In the book Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp, Lily Yuriko Nakai recounts her experience in internment camps in an artistic mix of paintings, chronological jumps between her past leading up to her interment and her time in and after the camps, and insertions of her internal narrative. At the beginning of her story, she describes how she was so eager to go to the camps. As a child, she was naïve and ignorant to what relocation meant for her, her family, and the many other Japanese people sent with her. She believed she would be hiking, resting in a camping tent, and grow closer to her father through fishing trips and roasting smores. As a Japanese person, she was barred from having these experiences, because only white children were allowed to join organizations like the Girl Scouts. Therefore, she was excited to go the camp and return and tell all her other Japanese friends about what it was like to do all the things only their white peers could do. This leads to her most crucial childlike misconception; she believed she was going on a short family vacation. However, she was struck by the brutal reality that the camps were nothing like what she envisioned soon after she and her family arrived, and her childhood was largely stripped away from her. She was no longer free to play and explore the outdoors; her new surroundings at the camp were cramped and dull, and she constantly had to watch her every move out of the crushing fear of being shot by an American soldier. She described how she and her family had their lives snatched from them, and in its wake was left nothing but a crushing emptiness. The paintings she included in her book of her memories reflected the chaos of her fear and emptiness through disoriented images stacked on one another painted in dull grays and deep blacks contrasted with glaring reds.
Nakai’s story also reflects a conflict of identities. On one hand, she is ethnically Japanese, and her household culture reflected that. Her house smelled of “sandalwood, incense, steamed rice, and laundry starch.” Her mom hung a photo of the Japanese emperor on their wall. She attended a Buddhist temple. However, she strongly desired to be seen as fully American. She disassociated herself from Japanese people in Japan, especially after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, and resented whenever her mother grouped her in with them, emphasizing that she was American, not Japanese. She also admired Euro-centric beauty standards, and viewed Asiatic features as inferior. She wanted to eat American foods, have American-style housing, and match white features so that she could be a part of a society that relentlessly demonized her.
Nakai’s experience, and the experience of many other Japanese people at the time, serves as a quintessential model of the conflict between the American Dream and the American reality. The U.S. euphemistically refers to the camps used to store away Japanese people as “internment” camps rather than concentration camps as a way to distance itself from associations with Nazi Germany and preserve the image of the U.S. as a glorious nation welcoming to all immigrants despite the many stark similarities between the two. In both instances, people were blanket demonized and targeted to be rounded up along racial lines, the facilities provided were overcrowded and in poor condition, and the people were stripped of personal identity and replaced with impersonal numbers. The U.S. government flaunted that it was a nation accepting of all in its rhetoric, and many people around the world believed it. They imagined America as a prosperous heaven-like country where everyone was rich and free of worry. Nakai explains how her mother’s family back in Japan had believed this as well, and so could not imagine her mother would have any kind of hardship living in America. In reality, many immigrant populations were treated like animal, quite literally in the case of the Japanese, as they were packed into horse stables.