Shirley Ann Higuchi tells her mother's tale and the bigger story of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII in “Setsuko’s Secret” 


Shirley Ann Higuchi and her book Setsuko's Secret

Shirley Ann Higuchi illuminates a dark time in U.S. history in her book, Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration.

Through the lens of long unspoken family stories, Higuchi recounts how Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and businesses, then forced to live in one of the 10 concentration camps created during World War II as the result of unfounded security concerns. The memories and trauma of that time are still felt today. 

Higuchi, who grew up in Ann Arbor and went to the University of Michigan, will speak about her book at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library on Thursday, September 22, 6:30-7:30 pm. She is a lawyer for the American Psychological Association, a past president of the D.C. Bar, and chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates a museum on the site of the former camp.

In Setsuko’s Secret, Higuchi writes of the camp where her parents met, Heart Mountain:

When my family asked my mother, Setsuko Saito Higuchi, where she wanted the koden, the traditional Japanese condolence money gift, sent when she died, we expected her to say Johns Hopkins University Hospital. That was where she was being treated for the pancreatic cancer that had ravaged her body. 

“Heart Mountain,” she told us.

Why? My two remaining brothers and I knew of Heart Mountain, this mysterious place in my parents’ past, as where they had first met. Beyond that, we knew almost nothing.


She never talked about her time at Heart Mountain.

Through her book, Higuchi not only uncovers her mother’s and family’s story but also charts the history and experiences of others leading up to, during, and after the operation of the confinement sites. The historical details embedded in the chapters delineate how the camps came about and their long-lasting repercussions. 

The effects of the camps extend through generations of the Issei who are first-generation immigrants from Japan to the U.S., the Nisei who are second-generation and American-born, and the Sansei who are the grandchildren of the immigrants. Higuchi states: 

When you are imprisoned for what you are instead of what you did, you do not want to be what you are.

The aftermath of this trauma includes perfectionism and workaholism that Japanese Americans imprisoned in the camps passed on to their children. For Higuchi’s mother, Setsuko, she invested her energy in seeking upward mobility and did not talk about the incarceration. Higuchi later studied this troubled history, became involved in the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and wrote her book. 

I spoke with Higuchi about Setsuko’s Secret and the legacies of the Japanese American concentration camps.

Q: You grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Huron High School and the University of Michigan. What are your memories of Ann Arbor? 
A: Asians were essentially invisible. I had optically an ideal lifestyle, all American and white-focused. It was a bubble university town life.

Q: In your book, Setsuko’s Secret, you mention the 15-year journey to write it. How did you decide to write a book on your mother and the Japanese American internment camps of World War II? 
A: The story is bigger than my mom’s. Her death led to me visiting the site and then getting involved on the board [of Heart Mountain]. As I learned more, I knew there was a book about the whole experience. 

Q: Setsuko’s Secret is a mix of biography about your family and historical nonfiction about the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans. How did you decide on what and who to cover in your book? 
A: I focused on those characters who I knew were important representatives of the overall history and who had influenced my life, such as Norman Mineta, Takashi Hoshizaki, and Raymond Uno. I see Norm and Al Simpson as tremendous influences. 

Q: Many political figures, people involved with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, friends, and family populate the pages, from Norman Mineta to your siblings, as you mentioned. For your research, it sounds like you talked directly to them. How did you go about gathering information from people about this history? What was it like interviewing these people connected to Heart Mountain and the Japanese American incarceration? 
A: At every pilgrimage to Heart Mountain, I would talk to some of the key people to gather information. When we decided we were going to do the book for sure, we interviewed them again for the book proposal and for the book itself. We also used interviews that were conducted by other researchers and stored on multiple sites. By talking to them about these experiences, I felt even closer to them and understood not only them better but my own family. 

Q: In your involvement with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, you have seen the naming of a walking tour in honor of your mother and the establishment of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. What does your role with the foundation involve? How has it felt to see it grow? 
A: I have gained confidence as I have gone along, as I kept learning more about the overall history and experience. I’m overwhelmed by our success because it takes a lot of time to make sure everything is working well. We have a very capable but small staff, and we’re punching way above our weight. That requires constant focus. 

Q: In the course of writing this book and working with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, what was most surprising to learn about this era in U.S. history? 
A: Learning about the Heart Mountain draft resisters and their struggle was the biggest surprise to me. I thought their courage in standing up for their rights was admirable, and I was fascinated by their comparisons of Heart Mountain to federal prison.

Q: One focus of the book is the generational trauma and its consequences caused by the internment camps. Perfectionism, workaholism, and caretaking are among the results of the Japanese Americans’ experiences in the camps. In what ways might recognizing and talking about this history help heal the trauma? 
A: It validates their experiences and allows people to talk about why members of our community act the ways they do. These conversations give us the chance to discover how this experience has shaped all of us. 

Q: The hope is that incarcerating a group of people based on race never happens again. You write, “Those warnings seem more real now than ever, as white nationalist racism is on the rise in an increasingly diverse nation. This bigotry can be a recipe for disaster that Japanese Americans, mindful of our history, cannot let go unchallenged.” Would you elaborate on what you want people to learn about the history of the internments from your book?  
A: It's important to know that the Japanese American incarceration didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was decades in the making, as racist attitudes against Asian immigrants had festered for years. Pearl Harbor gave many people an excuse to do what they wanted to do years earlier. 

The demographic changes in the United States over the last 50 years have only heightened those attitudes on the part of many people disturbed by the changes they’ve seen. They’re looking for any way they can find to roll back the clock, which is impossible. We want to make sure people know what happened to Japanese Americans and the warning signs that can apply to any group of people who look or act differently. 

Q: What is on your stack to read and recommend? 
A: Although I’ve read this book, I recommend reading the updated version of Light One Candle, a Holocaust memoir by Solly Ganor that Heart Mountain republished earlier this year. Also, Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp by Douglas Nelson is another book that we’re republishing, and it has a lot of great information in it. 

Q: What’s next for you? 
A: Much of my energy is focused on the creation of the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain, which is dedicated to the lives and careers of Norm Mineta and Al Simpson. We hope to use the power of place at Heart Mountain to bring groups together to learn more about the history and how to work together to bridge differences to find answers to our nation’s challenges. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Shirley Ann Higuchi talks about her book “Setsuko’s Secret” at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library on Thursday, September 22, 6:30-7:30 pm.