Don't Call It Nothing

BONUS EPISODE 1: Michiko Uehara, U.S. Citizen

December 07, 2021 Lance Davis
Don't Call It Nothing
BONUS EPISODE 1: Michiko Uehara, U.S. Citizen
Show Notes Transcript

This was originally the first bonus episode for Don't Call It Nothing family members. But, given that it's the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it seemed like an appropriate time to release the episode into the wild. I discuss my mom growing up in Hawaii during World War 2 and her subsequent assimilation in southern California.

Much love and aloha, LD

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INTRO: Hey friends, this is Lance. What you’re about to hear is an essay entitled, "Michiko Uehara, U.S. Citizen," and you will learn who that is shortly. This was actually the first bonus episode for Don’t Call It Nothing family members, but I knew I wanted to eventually add it to the general feed, and maybe YouTube. Anyway, considering that today is the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it seemed like an appropriate time to release the episode into the wild. One thing I like my bonus episodes to do is maybe put a different spin on the podcast. In this case, the details are both biographical and autobiographical. So, as you take in the details of the story, it might explain why I have such little patience for the white counterculture and their inflated mythology of heroic self-sacrifice. In fact, let’s start in the late ‘60s.

Today’s story begins in La Habra, California, a middle and working class enclave at the north end of Orange County, where I was born in August 1969, the son of a Japanese/Hawaiian mother and white father. I spent my first seven years in La Habra, which at the time was mostly white, but there was definitely an Hispanic presence. Not much Asian. Up the hill on Euclid St and above Las Positas Elementary — which was where my brother Craig went to school — that was where the two-story houses were with their huge, tree-lined streets. Down where we were on West Parkwood Ave, just off Imperial Highway, there were lots of perfectly cute one-story ranch houses and not much in the way of status symbols. At least I didn't notice and I was like 5-6-years-old. If there were shiny objects, I was gonna notice. However, in June 1976 I moved to Huntington Beach, a coastal fantasyland dominated by insulated white people whose insatiable pursuit of status symbols definitely wasn't masking deep-seated insecurity. We moved to HB so my brother and I could live in a “safe neighborhood” (wink) with “good schools” (double wink) and as I got older I resented my parents, especially my mom, for moving me to this aryan wasteland.

Why especially my mom? Because my dad was a selfish dick. He was a degenerate gambler and narcissist, so that he wasn't paying attention was on brand. Unless I was riding a horse he bet on, I'm not sure he was gonna notice me or my brother. For the record, my dad and I worked it out and I enjoyed our final decade together. He passed away in 2013, a fact for which I’m now exceedingly grateful because within a few years that entire side of the family came down with a terminal case of Trumpycrackeritis. My mom, though, was smart, capable, and beautiful. I couldn't figure out what the hell she saw in my dad and I sure as shit didn’t know why she wanted to live around these empty white people and their status-y bullshit. I could never figure out, for example, why we weren’t living in Hawaii, where she was born. Living in Orange County just reeked of assimilationist nonsense. 

However -- and this is where context matters -- that word "assimilationist" needs to be cracked open. What I was too young to realize was that Asians assimilated in postwar southern California for very good reasons. They weren’t making lifestyle choices like most contemporary Asians. They were making survival choices. I knew about the internment camps at a very young age. Mom made sure I knew about Manzanar. She made sure I knew about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion, the “Go For Broke” Japanese-American badasses who are still the most decorated combat units of their size in US military history. What mom never told me, though, and the facts were classified for close to 75 years after the war — meaning long after her death — was that she and her family were interned for the duration of the war. It wasn’t a camp. It was Hawaii.

[picture of Waikiki Beach fortified with barbed wire during WW2]
Caption: Waikiki Beach was fortified with barbed wire during WW2, officially in the event of a Japanese invasion. Unofficially, that fence wasn't stopping shit and everyone involved knew it. It was to keep soldiers in and locals out.

For some reason, when people think of Hawaii during World War II, it's Pearl Harbor and then ... nothing. Hawaii is a postcard, not a real place. And if it’s not a real place, then it doesn’t have real people. Well, my mom’s family saw the smoke from Pearl Harbor from the roof of their home. Lots of people know people or were people who experienced 9/11 up close. How many people do you know who experienced Pearl Harbor directly? And while you're pondering that, ponder this. In the same way everyone thinks about 9/11, but rarely thinks about the legal implications of 9/12, Hawaii went into martial law on December 7, 1941. Most people, myself included, don't fundamentally understand terms like "martial law," let alone "internment camp." We know these are bad things, but they're abstractions. In an article published on January 11, 2017, Wyatt Olson details life in Hawaii under martial law. And as I read through a section of his essay, it's only fair you know the name of the leftist rag publishing his remarks. It's called Stars and Stripes. Olson writes:

