How Birds Gave Japanese Prisoners Wings

More than 75 years after the U.S. government incarcerated 120,000 people, a Japanese American collects stories from survivors and descendants.

On an air-conditioned bus heading south to Tulelake, California, we fold shimmering sheets of colored paper into delicate, mystical birds. The weight of the shared ritual makes my fingers fumble. It’s been decades since I made origami with my immigrant mother, and I feel pressure to reprise the long-learned practice. I’m on a journey into the past, after all, attempting to connect with the history of Japanese Americans. During the 11-hour trek, we crawl along choked highways outside Seattle and Portland, then roll through verdant valleys in central Oregon and into northern California. Creating cranes (tsuru) is more than just a distraction; in Japanese culture, these birds are believed to live for a thousand years and bring happiness, good luck, and healing. So, we resolve to help make a thousand tsuru and string them together to honor the 330 prisoners who died at our destination, the Tule Lake Segregation Center. 

My pilgrimages to Western incarceration monuments began last year, during the 75th anniversary of U.S. Executive Order 9066, which triggered the roundup of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent during World War II. (Today’s immigrant-detention centers are echoes of Franklin D. Roosevelt's prescribed “military areas.”) The order was revoked in 1946, and survivors were awarded reparations by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. As one recipient of the allotted $20,000 told me, “1990 was the year of a bunch of Japanese Americans driving around in new cars.”

Tule Lake is the fifth and final stop on my list. Every other July, hundreds of Japanese Americans gather here to remember their shared experience—but as an environmentalist and nature photographer, the landscapes hold an additional connection for me. At each of the sites I've visited, there’s been an unshakable avian presence. Some birds were in the flesh, like the flocks of Barn Swallows at Heart Mountain; others were fabricated, like the elaborate pins preserved from the concentration camps. (As a pastime, incarcerees would style designs from old National Geographic magazines and Audubon trading cards, then craft the pieces out of ceramic, paint, wire snipped from windows, and lumber scraps.)

With the Issei and Nisei, the first- and second-generation captives, now almost gone, it’s up to younger Japanese Americans to prevent their stories from fading. My aim during my travels was to collect as many as possible, and in that mission, I discovered several that led back to birds. The feelings we often equate with feather and wing—happiness, luck, remembrance, and hope—were all present during Japanese imprisonment. But the ache for freedom was stronger then, and it brought my people closer to birds in the end.

Ancestral Spirits

Tsuru, or origami cranes, are strung up at cedar wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial in Washington. Part of the Minidoka National Historic Site, it's where the U.S. military first ousted Japanese residents from their homes. Photo: Age Fotostock/Alamy

Across the bay from Seattle, Washington, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is nestled among six acres of firs, alders, and cherry blossom trees. The centerpiece is a red-cedar “story wall” that runs 276 feet, one foot for each Bainbridge Islander of Japanese descent at the beginning of the war. This is the first place in the country where individuals were removed from their homes by the U.S. military after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It's also where I met Clarence Moriwaki, a full-blooded, third-generation Japanese American who spearheaded efforts to manage the memorial (which is now affiliated with the National Park Service). He recalls a story from 2002, when he was leading a ceremony on Bainbridge . . .

It was the 60th anniversary of the Japanese incarceration, and the very first piece of the site, a granite marker, had just been installed. Moriwaki was about to perform a ceremonial roll call for the memorialized 276, when a ruckus arose. Cawing loudly, crows began to flood the trees around the clearing where the crowd of about 750 people was waiting. The birds became so cacophonous, many in the audience later complained they couldn’t hear the names over the speaker system.

As Moriwaki read the last name, a switch seemed to flip. The crows quieted and began flying away. Moriwaki was stunned. When an elder of the long-residing Suquamish Tribe approached him afterward, he couldn’t help but point out the auspicious event.

“The crows had quite the timing,” Moriwaki said.

“We believe that crows are the spirits of our ancestors,” the elder replied.

Later, Moriwaki obtained raw footage of the ceremony from a local television station. Sure enough, he could hear the crows as he started calling out the names. But they stopped as he read the last one.

“There’s something special about this place,” he told me. The birds had spoken that truth.

An Ally Behind Barbed Wire

The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, now the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, in Wyoming was built in just two months. Many of the old buildings are still there, along with some new residents: sage-grouse leks. Photo: Glenn Nelson

Heart Mountain looms over the Wyoming high desert more like a top hat than a life-giving organ. At its feet, dust and sage now cover what euphemistically was called a “relocation” camp, where 14,000 “evacuees” were forced to draw their world around nine guard towers, a makeshift hospital, and tarpaper rooms. For Shigeru “Shig” Yabu, however, that world also included an unexpected feathered sidekick.

Last summer, I heard the expressive septuagenarian read his book, Hello Maggie, to a group of children at the library in Cody, Wyoming. Yabu laughed and pantomimed through the illustrated adventure of a young incarceree and his pet magpie at Heart Mountain. We spoke after the event, and he shared the true-to-life tale with me in full . . .

A group of restless Japanese American boys were roaming the foothills around Heart Mountain, slingshots in hand. When they reached the Shoshone River, a challenge arose: Who could hit one of the magpie nests dotting the treeline?

Soon a dislodged nest began rolling toward them. Inside was a magpie chick. The boys gathered insects and water from the river, but someone said the bird’s mother would reject it because it’d been touched by humans. That’s when a 10-year-old Yabu scooped up the nestling, tucked it under his T-shirt, and escorted it to barrack No. 2, block 14, unit C, where his family lived.

Yabu’s newest friend, which he named Maggie, would never be wild again. His father built the magpie a cage, and they later clipped her wings. She learned to say, “Hello, Maggie,” and other words, some Japanese. When the Yabu family left Heart Mountain at the end of the war, they had to so without the bird—she died a month too early to share their freedom.

"That magpie was brought behind barbed wire,” Yabu told me. “And, in that way, she became like us.”

Revenge on Wings

The Tule Lake Segregation Center in California once held 18,000 incarcerees. A hike to the top of Castle Rock gives a view of the memorial, the neighboring national wildlife refuge, and the larger Klamath Valley. Photo: Glenn Nelson

Peering into a latrine foundation at Tule Lake, I notice there aren’t any screens or barriers between the closely spaced toilets. The Japanese are a modest people; concentration camp survivors talk frequently about the embarrassment of using the bathroom in front of each other. I sheepishly glance at Ben Takeshita—one of the two people on the tour who knew that shame first hand—but he’s looking up at the sky, where a few Ring-billed Gulls battle the breeze. They must have wandered over from the adjacent wildlife refuge.

I soon learn that Takeshita and the local gulls go way back. During his stay at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, he led a small resistance—with the help of some Hinomaru birds . . .

There are rumors that after the Tule Lake camp opened in 1942, the U.S. military painted the red sun from the Japanese flag—also known as Hinomaru—on the undersides of gulls to antagonize the prisoners. Even wilder are the reports that the gulls were dispatched by Japanese military as agents of propaganda.

Turns out, the birds were just a youthful prank, and Takeshita was one of the perpetrators. He and his friends were bored during the sullen days of imprisonment, so they learned how to capture gulls with string and bread-baited hooks. As one of the boys pinned down the unlucky captive, another would paint a crimson disc on its wings. Takeshita doesn’t remember where they got the red paint; but he does remember the adult prisoners looking up from their work in the fields, astonished as the reimagined Hinomaru flew through the air.

Years later, Takeshita came across a political cartoon showing an American G.I. with a rifle trained on a Hinomaru gull. “Good!” he remembers thinking. “We got them!”

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