Cover Story continued

Seventy-one years is a long time. For many, it’s a lifetime. It’s difficult to imagine what life was like that many years ago because it’s practically history. But for those who lived in Hawaii during that time, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when U.S. citizens were interned in camps and when the country went to war, history is a vivid story that tells of strength in the face of adversity and hope in the midst of despair. In Family Torn Apart: The Internment Story of the Otokichi Muin Ozaki Family, a Japanese-American family’s separation, internment and eventual reunion gives an elucidating account of a dark period of a family’s and the country’s history.

The book traces the journey of Otokichi Ozaki, a writer, teacher and leader of the Japanese community in Hilo, as he is arrested for suspicion of being a Japanese loyalist, as many first-generation Japanese immigrants were accused of, and interned with several hundreds of others. His four-year internment in eight different camps takes him from Kilauea Military Camp on the Big Island and Sand Island on Oahu to Angel Island in California, Fort Still in Oklahoma, Camp Livingston in Louisiana, Santa Fe in New Mexico, Jerome in Arkansas and Tule Lake in California. Ozaki’s odyssey is told through transcribed, and often translated, letters, poems, government documents and scripts from a series of radio broadcasts he did after the war that describe life in the camps.

At a glance, Family Torn Apart appears to be a biographic memoir of a man and his family, but reads more like a documentary that begins with the plight of a single family and eventually expands to an account of an entire community of families separated and unjustly treated. The presentation of the documents and the modest, unobtrusive narration contributed the most to the documentary feel of the text. The narrative voice serves only as a preface for each chapter and as a transition between different documents, letting the transcripts speak for themselves. And they do, loud and clear. Ozaki’s tanka (Japanese poems) in particular contain powerful vignettes of his emotions and observations during his internment. The lax narration and transcribed documents also give readers the agency to examine the primary sources themselves with the authority of biographers and historians, a unique quality for a book categorized as a memoir.

Family Torn Apart gives an intimate portrait of a family and a time in history. It is a book that shows rather than teaches, like a guide through a museum. It never takes you by the hand, but it invites you to peruse its archives, a sense possibly owed to the great care the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii took to have it published. This book is an invitation to examine not just this family’s history, but our own. Sometimes the best stories are those we live.

Family Torn Apart

Gail Honda

UH Press 2012

279 pages, $26