All AAPS high school libraries will offer Shirley Ann Higuchi’s book about her mother’s heartbreaking experience
By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
The last time Shirley Ann Higuchi was at Huron High School, the year was 1977 and she was about to graduate after a full, successful high school career. She was captain of the varsity cheerleading squad, played varsity softball, was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and was active in musicals, forensics, and Student Council.
“I pretty much did everything!” says Higuchi, who went on to attend and graduate from the University of Michigan in 1981.
On Friday morning, Higuchi returned to tour her alma mater, and met with teachers and administrators to discuss her book, Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration.
Higuchi, who is chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF), grew up in Ann Arbor. She is the daughter of American-born Dr. William I. Higuchi and the late Setsuko Saito Higuchi, who were children when they were incarcerated at Heart Mountain during WWII.
Higuchi’s pursuit of a law degree stemmed from her feelings of discomfort toward how the U.S. judicial system treated her parents. She says it was at her mother’s deathbed in 2005 that she was inspired to take on her mother’s dream of having something built at Heart Mountain.
Higuchi says her proudest moment was the 2011 unveiling of the Foundation’s Interpretive Center, which offers visitors—through photographs, artifacts, oral histories, and interactive exhibits—a sense of what life was like for those Japanese and Japanese Americans who were confined there during WWII.
Jared Aumen, who is AAPS’ District Chair for Secondary Social Studies. says that students sometimes ask why some people in history did not seem to resist their oppressors. He helps them imagine a time and place that’s unfamiliar to them and consider that people resisted in different ways for their own reasons, including the structures put around them. Resistance is not always confrontational, he says.
“All of our work really has been: `How do we center the stories of individuals to show that every step they resisted, and what that resistance look like?'”says Aumen. “And for some, it’s very deliberate, organized resistance. For others, it’s: `How do I continue to get through to the next day?’ For some, it may have been not to say anything but to hold it in as a way of saying, `This is how I’m getting through it. This is how I will make it.’
The district social studies department will be considering ways to more deeply address Japanese American incarceration in our high school United States history and geography course and to use “Setsuko’s Secret” as a resource, Aumen says.
Q & A with Shirley Ann Higuchi:
Q: What don’t most Americans not understand about the Japanese American Incarceration during
A: First of all, it’s not guaranteed that most Americans even know it happened. I can tell now that more and more people are aware of it, but it’s not universal.
What they don’t understand is what I didn’t understand, which is how this experience really fractured many of the families and caused longstanding damage. As I noted in my book, my mother glossed it over as a fun place to be – it was camp and where she met my father. It wasn’t until I went to Japan in 2019 and met one of my distant cousins there that I realized how much it
damaged my grandmother, who never spoke about it at home but did in Japan.
Q: You say the internment camps led to generational trauma. How did your mother’s experience
as a child in the camp later affect your life?
A: The issue of her controlling nature and keeping everything optically perfect – the so-called
all-American life – was one thing. She strove to create this ideal life, including buying and
selling multiple homes, but she never explained why she was doing it or how she was influenced
to be that way. So, I was like many Japanese Americans of my generation, the Sansei, who never
understood what influenced their parents because they never talked about that obviously
traumatic part of their lives.
Q: Ann Arbor Public Schools high school libraries will now carry your book. Why should
teenagers read “Setsuko’s Secret”?
A: If I had a book like mine when I was at Huron High School, it would have explained so much
to me about why things were they way were for me. I’d know why I and my brothers were
always trying to assimilate into this stereotypical life. Don’t leave your history behind. Take the
initiative to learn more about your parents and grandparents and why they’re here. What were
their dreams? For me, I had to learn these things far too late in life, and Setsuko’s Secret would
have changed much of that.
Q: Your pursuit of a law degree stemmed from feelings about the way the U.S. judicial system
treated your parents. How do you think your mother would have felt about your work, and what has been your father’s reaction?
A: My father, who was incarcerated with my mother at age 11, is 91. He is incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished at Heart Mountain, not only with the museum but our outreach internationally. He’s incredibly proud of the book.
My mother, who died in 2005, I’m not as sure, because the book describes some unpleasant elements of her life and her nature. But she always dreamed of something being built at Heart Mountain, and I know she’d be proud and shocked that we’ve exceeded her dreams and expectations. I know she’d feel that way, because her surviving fellow incarcerees who knew her for years have told me that repeatedly.
To get in touch with Higuchi, visit her website, join her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter here and here.
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