Desert Exile Summary

Yoshiko Uchida

Desert Exile

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Desert Exile Summary

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Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982) by Japanese-American author Yoshiko Uchida is a memoir about the author’s experience in an internment camp during World War II. Uchida focuses on the camp (1942 to 1945) but also reviews American polices through World War II that supported unjust and often animalistic conditions for Japanese-American citizens.

Desert Exile explores the themes of forced exile, betrayal, government overreach in times of mass betrayal, and the inner struggles experienced by biracial people.

Uchida begins by reviewing how and why her parents moved from Japan to California. Her parents were known as “Issei,” or first-generation immigrants from Japan. Her father’s name was Dwight Takashi Uchida. He came to California in 1906, after serving as a teacher in Hawaii for several years. While he had ambitions of becoming a doctor, he ended up becoming the manager of a grocery store as well as a respected community leader.

In 1917, Dwight married Iku Umegaki. He had never met her in person, but their professors at Doshisha University, a prominent Christian university, suggested that they should connect; after a year of writing letters, Iku traveled to the United States to marry Dwight.

Well-educated and intelligent, the couple quickly became community leaders for the Japanese community in San Francisco. Through the Japanese Independent Congregational Church, they helped hundreds of new Japanese immigrants assimilate into American society.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. Many white Americans felt resentment, suspicion, and anger toward German and Japanese people. However, as the Japanese were the newer immigrants and the nation of Japan was responsible for killing more than 3,000 US soldiers, Japanese-Americans received the bulk of anger, first from the American public, and then the American government.

The author is raised on Stuart Street in San Francisco and becomes a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She is precocious and enters college at just sixteen years old. She has an easier time assimilating into American society, as she is a “Nisei,” or a second-generation immigrant from Japan.

Her life is that of a typical American teenager: she goes to football games, talks to girlfriends about dates, and enjoys classes at Berkeley. However, she and the white Americans feel too dissimilar, and she spends most of her time with other Nisei. The author straddles the line between being Japanese and being American. Because she cannot speak Japanese, she is not fully accepted by the Issei; because she is Japanese, white Americans do not immediately accept her. Uchida and her family see the severity of this unacceptance when, because of World War II, they are stripped of their prominent positions and forced into concentration camps.

This happens in gradual, then very rapid notifications from the US government. First, the FBI tells Uchida’s father that he must give up his government positon. Then the family learns that all Japanese-Americans must turn themselves into an internment camp. The government calls these moves “evacuations,” but Uchida and her family know that armed forces are rounding up Japanese-American citizens without a clear or necessarily benign goal in mind. These hardly livable quarters are not called concentration camps, but enjoy certain euphemistic language such as “relocation centers,” though, by definition, they are concentration camps.

Her family reports to Tanforan camp. There are five thousand other Japanese-Americans in the camp. The family of four are sent to live in a horse stall. Their living quarters are filled with horse feces, and they rely on their neighbors to help them clean the stall.

Each day at Tanforan is a humiliation for the author. The lines are unnecessarily long; the facilities are faulty with lightbulbs that do not work; everyone’s living quarters are shabbily built, letting in drafts and insects. Uchida is further humiliated to see so many talented people, from dentists and accounts to artists and teachers, living like this.

Three weeks pass before the family is allowed any visitors. Many of their friends come to offer mental support and quality food. Uchida describes how committees are formed by the prisoners to lobby for their rights as US citizens. Through their efforts, some second-generation students are allowed to return to the United States.

The Uchida family is forced to move to Utah. On the train ride there, they see the regular world proceeding with its daily routines: houses, stores, and many white people.

In Salt Lake City, Uchida finds her good friend, Helen. Helen is another Nisei, and Uchida quickly learns that the new camp they have been sent to, Topaz, is notorious for its grueling heat and lack of edible good.

The family has a tough time during the winter. Their furnishings are meager: they are able to trade for sheetrock to cover the ceiling and provide some insulation, and they have also managed to procure a stove, but their accommodations are threadbare compared to what they earned in San Francisco. The family continues to receive visitors, even in Utah. Other families are not as fortunate, and Uchida sees some white people steal from the Japanese prisoners. Once World War II ends, all Japanese-Americans are released from the concentration camps.

In 1976, the US government, through President Gerald R. Ford, acknowledged the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to be a severe mistake. But Uchida suggests that the effects of the decision still resonant throughout American society. It was not only damaging to Japanese-Americans but to Americans of all races: the decision undermined the protections outlined in the constitution. As the United States entered the Korean and Vietnam wars, Uchida notes that third-generation children asked their parents about their experience in World War II; their questions were her driving reason to share her story.