Multigenerational Voices – by Savvy Mahr-Threw

Multigenerational Voices – by Savvy Mahr-Threw

To view Tonko Doi’s oral history interview recorded on 9/3/2019, please click here. To access the JASC Legacy Center’s complete digital oral history collection, please click here.

This podcast episode focuses on the stories of Tonko and SJ Doi, a grandmother and granddaughter both impacted by Japanese American incarceration during World War II. In this piece, host Savvy Mahr-Threw explores how multigenerational and historical trauma has impacted the passage of their stories, and how Tonko and SJ have become the remarkable people that they are today.

This project was completed as part of the JASC Legacy Center’s 2022 Summer Internship program. You can view all six of the 2022 internship projects here.

Full Transcript:

Tonko Doi: I think history is always important, right? Where you came from.

Savvy Mahr-Threw: My name is Savvy Mahr-Threw, and this is my podcast. In this episode, I will dive into the multigenerational and historical trauma as a lasting effect of the Japanese incarceration during WWII.

SM: Now, this idea did not come to me. While I was looking through the JASC archives in Chicago, I realized that each object that I held had a story tied to it. I went on a search that led me to JASC’s oral histories where another world was opened to me. I am no expert in archival materials and I have never even heard of oral histories before this summer, but I was instantly drawn in by the numerous stories in front of me. Here, these people were telling their own stories in their own voices. One story stuck out to me since I heard her name earlier this summer: Tonko Doi. I watched her story. Then, I watched it again. Here was someone who experienced such a traumatic event, yet she was too young to remember it as she was only six months old when she entered the first relocation center. I listened on and heard her talk about learning about this event from her family and community along with the struggle that it was for her to hear the entire story, which led me to do some research on my own. After a couple of searches, I discovered that this struggle had a name: trauma.

SM: Trauma, in this case, does not mean a literal clinical diagnosis, rather, it’s more of a term that helps identify the current political and societal discrimination and the continued push for liberation in not only the Japanese American community but others that are being pushed down by the government and the public as well. Further, the specific trauma that is found across the Japanese American community is historical and multigenerational trauma. Now, I want to take a second to make clear what these two terms are. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a leading expert in the psychological field, defines historical trauma as “the accumulative emotional and psychological pain over an individual’s lifespan and across generations as the result of massive group trauma.” Now, that is combined with the multigenerational trauma is the passage of these emotions and pain from one generation to another.

SM: Tonko was born December 6th, 1941. The day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She was too young at the time to remember life in the camps, only being six months old when she first arrived at Santa Anita and two years old when she left Rowher, Arkansas. Hence why…

TD: My memories are only things that were told to me about our experience.

SM: Some of these stories were from her family.

TD: My family, they’re talkers. They’re storytellers. So, you know, I heard a lot of things already.

SM: However, these stories did not all come naturally.

TD: Many people say that their parents or their grandparents never told them anything. So, they don’t know anything. But because I’m an, I’m a questioner, and my father always said, “why do you ask so many questions”. I said, “how will I learn if you if I don’t ask?” So, I always ask them and they told me.

SM: Not everyone was able to be as open as Tonko.

TD: I asked my sister-in-law Grace to tell the story because she told this story many times, but when she stood there in front of people, I didn’t expect her to break down and cry because it’s a story she always told without emotion. Now, my husband was six years old. I, I think he still had to have been affected, but he doesn’t talk about it. And when he was in the hospital now for his back surgery, he was a little loopy, you know. And so a psychiatrist came in and wanted to talk to him, but he would not talk to her about anything old or hurtful things.

SM: Another way that Tonko, along with many others in her situation, connected with her community was where she lived. Her first place after the concentration camps was a hostel in Cincinnati.

TD: So, practically the entire building was filled with JA’s, Japanese Americans until they moved on. So, it was kind of nice, you know, a week as kids will run up and down, and we knew all the oba-san and oji-san, you know, old ladies and uncles and aunties. Oba-san is auntie and oji-san is uncle. Yeah, it was uh, it was a good place for us.

