Thursday, March 26, 2009

Famous Art Historian Recommends Dear Miss Breed

Art historian / essayist Seinosuke Nakajima reviewed the book Dear Miss Breed (written by Joanne Oppenheim, translated by Rio Imamura, published by Kashiwashobo) for the January 31, 2009 Book Review Club column of the Sankei Newspaper of Tokyo. Below is my translation of the article.


The story begins with the discovery of letters and mementos bequeathed by Clara Breed, a librarian hired in charge of children by the City Library of San Diego. There were over 200 letters eventually donated to the National Museum of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, including one-cent postcards and envelopes with three-cents V (for victory) stamps.

There was a letter written by 6-year old Florence Ishino in tottering alphabet or another written by 17-year old Louise Ogawa in a refined, elegant style. They were living proof of sad and unfortunate injustices, a part of American history, almost buried and out of sight for half a century. It is bygone history, yet still remembered.

When World War II broke out with the Pearl Harbor attack by the Imperial Japanese army, the Japanese American mothers living in California immediately organized Red Cross activities, blood drives, bandage service, war bond drives, etc. in their effort to alleviate their shame, infamies and awkwardness. Clara Breed comforted them saying this is America where everyone is treated equally with no bias.

Things did not turn out as she predicted. Suspicions and hatred prevailed. Japanese Americans were treated no different from the despicable enemy “Japs”. Everyone who had Japanese ancestry was sent the President Executive Order to go to internment camps, away from their homes in California. That number reached 120,000 in total.

The day before the evacuation, Clara distributed self-addressed cards hurriedly printed with one-cent stamps on them to children she knew and asked them “be sure to write back.” She told them, “I will send you books.”

The book Dear Miss Breed, along with the children's letters, shows rare photos taken inside internment camps by cameras that were officially forbidden. Also shown were harsh hate illustrations and cartoons such as “Jap” hunting licenses, deformed buck teeth and slanted-eye caricatures of Japanese. These images contrasted sharply with images of smiling children, despite their adversity, acting brave and bright and young men working hard in farms and camps.

What struck us most is the touching humanity and boundless love of a woman named Clara and the young Japanese Americans who heroically walked their life believing in their futures.

The testimony of Grace Nakamura deftly expressed the feeling: “Until you lose your freedom, you do not realize how dear it is. There is no price tag for freedom.”


Seinosuke Nakajima was born in 1938 and is known as the Godfather of the Aoyama curio shop street in Tokyo. He authored “50 years as Pottery Critic”.

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