Lonny Kaneko Reminds Us to Say “No” to Racism

Last December, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he didn’t not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. When pressed, he said he hated the concept of internment camps. Yet his flimsily veiled as well as his openly racist rhetoric encourage an atmosphere of hate and intolerance that can have no good outcome.

Which is why Lonny Kaneko’s recently released poetry collection Coming Home from Camp and Other Poems is so necessary. The camp in the title refers not to childhood summer camp or some other recreational foray in the wilderness. It was a foray into a different kind of wilderness—one in which American ideals were lost to racism, when the American government rounded up more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry in this country and incarcerated them behind barbed wire in the euphemistically-termed “war relocation centers.” Lonny Kaneko and his parents were sent to Minidoka in Idaho as were most of the Japanese-Americans from the Seattle area.

Last week, Kaneko read from his collection at Arundel Books in Pioneer Square. One of the poems he read was “Drought,” which Kaneko said was a metaphor for the effects of the camp on him.

The poem describes a child lying face up in the dust under a hot sun, when tendrils of green curl into his ear and around a finger.

This cool twist of green
crucifies him in the Idaho heat.
Innocent yet pronounced guilty,
he is invisible.

The thought of this underserved and inexplicable punishment burrows deep inside of him as he awaits relief.

This is a child sewn
into the earth,
with a dream full of melons and tulips
that needs only a rainy season
in a country of drought.

Kaneko, a genial, soft-spoken man, said he was raised to be a pretty agreeable person, one who keeps his thoughts to himself. His mother though was the kind of person who said what she wanted to anyone she wanted. He read a poem called “Beasts from the Heart” that he said describes his mother. In it, he refers to “a tongue sharp as a row of needles,” and writes that “my mother snarled when she meant to smile.” The beasts in the poem are the fears and humiliations that haunt his family in their prison, the source, it seems, of his mother’s “barbed circle of words.”

A 1944 act encouraged Japanese-Americans to renounce citizenship so that they could be deported to Japan. Some did renounce their citizenship, including Kaneko’s aunt, who had prior to the war been a seamstress who ran her own business in the University District. Unlike Kaneko and his family, she had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in California. Her family had been involved in agriculture in south King County, and Kaneko said many such families were routed to Tule Lake, the largest and most strife-ridden of the camps. Perhaps that’s why the renunciants numbered the highest at Tule Lake. Kaneko said his aunt ended up a woman without a country, returning to Japan no longer an American citizen, but not a citizen of Japan either since she had not been born there.

He has a collection of long letters that she wrote from Japan to his mother. Some of the poems in Coming Home are written in her voice, inspired by those letters. In “Words from Okayama,” the narrator advises her sister,

Your son must say No.
Learn the good word.
There is no way that
he can be a man
without a sense of where
to cut the barbed wire
and cross the fence.

Kaneko has been a creative writing instructor at Highline since 1966. His influence in the literary community has probably been as quiet and unassuming as he is himself, but nevertheless runs deep. His book gathers poems from the first printing of Coming Home from Camp, which had gone out of print, with newer poems, some of them the result of daily poem exchanges with his Highline colleague and award-winning poet Sharon Hashimoto. Over the years, Kaneko has mentored many students, including Sam Green, the first poet laureate of Washington State. Kaneko’s long-time friend, poet Ann Spiers, who also read that evening from her latest chapbook Bunker Trail, helped proofread Coming Home.

Kaneko’s path to poetry and teaching began in a childhood behind barbed wire, an incarceration that was recognized in 1988 legislation signed by Ronald Reagan as “caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Lonny Kaneko’s book is a good reminder of that.