The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the son of a Japanese poet and an American writer, had the gnawing wanderlust of those who feel they never belong. His world had always been spinning: a blur of steel towers in Manhattan, of arch cafés in Montparnasse, of bowed pagodas in Kyoto. He’d walked the patchwork flats of Indiana, the palm tree avenues of Honolulu, the slated plazas of Mexico City. In 1942, he waded into a sea of dust, banishing himself to Arizona’s Sonoran desert, where his life gave way to bleaker scenery: plains of silt and ironwood, megaliths of saguaro cacti, a rift of barbed wire more cutting than the cacti, if the gunners didn’t mow you down first. That year, Noguchi entered a concentration camp entirely of his own will.
He had lived in New York, a state exempt from the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The roundups that followed Executive Order 9066, signed seventy-five years ago next week, had affected mostly those in the American West. Yet Noguchi, whose first name means courage, had exiled himself anyway. He checked in to the Poston War Relocation Center, the largest of the United States’ concentration camps for those of Japanese ancestry. After talks with the U.S. government, he came to beautify the place, to make it more habitable. He also came in solidarity, to share the pain of a group he claimed as his own when he branded himself a Nisei, a first-generation Japanese American, in spite of feeling only like a gaijin, an outsider. Those efforts foundered. Rejected on both counts—by the administration, who regarded him with suspicion, and the internees, who feared he was a spy—he pleaded for months with the War Relocation Authority before he was set free. It was one of the blackest times of his career. Read More