (second generation) parents were incarcerated along with over 7,500 other people of Japanese descent.  

Around that time several of Janet’s younger cousins, along with comrades and veterans of the Asian American movement, had recently passed. Always in the background of any family conversation was an understanding that Asian American demographics had significantly changed since the 1970s, as well as the recent unsettling rise in violent anti-Asian sentiments. When it came time for things to manifest there was an unspoken resonance to the significance of a pilgrimage to Topaz. 

Pulling it off would be an achievement of logistical tenacity weighed with profound emotional and historical gravity. Excitedly, I shared the plan with my colleagues, my doctor, and others as I prepared to retire from professional life. Of course, that was in the months before the pandemic.

It is a disturbing reality that, to this day, most Americans are unaware that after the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government openly violated professed constitutional protections and cruelly targeted persons of Japanese descent. This manifestation of an imperialist, geopolitical struggle between two empires—the Japanese and the American—contesting Indo-Pacific dominance, would irreparably scar the Japanese American people. 

In 1942, over 125,000 Japanese Americans residing along the West Coast were interned under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The majority were native-born U.S. citizens and their Issei parents, who were forcibly removed from their jobs and schools, then suffered the indignation of having their farms and businesses confiscated, and their community and faith institutions shut down, before being herded onto trains and disappeared into the desolate wilderness of the internment camps. 

The forced displacement and incarceration were accompanied by racist, virulent demonization in the mainstream press coupled with rabid, physical attacks on persons and property. Much of the hatred was inflamed via William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire, which had historically agitated the threat of “Yellow Peril” using a carefully curated assault of editorials, columns, articles, and political cartoons that “cultivated vicious hatred of the Japanese.” Racial hostilities made the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans not only possible but a crushing reality when Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

This waking nightmare left indelible impressions on future generations of documentarians, authors, artists, and social scientists who eventually emerged out of the dust of Topaz. Among the survivors were children’s author Yoshiko Uchida, artist Miné Okubo, author and illustrator of Citizen 13660, poet Toyo Suyemoto, and sociologist Harry Kitano, who brought living testament of the indisputable narratives from Topaz camp and contributed to the rich body of work about the incarceration through their own experiences and creative catharsis.

Four years in the making. 

As the coronavirus pandemic began to wane and spike as it mutated into new variants, the various households within our family diaspora made sacrifices to ensure they would all be able to attend—the baby boomers and their spouses, as well as the Yonsei (fourth generation) children, their spouses, and children. Months in advance, the various families were juggling life, rearranging schedules, and confirming dates across the continent via group emails and video chats. I was anxious to make sure that our New York and Philadelphia-based branch of the family would be in good condition for this emotional journey after several bouts of COVID.

Collectively, we were cognizant that anti-Asian hate and violence agitated by and reverberated from the pinnacle of U.S. political power (Let’s call it out: Trump and his fascist minions) was running rampant from coast to coast. We were disgusted and alarmed when Michelle Go, a young Asian woman was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train and killed in New York. Her murder was but one of many news stories of verbal abuse, unprovoked attacks, and random acts of violence inflicted upon Asian people from both coasts.

Living in relatively self-contained Asian ethnic communities in San Francisco or Oakland during the 1960s left a disarming feeling once you stepped out into the world of work or school. When I attended Oakland High School in 1969, it was 20 percent Asian (Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino). But being conspicuous didn’t insulate me from being continually reminded that anti-Asian agitation had deep historical roots in white supremacist traditions. It’s not easy to shake off the experience of being a 14-year-old Chinese kid getting chased off a North Beach basketball court by a bunch of white kids hollering, “Get off the court, don’t you know who won the war!”  

Even during my college days, in the heat of the Indochina war, I remember classmates who made a point of packing heat when traveling those few miles to “remote,” white East Bay enclaves like Fremont and Hayward, or even to the South Bay city of San Jose, which had its own Japantown. Can we even say: “Those were the days…?”

Fast forward to recent times: 2022 Park City, Utah. 