SM: Japanese American all clubs reunions were also held to exchange stories.

TD: That friendship that they had in those years, their teenage years, their adolescent years was the most important thing in their life. They felt important and that friendship was something special because they were like people. There were people that came who are millionaires, multimillionaires. There are people that get by on social security; they belong to the same club. But when they get together and they’re talking, they don’t focus on today. They focus on the happy times they had in those days. We haven’t held an all-club reunion for a few years because of the age of the people. They don’t travel well to Las Vegas. But I thought of having an all-camps reunion before people were unable to tell their story. It’s interesting how many people you meet, who knew you when you were a child or knew your family when you were in camp. There’s kind of a kinship. Histories and stories, if you talk, you know, in our shared histories are the same somehow. You’ll find a connection.

SM: These stories were not the only thing that Tonko’s generation shared.

TD: My age group everybody named their children with English names. But, ah, you know that always surprises me that they didn’t give them any Japanese names. If you were born pre-war 1941 or older, you usually have a Japanese name. If you have an English name, that name was given to you by someone, not legally, like Setzko. I know somebody who’s a teacher, they said, “oh, that’s too hard for everyone. We’ll call you Sue.” So, they gave her, you know that’s kind of taking your identity away from you. But, if you are a child and you want to fit in, you accepted. You want to have an English name, right? Sue. That’s very American. You know, I see a reversal. Now I see a lot of young people like SJ, like her age, they’re naming their children with Japanese means. If not the first name, the middle name for sure. But many people are getting their children first name Japanese. Whereas before people give them English names.

SM: Tonko’s story reveals what life was like from the perspective of someone who experienced incarceration first-hand.

SM: This is the part where SJ comes into play. SJ is Tonko’s granddaughter, which is two generations after the incarceration. However, the impact still is still present in her life.

SJ Doi: It was never like, “hey, SJ, let’s sit down, and let’s tell you our family history.” I did get that, but I had to ask for it. It was kind of just one-off statements about like, “oh, like in camps. We did this” or “oh, we met in camp” or like, learning about like, how they came to Chicago. It’s like a lot of people from camps like came in Chicago like everyone. I had to like ask them to sit down and have an intentional conversation about it. But like before then like they would you just bring up like little things here and there about camp life. Growing up like my like, grandparents will always have their friends over at their house and you know, I would go to like events with them every now and then but I was never really personally integrated into the community. Just because, I just wasn’t around other like young people my age that were Japanese American, and so that was definitely like the first time that I sort of felt a sense of like JA Chicago community.

SM: To fill in the gaps in her own family history, SJ had to branch out and look to the American education.

SD: When I was an undergrad, I like took a whole like American Asian American Studies class focused on Japanese American incarceration during World War Two. We also like took a trip to DC. I think that was like a really impactful moment for me like being in a class with mostly other like Asian American students. There was maybe like one or two other Japanese American students in the class, and learning about this history. Shortly after that, I had applied to the Kansha project, which is an identity development program, the community building program. And also we just got to learn about like our own family’s like personal histories and that was really impactful for me. I remember like my grandma had sort of been telling me over and over again, like, “oh, you should apply to Kansha project, you should apply to Kansha project.” And I was just like, “no, it doesn’t feel like the right time” because I really wanted to make sure that like I had an understanding of the history before I went on this like really I guess, like emotionally heavy and really like intense trip to actually visit one of the sites and so I waited until after I had finished that class in undergrad to apply, and I’m really glad I did you know, I think that was like the first time I was around other like Japanese Americans who were my age, and it connected me with the JA Chicago community.

SM: Through these trips and academic avenues, SJ was able to learn more than just history.

