It is perhaps fitting that the season of Lent each year begins as Japanese Americans commemorate Day of Remembrance, recalling the day the President of the United States signed an executive order that saw our lives forever overturned. Only in recent memory have many of these stories begun to be shared out of silence: my uncle Lenny’s dad was a successful businessman before the war. Like so many, he “lost everything” when the camps were raised. Shortly after his release he drank himself to death. My auntie Sasaki was born in one of the open-air prisons. She still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, more than seventy years after being born in a place she can’t even remember.
After my grandmother’s generation was released from the concentration camps, many survivors told themselves that they would have to silently swallow this trauma and never speak out about the shame, humiliation, and violence – to drink the cup of suffering kodomo no tame ni, for the sake of the children. Their desperate hope was to keep the pain from affecting future generations. Many Nisei resigned to simply never speak out loud ever again about this chapter of their lives that saw them lose so much.
We their descendants now know that our parents’ and grandparents’ silence did not actually protect us in the way they’d wished. With painful reserve they drank deeply of the poison of shame and hoped the memory of the camps would forever disappear from their psyches. Instead the trauma persisted, metastasized, and seeped into their diet, into their fingernails and eyebrows and skin and bloodstream, and then it trickled into ours. Many in our community grew up with a sense that something was lacking – or perhaps lurking – around our homes, inflecting the past with haunting pains that were incarnated only in whispers. But the thing was never named.
Depression took my grandmother’s life, and it nearly took mine also when I was a student in high school. Despite this, we have never been able to talk openly about mental health in my family. When my grandmother was hospitalized for this condition years ago, my father would speak of her struggle with pained, cheerful poetics: she has “a heart problem.”
I can’t speak for my grandmother. But one of the thefts that depression inflicted my own mind with when I was in the throes of its attacks was this: not only are you unhappy now, but you will never be happy again – and all of those past happy times you think you have had are illusions, they’re all unreal. It is, while sitting in current misery, all of one’s sweet memories turning into ash alongside all hope for a joyful future crushed and swept aside.
I wonder if this is how some felt about their experience in camp: having to abandon all shreds of a past, a history and a culture spirited away in the name of wartime assimilation; losing all hope of a present escape; an unknowing future that could hold any number of bullets, deportations, imprisonments, or graves.
My experience with depression was certainly a desert camp of sorts – I recall serpents in my mind, unpredictable storms, dry thickets of dead things that had once been alive, a despotic heat, isolated silence, unwelcome eyes, walls flaring up, snarls of wire twisted around my heart. I wonder how much of my own depression was seeded by the camps, or at least how much it took advantage of the fertile soil of cultural silence and shame that the camp experience marked our families with.
While darkness is the word I’ve heard most commonly used to describe depression, in my Japanese American context “whiteness” is far better vocabulary. From critical race theory, the field of critical whiteness studies examines how different immigrant ethnic groups have been incorporated into or pushed out of the vicious milieu of white racial dominance in the United States, against a backdrop of anti-blackness and settler colonialism.
Embracing whiteness was the survival posture of many Nikkei when we were released from the camps: we were determined to be 200% American, loyal to a fault, to fit in with white culture and avoid any shadow of that persecution that hounded us, incarcerated our parents, saw innocent thousands in our ancestral homeland vaporized and tortured by atomic fire. We joined German clubs, Marching Bands, Cheer Squads, The Army, and Churches. In our forced cheer and silence, the poison took deeper and deeper root until the light began to strangle our souls.
Then, during the redress campaign of the 1980s, wide swaths of Japanese Americans spoke out for the first time about the camps at a series of government hearings. This was a kind of therapy. Our Nisei men cried. Siblinghood was restored. Children began to see just how much we hadn’t known. We finally began to find our voice and tasted hints of restoration. See, it wasn’t when light hit our shades of yellowed darkness that our wounds started to heal – whiteness gave us only more pain – but when from traumatized silence a series of new testaments emerged that our people begin to find healing.
God has ordained us to be social creatures, and I believe it is in inhabiting this posture fully that we might find healing from many forms of trauma and psychic scarring. Even now it is still difficult to speak, think, or write about this period of my community, family, or personal history without being overcome with emotion. To those of us who have tasted of silence, shame, and forced whiteness before, this Lenten season is a reminder that even at our very best we are inches away from death our constant accompanier, separated by mere breaths from the lethality of the killing of the spirit.
Know that we no longer need to drink the poison of our pain and shame alone. In the Paschal Mystery, Christ took on this awful responsibility for us, for the sake of God’s children. The incarnated and incarcerated God in human skin took our suffering, our shame, our silence, and thrust it all upon his own self. The breaking-off-of-limbs and devourer-of-cultures swallowed him, but death and whiteness could not contain him, and God vindicated the triumph of fierce hope and dark love by raising Jesus from the dead. Laboring together, we can proclaim his and our own deaths and in the power of the Holy Spirit experience a new healing, a kind of resurrection.
Lent is a season of slowing down and mourning. In these low grounds. know that God steps into our graves with us, breathing life and the divine wind into sullen lungs. This is not so much a warm welcome so much as a defibrillation, as God works through many forms – therapy, medicine, friendship, discipline, communion with humans and the divine – to step into our deserts, memories, hopes, and present chemical spills with fresh electricity and work gloves that fit on human hands.
Kenji Kuramitsu is a first-year MDiv student at McCormick Theological Seminary and a strong justice advocate. You can find more of his writing on his blog, A Real Rattlesnake Meets His Maker, and follow him on twitter @afreshmind.