Senryu : Japanese American senryu in WWII relocation camps

Taken from their homes
Said it was for their safety
Jail the perps! Not vics.

When the Japanese Americans were shuffled off to the concentration camps — oh, I’m sorry — the relocation centers during WWII, they wrote haiku and senryu to document their experiences.  (I don’t know why they say “camps” or “centers” when they are prisons. Using softer words doesn’t change things.)

At Tule Lake Relocation Center, Japanese Americans joined The Tule Lake Senryu Kai group meeting weekly. At other relocation centers, similar groups were formed. Opler and Obayashi wrote in Senryu Poetry as Folk and Community Expression:

San Pedro, Calif. Apr. 1942. The last Redondo Beach residents of Japanese ancestry leaving by truck for relocation. Photo by U.S. War Relocation Authority.

“The formation of a Senryu circle marked no sudden trend toward Japanization. Rather, this element of Japanese culture which lived among the first generation, or Issei, as a part of their cultural heritage, was revived when West Coast communities were uprooted, careers interrupted, and the long, uncomfortable trek inland begun on the shortest notice. Senryu poetry, then, is one aspect of the cultural revivalism which occurred with the first generation age group when they realized that their futures might be uncertain in this nation.”

Nursery school children taking a midafternoon nap, Tule Lake Relocation Center. September 8, 1942 by Francis Stewart. National

It is to be noted that poetry groups among Japanese Americans was not a new phenomenon but dated back to the 1800s when they started immigrating to the United States.  The groups often published a journal or small publication, even books, in Japanese and English. Very little has been preserved. The vast majority of the poets could not find willing publishers in the states and if they were published, most often were published in Japan. When WWII broke out, many quit their haiku/senryu/tanka groups as they were worried about seeming too Japanese and being targeted.  Some even burned their poetry. Groups were reformed in the centers with veteran poets and new ones.

Tessaku No. 6, Tule Lake.  Writings were censored by the War Authority Office so they could not describe their incarceration in a negative light.

At Tule Lake, the group published their writings in Tessaku (Iron Gate). Opler and Obayashi explained that while both haiku and senryu used nature saying if a blossom is the topic that’s haiku; but if the blossom is a metaphor for a young girl then that’s senryu. At their meetings, the group would be given a topic and then write a poem with 45 minutes before the next topic is given.  Meantime a chosen critic goes over the written poems to read aloud and critique to the group afterwards.  Too vulgar and the poem was not read aloud — this one was considered too sexy for reading or for their pub:

(Topic : shoes)

Ara fushigi         (Oh, incomprehensible!)
Yamome no heyani    (In a bachelor's room)
Onna gutsu          (Woman's shoes)

You wouldn’t think of senryu or haiku as protest poems but they can be. One Tule Lake poet Itaru Ina was separated from his family and sent to Bismarck. Before being relocated to Tule, his family and many others were housed in stables at Tanforan where his wife pregnant with their first child suffered. Angry at the circumstances, he asked that his family be repatriated to Japan  and refused the loyalty oath. He was shipped to Bismarck with other dissidents. Itaru continued to write poetry. To avoid the censors, he smuggled the poems out in the seams and hems of clothing sent out to his wife to be mended. She and his children were still at Tule. He wrote the following poem in Tessaku 8 (1945)

Guard tower at the onetime Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyoming. This was one of ten internment camps for Japanese Americans evicted in the American West during World War II by executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt. Construction of 650 military-style barracks and surrounding guard towers began in June 1942, and the camp opened on August 11. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2015, gifted to Library of Congress. Gates Frontiers Fund Wyoming Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive
kari ikuya shoheito ni itoma ari
Wild geese fly away —
the tower guards
are on a break

Because the senryu is not about geese but rather the geese are a metaphor for freedom/escape, it’s not a haiku. It breaks my heart to read it because I can see the scene.  Here is another one of his.

tsuki suzushi tesso suke-te sanga ari
Brisk moon—
through the window’s iron bars
mountains and rivers.

