Setsuko Winchester's 'Yellow Bowl Project' explores WWII liberty, 'yellow peril'

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SANDISFIELD — A year ago, Setsuko Winchester and her husband packed their Land Rover for the first of two cross-country trips.

In went usual and fragile cargo. Something else marked this journey's difference as well: The points on their maps were memory holes of misery.

They steered west toward six of the 10 internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II, their liberty revoked by an executive order President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed 75 years ago this month.

"It's not anywhere you want to go," Winchester said of her itinerary. "Most people don't want to know."

On this tour, she's wasn't a tourist. The Land Rover carried 120 yellow tea bowls that Winchester, a ceramicist, shaped by hand, each representing one thousand of the people ordered detained by the government as a result of Roosevelt's order.

At every stop, Winchester opened her cartons and lifted out the bowls.

Each was different, as people are, but groups of them similar, like families. She arranged the bowls at the former camps and photographed them, aided by her husband Simon, the best-selling author.

"I'm trying to emphasize that they were human beings and individuals," she said of detainees. "Not scary monsters."

Next week, in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, images from Winchester's project will be shown at the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Winchester's photographs will hang in the lobby near a gallery presenting "Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II." The exhibit includes photographs by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams and runs through the year.

Roosevelt's executive order was back in the news this week, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined it had legal standing to review Executive Order 13769, issued Jan. 27 by President Donald J. Trump.

The court noted that the judiciary had ample precedent, including a 1944 finding that "the detention of a law-abiding and loyal American of Japanese ancestry during World War II" was unconstitutional.

Paul Sparrow, the FDR library's director, said he was impressed by Winchester's "Freedom from Fear/Yellow Bowl Project," calling it "powerful, sincere and authentic."

"We think she is really making an important contribution to the body of work surrounding this exhibit," he said. "It's an important story to tell and I hope people will come."

A STORY UNTOLD

Winchester acknowledges the photographs could seem whimsical, given that her bowls become mute witnesses at strange locales, like the traveling garden gnome.

But behind that lies a chapter of American history many misunderstand, she says, or know nothing about.

She recalls what a woman in California told her not long ago, when the conversation turned to the internment camps. The sites were created to protect Japanese-Americans, the woman told Winchester.

"That's when I started to furiously research," Winchester said. "There needs to be a different story."

FDR's order had come less than three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That surprise assault killed 2,403 Americans, decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet and brought the U.S. into the war.

Sparrow, the FDR library director, said that while he considers Roosevelt to have been America's greatest president, and one of its most liberal, his executive order sacrificed civil liberties at a time of war.

The order created "military zones" and gave the government the power, through the War Relocation Authority, to move anyone deemed a threat to national security. Only people of Japanese descent were affected.

As Winchester found again and again, that attack remains pivotal in the American consciousness and for many justifies imprisoning Japanese-Americans.

"There's still a lot of bad feelings — and it's coming up again," she said.

DELTA DETENTION

One of the first stops brought the Winchesters to a small museum in Arkansas delta country. Its curator, Kay Roberts, told The Eagle by phone that many in her part of the country still see immigrants as "other" and don't view immigrants as equals.

"Unfortunately, this is kind of a racist area," said Roberts, who grew up in a town 12 miles away. Then she corrected herself, removing the qualification. "It's a racist area," she said, "I'm just putting a pretty face on it. There are some people who don't like that we're here. Others are different."

She said the nearly 4-year-old Japanese-American Internment Museum in McGehee, Ark., gets about 3,000 visitors a year. Aside from school groups, many are the children of Japanese-Americans held in the nearby camps in Rohwer and Jerome — 16,000 people in all. Some bring back artifacts from camp life. Other come to kindle memory.

"They were children when they were imprisoned here, but they have no memory of it," Roberts said.

After visiting the Arkansas camps, the Winchesters moved west to three former detention sites in Arizona, known as Poston 1, 2 and 3. But given the harsh, desert climate, detainees once knew them as "Roastin, Toastin and Dustin."

At Poston, two girls showed Winchester how to crawl under a gap in a wire fence surrounding what had been home to over 17,800 people, making it for a time the third-largest settlement in the state.

They moved on to Manzanar, in California, another forlorn landscape that's now home to a National Park Service site with rangers and an interpretive center. The original stone gates remain. A few replica buildings sit under the surveillance of a reconstructed guard tower.

Throughout their trip in late 2015, and in another last year to the remaining four camps, Winchester found evidence of continuing disregard for what Japanese-Americans experienced in the U.S. during the war. Bullet holes pockmarked signs pointing to what little remains of the camps.

But she found other people, like Roberts, who consider this history important. Roberts said she remembered the Winchesters' visit. "If you see that lady, please tell her we say hello," she said.

Winchester also remembers John Hopper, the educator in Granada, Colo., intent on having young people understand what Japanese-Americans endured at the nearby Amache camp.

Students from Granada, located in southeastern Colorado, have taken the story of what happened down Highway 50, less than two miles from their town, to distant audiences, including some in Japan.

"It's a part of U.S. history that needs to be told because we don't want it to happen again," Hopper told The Eagle in a phone interview, fresh from a morning class.

"Their civil rights don't mean anything?" he asked, referring to the detainees. "It's not right. It's important for the youth to understand. But it's still not reaching a lot of people."

ARRIVALS

Part of Winchester's quest to tell a different history concerned immigration.

Of the two Sandisfield travelers, Simon Winchester is the immigrant; a native of England, he became a citizen of the U.S. this decade. Setsuko Winchester was born in the U.S. of Japanese parents and grew up in New York City.

Seventy percent of the wartime detainees, 80,000 people, had also been born in the U.S. And yet because of their heritage, they were believed to be outsiders. U.S. policy had long imposed sanctions on immigrants from Asia, going back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

On the West Coast, the Hearst newspaper empire stoked prejudice against people from the other side of the Pacific. A group known as Native Sons of the Golden West, founded in 1875, defended use of internment camps.

The preference for Caucasian arrivals found its way into the language. European immigrants were said to come in "waves," Winchester notes, while Asians reached the U.S. in "swarms."

But another aspect of the project isn't about policy or historical bias.

By representing the detainees as handmade bowls, she wanted to capture their humanity and ordinariness.

People and bowls, in her view, all come from the earth and are touched by others.

In the photographs, the bowls Winchester placed at the camps are simply there, small and fragile. Some are clustered in family groups. They seem to ask to be picked up and cupped in two open hands, the gesture of caring.

Though empty, the bowls are utilitarian as well. Their purpose, in Japanese culture, is to make a peaceful connection.

"You see someone and offer them tea," Winchester said. "It's a way to say, `Sit down, let's get to know one another.' It's civilization."

Though the color of their glaze plays off the notion of the "yellow peril," this is also the color of hope, Winchester observes.

One by one, from camp to camp and sea to shining sea, they embody this artist's message:

"I'm what you were afraid of."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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