Recreating the Past with Hatsuko Mary Higuchi and Marlene Shigekawa

by: Deryn Harris

UCI’s Tomo No Kai Japanese Club hosted a “Paint the Past” event on Feb. 19 with two guest speakers, Hatsuko Mary Higuchi and Marlene Shigekawa. This event was held for the “Day of Remembrance” that recognizes the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps 77 years ago during World War II.

Higuchi is an artist and retired elementary school teacher who was born in Los Angeles in 1939, three years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. This order authorized the relocation and detainment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans and Japanese resident aliens on the West Coast, stretching from Washington state down to Arizona.

Higuchi and her family were sent to live in the Colorado River internment camp in Poston, Arizona from 1942 to 1945. Higuchi spoke about her time in the camp as a young child. She recalls her first impression of the Poston camp: “We saw rows and rows of hastily-constructed barracks surrounded by barbed-wire and soldiers with guns… The temperature in Poston can range anywhere from 120 to 130 degrees during the summer.”

Higuchi also gave details about the barracks she lived in. “I remember a handmade table and chair my father built from scraps of lumber. The table was directly under the one and only source of light, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling,” she recalled.

This early upbringing did not stop her from being successful later in life.

After World War II, her family moved to Torrance, California, where she went to Torrance High School and participated in numerous extracurricular activities. Higuchi was the first Japanese-American homecoming queen at her high school. In addition, she received a B.A. from UCLA and a master’s at Pepperdine University. She said that her family’s life was changed by the internment camps.

“EO 9066 destroyed my family’s life as we knew it,” Higuchi stated. “I wonder, can it happen again?”

Before the war, her father ran a one-man trucking business for hauling produce. In 1942, they were told to leave their home and most of their belongings were relocated to Arizona which, according to Higuchi, was “a desolate desert on the banks of the Colorado River.”

Now, Higuchi is an artist that specializes in landscapes, figures, and abstracts with watercolor and acrylic.

“Her EO 9066 paintings depict faces with anonymous features or none at all, symbolizing the mass anonymity to which over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were reduced — denied due process and judged guilty solely by reason of their race,” read a poster at the event.

Shigekawa was born in another Poston, Arizona internment camp, but has no direct memories of the event. After getting a B.A. in English from UC Riverside and a master’s in science from CSU East Bay, she became a board member, project director and development director with the Poston Community Alliance. She has also taught organizational development and training for Fortune 500 companies. Currently, she is working on a project in Poston to open a museum dedicated to the Japanese-Americans who were relocated during World War II.

The event opened with a traditional Japanese drum performance by UCI’s Jodaiko Club. Tomo No Kai’s historian Cecilia Le taught the audience to make paper origami cranes, because according to Japanese tradition, one thousand origami cranes are equal to one wish.