SD: I think I really appreciate the emphasis on being like multiracial. There’s like a lot of emphasis that you’re not really half of anything like you’re 100% everything that you are, and I think for a lot a while, like I had, I had like insecurities about like being multiracial and being quote-on-quote half Japanese. But I think like realizing that the like JA community is like so incredibly diverse, and most people in my generation are multiracial or like mixed ethnicities. And sort of feeling a sense of like belonging in the community and acceptance. I think it was like really impactful for me, especially like at that stage in my life. A lot of the people grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, predominantly white suburbs, where they didn’t really have a way to get connected to other people who are Japanese American. And so like they actively had to apply to the Kansha project to try and build that community. Whereas folks and like my dad’s generation, like, they grew up going to Japanese school, like they grew up surrounded by, you know, other Japanese Americans, but they were sort of pushed to assimilate into whiteness and white culture, and sort of reject anything that was associate with being Japanese and I feel like now there’s a little bit of a shift with people in my generation and people who are younger, like still in high school or people like actually do want to be reconnected with their cultural identities and racial ethnic backgrounds.

SM: She has also noticed these connections in Chicago.

SD: One of the filmmakers who used to live in Chicago created this online resource about resettlement in Chicago, tracking like these three families like stories from camp to Chicago and then their children and like their grandchildren and like what identity and the incarceration experience was like for them. And that was like a really interesting, like, really creative way of learning about multigenerational impact of camp. And that was like a really interesting way to sort of facilitate intergenerational healing among folks from all over the place with no connection to each other.

SM: Now, is this connection enough?

SD: I think it depends on how large of a population of Japanese Americans who live in like a particular place. Like my context is like Chicago, and so I would say that like there’s a lot being done like I wish that more members of like the Japanese American community would move beyond just like learning about retelling history and more about action and like activism to like continue to build solidarity with other communities who are currently affected by these issues, rather than just like focusing on retelling and retelling history, which is important, but I think there needs to be a balance between the two.

SM: Tonko and SJ are just two stories out of thousands, but their stories are unique and hold so much power. Many have been shared and are available for those who look. If you want to listen to more of Tonko’s story or the stories of countless other Japanese Americans, head over to the JASC Legacy Center’s website to listen to many others. However, listening to these stories are just the first step. These oral histories and conversations are gateways to gain a better understanding of what happened and learn more about their communities past and open up more conversations. It is our responsibility to take it one step further. These resources are only known to select groups and are not broadcasted to the general public very often, so share these stories and make these resources known to others, even if it is simply bringing it up to your friends or family after listening to this episode.

TD: If you see something wrong, you have to speak up. You have to say, you have to vote. No one spoke for the Japanese people when they were taken to camp. The Japanese people themselves went to camp without much pressure. Some people blame the JACL for not making a stronger stand. But, are you going to fight thousands of men with guns? No. If you see something, you hear something, you read something, you say something and you write in response.

SM: My name is Savvy Mahr-Threw and thank you for listening to my podcast. This episode was made possible by the oral histories and archives at the Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center in Chicago. I also referenced materials from the American Psychology Association and the Japanese American Citizens League. I want to take a moment thank to Tonko and SJ Doi for sharing their voices, so this was all possible. I also want to thank Emma and Ty along with my fellow interns at the JASC Legacy Center. Thank you.

SM: This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior. This material received Federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally funded assisted projects. If you believe you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to: Office of Equal Opportunity National Park Service 1849 C Street, NW Washington, DC 20240.

Legacy Center Highlights

Explore the archives!

Our searchable database of finding aids provides background information and an inventory for each collection.

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Use LibraryThing to check our holdings.  All are welcome to use our books on-site, and JASC members can check out books if we hold more than one copy.

Enjoy our digital exhibits! 

Engaging, image-rich exhibits to help illuminate the Japanese American experience in Chicago.

Listen to your elders! 

Our oral history collection features interviews with community members reflecting on a wide variety of topics from incarceration to contemporary activism.

Watch and learn! 

Check out a documentary film on incarceration and resettlement and a series of four films from 1975 featuring Issei voices.


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