Immediately after the attack, Joseph B. Poindexter, Hawaii’s territorial governor, declared martial law, and National Guard members took control of the cities. It was believed that the surprise attack was just the prelude to a full-scale invasion of Oahu, and the military and citizenry set about fortifying the island for such an onslaught.But martial law was also a reaction to the perceived threat by the presence of roughly 150,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the territory, which represented about 35% of the population.Freedom for Hawaiians was severely curtailed by the suspension of constitutional protections in order to “discourage concerted action of any kind,” the military governor said at the time. Those rights remained suspended for almost three years and were reinstated only after numerous challenges in court.A strict curfew barred anyone from being on the streets between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. -- and people of Japanese descent had to be in their homes by 8 p.m.Everyone older than age 6 was fingerprinted, registered, and required to carry military-issued identification cards. The military maintained intelligence reports on a vast number of Hawaiian residents.Newspapers required licenses to operate, and no publication was allowed to be printed in any language other than English. The telephone company was commandeered by the military, and all mail was read and censored.Islanders were ordered to construct bomb shelters.Nights were dark during that period because a “blackout” order required all civilian lights -- whether bulbs or flames -- to be extinguished at nightfall. Doors and windows of residences were required to be covered. Car headlights had to be painted a dark color to dim them.Martial law ended Oct. 24, 1944. In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled that the suspension of civilian courts had not been justified by law.
 --Wyatt Olson,
"Exhibit details martial law in Hawaii following Pearl Harbor attack,” Stars and Stripes, January 11, 2017


Raise your hand if your mom was fingerprinted and registered as an 8-year old enemy of the state, lived behind barbed wire, was subject to strict curfew, and saw her brothers, friends, and neighbors forced to build makeshift bomb shelters. What Olson doesn’t include is that gas masks were also issued to all Hawaiian civilians over the age of 7 and drills were regularly run for poison gas attacks and air raids. Food was rationed, liquor was banned, and in a move that feels particularly egregious, military officials reviewed and confiscated any photographs that contained barbed wire, beaches or military bases. Those last few facts come from a 2016 Huffington Post article entitled, “Forbidden Photos Reveal What Life In Hawaii Was Like After Pearl Harbor.”

[picture of poison gas drill in Hawaii under martial law]

In the US government's defense, martial law in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor was not only defensible, I'd even say it was responsible. Like any crime scene, you have to do your investigative due diligence. If there were Japanese co-conspirators, we'd need to know. But, you know how that turned out. There were never any co-conspirators, which means there was a point where martial law stopped being about protection and became what it’s always about: white control. If you're a kid, any age is bad to be seen as a suspect. If someone thinks you stole a pack of gum and you didn't, you're gonna be upset. Imagine being 8-years-old and you're branded a suspect by an entire nation and already exist in the shadow of its military apparatus, much of which was just destroyed by people who look like you. Does that feeling of being a suspect ever leave? Isn't some part of you forever behind the barbed wire? 

I think about my mom, born Michiko Uehara, but going by Jane because it was less threatening to haoles. Was that even her choice or was she told she was Jane? I think about her moving to Colorado of all places to attend the University of Denver in the early 1950s. The story she told me was that there were three Janes on her dorm floor, so she renamed herself Billie after Billie Holiday, which is a flex on multiple levels. But, as a 52-year-old grown-ass man, I now read that story much differently. If my mom was white, I get it. "Ohmigod Jane, I'm Jane! Have you met Jane? Look at us bonding!" Real talk? I know my mom changed her name to Billie because she didn't want to give them white bitches ANY reason to call her Jap Jane. Bigots are gonna bigot, you don't need to toss up alley-oops.

What 16-year-old me couldn't possibly have known -- because my mom quite understandably didn't wanna talk about any of that shit -- was that assimilation was her only way out. Can you blame any Japanese of her generation for assimilating? When it comes to hating minority groups, white America doesn't need much persuasion. But, the intense brutality of the Japanese in the Pacific theater inspired a very intense hatred of the Japanese on the mainland. Who do you think bore the brunt of that hatred? It’s one thing to assimilate by choice. It’s another to assimilate under duress, as a survival tactic. Thus, Michiko Uehara, U.S. citizen, became Billie Jane Davis, non-threatening, white on the phone American. I only knew my mom as Billie Jane Davis. To white America, maybe even to my mom herself, her assimilation was complete. Michiko Uehara was gone, erased. Billie Jane Davis won out.

Only that's not how it works.

There's an old saying that lives in my head. "You're not just the age you are. You're every age you've ever been." Everything that's ever happened to you lives inside you. Michiko Uehara was never erased. She just lived deep inside my mom where no one could reach her, no one could ask for papers, and no one looked at her like a suspect. That’s why my mom didn’t move back to Hawaii. It was never gonna be the haole tourist destination of my immature imagination. It was forever gonna be the place where an 8-year-old girl was forced to make peace with that barbed wire. As I write this, my youngest daughter Lucy is only a couple months younger than her maternal grandmother was on December 7, 1941. When we're eight, we cannot conceive that the world as we know it will suddenly disappear. There's no way to prepare for a sustained aerial attack, or a church bombing, or jets flying into buildings, or white terrorists storming the US Capitol. There's a before, there’s an after, and nothing is ever the same.