To get to the Topaz camp from Park City, we had to travel through Delta, Utah, a backwater agricultural and industrial town in the middle of the desert and home to the top-notch Topaz Museum. The Topaz site was so named due to the pale blue, golden brown, yellow and orange variants of the gemstone found in the surrounding mountains. The desert has changed only as deserts change. Of the campsite, acres and acres of abandoned land, retaining only the skeletal remains of the prison colony, lay desiccated in the sand.

Neither Topaz nor mass incarceration is a notable feature, let alone mentioned, in any of the tourist materials. If you consulted an AAA guidebook today, Delta is not mentioned at all. And what of Topaz? It didn’t warrant any recognition in America’s most comprehensive roadside travel guide either, even though a U.S. Park Service monument stands at the foot of the entrance to the preserved site.  

Yoshiko Uchida, who documented and processed her experiences through children’s books, painted a most distressing picture of the bus ride to Topaz after disembarking the train in Delta in her 1982 post-internment memoir Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family:

…after a half hour…there was an abrupt change. All vegetation stopped. There were no trees or grass or growth of any kind, only clumps of dry skeletal greasewood…In the distance, there were mountains rising above the valley with some majesty, but they were many miles away. The bus made a turn into the heart of the sun-drenched desert and there, in the midst of nowhere, were rows and rows of squat, tar-papered barracks sitting sullenly in the white, chalky sand.

Our seven-vehicle caravan drove deep into Topaz towards Block 27-42, where my wife’s family once “resided.” Sparse patches of sagebrush poking out of the ground provided minimal texture to the desolation. We planted our feet on the gravel roadway, and then to the pebbled, crunchy ground. Just beneath the topsoil, thousands of nails, nuts, bolts, and pieces of wood lay embedded in the dirt. Isolated signage identified where the different lots were positioned around the barracks, canteens, and communal bathhouses. Canvassing the area freely, we listened intently to the solemn insights of our tour guide, Jane Beckwith, a board member of the Topaz Museum and a wonderful resource on the history of concentration camps.

My sister-in-law, Barbara, aptly described the landscape and ambiance. “No buildings remain…but a dedication monument and a map showing where buildings were located. We saw the foundations of buildings and the outlines of entryways to some of the barracks and communal bath and restroom facilities and mess halls… What we could feel…and see is how desolate the location was, the clay soil with dust storms during summer and thick, deep mud during winters.”

Yoshiko Uchida concluded the epilogue of her Desert Exile with the value of passing on her experiences. “[A]s a writer of books for young people, I often speak at schools about my experiences… celebrating our common humanity… I tell them about the Issei who persevered in a land that denied them so much. I tell them how our own country incarcerated us—its citizens—during World War II, causing us to lose that most precious of all possessions, our freedom.”

Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir Citizen 13660 reminds us that the loss of liberty could have mortal consequences. Incarcerated as a 30-year-old, among the revolting experiences she documented was the killing of James Hatsuaki Wakasa, a 63-year-old chef who was shot and killed by an MP while walking his dog inside the Topaz barbed-wire fence on April 11, 1943. The Topaz Times, the camp newspaper, falsely reported that Wakasa had been shot while trying to climb through the fence. An error that was never corrected. James Hatsuaki Wakasa’s murder is remembered and observed every year in Salt Lake City and at Topaz.

An incarcerated man looks at the mountains beyond the fence in the distance
Illustration by Mabel Weber

Part 3: An Indelible, Racist Miscarriage

Today, Asian Americans continue to straddle two cultures simultaneously. Whether we are conscious of it or not (or even several generations removed from Asia), we are communities in deep angst, continually concerned about our place in these United States. Long regarded by the dominant culture and its media as a “model minority,” the convergence of recent events—the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the January 6th capitol riots—has thrust our community into convulsive contention.  

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 marked a sharp rise in anti-Asian violence agitated by then-President Trump’s overtly racist, tasteless, xenophobic hate speech. His continued use of pejorative propaganda like “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” served not only to manufacture suspicion about the Asian American connection to COVID’s source, it inflamed long-simmering fears of China’s emergence as the primary global competitor to U.S. imperialism.

In the summer of 2020, a surge of protests swept across the nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The scenes in the streets stirred an emotional and moral conflict within Asian communities over the persistence of anti-Black prejudice in Asian ethnic and immigrant communities. The conflict was all the more poignant because two of the four officers convicted of abetting the murder were Asian American.