Japanese American orphans were shipped to Manzanaar Relocation Center from other states. Photo by Ansel Adams. in 1965, Adams said in a letter when gifting his collection of Manzanaar photos to the LOC, “The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment….All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.” (My note: Adams hated the camps, had friends there, and hoped when he took the photos in 1943 to show people that the Japanese Americans were not the enemy. He said “magnificant environment” probably because he loved the desert and skies. I doubt the internees felt the same.)
In 1946, after the courts ruled that renunciation of citizenship under the duress of imprisonment was unconstitutional, Itaru was reunited with his family in March. They were freed July 9th. After returning to the San Francisco bay area in 1950, he joined the San Francisco Yukari Haiku Kai, serving as the leader until his death in 1977. (“Kai” means association, group, meeting). Some of his poetry is published on Modern Haiku.

Like the difference between a classic and pulp novel, while I admire the beauty of haiku with its perfect turn of a phrase, it’s senryu I love.


Internment stigma
by Barbara Takei, Discover Nikkei, May 18, 2012

Senryu Poetry as Folk and Community Expression
by Marvin K. Opler and F. Obayashi
Journal of American Folklore, v. 58, n. 227, January-March 1945, pp. 1-11.

Tessaku [Barbed Wire], no. 6, Tule Lake, California, 1944
Wartime Internment of Civilians
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Haiku by Itaru Ina
haiku translated by Hisako Ifshin and Leza Lowitz
Modern Haiku

Photograph used for poem :
Tule Lake segregation center, Newell, California
May 1943 by O’Crotty, Pete, photographer
Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress)

View Daily Life in a Japanese-American Internment Camp Through the Lens of Ansel Adams
The Ansel Adams Gallery

Collection: Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar
Library of Congress

You can use the Amazon search bar to do any search at Amazon. (See affiliate disclosure at the bottom of the page plus my thank you note. So happy.)

1942 collection of War Authority photographs on Japanese American Relocation Act

1943 collection of War Authority photographs on Japanese American Relocation Act

Note on LoC photographs: they are copyright free.  Photographs taken by government employees on the job for the government are usually copyright free barring any security issues. Documents in the LoC archives will generally say if there are copyright restrictions.

senryu by M. LaFreniere, all rights reserved.

Also published on Instagram under @cactus_haiku
I published this essay within a long post in 2017 that wandered all over the place. It’s one of my favorite posts but looking at it now, I realize it’s really three or four posts so here I am splitting it. This is the third part. I have edited and added words and photographs too.  Ironically, it has ended up being as long as the original post but at least it’s focused.

As an Amazon affiliate, I may earn a fee if you click on the above links and buy something. This has no effect on your price. You pay the same price you would normally. Amazon disclosure: “We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.”

P.S. By the way I want to say “thank you”.  In the last few days, several people have clicked an Amazon link or the search bar and bought something from Amazon.  For the first time ever, I have earned $16.26 this month which is the most in two years.  Up until now I’ve earned $0 to $2 most months.  I get that $16.26 is dinner for two (I know a good Chinese restaurant with a great special) but it’s exciting to me. I am a long ways to making a living from blogging but I am still dreaming of it. So to whoever used my page to buy from Amazon, thank you!  Especially since Amazon won’t send you the money until you’re over $10. The last time I was paid was July 2018 for $11.09.  It’s taken me eight months this time to get over $10 again which is an improvement. It took 11 months to get that first payment. When Amazon sends me the money on April 1st, it will be my second payment. This is not the same as my t-shirts that are sold on Amazon by MerchAmazon.  They pay that seperately and I earn $5 per t-shirt.  I’ve sold a couple of those to USA folks. I haven’t sold in UK or EU although apparently it’s listed in UK and EU Amazon too.  Don’t know what happens with the conversion rate if I do sell one abroad. Thank you to whoever bought through my link. Does a happy dance.