Caps and Gowns Behind Barbed Wire
In 1920, months before American women won the right to vote, my grandmother Takako was born in Vancouver. Her parents had immigrated to Canada from small fishing communities in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. My great-grandfather, Eikichi Kagetsu, started a successful logging business and was able to provide a comfortable childhood for my grandma and her nine siblings in Canada. They spent summers on Vancouver Island. Takako, whom I affectionately call Bubs, still loves the Pacific Northwest.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bubs’ family was forced to relocate to Minto, an internment camp in British Columbia. Bubs herself was not interned — she was in Tokyo, attending college at Japan Women’s University. But she wasn’t allowed to return to Canada until 1950, years after WWII ended. The Kagetsus, along with over 20,000 people of Japanese descent in Canada, were forced from their homes in the name of “national security.”
The United States, caught up in similar racist war hysteria, also incarcerated roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent, mostly US citizens, in internment camps. One of those of people was Marion Konishi.
That was how she came to deliver her high school valedictorian speech, “America, Our Hope is in You,” in an environment with little pomp and in a place of unthinkable circumstance: Granada Relocation Center, an internment camp in Colorado. Her speech grapples with an enduring American question: how can America be a country founded on principles of freedom and justice, yet still continue to persecute so many of its citizens?
Instead of evaluating the country just at that point in time, Konishi takes a step back to look for larger patterns in American history and progress. She acknowledges and celebrates the fight for freedom in America, all the way back to the Revolutionary War, highlighting “George Washington, who freed her from tyranny; Thomas Jefferson, who defined her democratic course; and Abraham Lincoln, who saved her and renewed her faith.”
To give a more complete picture of the shape of American history, Konishi also highlights many past American injustices, including the killing of Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and the discrimination against German-Americans during World War I. One of the strengths of Konishi’s speech is her ability to ground her optimism in sobering realities. She uses this pattern of grave transgressions to point out a positive pattern, too. “[W]ith each mistake [America] has learned and has marched forward,” she argues.
Her cautious optimism is based on the understanding that America is not a static idea; it is dynamic, complex, and evolving. She identifies a trend of improvement and progress and remains hopeful that it will continue.
She also uses this technique of dichotomy and honesty to call out the elephant in the room: they are all high school students in an internment camp.
Toward the beginning of her speech, she walks us through her writing process:
So unmindful of the searchlights reflecting in my window, I sat down and tried to recall all the things that were taught to me.
This image is painful to imagine — a high schooler, imprisoned for no reason.
She uses the word “unmindful” particularly deftly. On the surface, it seems a little contradictory. How could you be unmindful of something, and still notice it enough to write it down and share it with your classmates? But life at Granada Relocation Center, also known as Amache, was her new reality. She was no longer consciously mindful of searchlights every time she saw their threatening glare because she saw them every day. Life in barracks, behind barbed wire and under scrutiny, became her new normal.
By being unmindful of the searchlights, Konishi also shows us her resilience. She is living through these circumstances, yet not allowing external brutality to completely define her existence.
As she concludes her speech, she brings us back to her desk again:
I was once again at my desk. True, I was just as much embittered as any other evacuee. But I had found in the past the answer to my question…Can we the graduating class of Amache Senior High School still believe that America means freedom, equality, security, and justice? Do I believe this? Do my classmates believe this? Yes, with all our hearts, because in that faith, in that hope, is my future, our future and the world’s future.
In spite of the circumstances, Konishi’s optimism is not Pollyannaish. She has been honest about American history and about her own experience. She is right to feel embittered. She should call out the searchlights. As a high school senior, Konishi demonstrated her and her classmates’ commitment to American values, even when America could not do the same.
This speech prompted me to further reflect on my family’s own experience. When Bubs’ family was forced to leave Vancouver, the Canadian federal government confiscated Eikichi’s logging business and property and never returned them. With nothing to return to in Vancouver after the war, they started over in Toronto, where most of my Japanese Canadian family still lives today. I remember my parents and Bubs reminding my brother and me when we were little that we’d be okay if “something bad” ever happened. Even if someone took away everything I had, I was assured that I had a “good head on my shoulders” and that education was something that could never be taken away.
The summer before 7th grade, my family went on a trip to Vancouver. We had a great time biking in Stanley Park and eating delicious seafood. One afternoon, we drove to Kerrisdale, the neighborhood where Bubs grew up. She pointed out the house she lived in and the areas nearby where she used to pick wild berries. It was fun to remember that Bubs was once a kid, too. But it was painful to see what was stolen and never returned.
All of Bubs’ siblings have passed away and she recently turned 99. She has lived in the US for 64 years, but she remains a proud member of the Commonwealth. She hopes she stays healthy and with it for many reasons, but she particularly mentions how excited she would be to receive a letter from the Queen on her 100th birthday.
A few years ago, Marion Konishi traveled to Amache as part of the 40th pilgrimage back to the site. There, she delivered her speech again, reaffirming her commitment to America and her belief that the country must do better. Like Konishi, Bubs remains optimistic about Canada’s future and believes in the promise of Canadian progress, in spite of what the Canadian government did to her family.
The United States still struggles to treat all its citizens equally with dignity and respect. May we continue Konishi’s fight to create a more just America, and may we share Konishi’s hope for a brighter tomorrow.
— Ezra Stoller (former WWW intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.