Asian American representation and integration have increased significantly in recent years, as has the perception changed in the eyes of most Americans. While “Asian America” was historically limited to the Western states along the Pacific Coast and inland, today significant Asian American populations exist in rural, suburban, and urban settings across the country. After California and New York, more Asian Americans now live in Texas than any other U.S. state. High-profile East and South Asians have succeeded in journalism, in the media, and in the public square. We are invited to speak as topical experts and political pundits on national talk shows. And yes, we inhabit the highest echelons of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. An Asian American woman is now the general manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team. And there are Asian Americans competing in the Olympics in numbers unseen before.

They say times change, and we change with them, but anti-Asian sentiments dating back to the 1850s continue to proliferate today. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is largely behind us, Asians and Asian Americans continue to be subjected to vicious physical and verbal assaults perpetrated by white supremacists and racist people of colour.

Topaz made it clear that the Nikkei experience in the U.S. came with a serious cost. After feeling the desolation of the land used for “relocation” camps, we as a family affirmed a solemn vow to educate, inspire, and empower younger generations to learn from this historic outrage whose dangers still permeate American society. But how do we extrapolate value from the deeply uncomfortable lessons from our historical traumas? 

The forcible evacuation of Japanese Americans was a wholly racist miscarriage of justice (with the potential to become genocide) that denied an entire people their rights of due process, their land and their humanity, exercised through war hysterics. How, given today’s political climate, can we rationalize that a liberal Democrat signed Executive Order 9066 ordering the detention, removal and indefinite internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans?

Again, at a time when the rise of the African American struggle for human rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement converged and inspired the rise of the Asian American movement on the West Coast, the Japanese American community was also shaken awake in the 1960s and early ‘70s. For it was the Sansei, the children of the Nisei, who broke through the wall of self-imposed, post-incarceration silence and forced a conversation that helped people come to terms with the incarceration experience. These conversations infused and informed an emergent Asian American movement with a militant edge that advocated unapologetically for Asian American empowerment and social justice in solidarity with the Black liberation struggle.

group of people standing in desert.
Illustration by Mabel Weber

Part 4:  Dangerous Uncertain Times

Propelled and inspired by the African American community’s resistance against racist oppression and historical denial, the Hedani sisters participated in the Third World Liberation Front strikes for ethnic studies, Barbara at San Francisco State and Janet at UC Berkeley. Their generation wrote op-ed pieces in the ethnic community press, organized community forums on Japanese internment, and linked it to imperialism and the Vietnam War. That process injected both social consciousness and controversy into community relations in local Buddhist Churches and neighbourhood venues. The zeal and determination of the Sansei generation and some Nisei (aided by many other Asian Americans) brought waves of controversy by challenging convention and bringing to the surface taboo subjects like the resistance within the concentration camps and lionizing the “No No Boys”, inclusive of those who rejected the draft while interned inside the camp. They rehashed unsettling memories and sparked uncomfortable conversations, but it was necessary to drag the past out into the sunlight.

Compared to the galvanizing atmosphere of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when positive cross-ethnic dynamics was a source of pride and inspiration, where will “Asian America” stand on violent police suppression and genocidal rhetoric directed at Black, Brown and Native, and other oppressed communities? And where affirmative action and the teaching of ethnic studies have come under vicious attack perpetrated by white supremacists in the name of Asian Americans, where is the outrage?

Today there are localized efforts to introduce Asian American history and studies at the grade school level. At the same time, fascist forces like Mothers for Liberty and their ilk are seeking to ban books and critical thinking nationally in order to seamlessly erase the genocide of Native peoples, slavery, and the African American experience from school curriculums, libraries, and history. 

Asian Americans may have greater visibility with more elected officials in local and national government, more representation in the arts and entertainment with famous actors, comedians, journalists, talking heads, and pundits, yet even this demographic is not immune to discrimination, prejudice, and threats of violence, contained in a volatile geo-political climate as the U.S. wages a proxy war against Russia in the Ukraine, and upticks its competitive, saber-rattling threats against China under the guise of defending Taiwan. And at the same time, there are those Asian Americans who seem to have willingly embraced white supremacist ideology, either out of grave fear or internalized racism.

