Kiku Hughes on Japanese American Inter-Generational Trauma

FF2 Guest Post by Joycelyn Ghansah

On February 19, 1942 – barely two months after the government of Japan executed the military attack on Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) which brought the USA into World War II – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

Since a large population of American citizens with Japanese heritage – including people who had been born in the USA as well as those who had completed the naturalization process – were known to reside on the west coast of the mainland, the American Army worked quickly to build rudimentary “relocation camps” for them. And as soon as FDR signed it, Executive Order 9066 lead to the forcible incarceration of approximately 120,000 people with Japanese heritage. Within days, they had all been removed from their homes on the coast, and transported to barren locations in the interior of California, Oregon and Washington, and sometimes even further east to camps in Nevada and Utah.

Every February 19, the USA now acknowledges this unjust incarceration with a national Day of Remembrance, and various community organizations – especially on the west coast – schedule related events.

On Saturday, February 26, I attended an online talk with Kiku Hughes hosted by the Japanese American Citizens League (in collaboration with other organizations). Kiku spoke about her highly-regarded new book Displacement, and the lasting effects of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community.

Click on image to enlarge.

Displacement is a sci-fiction graphic novel about “Kiku” – a teenager who’s pulled back in time to witness her maternal grandmother’s experiences in World War II-era Japanese internment camps. It’s also about the communal trauma faced by people of Japanese descent in the USA. During a trip to San Francisco to search for her grandmother’s home, for example, Kiku notes how out of place she felt as she tried to look for a connection – any connection – to what was once her grandmother’s neighborhood.

The grandmothers’ goal was to protect their children…

Both Kiku-the-Author and Kiku-the-Protagonist mention how their grandmothers made a conscious decision not to teach their mothers Japanese after their release. The grandmothers’ goal was to protect their children, but the result was mothers who had each lost a piece of hersef. Kiku’s lack of knowledge about her own background – including even the knowledge that her grandmother’s first name was Ernestina – makes Kiku feel displaced. This was a major theme during her webinar, how not knowing parts of your identity can make you feel lost.

In Displacement, Kiku-the-Protagonist tries to find normalcy by making new friends, like Aiku and May, and the two Yoshimoto (Sachiko and Emiko) whom she met during her relocation to Topaz Camp in Utah. However, trying to find “normalcy” in the context of forced incarceration proved difficult. As individuals, the incarcerated “residents” tried to re-center themselves and create a new normal by forming admin-approved newspapers, cleaning, planting, and running camp-wide elections. Of course, nothing about their situation was “normal,” but they had to find a way to survive.

“No Japs on OUR Schools!”

In one scene, when Kiku first travels back in time, she sees a sign from a women-led organization known for preserving the history of California (the Native Daughters of the Golden West) that says “No Japs on OUR Schools!” That scene struck me because you can clearly see the shame and discontentment on Kiku’s face in her illustration.

Kiku explained during the webinar that she wanted her audience to marinate on scenes like that. In a later scene, Kiku is given a number, #19105. The number becomes her identity. It’s also on a slip that reminds you of a baggage claim tag. People were essentially treated like baggage.

Kiku pointed out how the lack of visual representation helped erase the community’s identity. The lack of imagery is why Kiku and many others were unaware of the history of the incarceration camps. So much critical insight and information was lost during that period. Visual representations were limited because incarcerated residents weren’t allowed cameras, and photographers coming in from the outside were only allowed to publish government-approved photographs.

Nothing about their situation was normal, but they had to find a way to survive.

Even so, they tried to capture their experiences. Kiku-the-Protagonist begins to illustrate her experience in the book, leaving it behind for the next generation. Kiku-the-Author mentioned that the first visuals published about the Japanese incarceration were included in Citizen 13660 by Mine Okubo, who drew a visual diary of the conditions and experiences she saw firsthand.

As an illustrator, Kiku-the-Author shared her process of creating Displacement. Her reasons for choosing dark blues and brown represent the past and the solemn experience and environment in the camps. Kiku-the-Author used fog to bring Kiku-the-Protagonist to the past, and utilized dust to illustrate the emptiness in the camps (which felt natural because the camps were located in deserted areas far away from population centers).

Kiku-the-Author showcased how the Japanese community fought against forced incarceration. She also demonstrates the resistance and community memory of James Wakasa, a deaf, incarcerated man shot by a guard for allegedly attempting to escape. His death brought a call to action as many incarcerated workers, teachers, secretaries, and farm aids went on strike until the guards allowed them to hold a funeral. Kiku-the-Protagonist’s roommate, Emiko Yoshimoto, was one of those strikers. The funeral was important for community remembrance because Wakasa lost his life because of bigotry. On April 20, nine days after James Wakasa was killed, his community was finally allowed to hold a funeral.

Kiku-the-Author spoke about how graphic novels are the best way to tell historical events, especially ones with limited visual history.

Kiku-the-Author spoke about how graphic novels are the best way to tell historical events, especially ones with limited visual history. In Displacement, we can see and experience things Kiku-the-Protagonist shared with May, Aiku, and Ernestina. In addition to problems with food and other material deprivations, there was also the fear and uncertainty of those in captivity. We can visualize the intergenerational trauma both Kiku-the-Author and Kiku-the-Protagonist – as well as both of their communities – went went through then and continue to face now.

Displacement allows the reader to view the lasting impact Japanese incarceration had on a community including how the loss of language shaped a generation and what it meant to create a new identity as an American who happened to be of Japanese descent.

Kiku Hughes does a fantastic job of bringing us back to square one at the end, weaving the connection between past and present. At the end of the novel, we see Kiku-the-Author, her mother, and the community protesting bigotry and anti-immigration during the 2016 elections. Displacement shows us how collective trauma-impacted a generation, and then sought justice for others so they would never experience the same.

© Joycelyn Ghansah (3/25/22) Special for FF2 Media®


JACL Day of Remembrance Events

National Archive information on relocations and arrest after Pearl Harbor

Information on the Native Daughters of The Golden West

Citizen 13660, Mine Okubo

The History of the No-No Boys and the loyalty questionnaire

FBI files on internment camps and relocation

Kiku Hughes has more resources and glossary terms at the end of Displacement.


Images scanned from Displacement by Joycelyn Ghansah then cropped on Photoshop by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner.


Tags: Displacement, FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Graphic Novel, Japanese Americans, Joycelyn Ghansah, Kiku Hughes, Kiku Hughes' Displacement, Literary Arts, World War II

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