Yoshiko Uchida’s Memoir Desert Exile: The Memoir as History

The memoir, by its nature, is subjective. The author mines her own memories for material, brings them to sharper focus, usually through a heightened literary style or by linking them to a well-known historical event, and thus, turns her own personal account into something more universal. But when the memoir is especially written by someone caught up in the middle of historical relevance, such as George Stephanopoulos’s 1999 treatment of his years in the Clinton administration, it is often the subject of criticism. How faithful are the author’s memories to the facts?

Is the author being too subjective with her subject? How reliable can the author be? Does she have an agenda? All of these questions could easily be posed of Yoshiko Uchida’s memoir Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family, about her experiences in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Since Desert Exile is a memoir, its accounts of the events leading up to the internment of thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens, is told in a decidedly narrow point of view. Yet, within that narrow context, Uchida paints a stark portrait of what life was like for those Japanese internees. Her story has more weight than a simple historical treatment of that period because Uchida had more at stake in the events and the consequences of them.

Her personal account reveals the ambivalence that Japanese-Americans, such as herself, were thinking and feeling during that period about their country. She writes: “My sister and I were angry that our country could deprive us of our civil rights in so cavalier a manner, but we had been raised to respect and to trust those in authority” (57). And because the events leading up to the internment had a deep and intimate affect on her life, she was able to note the affects they had on herself and her family.

Uchida writes extensively about the Issei, first-generation Japanese nationals living in the United States. Her observations of her parents, Issei both, and their quiet, stoic dignity in the face of humiliation is revealing in the way it provided her family the strength to withstand the immediate disruptions in their lives caused by their forced removal from their homes.

Often, historical treatments of major events, such as World War II, are told from the point of view of those in power. While those stories are certainly valid, books like Uchida’s also reveal how those events, no matter how remote, can affect individuals in the most intimate ways. The disruptions in the Uchidas’ lives following the bombing of Pearl Harbor were complete in ways that only someone who has experienced them would ever understand. The last day the Uchidas spent in their Berkeley home before they were shipped to Tanforan is one such example.

The women of the family clearing their home without their father’s guidance, deciding which things they needed during encampment and which they had to sell or give away, or Mrs. Uchida sitting quietly in her stripped bedroom, sorting through the clippings, letters, and poems she had to throw away – these little details make her family’s sense of loss for everything they cherished all the more stark. Every small detail of their lives does not go unaccounted for.

From the flowers in Uchida’s father’s beloved garden to the pet dog, Laddie, who had been a part of her family since her childhood are all given the same due respect in terms of the affect the forced removals had on them. These quiet scenes reveal the enormous sacrifices and losses of normality that many Issei and Nisei made when they were sent to the camps. Such details would have been lost on an author who was not as intimately affected by these events as Uchida.

Yet there are moments when Uchida’s insularity gets in the way. She writes about the Nisei who refused to serve in the Army after the War Department reversal on their policy of Japanese serving in the War. She details their complaints and grievances not only about serving in segregated army units but also about fighting for a country that had interned them and put them behind barbed wire. Yet, she does not reveal whatever became of these dissidents.

She also mentions friends who left California before the forced encampments began and were living in relative freedom elsewhere. While Uchida could not fully tell their stories, their lives reveal the limitations in Uchida’s choice in narrative. Her story is a deeply personal one, but, at the same time, the experiences of Japanese in the United States during this period, particularly those living on the East Coast and Hawaii, are too diverse to be told for Uchida’s story to be a universal experience.

Another aspect in which Uchida’s personal involvement in the story might interfere is when she provides a backdrop to the political and social mood in the United States following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Her fear and anger is still palpable when she writes about the anti-Japanese hysteria among fellow citizens and in the government. “The confluence of all these [attitudes and policies within the government toward the Japanese], coupled with the fear and hysteria exacerbated by severe United States losses in the Pacific war, eventually combined to make the evacuation a tragic reality for us” (56). Yet they do not get in the way of accurately reflecting the tenor of the times. Nor does she descend into bitterness, for she clearly and fondly recollects those people who advocated and spoke up for the Japanese.

Though Uchida faced moments of deep despair in the camps, her emotional reaction does not stand in the way of providing as accurate an account of what life was like in them. Indeed her reactions, as well as the reactions of some of the Nisei, particularly toward her father, is a case study of how prejudice, racism, and the forced incarceration of groups of people can wear down on their sense of self worth, dignity, and community togetherness.

No doubt, Desert Exile is a deeply personal book, as Uchida readily admits herself. She is also upfront about why she wrote it. “I wrote [the book] for the young Japanese Americans who seek a sense of continuity with their past. But I wrote it as well for all Americans, with the hope that through knowledge of the past, they will never allow another group of people in America to be sent into a desert exile ever again” (154).

Some might argue that Uchida was too personally invested in the subject of the forced internment of the Japanese to provide an accurate or thorough account of it. Yet, in this day in age, after the September 11th attacks, and the rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, Uchida’s book is more important than ever, because her experiences reveal what it is like to be exiled, both socially and by law, in your own country. Her deeply personal and moving account of her experiences should be a lesson to all Americans.

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