We are living in dangerous, uncertain times where the inequality in society has not abated and a juggernaut of hate and intolerance has been unleashed against immigrants, LGBT people, and women (most recently to reproductive freedom). Some misguided sections of our communities have guzzled the poisonous kool-aid, aligning themselves within the most retrograde, reactionary, racist political spheres, and I wonder if the pressure to be more “Americanized” may have contributed to the two shocking and unprecedented mass shootings carried out against Asian Americans by Chinese immigrants in the recent past. I refer to the massacres at Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, which took place two days apart in January of this year. Might these acts of mass violence be indicative of psychosocial convulsions occurring within various Asian American and Asian ethnic immigrant communities?

The Asian American experience, while somewhat individualized within various ethnic community experiences, shares much in common with global struggles against racist violence, prejudiced exclusion, and overt denial of basic civil rights. Like the pogroms unleashed on Chinese miners and railroad workers in the West, Filipino farm workers struggling against vicious backbreaking exploitation, and organized historical labour strikes elevating working class militancy, these events along with the Japanese American incarceration have been key moments in U.S. history that many Asian Americans of my generation have integrated into our collective identity. These legacies are in danger of being wiped away.

For the Hedani family, the pilgrimage to Topaz was not crossing off a bucket list, it was a latent mission to excavate this historic reality of national betrayal and contextualize it for the new realities our grandchildren are facing—to ensure that it will not fade away. Its lessons cannot be relegated to a frail lament recalling a “difficult” period in Asian American history, and then forgotten. 

The concept for the following series “Not Fade Away: Preserving Overlooked AAPI Experiences” has been incubating for some time as I, a Chinese American of mixed generational backgrounds, readied myself to retire from professional life after working 23 years for the largest, and one of the older, Asian American nonprofit service organizations in New York City. Future segments of this series will highlight and feature interviews and living AAPI stories that cannot be allowed to face historical extinction.


collection of pamphlets about the internment of Japanese during WWII
Image collage provided by Stan Nishimura

NO! THERE WERE CONCENTRATION CAMPS IN AMERICA, THAT IS THE TRUTH!

I was in the first or maybe second grade; 6 or 7 years old. A group of us in the
schoolyard. My parents and other relatives moved from Poston, Arizona to the inner city of Denver. So, this group in the playground was lower working class made-up with Blacks, Mexicans, whites and me, the Japanese American…

From someone in this group: “Where were you born…?” “This hospital. This town. That city. That state…” Then this rush to offer personal birth declarations came to me, saying that I was born in a camp that my family and other Japanese were put into during the war. An eruption of shouts, jeers, indignant screams filled the air, changed the level of kid-banter and youthful challenging.

Turning into a mob mentality…
“LIAR”, “YOU LIE”, “LIAR, LIAR!”
“THAT NEVER HAPPENED IN THIS COUNTRY!”
“WE DON’T DO THAT IN AMERICA!”
“WE DON’T DO THAT IN AMERICA!” bombarded throughout the schoolyard.

My parents and my aunts and uncles told me of the camps; they even showed me
photos of the family sitting in the desert of Arizona. The next day several of these boys said they asked their parents, who all said that I was telling the truth and that the camps did happen in America. For years, I have thought of how powerful is the statement: “WE DON’T DO THAT HERE IN AMERICA!!!”

Over the years in talking with other Japanese Americans they were also confronted with similar attacks, distortions, and lies about their past. To get a deeper understanding of the U.S. role in establishing concentration camps, look into the American Crimes Series 89.

Stan Nishimura, who was born in internment in 1943 as depicted in the “Drawing Construction” visual piece. After graduating with a MFA in painting and sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1970s, and then earning an MA in music composition and performance from Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT) in the early 1980s, Stan committed himself to exploring the interconnectivity between visual arts and music for decades.

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A recently retired management professional seeking volunteers and interns with passions for Asian American oral historical documentation. A veteran of the Asian American Movement and of Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley, Steve maintains a long term commitment to social justice resistance, and actively supports building a Movement for Revolution for the emancipation of all humanity. He is one of the co-editors of the 2000 Fred Ho-initiated anthology, Legacy For Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America.

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